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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Architects of Tragedy

Architects of Tragedy

Ancient Greek philosophy is a trove of wisdom and insight into human nature that stands unrivaled in the long march of history since. The truth of this prompted Alfred North Whitehead to remark that all of European philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Of all human failings, the Greeks regarded hubris as the most heinous and dangerous—especially hubris before the gods, those dialectically governing forces that lie outside the control of our will, erupting into our experience and determining our fate as though with a will of their own. Any man or woman who exaggerates his or her will, refusing to recognize such forces and defer to their greater authority, becomes an architect of tragic outcomes that at some point are inescapable. Sophocles’s perennial play, Oedipus Rex, in dramatizing this vital piece of instruction, placed posterity on notice that the only safe path is the path of humility in the face of how little we can control or even anticipate the great unfolding of causes and consequences.

Over and against the wisdom of acknowledging and living in humble cooperation with the limits of human will is the modern “post-truth” view. In a world where relativism and subjectivity have achieved a kind of stolen primacy, nothing is true anymore in the old sense. The warning of the Greeks recedes into one position among many, all equally true or false, since those terms no longer have any meaning, and the only thing regarded as ultimately true is relativism itself. It doesn’t take a graduate degree in philosophy to recognize that in asserting itself to be true, relativism becomes self-contradictory, and thus is no longer a “position” at all, since the only way that relativism can avoid this fatal mistake is to admit that its own central claim is only relatively true, and that the non-relativist view of truth is equally true, at which point the conversation falls into nonsense.

The mythical king Oedipus had his day. Every dog does, as the saying goes. But the Greeks knew that there are subtle forces at play in every life—call them “the gods,” or “chaos theory” or anything you please—that no man can elude forever, however infatuated with his will he may be. Most importantly, the Greeks knew that these forces somehow play out according to a person’s character or lack thereof, such that our fate is a lever balanced on the fulcrum of our hubris or humility. “A man’s character,” writes Heraclitus, “is his fate.”

Sadly, there are those who have risen to positions of political power in the U.S. on the crest of runaway hubris, men and women who would have us believe that any revelation of truth that exposes them is “fake news.” Demonstrating little if any interest in learning the lessons of even their own history let alone those of the ancients, they protest their innocence while indictments are being handed down and the seeds of tragedy they have planted for themselves have begun to take root and germinate. They posture and bully and dissemble and retaliate against every slight, turn on those who have the courage to stand up to them, defend the indefensible, and in all ways blithely assert their will as though there is no truth moving behind the scenes, in the shadows, biding its time. Such individuals, whatever their rank or title, are the architects of tragedy. At the end of even the longest day, they are fated to learn the lesson buried two millennia ago in the sands of Athens, the terrible lesson learned by Oedipus, who was king for a short time.