On Tragedy: Abrahamic, Ancient Greek and Modern Horizons

The term “tragedy” and “tragic” are bandied about in many contexts, but what exactly is it about a situation that makes it tragic? I want to suggest that the everyday use of the word tragic within developed European and North American societies is deeply out of step with the Shakespearean understanding of tragedy and more in line with the way that tragedy is understood in Ancient Greek drama.  Furthermore, this seems to be the case because there are some deep similarities between our understanding of the universe and the Ancient Greek understanding.

For Shakespeare what makes something tragic is rooted in the notion of hamartia or tragic flaw. For example, Julius Caesar is tragic because the protagonist, Brutus,  is an admirable man in almost every way  and yet he is driven by his hubris to act in ways that not only destroy himself, but also many others.  In this sense Brutus can plausibly be viewed as blameworthy for his actions, and so as someone who is punished for his tragic flaw. What makes this tragic as opposed to just being due punishment is that Brutus is very admirable, and thus we find his punishment both appropriate and regrettable. In this sense Shakespearean tragedy is very much rooted in the notion of a divine or cosmic justice, and this is very central to all Abrahamic faiths.

This conception of tragedy seems to hardly be at play by the way we typically use the term. We typically say that those young people who die in freak accidents or of disease have tragic fates. Consequently, what makes the death of the young by disease or freak accidents tragic is that they experience a great evil through no fault of their own, and consequently are not given an opportunity to live a fully developed life. Their deaths seems senseless as they have had horrible fates that do not seem to be part of any divine plan, as opposed to their deaths being merited, but regrettable.

On the other hand in Ancient Greek drama and, in particular, in the plays of Sophocles, we see a notion of tragedy that is far more like the one we ordinarily use, that that which is present in Shakespeare. For example, in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus eventually realizes that unknowingly and unwilling he has killed his Father, and married and had four children with his Mother.  Once Oedipus realizes the truth about who his parents are, he blinds himself in a fit of psychological distress and is exiled from Thebes and thus is not able to live a fully developed human life, as he is separated from his family, his home and his city, and the general fellowship of others.

Although, it should be noted that some have seen Oedipus as having the tragic flaw of an all consuming desire for knowledge, but even if this could be construed as a flaw, Oedipus’ desire for knowledge does not seem to be unreasonable, or the fundamental reason for his discovery of the truth about his own birth. Oedipus does not pay heed to Teiresias’ warning to not try to discover the reason for the previous King’s death, but he does not pay heed to this warning as it seems like a convenient ruse that would allow Creon, his wife’s brother, to take power. In addition Teiresias does not seem to offer any convincing reason for Oedipus to stop pursuing the truth; instead he just gives warnings of the doom that will come if Oedipus takes this path.  So, Oedipus does not seem to be someone who is blameworthy in any significant sense. Consequently, our conception of tragedy seems closer to the Ancient Greek understanding, as in both cases we think of tragedy as occurring when individuals experience great evils that prevent them living fully developed lives through no fault of their own.

Is it a mere historic accident that our conception of tragedy is more similar to the Ancient Greek conception than to the Shakespearean understanding? I don’t think so. I think it reflects the fact while we are the inheritors of a culture that is deeply rooted in Abrahamic faiths, many of our modes of thought resemble Ancient Greek thought.

Before I go any further I would like to contrast Ancient Greek and Abrahamic religion as this is necessary background for the rest of this discussion. The God of Abrahamic faiths is typically seen as omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. But this conception of God seems out of place in other forms of religion such as Ancient Greek religion. In these religions the Gods are certainly far more powerful than human beings, but they are not the eternal, necessary, morally mandated all powerful rulers of the universe. This can be seen by the fact that the fates that control all destinies are a separate agency from the Olympian Gods and thus can plausibly be seen as not under the authority of Zeus. Similarly, the Olympian Gods were not the initial rulers of the universe, but rather Zeus was able to overthrow his father Cronos through his power and cunning, rather than because he possesses some form of moral superiority.  So, in essence in Abrahamic faiths God is the morally mandated ruler of the universe, whereas in Ancient Greek religion the rulers of cosmos are but successful agencies who have managed to achieve the rule of the cosmos.

The similarity between the Ancient Greek conception of tragedy and our conception of tragedy is no coincidence.  Instead, it reflects the changing background understanding that western societies have of the universe.  Many of our current modes of thought do not reflect a universe in which a benevolent ruler ensures that good will ultimately triumph, but rather see the universe as a collection of forces that just is rather than being something that ought to be.  For example, “the environment” is one such force as it is not something that is amoral and not something fully under our control, and yet it can cause horrible damage to our lives. Likewise, “the market” is another. In our case these forces are impersonal things like “the environment,” “the market”, “the economy,” and “society” among others, whereas for the Ancient Greeks the forces that dominated the universe had the characteristics of persons. But the similarity runs deep as in both cases the universe is not something that operates according to an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God’s rational plan, but according to the interplay of forces that are amoral. Against this kind of cultural background it makes sense to say that horrible things can happen to people through no fault of their own, and that these acts form no part of any divine plan, and so are tragic.

This is not to suggest that there are no Abrahamic elements of our culture, as there are many, such as our notion of progress, but instead that our society’s culture also contains quasi Pagan elements, and so our culture is far more than a simple secularization of Abrahamic cultural norms.

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Tragedy as an Element of Authenticity

I once had a professor mention that the task of trying to find one’s individual path in life according to the notion of authenticity was a Sisyphean task. While I do not agree with this professor, it seems that the task of finding of one’s authentic path in life is far more complicated, and problematic than the way that authenticity is ordinarily understood suggests.

Typically, the notion of authenticity is understand to suggest that the key to living a good life is turning inward and figuring out what you want to do with your life. After one has done this one can then take actions to pursue what one wants to do with one’s life. Consequently, according to this interpretation of the notion of authenticity, the task of finding one’s authentic path is fairly simple and unproblematic.

Furthermore, it is interesting that this popular notion of authenticity tend to gloss over the fact that finding what one wants to do with one’s life need not admit to a singular answer. For example, in my life as I have turned inwards I have realized that I am drawn to activities of artistic creation, activities of philosophical, spiritual and political reflection, and activities of civic/political involvement. But at the same time I recognize that engaging in these activities well requires a large degree of time and devotion, such that I cannot fully commit to all three with the amount of time that I have within my life. In my case thus I have had to make an agonistic choice to primarily commit to one form of activity at the expense of the others. Furthermore, we have little reason to think that my example is particularly peculiar as many people are deeply conflicted regarding the kinds of activities that they want to build their lives around. Consequently, it seems that the task of finding of what one wants to do with one’s life does not admit of a simple, singular answer. When we turn inwards sometimes we realize that there are multiple activities that we want to build our lives around, and that we cannot adequately make time to pursue all of these activities in a way that gives all of them their due. In such a situation we will have to make the choice to devote ourselves to a certain set of these activities at the expense of others that we still find very attractive and valuable.

As a result of the preceding, the turn inwards that is required to figure out what one wants out of life requires us to confront a possibly tragic choice. I call this choice tragic, in reference to the fact that there may be an insoluble conflict between the alternative life paths that one may take. This concept of tragedy is influenced by Sophocles, as a large element of the Sophoclean conception of tragedy has to do with the conflict between incompatible priorities or values. For example, in Sophocles’ Antigone we have the obligations to the city conflicting with the obligations that a daughter has towards her brother. Just as Antigone has to choose to give priority to one set of claims that she finds valid, over another, those who make the inward turn of authenticity sometimes will have to choose between giving priority to one form of activity they find attractive over another that they find attractive. Consequently, the inward turn of authenticity always contains within it the possible experience of tragedy in this Sophoclean sense.

Now, it should be noted that I am not rejecting the notion of authenticity; rather, my issue is that we tend to speak about authenticity as though finding what one wants to do with one’s life will give us a simple, singular answer that we will then be able to efficiently pursue. Within popular culture we tend to speak of the inward turn of authenticity as something that is quite easy to deal with and move on from. However, as I have noted above the inward turn that is required to understand what one wants to do with one’s life can put us in the position of having to make a tragic choice, and there is always the possibility that we will deeply regret our decisions. So, it seems that the inward turn of authenticity is not as simple or as easy to deal with as the popular conception of it suggests, and by stating that it is simple and easy we are deceiving ourselves and ill-preparing ourselves for what we may have to deal with in their lives. For this reason we need to recognize the courage that it requires to make the inward turn and make the commitment to a particular set of priorities over another. Making this choice and facing it requires courage because one has to face the real possibility that one will make the wrong choice, and pursue a life that is meaningless or superficial. Furthermore, another upshot of this is that any person, who after taking the inward turn is confronted by a tragic choice between alternatives and makes the choice for one of these alternatives over the other, may experience a deep sense of loss over what could have been. This sense of loss is not an unhealthy manifestation of a disordered mind, but rather the reflection that a person has made the choice to forgo developing an element of themselves that they would have developed under different conditions.