|Johannes Moreelse, Heraclitus (1630)|
Man knows two things: how things are (the World), and how they should be (the Ideal). I don’t mean that he knows these things perfectly, or that every man completely agrees with every other man about what is or what ought to be. But everyone has some sense of these two things, and tragedy – all tragedy – can be traced to the chasm between the two. Together, these two observations form a single insight: things are not as they should be. The larger the gap between these two things, the greater the tragedy.
It is necessary to know both of these things – the World and the Ideal – to experience tragedy. There could be no experience of tragedy if everything were how it ought to be, or if we had no sense that things ought to be other than they were. Neither the beast in the field nor the angel in Paradise feels the anguish of tragedy. But man, in this “valley of tears,” does feel it, because he sees that things are not as they should be. He is like the beast, but without the tragic ignorance; like the angel, but without Paradise.
This is not just a truth about the external world. It’s also a moral assessment of man, and a damning one. You know how you have acted, and you know how you ought to have acted. It’s here that we encounter some of life’s deepest tragedies. Worse yet is the twofold recognition that you’re 1) even now not living the way that you know you should, and 2) not able to be the man that you know you ought to be.
If the entire drama of human tragedy is this war between how things are and how they should be, between the World and the Ideal, how can we be freed? Left to our own devices, we are faced with only four options: overturn the World, abandon the Ideal, both, or neither.
Overturning the World was the most promising of our options. It recognized that the problem is not within our ideals or our interior longing for paradise but within the injustices and failings of daily life. If we could only actualize the Ideal, we could usher in Utopia. But the twentieth century is replete with examples showing how well these utopian crusades fared in practice. Instead of producing a Garden of Eden, these attempts resulted in a horrifying Necropolis.
In fact, even that is putting things too mildly. A Necropolis is a “city of the dead,” while former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski places the number of “lives deliberately extinguished by politically motivated carnage” throughout the last century at “no less than 167,000,000” and “quite probably in excess of 175,000,000.” That’s not a city. That’s the combined population of the United Kingdom, France, and Spain. So it’s not just that our attempts to achieve the Ideal have failed. It’s that, more often than not, these attempts have only increased the tragedy.
|Rembrandt, The Prodigal Son in the Tavern (1635)|
Abandoning the Ideal. As this striving for Utopia has repeatedly proven disastrous, we are currently trying its opposite: a sort of resignation. If we cannot overturn the World to achieve our Ideal, perhaps we should reject our Ideal. And so we have tried every method that we can imagine. We’ve declared ourselves “good enough,” “basically good people,” pretending that we don’t see the gulf between our actions and our ideals. We’ve proclaimed ourselves ignorant, trying to lose the Ideal in the mists of moral relativism, writing off our misdeeds as mere differences in preferences, rather than real, and tragic, failures. We’ve told ourselves that every ideal or belief, no matter how secular, is a form of “religion” to be rejected as irrational. We endorse a hedonism that acts as if the World is the Ideal. We pretend that the World shouldn’t be any better than it is, that we shouldn’t be any better than we are, and yet we fail to convince even ourselves.
When all of this fails, we simply distract ourselves with the pleasures of the flesh. If we cannot make ourselves angels, we will try to make ourselves beasts. Some of these pleasures are obvious enough: the so-called “pleasures of the flesh,” like sex, drugs, and pornography.
But more often, we lose ourselves in mindless diversions, both on the Internet and “in real life” (a term that has, for many of us, become grimly ironic, as more waking hours are spent online than off). These diversions – sitcoms, social media websites, games, and the rest – are not necessarily bad, of themselves. But when we spend our days chasing our tails rather than our ideals, it’s worth asking what these diversions are diverting us from. We don’t want to ask that question, but we cannot ignore it entirely. Even in the world of escapism and distraction, we find ourselves haunted by the Ideal, and we cannot hold on peacefully to an intentionally meaningless existence. We never fully succeed in lowering ourselves to the level of beasts, and our mindless entertainment can’t drown out our minds completely. We can bury the Ideal, but not kill it.
And so tragedy finds its way even into our life of diversions. Nowhere is this clearer then in the man who has pursued these worldly pleasures with reckless abandon.. Having found that fleeting pleasures flee, he eventually but necessarily slides helplessly into ennui or outrage.
A little of both. The third option, then, is to attempt a sort of balancing act in which we reject ideology and ideologues, but tell ourselves that we still have ideals. We hold to loosely-defined principles and “beliefs” that give us a sense of meaning, but which we can abandon or ignore when convenient. Rather than escaping from the tragic, this risks amplifying it, by acknowledging it without doing anything serious to solve it.
Absurdity and despair. Having seen the futility of our efforts at achieving the Ideal, and the impossibility of avoiding it, we are left with one last option: give in to the tragedy. Sometimes, this takes the form of embracing despair, the approach advocated by absurdism. In his commentary on Camus’ The Stranger, Sartre writes that “the absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions.”
But suicide remains an ever-present possibility, a final, desperate attempt to flee tragedy. Some of the clearest-thinking atheists, have seen this. Camus opens The Myth of Sisyphus by declaring, “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” But even those who don’t believe in hell can recognize this for what it is: not an escape from tragedy or a triumph over it, but a surrender to it.
So far, then, this might not sound like the Good News of the Gospel. But in a real way, this is the prolegomena to the Gospel. What we’ve just heard is the secular story of the Fall. Genesis 3:24 tells us that, after the Fall, God “drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.” You don’t need the Bible to tell you this, because you already know it. You’ve seen and felt within yourself a sense of the Ideal, a sort of homesickness for Eden and for Heaven. But you’ve also seen within the world, and within yourself, that something has gone seriously awry.
You see within yourself the need for salvation, and if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve also seen that you’re incapable of saving yourself. None of us can, no matter how hard we try. It’s precisely here that we encounter Jesus Christ and the Gospel. Revelation shows us why we long for the Ideal: we’re made for Him. And it shows us why we fall short: we’re sinful, fallen creatures. We need grace. Through the Cross, the Gospel gives meaning to tragedy. And best of all, Christ offers us a way out of tragedy, the only way out. We cannot make ourselves angels, and we don’t have to be beasts. We can be Saints instead.