Fate Life or Random Life?

May 5, 2015

A question stands unanswered among many of us whether fate is real or not. Is it true that everything that we experience is mapped out or is everything just by chance? If it was real, is it possible to change it? These scenarios were sketched out quite humorously in the play, “Oedipus the King.”

It seems that in this play, fate exists, and there are people who have the ability to read it. I found the play to be quite amusing because the main character, Oedipus, had tried to escape his fate, but unknowingly met it. Whether he was fortunate or not, Oedipus had something that we do not have certainty of in the real world, which was basically a reading of his future.

An oracle had told Oedipus that he was to kill his father, and to have sexual intercourse with his own mother! Afraid of committing such actions, he decides to run away from his home. After running away, he goes to kill the king not knowing that he was his real father, and to take over the throne and marry the king’s wife, a.k.a. his real mother.

When I first heard this part of the play, it got me wondering. What if Oedipus had not met the oracle, and had gone living without knowing his fate. Would he have gone to kill his real father and have sex with his real mother? Would his fate have been changed if he hadn’t known about it?

The reason why he had left his foster parents was because the oracle had told him that he was to commit those actions. However if he’d not been told that these things were to happen, he wouldn’t have run away to kill his father. He would have remained in his foster parents household. Therefore, the fate that he had been told would have been false because he wouldn’t have gone near his real parents.

However, is this theory false? If this were to be actually his fate, would he have done these horrid things regardless of whatever? Maybe no matter what he did, nothing could stop him from killing his real father and having sex with his real mother.

This scenario reminds me of a scene from the movie, “Looper.”

SPOIL ALERT! Bruce Willis’ character, the future self of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, comes to the present from the future to shoot and kill a child who in the future would become a dangerous man. The mother of this child comes to protect him by standing right in front of him to block the Bruce Willis from shooting him. Meanwhile, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is standing on the side and has an epiphany. The reason to why the child was to become such a horrid being was because of the fact that if Bruce Willis were to shoot the mother, the child would run away motherless, developing mental problems, and therefore become a psycho. However, Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes a very unexpected route by killing himself, and therefore killing off Bruce Willis as well.

This is obviously a very complicated subject. Maybe the only way to that Oedipus was to alter his fate was to kill himself? Then, he wouldn’t be able to do anything else! 🙂


In Response To: Purpose of Nihilism

April 26, 2015

This will be a response to Sung Min’s post, found here: https://esmancientgreeks.wordpress.com/2015/04/18/purpose-of-nihilism/.

Overall, I agree with many of your points and whole-heartedly disagree with nihilism as a philosophy and concept. I would like to question some of your finer points on religion vs. spitiuality and what gives life meaning.

Religion are spirituality are not equivalent. It is possible for one to believe that there is a higher power- something that acts like God to some people- and not follow any particular religion. It is also possible for one to not believe in a higher power and not follow any particular religion- what most people call an atheist. Finally, it is possible for one to believe in a higher power and to follow a particular religion. My argument lies with the first two groups of people. For the atheist, one argument that can be offered is that there is no God or gods because they have not experienced either. These people can be, for all intents and purposes, very happy, leading a life where they do not believe in any sort of afterlife. This is where your argument weakens: happiness is subjective. What can make one person happy can cause another suffering. There is a positive correlation between spirituality and happiness, but we don’t know how to design an experiment to test that.

My question for you is: how can one experience God? Is it more of a Dionysian phenomenon where it cannot be explained? Or can it be written down with certainty? My stance is that experiencing the touch of a higher power of sorts is something that cannot be explained, but one knows it when one feels it. This brings to mind another blog, 13.7 from NPR, since they recently discussed the concept of higher powers in two articles: A God That Could Be Real in a Scientific Universe and A New Way To Think About God. I encourage you to read those posts. These leave room for the other sort of people: the spiritual but not religious.

I put myself in that category. I do not live my life to glorify a higher power. I feel part of my purpose in life is to care for others in their times of need. That invigorates me, so that is how I live my life. I entertain the idea that there is a higher power that I can connect to and experience, but I do not live solely with that higher power in mind. The differece between spirituality and religion is vast and should not be confused.

