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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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For a fuller understanding of the nature of the tragic
struggle we must turn to the evil which precipitated
it or which emerges from it. The situation is as if the
tragedian had asked himself: Why is man involved with
the evils of the world? Why does man seem to suffer
unjustly? Then the poet seeks an answer to these que-
tions by placing heroic men in extreme situations, those
demanding the utmost of human exertion and wisdom,
in order to see what emerges of value and what human
wisdom can make of the evil. The tragic artist, of
course, must work within a context which is already
structured by a number of beliefs. The most pertinent
of these beliefs concern the human being and his fate,
his relation to the world, and his involvement with
others. Such contexts, bearing upon the tragic sense,
can most easily be specified by reference to the myths
about the nature of evil which are characteristic of
each belief. We shall, therefore, examine the tragic
sense in its relation to three different myths concerning


the nature of evil: the Ancient Greek (or Tragic),
Orphic, and Christian.

1. Ancient Greek Tragedy: The Dionysian Vision.
The Greek understanding of the nature of evil and
man's relation to it cluster around the notion of fate
or necessity. This compelling element in human life
flows mainly from the past. Fate in the Homeric writ-
ings is an altogether obscure power, perhaps dominat-
ing the gods (in its older form) or perhaps obedient
to the gods. It is most important to recognize that this
fate is related to the sense of “noumenous” or divine
power before that power had gone through the ethical
phase of evolution which divided its good from its evil
component. Both fate and the Homeric gods are in-
different to man's ideas of good or of justice. Precisely
the nonhuman character of this power, a character
which shades off into malevolence, is that which is
terrible in itself and strikes terror to man's heart.

In addition, the gods are jealous and send evil fortune
to the man of hybris who dares to rival or to challenge
them. Hybris, although often translated as “pride,” is
not felt as a sin. Yet it is a dangerous possession, for
it dares much and is regarded by Aristotle as a flaw
of the heroic character. Hybris is the quality of self-
confident greatness which makes for heroic virtue. It
is the mask of divinity which certain men tend to
assume and which is destined to be torn from them
to expose the suffering humanity beneath. The presence
of hybris in the persons of Hector, Achilles, or
Agamemnon is their moving element. Such men are
often blinded by a jealous god and brought low ac-
cording to the standards of their world. The tragic
spirit appears in their struggle to remain themselves
and to retain their human dignity despite their check-
mate by fate or by the gods. Though they acknowledge
their defeat by the gods or their domination by fate,
they transform this defeat and this domination into a
kind of bitter victory. The hybris which was their
undoing is also the occasion of their heroism. Thus,
within this context two elements are essential to tragic
action: a fateful power, which is indifferent or hostile
to man, and a hero, one moved by hybris, who fears
this fateful power but yet is undaunted by it.

Aristotle and many recent writers regard tragedy as
a prolongation of the chthonic religion centered around
the birth, life, and death of the god. Indeed the priest-
king, leader of the Dionysiac chorus and ritual scape-
goat, is said to have evolved into the hero of tragedy.
Such a leader is caught up in the inexorable movements
by which time is fulfilled. He is in an admirable posi-
tion for exhibiting the hybris and suffering the fate of
man in conflict with the indifference of time and sea-
sonal change. Even if this genealogy of the tragic hero
were historically incorrect, it would retain an aesthetic
appropriateness, for it accords with the movement of
the whole history of tragedy, to involve others in the
hero's struggle and epiphany. Aeschylus and Sophocles
illustrate especially well the quasi-religious character
of the hero's trial, purifying insight, and its often
revivifying public effect.

Aeschylus made frequent references to the indiffer-
ence of the gods and the nonjustice or injustice of the
events which they let occur. But he also makes explicit
the law that the human good is wisdom and that wis-
dom is linked with suffering (e.g., Agamemnon, 160ff.).
The Prometheus who can suffer without yielding to
the injustice of Zeus is the true purveyor of wisdom
to man. And Orestes, cursed before his birth by the
curse upon the house of Atreus, was condemned by
the gods no matter what choice he would make, yet
he did not remain quiescent nor take refuge in suicide
but pressed active obedience to the limit and accepted
the consequent madness with the sacrificial fortitude
which led finally to a change in the order of human
justice. Sophocles dwelt upon the inscrutability of the
gods and of fate, yet he saw heroic virtue in learning
of the human status and in retaining it in spite of

