The need to acknowledge tragedy

Below is an article from humanist philosopher Richard Norman on the way that humanism needs to acknowledge the possibility of failure and tragedy in our lives.

From a humanist point of view we give meaning to our lives by engaging in activities which are worthwhile and fulfilling. Critics may say that this leaves us vulnerable to the fragility of our human condition. Our projects may fail, for any number of reasons, and this seems to imply that we live on the brink on meaninglessness. All our activities end in death – the ultimate futility if we have no belief in personal immortality. And within our lifetimes the activities which give a point to our lives could collapse at any time.

The Christian philosopher John Cottingham, in his fine book On the Meaning of Life, offers this imaginary example:

Consider David, a millionaire architect, who makes it his life’s work to build a hospital in an area where medical facilities are sorely needed. He struggles against great odds to get the project completed, single-mindedly pursing this goal to the point of bankrupting himself, not to mention the neglect of many other rewarding activities that might have engaged his attention. But on the day the hospital is due to be opened, a meteorite hurtles to earth and vaporises the hospital’s oil storage tanks; the whole building complex is engulfed in a fireball and razed to the ground, with terrible loss of life. David now bitterly declares that his entire effort was pointless – a tragic and futile waste of energy and resources.

Cottingham concludes that without a religious perspective our struggles to achieve meaning in our lives through our own human endeavours will always be haunted by a sense of fragility and futility.

A religious framework which sees the apparent suffering and failure in human experience as part of a divine purpose in which the good will prevail is difficult to defend, and at the level of individual experience it is, I think, unlikely to offer consolation. What is David, in Cottingham’s example, supposed to say to himself? ‘My life’s work has ended in disaster, but no doubt it’s all part of God’s plan, so that’s OK.’ Is that plausible? Even if he is a religious believer, I find it difficult to see how he could say anything more than ‘Maybe God can make everything turn out for the best, but as far as my own life is concerned, it has been a pointless failure’.

What can be said from a humanist point of view? First, that although our lives are of course vulnerable and fragile, they are not doomed to failure. There are no guarantees, but most of us can make something of our lives and get a sense of achievement from our activities, especially if we live in a community with a modicum of prosperity. But, secondly, we have to accept honestly that some lives do end in failure, and some are tragic. Terrible things do happen. Someone we love may die far too young. Our plans may go disastrously wrong. We may suffer terribly as a result of a natural catastrophe or human cruelty. Tragedy is not endemic to human life, but it is one dimension of it.

It is no accident that we use the word ‘tragedy’ to refer also to a classic literary form. The ancient Greek dramatists knew that tragedy is a permanent possibility. Their religious framework involved not belief in an all-powerful benevolent deity whose plan for the universe ensures that all is for the best, but capricious gods and goddesses who, if they choose, may torment us and destroy us. It is a view echoed in Shakespeare’s greatest and bleakest tragedy, King Lear:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.
They kill us for their sport.

What is sometimes called ‘the paradox of tragedy’ is the fact that the depiction of terrible suffering can, in the greatest art, be uplifting. At the end of King Lear we see Lear cradling the dead Cordelia in his arms, and his final words show him utterly crushed:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou know breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.

What is life-affirming in the play is simply its enabling us to acknowledge that, yes, that is how life can sometimes be. There is no consolation, but there is a kind of nobility in the honest acceptance of the human condition.

Question: In what ways might a recognition of tragedy in human lives provide a motivating force for how we should live?

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK