In a recent piece in Foreign Policy magazine (“The End of History is the Birth of Tragedy”), the authors, both professors of strategic studies who have served in government—i.e., members of the “Washington elite,” by some lights—argued that, “Americans have forgotten that historic tragedies on a global scale are real. They’ll soon get a reminder.”
The article drew parallels between tragedy as an art form and public policy, so as a writer I was naturally intrigued. But although I found the article rich in food for deep thought—some of which I hope to bandy about here—I found other aspects puzzling.
The authors argue for an aesthetic that recognizes humanity’s own role in creating disaster, without which whole civilizations fail to recognize the potentially cataclysmic consequences of their own actions. With this I could not agree more wholeheartedly.
The prime example they provide is Athens in its Golden Age, the 5th century B.C.E., a culture that first developed the art form we now refer to as tragedy.
“This tragic sensibility was purposefully hard-wired into Athenian culture. Aristotle wrote that tragedies produce feelings of pity and horror and foster a cathartic effect. The catharsis was key, intended to spur the audience into recognition that the horrifying outcomes they witnessed were eminently avoidable. By looking disaster squarely in the face, by understanding just how badly things could spiral out of control, the Athenians sought to create a communal sense of responsibility and courage and to encourage both citizens and their leaders to take the difficult actions necessary to avert such a fate.”
There are at least two problems with this example, however.
One is its misunderstanding of what Aristotle meant by “catharsis.” The authors aren’t alone in this, of course, because Aristotle wasn’t perfectly clear. Arguments over that particular definition have been virtually continuous ever since he made it. I’ll have more to say on that below.
The second misunderstanding is one that, to their credit, the authors themselves recognize. The “tragic sensibility…purposefully hard-wired into Athenian culture” by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, among others, hardly spared their native Athenians from making horrible blunders.
Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, though the cost of the decades-long conflict, not just in terms of money but men and resources and influence, proved so draining to both sides that Sparta, the nominal victor, also fell into irreversible decline.
And how exactly did that come about, and what did it look like? For that we need to turn to a historian, Thucydides, not a tragedian:
“Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils. To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had broken out. Leaders of parties in the cities had programs which appeared admirable – on one side political equality for the masses, on the other the safe and sound government of the aristocracy – but in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves. In their struggles for ascendancy nothing was barred; terrible indeed were the actions to which they committed themselves, and in taking revenge they went farther still. Here they were deterred neither by the claims of justice nor by the interests of the state; their one standard was the pleasure of their own party at that particular moment, and so, either by means of condemning their enemies on an illegal vote or by violently usurping power over them, they were always ready to satisfy the hatreds of the hour. Thus neither side had any use for conscientious motives; more interest was shown in those who could produce attractive arguments to justify some disgraceful action. As for the citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both the extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive.”
I doubt anyone reading that passage can miss the parallels to the present political moment. Just as anyone reading Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes could not see in contemporary world affairs man’s “many passions and his miserable ingenuity in error, always dazzled by the base glitter of mixed motives, everlastingly betrayed by a short-sighted wisdom.”
So if tragedy didn’t save the Athenians, how could it possibly make any difference to us? Similarly, why didn’t the next great era of tragedy, beginning with Shakespeare and ending with Corneille and Racine, do anything to mitigate the horrors of the Anglo-Spanish War, the English Civil War, and the Thirty Year’s War, the last being one of the longest, deadliest, and most destructive wars in European history? (I’m leaving out a number of ancillary conflicts, obviously, like Tyrone’s Rebellion and Cromwell’s devastation of Ireland.)
My point: as writers, why should we consider tragedy as a form any more important or relevant to current affairs than any other?