The Tragic Vision
and the Christian Faith
NATHAN A. SCOTT, JR.
A Haddam House Book
ASSOCIATION PRESS -
book appearing fifty years ago under the title The Tragic Vision and the Christian Faith is difficult to
imagine. Those were the days when men fancied that the last war had been
fought, and that mankind was securely aboard the bandwagon of inevitable progress.
In such a climate, there was as little place for the idea of tragedy as for the
central Christian affirmation that this is the kind of world which, in the name
of piety and justice, could send perfect goodness to the Cross. The most common
brand of religious thinking accordingly soft‑pedaled the historic
Christian understanding of human life in favor of the more palatable notion
Such unrealistic optimism could flourish only in the hothouse conditions of the Victorian era. But under the impact of the relentless sequence of ugly events which began in 1914, disillusioned optimists began to search for a more adequate interpretation of human life, one that would make sense of a world in which reason is no match for brutality, and goodness is at the mercy of power. They did not have far to look. They found ready at hand a very ancient and very different creed from the sweetness and light of the nineteenth century, the so‑called "tragic view of life." The seriousness with which it was embraced by disenchanted moderns is illustrated by the following words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a letter to his daughter:
Not one person in ten thousand finds time . . . to form what, for lack of a better phrase, I might call the wise and tragic sense of life. By this I mean . . . the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are . . . those of defeat . .1
The prophets of this sophisticated doctrine sometimes imagined that they were discovering something new, but, actually, the "tragic vision" has recurrently dominated man's spiritual history. In the recent words of a contemporary poet:
[Tragedy] has been the underlying theme in the work of every poet from Homer to Eliot. It is implicit in any poet's vision of reality. For poetry, like the other arts, gets its meaning from the tragic nature of things, whether as escape from it in play, or celebration of it in the more exalted moments. Against the backdrop of Fate, life shows at its noblest and most endearing. Its glory is in its doom.2
Christian thinking over the past fifty years has tended at times to follow the swing of the pendulum. Just as "liberal" Protestants of a generation ago shared the common cultural assumption of an onward and upward march of history, so their present‑day successors have echoed the contemporary preoccupation with meaninglessness and despair. Recoiling from the discredited optimism of recent memory, they have sometimes taken up the refrain, so popular with today's intellectuals, that only a pessimist can be truly profound. In their search for a philosophy which could account for the disorders of the twentieth century, they have made common cause with their contemporaries in refurbishing "the tragic view of life," and have sought to incorporate it into Christianity. As one Christian writer recently said:
There is a . . . tragic law which controls the historical process, the law that ordains that human greatness utterly fall . . . . That is the subject of Greek tragedy. That is the message of the prophet to the nations of the world. They are all subject to the law of tragic self‑destruction…….3
Although it will be argued here that this close correlation of the Christian with the tragic view of life is unwarranted, we must recognize that there is in it a measure of plausibility. The two views are at least united in what they oppose. They both resist the unrealistic assumption that goodness always triumphs, or that it at least will triumph with the aid of more extensive education and a higher standard of living. Both are constrained by the facts of experience to acknowledge that life may confront a person not with a choice between good and evil but with a choice between the lesser of two evils; that to try to put a lofty principle into practice may result in more harm than good; and that in order to preserve one's own integrity one may have to forfeit one's life. Hence believers in the "tragic vision," together with adherents of the Christian faith, have made common cause against the sentimental illusions of a more credulous age. The former complain with Sophocles: "Strange, that impious men, sprung from wicked parents, should prosper, while good men of generous breed should be unfortunate! It is not right that heaven should deal so with men." The latter exclaim with the prophet: "Spoiling and violence are before me, and there are those that raise up strife and contention; therefore the law is slacked and judgment doth never go forth. For the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth" (Habakkuk 1:3‑4).
It is quite possible, however, for two allies to unite for defensive purposes against a mutual foe without necessarily having anything positive in common. Once the enemy has been defeated, erstwhile comrades‑in‑arms may discover that their respective philosophies of life are incompatible.
During twenty‑five years of their joint attack upon a delusive optimism, Christianity and the tragic view of life had little time for critical scrutiny of each other. Now that the
battle is over, however, irreducible differences between them are beginning to emerge, and I shall here attempt to show that, although both prophet and tragedian raise a similar, anguished question, their respective answers to it are, for the most part, mutually incompatible.
The tragic view of life derives ultimately from the philosophy known technically as gnosticism or mysticism, often spoken of as typically "Greek," but in fact quite common throughout the world. Its primary premise can be formulated in various ways, but the simplest is probably Hegel's version: "The truth is in the whole." From this quite plausible axiom, the entire theory of tragedy logically evolves. It implies, first, that an adequate philosophy of life must not only include everything, but must also affirm everything. It must not suppress any aspect of reality simply because some particular moral code finds it offensive or ignoble; it must not disparage any human emotion or action simply because some find it unpleasant or shocking. Conversely, it must not prefer other aspects of life simply because they are accounted "beautiful" or "good." This would unduly elevate a mere part at the expense of the whole. In short, if the truth is the whole, then reality is neutral, not partisan. It knows no good or evil, for the "good" is always partisan. The "good" will tolerate no opposition: although it may acknowledge the existence of evil, it denies to evil the right to exist. [The distinction between good and evil, consequently, is truth's worst enemy.] As an eloquent spokesman for this view has said:
Only that which is "beyond good and evil" is real . . . . The moral good has a bad origin, and its bad origin pursues it like a curse .5
Life as it is actually lived, however, presents a striking contrast to this ideal of neutrality. Flesh‑and‑blood men are always
partisan. The moment they stop speculating about ultimate truth and engage in the business of day‑to‑day living, they cannot help taking sides. He who attempts to remain neutral simply capitulates by default to one side or the other. In short, life as we know it contradicts the ideal of absolute neutrality. If the truth is the whole, then it is mocked by the rough and tumble of this world, where justice struggles against injustice, good is pitted against evil, and each side insists upon unconditional surrender.
