Niebuhr on Christianity and Tragedy

In a chapter in Beyond Tragedy , Reinhold Niebuhr considers the relationship between Christianity and tragedy. He denies that Christianity is tragic: “The cross is not tragic but the resolution of tragedy.” In the course of his discussion he makes several intriguing points about the tragic outlook:

1) He highlights the fact that tragedy only works when the character is strong. Someone who suffers due to his weakness is not tragic. Willie Loman is not tragic on this reading, but only pitiful. A tragic hero is one who suffers precisely due to his strengths and his insight, not his weakness and folly: “The really tragic hero of warfare is not the soldier who makes the greatest sacrifice but the occasional discerning spirit who plunges into the chaos of war with a full understanding of its dark, unconscious sources in the human psyche and an equal resolution, either to defy those forces or to submit himself as their tool and victim in recognition of his common humanity with those who are unconscious victims.” Later, he points out that tragedy is aristocratic; only the elite few can be truly tragic, only the strong. The rest are merely pitiable.

2) He recognizes that the tragic hero is sometimes tinged with the pitiable: Othello is both pitiful and tragic. And he recognizes that it is possible for the pitiful to move toward the tragic by a kind of heroic endurance in the midst of suffering. But the true tragic hero is the one who defies the gods or one who is forced to violate some code. He suffers tragedy, not infrequently, because he arouses the envy of the gods and thus their vengeance. (Here it is clear that tragedy is rooted in theology proper; a God who wholly transcends the world of exchange and competition and honor/shame cannot appear in a tragedy. He has not an envious bone in his body.)

3) For the Greek tragedians, evil and hence tragedy was bound up with all human creativity: “The tragic poet could not get beyond the conception that evil was inextricably involved in the most creative forces of human life. From the standpoint of his conception life was therefore purely tragic.” Here I return to comments made in an earlier post: In a system where “being” is the highest good and reality, and being is understood as fixedly perfect being, immobile being, ANY becoming is tragic, a “fall” from the bliss of being. Human life is necessarily BECOMING, and therefore human life is necessarily tragic. The solution is Trinitarian: Becoming (not in the sense of filling what lacks, but in the sence of movement and vitality and life) is transcendent, eternally present in the periochoretic dance of the Trinity. Or, more soberly, the Father eternally begets the Son, so there is a moment of movement, inherent in the life of God.

4) Niebuhr also suggests that tragedy arises out of the “hero’s conscious affirmation of unconscious human impulses in defiance of society’s conventions.” He alludes to Freud here, and perhaps the conception is more Freudian than Greek (or perhaps Freud really did learn it from Sophocles). In any case, there is a double-bind here: The hero acts on his impulses in defiance of convention, and tragic consequences ensue; yet (and here’s the really Freudian bit) if he fails to act, it is equally tragic, for desire is frustrated. The most stable solution is the Stoic (and still somewhat Freudian) one: Conform desire to reality, and accept the tragic frustration of desire with clenched teeth.

5) Niebuhr puts it this way: “The tragic motif in Greek drama is . . . either Promethean or Dionysian (Freudian). In the one case the human imagination breaks the forms of prudent morality because it strives toward the infinite; in the other because it expresses passions and impulses which lie below the level of consciousness in ordinary men and which result in consequences outside the bounds of decent morality. The Greek drama thus surveys the heights and depths of the human spirit and uncovers a total dimension which prudence can neither fully comprehend nor restrain.”

6) Niebuhr perceptively points out that the tragic hero is constantly seeking sympathy from others, from other characters in the drama and implicitly also from the audience. “Weep for me” is his cry. “What would the hero of tragedy do without these weeping, appreciating and revering spectators?” There are a couple of key implications here: first, that the tragic hero is in perfect continuity with the epic hero insofar as he depends for his heroism on self-display before others, the approval of the crowd; second, as Niebuhr points out, this points to “an unresolved conflict in the heart of Greek tragedy,” namely, its inability to determine whether life’s center lies in “law” or “vitality”: “Therefore the weak law-abiders must honour the strong law-breakers, lest the latter seem dishonourable.” Again, this is a transposition of the grand metaphysical scheme of Greek philosophy, the dialectic of order and chaos, NOMOS and PHUSIS.

7) True to his realist inclinations, Niebuhr endorses tragedy to the extent that, like Christianity, it recognizes that the “titanic forces of human existence” cannot be easily “brought under the control of some little scheme of prudent rationality.” European leaders should take note.

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