Euripides seemed to judge the gods to be irrational,
and hence he turned with the practicality of the
Sophists to study man's struggle with other persons or
with himself in his effort to dominate his own destruc-
tive passions. His last play, the Bacchae, tells of Agave's
discovery of the destructive character of a Dionysian
fertility cult to which she was fondly attached.
Pentheus, her son, slain by her and the chorus, also
acquired a new evaluation of those passions which he
had mistakenly thought easy to civilize. Perhaps fate
becomes somewhat more humanized in this context,
but it seems to become Apollonian or perspicuous in
principle only with the philosophers.

The tragic vision of these writers, especially of
Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, has always been
regarded as archetypal. The rationale of this evaluation
most likely lies in their intuition of the trans-human
and altogether mysterious character of the evil to
which some men are subject. The remark of Heraclitus
is descriptive of this trans-human quality: “To god all
things are beautiful and good and just, both those which
men call just and those which they call unjust” (frag.
61). The point is the inappropriateness to the divine
of metaphors and explanations drawn from human life
and its conventional values. The source of the evil of
fate is external to man's being; it is visited upon men
by impersonal force or by the nonhuman gods. Such
an evil cannot be said to be deserved, nor to be excus-
able in terms of some obscure cosmic justice, nor to
be explained away by a theodicy. But the significant


point is that certain of the men caught in this net are
not passively resigned; they do not turn away in
neurotic flight; they do not attempt to disguise their
suffering in pious platitudes. On the contrary, these
men around whom the tragic net is drawn become
heroes. To a dark fate and to a superhuman malig-
nancy, they oppose heroic virtue, the straightforward
affirmation of human dignity and freedom.

The tragic sense is traditionally best understood
against the background of this cosmic evil. What good,
what rationality, what order or justice there is does
not exist apart from man. And yet this impersonal and
irrational evil which brings unmerited suffering upon
a man is that which elicits his heroic character and
brings him to those efforts which do build value, order,
rationality, and justice in the world. The inhuman evil
of the cosmos is, thus, ironic in that it is the source
and provocation of human good. It is in the end only
ambiguously evil.

We shall return presently to elements of this classic
view of tragedy which are present in other contexts.
We should first take note of some recent opinions to
the effect that tragedy of an even approximately Greek
kind can no longer be written at all, since the present
climate of belief no longer nourishes the tragic sense.

Confidence in the power of technology to bring
nature and fate itself under our control, to prolong life
indefinitely, to cure suffering, even mental anguish, and
to relieve all human wants by means of applied science
have radically altered beliefs about the universe. They
have also changed human character. The consequence
is that only pathos, not tragedy, is the burden of much
of recent literature. Nietzsche stands solidly with the
view that the powerful Dionysiac conception of man
and his relation to fate cannot be recaptured without
radical and universal changes in human character (cf.
his Birth of Tragedy from The Spirit of Music). Still
attempts to communicate a sense of the tragic do exist
in modern times. To take an example, Thomas Hardy
attempted tragedy, but he is said to have offered only
relatively quiescent actors caught in a fate made up
of unforeseen accidents and mechanical determination.
Again, Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, in Death of a
or the actors in Albee's Who's Afraid of
Virginia Woolf
have their illusions painfully stripped
from them. But their illusions are said to be rather silly
to begin with, and no one of them achieves a notable
insight into human destiny and freedom.

On the other hand, one may speculate that contem-
porary literature of the absurd represents a return to
something like the nonhuman cosmos of the Greek
tragedy. However, emphasis in modern times is cer-
tainly placed upon the indifference rather than upon
the malignancy of fate; one remembers here the final
attitude of Mersault in Camus' L'Étranger or of
Bertrand Russell in “A Free Man's Worship.” But again
in modern times this fate or natural law is understood
to be penetrable by the scientific intellect and even
to be determinable by technology. At the same time,
man is seen as just another sort of object within this
universe. Thus, he tends in some recent writing to lose
his unique status and his human value. He tends to
fade into the cosmic background of objects. Samuel
Beckett's characters in Endgame or in Krapp's Last
appear to be losing their human identity, and in
Robbe-Grillet's novels objects may be more important
than people just because they are not people. This
meaningless modern cosmos has lost its ironic charac-
ter; likewise, modern man has lost his tragic resolution
and his hybris. He has become as meaningless as the
cosmos itself. Thus, if the literature of the absurd pre-
serves some awareness of the nonhuman character of
the cosmos, its writers do not communicate the con-
viction that man retains the power of reaching tragic
proportions within it.

2. Orphic Evil and the Apollonian Vision. After the
great tragedians' contemplation of a nonhuman power
of fate, power of this sort appears to become somewhat
more perspicuous to the philosophers and their
Apollonian minds. But although Plato asserted that
philosophers produced the truest tragedies (Laws, VII,
817B), his meaning may perhaps be understood with
reference to the Orphic religion by which, according
to some scholars, he was influenced. The Orphic reli-
gion was a relatively late arrival upon the Greek scene
and represents the evolution of religious feeling and
concepts at a stage where the divine goodness had
become distinct from evil. According to the Orphic
dualistic myth, the gods are perfect and divine. And
in this respect the human psyche is homogeneous with
the gods; human evil is the consequence of the soul's
falling or straying away from its natural domain and
becoming imprisoned in the body. Thus the world of
becoming, the body in particular, is the source of all
evil and of all tragic action which responds to that
evil. Philosophy offers that wisdom or gnosis which can
free the soul from its prison and return it to its heaven.
Hence philosophy is the art of separating the soul from
its body; it is the practice of death.

Socrates, who held that we err only through igno-
rance, and who believed heaven to be blameless, quite
reasonably turned his efforts, in Republic, II, toward
purging the ancient myths of elements which might
lead the youth astray. Suggestions of the gods' injustice,
of their unconcern for human standards of virtue, of
their double dealing, and of their jealousy—in short,
of all those traits which belonged to a Titanic and
uncivilized nature—were uncompromisingly censored


by Socrates. Plato's fanciful mathematics of the mar-
riage number (Republic, VIII, 546) suggests a convic-
tion of the basic Apollonian character of fate. But
undoubtedly Socrates' career best represents Plato's
feeling for the tragic. In the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo
Socrates is presented as reaffirming his life's decision
to struggle against sophistry both within himself and
in others and as achieving again his insight that his
decision was a just one, that virtue is knowledge, and
that the death which frees the soul from its prison is
a good. Moreover, Socrates is presented as the artist
of life; he has the art of manipulating circumstances
and of utilizing whatever misfortune occurs, even death
itself, as a means for affirming the nobility and integrity
of the virtuous human soul.

Even so, Apollo does not triumph completely within
the Platonic dialogues. God still withdraws his hand
from the tiller of the universe for one-half of the cycle
of the Great Year (Politicus, 270A, 273). Also there
remains a scandalous and irrational factor in the
temporal world. With a dash of imagination one may
see an intellectualized version of Dionysian madness
in the a-rational receptacle of the Timaeus (48D f.),
which is the matrix of all becoming and the vessel of
the Demiurge's making. Tragedy for Plato, then, may
not be merely the simple drama of separating body
from soul, for the human soul too is made by the
Demiurge. It is at best an imperfect imitation of ideal
perfection and retains some tincture of the a-rational
character of the receptacle. In short, tragedy for Plato
is the failure to achieve human virtue, but this failure
involves a complex understanding and use of the a-
rational element within the psyche itself.

The Gnostic dualism of soul and body passed into
the Christian West through Saint Paul and Neo-
Platonism and became allied with Stoic doctrine, espe-
cially the doctrine of virtue. This dualism of moral
tragedy remains evident in persistently recurring
Puritan traits, fear of the body, rejection of physical
beauty, and reprobation of sensuousness and emotion-
ality. Puritanism, however, as Nietzsche insisted, did
not give birth to much of the kind of writing which
can easily be recognized as tragic. Bunyan's Pilgrim's
is not a work of tragic art. However, Racine,
schooled in Jansenism, may fairly be assigned a place
in this part of the tradition. In his theater, for instance,
in Andromaque or in Bérénice, the rule of reason and
morality triumphs over emotions, mainly the emotions
aroused by Venus. Racine's theater is a school of great-
ness of soul where the magnanimous soul succeeds in
neutralizing passion, and in vindicating the aristocratic
conception of virtue.