Nor is this active partisanship accidental to human existence, a defect which might conceivably be overcome in the course of time. Rather, life itself appears to depend upon the interplay of polar opposites which, though contrary to each other, are equally necessary to earthly existence‑light and dark, wet and dry, long and short, male and female, reason and emotion, positive and negative, mind and matter, all the famous "pairs of opposites" by which philosophers describe finite existence. The Chinese group all these warring opposites under the two primary headings yin and yang, and regard the conflict between them as integral to life itself. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus reached much the same conclusion when he said that the most fundamental law of existence is strife.
This is the lowest common denominator of tragic philosophy, the clash of neutral, irreconcilable opposites which, considered in the light of ultimate truth, are equally valid. As one contemporary writer puts it, "Tragedy occurs wherever the powers that collide are true independently of each other."6 Or, as another critic says, "The tragic conflict is not merely one of good with evil, but also, and more essentially, of good with good."7
Tragic writers differ chiefly in their respective ways of conceiving the clash of antinomies which constitute human life.
To mention one rather surprising example, Sigmund Freud interprets his psychoanalytical data by incorporating them into tragic philosophy. He postulates two co‑eternal, equally valid forces, the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction:
The meaning of evolution . . . must present to us the struggle between . . . the instincts of life and the instincts of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species. This struggle is what all life essentially consists of . . . 8
And quite consistently with tragic philosophy, Freud often (though not always) refused to take sides with the life instinct against the destructive instinct.
Another common version of tragic philosophy narrows its focus from the cosmic scale to human nature itself and discovers there a bundle of irresolvable contradictions. It finds, for example, that human nature is a composite consisting of "vitality and form"; that is, the rational, structured element which makes for order, restraint, and obedience to law versus the dynamic, vital impetus to break out of tedious normality and stultifying convention in the name of creative novelty. The tension between these two aspects of human nature has, as we shall subsequently notice, been a frequent subject of tragic plot.
Still another way of conceiving this built-in dilemma (and one which is much in vogue among contemporary existentialists) sees tragic conflict as a necessary consequence of human freedom. Every exercise of freedom involves the individual in a decision for some particular aspect of reality at the expense of another. He cannot help being "for" one facet of reality and against its opposite. Intellectually, he may realize that both sides have a legitimate status in the context of ultimate reality. But his human freedom involves him in the agonizing necessity of choosing between them. As one of the prophets of
existentialism, Jean Paul Sartre, puts it, "Man is condemned to be free."
Finally, among the more sophisticated philosophers of the tragic, like Plotinus or Schelling, the very existence of separate, discrete individuals is itself sufficient to set up a tragic conflict. The perfect harmony of ultimate reality is disrupted simply by the emergence of independent entities, each pretending to the perfect unity which properly belongs only to "the whole."
Such are the principal variations on the theme of tragedy as the fatal conflict between incompatible and equally valid forces. As one proponent of tragedy says:
Tragedy means a conflict between polarities, but it need not necessarily be a conflict between good and evil . . . . True depth of tragedy would become apparent when two equally divine principles come into conflict . . . . the greatest tragedy is suffering caused by the good, not by evil, and consists in our being unable to justify life in terms of the distinction between good and evil . . . . The most tragic situations in life are between values which are equally noble and lofty.9
It is now clear why literary critics are so careful to distinguish tragedy from the morality play. A morality play teaches an object lesson by depicting the triumph of goodness and the punishment of evil. Tragedy, however, portrays the downfall of the man who heroically embodies some great (though morally neutral) ideal or power. To view his demise in terms of good and evil is to step outside the tragic frame of reference.
In a morality play, moreover, the villain is wicked because of free choice, not by necessity; it is always possible for him to turn from his evil ways and be saved. The dominant theme of tragedy, however, is that of necessity. The hero marches along a predetermined path to inevitable doom (nemesis).
Few tragic authors are willing to draw this logical conclusion from the fatalism inherent in tragic theory, and many actually do borrow, for dramatic purposes, the freedom which their philosophy denies. What this proves is not that tragic theory provides for freedom, but rather that few writers are able to follow the theory with consistency.
Some of Shakespeare's plays, for example, are certainly more tragic than others. Caesar, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet are more consistently tragic, since they minimize the moral element and contain an undercurrent of fatalism. But Othello's jealousy and Lear's blindness are more like avoidable sins which entail the hero's destruction only because he gives in to them. Shakespeare's ambiguity only accentuates that of every tragic writer. Most of them dilute their tragic philosophy with a mixture of common sense. Shakespeare's inconsistency is more pronounced because his common sense was reinforced by his Christian heritage.
The philosophical stage setting for tragic drama is now complete. It consists of two shifting backdrops: the ultimate perspective of the detached observer, of the aesthete, in which all differences cancel each other out and in which no discord is possible; and the finite perspective of the man of action, in which strife and contradiction are the rule. The poet Hölderlin based his poem "Song of Destiny" (Schicksalslied) on this contrast between the imperturbable serenity of the "ideal" world and the intrinsic strife and tension of earthly existence.
Some tragedians, like Aeschylus, appear to believe with Hölderlin that the "ultimate perspective" actually corresponds to another, ideal world with a separate existence of its own. With Sophocles the characters are allowed to question this, though at their peril; by the time of Ibsen the "perfect realm" has become more of an ideal of the mind; and with contemporary existentialists like Kafka or Sartre, it has dwindled to
the point where, though not really real at all, it still serves as an intellectual perspective from which to judge and condemn the conditions of human existence.
Regardless of whether a transcendent realm of being does actually exist, the basis of the tragic view of life, from Aeschylus to Sartre, is this double perspective. It provides the clue to understanding the technical term hybris, which is the mainspring of tragic action; it accounts for the ambiguity which surrounds tragic guilt; and it explains how hybris and guilt lead inevitably to the hero's downfall, or nemesis.
Hybris, generally translated by the misleading term "pride," is that in human nature which causes a man to upset the metaphysical equilibrium, and thereby to set in motion a chain of consequences that inexorably precipitates his own doom. Hybris may take one of two different forms. Either the hero treats some segment of reality as though it were the whole (in philosophical terms, he "absolutizes the relative"), and thus calls down upon himself the vengeance of ultimate reality; or he strives consciously to introduce absolute perfection into this merely relative world which, by definition, cannot stand perfection, and thus he inexorably exacts the death penalty.
