Human Freedom, Weak Identities: The Criteria For Tragic Flaws

Aristotle arrived at a very influential definition of tragedy:  ”the imitation of an action that is serious and complete, achieving a catharsis through incidents arousing pity and terror”. Aristotle also observed that the protagonist is led into a fatal calamity by his ‘tragic flaw’ this often takes the form of excessive pride of self-confidence punished by the gods or fates.  Aristotle was never permitted the ability to develop criteria to find how such traits are developed.  With the arrival of psychology in late 19th century Vienna, we are permitted to examine the relations that Aristotle was unable to discover.

Recognizing tragic trends within literature is somewhat easy since the protagonists is easily recognizable.  What about life itself?  How does one develop criteria to find future tragic protagonists?  Did not Shakespeare say:  ‘Life will show you masks worth all your carnivals’.  How is one to know if an Othello or Hamlet is in one’s mist?

Part of recognizing tragedy is developed prudence to anticipate outcomes.  The virtue of prudence permits reason to operate whereby we anticipate ruinous outcomes based on our assessment of character.  Did not the pre-socratic Heraclitus have the dictum relating one’s future to character development?  One simply cannot ignore the social factors shaping one’s moral development: the role of heredity, education level, family relations concerning modeling, early childhood experiences with conscience development, ones social environment with peers, how one deals with failure and cultural media.  All influence a persons ability to shape one’s future.

What always remains amiss is developed criteria to assess one’s civilization or culture.  What always marks a tragic character is an inability to drive events.  Psychologically demonstrated in identity and vocational confusion.  Persons not permitted the opportunity to shape themselves reveal wreckage that damages posterity.  This is a partial reason why we need a Magisterium, for culture influences character development.

Edith Wharton and Thomas Mann all gave startling portraits of persons uncritically assimilated into the mores of a dominant culture.  Each author gave an unflinching glimpse of characters uninformed and confused in shaping themselves.

Edith Warton ‘The House of Mirth’ (1905) offers a modern account of female dependence and vulnerability, one suited to the social and material aspirations of early 20th century New York.  Wharton’s genius was for showing how New York Society was pulled between two different worlds with different social trajectories.  There is monied New York wavering between the Christian propertied Old World and the amoral materialism of the New.  Lily Bart is the victim of her own vacillation as she wades through both worlds unwilling to master either.  Unable to either define herself or break though the enabling confines of such a milieu leads to a display of tragic pathos becoming a women unfit to decide how to shape her own self.

Thomas Mann ‘Death In Venice’ (1925) was written to explore a deadly obsession that a distinguished writer had with a young boy.  This novel is the most incisive commentary in literature on the meaning and loss of reputation.  Mann decided to uncover Freud’s theory of the death drive as human motivation that rivals the drive for personal success.  Just as people are driven to create, they can also destroy with ruthless impunity.

The ability to enter and master an adult world requires an identity firmly rooted in both courage and disciplined love.  Such courage and love lifts the burdens of both milieu and heredity permitting a person the gift of a life freely chosen.

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About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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