Tragedy in Philosophy

by Andrew Simmons                                                                           Friday, August 20

“I believe, on the contrary, that the natural trend of philosophy leads it into a sphere where it seems that tragedy has simply vanished—evaporated at the touch of abstract thought. This is borne out by the work of many contemporary Idealists. Because they ignore the person, offering it up to I know not what ideal truth, to what principle of pure inwardness, they are unable to grasp those tragic factors of human existence…”  -Gabriel Marcel, The Philosophy of Existentialism, p. 26-27

Saul and David by Rembrandt

Following the philosophy of Hume, modern philosophy has gone through a phase of addressing Hume’s skepticism with an assertion that the individual makes their own reality.  For Kant, the individual makes sense of reality based on categories within their mind that are then projected onto reality. The empiricist Berkeley asserted that reality ceases to be when it is unable to be perceived. This trend paved the way for Idealism to become the major definer of modern society. Despite living in a postmodern age, there is still this prevalent notion that the individual determines their own reality based on a nihilistic foundation. This is not to say that they desire nihilism, but, in their efforts to escape it, they pursue life as one of self-creation. In critique of Cartesian Dualism and Idealism, the existentialists emerged as a counter philosophy.  Alongside other Catholic existentialists such as Jacques Maritain, Gabriel Marcel sought to counteract Idealism with his assertion of the supremacy of Being. It is by pondering his emphasis on the importance of tragedy that the mystery of Being becomes better articulated.

Gabriel Marcel

Marcel continues the most prevalent theme within Catholic philosophy that experiences are the foundation of knowledge. But the modern world is continuing to undergo a merger of one serious dichotomy: the mind and body. Since the human person is split between these two components, the concept of experience is placed into question. Are there really experiences that are of the mind or body alone? It is with this question that Gabriel Marcel, a philosopher and playwright, emphasized the importance of the particular encounter with drama. In this case, tragedy is experienced by the whole human person.

When one reads Macbeth, A Doll House, or Hamlet, the observer is actively involved with both his mind and body. Yes, there is a moment in which a tragedy excites the passions in sorrow or anger, but the moment haunts the intellect with questions of reality. In Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House, Nora Helmer sacrifices everything for a husband who does not respect her as anything beyond a “doll”. When the disillusioned Nora leaves her family, audiences were conflicted as the stage-play essentially challenged a lot of what they believed about gender roles. John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, A Parable torments the reader with its emphasis on the uncertain in a priestly sexual abuse case. Macbeth still enthralls its audience with the price paid in the pursuit of power well beyond Shakespeare’s context. It is in the continuation of these stories that one encounters a common reality. The effects not only involve the mind and body, but also include a vast amount of persons throughout history. Persons of the past and future are united in a present drama.

The communication between persons is paramount for Gabriel Marcel as he sought to challenge the Idealism seen in the twentieth century. With the Idealist, reality is of the mind and is projected onto the world around it. When Descartes split the mind and body, he did significantly change how one experiences the world. The passions of the body are to be viewed as a plague onto the mind. It is the task of the mind to impose itself on the formless matter around it in order to bring about reality. What then of tragedy? With Hegel, the convergence of the Geist is inevitable (and conveniently actualized further in Hegel). For Marx, the proletariat guided utopia is an unavoidable reality. The Enlightenment itself is a litany of assured futures guided by the “enlightened” who, in their mind, truly know of freedom. Tragedy then is only delegated to the reviled bourgeoisie or Anicen Regime. But even with this tragedy, it has no universal meaning as it is delegated to what stands on the other side of the dialectic. Tragedy becomes something attached to the adversary.

It is in this alienation that tragedy inversely affects the Idealist. Hegelianism is overwhelmed by Marxism’s economic and social emphasis. Marxism then becomes Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, and Maoism. Alienation begets more alienation for the sake of individualization and dialectic. In contrast, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy called for the reader to ponder upon how Greek tragedies immersed one in the power of reality. Kierkegaard proceeded to wonder if Hegel is conscious of his personal “sickness unto death”. Gabriel Marcel then looked upon the isolation caused by ideological pursuits and, through his stage-plays, sought to reinvigorate a communication between persons. In the dialectic, persons become objectified and typified between differing categories. Persons are lost amidst the abstracts. Worse, when truth is detached from persons, matters concerning truth and reality cease to be personal and become mere things. Things can be deconstructed and broken down until it becomes mere dust. All then is left is a person without truth because he already made it into a breakable thing. Being is lost as an object. Tragedy becomes fully present in the stumbling into nothing.

Andrew Simmons is currently a senior at Aquinas College. He is working on a double major in History and Theology with a minor in Catholic Studies. In 2010, during his freshman year, he converted to Catholicism. The Catholic Church has been recovering from the event ever since.


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