Friday, July 5, 2019

Tragic Heroes in Fiction and Reality

Aristotle defined the “tragic hero” in fiction as a fallible, morally-upright protagonist who provokes pity or fear in the audience because even this character’s strengths are finite and so they’re accompanied by a fatal flaw or limitation, which leads to his or her downfall. Whereas a god would have no such flaw, we can be only imperfectly moral even at our best, in which case we’re subject to the rule of irony: we can be trapped by our success, corrupted by power or good fortune, and led astray not because we’re unable to cope with adversities but because the moral enterprise itself is somehow cursed. The tragic perspective amounts to a critique of the ancient Greek conceit that nature is “cosmic,” that the universe is so ordered that everything fulfills a purpose, from the so-called four material elements to human beings. To be sure, for the ancient Greeks the universe isn’t the best of all possible ones, since they thought the gods are only doing their best to hold back the opposing forces of chaos. Still, the question raised by tragic narratives is whether the compromised cosmos is good enough for a wise person to place her trust wholeheartedly in the traditions and inspirations that are meant to guide us. The horror in tragedy is that life may not be worth living if even heroes can be doomed, because the project of heroism itself is poorly realized in the flawed cosmos.

At least, that’s a question raised for late-modern philosophers who have gone beyond the Greek vision, to entertain the deeper, existential fear known as “angst,” that being the general suspicion that the whole world is indeed operating other than for the best. If there are no natural purposes, because the concept of purpose is “subjective,” as we learned to say especially after the cogitations of Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche, we risk being alienated from nature and perpetrating harebrained gambits to extract us from that predicament. We know, for example, that the heliocentric model of the universe is invalid because it’s unapologetically human-centered. To go on trusting our intuitions after learning that the universe’s scope in time and in space is inhuman seems foolish.

Or is there greater folly in presuming we can stand apart from nature and seek to improve on the world as we find it? Is there anything still heroic in the tragic hero, given the cosmicist view of nature as being an inhuman wilderness that necessarily appalls the lover of knowledge? Again, to say that Everyman in the Age of Reason is estranged from the world in so far as the latter is scientifically explained is to say not just that we automatically question the “wisdom” of natural processes, since we presume they’re not the product of benevolent intelligence but are accidents and readily at odds with our preferences. In addition to such outwards doubts there are the inward ones since we, too, are natural beings. How wise, then, is the wisest person? How honourable or beautiful or industrious? What is the merit of human virtues if we’re flawed creatures in a universe in which none of us, not even the universe as a whole was meant to be?

Notice the difference between calling nature “flawed” and calling it “inhuman.” A flawed universe approximates some ideal, in which case we could speak of natural rights and purposes without resorting to a self-centered metaphor. By contrast, an inhuman universe is a terrifying monster, namely that which is other than anything we could feel comfortable with by way of intuitive understanding of it. By intuition we know ourselves best of all and so we’re most at ease thinking about people or about living things. We quail at the prospect of being logical and objective, of putting aside our self-serving biases and trying to understand reality as it is, because as Kant explained, there’s no such understanding. Objectivity leads us to horror in the face of the noumenon, to the sobering conclusion that we don’t really know anything at all, since the methods we employ to understand things inevitably humanize them to some extent, and humanization of the inhuman is falsification. So if the world is alien to us, if the closer we are to us, the further we are to nature, we can’t trust our anthropomorphic models and should confess that the natural world has nothing to do with any explanation of its patterns that could conceivably be a relief to us. But we’re led to doubt both the world around us and our efforts since as strange as the emergence of intelligence may be in nature, our thoughts and actions have animal origins and so they may be counterproductive.

The Tragic Hero in Literature

The tragic hero’s situation becomes clearer from some of the literature that’s explored the relevant themes. Jesus from the gospels supplies the paradigmatic case of the out-of-his-depth idealist who’s nevertheless improbably vindicated, thanks to the deus ex machina of his resurrection and ascension to Heaven. Somewhat like Socrates, Jesus is the quintessential omega-male guru, a radical who attempts to subvert conventional society on account of its hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness, but who destroys himself in the process: for his troubles, Jesus is rejected, tortured and brutally executed. That’s the tragedy at the heart of the Christian narrative. However, some Jews in that period were evidently desperate for spiritual guidance as their monotheistic faith had been challenged over several centuries by a series of foreign occupations, and they encouraged themselves by casting Jesus in a theological revenge fantasy. Thus, Jesus starts out as a prophet and a healer, and ends as a divine saviour who conquered death and will return some day “soon” to oversee the everlasting torture of all those who’d rejected him without having repented. The Book of John comes closest to the Gnostic interpretation of sanctified Jesus, portraying him as a beacon of hope in a wasteland, whose tragic heroism lies in his willing submission to his humiliating fate on earth.

