Tragedy: the supreme human achievement?

Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way published in 1930 might be the best book written about the Greeks. Hamilton admired the Greeks as the highest achieving, the most human people who have ever lived. They combined rationality and what she calls spirit in a way that no other peoples have done. The Italians of the Renaissance and the first Elizabethans came close but did not surpass the Greeks.

And, she argues, the greatest achievement of a great people was the creation of tragedy. For her there have been only four outstanding tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Shakespeare. Three of them were Greek, and the Greeks invented the form.

It is hard to pin down the essence of tragedy, and each of the four great tragedians had a different flavour. I’m wholly unequal to the task of defining tragedy, but what I can do is select quotes from Hamilton’s book. Here they are:

Tragedy is nothing less than pain transmuted into exaltation by the alchemy of poetry, and if poetry is true knowledge and the great poets safe to follow, this transmutation has arresting implications.

God, whose law it is that he who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.

The English method [of poetry] is to fill the mind with beauty, the Greek method was to set the mind to work.

On the crest of the wave one must feel either tragically or joyously; one cannot feel tamely.

It is by our power to suffer, above all, that we are of more value than the sparrows.

The suffering of the soul that can suffer greatly—that and only that, is tragedy.

Tragedy is “the reaffirmation of the will to love in the face of death, and the joy of its inexhaustibility when so reaffirmed.”

The fullness of life is in the hazards of life.

Tragedy’s peculiar province is to show man’s misery at its blackest and man’s grandeur at its greatest.

Take heart. Suffering when it climbs highest, lasts but a little time.

Thy friends are exultatations, agonies

And love and man’s unconquerable mind.

Pain and error have their use: they are steps of the ladder of knowledge.

The long days store up many things nearer to grief than joy…Death at the last, the deliverer. Not to be born is past all prizing best. Next best by far when one has seen the light is to go thither swiftly whence he came.

When youth and its light carelessness are past,

What woes are not without, what griefs within,

Envy and faction, strife, and sudden death.

And last of all old age, despised, Infirm unfriended.

Against outside circumstance man is in the ultimate sense powerless; but within himself no man is helpless. There is an inner citadel where we may rule our own spirits; live as free men, die without dishonouring humanity.

Euripides can walk “those heights exalted” but the darker depths of pain are what he knows best. He is “the poet of the world’s grief.” He has felt, as no other writers have felt, the pitifulness of human life.

Aristotle said that tragedy purified through pity and awe. Men were set free from themselves when they all realised together the universal suffering of life. For a moment they were lifted above their own griefs and cares. They ceased to be shut-in, lonely individuals as they were swept away in a great onrush of emotion which extraordinarily united instead of isolating.

There is a stage where each of us is the only actor.

The riddle of the world, that necessity which brings us here and takes us hence, which gives good to one and evil to another, which visits the sins of the fathers upon the children and sweeps away innocent and guilty in fire and pestilence and earthquake shock.

That is life, said the Greek tragedian, human beings weaving a bit of the web of sorrow and sin and suffering, and the pattern made by a power before which the heart  stands still.

All strange things the multitudinous years bring forth and shadow from us we all know. Falter alike great oath and steeled resolve, and none shall say of aught, This cannot be.

Pain is the most individualising thing on earth.

To suffer is to be alone; to watch another suffer is to know the barrier that shuts each of us away by himself.

I am a man and nothing in mankind do I hold alien from me.

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