Tragedy & Transcendence

Patrick Henry Reardon on Futility & the Open Door to Deliverance

Although no period of history ever provided as much raw tragedy as the past hundred years, relatively few works have translated that experience into adequate literature and drama. When we consider the bloodshed and starvation of the Russian, Spanish, and Chinese revolutions; the two world wars; the atomic bomb; and the wholesale torture and slaughter of targeted ethnic groups in Europe, Africa, and the Far East, is it unreasonable to crave a modern equivalent of The Trojan Women or The Book of Job? Why settle for The Death of a Salesman and Waiting for Godot?

This inadequate literary and artistic expression does not surprise us, however, because the very idea of tragedy presupposes the transcendence of the human soul, a transcendence systematically doubted during the century just before that fatal shot was fired in Sarajevo. If there is no God and no transcendent soul—if the universe is a closed system—if everything can be explained by natural causes, there really can be no such thing as "tragedy." Indeed, wrote George Steiner,

a tragedy without God, a tragedy of pure immanence, is a self-contradiction. Genuine tragedy is inseparable from the mystery of injustice, from the conviction that man is a precarious guest in a world where forces of unreason have dark governance (Language and Silence, 391).

Life as a Battlefield

The ancient Greeks observed that however slight the flaw in the fabric of a human life, implacable tragodia seemed ever to spy it out and rip that life to shreds.

Thus, the hero Theseus, returning to Athens after slaying the Minotaur on Crete, neglected to alter his ship's sail from black to white, the color that his father Aegeus had instructed him to hoist, on his return, to signify his victory. When Aegeus, waiting on the shore, beheld instead the black sail atop his son's returning ship, he rashly presumed that Theseus had perished, and not waiting for confirmation of the matter, he flung himself in despair from a high precipice and was dashed to death on the rocks below. So Theseus, though triumphant over the menacing Minotaur, returned only to find that a more formidable and relentless foe, impossible either to envision or to resist, had turned his brief joy into lasting sadness (Plutarch, Lives, "Theseus," 22). The impetuosity of his father had conspired with his own slight and momentary inattention to devour the substance of his hope.

But even without the dramatic pangs of tragedy, the Greeks realized, life in this world was usually hard, very often a struggle, even a kind of combat. Young people needed to learn this lesson early, a need that explains why Homer's Iliad, which portrays life as a battlefield, served as an essential text of classical Greek education. The truer and deeper warfare portrayed in the Iliad, after all, is the struggle to excel, to be virtuous, aristevein (Iliad 6.208; 11.784).

Classical paganism's greatest moral effort to deal with the toughness of life, including its tragic sense, was the philosophy known as Stoicism. The Stoic, realizing that most events in life—virtually all things outside himself— lay beyond his ability to control, resolved to bring discipline and serenity into his soul by putting aside his passions, bridling the reckless ambitions of his mind and will, and striving for inner freedom. One of the more notable Stoics, Epictetus, remarked that it was solely by abandoning the desire to master things outside himself that a man could gain a mastery within. Only this inner mastery could mitigate the trials and misfortunes attendant on life.

The Key to Deliverance

The true reason for tragedy is found in St. Paul's assertion, "creation was subjected to futility" (Rom. 8:20). Holy Scripture, tracing all evil in the world, including especially death, to man's infidelity to God, normally uses the experience of evil as the occasion for calling man to repentance. This theme appears repeatedly in the Bible's historical and prophetic books. Job and Qoheleth, along with some of the Psalms, do include speculation about the structure of tragedy, but this line of thought remains exceptional in Holy Scripture.

More prominent is the theme of the Cross, which provides the key, not to unlock the correct explanation of evil, but to open a door to ultimate deliverance. It is the promise of the Cross that God "will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4).

Short of that eschatological exchange of sorrow for joy, however, the Bible never essays to diminish the stark seriousness of human suffering. Certain pages of Holy Scripture, were they understood apart from themes like divine providence and the abiding primacy of grace, would be unbearably dark. The saints, in short, seem to live ever under pressure. 

Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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