Again, though, Christianity muddles the symbol’s tragic significance, by papering over the sad likely reality with the dubious Resurrection, the Incarnation, and the promise of a Second Coming. Pauline Christianity, which seems to have preceded the historicizing gospel narratives and which in any case drew on the “suffering servant” image in Isaiah and on the pagan dying-and-rising saviour god religions, was joined to the concrete (possibly ahistorical) narrative of Jesus’ birth, life, and death. Thus, the social outsider’s tragedy turned into a divine comedy. (Regarding the pagan origin of Christianity, see for example Orphism: Orpheus descends into the underworld to save his wife Eurydice, and in one legend is later torn apart by Maenads, that is, by female devotees of Dionysus, who were unmoved by the divine music he played and who resented him for spurning their sexual advances. The parallels with Jesus’ descent to Earth and execution are plain; for example, the Pharisees, blinded by their hypocrisy and shallow spirituality, play the role of the Maenads.)

In the West, Augustine’s Confessions hints at the alienation implicit in Christianity’s founding narrative, but Augustine is spared from tragedy by his reinforcement of the Pauline saga of the savior god, with Platonic teleology. For Plato, reality is fundamentally good even though most of us are unaware of that fact because we’re slaves to delusions brought on by our animal inclinations. Even Plato’s demiurge in the Timaeus, who is responsible for the world’s imperfections, is supposed to be well-intentioned, not arrogant or psychotic as in the Gnostic adaptation of that creation myth. So Augustine’s tortured confessions of his unworthiness of God’s mercy are so many steps in the pilgrim’s progress. Medieval culture, of course, was dominated by faith in the teleological (Pauline-Platonic) comedy, in which everything happens for the best and anyone is easily saved from Hell despite her personal inadequacy, merely by verbally aligning herself with Christ’s heroism on the cross. Union with the divine was easy—despite the appearance of a grim daily reality for most Europeans in that period.

The tragic essence of the hero’s myth was rediscovered after the rise of liberalism and science. In Don Quixote, Cervantes portrays the lost hero as a childlike knight who’s blind to what Weber called the “rationalist disenchantment of nature.” At the very end of the book, however, Quixote regains his sanity—or perhaps loses the gift of his outdated vision of the world as a magical and meaningful place. Instead of a fallen world, corrupted by original sin, as in Christianity, nature’s revealed to have been godless and amoral all along, although the modernist might be blamed as the messenger who bears that bad news. Quixote is blissfully ill-informed or unable to accept that the calamity has occurred, that magic and honour are illusions, since to do so is to perish inwardly from nihilist despair, and so the anachronistic knight dies as soon as he comes to his senses. The idealist who’s too noble for this world can’t be long for it either.

In the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, the protagonist learns that morality itself doesn’t belong in this fallen domain we inhabit. Irony rules over all, so although Justine struggles to do what’s right, she suffers the worst indignities (kidnap, imprisonment, rape, orgies, etc.) while her more prudent sister, Juliette, compromises with the real world’s amorality and ends up happy and even better-positioned to improve conditions for others, including for Justine. While Justine is the good Christian who dutifully suffers (pointlessly) like Christ, Juliette is a psychopathic, murderous libertine. Like Quixote, Justine is crestfallen when she realizes that the end justifies the means and that her Christian ideals had been lies that spoiled her youth; resenting the loss of her naivety and driven to melancholy by her afflictions, she’s promptly killed by a lightning strike.

Finally, in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Prince Myshkin is naïve but pure of heart, like these other misplaced heroes. The downside of Myshkin’s idealism is that his excessive honesty makes him socially awkward. He fumbles two chances at marriage, is overcome with grief when one of the women is murdered, and the worsening of his epilepsy forces him back into a sanitarium. Myshkin’s epilepsy is his tragic flaw, since it symbolizes his rare insight into spiritual and philosophical matters, but it also repulses his staid associates and costs him romantic happiness.

All of these stories fall into a continuum with Greek tragedy in the center, Christianity at one extreme, and the modern tales at the other. Crucially, the ancient Greek plays emphasize both the heroism and the tragedy in so-called tragic heroism, both the protagonist’s virtues and their insufficiency in an imperfect world. Christianity, however, whitewashes the tragedy, replacing the amoral gods of the Greek pantheon, not to mention the philosopher’s godless nature, with the Pauline-Platonic framework in which Christian suffering serves the higher purpose of attaining eternal joy with God in the afterlife. By contrast, the modern, science-centered, social Darwinian or existentialist tales emphasize the tragedy at the expense of the heroism. According to them, the world is so indifferent and absurd that virtue becomes pointless and the protagonist comes across as a chump.  

Liberal Humanism and Transhumanism

Let’s leave aside here both Greek tragedy and the Christian fantasy, and concentrate on the modern conception of tragic heroism. Although as I said, science and atheistic philosophy are bound to uncover nature’s indifference and inhumanity, realistic literature often presupposes what Nietzsche would call a substitutionary myth, namely liberal humanism. With roots in ancient Greek philosophy, this myth assumes that if the human person isn’t central to the cosmos and isn’t quite the measure of all things, she’s nevertheless central to questions of value. This means that we alone can decide what ought to be done, since someone has to do so and there’s evidently no one else to do it. Morality becomes a system of satisfying our desires with the greatest efficiency or rationality. The crucial relationship here is between means and ends: we have goals as well as the rational capacity to achieve them. For example, several centuries ago some elite Europeans wanted to learn how the world really works instead of just trusting in Aristotelian dogmas, and their gain in empirical knowledge led to innovations which improved the quality of life, at least for those fortunate enough to reap the benefits of capitalism and technoscience.

Humanism, then, is a celebration of our capacities for self-empowerment and for cognitive, technological, and social progress. Liberalism enshrines the individual for having intrinsic value on account of his or her potential for self-control. Reason liberates us from ignorance and from the suffering brought on by being nature’s dupes; reason transforms nature into an artificial paradise that better reflects our ideals. We find happiness in humanizing the cosmos, in recreating the world and thus in fulfilling our godlike potential. Thus, liberal humanism seems to find its fullest expression in the culture of transhumanism, the central idea of which is that we can merge with technology to become more and more like the gods we used to worship; much of recent science fiction looks forward to when we’ll have conquered death, created artificial life, and travelled to the stars.

Taking this late-modern conception of heroism for granted, the question is whether the tragic, naturalistic context subverts liberal humanism. Suppose transhumanist predictions are borne out and our descendants will effectively be gods. To what extent would such gods be tragic heroes, and how would Don Quixote, Justine, and Prince Myshkin bear on an evaluation of that brave new world? The heroism of those three protagonists consists in their attempt to resist and improve upon a suboptimal world. Quixote refuses to concede that the medieval mode of perception is obsolete, that European culture has matured, and that the real world has been disenchanted by reason. Justine trusts in Christian virtue even through an onslaught of demonstrations that there are plentiful predators in the shadows that are poised to exploit such a naïf, and there’s no divine arbiter to prevent such violations. Myshkyn is similar to Justine except that Dostoevsky is sympathetic to his protagonist, and explores how an idealist can influence realists even though ultimately the author implies that the world’s corruptness will dishearten anyone committed to unearthly ideals.

If these protagonists seem pitiful or tragic, then, it must be because their ideals are unrealistic. All values are counterfactual in that they aim towards an end not yet achieved, but to be realistic the end sought for must, of course, be achievable. Quixote appears mad because the damage to the world had already been done, as it were, and could no sooner be undone than an adult could age backwards and return to a state of childhood innocence. Justine seems naïve because Christian propaganda has kept her dangerously ignorant. Christian values themselves were dumped by the Church many centuries ago, as soon as Christian leaders had to betray Jesus’s radicalism to turn a perversion of his message into the official religion of the Roman Empire. The claim that Christianity has a supernatural origin is dubious, since Jesus’s uncompromising anti-natural standards were based on the alleged nearness of God’s judgment of the human race, a judgment which never happened as prophesied, the end of priestly Judaism in 70 CE notwithstanding. Thus, to carry on with the Christian charade—without using that religion as a cover for the honing of your vices—is only to ensure you’ll be victimized.

