The tragedy was a public cult—and a very expensive one. It presupposed as its audience a people who would follow the performance with a keen sense of tua res agitur.
They would have to understand the meaning of action, of drama, as action in obedience to Dike, and to consider the escape into the easy way out as nonaction. They would have to understand the Athenian prostasia as the organization of a people under a leader—in which the leader tries to represent the Jovian Dike and uses his power of persuasion to create the same state of the soul in the people on occasion of concrete decisions, while the people are willing to follow such persuasive leadership into the representation of truth, through action in battle against a demonically disordered world, symbolized in the Suppliants by the Egyptians.
The tragedy in its great period is a liturgy that re-enacts the great decision for Dike. Even if the audience is not an assembly of heroes, the spectators must at least be disposed to regard tragic action as paradigmatic; the heroic soul-searching and suffering of consequences must be experienced as holding a valid appeal; the fate of the hero must arouse the shudder of his own fate in the soul of the spectator. The meaning of tragedy as a state cult consists in representative suffering.
. . . . The representation of truth passed on from the Athens of Marathon to the philosophers. When Aristophanes complained that the tragedy died from philosophy, he had at least an inkling of what actually took place, that is, of the translatio of truth from the people of Athens to Socrates.
The tragedy died because the citizens of Athens no longer were representable by the suffering heroes. And the drama, the action in the Aeschylean sense, found now its hero in the new representative of truth, in its Suffering Servant Socrates—if we may use the symbol of Deutero-Isaiah. The tragedy as a literary genus was followed by the Socratic dialogue.
Nor was the new theoretical truth ineffective in the social sense. Athens, to be sure, could be no longer its representative; but Plato and Aristotle themselves created the new type of society that could become the carrier of their truth, that is, the philosophical schools.
The schools outlived the political catastrophe of the polis and became formative influences of the first order, not in Hellenistic and Roman society only, but through the ages in Islamic and Western civilizations. Again, the illusion of an impasse is created only by the fascination with the fate of Athens.