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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Transcendence, Disenchantment and Unbelief

Talking about transcendence within a society that tends to see the universe as disenchanted and purposeless may seem odd, as anything transcendent seems to have little place in such a universe, but yet many of us have experiences that are best described as transcendent. Consequently, it seems to me that even those, like myself, who lack religious belief may require the concept of transcendence to understand their own experiences, so it is not a concept we can do without. I will examine two types of experience that I have had that I can only understand as transcendent to try to clarify why I think this.

The first experience is that of coming into contact with nature while one is alone. When I hike through a quiet trail alone somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, nature does not appear as merely a collection of matter arranged in a particular way, rather it is as if there is something behind the appearances of the landscape that I am connected with. This other thing that I feel connected with is not something that I can easily describe, but it appears to me as I hear the rustling of the leaves and the howling of the wind, and feel the uneven ground under my feet as I walk through this quiet path; it is at once something that is ever present through these walks, but yet indescribable in particular terms. In this context I do not feel like an ordinary self with ordinary human purposes, rather I feel connected with something beyond ordinary experience .The cause of this experience is not something that I understand, but the experience does seem to be best described as transcendent, as the experience is not simply beautiful, purifying or pleasant; it is all of these things, but it is more as it involves a sense of connection with something beyond the ordinary.

The other transcendent experience I wish to discuss involves creative musical inspiration. As a struggling musician I often find myself trying to force certain musical ideas which tends to only lead to frustration, but once in a while I will be playing my instrument and something will take over me, as if I were captured by something other than myself. In the moments of the creation of the composition I am not a self in the ordinary sense of a being that can disengage and reflect, but rather I am connected with something beyond myself which takes me out of my ordinary selfhood and drives me to create something wonderful and beautiful. It is hard to find an adjective to describe this kind of experience, but I do think transcendence fits, because in this kind of experience it as if something beyond our ordinary understanding peers in and grabs us and reveals what it is that we wanted to create, but could not describe before we had created it. Once again, the actual underlying cause of this experience is not clear to me, but the experience seems to not be one of ordinary immanent existence, but something transcendent.

So, it seems to me that transcendent is a category that is necessary to make sense of our experiences, as I would hazard a guess that many others have similar experiences and have an equally difficult time describing them in other terms. What is responsible for this sense of connection with something beyond the ordinary that we experience in creative musical inspiration, or quiet walks through nature, or other experiences, is not clear to me, but the category of the transcendent is still required to make sense of these experience and so even though we may believe in a disenchanted, purposeless universe, this does not mean that we have no use for the concept of the transcendent.

Agalloch, Romanticism, Wonder and Nature

One of my favourite bands is Agalloch; they are a metal band from Portland, although their music has progressive and folk elements. One interesting element of their music is that many of their albums have a significant pagan element, which expresses a strong sense of wonder towards the natural world. This sense of wonder towards the natural world can be found in much romantic art and literature. For this entry I would like to examine some of Agalloch’s lyrics to try to outline the nature of the wonder we experience towards nature. Furthermore, I will argue that the reason why we experience this wonder towards nature is that our phenomenological experience of nature is something that resists our sense of the universe as disenchanted, and because we are “porous selves” who are vulnerable to being controlled by external forces, including elements of nature.

The Agalloch piece that I will examine is “In the Shadow of our Pale Companion.” In this song the lyrics state:

“Through vast valleys I wander
To the highest peaks
On pathways through a wild forgotten landscape
In search of God, in spite of man
’til the lost forsaken endless
This is where I choose to tread”

It should be noted that in these lyrics the search for God is not something that is done through dialogue with other human beings about the natural world. Rather God is something that as isolated individuals we search out for in the natural world. Our connection to God is not mediated by our social role, or membership in a society. Rather, our relation to God is one that stands apart from society.

Furthermore, the lyrics state:

“Here at the edge of this world
Here I gaze at a pantheon of oak, a citadel of stone
If this grand panorama before me is what you call God
Then God is not dead”

It should be noted that the suggestion being put forth here is that the revealing of God is something that can occur through a vision of the panorama of nature itself. Furthermore, the allusion to Nietzsche’s notion that “God is dead” suggests that while God may seem dead as we live our everyday lives in society, that our sense of wonder towards the natural world reveals something beyond. Consequently, according to Agalloch it seems that our sense of wonder towards nature is something that consists in seeing something powerful, majestic and transcendent in nature that tends not to reveal itself through our lives within society.

While I may not believe that God exists in nature in the way that some of these lyrics suggest, I do a feel a deep sense of wonder and transcendence as I encounter certain elements of the natural world. I remember standing at the top of Mt.Pilatus in Switzerland and feeling a deep sense of wonder towards the view. I could not clearly articulate what this sense of wonder meant in terms of propositional belief, but I certainly felt something resonate deeply within me, and this sense of resonance is not something that I tend to experience as I navigate society. Consequently, Agalloch’s lyrics in this song seem to present an accurate and compelling picture of the sense of wonder that we experience towards nature.

The preceding may have clarified the nature of the sense of wonder we experience towards nature, but it has not clarified why we feel this sense of wonder towards nature. So for the remainder of this entry I will address that question. While I do believe that humans have always felt a sense of wonder towards nature, I think that for members of post-industrial societies this sense of wonder is intensified by the fact that most members of post-industrial societies, whether they believe in God or not, believe in a disenchanted universe. This belief in disenchantment states that the universe is purposeless, in and of itself, and can be best understood in terms of efficient causation. In this sense, the universe is best understood in analogy with a machine. However, while the phenomenological experience of post-industrial society reinforces this mechanistic view of the universe as everything within society seems to operate in terms of efficient causation, the phenomenological experience of nature does not. There is something mysterious and powerful about the phenomenological experience of nature that does not seem to be rendered intelligible by translation into strict efficient causation. The natural world seems to be a living place with its own meanings, rather than just an extremely complex arrangement of matter reacting in particular ways. Consequently, it seems plausible to think that one reason why contemporary people have experiences of wonder towards nature is because our experience of nature is one which suggests to us that the natural world cannot be fit into the simple disenchanted worldview that we have. Nature then appears as something that transcends the disenchanted universe and consequently we feel wonder at this seeming transcendence. It should be noted that I am not suggesting that the natural world cannot be made sense of in terms of a disenchanted view of the universe, only that our phenomenological experience of nature seems to suggest that it cannot.

