After Tragedy

How the Tragic Became an Anachronism in the Modern World

Sophocles' famous tragedy Oedipus Rex opens with the Greek city-state of Thebes suffering under a devastating plague. King Oedipus learns that the plague is punishment from the gods for the murder of Laius, the country's former king, who perished at the hands of highwaymen shortly before his own arrival in Thebes. Having delivered the city from the sphinx, Oedipus became the new king and was given to Laius's widow, Queen Jocasta, in marriage. Yet now Oedipus finds himself helpless against the ravages of plague. Hoping to save his people, he calls down curses upon the unknown killer and vows to find him and avenge the murder of his predecessor.

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The drama, written roughly five hundred years before Christ, has all the elements of a classic tragedy, which Aristotle believed should involve great reversals of fortune. As the play unfolds, Oedipus's fortunes are tragically reversed in classic Aristotelian manner. A series of unrelenting clues points to Oedipus himself as the hapless killer of the former king, with whom Oedipus had a deadly roadside quarrel shortly before arriving in the city, without ever realizing that the man he killed was the king. No sooner does he discover that he is Laius's murderer than clues begin pointing to an even more unthinkable reality: Laius was actually Oedipus's biological father, from whom he had been separated at birth, while Queen Jocasta, Laius's widow and now Oedipus's wife, is his mother. Horrified to learn of his patricide and incest, Oedipus gouges out his eyes and retreats into a life of exile. Justice is served, equilibrium is restored to the city, and the tragedy comes to a close.

The Greeks loved tragedies like Oedipus Rex, in which all the emotions of the audience were roused as they watched norms being violated and restored, with a particular protagonist getting caught up in the epic struggle between transgression and justice, chaos and equilibrium. Aristotle—himself a great fan of Sophocles' work—taught that spectators experience catharsis through watching the violation and restoration of moral equilibrium, so they leave the theater uplifted and cleansed. Oedipus may be suffering untold pain and agony after his mighty fall, but the gods have been vindicated and moral order restored.

Tragedy in the Western Tradition

From the Greeks through to the 19th century, the Western tradition has left us a rich legacy of tragic plays, operas, and literature. Through these works, we see that private actions can trigger public consequences. We also see that public consequences of personal behavior emerge out of a sacred order with absolute norms and commanding truths. The norms of society can demand recompense, so that those who violate them (whether unknowingly, like Oedipus, or knowingly, like Macbeth) face the potential of ruin.

A tragic drama thus takes place at a point of tension between the individual and society, desire and custom, passion and law. Such tragedies are only possible in a conceptual landscape where the norms of society are seen to be more than mere arbitrary custom, but reflect, however imperfectly, a higher transcendent order.

How Tragedy Disappeared

Most human cultures since the dawn of history have not had explicit philosophy in a theoretical form, but have had ideas that became embedded in myths, proverbs, customs, legal codes, and cultural traditions. Because there was no clear bifurcation between the theoretical, the religious, and the cultural, the violation of cultural norms was understood to involve what we would call the violation of transcendent moral order. By contrast, in the modern world, we tend to assume that a society's traditions and laws can exist separately from theoretical and religious truths, thus creating space to believe that all norms, whether incarnated in societies or considered in the abstract, are purely provisional. One consequence of this is the death of tragedy.

Modern society cannot have tragedy in the tradition of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex or Shakespeare's Macbeth or even Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. All these tragedies hinged on the tension between the individual—with his or her complex network of desires, passions, and goals—and society—with its norms, fixities, and expectations. In modern society, no transcendent order is recognized as grounding the fixities of society. Consequently, all customs come to be perceived as purely arbitrary. Anytime there is a conflict between the norms of society and the impulses of the individual, it is assumed that the former must yield to the latter. Society exists in order that individual desires may be fulfilled, and thus the common good becomes simply the aggregate of private goods.

In this new state of affairs, tragedy ceases to make sense, for tragedy acknowledges a point of potential tension between the individual and society, which can be negotiated in complex, disastrous, or ironic ways. Far from acknowledging such points of potential tension, modern man seeks to obliterate them, so that the tension that once would have formed the action of the tragedy itself becomes an object of censure. When the moral norms recognized by society conflict with the pursuit of personal desire, modern man assumes it is always society that is at fault and must yield.

Even death itself is increasingly perceived, not so much as a tragedy, but as an affront—an intrusion into the ecosystem of optionality of which the modern understanding of freedom is seen to consist.

