May 01, 2017

The Tragic Sensibility

The great classicist Edith Hamilton, writing in 1930, explained that tragedy is the beauty of intolerable truths, and that real tragedy is not the triumph of evil over good but the suffering caused by the triumph of one good over another. 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. “The great tragic artists of the world are four,” Hamilton announced, “and three of them are Greek”: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The fourth, of course, was Shakespeare. Precisely because Periclean Athens and Elizabethan England were periods of “unfathomable possibilities”—and not periods of “darkness and defeat”—the idea of tragedy could flourish. Those audiences, separated in time by over 2,000 years, were awestruck by the heroic and often futile struggles against fate, even as they were in a position—owing to their own good fortune—to accept it with serenity. To be clear, tragedy is not cruelty or misery, per se. The Holocaust and Rwanda were certainly not tragedies: they were vast and vile crimes, period. “The dignity and the significance of human life—of these, and of these alone, tragedy will never let go,” Hamilton observes. Thus, the tragic sensibility is neither pessimistic nor cynical: rather, it has more in common with bravery and supreme passion. Not to think tragically is to be “sordid,” she writes.

Because the ancient Greeks could see the world clearly, they had no trouble reconciling opposites. So while injustice and horrifying fates were accepted by them as altogether natural, they also could feel at the most profound level the world’s grief. Euripides, for example, was an original rebel and fighter against human suffering, relentlessly upholding the sanctity of the individual. Humanitarianism does not begin only with the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, but also with Euripides.

Read the full piece at The New Criterion.