Et Tu, Schop?

Schopenhauer considers tragedy to be the highest form of poetic art because it captures the essence of human life better than any genre. He also has reverence for the tragic hero who, after much struggle, does what Schopenahuer’s prescription is to any individual, and that is to renounce the will. “In tragedy,” he writes, “we see that, after a long struggle and much suffering, the noblest people eventually renounce forever the goals they had, up to that point, pursued so intensely, as well as renouncing all the pleasures of life, or even willfully and joyfully giving them up.”

“By contrast,” he continues, “the demand for so-called poetic justice rests on a complete failure to recognize the essense of tragedy and in fact the essense of the world.”

At first blink, the part of me that is an advocate for social justice does not like to read this, and it may become clearer below as to why that is; the so-called poet in me cannot help but agree that it is the angst and the suffering of simple living, not the cozy biscuit-like moments of contentment, that scream to become poetic material.

The only thing essential to tragedy is the portrayal of a great misfortune, proclaims Schopenhauer, and the poet can accomplish this by organizing it in the three following categories: by portrayal of extraordinary evil (Iago in Othelo, for example), misfortune due to blind fate, i. e. chance and error (such as it occurs in Romeo and Juliet), and the third simply by people’s positioning to each other through their normal life relationships (Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; my example). In this third category of tragic portrayal, “morally ordinary characters in everyday circumstances are positioned with respect to each other in such a way that their situation forces them unknowingly and clear-sightedly to cause each other the greatest harm without the injustice falling on one side or the other.” This last type of tragedy is preferred by Schopenhauer because “it shows us the greatest misfortune not as exception, not as something brought about by rare circumstances or monstrous characters, but rather as something that develops effortlessly and spontaneously out of people’s deeds and characters, almost as if it were essential, thereby bringing it terrifyingly close to us.”

The terrifying truth about the third kind of tragedy–the tragedy of merely existing with others–is a hard one to swallow for the ethicist, and brings into question the entire pursuit of systems of human rights. Or is it possible that it gives salience to such systems, that the social justice activist can very well understand the poet–maybe even be the poet–and from this fundamental understanding of suffering aim to reduce it as much as possible? If the source of most suffering is, indeed, not caused by great evils or rare circumstances, but arises from the quotidian relationships of average individuals, then these relationships should be the loci of justice, as what can be made better (and there seems to be much room for improvement).

Schopenhauer would not make this prescription, pessimist that he was, but it would also not be inconsistent with his philosophy to argue for systems of justice that address the suffering we are essentially pervious to due to ordinary life. He might consider it fruitless, though, if we were to take his point seriously that suffering seems to be not only pervasive, but essential (as in, ineradicable). Anyway, we won’t give the task to the poet–she can brood–but the social activist who will not resign, as the tragic hero will, can take the optimistic interest of eliminating, as much as possible, this standard hardship. Best of luck to her.


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