Life as a tragedy, an existential view.


Antigone. A Greek tragedy by Sophocles. Painting by: Frederic Leighton,

Two fragments on Tragedy:

  • It doesn’t matter what is the personal approach of a person to life, the tragic spirit is in all of us, and it is an existential statement of what it means to be a human.
  • We are trying to evacuate from our life the concept of tragic life and to impose upon them optimism, will power, order and discipline.


  1. Tragedy as part of life.
    When we hear the term tragedy, we either think of a kind of a difficult drama paly. Or about a difficult and outstanding crisis in one’s life.
    But what is tragedy as a real concept in life?
    Well, Tragedy is a dramatic happening that its bad end was forecasted already ahead (for if it wasn’t dictated ahead, it would be an accident and not a tragedy).
    It doesn’t matter how much endeavor one will put in his life- he will arrive in the end, to the same end which was dictated ahead (old age and death).
    All of us has got a life sentence, we are going to die, and towards the end we get old. And here is what a great playwright has to say about it:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
and then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.
William Shakespeare, Macbeth: Act 5, scene 5

The hard elements of our life, are not apparent ahead, they are being unfolded before us the more life is going on. And then the person has got the choice; to accept the tragic aspect of his life as part of a package deal of being alive, or to live in denial of the tragic aspects, and this is from the self-conviction that he has, or will have the means to get out of their influence.
The ordinary man does not develop awareness to see the tragedy of his existence, to accept it and live it from inner courage.
Most human beings do not live their life from proportion, acceptances and synchronization – with the tragic dimension of human existence.
The average man lives his life by denial, avoidance and escape from the tragedy of his life, personally, and of his life as a human being.
There needs to be a greatness of mind to live tragic life from awareness and acceptances.
And in order for him to be able to do that, the person needs to decrease his degree of personal involvement with the ups and downs of his life. To stop and fight for every crump of pleasure and happiness. To realize that the higher level of living life is beyond the ego, which wants fun and pleasure and refrains from displeasure. The next level is the level of authenticity and meaning. In the level above the ego the person try to live his life whole heartedly, to live them out of commitment, strength and inner backup.
Because this is his life, and therefore he is committed to them the way they are, and not because they fulfill a wish, but exactly in that that they don’t relate at all to our wishes.
And there is a life that has got greatness in them; not as an amusement park or Casino, where you get disappointed if you did not receive the fun that you think you deserve – but as play in which the play of your life is being played, and the question is not if you got a pleasant or unpleasant role (a positive or negative character) or if your character is happy or miserable – but how you play it, and what do you pour into it, and to what a degree of inner intensity you live the character you are going to play. Not to envy the roles of other actors, but to accept the role, not because he can get out of the difficult aspects of the character, but because this his part, this is his role.

And again William Shakespeare:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.”
From As You like It (II, vii, 139-143)

Again, a good actor or even a great actor is not examined according to the fun that the roles has in them, but according to what he invests in them. The professional actor does not identify with his role, therefore he can play a character even if he has an objection towards it, and even if life characters life on stage are miserable and full of crisis.
But in our personal life we identify very much with role of playing our life, we have expectations and conditions from our role (our destiny).
It is difficult to live not according to how life is treating you, but according to what you can get out of you, especially when you meet the tragic aspect of life.
In a life striving for happiness – we sacrifice the meaning for a good feeling. A person can arrive to a life of meaning when he lives with the attempt to be worthy for the tragedy.
We all so identify with our subjective happiness – until it brings us to deny our personal, and all human, tragic destiny. And then a dissonance is being created between our tragic role (as human or as individuals), and then we live out of lack of authenticity.
From the other hand, all human tragic life is a like a life of a paradox or even absurd; for we were born to get old and die; both are tragic, like a building which was built do it would crumble and breakdown before it will disappear altogether.
The paradox is not a contradiction to the life we hoped for, it is the challenge with which we need to cope, it needs to become the base for our world view.
Authentic life must accept life as a logical paradox and as a tragic reality.
There is no way to understand life without accepting them as a paradox or at least as logical contradiction; for life destroys itself after a while. And of course the greatest absurd and paradox is death.
Only when accepting the paradox of life, as a base. He can combat with the tragedy of human existence. And then live authentic life.
No one will give him high marks for that, no one will know that he accepted his human destiny. No one would know that behind his normal appearance, he lives great life, he played a great role and he is the audience, the director and actor – of his life. Most people believe that ‘life is what you make of them’, you are responsible about what kind of life would you have, it is up to you.
But life isn’t exactly fair, and the greatest tragedies might happen on people that did nothing to deserve it.
A spectator in theater watching a tragedy, feels shocks and devastated from what he experiences on stage. According to Aristo, he is going through a process of purification and Catharsis – when he is experiencing those tragic happenings.
A wonderful example about a man who struggled with his fate, lost the battle but has earned his self-respect is in: Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 novel “The Old Man and the sea”. The old man come from a battle with cruel sea that symbolizes life and destiny. And he comes out without the big fish he so much wanted, but he drags with him the useless skeleton of the fish, and there is a saying in that: he lost the battle but won his dignity.
So, authenticity and self-respect ate the two qualities that accompany a person that lives from acceptance of the tragedy of his life (as a private person and as a human being). But there is also a third quality, the first two are personal qualities, the third is a communication quality, it is called: empathy. A person who comes to a knowing about the tragic dimension in human existence, cannot not feel identification and human warmth with others with whom he shares the same tragic destiny.
Tragedy is becoming tragedy because of its end, and our end is that we all get old and die; two main tragic factors. Viewing this fact our whole life is a tragedy. And receiving empathy and human warmth from another, is one of the communication qualities that makes life bearable, despite the tragedy which is them.
A person who is aware of the tragedy of his life will find the experience of empathy and human warmth as one of the most meaningful and powerful of his life.

  1. The tragic hero:

In Greek tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy the tragic hero is exposed to the upheavals of destiny, he may fall, suffer to the point of loss. The tragic hero is brave. He pursues self-actualization and demands that it be revealed at his cost. The ability to suffer and reconcile with suffering out of courage stems from his high commitment to be worthy for his destiny. In order for the tragic hero to be particularly present he must be present in another sense: he must not be an average person & an ordinary, medium, nondescript person. What he represents is a rebellion with existing options, which is unattainable to an ordinary, middle or average person. What makes his heroism tragic is not the unattainability of it but the unbearable suffering he has to bare on the way, suffering the often threats to break him before any accomplishment.

Bibliography: Tragedies
Aeschylus. Oresteia. Penguin.
Aristotle. The Poetics. Penguin. (or Bywater trans.)
Battenhouse, Roy. Shakespearean Tragedy. U Indiana P, 1969.
Bradley, A. C. “Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy.” In Oxford Lectures on Poetry: 69-95.
Euripides. Medea. Meridian.
Freud, Sigmund. On Oedipus and Hamlet. In Basic Writings. Brill. (see also Ernest Jones. Hamlet and Oedipus. Norton.)
—. Character and Culture. New York: Collier Books, 1963.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm, sections on tragedy in Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Trans. F. P. B. Osmaston. London: 1920.
Ibsen, Henrik. Ghosts. Signet.
The Book of Job.
Miller, Arthur. Death of A Salesman. Viking Press.
The New Testament (The Gospels; special attention given to the non-synoptic Gospel According to John).
The New York Times. All material on the Challenger disaster for January 1986.
O’Neill, Eugene. Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Yale University Press.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy.” In The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Francis Golffing. New York, 1956.
Sewall, Richard B. The Vision of Tragedy. Yale UP, 1959.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Signet.
Sophocles. The Oedipus Cycle. Trans. Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
Steiner, George. The Death of Tragedy. New York: Galaxy/Oxford, 1961; 1980.
Styron, William. The Confessions of Nat Turner. Random House.
de Unamuno, Miguel . The Tragic Sense of Life.
Williams, Raymond. Modern Tragedy. Stanford UP, 1966.
Van Gogh, Vincent. Complete Letters. 1959.
Zimmermann, Bernhard. Greek Tragedy: An Introduction. Trans. Thomas Marier. Johns Hopkins UP, 1991

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