As far as life purposes go, people are sometimes just told what to do, so they do that. Other times, people simply do not feel like they have a purpose in life, and they do not try to find it. That is, in my opinion, where nihilism comes in. Those who cannot find a purpose go about their day believing that the world is useless and that there has been nothing and will be nothing. Again, I cannot claim to know how a nihilist might think because I am not one.

To answer your confusion with people rejecting the world as worthless, those people may have had traumatic experiences or feel like the world has cheated them or have experienced enough that they feel like there is no more to experience. Beyond those possibilities, I cannot answer more of your questions.

A Dr. Seuss Narration of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King

February 18, 2013

A Dr. Seuss Narration of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King

By Robert McManmon

NOTE: Oedi is pronounced Eddy

“A plague is upon us a cruel fate suffer we”

Cried the people of Thebes to their king Oedopee.

“Fear not for your fate, or the fate of your kin,

Or the fate of our land, or the state we are in.

For Creon has spoke with the oracle Delphi,

What we must do now is solve this mystery.

I will go out and find the murder of he,

Or fallen king Laius, dear justice shall be!”

And so our king Oedi in blink of an eye,

With the wave of a hand, a gesture, a sigh

With the might of the land that bowed before thee,

Sent for a prophet who frankly can’t see.

“Tiresias, I ask you to help me my friend,

For the land is in turmoil, our crops they need mend.

And all I need do is answer this quest,

Who killed poor Laius, who put him to rest?”

“I know you see up, you see down you see left,

But how do you not see right through this cruel jest?”

And more spoke Tiresias with a hushed, shaky tone,

“For the one you seek is you, and you alone”

On hearing this Oedipus quickly shoot up from his throne

And lashed back at him, a proclamation of his own.

“How dare you even tease at the notion of me,

Murdering a king, no less the old king of we?!”

Enraged at the audacity of the prophet’s declaration,

Oedipus now blames Creon for conspiring and causation.

As soon as the claim did slip from his mouth,

Creon enraged, began a fare bout,

Upon all this rumble the Queen did awake,

And out to the court yard her voice did she take.

“Now men now men what trouble you so?”

Said Jocasta with a grumble as if ready to blow.

“It’s just this prophet, that Creon sent me,

He claims I’m a murderer, and he conspires with Cre.

For you see this is all just a plot, just a ploy,

Just a way for my brother here to take over with joy!”

“But, my husband,” Jocasta cried, “You can’t possibly believe this?

All the things these men tell you, it is all so amiss.

For a bone of a bird may says this may say that

Next you’ll believe there Cat in a Hat!”

Upon hearing these words Odie’s heart was eased,

Accusations revoked, and Creon was pleased.

Continued Jocasta, adding to her case,

“I’ll show you why prophets are nothing but waste!

See back when our dear Laius was husband of mine,

So too did a prophet proclaim him a sign.

Pulled from the guts of some rat or some toad,

Came the notion that he would be killed on the road.”

“On the road” pondered Oedipus aloud,

“On the road, with a troupe?”

“On the road with crowd?”

Did he travel alone or were men with he?

Did he travel on foot or on noble breed?”

“Yes on the road” Jocasta did reply,

“Yes with three men, and three men with he lie.”

As thoughts rushed madly through Odiepee’s head,

“Could this have anything to do with the men I’ve made dead?”

Jocasta asked Oedipus to explain her his case,

And Oedipus began “It starts with my birthplace.”

“For you see I was born in a land far, far away,

In a land where too a prophet did stay.

And this prophet in the land had a fate bestowed on me,

And was brought to my attention in a moment of glee.

On one cloudy day with nothing to do,

I thought to myself “I’ll go the zoo!”,

But alas it was closed for the rest of the year,

So I said “Well that stinks, I need a beer.”

The bar down the road was a marvelous sight,

So I thought to myself “I’ll stay here all night!”

As I walked in out poured others head over toe ,

Which made me grin a greasy grin and my face start to glow.

All night we spilt beer over table and rug

While the sound of our drinking filled the room with a





Then a man to my left gave my shirt a firm pluck

And in a wheat scented voice said “your father has bad luck.”

I asked what he meant with this statement he bid,

He replied “it must suck, to be killed by your kid.”

Anger built inside me as my stomach brewed,

But he said “that’s not all your mothers no prude!”

For you see in your future you two shall be wed,

After all, by then, your father’ll be dead.