Prince Myshkin’s innocence and selflessness are meant to be backed not by blind faith in a creed but by existential wisdom and by respect for the wonders of being alive. In that regard, Myshkin contrasts with another character in Dostoevsky’s story, Ippolit Terentyev, who like Myshkin has to reconcile himself to the prospect of death by a physical ailment (tuberculosis). But whereas at the start of the novel Myshkin emerges from the sanitarium as the truest Christian soul, Ippolit resents nature’s monstrousness and attempts to stage his act of suicide as the only way of affirming his freedom and avenging himself against the world’s mindless indifference. Ippolit forgets to properly load the gun, faints when the gun fails to fire, and is reduced to struggling to convince the audience that his contempt for the world is genuine and that he had indeed intended to kill himself.

Dostoevsky’s point is that Myshkin’s respect for life is superior to Ippolit’s nihilistic resentment, since Ippolit’s stance is unsustainable. Unconsciously, Ippolit must value life after all, so he prevents himself from carrying out his threat. However, nature does hobble both Myshkin and Ippolit. Were the world perfect, there would be no need for ideals or even for desires, since everything would already be granted. Myshkin has no answer to Ippolit’s argument that God’s creation is culpable for having destroyed Jesus Christ, whom Christians revere as the most perfect person who ever lived. If even Jesus proved unable to fix the world, what’s the point of Christian virtue? Why waste your present life helping others rather than yourself, on the basis of a vain hope for happiness in an afterlife? Myshkin’s existential Christian values are quintessentially unrealistic, since they would sacrifice all earthly reality out of faith in miracles which are by definition naturally impossible.

In view of those mismatches between the protagonists’ wishes and their uncooperative environments, the nobility of a transhuman civilization would seem to depend not on its efficiency but on the worthiness of its goals. Merging with technology might succeed in turning evolved creatures into gods, but what’s the point of being all-powerful and all-knowing in nature? Eventually, entropy would catch up to transhumans, the atoms themselves would disintegrate after the last stars, and those gods would expire, so even their lofty enterprise would be doomed. As long as the universe inevitably expunges all evidence that we’ve tried to achieve certain goals, those goals must technically be unrealistic or else reconciled to their undoing, which is to say that no attempt to improve on nature can be permanently secured. If that objective irrelevance of our activities on the cosmic scale implies that all of our interests are futile, the heroic attempt to oppose nature’s inhumanity might be unworthy, in which case tragedy would overwhelm heroism. Transhuman power could be viewed as vain rather than majestic, which would be the opinion of Ippolit, Dostoevsky’s bitter and pitiful nihilist.

The humanist, however, takes the self rather than the world to be our most fitting guide. In striving to outdo the world, we should aim only to be our best self, to fulfill our potential so that when we fail to bring about the desired result of our plan, the result would be unworthy only if we failed to do our best. In short, inner rather than outer nature provides the standard to hold us responsible for our actions, since we alone can judge right and wrong. By contrast, outer nature’s pseudo-condemnation (or termination) of the contender is indiscriminate and, in the end, ubiquitous. That inner nature, though, can’t amount to our evolved identity since that would produce a natural right, as in the Aristotelian or Thomistic system, which is absurd on other grounds. Our best self can’t be the one that’s most probably realized under suitable conditions, since nothing is worthy just in view of its normality, as the naturalistic fallacy shows. Sartre maintained that there is no justification of a life plan, that all of our authentic interests are absurd because they’re free. But if we’re reduced to taking a Kierkegaardian leap of faith in striving to be our best self, since the choice of whom we should be is arbitrary, the humanist has little basis for rejecting faith in the Christian comedy. Humanistic subjectivity seems, then, to founder.

