The Western Tradition has left us a rich legacy of tragic plays, operas, and literature. Through tragedy we see that private actions can trigger public consequences. We also see that public consequences are posterior to a sacred order with absolute norms and commanding truths.
But 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—vs. society, with its norms, fixities, and expectations. 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 takes place in this point of tension between the individual vs. society, desire vs. custom, passion vs. 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.
In modern society, no transcendent order is recognized as grounding the fixities of society; consequently, all custom comes to be seen as purely arbitrary. Accordingly, any time there is a conflict between the norms of society and the impulses of the individual, it is assumed that the former must always yield to the latter. Society exists in order that individuals’ desires may be fulfilled, and thus the common good becomes the aggregate of private goods.
In this new state of affairs, there can no longer be tragedy, for tragedy acknowledges a point of tension between the individual and society—a point of tension that can be negotiated in complex, disastrous, or ironic ways. Far from acknowledging this point of tension, modern man seeks to obliterate it, so that the tension that once would have formed the action of the tragedy itself becomes an object of censure. When society conflicts 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, as an affront—an intrusion into the ecosystem of optionality of which the modern understanding of freedom is seen to consist.
In this new state of affairs, the structures of society cease to be seen as a restraining influence against unbridled desire, as they were for Anna in Tolstoy’s tragic novel. Rather, modern man looks at society in general, and the state in particular, as existing to fulfil and validate personal desire. Modern man can thus draw on classic discourse about the liberty-preserving functions of the state while substituting the classic understanding of liberty for the new. In the new understanding of liberty, freedom becomes the right and ability to construct reality for oneself fully emancipated from external constraints. The Supreme Court famously codified this new understanding of freedom in the majority opinion of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, when Justice Kennedy 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.” SCOTUS’s extraordinary detour into metaphysics was echoed by Vice President Biden’s detour 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 of things, is little more than an increase of options available to the individual agent. All experiences, even our experiences as an embodied man or woman, become purely optional.
By contrast, in the classical and Christian understanding, freedom has always been understood as the ability to pursue the telos appropriate to an organism, whether an individual or a community. For example, 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. (I have discussed this classical idea of freedom in my earlier articles, “15 Questions About Masks & Conservative Values,” and “Paine-fully Conservative?” and “Rethinking Rights.”) The ancients recognized the existence of societies structured around the fulfilment of unbridled desires, but they looked upon such communities as pre-civilized. 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 described by saying, that they “have no assemblies for the making of laws, nor any settled customs, but live 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 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 simple disorder.
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 disorder. As society moves 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 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 society was heading. Just imagine being a seventeen year-old girl whose parents had fought in WWII and represented the values of the status quo. Yet you are frustrated by the racism of society, as embodied in the recent assassination of Mr. Luther King Jr the year before. You are terrified by the draft for the Vietnam war, which threatens to take your boyfriend from you, possibly permanently. When you finally feel you have a champion in Bobby Kennedy, he is assassinated in June 1968. You are part of a growing collection 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 music like Herb Alpert’s 1968 hit “This Guy’s in Love With You.” At the Woodstock music festival, you can mix with thousands of others like you, who accept you as you are. You can even smoke pot and strip down to your underwear 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 was still enough normativity 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 Judeo-Christian civilization could not remain while the ethics, metaphysics, teleology, and epistemology of that civilization were rejected. The grandchildren of the baby-boomers no longer prefer hauntingly happy music like the Tijuana Brass or Joan Baez, both hits in the 60’s and now virtually forgotten. Instead of the self-affirming hedonism of Woodstock music, we have the self-negating music of despair, expressed in Billie Eilish. Eilish’s music is post-hedonism, 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.
Another 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, and for a while it seems his sin will catch up with him, as in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But in the end, crime really does pay. Judah resumes normal life and pacifies his conscience by comforting himself about 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.