Tragedy and Christianity
According to Jean Cocteau tragedy is a machine in perfect order, a machine
that proceeds automatically and has been ready since the beginning of time. The
tension of the tragic plot is the tension of a spring; tightly wound and
lying in wait for the catalyst. Then the most haphazard event sets it in
motion; it unwinds of its own accord. Tragedy belongs to an order outside human time
and action. It will realize itself in spite of its players and all their
attempts at intervention. There is a paradoxical nature of the
suspense: from the time of the Greeks, knowing the end in advance is the real suspense. The Chorus usually announces the
outcome at the beginning, for in tragedy everything has already happened. The
audience surrenders to a succession of events it can hardly bear to watch
as the events are slowly realized..
For Aristotle, tragedy by definition requires three steps: 1) The arousal of
fear and pity in the audience, 2) with the aim of affecting
genuine katharsis, or a cleansing purgation, which 3) results in a restoration
of right order. So it almost always ends with some kind of cadence, with a
resolution, with right order.
Once I was invited to speak at the conclusion of a college production of Antigone. Antigone is the final play of the Theban Cycle (Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus,
and Antigone) and all three deal with the problem of fate. Oedipus was fated to
kill his father and marry his mother and Antigone was fated to be put to death
by Creon for burying her brother. Most productions miss the point of
the play and portray Creon as a thinly disguised Hitler and Antigone as romantic
idealist. I attempted to show the
audience that Creon was doing his duty and playing his part as fated. The
audience was having no part of that; one woman rose and accused me of being a
male chauvinist and the director of the play never spoke to me again. They
wanted a bad guy and a heroine and would book no truck with my no fault
suggestion. Like the actors in the play, some members of the audience, unable to forgive, were
The tragic view of the Classical world is deterministic, that is, everything
that happens must happen as it does.
In such a view humans are slaves to a never ending of cycle of reoccurring or
Fate propels most of the action of the Iliad. Both gods and men abide it,
neither able nor willing to contest it. How fate is set is unknown, but it is
told by the Fates and by Zeus through omens to seers such as Calchas.
Men and their gods continually speak of heroic acceptance and cowardly avoidance
of one's slated fate. Fate does not determine every action, incident, and
occurrence, but it does determine the outcome of the story; the Trojans were
defeat. In the Aeneid, after the fall of Troy, Aeneas wanders until
he meets Helenus, one of Priam's sons, who has the gift of prophecy.
Through him, Aeneas learns the destiny laid out for him: he is divinely advised
to seek out the land of Italy, where his descendants will prosper and in time rule the world.
In the Classical world humans were without freedom and without
hope of escaping a
deterministic plight. Then a messenger,
Jesus of Nazareth, arrived to show how we can free ourselves from determinism. The key is
forgiveness or agape. Agape: a form of love not based on merit of the person,
but a love that is kind and generous to all.
It continues to give even when the other is unkind, unresponsive and unworthy.
It only desires good things for the other and is compassionate. The escape is
described in the Bible in The Temptations of Christ, linked below. However,
there is a catch.
"The Grand Inquisitor," a story within a story, inside Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel
The Brothers Karamazov indicates the catch in Christian theology, the weakness of
human nature. The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that he cannot allow him to do
his work on Earth, because his work is at odds with the work of the Church. The
Inquisitor reminds Christ of the time, recorded in the Bible, when the Devil
presented him with three temptations, each of which he rejected. The Grand
Inquisitor says that by rejecting these three temptations*, he guaranteed that
human beings would have free will. Free will, he says, is a devastating,
impossible burden for mankind. Christ gave humanity the freedom to choose
whether or not to follow him, but almost no one is strong enough to be faithful,
and those who are not will, according to Christian theology, be damned
forever. The Grand Inquisitor says that Christ should have given people no
choice, and instead taken power and given people security instead of freedom.
