In the ancient world the perimeters of tragic vision and experience were clearly established and recognized. One could be quite clear as to the meaning of tragedy and the manifestations of tragic experience and tragic heroism. One could readily comprehend the noble stature and the transcendent realm of tragedy. One could, in short, measure oneself against the larger, universal background of what constitutes tragedy, as rendered by an Aeschylus and a Sophocles in, respectively, an Agamemnon or an Oedipus. A certain greatness, immensity, and exceptionality surrounded the tragic dimension, even as tragedy connoted something greater than immediate life, from which, of course, it emerged and the reality of which it reflected to a heightened, ultimate degree.

An epic poem like Homer’s Iliad is fraught with tragic meaning and destiny, its heroes immense, even overwhelming in their tragic circumstances and predicament—in their fatedness (moira). Their tragic qualities help to place their tragic experience on the highest level of moral significance. The tragedy of Achilles, like his shield, depicts what is astonishing and enormous in consequence, trans-human and superhuman. His suffering, no less than his weakness and sin (hamartia), overshadows everything else in the epic tragedy of the Iliad. His demise, unalterable, dramatizes tragic lessons in wisdom and insight for those who discern the spectacle of his glory and destruction. A monumental essence radiates in his every act and gesture, in his heroic praxis and doxai. In association with Achilles, what is terribly human attains its highest measure of worth.

The line of descent and connection from Achilles to Agamemnon to Oedipus to Antigone to Medea is one that discloses a kind of spiritual angst, at once terrifying and redeeming. In these tragic figures and in the dilemma of each hero’s agon, we recognize the deeper parts of our extended selves in the undulant process of purification and expiation. In their pathos we perceive our own—and we take note of the redemptive context of reverence. Their tragedy helps us to understand our limits, our limitations. Such tragedy, at once humane and humanizing, helps us to encounter and also to measure our humanity. It enables us to perceive, even if from a distance, what is called, in Hellenic contexts, a “vision of the agathon” as a dimension of a “divine paradigm,” and always against the background of those “unwritten laws” that Sophocles describes in Antigone:

“The immortal unwritten laws of Heaven,
they were not born today nor yesterday;
They die not; and none knoweth whence they sprang.”

Ancient tragedy, it can be said, has its ground of being in these “laws,” these first and last principles, the arche and telos of all human experience and meaning. This is tragedy of transcendence, as it were, with its informing metaphysic in relation to human nothingness (“I count your life as equal to zero,” the Chorus cries in Oedipus Rex) and also, in the end, to the suffering which also brings a cleansing self-recognition—a kind of grace at the edge of redemption in the country of the spirit: “Submit, you fool. Submit. In agony learn wisdom,” as Aeschylus declares in Prometheus. Ancient tragedy is, thus, the experience of transformation (not “transfiguration” in the later Christian sense), enacted in the contexts of what Goethe terms the “divine worth of tones and tears.” That, too, Greek tragedy has, in its unique way, a religious center, even, that is, a spiritual essence, is an incontrovertible fact. For the Greek tragedians, as teachers of virtues, were deeply involved with religious questions—ultimate questions revolving around man’s worth and destiny—with some super-human power (theos), and with man’s fate. “The Greeks of the sixth and fifth centuries,” writes Werner Jaeger in Paideia (1939-1944), “had long been brooding on the great religious problem: why does God send suffering into the life of man?”

The Greek tragedians, hence, stressed the eternal fact that man must not forget his unconscious and yet transcendent ties to the unwritten laws and his need for reverence (eusebeia) for the unknown, the mysterious. Their tragedies, in effect, provided a dramatic interpretation of life, both moral and spiritual in principle. And these tragedies, more specifically, focused on some heroic figure—some superior being—in whom some fateful problem was to be enacted, particularly the great religious problem of suffering and sin, of punishment and expiation. “Behind all suffering,” G. Lowes Dickinson writes in The Greek View of Life (1896), “behind sin and crime, must lie a redeeming magnanimity.” A Greek tragedy, by becoming a “moving sculpture” and “a sleep of music,” also was to become a study of Man (anthropos), finally transporting the audience to a world of higher reality and permanence from the material world of terror and flux.