The first of these two kinds of hybris is the more common. The hero's unqualified affirmation of some merely partial good necessarily brings him into collision with other facets of reality which, in the light of the whole, have a rightful place in the total scheme of things. He thus trespasses against the axiom, "the truth is the whole." But this no man does with impunity. He must expect to be overwhelmed by an equal and opposite reaction.
A favorite tragic theme is that of the hero who, in order to preserve his own personal integrity, or in the name of emotional honesty, expresses some inordinate and illegitimate passion which can neither be indulged without transgression nor
suppressed without hypocrisy. This is in fact an instance of the supposedly inevitable conflict between vital energy and rational form. In order to do justice to his own feelings, the hero is obliged to break the law. As Reinhold Niebuhr puts it, "Greek tragedy declares that the vitality of life is in conflict with the laws of life . . . . the tragic hero simply undertakes to break the laws in order to express the full dimension of human existence."10 Phaedra, for example, bears unflinching witness to her passion for Hippolytus. But she thereby flouts the accepted canons of propriety, and must pay the price.
Tragic hybris is thus necessarily ambiguous. It is both a transgression and a virtue, an arrogant defiance of the metaphysical status quo and a heroic protest against its constrictions. Whether the hero can properly be called "guilty" depends entirely upon which perspective one takes. From the ultimate perspective, he ought not to make such presumptuous claims on behalf of one aspect of reality. But from his own finite perspective, his deed is positively praiseworthy. It affirms the good as he sees it, whether this be the redress of injustice (Hamlet), loyalty to family (Antigone), or emotional honesty (Lady Macbeth). Spurning the counsels of prudence or expediency so freely offered by the Greek chorus, the hero discharges the unique obligations which circumstance has laid upon him. Hamlet, though lamenting that he should be born to set the times aright, defies the prudential pleas of family and friends until he has avenged his father. "Tragic guilt" is, therefore, an ambiguous concept. The hero is "guilty" from one perspective, but not from the other. This explains why one tragic writer can say that "guilt in the larger sense is identical with existence as such,"11 while another can say that there is no guilt whatever in the tragic scheme of things.12
The same double perspective applies to the second kind of hybris. The hero is caught in a conflict, not between warring
aspects of finite experience, but between finite existence as such and the claims of a "higher," divine realm. His doom is the consequence, not of the inordinate pursuit of some merely limited good, but of a titanic attempt to comprehend the total good, to actualize the divine realm itself on the worldly plane. This kind of hybris is represented in Greek mythology by the story of Bellerophon. Having slain the chimera, he attempts to storm heaven itself on his winged steed Pegasus, but is, of course, destroyed in the attempt. Such titanic daring cannot help but evoke the spectator's admiration, but it also contravenes the very conditions of human existence.
The prototype of the heaven‑storming tragic hero is, of course, Prometheus. Because he has stolen the civilized arts of heaven and brought them down to men, he is sentenced to eternal torment. Tragic philosophers have a formula to express Prometheus' dilemma: finitum non capax infiniti; that is, the finite cannot bear the infinite. From one point of view, Prometheus has done a sublime thing. By striving after the impossible, he has borne witness to a far nobler truth than the mere finite world can tolerate. He shows his devotion to this loftier ideal by his indifference to the consequences of his act. But he thereby also commits a double offense: an offense against the infinite for having drawn it down to the profane level; and an offense against the finite by trying to make it the vehicle of a perfection which it cannot bear. His nemesis is both his punishment and his glory:
Either to live in error, or to grasp the truth and die of it . . . that he [man] can carry his human possibilities to their extreme and can be undone by them with his eyes open ‑ that is his greatness.13
Hybris, whether in the form of an inordinate pursuit of some merely finite goal, or of the suicidal aspiration toward
the infinite, is not the avoidable character‑defect of egotism. It is part and parcel of human nature as such, the necessary counterpart of man's creative capacity as a rational creature. In such a frame of reference, every human act is at once creative and destructive at the same time. Hence, the common practice among tragic writers of hyphenating the two words, as in the following statement: "Real demonry . . . occurs only in connection with a positive; sustaining, creative‑destructive power."14 As another contemporary puts it:
The basso continuo of the Promethean drama is thus given: the inevitability of trespassing .... Human suffering is . . . the inevitable concomitant of the equally inevitable wrongdoing ... inevitable, because without, Prometheus' theft the human race would have perished . . . .Human consciousness, and its consequence, human action, are as such . . . a sinful aspiration and rebellious trespass.15
If the fulfillment of man's creative powers constitutes an offense against the gods, and if all the arts of culture are guilty thefts, then the higher the aspiration, the greater the transgression.
R. J. Z. Werblowsky, in a brilliant analysis of this aspect of tragedy, has given his book the significant title Lucifer and Prometheus. He shows conclusively that within the tragic world‑view Lucifer and Prometheus are really the same symbol under different names. On the one hand, Prometheus is the bearer of light; on the other, he is the devil. This ambiguity is contained in the very name "Lucifer" itself, which literally means "bearer of light," just as does the German word for Lucifer, Lichtträger. From this ambivalent attitude toward human cultural achievement, one can draw either of two conclusions. One may conclude that, since all civilization is the result of hybris it is an invention of the devil, a theme which haunts tragic literature. In Werblowsky's words: "Civilization
and culture, which are human consciousness, resourcefulness and power in action, inevitably take on the character of hybridic trespass."16 Or, alternatively, one can conclude that it is man's glorious destiny to go on to the limit of his creative capacities, even though eventually he will bring the whole cultural edifice crashing down around his ears in a cataclysmic Götterdämmerung. This is the mood of Blake, Byron, Nietzsche, and the romantic school generally. Their attitude toward human creativity is, "Though this be evil, make the most of it." Their frank advocacy of evil is perfectly illustrated by the following passage:
The responsibility for evil exalts man instead of humiliating him .... The idea . . . of the fall is at bottom a proud idea and through it man escapes from the sense of humiliation."17
Since the entire theory of tragedy involves a double perspective, it follows that the tragic effect depends upon the cooperation of the spectator. He must be willing to hold both perspectives before him in a kind of tension. He is asked both to take seriously the hero's prowess and eventual demise, and at the same time to remain aware that all such partial, one-sided concerns are ultimately invalid. He continually teases himself with the common‑sense meaning of guilt and goodness, even while he knows them to be ultimately transcended.