That way, the same people who were too weak to follow Christ to begin with would
still be damned, but at least they could have happiness and security on Earth,
rather than the impossible burden of moral freedom. The Grand Inquisitor says
that the Church has undertaken to correct
Christ’s mistake. The Church is taking away freedom of choice and replacing it
with security. Thus, the Grand Inquisitor must keep Christ in prison, because if
Christ were allowed to go free, he might undermine the Church’s work to lift the
burden of free will from mankind.
"Forgive us of our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us."
seems to be the crux of the message of Jesus. For human society to escape our deterministic
predicament we must change. First, we must reach a state of contrition, repentance for
our sins (He who is without sin, cast the first stone) and then, second,
offer forgiveness to the other party. The question raised is, must the second
party also be in a state of contrition?
The word "contrition" implies a
breaking of something that has become hardened. St. Thomas Aquinas in his
"Commentary on the Master of the Sentences" explains the use: "Since it is
requisite for the remission of sin that a man cast away entirely the liking for
sin which implies a sort of continuity and solidity in his mind, the act which
obtains forgiveness is termed by a figure of speech 'contrition'."
This hatred for sin leads to the resolve to sin no more. The early Christian
writers in speaking of the nature of contrition sometimes insist on the feeling
of sorrow or detestation of the wrong committed. Augustine includes both in his
Perfect contrition (also called contrition of charity) is a repentance for sin
that is motivated by faith and the love of God and contrasts with
imperfect contrition, which is a less pure motive, such as common decency, fear of Hell,
or, perhaps, getting caught again . The two types of contrition are
distinguished by a person's motive for repentance, rather than the intensity of
ones feelings or emotions.
Rembrandt's "The Return of
the Prodigal Son" is often used as an example of forgiveness, but
This failure to forgive and lack of contrition is the root of most social
problems. World War I and aftermath are examples.
The Franco-Russian Alliance, a political and military treaty of 1894,
promulgated by France, placed Germany in an untenable position and was a major
cause of the War.
I. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which directly led to the
war, was the catalyst that set the tragedy in motion.
II. The Central and Allied powers struggle against on another until both are
exhausted, twenty million deaths and twenty one million casualties, only then
stop fighting. But there is resolution, because there is no contrition.
III. The Treaty of Versailles at the end of the struggle required "Germany to
accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and
damage". This article, Article 231, later became known as the War Guilt clause.
The treaty required Germany to disarm, make ample territorial concessions, and
pay reparations to certain countries that had formed the Entente powers. In 1921
the total cost of these reparations was assessed at 132 billion gold marks (then
$31.4 billion or £6.6 billion, roughly equivalent to US$442 billion or UK£284
billion in 2021). The terms led to great resentment in Germany and powered the rise of the Nazi Party.
Thus France, unwilling to admit fault for her role in causing the war and
insistence on placing the entire blame on Germany, set the stage for the next
tragedy. This time Adolph Hitler would be the catalyst..millions more deaths
An example of individual recalcitrance in extreme is found in
Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The opera tells the tale of an
incorrigible playboy who blazes a path to his own destruction in a single day. At the end of the last act:
At a banquet Elvira appears and begs Giovanni one last time to change his life
and marry her, but he dismisses her. A scream sounds, and everyone looks –
the statue of the Commendatore arrives at the banquet to ask Giovanni to repent. Giovanni refuses
and is dragged by the statue down to the flames of Hell. The others appear in an epilogue
warning the audience about the dangers of sinful behavior. A warning few
audiences take to heart.
Closer to home, wokeness or social justice or critical race theory is spreading
across America. This ideology is creating a type of totalitarianism across
liberal enclaves in American society. It divides the world into good and evil
based on crude racial categories. It has no faith in persuasion, or open
discourse, but it shames and cancels anybody who challenges the official
Conclusion: As far as we can see, there is no conclusion. We refuse both
the Christian path of forgiveness or the Classical path of katharsis and
balance, thus remaining at one another's throats.
* The Temptations of