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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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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.