Clearly, ancient tragedy contains a humanistic orientation: that is, a fervent and consummate preoccupation with the nature of man, his predicament and his fate. Man, in short, is the center, though that center has its added metaphysical dimension, its added center, in the universe (in the cosmos), so that to concentrate solely on the first center to the neglect of the second center breeds arrogance, insolence, impiety, overweening pride—hubris. Aeschylus’s Agamemnon depicts precisely this centeredness of the self and images its destructive process when he walks on the purple carpets reserved only for the Gods and thus courts punishment and doom itself. He glorifies what Simone Weil calls “the empire of might” (in all of its consequences) as it collides with the “justice of Zeus,” and with the “law of measure” (“nothing in excess,” to recall the Greek warning).

Greek tragedy also becomes a drama of discrimination, seeking as it does to present itself as a mode of explaining the world—the human condition—and knowing it. In Sophocles this form of tragedy—of tragic discrimination—affirms man’s greatness in the face of cruel adversity; affirms man’s heroic capacity within the scope of a heroism of dignity, which constitutes, for the ancients, true humility and final redemption. Sophocles, in this respect, is a tragic poet of order, reverence, proportion, above all, of sophrosyne, the supreme Hellenic virtue.

Attic tragedy records the disorder of eros and the yearning for order; it records, in effect, the constant collision between gravity and grace, between disequilibrium and equilibrium, between nothingness and being, between courage and nihilism. Tragedy, of its very nature, must bear “the burden of vision” for eternity itself. It should not go unnoticed that ancient and modern tragedy do have a connecting link in Euripides, the perturbing Greek dramatist who, as Jaeger was to observe, “discovered the soul in a new sense—who revealed the troubled world of man’s emotions and passions.”

Unlike Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides confronted the cold, hard face of reality as he saw it; showed fierce understanding of what he saw; and fiercely condemned those conditions that he exposed. Indeed, Euripides has been described as a dramatist who had a “modern mind,” the first of the moderns; Aristophanes, in fact, charged that Euripides taught the Athenians to “think, see, understand, suspect, question everything,” and no words better prophesy the “modern temper” than these.

That, too, Euripides belonged essentially to a destructive analytical spirit, that he took things rebelliously, that he reflected an age of movement and transition, that he echoed the sophistic spirit, that all truth is relative—it is this sophism that Plato equated with intellectual and moral anarchy: these aspects of his thought and dramatic achievement anticipate the modern age and what Thomas Hardy specifies as “the ache of modernism.” In Euripides we have a prophetic glimpse of the crisis of modernism in the destructive forms of disorder, discontinuity, disinheritance: of a modern world that is “a broken center,” when as Rilke declares, “the world…passed out of the hands of God into the hands of men.“

Walter Pater cogently summarizes our modernity when he writes: “Modern thought is distinguished from ancient by its cultivation of the ‘relative spirit’ in place of the ‘absolute.”’ This modernity, pervasive and irreversible, spells the “doom of orthodox sophrosyne,” which signifies the law of measure. The Russian poet F. I. Tiutshev (1803-1873) registers the modern predicament when he writes in his poem “The Abyss”:

Behold man, without home,
orphaned, alone, impotent,
facing the dark abyss; …
And in this strange mysterious night
he sees and knows a Fatal heritage.

