I have written on this subject before, and in most respects, this post is simply a re-statement with some minor additions. You can see the original post here.
Let me begin with what I take to be a fairly uncontroversial point: the experience of being alive entails a great many features that are often interpreted as bad, wrong, or even evil. There is suffering, vividly described, for instance, in the chorus we read from Oedipus at Colonus; there is constant change, so that the moments of joy and happiness never last; there are bullies and brutes of all kinds, ignorance and misunderstandings, inconsistent/contradictory feelings, and we often seem to lack the ability to determine what is really true or right.
We might say that nihilism comes in a variety of forms, but I’ll mention two: 1) because of the features I just described, life is not worth living (“not to be born is best of all/ when life is there, the second best by far is to go hence where you came, with the best speed you may,” as the chorus puts it in Oedipus at Colonus). This version of nihilism is a form of despair 2) We don’t know exactly what makes life worth living; that is, our highest values/goals appear to be illusory, in the sense that we do not and cannot know whether they are truly valuable. This form of nihilism is a form of disorientation, wherein I don’t know what I should do with my life. I focus attention on the first variety, since I think it is most relevant for understanding tragedy.
Now, one common response to the first form of nihilism is to posit a “next world,” in which these values are in fact realized. The most obvious case of this among Americans is in Christian thinking: life in this world is much as the nihilist describes it; humans are pretty awful and sinful creatures; our institutions are irredeemably flawed and unjust. But their conclusion is to hold out hope for a final redemption—an act of grace from the supernatural that will help us achieve some final reconciliation. There are other versions of this same motif: Marxism, for instance, does not hope for an act of supernatural salvation, but rather that History will eventually to produce our highest values (freedom, equality, brotherhood), at least in the long run in the long run. This is also a doctrine found in much contemporary political rhetoric: we always cast the present merely as an incomplete realization of the high ideal to be found in the future (as in, “sure, there are still problems with racism, but we’re making progress”). In short, one common response to nihilism is to develop a vision of “rectilinear” time, wherein there is a definite and identifiable beginning and ending, and that all of the events that occur push us closer to or further away from the end. There is a final state of being at the end of time, which Christians call “salvation,” and others call something else (a just society, for instance), and that the past and present are all pointing toward that point.
Nihilistic despair emerges, then, when we start to doubt the possibility of the realization of this end; perhaps one no longer thinks that the end is possible, or perhaps one thinks that even if it is possible, the end does not actually justify the suffering in the present. I could add that this nihilism often takes two basic forms: “passive nihilism” is a kind of resignation; one realizes that the world is inhospitable to one’s highest values, and so one attempts not to will any longer—to simply endure (often with the aid of many distractions, such as entertainment, alcohol, and so forth). Active nihilism, by contrast, takes the form of destruction. Think Lenin here: he realizes that the world, as it is currently organized, is inhospitable to the realization of his highest values, and so he wills its destruction (Lenin, for instance, once decided that he could no longer listen to Beethoven any longer, since the beauty of the music overly reconciled and made him willing to live in it as it is). Active nihilism can take many forms—from Christian millennialism, to various fantasies about the destruction of the earth in an environmental catastrophe, to the fantasies that murdering people in a discothèque will lead to the creation of a new Caliphate or the return of the Twelfth Imam (just to be clear, I want to add that none of these beliefs as such necessarily imply a form of active nihilism; they embody nihilism only when there is an active and destructive desire to transition to an otherworldly or transcendent state–i.e., a state of affairs that represents a totalizing break with the world as it exists). What all of these phenomena share (or more accurately, can share) is a general belief that the world as it exists is evil and must be cleansed in order to achieve “otherworldly” values (e.g., Salvation, Justice, Peace on Earth, andother Ideals with Capital Letters).
But there is another way of understanding nihilism, and this is basically Nietzsche’s conception. From a tragic point of view, the first variety of nihilism emerges primarily because we value the wrong things: we become nihilistic insofar as our highest values include permanence and “being” (rather than flux, impermanence, and “becoming”), rest or completion (as opposed to a struggle to overcome obstacles), and the hope for some sort of final triumph or salvation (rather than an acceptance of the inevitability of failure). The idea here is that tragedy represents a more or less fully worked out ethical system of values—one that places value primarily on the parenthetical statements above (i.e., it values impermanence and becoming, struggle and the suffering that attends such struggle, and acceptance of the inevitability of ultimate failure). In this sense, tragedy is a response to nihilism, not an embracing of it. “Oedipus the King” takes seriously the claim that “not to be born is best of all,” but I think that Oedipus (and by extension the play as a whole) rejects that idea (perhaps Creon does too, since he does not quite “lose himself” at the end of “Antigone,” and he also refuses to commit suicide).
Some of this can be seen in an aspect of tragedy that I have not emphasized but should have. Tragic narratives often proceed by juxtaposing heterogeneous (or indeed opposite) elements in the same character, event, or object. These juxtapositions occur throughout “Oedipus the King.” Oedipus’ actions to avoid his fate are simultaneously the actions that bring it about; his in-sight into the nature of his fate is symbolized by his blindness (and conversely, his inability to understand is represented by his sight in his interactions with the blind-but-seeing Tiresias). This dimension of tragedy is connected to the basic idea of tragedy as an ethical worldview: when things are represented as X and not-X at the same time, one is drawn to the notions of imperfection, impermanence, and becoming (e.g., one is drawn to one of the essential features of reality as we experience it: the things of this world are transitory, relative, and internally contradictory). The tragedian invites us neither to deny this, rail against it in anger, nor to despair over it. Rather, a tragic worldview embraces and affirms these elements of life as the way to embrace life as it is, and perhaps to improve it into what it could be.
One can see a similar motif in the film “Groundhog Day.” I will not go into detail here, but you can see an excellent case made in this discussion. What is of interest is that, by the end of the film, the main character (Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray) endorses the idea of living in the town where he had been trapped for an eternity. One can read this as a kind of affirmation of the small town virtues and naivte that he had originally despised. But I think it’s equally plausible to recognize this as an endorsement of his fate; Phil Connors recognizes that life is in fact a constant repetition and recurrence, that he must give up his hopes of escape and transcendence, but he does so not in a spirit of resignation or resentment. Rather, he fully embraces his fate, and indeed, learns to love it.
I would argue that some of these ideas play roles in “Antigone” and in Thucydides too, though I’ll not focus on him so much here. In “Antigone,” the conflict is tragic because it appears to be unavoidable; that is, the position of the play appears to be that, whatever is going on between Antigone and Creon, their conflict reveals the fact that, at least in this world, it is sometimes impossible to resolve certain affairs. That is, the play reveals that there are certain irresolvable dilemmas (e.g., one must mourn and pay allegiance to the irreplaceable individual who dies, but one must also organize citizenship and/or politics in such a way that one sees citizens as replaceable; or put more simply, one is a unique and irreplaceable individual, but also a mere member of a more general community—just one case of a 6 billion other humans). Again, one response to this is not to despair that we cannot resolve this conflict, but to learn how to live with it, to endorse the struggle over how to live with it as meaningful in itself. Thucydides adopts the same sort of point of view, I think; he reveals humans in all of their messy, contradictory, and hypocritical glory. But he does not rail against this or despair over it. Rather, his attitude (particularly if you read the rest of the book) appears to be a kind of bemusement, or ironic detachment, as he juxtaposes these actors’ self-seriousness and declarations of virtue, with their often-ridiculous actions and their self-interest/fear. In this sense, Thucydides presents the Peloponnesian war as a tragedy.