In a spit of rage, and bit of furry,

I bludgeoned the man and ran off in a hurry,

With this fate upon me, my home I could no longer see,

So I said to myself “I will not let this fate be!”

To my parents I promised “My best I will do,

To keep this poor fate from myself and you!”

And so he I ran off with a flash, with a bang,

With a crack of a whip, to the back of a Mane,

Off to a new city, I ran far, far from here,

Off to a place where fate I’d not fear.

And so on my way I ran into a man,

who it’s now all too clear was unusually tan,

for upon a chariot at cross roads encounter did we,

and he pushed me aside him and his three.

But I could not take such a disgrace to my travels,

So I drew forth my sword and a battle unraveled.

After our short fought but long winded viscous ol’ brawl,

I had slain the old man and his companions, oh how they’d fallen.

That’s when I arrived in our great city of Thebes,

Made rid of the Sphinx and courted with thee,

But one part of this prophet’s statement remains unclear,

How could my prophecy be so close, so near?”

Jocasta now chimed in, confident as ever,

“My husband you need more proof? Lets speak to a witness.

For a man in the field of our land saw the fight,

he was there on that day, he recalls that plight.”

And so Jocasta sent for the poor man,

Who age had made weak,

The man arrived and spoke,

And his story he did speak.

“Yes I recall what on that road I did see,

But Oedipus I have more relevant information for thee.

You see you and your parents Polybus, and Merope,

Share the same blood no more than myself and the pope.

Yes you were found as a baby by a Sheppard friend of mine,

On a hillside abandoned, your feet were entwined,

He felt for you dearly the Sheppard did so,

And brought you to Corinth to learn and to grow.”

Now Jocasta beginning to see it all a bit to clear,

Said “Oedipus that’s all the information we need my dear.”

“But we’re so close to this mystery solved,”

Oedipus did reply

“We’re both so involved, how can we now turn a blind eye?

And Sheppard, where came this boy, on Cliffside abandoned?”

The Sheppard replied,

“From the house of Laius, was the boy orphaned.

Yes this poor poor infant was fated at birth

To kill his father the king, to spill blood from his girth.

And on hearing this Laius ordered Jocastee

‘See to it the child rid of, for he will try’n kill me!’

So whence receiving the child and his fate made clear

I took him far far away to a land nowhere near.”

With this last little tip, little piece of the puzzle,

Oedipus began going mad like a dog with no muzzle,

With a grizzle, a frizzle, a frazzle, a fruzzle,

With dazzle of schnizzle, and a schnozzle of schnuzzle,

Now complete in his mind, all the pieces in the puzzle,

Oedipus ran to Jocasta to tell how he’d been embuzzled.

He swung open to door to the bedroom, with a BANG!

To see in the center of the room Jocasta did hang.

From her robe Oedi pulled two pins shiny silver,

And raised them to the sky in a feat of fervor,

Raised up high with one in each hand,

With each one an eye ready to be damned.

He cried “Now I see, now I see all is clear!

I have killed my own father, and my wife-mother here!

I have been victim of fate and the bad things she bestows

I have all this upon me this blood on my clothes!”

Then Oedipus ran the shiny silver slivers straight into his eyes,

Blood spewed forth as did moans as did groans, as did sighs,

Pieces of flesh pouring out one by one,

Til’ all he could see his was his fate he had won.

Begging to Creon with his eyes dripping red,

“Please exile me now, for inside I am dead.”

Creon did what he wished and exiled him so,

From there spent our king, all of his days full of woe,

Day on day wondering, no longer blind to his fate,

His own father he murdered, and his mother his mate.

And so I ask you, if you were this man,

if you had fates twists to account in your plan,

if this sort of thing were to happen too you,


what would you do

if this king was you?


Some thoughts on tragedy and nihilism (re-posted, with updates)

February 3, 2013

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.

A Serious Man

May 7, 2011

From the wonderful film directors Joel and Ethan Coen that brought such hits as The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country For Old Men, and True Grit, their 2010 film “A Serious Man” went rather unnoticed to the general audiences. In most places it was difficult to even find a theater playing it, fortunately we have the Little in Rochester for such glorious films. This movie has a lot of things in common with the tragedies we read at the beginning of the year. The movie itself is loosely based on the Book of Job, a biblical tragedy. It is set more as a dark, dark comedy rather than a tragedy. This has a lot to do with the extreme dramatic irony in the movie.