The “fatal heritage” that Tiutshev speaks of in his poem is also that which Matthew Arnold, in his poem “The Scholar Gypsy,” associates with “this strange disease of modern life/ With its sick hurry, its divided aims.” William Butler Yeats, in “The Second Coming” (1919), also underlines the ravages and the desperation of such a heritage of fatal consequences in modern life: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

In his book The End of the Modern World (1956) Romano Guardini declares that “Man has no place—absolutely no place—in the universe,” words that embody not only the essence of modernity but also its tragic essences that culminate in the modern waste land that T.S. Eliot renders. The sustaining and redeeming principles of conservation and correction espoused by Edmund Burke, as well as the disciplines of continuity intimately connected with these, have been superseded, or contravened, by what the philosopher Michael Polanyi calls a “positivistic empiricism,” or as he further observes: “…[the] idea of unlimited progress, intensified to perfectionism, has combined with our sharpened skepticism to produce the perilous state of the modern mind.”

Human meaning, then, is “reduced to the condition of things,” reduced, in effect, to a concern with “the idea of man…[as an] administrative number,” without a past and without memory, when, as Samuel Beckett declares, “it is not for man to act, but to be acted upon: man can only despair of hope, can only not wait or wait.” Spiritual inertia, which results from this process of cruel reductionism in a pluralist society, leads to a malaise that afflicts human existence and that adopts, for example, the belief that, in Simone Weil’s words, “matter is a machine for manufacturing good.”

Such a belief plunges modern man deeper into Plato’s “Cave of Illusion” and renounces the redemption that resides in humility, perhaps the highest spiritual quality to be found in the “tragic sense of life”: “Without humility, all the virtues are finite,” Simone Weil further states. “Only humility makes them infinite.” Indeed, humility is the omega-point of a metaphysics of tragedy—of tragic meaning, experience, destiny. It is a paradigm of tragedy, which if it is scorned or repudiated leads precisely to the annihilation of the tragic spirit that makes tragedy non-tragic in modern life; in short, transforms tragedy into paradox, which thrusts one “beyond tragedy,” that also signalizes “the death of tragedy.”

Nicola Chiaromonte, the late Italian social critic (1905-1972), is much to the point when he writes concerning the nihilism and violated principles shaping and finally destroying human meaning in modern civilization:

“The sickness of our times is egomania. It renders the individual radically impious and makes him ignore everything that does not serve his immediate objectives (which never extended beyond the limits of his own lifetime), thereby denying all that is ineffable, secret, and arcane in the world—the ‘divine’ inherent in all things and in every impulse of the spirit.”

Impiety, that which for Virgil constituted an ultimate discordance found in furor impius, is a major part of the disorientation in modern life that breaks and diminishes the patience and magnanimity that inhere redemptively in genuine tragic experience as it depicts the search for order of the soul. “No-more’’ and “Not-yet,” Heidegger’s “double Not,” now make the tragic sense a “senseless fatality”; the so-called modern hero is just “anybody,” just another “sleep-walker’’ in “kosmos Kafka,” for whom “eternity is replaced by endlessness” and who bleakly gives us news, as Kafka would have it, of “the abandoned world” in which he lives.

In the modern age, which one critic terms “an age of bad faith” commencing with August 1914, when the Great War broke out, tragic vision and experience undergo a radical change—a devaluative pulverizing process in which what for the ancients is noble, elevated, and heroic now becomes trivial, minimal, and common. A modern victim’s tragedy lacks stature or grandeur, and is often one that underlines a victim’s grotesqueness, meaninglessness, rootlessness, his absurdity, his non-being. In the modern world in which the idea of transcendence has neither place nor meaning tragedy itself is a victim of what Eric Voegelin calls “existential deformation.”

If in ancient tragedy a tragic hero is shrouded in a world of mystery, possesses a noumenal quality of human worth, has a standard of character in an ascending pattern of development and meaning, in modern tragedy a tragic figure is identified by demystification and by dehumanization, by lostness and rootlessness. His world, in a sense, has no universal frontiers and is reduced in its physical and spiritual horizons; that is, it is a localized, non-ontological, non-organic world in which man himself is reduced, or neutralized, or denatured; a disinherited, displaced person, as it were, and, indeed, a non-person consigned to a “cancer ward,” or exiled, forever, to a Siberian gulag, the modern forms of tragic fate in “the heart of darkness.” These are our conditions of modern tragedy, or better our pseudonyms of tragedy.