The spectator thus becomes part of the act, deliberately maintaining a conscious ambivalence. The moment he relaxes the tension between the two perspectives, the tragic effect dissolves If he adopts the finite perspective to the exclusion of the ultimate, tragedy becomes either a morality play or a picture of unrelieved frustration. If he relinquishes the finite in favor of the ultimate perspective, and allows himself to view the hero's world sub specie aeternitatis, he realizes that the whole play is really "much ado about nothing." Tragedy is
thus converted at a stroke into comedy, and the drama becomes a farce.
Perhaps this explains why the great Greek tragedians were expected to follow their serious dramas with a riotous satyr play, which often burlesqued the grave personages of the preceding tragedy. It is therefore not surprising to find Socrates contending at the conclusion of the Symposium that comedy and tragedy are based upon the same fundamental principle -- a thesis recently taken up again by Richard Kroner. The point is illustrated beautifully, though perhaps not intentionally, by the Spanish philosopher Unamuno in his book The Tragic Sense o f Life. He begins by ringing the customary changes upon the self‑defeating character of all human existence. By the time he has reached his final chapter, however, his earlier, fatalistic mood has undergone a transformation. He concludes:
The greatest type of heroism to which an individual, like a people, can attain is to know how to face ridicule; better still, to know how to make one's self ridiculous and not to shrink from the ridicule.l8
There is thus an inner logic which leads directly from the tragic to the comic. The tragic effect requires of the spectator a constant flirtation with two perspectives at once. The person who declines to wear these bifocal lenses may, with Unamuno, discover in even the greatest tragedy a suspicion of the ridiculous.
This consciously induced ambivalence holds the secret to the spellbinding effect which tragedy has exerted upon millions of its adherents. The spectator's mind is brought to a standstill by the constant flickering of perspective, and he watches in helpless fascination as the hero contrives his own doom. Devotees of tragedy are fond of urging the prospective convert to "enter sympathetically into the tragic experience":
"We must respond from the depth of our own soul if we are to feel the enthusiasm of that [tragic] philosophy."19 What this really constitutes is an invitation to maintain a schizophrenic oscillation between the two perspectives, and thereby to become a party to one's own hypnosis. The following quotation is an example of such an indirect invitation:
This is the vision of a great and noble life: to endure ambiguity in the movement of truth and to . . stand fast in uncertainty . .20
Because of its cultivated ambivalence the tragic attitude has been described as a mixture of doubt and "faith":
Tragedy, therefore, cannot exist where there is no faith; conversely, it cannot exist where there is no doubt; it can exist only in an atmosphere of skeptical faith.21
What this writer means by "faith," however, is a far cry from what the Christian means. It is the knowledge, from the ultimate perspective, that everything happens in accord with a universal law of compensation, that the hero's suffering is really only the necessary restoration of the metaphysical balance. This saving knowledge is the basis of the claim by its adherents that tragedy provides them with a kind of religious deliverance. According to one devotee, it
cleanses us of all that in our everyday experience is petty, bewildering, and trivial‑all that narrows us and makes us blind ....
This tragic knowledge . . . is also a way for man to transcend his limitations . . . . When man faces the tragic, he liberates himself from it. This is one way of obtaining purification and redemption . . . . Deliverance within the tragic . . . liberated man by letting him see through the tragic as through a glass to the unspoken and unutterable depths of life . . . .
In and through this knowledge, the whole man is transformed.22
Although this brand of salvation includes the catharsis of pity and terror, even these emotions depend ultimately upon knowledge. They are the product of tragic insight, not of personal involvement. They are emotions of detachment and aesthetic distance, to be savored by the connoisseur for their psychological effect. Pity and terror are, as Aristotle observed, merely purgative, the emotional accompaniment of the knowledge that the hero's suffering and defeat are intrinsic to finite existence.
The spectator's advantage over the hero consists in this superior insight, attainable only from the ultimate perspective and possible only to an observer. Conversely, the hero's downfall is due to ignorance, to the one‑dimensional point of view imposed upon him by the necessities of action. Action requires decision, judgments of good and evil, as though all these merely finite distinctions had ultimate significance. In taking them seriously, as he must, the hero loses his grip on the ultimate perspective. As one contemporary writer puts it, "All life‑force stems from blindness."23
This inevitable ignorance exposes the hero to frustration and despair. The observer, however, since he enjoys a vantage point above the strife, does not share these emotions. He understands them as the inexorable consequence of life lived on the finite plane (that is, in action), and this knowledge gives him immunity to the depths of anguish and defeat exhibited on the stage:
When we watch tragedy, we transcend the limits of existence and are thereby liberated. Within the knowledge of the tragic the striving for deliverance no longer signifies exclusively the urge to be saved from anguish and misery. It also signifies our
urge to be delivered from the tragic structure of reality by transcending that reality.24
In some cases, like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, the author tries to make his hero play both roles, protagonist and observer, at the same time. Though a fiercely committed man of action, Ahab nevertheless philosophizes about the destiny which has already assigned to every man his appointed end, and which will have its way despite them all.
Moby Dick anticipates the existentialist version of tragedy. Since, according to the existentialist, men are essentially finite and nothing more, he renounces the spectator's role as untrue to the "human predicament." The way to live "authentically" is to plunge into action, while renouncing all illusions that the action has any significance. Whereas, in tragedy of the traditional kind, the spectator is a man of action who is enabled by the theater temporarily to escape his finite conditions, the existentialist is a congenital observer. The harder he plays at being a man of action, the more obvious it becomes that this is strictly a role. He remains his own voyeur, saved from the impact of defeat by the knowledge of its ultimate meaninglessness.