We should also take notice of a curious sort of re-
verse effect in consequence of which the rejection of
the body came to appear as an inhuman evil that called
for an intransigeant affirmation of the human. The
beginnings of such an assertion might be discerned in
the medieval poem, “Aucassin and Nicolette.” Also it
is possible to read Milton's epic, Paradise Lost, so that
Satan is its real protagonist. This Satan manifests heroic
dignity and virtue in his unequal combat with a frigidly
perfect deity. Finally one may perceive a demytholo-
gized version of this Puritanism in reverse in some of
Bernard Shaw's writings. Evil in his plays, even in Saint
has been leveled down to ignorance, egoism, and
middle-class hypocrisy. The virtues which he would
inculcate are honesty and objectivity, and their pre-
condition is rejection of the “manufactured logic about

3. The Universe of Christianity. The Christian tra-
dition inherited the Hebraic ethical monotheism. The
Christian, devoted to the one and holy God, creator
of heaven and earth, experienced difficulty from the
very beginning in reconciling this devotion with the
fact of evil in creation. Happily, though, the myth of
Adam was at hand to indicate the human origin of
evil and to provide a basis for interpreting the begin-
ning of history as the fall of the first Adam and the
culmination of history as the advent of the second
Adam, the perfect man.

God's creation was, therefore, good; evil entered it
later with Adam's desire to be “as a god, knowing good
from evil.” Evil, then, became man's doing, the result
of his grandiose self-misidentification, of the conse-
quent perversion of his love, and of his losing struggle
to save himself. The tragic spirit might then be sup-
posed to be exhausted in the assertion of man's hope
for a return to Grace and to his original being. And
so it might appear in the writings of Saint Augustine,
or of Dante, or in the medieval ecclesiastical drama.
The tragic form at the least remains in the sequence
of man's acceptance of his own opinion as truth and
of his own desire as determinative of value, his failing
struggle to maintain this self-centered and autarchic
conviction, and final insight, aided necessarily by the
gift of faith, into his creaturely dependence upon the
Creator. In these terms each individual man as well
as mankind are potential tragic actors.

This basically good Christian universe, however,
seems to fail in eliciting the range and possibility of
human heroism with the fullness achieved in the con-
text of Greek tragic thought. Christianity, in brief,
seems to define all but human evil out of existence.
And man's tragic plight seems almost too easily
remedied by observance and discipline. Moreover,
many facts do not seem to square with the Adamic
account of evil. The suffering of animals and children
are instances in point, so also is the disproportionate


misery of a “just” war. It must be recalled, though,
that the Christian tradition is very rich, and there are
in it elements which hark back to something like the
Greek tragic sense. These elements ought not to be

Jaspers and others have argued that tragedy is no
longer possible in a Christian universe, because evil
is transcended. Yet Adam's original sin remains to place
this transcendence into question. According to this
doctrine Adam's guilt infected the essence of human
nature. It is the presupposition of all human acts and
cannot be considered to be the just desert of any man
in the sense of being the appropriate consequence of
his willed acts. In this respect, original sin bears some
analogy to the blindness visited by a god upon the
Greek hero.

Still another possibly older apprehension of the na-
ture of evil present in Christianity can be discovered
within the Adamic myth. There, it will be recalled,
an account of Adam's fall was offered which carried
his decision back to other beings. Thus, Adam was not
alone in guilt, for he was tempted by Eve, who had
been tempted by the serpent, who in turn had been
inspired by Satan. Now it is quite possible to suppose
that Satan and the serpent embody something of the
nonhuman or prehuman evil fate which must in some
inexplicable way have been present with or before
creation. This prehuman evil emerges in the book of
Job. Job clearly presents the contrast of the just and
good aspect of God with a possibly more ancient and
inscrutable concept of God whose ways may seem evil
to the man who is suffering unjustly. Job does not
attempt to justify this injustice; rather he acknowledges
the mystery. Perhaps again, one catches a glimpse of
this more ancient deity in the anguished cry of Christ
on the Cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou for-
saken me?” (Matthew 27:46). And it is also present
between the lines of Saint Paul's remark to the effect
that man's wisdom is foolishness to God.