The tragedy centers itself around Larry Gopnik who is faced with endless misfortunes throughout the movie. He is facing a divorce that makes no sense to him, he gets in car crashes, his brother is getting in trouble with the law, he is faced with extraordinary bills, and through all of this he cannot get any helpful advice. He common says, “I haven’t done anything,” as a way of dealing with his frustrations. Most importantly, he is dealing throughout the entire movie with forces much beyond his comprehension and does not know what to make of it.

There are small pieces of advice the Coens are giving to the audience, but not to Larry. “When all the truth is found to be lies and all the joys within you dies,” lyrics from the Jefferson Airplane song Somebody to Love are common advice. In the beginning of the movie there is also a quote along the lines of “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” These pieces of advice are what Larry is looking for, but never receives.

Larry is also a physics professor, and there are significant scenes of him teaching things like the uncertainty principal from the Schroedinger’s Cat paradox. It is also funny that he cannot even listen to the things he is teaching. He is unable to accept in his life that he cannot be certain of why things are happening to him. Much of the movie is dealing with this paradox of trying to find a reason for chaos happening. This is shown through the first scene of the movie, which is seemingly irrelevant to the plot. In this scene a suspected dybbuk (possessed spirit) is in a Hebrew families house. The only way to determine whether or not he is a dybbuk is to try to kill him. The wife has no issue stabbing him. While he seems to demonstrate dybbuk like properties, he shows human like properties as he walks out bleeding. There is no way to tell what he really was. This scene seems to be the Coens trying to put us into the frustration Larry will be experiencing throughout the movie.

The important difference that makes this movie different that the traditional tragedy of the Book of Job is that we never really get anything from a God. We are not given the reason (or lack thereof) like in Job, instead, we are put in the same situation as the victim of the acts beyond his control. Much can be said about this movie, but it’s better just to watch it on your own. WATCH IT!

Tragedy and Plato’s Republic

April 29, 2011

I recently found an article that provided a tragic interpretation of Plato’s Republic which, given the material we covered earlier in the semester, seemed an appropriate vein of discussion. John D. Harman’s article “The Unhappy Philosopher: Plato’s Republic as Tragedy” highlights the philosopher’s obligations to two worlds, the perceived world (as in the Cave) and the real world (outside of the Cave) to interpret it in a tragic sense. The philosopher, of course, knows the Forms, and because of that it is most just for him to be a ruler of the “perceived” world.  Harman argues that the nature of the philosopher necessitates him to do the just thing and re-enter the Cave, but in doing so he must move away from the Forms themselves and by the very definition of the Forms, he fails to implement them ideally, which creates the philosopher’s tragedy (590-1).

In class we defined tragedy as a genre in which the protagonist (who has a heroic trait) struggles with forces beyond his control and is inevitable defeated by them. In order to be tragic Plato’s philosopher must be struggling with forces beyond his control (fate) and be defeated or fail, inevitably. The tragic conflict occurs because of the philosopher’s need to go back to the Cave and attempts to guide and rule the people. The philosopher’s very nature must turn him on this course, as this action is intended to be just and represent the Forms in the perceived world (Harman, 590).

The philosopher is ideal for governing the kallipolis because of his superior knowledge of the Forms. As a ruler, he must represent and use the Forms to guide the perceived world. Though the attempt to represent and utilize the Forms in the kallipolis is inevitably flawed it can be viewed as the philosopher’s heroic trait. A true philosopher knows that it is most just for him to rule because of his knowledge of the Forms, which must be the guiding principles and values of the kallipolis. By following his knowledge of justice and the Forms, he must rule.

It is unsurprising that this fails in the perceived world. Since the Forms are nothing that we can actually perceive with our senses (that limitation being a key aspect of the perceived world) it is impossible that the philosophers could purely implement the Forms in the perceived world. Harman explains:

While the realm of eternal ideas can be apprehended and appreciated through reason, such action as reason entails can only be undertaken              in the imperfect realm of appearance. Because action can only proceed in this latter world it can never coincide with the perfect pattern set              for it in the philosopher’s vision of the Idea of the Good (590).