Because the heart of "salvation by tragedy" is this special kind of knowledge, it makes no difference that the spectator knows in advance how the tragic narrative will end. In fact, it is preferable that he should know it. For knowledge is timeless, and the more thoroughly he knows every step of the plot, the more he acquires the feel of a timeless perspective. The successive stages of dramatic action unfold, not as a surprise, but as the inexorable march of a foregone conclusion.
Although he understands and even appreciates the hero's courageous defiance, he watches with something of the detachment with which he might watch a fly fall prey to the spider.
He does indeed identify with the victim sufficiently to derive a vicarious sense of dangerous living. From his transcendent level of understanding, however, he can afford a sardonic smile at the feverish preoccupations of mortal men, secure in the knowledge that the truth, after all, is the whole.
So much for the analysis of the tragic view of life. The remainder of this chapter will compare it with the biblical. The full development of biblical philosophy has had to wait until recent times, when the contemporary work of such writers as Sir Edwyn Hoskyns, Abraham Heschel, Gregory Dix, Claude Tresmontant, John Bowman, G. Ernest Wright, and others has not only established it as a respectable metaphysical alternative, but has also shown that at nearly every point it stands in flat contradiction to tragedy.
The mainspring of tragic philosophy, for example, is the double perspective. But biblical philosophy acknowledges no such convenient pretext for equivocation. Throughout the Bible there runs a single criterion of both truth and goodness, equally applicable "on earth as it is in heaven." This is the philosophical significance of the concept of God as Creator. It contradicts the tragic notion that the relation of God to the world is properly expressed as that of the infinite to the finite, the absolute to the relative, or the timeless to the temporal. Whereas tragedy regards this present world as the negation of the "divine," the Bible asserts that there is no necessary incompatibility between it and the very nature of God himself. He has upset the calculations of the tragic philosopher by creating the kind of world in which he can be quite at home. Even if the Old Testament accounts of God's walking on the earth are not historically true, the point remains that he is the kind of God who could do so, if he chose. And in the New Testament, he did so choose. "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). The spatial, temporal, physical
conditions of human existence were proven to be not the negation of the divine but the expression of his will.
Men therefore need not apologize for applying all‑too‑human conceptions to God. As William Poteat has shown in a penetrating recent essay,25 the relation between God and the world can be described with a common language and within a single philosophical perspective. The same words which apply peculiarly to human beings, as distinct from the rest of creation, are the very words which provide the clue to the nature of God: will, purpose, responsibility, intelligence, the discrimination of good and evil, forgiveness, love, even chagrin. From a Greek point of view, such a claim would appear as the height of hybris, a presumptuous attempt to arrogate divine honors to mere men.26 Intellectual issues, of course, are never settled by resort to moral epithet. The person who prefers to consider the question on the moral level, however, may well ponder whether it is more "prideful" to allow God the freedom to create the kind of world the Bible describes, or to insist a priori that he must not. Within the biblical context, true humility consists not in the indiscriminate depreciation of man and his capacities but in acknowledging that God's mind is unreadable and his actions full of surprises: "How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord . . . ?" (Romans 11:33‑34); "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8).
The Bible does recognize a discrepancy between certain facts of life and the will of God. But this discrepancy is moral, not metaphysical. It is a disparity between life as it often is, and life as it could be and ought to be. The biblical understanding of the conflicts and calamities of existence is therefore completely different from the tragic. Whereas the latter sees them as the inevitable consequence of the clash of equal and
opposite forces, the former regards neither the conflict as inevitable nor the forces as neutral. For the Bible, conflict is not integral to life, but adventitious to it. The many "pairs of opposites" are not necessarily at war with one another. While vitality and form may at times be at cross purposes, they do not necessarily conflict. When they do, it is because of the dislocation of God's plan for the world, and not because of any inherent necessity. As Reinhold Niebuhr has aptly said, "Life is thus not at war with itself. Its energy is not in conflict with its order."27
In holding that human disaster need not happen, the Bible takes a far more serious view of it than tragedy, which either capitulates in resignation or exhausts itself in futile protest. The Bible also takes disaster more seriously in another respect, in the frank and unequivocal acknowledgment of it as evil. Where tragedy tends to call one and the same event both good, from one perspective, and evil, from the other, there is no trace of such ambivalence in the Bible. Evil is constantly called by its right name, and is not finally merged with the good in an alleged ultimate unity of things. In contrast to the notion that evil is really good in disguise, so common in tragic philosophy, the Bible's constant refrain is the seriousness and significance of the choice between them:
Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good (Romans 12:9).
Seek good, and not evil, that ye may live (Amos 5:14).
Test all things; hold fast to that which is good (I Thessalonians 5:21).
Follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God (III John 11).
There is, of course, a certain reserve about men's ability always and accurately to detect evil. "Judgment is mine, saith the Lord." There is also an appreciation of the fact that in the complexities of life good and evil may, as Reinhold Niebuhr has repeatedly pointed out, become so intricately intertwined that any given act or situation may be compounded of both. But tile Bible never confuses the creative with the destructive. Its retort to tragic ambiguity is, "Woe to them that call good evil and evil good" (Isaiah 5:20).
Since life is a battleground not of equal opposites but of good and evil, salvation is to be found in exactly the kind of life which, on the tragic view, is doomed to folly and defeat. Instead of cultivating the aesthetic insulation of the detached observer, the Christian engages in a life of active partisanship on the finite level. For God himself is decidedly partisan in human history: "I am the Lord . . . that frustrateth the tokens of the liars, and maketh diviners mad; that turneth wise men backward, and maketh their knowledge foolish" (Isaiah 44:24‑25). The life‑and‑death question is, therefore, not whether to take sides, but which side to join:
Behold, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live .... But if thine heart turn away, so that thou shalt worship other gods, and serve them, ye shall surely perish (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19, 17, 18).
