Professor Isabella Reinhardt on Tragedy, Optimism, and Why Innovators Need the Humanities
Founding Faculty
Jul 10, 2024

Professor Isabella Reinhardt on Tragedy, Optimism, and Why Innovators Need the Humanities

"As we look forward to a better future, we have a great wealth of human history and literature and mistakes to learn from," the classicist says.

Maggie Kelly
Maggie Kelly
University of Austin

Welcome to Meet the Founding Faculty, a series of interviews introducing the world-class teachers and scholars building the University of Austin's academic culture and shaping its intellectual life.

UATX Assistant Professor of Classics Isabella Reinhardt works on Greek thought of the 5th-century BC. She received her PhD in Classics from the University of Pennsylvania in 2021. Before taking up her position at UATX, she was a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Classical and Mediterranean Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her research focuses on Greek tragedy, particularly the dramas of Aeschylus, and presocratic philosophy. Isabella’s current book project, Absent Present: Language and Concept in Early Greek Thought, examines the link the between abstract knowledge and language in 5th-century Greece. A forthcoming article from Classical World argues that we may find traces of Parmenidean thought in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and that these traces provide insight into the play’s presentation of human knowledge, human suffering, and divine causation.

UATX: If you had to recommend one work of Greek drama to our audiences, which would it be and why?

Dr. Isabella Reinhardt: It may sound predictable, but I think if you were going to start with just one, you should read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. It’s the perfect mystery play: vivid characters, an urgent predicament, and a tight, suspenseful structure. It’s also, of course, tremendously beautiful poetry. 

The play invites you to ask yourself: would you rather know the truth, like Oedipus, pushing past the last boundary between yourself and self-knowledge? Or would you rather have the comfortable life—and happy marriage—he has before, even if that meant living in ignorance? I think your answer to that can reveal a good deal about your own assumptions surrounding human flourishing and the point of knowledge; Sophocles is a good interlocutor in this way.

But we’re lucky to live in a world with more than just one tragedy, so here are some more to try: Sophocles’ Ajax; Euripides’ Medea and Hecuba; Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Like all literature, they’re best enjoyed in conversation with friends.

What can students do to prepare to study the classics as beginners?

Read something you like. It could be an ancient work, or it could be one of the many excellent works of reception or nonfiction about the classical world that have been written in the past two millennia. All you need to be a beginner is to begin: choose something about the classical world that interests you.

Do you see resemblances to the drama you study in any popular media today, such as television shows or social media?

I am a fan of science fiction, and lately, I’ve been thinking that tragedy and sci-fi are, in some ways, natural complements, as they both focus on the limits of human experience and human potential. 

In tragedy, this focus is largely negative—Euripides’ Trojan Women, for example, shows us a group of people at the far reaches of suffering, women who have lost their homes, their families, and even the comforting ideals and hopes for the future that might otherwise sustain them. 

Tragedy often portrays the moments in which human capabilities fail in the face of greater forces. Much of the science fiction I’ve read, on the other hand, shows the positive potential of humanity, either through practical ingenuity or the ability to learn through suffering (a famous phrase from Aeschylus). So although these seem like quite different genres, I think in the end the core focus is on the human: our mortality, our limitations, our strengths, and the impossible situations in which we may find ourselves.

As for whether there’s a resemblance to popular media, of course! Greek tragedy itself was popular civic entertainment, not something reserved for the learned or the wealthy. Additionally, we’re all quite comfortable now with the idea of an extended universe of intellectual properties—Marvel, "Star Wars," or "Fallout" come to mind—with episodes or characters that fit into a larger fictional world. This is quite similar to Greek and Roman myths, which had large cycles (such as the Trojan War) from which poets could choose or create episodes to turn into epics, tragedies, or other works. 

Classical literature is also highly referential—ancient writers love including nods to other works. These references are fun to find in the way of Easter eggs in movies, but they also add a great depth of meaning to what you read, either by connecting one event to another, or perhaps by imbuing one character with the qualities of an earlier hero. Those who enjoy sprawling fictional worlds are already prepared for the deep connections and significant differences we find among our ancient texts; I think all that’s needed is an invitation to come and enjoy these texts with us.

What attracted you to the University of Austin? What will be different about a UATX education?

I spend my time thinking about works that are quite old; the chance to do this while helping to build something new seemed irresistible. But two things in particular attracted me to the University of Austin: optimism and an embrace of the humanities as an essential part of innovation. 

Despite the fact that Greek tragedy is not the most cheerful genre, I’m an optimist, and I was drawn to the atmosphere of optimism at UATX. The world is a far better place than it was in the past. I think it can be far better still, and one way to make it so is by building new institutions like UATX which try new approaches to education and scholarship.

At the same time as we are looking forward to a better future, we have a great wealth of human history and literature and mistakes to learn from. It’s a grave error to abandon the humanities in pursuit of some utility which we perceive as outside of them; on the contrary, nothing is outside of the humanities. 

The gift of art and literature is to help us think about what it is we are going to do, and what may be right to do. I think UATX is going to be a place where students learn that innovation and humanistic inquiry are not at odds with each other, but natural complements. 

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