However, the heroic aspect of the revolt against nature’s monstrosity might be recovered if we treat the question of worth as an aesthetic matter. After all, tragedy and heroism are literary categories, so if a real human life or history itself were interpreted as the unfolding of a story written by atoms, as it were, we could identify the best self or society as the one that makes for the best narrative. Whether the universe will eventually swallow up the transhuman gods would be of no concern, then, since a story is supposed to end. What matters is whether the story is inspiring, whether it captures your attention or strikes you as mediocre. As in liberal humanism, there’s no one to judge our aesthetic or creative merit except us, but at least our judgments needn’t be arbitrary. Instead of having to succumb to nihilism, we can notice the objectivity of both natural and intelligently-directed creative processes, and apply the standards for art to the comparable expressions of life and of the universe. There are fictional stories written on the page and there are actual events involving real characters that are just as worthy of aesthetic evaluation. The tragic hero in real life is just the person who acts heroically, as heroism is conceived of roughly in literary terms, and who does so despite unfavourable circumstances.  


  1. Your last paragraph is a mass of contradictions. You say there is no one to judge but us, but then our judgements apparently need not be arbitrary and can be measured by some sort of nebulous aesthetic standards. But seeing as how aesthetic standards are products of social and cultural values and change over time, they are no less arbitrary than anything else in your materialistic atomic universe. The whole aesthetic approach strikes me as just one last attempt at delusion.

    1. The point about arbitrariness was made in a comparison between aesthetic and humanistic prescriptions. Arguably, humanism ends in postmodern or existential arbitrariness, because the self ends up having to take something like a leap of faith in some life direction. There's no independent guide, given also the point about the naturalistic fallacy.

      However, with the extension of aesthetics that I have in mind and that I've written about elsewhere on my blog, we likewise become the only judges of how we should live, but the aesthetic direction (seek creativity and transcendence, avoid animalism and other cliches) is established by our existential situation in such a way that the naturalistic fallacy is avoided.

      If all we had in aesthetics were "products of social and cultural values" such as fads, we might be back to arbitrariness. But I'm talking about an extended sense of the value of creativity, one that takes into account the pantheistic horror of nature's mindless version of creativity (the aesthetic attitude piggybacks on the objective stance towards nature, as I explain in "Life as Art") in contrast to the evident tragic heroism of intentional, intelligently-directed, anti-natural creativity. So the proper values emerge from our existential predicament, from being a rational, self-conscious creature caught within a godless, self-creating behemoth.

      Feel free, though, to lay out your case against my aesthetic account of morality (see the articles in the Ethics section of the Map of the Articles). You can email me it through this blog's Contact form, and perhaps we can start a dialogue.

  2. I've already laid out my objections in my first comment.

    Why is aesthetic activity 'heroic'? It could just as equally be seen as another form of attention-seeking egotism. Designating creativity as valuable is no less an arbitrary decision than any other one. It strikes me as just another form of humanism. If you truly believe in a mindless universe, then creativity is no more valuable than non-creativity.

    And in spite of your denial of the cultural and social factors in aesthetic judgement, your view is itself a product of a Modernist perspective that views the universe as a materialistic, godless place and humans as some sort of proto-heroes. It strikes me as little different from a Camusian or Sartrean existentialism, with all the arbitrariness of both.

    1. You haven't engaged with the articles where I explain the nonarbitrariness of the extension of aesthetic values. The aesthetic values stem from scientific objectification of nature. See, for example, "Modernity and Disenchantment":

      'The reason why nature paradoxically becomes necessarily more mysterious even as scientific knowledge advances is that scientific explanations are naturalistic, which entails that the universe being explained is posited as godless. Thus, every natural process or mechanism must be an abomination, an appalling monstrosity, a mindless, unplanned-for, living-dead cycling to nowhere and for nothing. Science supplies materialistic models that enable us to control nature for our benefit, and these models are poised to horrify because they depict the universe as a colossal, shockingly-counterintuitive monster. Newton or Einstein can explain gravity, for example, but only by positing brute, unexplained forces and materials (including the so-called nothingness of the quantum vacuum from which natural order arises, according to quantum mechanics and the Big Bang Theory). The completeness of scientific understanding is illusory, because at the end of technoscientific mastery is the horror that nothing that ever happens can happen for a lasting good. The greater our power over nature, the deader our sensibilities become as we’re haunted by the philosophical implications of the success of scientific objectification. To understand how the universe works and to be convinced there’s no deeper question about why the processes happen or whether they have some inherent value is still to be perturbed by the realization that that sort of universe is appalling on existential grounds. And by “existential grounds” I mean that such a universe poses a threat to our desire to continue living—if we’ve managed to develop anything like a sensitive, conscience-bound interior life.'

