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.
Tragedy is the beauty of intolerable truths.
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.
This ultimately explains the seemingly mysterious power of humanitarian writing today. To rail repeatedly against inaction in the face of great violence and injustice, to do so even when the chances of being heard and acted upon by policymakers are slim, and even when a national interest in undertaking such a humanitarian action is hard to discern, still gains a large and appreciative audience. Realists react to such public tribute paid to humanitarians with annoyance and bewilderment. But they should not be surprised or offended. They need only read or see performed Euripides’ The Trojan Women, and experience the pleasure that audiences for more than 2,400 years have derived from this tragedy about the sufferings of civilians in war, in order to comprehend the tragic sensibility at work: for as human beings we take intense satisfaction in being informed about great injustice, even as we may be able to do little about it. (To know what I mean, just listen in rapture to the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” in Verdi’s Nabucco.) This is not hypocrisy, but an ambition towards a higher morality, which the ancient Greeks and Elizabethans turned into an art form.
But even humanitarians do not completely comprehend the tragic sensibility. After all, they do not accept that their realist adversaries are also motivated by truth: a different truth, that is also moral. For the statesman first owes loyalty to the citizens of his territory, whose interests must usually take precedence over any wider universal ones. The state comes before humanity in other words, especially in democracies whose citizens decide who leads them. This is how the triumph of one good over another good causes suffering, and it lies at the essence of tragedy, and at what is irremediably wrong in the world, something which the Greeks knew could not be fixed.
Obviously, one can argue about individual decisions made in specific crises, in which national interests may very well correspond with humanitarian interests, if only policymakers were wise enough to realize it. But the larger point still holds. Alas, national and humanitarian interests often clash, and even the wisest humanitarians can never be right all the time: therein lies tragedy.
Indeed, to believe that American power can all the time right the world is itself a violation of the tragic sensibility. Yet, significant elements of our foreign policy elite subscribe to this notion. Because policy itself is a process that seeks improvement in innumerable conditions abroad, the elite trust that every problem is potentially fixable, and to disagree with that in its eyes constitutes fatalism. But if that were true, tragedy, which accepts fate, would not exist. Tragedy is about bravely trying to fix the world, but only within limits, because of the knowledge that many struggles are poignant and tragic precisely because they are futile. Because statesmanship is first and foremost about discipline and difficult choices, the greatest statesmen think tragically. They think ahead, in other words, with anxious foresight, and thus avoid the worst outcomes.
Even the wisest humanitarians can never be right all the time.
The tragic sensibility, which Lincoln had in abundance, was nevertheless much less required when the United States was protected by two oceans, in the decades and centuries before Pearl Harbor. And even after Pearl Harbor, power was usually in the hands of war veterans from Harry Truman to George H. W. Bush, whose idealism and determination to improve the world was helpfully tempered by a tragic sensibility, born of a youthful rite-of-passage experience with violent conflict. The current policy elite comprise the most physically and financially secure generation in American history. They may have suffered as individuals but not as a group to the extent of previous generations, which accounts for their trouble in thinking tragically.
To accept tragedy means to know that things often go wrong and have unintended consequences. Young veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq know this better than much older policy types in Washington who have never worn a uniform or reported on a war. That’s why the most emotionally sophisticated students I have encountered as a teacher have been at military war colleges. The European immigrant intellectuals to the United States in the early- and mid-twentieth century—Robert Strausz-Hupé, Hans Morgenthau, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Henry Kissinger—harbored this tragic sensibility owing to their own life experiences. As Morgenthau wrote, “To improve the world, one must work with” the basest forces of human nature, “not against them.” This is neither cynicism nor pessimism, which would have nothing to do with attempts to advance humanity, but a tragic sensibility that embraces the struggle against fate, knowing that because there is something irremediably wrong with the world, the hero requires all the cunning at his disposal.
Geopolitics—the battle of space and power played out over a geographical setting—is inherently tragic. Policymaking, which seeks to right the world, is not. But because the tragic sensibility is a fusion of fatalism and struggle, successful statesmanship requires both. While to believe only in geopolitics is cynical, to advance policy solutions with no regard to geopolitics is naive. To think tragically means to see the world and international relations whole, in all of their aspects. “The fullness of life is in the hazards of life,” writes Hamilton.
All of us can make lists of writers who majestically inhere the tragic sensibility: Fyodor Dostoevsky in Demons, Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim, George Eliot in Daniel Deronda, Alfred Lord Tennyson in Locksley Hall,and Henry James in The Princess Casamassima are merely a few odd examples of my own. But perhaps the writing that most fully approaches the clarity of the ancient Greeks is not fiction or theater at all, but a work of political philosophy: The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Like the fifth-century B.C. Greeks and the sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century Elizabethans, the Founders of the American Republic in the late-eighteenth century lived at a time of great possibilities and hope, and precisely because of their good fortune—mixed with the great personal risks they had taken in the Revolution—could see all the dangers intrinsic in their new political experiment. It was only because they thought so tragically about the human condition, and were themselves steeped in the Greek and Roman classics, that they allowed for a nation of optimists to follow in their wake.
Here is Hamilton in Federalist 6: “men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. To look for . . . harmony between a number of independent, unconnected sovereignties situated in the same neighborhood would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.” And Madison in Federalist 10: “So strong is the propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities that where no substantial occasion presents itself the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.” He goes on to say that “the causes of faction cannot be removed and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.” The Federalist Papers famously continue like this. They are an exercise in thinking tragically—and relentlessly so—in order to prevent tragedy.
There is nothing more beautiful in this world than the individual’s struggle against long odds.
The tragic sensibility says that there is nothing more beautiful in this world than the individual’s struggle against long odds, even as death awaits him. Indeed, mortality lies at the root of the tragic sensibility, wrote the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno in 1912. In particular, he quotes Flaubert as identifying a time in antiquity when people had stopped truly believing in the pagan gods but long before Christianity had fully emerged—the period between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius: “a unique moment in which man stood alone,” with a short life-span and nothing at all to look forward to beyond the grave. Never before or since was there such “grandeur” in the human spirit, Flaubert writes. Grandeur, now that is the very essence of tragedy.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 9, on page 30
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