Tragic, The

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Tragic, The


a philosophical and aesthetic category denoting an insoluble social and historical conflict that develops during the course of man’s free actions; this conflict is accompanied by suffering and the destruction of crucial values. Unlike what is sorrowful or fearful, the tragic is a type of impending or immediate havoc caused not by chance external forces but stemming from the very nature of the doomed phenomenon and from the insoluble inner dichotomization of this phenomenon as it unfolds. In the tragic, man becomes involved in life’s painful and destructive aspect.

The tragic presupposes man’s autonomous action and self-determination. Although man’s downfall is a natural and inevitable consequence of his actions, these actions are freely chosen. The contradiction underlying the tragic is that it is precisely man’s autonomous action which causes his inevitable doom. That doom overtakes him just as he seeks to overcome or evade it, and this is the meaning of tragic irony. The terror and suffering constituting the element of intensity that is essential to the tragic are tragic not owing to the intervention of chance external forces but as a result of man’s own actions. Unlike the melodramatic, which evokes sympathy, the tragic cannot exist when man is merely a passive victim of fate.

The tragic is akin to the sublime in that the tragic is inseparable from the idea of man’s dignity and nobility, which are manifested in his very suffering. As a form of the sublime and intense suffering of the hero, the tragic transcends optimism and pessimism. The tragic cannot be optimistic owing to the insolubility of the conflict and to an irreparable and inevitable loss. Nor can the tragic be pessimistic, since the person who challenges fate does not become reconciled to it even in defeat.

In drama, the tragic always has a social and historical content that determines the genre’s literary form. This is particularly true of the tragedy. In the classical period, the tragic was marked by a certain underdevelopment of the personal element. The individual was completely overshadowed by the welfare of the polis, which was protected by its own patron gods. The individual was also overshadowed by an objectivist and cosmologic concept of fate as an impersonal force dominating nature and society. Consequently, classical authors often depicted the tragic by means of the concept of fate. In later European tragedies, on the other hand, the source of the tragic was the hero himself, the depth of his inner world, and his self-determined actions, as seen in the tragedies of Shakespeare.

Classical and medieval philosophy did not include a theory of the tragic; the tragic was considered to be an integral part of being itself. Aristotle’s philosophy provides a typical illustration of the concept of the tragic in ancient Greek philosophy, in which the tragic was viewed as an essential aspect of the cosmos and of the cosmos’s antagonistic dynamics.

According to Aristotle’s theory of the nous (mind), the tragic arises when the nous, an eternal and self-contained intelligent world principle, surrenders to its other being and becomes temporal rather than eternal, subject to necessity rather than self-contained, and suffering and sorrowful rather than beatific. That is the beginning of human “action and life, ” whose imitation is the essence of the dramatic tragedy (Poetics, 1450a; Russian translation, Moscow, 1957). Human life is marked by joy and sorrow, shifts from happiness to unhappiness, and guilt, crime, atonement, punishment, desecration of the eternally blissful and autonomous purity of the nous, and restoration of this purity.

This surrender of the mind to necessity and chance constitutes an unwitting crime. But sooner or later the mind recalls (“recognizes”) its former beatific condition and the crime is exposed and judged. This leads to a state of tragic pathos caused by the individual’s shock at the contrast between an earlier beatific innocence and the present gloom of vanity and crime. However, recognition of the crime is also the begnning of the restoration of the desecrated nous. This restoration takes the form of a retribution that is effected through fear and pity. The ensuing purgation of passions, or catharsis, leads to the restoration of the mind’s equilibrium.

Ancient Eastern philosophy gave no credence to the individual as an autonomous being and consequently had no concept of the tragic. Buddhism, for example, was acutely aware of the tragic essence of life but viewed life in a totally pessimistic way. The medieval world view, with its absolute faith in divine providence and in an ultimate salvation that overcame the complex workings of fate, in effect eliminated the problem of the tragic. In medieval thought the tragedies of the fall of mankind and the separation of man from the personified absolute were overcome in Christ’s redeeming sacrifice and the ensuing restoration of man to his original purity.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the aesthetics of classicism and of the Enlightenment viewed the tragedy as a literary genre (Boileau, Diderot). Lessing offered a moralistic interpretation of Aristotle, and Schiller, in developing Kant’s philosophical ideas, saw the source of the tragic in the conflict between man’s sensual and moral nature (On Tragic Art, 1792).