      And in “Life as Art” I explain at some length how the aesthetic stance piggybacks on objectivity.

    2. Horror of nature’s godless monstrosity follows from the need to objectify the world to be able to master it. This isn’t just a modernist conceit, though, since for thousands of years we’ve been attempting to control nature to empower ourselves. As I show in “Opposing Nature,” the existential revolt is built into biology, given Schrodinger’s definition of “life.” And from another part of that article: “Whatever the particular meaning of life might be, the best way of life depends on our real position in the world. Nature at large is absurd, but the character of that absurdity inspires us to seek meaning in transcendence…While our purpose can’t, then, be handed to us, since natural forces have no hands, the world’s indifference imposes a great ambition upon us so that the atheistic, hypermodern meaning of life isn’t arbitrarily subjective after all. Our task is plainly to oppose nature with the alternative worlds we create, and we should do this because of nature’s monstrous absurdity which would otherwise pass unrecognized and uncontested.”

      And from “Reason, Attitude, and Ultimate Reality”: “The proper cosmic relationship, on the contrary, is to humiliate ourselves by our sense that the universe is ultimately and finally a terrifying and fascinating mystery…The proper relationship, then, is for the selfish and vain creature to recognize the folly of its ways when met with the fact that the universe is ultimately incomprehensible as well as unconquerable, and to suffer in angst but to rebound with creative sublimations of the existential terror and dread. We rebound because the universe is only amoral, not evil, and because the mystery is indeed fascinating; instead of falling into depression, we can express our humility and despair to honour not just the mighty cosmos but wise beings and everyone else’s potential to enlighten themselves. This existential relationship between self-effacing creature and absurdly-grand universe needn’t be idle compared to the technological feats of instrumental reason. Humility rooted in existential wisdom has consequences, just as selfishness and vanity do. The vices responsible for the positivism, scientism, and neoliberalism of our era result in overconfidence in reason, in consumerism and the collapse of ecosystems. What might follow from the contrary attitude?”

      So that’s another reason why I’m not espousing egoism. The horrors of nature should humiliate and humble us; indeed, the aesthetic reconstruction of morality is based largely on disgust and pity. In numerous articles I explain sociopathic egotists as being animalists, avatars of nature who side with the mindless monstrosity against sentient rebels, thus betraying their capacity for existential authenticity.

      It’s not that aesthetic values themselves are heroic. There’s tragic heroism, though, in the attempt to replace some of nature’s ugliness (the wilderness) with a beautiful, creative, albeit doomed vision. To say that the aesthetic reaction isn’t arbitrary is just to say that it follows from our inescapable, existential predicament of being sentient creatures capable of recognizing the horrifying truths of nature.

  3. "Thus, every natural process or mechanism must be an abomination, an appalling monstrosity, a mindless, unplanned-for, living-dead cycling to nowhere and for nothing."

    You're simply personifying the universe in a Lovecraftian manner - horror, monstrosity, abomination etc. The universe isn't any of those things - it's indifferent. Your view of reality is coloured by your preferred aesthetics and your 'aesthetic revolt' is simply a Lovecraftian take on Camusian rebellion.Fine, if it floats your boat and amuses you, but it's not objective in any universal sense that can be affirmed by all humans.

    1. I specifically address whether the universe is literally monstrous in “Is the Universe Beautiful or Monstrous?” There I go through the different senses of the word and ask, “Is this bit of cosmicism just a nihilistic projection of a wounded soul?” The answer, as I show, is clearly No.

      That said, whether this is objective in the sense of “universal,” as you say, is another matter. I argue in numerous articles on this blog that, as lots of existentialists point out, the harsh truth of nature isn’t fit for everyone to accept. There’s esoteric and then there’s exoteric truth, and there are intellectual elites and there are the short-sighted, anti-philosophical masses. Not everyone follows the science and the philosophy to the bitter end, in which case they’re not likely to be existentially authentic (their lifestyle won’t be in line with their fundamental reality). This isn’t a popularity contest. On the contrary, the fact that the majority would dismiss harsh philosophical propositions should be worn as a badge of honour, considering the cultural conventions we’re working with.