It should occasion no surprise, therefore, that later
writers, although imbued with Christian beliefs and
attitudes, should sometimes seem to hark back to the
spirit of Greek tragedy, whereas at other times they
deal with merely human evil, remediable by religious
or ethical discipline or even by personal or institutional

Evil, then, for the Christian tradition is both pre-
human, an externally determined fate, and Adamic or
human and ethical. Exemplifying the latter is Mar-
lowe's The Tragedy of Dr. Faustus. Faustus has chosen
to seek omnipotence by mastering nature through
knowledge and magic. In the end the wheel turns,
death and the Devil claim him, and he admits that
the faith, which he can no longer recover, would have
saved him. His evil plight he sees as internally deter-
mined; his guilt is altogether his own.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, is not without a
generous share of the ancient tragic spirit. This sense
is manifested, for example, in Hamlet and emphasized
by the failure of generations of critics to pluck out
the heart of his mystery. The rottenness of Denmark,
the inconstancy of the Queen, and Hamlet's own
inability to determine the character of the evil and
to restore health to himself and to the realm suggest
the mysterious and prehuman origin of this evil. As
in Greek tragedy, the action acquires magnitude by
its involvement in the political order and even in the
cosmic order. The kingdom participates in Hamlet's
struggle with fate and might be reinvigorated by his
dauntless though failing efforts. However, to see in
Fortinbras, who would tempt fortune “even for an
eggshell,” the hope for victory in defeat may be a thin
hope. No doubt there will always be something rotten
in Denmark. King Lear also suffers disproportionately
for his errors of judgment. His time of trial in the storm
on the heath suggests the mysterious and cosmic char-
acter of the fate which has caught him up. To his
anguished question, “Is man no more than this?” the
powers of nature, human nature included, seem to
answer affirmatively. Man is a reed to their careless
power. Still, the tragic hero in his extremity reiterates
with Pascal that he remains a thinking reed. And Lear
accepts an old man's death with gentleness and dignity.

Among modern writers Dostoevsky manifests an
especially profound sense of the Christian and the
tragic. The Karamazov family exhibits the symptoms
of inherited evil. This again is the prehuman evil of
which Melville has given us the most impressive symbol
in the great white whale, only with the Karamazov
family this evil belongs to the soul and to the age. The
brothers Demitri and Ivan thresh about in a meaning-
less universe. Nevertheless, Demitri and Ivan bear their
extreme suffering with a determination to press their
self-declared freedom to its utmost. In particular, Ivan
is troubled to see how a universe such as theirs, ruled
by impersonal forces, where the suffering of persons
is intense and unjust, can be accepted by Alyosha in
Christian faith. Like Job's, Ivan's dilemma is unre-
solved; nevertheless, his suffering is illuminated by
intervals of insight, and these suggest something of the
possibility of human transcendence. All in such a world
is not lost, although much is.

Ibsen, deeply influenced by Kierkegaard and his
enigmatic struggle for and against Christianity, com-
posed dramas in which contemporary mores and
middle-class conventions come into unexpected conflict
with the past and its necessities. In Ghosts this past
visits Oswald Alving in the guise of inherited disease


which destroys his sanity. In order to involve the audi-
ence more intimately in the dramatic action, Ibsen left
the insight or reconciliation of Ghosts inexplicitly
expressed, with the expectation that the audience
would complete it. Some critics, consequently, have
found the play to be trivial or brutal, effecting no
catharsis. Others regard the tragedy as belonging to
Oswald's mother, for although her hopes are blasted
by her son's insanity, she wins her way through to an
understanding of the ghosts—the moral hypocrisy—
which haunt them all in the twilight of their middle-
class existence.

T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, like his “The
Waste Land,” embodies a share of the complex Chris-
tian sense of the tragic. The author leads the Arch-
bishop back to Canterbury, where everyone knows he
will be unjustly killed by some agency of the King.
The play, like Antigone, portrays the complete ir-
reconcilability of the powers of the spirit and those
of the world, an opposition which is the source of
disorder, even within the mind of Becket himself.

In brief, then, the tragic sense is constituted by an
awareness of the ironic character of man's struggle with
evil. It is often embodied in a complete action which
brings the protagonist's world into question. This
questioning has proceeded within contexts defined by
three mythological views. The consequences of this
confrontation with evil, especially the confrontation
with an evil deriving from a nonhuman source, have,
when carried to the limit, resulted in the affirmation
of human dignity and freedom. This affirmation consti-
tutes a sort of victory despite the overpowering force
of evil.