October 9, 2021

Are we living in a tragic age? One of the words most used about climate change — catastrophe — comes to us from the ancient Greek tragedy. It means a sudden crisis or turnabout, which is not a bad way of describing the melting of the polar icecaps. As for the virus, the ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about plague. It was by ridding his city of pestilence that Oedipus was appointed king. Perhaps the Queen should take over from Chris Whitty.

Tragedy recalls us to a sense of our fragility, but also of our value. We wouldn’t mourn for creatures we didn’t regard as precious. Not many of us are devastated by the death of a flea. A cynic is unlikely to lose sleep over Covid deaths in Indonesia.

If we are living through a tragedy, it is a collective one. The Greeks would have understood this too: the point of the Chorus, a bunch of ordinary citizens who sing and dance their way through the tragic drama, is to socialise the disaster, making it more than just the affair of a few patrician figures. Even so, you couldn’t have a cook or a cobbler as the hero, since their lives weren’t considered important enough. Those who fall from the greatest height make the biggest splash.

The death of Achilles or Agamemnon is a momentous event which sends shockwaves through the public realm, whereas the passing of a slave is private. It has no more significance than the killing of a flea. It doesn’t count as a historical event. Back then you couldn’t have a tragedy called Death of a Salesman, even if there had been salesmen in ancient Athens. It would be as bizarre as calling your play The Fall of Troy: A Farce in Three Acts. 

None of this class distinction survived the emergence of mass democracy — a political idea which, ironically, was born in ancient Greece. In the 20th century, by far the bloodiest hundred years on record, tragedy became universal. Once you develop weapons like bombs, you globalise suffering and lamentation. As the tattered old cliché has it, we really are all in this together. You just have to take anyone from the street and push them to their limit. You can even have a tragedy about plumbing, as in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. 

One of the ancient Greeks’ deepest fears is of hubris — the pride or presumption which leads you to overreach yourself and bring yourself to nothing. When the citizens of Thebes or Athens observed such arrogance they trembled and looked fearfully to the skies, aware that it would have its comeuppance. A species which dominates and destroys its natural habitat in the name of power and acquisition is now reaping the fruits of its overreaching.

Those like King Lear who would be everything must be taught the lesson that humanity is nothing — frail, sickeningly vulnerable and driven by animal need. Kings must be reduced to vagrants, as Lear wanders the heath with fools and madmen. Once you acknowledge that you’re nothing, you have a chance of becoming something — but only, like Lear or Oedipus, by being hauled through hell. For Lear, this repentance comes too late to prevent his death. Whether this will prove true of humanity as a whole remains to be seen. It isn’t looking good.

The problem is that hubris is built into the human species. Because we live not just in a physical world but a world of meaning, we are able to overreach ourselves all the time. Our bodies can build themselves a prosthesis known as civilisation. Technology is an extension of our bodies, but one that can escape our mastery. Badgers and squirrels by contrast, can’t create weapons of mass destruction, unless they’re being very furtive about it. They can’t extend very far outside themselves. They aren’t universal creatures, unless squirrels in California are somehow in touch with squirrels in the Ukraine.

This inability to overreach themselves means that they can’t blow themselves up, but neither can they read Marcel Proust. This is because they don’t have language; but this lack of language or developed concepts is also what keeps them safe from nuclear warfare. (One might make an exception here for dolphins, who after a few lessons might be able to write as well as Jacob Rees-Mogg).

Being a linguistic animal is both a blessing and a curse. In fact, the ancient term “sacred” means both. Because human beings live in a richly developed conceptual world, they can create things which are in danger of slipping from their control and taking on a tyrannical life of their own. Yet having language also means that they can be closer to each other than mere physical contact. They can share their inner lives with each other. Love relationships consist mainly in talking, unless I’m missing out on something.

Civilisation, so Freud claims, is a product of Eros, meaning the creative drives as a whole. There is, however, a problem. Eros is not the only source of civilisation. In order to build bridges and cathedrals, you also need to harness the power of Eros’s old enemy, Thanatos, or the death drive. The death drive for Freud is turned outwards and used to subjugate Nature. Only in this way can cities and social orders be built. Thanatos, however, is a notoriously unreliable servant. It doesn’t want to subjugate things; it wants to tear them to pieces in an orgy of obscene enjoyment. So the very force which is intended to overcome chaos is secretly in love with it. Anarchy lies at the very heart of authority.

Tragic figures aren’t exactly guilty, but they aren’t exactly innocent either. If they were deep-dyed villains, they would forfeit our sympathy and we would be indifferent to their fate. Napoleon may have been a tragic figure, but Hitler wasn’t. Yet tragic heroes aren’t blameless, because the tragic crisis results from their own actions, however little they may intend it.

Oedipus, who has been described as a “guilty innocent”, doesn’t mean to kill his father and marry his mother, but he contributes without knowing it to a network of cause and effect which causes these things to occur. His own past actions return to plague him in alien form. “We are neither the innocent nor the wicked,” remarks the protagonist of William Golding’s novel Free Fall. “We are the guilty. We fall down. We crawl on hands and knees. We weep and tear each other.”

It is just the same with climate change, which nobody ever intended but which is the consequence of billions of individual acts. Nobody ever turned the ignition key in their car or heaped a shovelful of coal on the fire with the idea of wiping out the human race. As Inspector Clouseau might say, no-one is guilty and everyone is guilty.

It’s the same with the Christian idea of original sin, which means that we are sinful but not responsible for it. In the tangled web of human actions and relationships, you can’t move without hurting someone somewhere. Our actions spin out of control and breed monstrous consequences which can come to dominate our own lives. The ancient Greeks knew all about Marx’s concept of alienation. It’s just that they gave it the name of Fate. We are weaving our own inescapable destiny all the time, and doing so through actions which are genuinely free.

The good news is that free action to avert total collapse is still possible for us, if only just. We can take heart from the fact that not all stage tragedies end badly. The first great piece of tragic art we have, Aeschylus’s Oresteia, ends on a positive note. The blind, beggarly Oedipus is finally gathered to the gods, while Shakespearian tragedy usually ends with the tentative emergence of new life. We come away from many a tragic drama remembering the dignity or defiance of those who go to their deaths, not just their agonies. A tragedy isn’t always a piece of theatre which ends in total ruin. It’s a situation in which you have to be broken and remade if you’re to have any chance of redemption, and even then there are no guarantees. As the poet W.B. Yeats writes, “Nothing can be whole or sole/That has not been rent.”

We shall, for instance, weather Covid, but not reducing the planet to flood and desert is a different matter. To avoid that, we shall need to renounce the urge to power and possession which has driven us so far, and learn instead to live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. That means undoing an awfully long history, and history is what we mostly are made of.

It’s true that people will do extraordinary things if the only alternative is to die. Certainly nothing short of such an alternative will cause governments and the transnational corporations to abandon their death-dealing habits. But people will also do extraordinary things if they think they are going to die anyway, such as murder, rape, loot and hunt for vengeance.

We haven’t thought enough about what kind of existence we will have if doom becomes unavoidable. People who have nothing to lose are dangerous. I wouldn’t like to be a racist cop if those I’ve beaten and humiliated know they can hang me from a lamp post without being put away for twenty years because the world won’t last that long. One thing is for sure: being broken and remade rules out mere reformism. Reformism wouldn’t have kept Lear alive, and it won’t keep us alive either.

Terry Eagleton is a visiting professor in English at Lancaster University.