The Post-Tragic Burden of Freedom

In this new state of affairs, the structures of society cease to be seen as a restraining influence on unbridled desire, as they were for Anna in Tolstoy's novel. Rather, modern man looks at society in general, and the state in particular, as existing to fulfill and validate personal desire. Modern man can thus draw on classic discourse about the liberty-preserving functions of the state while substituting the new  understanding of liberty for the classic.

In the new understanding of liberty, freedom becomes the right and ability to construct reality for oneself, fully emancipated from external constraints. The U.S. Supreme Court famously codified this new understanding of freedom in the majority opinion of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, when Justice Kennedy famously declared that "at the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

The Court's extraordinary excursion into metaphysics was echoed by President Biden's excursion into anthropology, when he announced in 2019 that "in prison, the determination should be that your sexual identity is defined by what you say it is, not what in fact the prison says it is." Liberty, in this new scheme, is little more than an increase of options available to the individual agent. All experiences, even our experiences as embodied men and women, become purely optional.

This conception of freedom ultimately becomes a burden, for it hinges on the need for institutions and structures to vindicate and fulfill personal desire, which of course they can never do. Significantly, in countries where governmental institutions come closest to successfully underwriting personal desire (as in Finland, which independent studies have found to be the "happiest" country in the world), the suicide rate tends to be among the highest in the world. To look to society to validate and fulfill personal desire, while conceptualizing this as "liberty," is ultimately to demand something that reality can never provide, and so to set oneself up for a reaction of nihilistic despair.

What Is a Truly "Free" Society?

In the classical and Christian understanding, freedom has always been understood as the ability to pursue the goal or final end (telos in Greek) appropriate to a creature. For example, the final end of an acorn is an oak tree, the final end of a baby is a fully grown human being, and the final end of a kingdom is the order and flourishing of human community. A tree that is uprooted is not truly free to realize its proper end, just as a community without any laws is hindered from realizing its proper end of well-regulated and rightly ordered human beings.

The ancients recognized the existence of societies structured around the fulfillment of unbridled desires, but they looked upon such communities as pre-civilized and not truly free. One thinks of pre-monarchical Israel, where "all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes" (Judges 21:25), or the society of the Cyclopes, which Homer describes as having "no assemblies for the making of laws, nor any settled customs, but living in hollow caverns in the mountain heights, where each man is a lawgiver to his children and his wives, and nobody gives a jot for his neighbors." The ancients saw such societies as falling short of true liberty, for within a truly free society, goodness is a shared quality that is pursued communally and protected through proper order. True freedom was seen as the organic correlate of order, while disorder was always a prelude to bondage, whether the bondage of anarchy, totalitarianism, enslavement, or disorder.

From Woodstock to Billie Eilish

Disorder does not immediately nullify freedom. In fact, when a culture moves from order to disorder, there is often a brief window when there is the illusion of innocence and freedom. This illusion is made possible by the fact that those who are rejecting order have not yet succumbed to the full consequences of that rejection. As society moves from integrity to chaos, from order to disorder, those who embrace the latter can still enjoy (albeit unknowingly) the borrowed capital of the former. In the equipoise between order and disorder, one can experience the exhilarating illusion of liberty that a man might feel in a state of free-fall before hitting the ground.

In the cultural revolution of the twentieth century, that window of equipoise occurred at the Woodstock music festival in 1969. Woodstock was always about more than simply music; it was the great coming-of-age moment for an entire generation. The sense of innocence and freedom embodied in the festival's lineup hit a euphoric chord for baby-boomers who were increasingly disillusioned with the direction in which society was heading. Just imagine being a seventeen-year-old girl whose father had fought in World War II and whose parents represented the values of the status quo. Yet you are frustrated by the racism in society, as embodied in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. just a year earlier. You are terrified by the Vietnam War draft, which threatens to take your boyfriend from you, possibly permanently. When you finally felt you had a champion in Bobby Kennedy, he was assassinated, just two months after King, in June 1968. You are part of a growing number of young people who have become distrustful of their authority figures, and who express their rebellion by dressing in bright colors, being "groovy," and listening to soul-inspiring folk and rock music that is both rebellious and joyful. At the Woodstock music festival, you can mix with thousands of others like yourself, who accept you as you are. You can even strip down to your underwear and smoke pot without anyone judging you.

The sense of innocence and freedom felt at Woodstock was a once-in-a-generation anomaly—a moment made possible by the precarious equipoise between order and disorder. The civilization the baby-boomers were rejecting still provided sufficient ballast for a stable sense of self. There remained enough normalcy in society so that concepts such as freedom, peace, and love had not yet been completely emptied of content to become mere proxies for desire. Yet disorder had taken hold, and the borrowed capital of Christian civilization could not long remain intact after the worldview of that civilization was overhauled.

The great-grandchildren of the baby-boomers no longer prefer hauntingly happy music like the Tijuana Brass or Joan Baez, both hit performers in the 1960s and now virtually forgotten. Instead of the self-affirming hedonism of the Woodstock music festival, we have the self-negating music of despair, expressed in artists like Billie Eilish. Themes explored in Eilish's lyrics include depression, phobias, suicidal thoughts, and glorified body-hatred. Her music video for "Therefore I Am" encourages gluttony, while her song "I wanna end me" promotes self-loathing. This is not the joyful rebellion of Woodstock, but the despair of Generation Z. Billie Eilish's music is post-hedonistic, the music of a generation too cynical to be happy. She represents a cultural mood of nihilism in which the final fixity to be overcome is the body itself. Billie Eilish and her fans are weighed down by the great burden of the 21st century: the need to normalize abnormality and regularize disorder.

This new nihilism is neither tragic nor comedic, but "gay." As Margaret McCarthy observed in the Fall-Winter 2019 issue of Communio:

Over thirty years ago, the political philosopher Augusto Del Noce said that "today's nihilism is no longer tragic." It is, rather "gay," in both the older sense, because it suppresses the Augustinian inquietum with a "sequence of superficial pleasures," and the newer sense, because "its symbol is homosexuality."

The course homosexuality has taken in America itself serves as a cameo for the larger itinerary I am charting, from an illusory freedom to the post-tragic. In the early part of the twentieth century, gay men experienced genuine repression, as traditional morality was stressed in the wrong way, often accompanied by brutality in the form of police beatings, extortion, and ostracism. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s brought with it a genuine sense of freedom for these people, yet this temporary liberation was short-lived. The culture of homosexuality was quickly colonized by drugs, alcoholism, and new forms of experimentation with promiscuity, until finally culminating in the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

Many of the homosexuals who survived the 1980s now face their final days alone, even alienated from their own community as a new generation of activists makes homosexuality synonymous with a leftist agenda that is, in many ways, the antithesis of the exhilarating freedom of the 1960s and 1970s. As the freefall reaches the ground, the result is only misery and death. This is the real, overlooked tragedy of the homosexual revolution—a tragedy overlooked by both the leftwing and rightwing elements of our society. As our culture fetishized gay males as a symbol of liberation, we became insensitive to their suffering, and we cannot even view them with the perspective of tragic dignity. The glorification of gay males for ideological ends finally obscures the real tragedy of their lived experience, including ways in which the freefall effect has ended in alienation, misery, and loneliness.

From Tragedy to Cynicism

For thousands of years, human beings found tragedy deeply satisfying because we could feel in our bones that we are living in the midst of a great tragedy. The story of redemption history is one in which many great fortunes are lost and many mighty reversals enacted within the larger drama of progress from disorder to order, chaos to equipoise, abnormality to normality. The stage of history moves us inexorably forward to the Day of Judgment, in which the great of this world will be humbled, and divine order will be restored to the earth even as it was restored to Thebes at the end of Sophocles' play. This cosmic story gives our own suffering a sense of purpose because of the larger spiritual tapestry in which our lives are situated. But with the eclipse of transcendence, modern man has lost the sense of the tragic. For modern man, there is no cosmic judgment to which transgressors like Oedipus must ultimately give account. We would say that if Oedipus wanted to sleep with his mother, who are we to judge?

A classic example of the post-tragic is Crimes and Misdemeanors, a 1989 movie written and directed by Woody Allen. The film follows Judah Rosenthal, an eye doctor who arranges for his former lover to be murdered after she threatens to tell Judah's wife about their affair. Judah is guilt-ridden after the murder, and for a while it seems his sin will catch up with him, as in Shakespeare's Macbeth. The movie is set up to unfold in the tradition of a classic tragedy. But in the end, crime really does pay. Judah resumes normal life and pacifies his conscience by comforting himself with the non-existence of higher responsibility and God. The film ends in cynicism and nihilism, with Woody Allen announcing the worldview of autonomy and self-determination: "But we define ourselves by the choices we make. We are the sum total of our choices."

Woody Allen's movies, like Eilish's music, are not tragic, but post-tragic—the art produced by a generation no longer troubled by the tension between society and desire, and too cynical to be tragic.

has a Master’s in History from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020) and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023) and co-author with Joshua Pauling of We're All Cyborgs Now (Basilian Media & Publishing, forthcoming). He operates the substack "The Epimethean" and blogs at

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #59, Winter 2021 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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