The philosopher must attempt to represent the Forms in his actions in the perceived world.  But the Forms are not action, not visual, and can’t be perfectly portrayed, because of their nature, in a world of perception (or appearance, to use Harman’s language). The crucial differences between these two worlds create the “fate” aspect of this tragedy. Their differences by definition make the philosopher’s attempt to rule and coincide with the Forms an inevitable failure. His philosophic nature necessitates him to do the just thing and rule the people in the perceived world, but by doing so he is moving away from the Forms themselves. Harman references the Noble Lie and the lies that Plato instates in the kallipolis as evidence of this (582-3). Clearly, the Forms are in the intentions behind these actions, but not purely represented. The philosopher who has knowledge of the Forms is compelled to rule and guide, but because of the nature of the Forms and the limitations of the perceived world he is destined to fail.

All of the elements of tragedy from this interpretation are present. The implication of the argument is that it is impossible to create a perfectly just city because of the failure of the philosophers to use the Forms in the perceived world. The tragic failure is due to the incompatibility between the perceived world and real world. The Forms themselves lose their perfection when applied the perceived world, which would mean they lose their functionality and don’t exist in the world where they are implemented. It seems questionable at the very least to use such ideals in a political system. The ideal form of justice will never be a reality in the perceived world. The failure of these lofty ideals is significant. Since the Forms are not functional and can’t be correctly applied to the perceived world, the philosopher is only imitating and acting on what he thinks he knows of the truth, but not actually representing it. The philosopher, in this sense, is more of a poet than a philosopher, and Socrates establishes him as the ruler. Rather than setting up an ideal just city, there is a set of problems and imperfections that arise from the idea of establishing a world of perfect forms incompatible with the perceived world. The establishment of the Forms seems to justify the rule of the philosopher-kings, but the establishing perfect ideals do not translate into an ideally just system. Since the Forms are not ever going to be able to be functional in a world against their own nature, the more important element of their establishment might be that they justify the philosopher-kings actions. Justice, in the kallipolis, is never ideally just, but perhaps closer to Thrasymachus’ estimation of justice. The philosophers have the advantage of ruling by claiming they have genuine knowledge, and supposedly having this genuine knowledge justifies their rule. But if their ability to represent the genuine knowledge in the perceived realm is a failure, then they have no justification for rule.  Thus, by viewing the tragic conflict between the two worlds, the failings of Socrates’ ideal city and Forms are exposed.

The article by John D. Harman can be found online here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3234883


Harman, John D. “The Unhappy Philosopher: Plato’s “Republic” as Tragedy.” Polity 18.4 (Summer, 1986): 577-94. Palgrave Macmillan Journals. 

Tragedy: Why do we need it?

April 28, 2011

Toward the very beginning of class, Professor Mackin had once asked the question: “What is the importance of tragedy? Why do we (or even do we) need it?” and for some reason, the question stuck with me throughout the whole semester and since then, I’ve thought and pondered about why it is that tragedy still remains and is still very much a part of our lives as well as in our literature. I found myself looking for and finding various instances that proved why “tragedy” was in fact, an important and possible necessary aspect in our lives (contrary to what we are discussing now in class with Plato’s Republic, where Socrates advocates the necessity of “censorship” in order to attempt to achieve the kallipolis- the ideal harmonious city).