One other reason for the wonder we experience towards the natural world is the fact that the natural world has a power over us such that we come to feel wonder for it without choosing to do so, or looking to nature for inspiration. Charles Taylor coined the term “buffered self” to refer to the way in which modern people see their self as invulnerable to being acted upon by the external world; this idea is encapsulated by the idea that if we try we can avoid having things get to us if we are disciplined enough. Taylor contrasts this with the notion of the “porous self” which he suggests would have been common during the middle ages in Latin Christendom, in which the self was vulnerable to being acted upon by meanings that were outside of itself; things that were a part of nature or emanations from God or Satan. These meanings could take control of us, and guide our actions for significant portions of time. To some degree our phenomenological experience of nature is one in which our nature as porous selves is revealed. My sense of the power and majesty of the mountain acts on me and I feel a sense of wonder for it. I do not choose to feel a sense of wonder towards the mountain, rather I am acted on by the mountain and come to feel a sense of awe or wonder, and there is nothing I can do about this fact. Thus, it seems plausible to think that our sense of wonder towards the natural world might be a function of the fact that, despite the self-image we possess, we are porous selves to some extent and are vulnerable to being acted upon by nature.

While there is no specific political, ethical or spiritual point that I am trying to make through this entry beyond what I have specified above, it should be noted that if we better understand our sense of wonder towards nature then we are better able to understand our spiritual predicament. And one way to best ensure that we adequately respond to this predicament is through gaining the deepest possible understanding of the situation as we can achieve.

Now listen to some Agalloch because they are absolutely wonderful.

Experience, Value, Fortune and Mastery

On the planet of Rinsk lived a diligent, simple set of beings known as the Farfallan. The Farfallan resembled human beings of Earth, and shared many of their aspirations. They desired friendship, love, community and beauty and held a great disdain for cruelty and malice. However, in distinction of humans the Farfallan had a mystical connection with Quotsi, a gem that was mined across Rinsk. If the Farfallan inhaled the vapour that was produced through heating Quotsi over a fire they were able to have any experience that they desired. The Farfallan would simply think of the experience they wanted to have and that experience would transpire. The Farfallan would sometimes use the Quotsi to experience sexual ecstasy, while at other times they would use Quotsi to experience beautiful music, or familial affection. Quotsi enabled the Farfallan to truly have control over the experiences they had. Before the discovery of the potentialties of Quotsi the Farfallan were victims of chance and fortune, now that they had a ready supply of Quotsi they were truly masters of their own lives.

One day two interstellar explorers from Earth, came upon Rinsk, and made contact with the Farfallan. The explorer’s names were Annette and Laura, and both of them were scientists who were sent to other galaxies to investigate the forms of life that existed in other places, to try to assist with solving the problems that human kind faced in the year 2300 AD.

When encountered with the Farfallan, Annette was amazed by them. There was little conflict among the Farfallan. Not only were murders, and thefts unheard of, but also domestic conflict was exceedingly rare. The Farfallan would go to work each day, to make enough money to buy what was required to physically sustain them, and to purchase Quotsi, then they would go back to their humble homes and heat up some Quotsi to make their evening more enjoyable. They were not concerned with honour or glory and did not feel the need to excel over and above others. This of course meant that there were very few artists and athletes among the Farfallan, but that did not matter as the Farfallan had Quotsi, and if you can control the experiences that you have why do you need artists and athletes?

What Annette saw with the Farfallan was a truly harmonious society, and if humankind could develop a way to control their experiences in the way that the Farfallan could with Quotsi, humankind would be better off in every respect. There would be less violence and cruelty in society and people would be much more satisfied with life as any experience that they wanted would be right at their fingertips.

Laura shared much of Annette’s admiration for the harmoniousness of the Farfallan’s society, but as Laura continued to investigate their way of life she became more and more uneasy with certain elements of their lives. She had spoken with several Farfallen during her investigation about the importance of many subjects. However, the Farfallan tended to relate the value of all things to the sensual experience of that thing. They tended to explain their valuation of love purely in terms of the phenomenological experience of sexual ecstasy and emotional closeness. This irked Laura as while she saw these phenomenological elements as indispensable elements of romantic love, she also saw the value of romantic love in terms of the emotional intimacy that develops between persons and their commitment to one another.

Furthermore, it was not merely in the area of romantic love that Laura found the Farfallan’s explanation of the value of things to be troubling. The Farfallan had little appreciation for the value of the creative activity of artists and tended to see little value in the person who could write a beautiful melody, or create a beautiful sculpture. One male Farfallan named Lorkel had rather bluntly said to her “Quotsi allows me to experience beauty. I have no need for artists.”

Laura and Annette had to jointly write a report about what could be learned from the Farfallan. As expected Annette wanted to suggest that humankind invest in technology that would mimic the effects of vaporized Quotsi on the Farfallan so that humans too had all desirable experiences available to them. However, while Laura recognized the harmoniousness of the way of life of the Farfallan, she could not go along with Annette’s recommendation. Laura’s only piece of advice for learning from the Farfallan was the warning that if we follow the example of the Farfallan we may lose our ability to value anything that is not an experience.