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 also trapped.

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 recurring events.

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 doomed to 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 writings.

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 contrition......?

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 do  they 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 result.

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 catechism. 

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.                                                                                                                                                 End



* The Temptations of Christ