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Tragedy and nihilism: Why you should know the difference

RAGE OF ACHILLES
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In tragedy, cruel things can happen, but there is a spark of the vital, the living, the image of God that outlasts the cruelty.

“In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

– Aeschylus

Lately, I have been in a tragic mood.

Let me explain.

For some reason, I have recently found myself immersed in a book about Robert Kennedy (Bobby Kennedy, The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye). It is a fine piece of biography, but it lacks some of the sweeping literary flourish that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., offered in his hagiographic two-volume work, Robert Kennedy and His Times. Now, truth be told, I am deeply intrigued by Bobby (yes, yes, I know he had flaws) for his paradoxes and complexities. At times, he could be both ruthless and compassionate, self-absorbed and selfless, capricious and considerate, a devout Roman Catholic and a Machiavellian politician. But it was Bobby’s deep despair in the wake of his brother’s assassination and his emergence from it in part due to his encounter with the Greek tragedies (from the 5th century B.C.) of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides that truly brought me to my tragic state of mind. (For more on this, please see my piece at Word On Fire, Bobby the Lion, Bobby the Lamb: What Tragedy Taught Robert Kennedy.)

So I began to read the Greek tragedians.

In Aeschylus’ trilogy, The Oresteia, a warrior, Agamemnon, returns home victorious from a 10-year battle only to be slain by his wife. His son avenges his father’s death by slaying his mother and then stands trial before Athena and a jury to discern his guilt or innocence. In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, a proud king, seeking to unburden his people from a curse of pestilence and barrenness, discovers to his horror that by wicked and unnatural acts he himself is the one who brought shame and disaster upon his people. In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Prometheus, a titan, has run afoul of the gods by giving the coveted gift of fire to mortal man. As a punishment, he is shackled to the side of a craggy mountain to bake in the hot sun while an eagle will daily come and devour his liver, beak-full by bloody beak-full.

This is dark stuff.

But strangely, it is not completely black.

You see, in reading these Greek tragedies and in considering those written 2,000 years later by William Shakespeare (King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth), I made a discovery: Tragedy is sad and regrettable. It makes us mourn and wince and wish it was otherwise. But tragedy is not meaningless. In a brilliant 2017 essay, The Tragic SensibilityRobert Kaplan writes,

When the ancient Greeks realized that there is “something irremediably wrong in the world,” while such a world must be judged “at the same time as beautiful,” tragedy was born … [As Edith Hamilton observed] “The dignity and the significance of human life—of these, and of these alone, tragedy will never let go.”

Tragedy is not meaningless because it has not lost sight that man and woman are dignified. We rightly recoil at King Lear’s final breath and Oedipus’ blackest fate and Hamlet’s unnecessary death and Jocasta’s desperate suicide and Prometheus’ vicious punishment for one primary reason — because every life matters. Quite simply, dignity is what makes tragedy tragic.

On the other hand, nihilism, the belief that life is meaningless, can never be confused with tragedy. Nihilism cynically scoffs and carelessly dismisses the notion of dignity. Without meaning or purpose, what loss can there be? It seems just as well — perhaps a devilish relief — to simply end. Nihilism is spiritual capitulation. Nihilism isn’t void; it is evil. It strips humanity of its soul and wallows in its misery. As Flannery O’Connor observed,

If you live today, you breathe in nihilism … it’s the gas you breathe. If I hadn’t had the Church to fight it with or the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now. 

In tragedy, cruel things can happen, but there is a spark of the vital, the living, the image of God that outlasts the cruelty. The Passion of the Christ is the consummate tragedy, but the tragic is subsumed in the glory of God and the redemption of man. Try as he might, the Devil tempts us to be nihilists, but with God’s supreme defense of our dignity, we are all tragedians.

John Donne wrote well of this in his Meditation XVII (lines from which are sometimes set as a poem):

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

How beautiful and meaningful. How mournful and haunting.

How tragic. How appropriately tragic.

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