In the ancient world tragedy contained and was nourished by the “religious sense,” that is to say, by the elements of piety and humility, by an intuitive veneration of “the idea of the holy,” of the sacred logos as opposed to the profane impulse, by an intuitive pull towards the transcendent as opposed to the present and the nominal. Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus is perhaps the most vivid illustration of the religious sense and of the religious acceptation in a tragic context. Oedipus, now an exile and wanderer, recognizes his moira—‘‘In suffering I was born.” “The sap of earth dries up,” he confesses almost abjectly.

“Flesh dies, and while faith withers falsehood blooms.
The spirit is not constant from friend to friend, from city to city;
it changes, soon or late.”

His end, in a scene that is perhaps grander than any in Greek tragedy, we view the aged and blind Oedipus disappearing into a sacred grove—“And the place is holy.” Oedipus now encounters the “mysterium tremendum”:

…suddenly a Voice called him, a terrifying voice at which all trembled and hair stood on end. A god was calling to him. “Oedipus! Oedipus!” it cried, again and again. “It is time: you stay too long.” He heard the summons, and knew that it was from God.

Oedipus passes from the human world to the divine—to “holy ground.” His end, his disappearance into the divine unknown, into the divine otherness, emphasizes the religious sense as it conjoins with the tragic sense, each deepening and enhancing the other in relation to the huge cosmic mystery, wondrous in its breadth and depth.

This religious sense, in its Hellenic constituents, should not be forcibly amalgamated or confused with the religious sense in its Christian contexts. Oedipus’s tragic passion and fate, whatever their religious feeling and pull, must be differentiated from the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The religious dimension of Greek tragedy revolves around moral struggle, but it is obviously removed from the Christian vision of redemption. Greek tragic heroes are finite beings even in their religious nobility, whereas a Christian tragic hero (as in the fiction of a Dostoevsky) is a creature of freedom, sin, guilt, and salvation.

Greek tragedy venerates the transcendent, in its awe and sanctity, but it is teleological in its experiential qualities of pity and terror. The eschatological character of the Christian religious sense must not be ignored—that subsuming religious sense that has its ultimates in the coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the Last Judgment. Both Greek tragedy and modern tragedy are anchored in time, in chronos—in measured time that has a beginning and ending; that has boundaries at once temporal and spatial. For the Christian, on the other hand, all tragedy ends in grace, attains its finality, its telos, in ultimate time, in kairos, in that time, to kairo ekino: in divine time that is timeless and that fuses beginnings and endings, endings and beginnings.

For the Christian, tragedy ends not in the heroic suffering of the Greeks or in the perverse skepticism of the moderns, but in Revelation. “For those who have faith to trust in the revelation that is the Christ,” Preston T. Roberts, Jr., writes in a masterful essay, “A Christian Theory of Dramatic Tragedy,” “evil, sin, the devil, death—in short all that is cursed, wretched, and miserable about this life—becomes redeemable in principle and redeemed at certain points and moments in fact.”

Modern tragedy, having increasingly repudiated the religious sense that radiated in and even renewed ancient tragedy by endowing it with a metaphysical yearning, registers the nothingness, the “nameless, ultimate fear, a horror of the completely negative,” that Dr. F.R. Leavis perceives in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922):

After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the garden
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience.

It can be said that modern tragedy is the tragedy of experiencing “the agony in stony places” and yet learning nothing from this tragic experience: or of hearing the “ou-boum” (“utterly dull”) which, in E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India (1924), merely states, now and forever, in this world and in all worlds, “Everything exists, nothing has value.” Forster’s words evoke the import of tragedy in the modern world even as they severely constrict the boundaries of tragic vision. This constriction signals not only the crisis of modernity but also the tragedy of modernity as we live and experience it in the “antagonist world.”

Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Fall 1997).

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