The tragic was defined and analyzed in German classical aesthetics by Schelling and Hegel. To Schelling, the essence of the tragic lay in the struggle between the freedom of the subject and the necessity of the objective, with both sides being simultaneously and indistinguishably the victor and the vanquished (Filosofiia iskusstva, Moscow, 1966, p. 400). Necessity and fate make the hero guilty, not through his own intention but by virtue of a predetermined set of circumstances. The tragic hero must struggle with fate (if he accepted fate passively this would mean that freedom did not exist) and be defeated by fate. But in order for fate not to be victorious, the hero must voluntarily atone for his predetermined guilt. His voluntary acceptance of punishment for the inevitable crime constitutes the victory of freedom.

For Hegel, the essence of the tragic lay in the inner dichotomy of the moral substance that comprises will and action (Soch., vol. 14, Moscow, 1958, pp. 35–89). Moral forces and the protagonists embodying these forces differ in content and manifestations; the development of these differences inevitably leads to conflict. Each moral force seeks to achieve a specific goal and is possessed by a specific passion that is realized in action. Owing to its onesided distinctiveness, each moral force inevitably clashes with an opposing force. The mutual destruction of these conflicting forces restores equilibrium on a new, higher level, advances the universal moral substance, and promotes the historical process of the self-development of the spirit.

Hegel and the romantic philosophers A. Schlegel and Schelling presented a typological analysis of the classical and modern European concepts of the tragic. According to the latter concept, man himself is responsible for the fearful events and sufferings that befall him, whereas according to the former concept, man is a passive victim of fate. S. Kierkegaard observed that this difference implies a different concept of tragic guilt in classical and modern times: in the classical tragedy, sorrow is more profound but pain is less deeply felt; in the modern tragedy the contrary is true, since pain is associated with awareness of one’s own guilt.

In analyzing the tragic, the German classical philosophers, and first and foremost Hegel, assumed that the will is rational and that the tragic conflict is open to rational interpretation when the triumph of an idea is achieved through the downfall of the idea’s bearer. The irrationalist philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche broke with this tradition, since they cast doubt on the very existence of intelligibility in the world. Schopenhauer, who considered will to be an amoral and irrational force, saw the essence of the tragic in an inner struggle of the blind will, in senseless suffering, and in the failure of justice. To Nietzsche, the tragic was the primordial essence of being—chaotic, irrational, and formless (The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, 1872).

In the 20th century the irrationalist interpretation of the tragic was continued in existentialism. According to K. Jaspers, the truly tragic is the awareness that universal doom typifies human existence (Truth and Symbol, Munich, 1947, p. 956). G. Simmel, one of the most important representatives of the philosophy of life school, wrote about the tragic contradiction between the dynamics of the creative process and the permanent forms in which this process crystallizes (The Conflict of Modern Culture, 1918; Russian translation, Petrograd, 1923). F. Stepun, another representative of the same school, believed that the tragedy of creativity is an objectification of the inexpressible inner world of the individual (“Tragediia tvorchestva, ” Logos, 1910, book 1).

Marxism-Leninism presented a social and historical interpretation of the tragic, considering the objective preconditions of the tragic to be the antagonisms of an exploitative society and the alienation of man and his activity that is typical of such a society. Analyzing the decline of the old social order, K. Marx wrote: “History . . . goes through many phases when carrying an old form to the grave.” While “the last phase of a world-historical form is its comedy, ” Marx considered the history of the old order to be tragic “so long as [the old order] was the preexisting power of the world, and freedom, on the other hand, was a personal notion” and “as long as [the old order] believed ... in its own justification” so that “there was on its side a historical error, not a personal one” (introduction to “K kritike gegelevskoi filosofii prava, ” K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 418).

Unlike the above form of the tragic, the revolutionary tragedy, according to Marx and Engels, has its source in the conflict “between a historically determined demand and the practical impossibility of implementing it” (F. Engels, ibid., vol. 29, p. 495). This was the case when the objective underdevelopment of social relations and of the conditions essential for the growth of the revolutionary movement led to the downfall of that movement’s leaders, such as T. Münzer and the Jacobins. This kind of conflict, according to Marx, “led to the defeat of the revolutionary party of 1848–49” (ibid., p. 483).


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Whilst the deaths are, undoubtedly, tragic, the people themselves most certainly are not.