Life's deepest questions thus find their answer not in speculative theory or aesthetic ecstasy but in allegiance to God and alignment with his purposes. Instead of the splayed consciousness induced by the tension and ambivalence of tragedy, the Christian hopes for a personality unified through its focus upon the only possible source of unity, the will of its Creator.
Thus far the biblical interpretation of life bears a certain
resemblance to the morality play. The theme of both is the freedom of men to align themselves with the forces of either good or evil, and the ultimate triumph of good. Within limits, the Bible, like the morality play, sees in the disasters of history a certain degree of poetic justice. For one thing, since all men become involved in the perpetuation of evil, there is none who can claim total innocence: "Whom the Lord loveth, he also chasteneth." In the second place, there will one day be a time of reckoning and a last judgment, when injustice will be redressed. Thirdly, even in the short run, the apparent success of the unrighteous may be accompanied by a gnawing inner anxiety and torment, while the man who fails by worldly standards may still possess those inner resources which are not for sale.
But here the similarity between the Bible and the morality play ends. The Bible does not define goodness in terms of moral "do's" and "don't's," but as allegiance to the Creator. The moralist's rule book is simply an abortive attempt to construct an external facsimile of the quality of life that results from this allegiance. "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent" (John 6:29). Hence the destruction which the sinner brings upon himself is not meted out with the vindictiveness of a moralistic censor, nor, for that matter, with the dispassionate impartiality of tragic destiny. Rather, heaven itself is grieved at the loss of a single soul: "I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Matthew 9:13); "More joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, than over ninety and nine just persons" (Luke 15:7).
The Bible is able to take the more compassionate attitude toward the sinner because, though he sins voluntarily, he has also been deceived. He allows himself to be hoodwinked by false promises. The classic instance, of course, is Eve's con-
versation with the serpent. She lets
herself be persuaded that the serpent's account of the forbidden fruit is true,
rather than God's. Though she is responsible, she has also been victimized.
Hence the close correlation between deceit and sin (see Hebrews 3:13; Romans
7:14), and hence the designation of the devil as the "father of lies"
(see John 8:44; Revelation 12:9, 20:10). The Bible chronicles the pathetically
similar devices by which the devil has repeatedly persuaded mankind to buy the
Thanks to this concept of self‑induced ignorance, the Bible abounds in scenes of dramatic irony somewhat comparable to those of tragedy. Oedipus ignorantly pronounces a curse upon himself; in the role of judge, he is obliged to condemn himself; his very wisdom leads him into blindness, both figurative and literal. The Bible matches this with the ringing words of Nathan to King David, "Thou art the man!" There is also a poignant irony in the words by which the high priests seek to justify their liquidation of Jesus: "It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people .... If we let him alone . . . the Romans shall come and take away both our place and ration." Of course, one man did die for the people, though not in the sense they intended, and the Romans still came and took away their place and nation.28 At the trial of Jesus, it is quite clear who is really on trial. And when Pilate asks Jesus his famous question, "What is truth?" the truth is standing directly before him, but he cannot recognize it.
There is, however, a significant difference between tragic and biblical irony. In both cases, irony is the result of ignorance. But in tragedy, this ignorance is the inevitable consequence of the human condition, of the hero's involvement in the necessities of action. For the Bible, it is due to willing self‑deception, and therefore affects only the person who forsakes the Lord. From the biblical point of view, the crowning
irony is reserved for the person who seeks to avoid it through aesthetic detachment.
Perhaps the most basic point at which the Bible differs from both the morality play and from tragedy is its denial that all of life's calamities can be given a convenient rationale. As opposed to the morality play, it acknowledges a residue of evil and suffering which cannot be included within the neat scheme of poetic justice. As opposed to tragedy, it does not seek to reconcile the spectator to them by persuading him that they are necessary. All such attempts to explain evil only end by explaining it away.
The Bible therefore goes out of its way to insist on the actuality of evil, not in terms of simple blacks and whites, as the morality play tends to conceive it, but of complex shades of gray, as the parable of the wheat and the tares suggests. According to the Bible, once evil obtained a foothold in the world, it mushroomed into a network in which all men become entangled and in which no man escapes complicity. Evil becomes an objective reality, a decisive factor in human affairs. The blows of circumstance begin to fall at random, so that relatively innocent bystanders are often injured, while the unscrupulous manage to beat the game, at least for the time being. The neat poetic justice of a morality play thus gives way to the rough justice, or rough injustice, of common experience.
The Christian, therefore, does not expect a magical exemption from the hard knocks of life. In rejecting the role of self-sufficient observer for that of active participant, he becomes vulnerable to the very emotion which tragedy would purge away. He is acquainted with grief at life's injustices, for God himself is grieved at them. The shortest sentence in the Bible is also one of the most significant: "Jesus wept."
Because the Bible's chief concern is not the theoretical question
of how to explain these enormities, but the practical question of what to do about them, it replies, not with speculative theory, but with solid facts. It proclaims that the Creator himself is active in his creation to save it from the self‑destructive consequences of human waywardness. On men's behalf, at one climactic point in time, he voluntarily endured the worst that history could offer; triumphed over it, physically as well as in every other way; and then offered the fruits of his victory to all who will accept them from him. Precisely because he is able to weep, the Christian avoids the emotional anesthesia which tragedy induces, and is therefore able to respond with another emotion which is even more foreign to tragedy, joy. There is no scene in tragic literature remotely comparable to the elation of the Psalmist at the prospect of God's deliverance; the almost cavalier exuberance of the prophet at the thought of God's invincibility; the jubilation of the apostles on beholding the risen Lord; or the exultation of the redeemed in the apocalyptic vision of the heavenly banquet. These are the affirmations of gratitude and triumph over an adversary whom tragedy never even engages.
Oddly, the mutual incompatibility between biblical and tragic philosophy has sometimes been overlooked. More curiously still, it has been overlooked more often than not by Christians themselves. In their eagerness to do justice to the majesty and sovereignty of God, for example, they have sometimes referred to him as "the Absolute," or "the Infinite." This is done by inference every time a Christian grants that the biblical conception of idolatry may be simply equated with what tragic philosophers call "absolutizing the relative." The application of such terms to the biblical God, however well-intentioned, introduces tragic concepts into Christian thinking. For if God is "the Absolute" or "the Infinite," then he (or, rather, "it") stands in contradiction to everything in this "rela-
tive," "finite" world. The biblical metaphysic has thus been exchanged for the tragic. Professor Arthur O. Lovejoy has exposed the co‑existence of these two conceptions of God side by side in Christian thought:
The most extraordinary triumph of self‑contradiction, among many such triumphs in the history of human thought, was the fusion of this conception of a self‑absorbed and self‑contained Perfection ‑ that Eternal Introvert who is the God of Aristotle ‑ at once with the Jewish conception of a temporal Creator and busy interposing Power making for righteousness in the hurly‑burly of history, and with primitive Christianity's conception of a God whose essence is forthgoing love and who shares in the grief of His creatures . . . . Most of the religious thought of the West has thus been profoundly at variance with itself.29
Since a given conception of God entails a corresponding metaphysic, it is not surprising that historic Christianity has been infiltrated by numerous ideas which belong to the tragic rather than to the biblical philosophy. It is not uncommon, for example, to encounter Christian authors who disparage the natural world (the medieval contemptus mundi), who employ the tragic double perspective (Luther's iustus et peccator simul), or who hold that the conditions of "finite existence" inevitably oblige men to sin. These three ideas, all imported from tragedy, have occasionally crept into the doctrine of "original sin." As sometimes formulated, this doctrine speaks as though all men were involved in the same hard necessity which obliges Hamlet to incur "tragic guilt." The biblical view, however, while it does acknowledge a web of evil as an objective reality, also insists that evil and guilt, being the consequence of wrong human choice rather than an inevitable constituent of human existence, need never have arisen.
Another tragic concept which has occasionally found its
way into Christianity is the notion that faith must always have doubt as its counterpart. The currency of this idea in contemporary thinking is indicated by the recent publication of a book entitled Christian Doubt. While it is of course true that a given Christian person may undergo a siege of doubt, just as he may also steal, it by no means follows that doubting is normative for him, any more than dishonesty. Just as the correlation of doubt and faith presupposes the tragic double perspective, so also the Bible's single perspective renders doubt incompatible with trust in God and his promises.
Another point at which Christian writings have sometimes betrayed tragic influence is the conception of life as a perpetual conflict between equal and opposite forces, particularly between creative energy and rational order. One Christian writer, for example, has written, "This dialectical opposition of the vital and the mental is to be seen in every conscious act. It rules the whole process of human life."30
the most famous example of an ostensibly Christian writing which nevertheless
conceives life as a conflict between energy and order is
Milton has in fact emasculated his Messianism by unconsciously proceeding from the same assumptions as Blake: that energy and creative vitality are Promethean and thus devilish, whilst Christ is Reason and his lesson is passivity, obedience, and self‑restraint.31
Though not without a strain of genuinely
From the conception of life as a tragic collision of equally
valid forces it is but a short step to the further notion, so heavily dependent on the tragic double perspective, that what is creative is also destructive, and vice versa. Such a conception may be expressed either by hyphenating the phrase "creative‑destructive" or by explicit statements like the following passage from a contemporary Christian writer:
The will to create, the need to write, coincide deep down with the Luciferian temptation .... How are we to eliminate the devil's contribution to the sublimest creations of this earth? . . . At the sources of our poems and in our inkwells . . . the devil is present .... Shall we be able to conceive that the Devil is in the last analysis a mystery of Good?32
These words confuse the biblical conception that creative and destructive forces may be intricately intertwined, with the tragic view that evil is a necessary ingredient of good.
Perhaps the furthest penetration by the tragic view of life into Christian usage, one which goes beyond the hyphenation of "creative‑destructive" and all but capitulates to the equation of good and evil, is the famous liturgical phrase, felix culpa. Meaning "happy (or fortunate) guilt," it refers to the fall of Adam as ultimately a fortunate occurrence, on the ground that otherwise there would have been no need for the incarnation of Christ, and mankind would consequently never have enjoyed all the benefits of his coming. Perhaps the locus classicus of the idea of felix culpa is, again, Paradise Lost. In his celebrated article on "Milton and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall,"33 Professor Lovejoy points out that whereas in the early part of the poem the fall of Adam is deplored as a "ruinous enormity," by the time the reader arrives at the Twelfth Book, Adam begins to describe his transgression as a ground for self-congratulation!
In addition to the numerous illustrations of felix culpa adduced by Professor Lovejoy, there is a devotional poem of the
fifteenth century which expresses it perfectly. If Adam had not eaten the forbidden apple, it says, then Our Lady would never have become Queen of Heaven. Therefore blessed be the day that the apple was eaten, and therefore let us sing, "Thanks be to God."34 Here is full‑blown tragic philosophy in the midst of an ostensibly Christian poem: the double perspective, the confusion of the creative with the destructive, the loss of the distinction between good and evil.
Lovejoy has traced the ancestry of felix culpa back at least as far as
Pope Gregory the Great, and perhaps even to
Finally, when vitality is opposed to order, when the creative is confused with the destructive, and when guilt is regarded as fortunate, one is not far from another conception which belongs properly to tragedy, the conception of sin as hybris. It is sometimes imagined that the idea of sin is peculiar to the Bible. Actually, nearly every philosophy and religion has its own definition of sin. They differ in their respective conceptions of what constitutes sin‑hybris, as tragedy would have it, or misplaced allegiance, as the Bible maintains. In the development of Christian thought, hybris, under the name of pride, has sometimes displaced the biblical view of sin as misplaced allegiance. A contemporary non‑Christian author, who is completely impartial where the present issue is concerned, has made this point so clearly that his testimony must be reproduced at length:
The sense of trespass and sin inherent in the dynamism of human life, which, to our modern consciousness is typically "Christian," is in fact essentially Greek. This sense, unrelieved by a sense of calling (for that was a Jewish discovery), is expressed in the myth of Prometheus . . . . Prometheus is not only a hero, he is in the first place a sinner. We have here an attitude whose parallel is not the Old Testament . . . . Pride, the Greek original sin of hybris . . . we find as an almost ever-present nightmare in Greek culture, as the interpretation of the Biblical fall‑myth, gaining ground since Apocryphal times, and becoming classic since Augustine and Gregory……
The initial development depends upon the
sort of "fatherhood" ascribed to God. It can be that of Zeus . . …
but it can also be that of the Biblical God . . . . Historical Christianity,
one must conclude, has chosen the former. The Christian acceptance of the
ambivalent Greek‑hybris complex, combined with a Hebrew sense of
calling by and relation to a personal God, could easily create a situation
where every human act must be a sinful trespass, and where in fact there can be
no escape, except with the intervention of divine grace. Not only is this very
different from the old Jewish idea of God, to whom people have direct and
immediate contact, and who, in spite of occasional outbursts, nevertheless
loves his people and yearns for them. It is tantamount to saying that every
human act, as long as it is merely human, is hybridic,
Promethean, and of the devil. In other words, every human act is condemned. The
only thing that matters is Christ's move toward us, and (possibly) our
response. Implicitly, this contains a condemnation of civilization of which the
Greek myth in itself can hardly be said to be guilty in this form ....
Professor Grierson is certainly right in saying that the "pessimism"
ascribed by Dr. Tillyard to
rhythms of nature: "Let us serve the Baalim." But they were fighting a hopeless battle against a God who would not let them sink back to a level of existence from which he had called them of all the families of the earth to a destiny of their own ....
In a hybris‑possessed
culture, man's equality with God can only be viewed with horror and recoiling.
Although these statements may underestimate the extent to which historical Christianity has, however inconsistently, remained faithful to the biblical view, they do confront contemporary Christians with Elijah's question, "How long will ye go limping between two opinions?" It has often remained to non‑Christians to perceive more clearly the irreconcilable difference between these two allegiances. As one contemporary philosopher declares:
The chance of being saved destroys the tragic sense of being trapped without chance of escape. Therefore no genuinely Christian tragedy can exist . . . . Christian salvation opposes tragic knowledge .... What is essential to the Christian cannot even emerge in tragedy .... Every one of man's basic experiences ceases to be tragic in a Christian context. .37
Tragedy offers "salvation by knowledge," an explanation of why catastrophe is built into human existence. The Christian rejoices to find himself in the kind of world where goodness is not only possible, but where it coincides, in principle, with
his own beatitude. Precisely on that account he is the more acutely sensitive to the devil's successes. Instead of making his peace with them, or of merely railing at them, he casts his lot with One who has overthrown the powers of darkness in a mighty act of deliverance. Where the disciple of tragedy, breathing a sigh of mingled despair and defiance, utters the cry, "Such is life! What a relief to have understood it!" the Christian replies, "Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us."
NOTES: CHAPTER 1
I. Cited by Robert Clurman in The New York Times Book Review, August 5, 1956, p. 8.
2. John H. Wheelock, "A True Poem Is a Way of Knowing," The New
3. Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations
(New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948), pp. 19‑20.
4. Sophocles, Fragment 107; trans. by F. M. Cornford.
5. Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, trans. by N. Duddington
(London: Geoffrey Bles, 1948), pp. 18, 84.
6. Karl Jaspers, Tragedy Is Not Enough, trans. by H. A. T. Rciche,
H. T. Moore, K. W. Deutsch (Bos-ton: Beacon Press, 1952), p. 57.
The Macmillan Co., 1950), p. 91.
8. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. by
Joan Riviere (London: Hogarth Press, 1953), p. 103.
9. Nicolas Berdyaev, op. cit., pp. 31‑32.
Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy (
Scribner's Sons, 1938), p. 164.
11. Karl Jaspers, op. cit., pp. 53‑54.
12. Nicolas Berdyaev, op. cit., p. 32.
13. Karl Jaspers, op. cit., pp. 104, 55‑56.
14. Paul Tillich, The Interpretation of History, trans. by N. A. Rasetzki and E. L. Talmey (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936), p. 120 et passim; my italics.
15. R. J. Z. Werblowsky, Lucifer and Prometheus (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952), pp. 59,60, 61.
16. Ibid., p. 61.
17. Nicolas Berdyaev, op. cit., p. 26.
I8. Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life, trans. by J. E. C. Flitch (New York: Dover Publications, 1954), p. 315.
19. Karl Jaspers, op. cit., p. 86.
20. Ibid., p. 105.
21. Herbert Weisinger, Tragedy and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall
(London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953), pp. 227‑228.
22. Karl Jaspers, op. cit., pp. 36, 39, 41, 89, 72.
23. Ibid., p. 70.
24. Ibid., pp. 75‑76.
25. William H. Poteat, "The Incarnate Word and the Language of Culture," The Christian Scholar, Vol. XXXIX, No. 2 (June, 1956).
26. The point has been made by Claude Tresmontant, Essai sun la Pensée Hébraique (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1953), p. 141.
27. Reinhold Niebuhr, op. cit., p. 168.
28. I am indebted to Canon Edward N. West, Meditations on the Gospel of St. John (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955), pp. 133‑136, for his beautiful exposition of this point.
29. Arthur O. Lovejoy The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), pp. 157, vii.
30. Paul Tillich, op. cit., p. 90.
31. R. J. Z. Werblowsky, op. cit., p. 110.
32. Denis de Rougemont, The Devil's Share, trans. by Haakon Chevalier (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952), pp. 132, 133, 134.
33. First published in ELH, A Journal of English Literary History, IV, 1937.
34. The paraphrased poem is contained in Carleton Brown, ed., Religious Lyrics of the Fifteenth Century (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 120. I am indebted for this and other references, as well as for stimulating thought on the subject, to my colleague Professor Richard Benton.
35. Vide Claude Tresmontant, op. cit., pp. 23, 24, 93; also Études de Métaphysique Biblique (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1955), p. 66.
36. R. J. Z. Werblowsky, op. cit., pp. xviii, 28, 29, 64, 65, 32, 32.
37. Karl Jaspers, op. cit., pp. 38, 39, 40.