In lieu of what is happening now in Japan, a thought struck me when I saw a few weeks ago on the CNN news, an interview with a caller who was amidst and currently bravely surviving the catastrophic consequential aftermath in Japan of the earthquake and tsunami. Having seen all the unfathomable destruction and loss of life and the captured moments on tape of despaired citizens (one scene was of the backside of a woman standing in front of a massive pile of debris that was the remains of what was once her home, who, speechless for words, slowly crumbled down to her knees in tears), it was expected to hear about unfortunate news and reports of what was happening in the affected areas. Surprisingly, however, the woman (who was an American teaching at a school in Japan) sounded optimistic in both her voice and manner that even the reporter pointed out her encouragingly cheerful manner/behavior. The woman even continued to mention how despite the tragedy that was happening all around them, the people surrounding her were all strong in mind, and were working to support one another through this time of crisis. After hearing and seeing this news, I realized what could be considered a possible answer to the above question- Tragedy is what provides a chance for the “protagonist” (whom has befallen to the “fate” caused by forces beyond his control) to overcome his nihilistic tendencies by accepting his “fate” and instead, trying to approach and view the situation in a probable, favorable and possibly optimistic light. Tragedy is the inevitable part of life that almost forces or allows all protagonists of humankind to grow and become stronger by overcoming the obstacles and forces “tragedy” produces. Although Japan is now currently suffering the aftermaths and ongoing crises of the tsunami, earthquake and potential nuclear threats, it is also because of this tragedy that the citizens of Japan are pulled to collectively work together to support one another (through methods like financial funding to aid rescue efforts and donations of equipments and volunteers to aid the affected) and just like with many other tragedies resulting from natural disasters or other inevitable forces, many other parts of the world are now reaching out to try and provide help to those Japanese citizens who are suffering miles away from their home country. It may suffice to say that through the inevitable hardships tragedy presents, something optimistic like “hope” results and thus further develops and strengthens (possibly to an even deeper extent that if the tragedy had not happened) the bonds between and within all members of humanity.

Popular culture also dictates a similar message in movies such as the famous “Lord of the Rings”- here in a quote from the “Two Towers”, Samwise Gamgee was trying to encourage Frodo on his difficult mission and trial as the beholder of the all-mighty “one ring”:

“Sam: ‘It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.’

Frodo: ‘What are we holding onto, Sam?’

Sam: ‘That there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.’”

Just like how Frodo strives to fulfill his inevitable fate as the anointed beholder of the “one ring” whom was destined to destroy the source of all evil in order to save mankind and restore peace within the world, we all individually are fated to accomplish a role in life that is unique to us as an individual (although it may not be as severe nor as extreme a role that Frodo had played in the movie; there is also the fact that we presently may not be aware of what our destined fates might be). As the protagonist of the story, Frodo is fated to carry the burdening task of journeying to Mordor in order to rightfully destroy the evil source of power that many forces strived to attain for their own selfish desires for power- although he at first denies the responsibility, Frodo eventually comes to realize that he can not run from the fate that only he can accomplish, and thus resorts himself to accepting the task and the responsibilities that came with such a task. Frodo in many ways is similar to our beings when we go through our daily lives- we struggle with accepting our fates, and though eventually we may accept what our destined fates, we still at times experience doubt and insecurity- yet it is “hope” (as portrayed by an archetypical character like Sam wise Gamgee) that allows us to push forward and is what keeps us motivated to achieve our fate in life, no matter what the consequences may be.

Without tragedy to provide examples of life at its (occasional) lowest moments, it would be difficult for people to fully appreciate the meaning of life, and what it means to “be alive” in and to fully “experience” this world. As it is mentioned in the Bible, it is necessary to be aware of the opposites, in order fully appreciate the potential of both opposing factors and to also comprehend and achieve the balance which results from knowing each end of the scale: “…where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.”[1] As a human being, we are only as good as the sum of our parts, so in order to try to achieve our full potential, it is necessary to have an awareness for that which is not only “good” or sensibly “right” and “non-painful”, but also “”bad”, “unfortunate” or even “unfavorable” so that we may better comprehend, develop and achieve a greater knowledge that may lead to a balanced understanding as to what is or to what goes on in a “life/lifetime”.

Tragedy is an essential component (in both our life and literature) that provides the opportunity for one to expand one’s perspectives on life, and also allows one to “test” oneself in order to see how much one is able to successfully achieve, or to be able to recognize the limit one is capable of achieving. In the process of realizing what consequential actions tragedy provides, one also is able to gain knowledge of the “opposites” and thus is able to further understand the depth of, and possibly further develop an appreciation for, what each opposing factor represents and provides to one’s life. Though the consequences of tragedy are not always pleasant (such as the ill-fated Oedipus who unconsciously fulfilled his own unfortunate fate and consequentially took out his own eyes as punishment), it also serves as a reminder to us on how it is essential that we still maintain hope, and that no matter what obstacles life may throw in our path, we must learn how to withstand, if not then at least how to deal with, the consequences so that the experience will in the end, be something that contributes to our development as our individual self as a human being amongst the happenings of this unpredictable earthly world.

[1] Prayer for Peace- St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)