The Tragedy of Reason

20 October 2009

Tuesday


A medieval depiction of Oedipus: 'Sophocles long ago Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow Of human misery' according to Matthew Arnold.

A medieval depiction of Oedipus: 'Sophocles long ago Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow Of human misery' according to Matthew Arnold.

Though we may think of doubt as a very modern state of mind — modern thought, after all, begins with Descartes and methodical doubt — we should not allow ourselves to forget that the philosophers of classical antiquity explored the possibilities of doubt as few ages have. Not only were there many academic forms of skepticism, but the Western philosophical tradition more or less begins with Socrates and the Socratic method. The source of all classicism also gave us also Phyrronic skepticism — and, of course, its refutation as well.

Oedipus answers the riddle of the Sphinx: not all questions are so easily answered nor have such happy consequences, as Oedipus will discover.

Oedipus answers the riddle of the Sphinx: not all questions are so easily answered nor have such happy consequences, as Oedipus will discover.

Classical antiquity gave us the Socratic method, the insistent inquiry which will not be put off, even if the consequences are tragic, as they were with Oedipus the King, who brings about his own ruin through the pursuit of truth. Later the blind, aged Oedipus was denied a place to sit in the sacred grove outside Colonus — denied a place to rest through the same restless, persistent inquiry, as that with which Socrates denied the eminent of Athens a place to rest in argument. Relentless reason neither shows nor asks quarter.

Thebes had the Sphinx; Athens had Socrates, and made him pay with his life for asking too many questions.

Thebes had the Sphinx; Athens had Socrates, and made him pay with his life for asking too many questions.

Oedipus’ persistent, perhaps even reckless pursuit of the truth led to his downfall. The Socratic insistence on questioning, on getting to the bottom of things even if this means going beyond the bounds of propriety, sacrificing prudence, insulting the proud and powerful — ultimately, as with Socrates, this led to the ruin of Oedipus. All of this was conceived as a dramatic performance, one of the great ceremonies of classical antiquity and of classicism, not in honor of Apollo, but every spring during the Dionysia.

Dionysos, to whom the Dionysia Festival was dedicated, celebrated with dramatic productions.

Dionysos, to whom the Dionysia Festival was dedicated, celebrated with dramatic productions.

The Athenians played out the passion of Socrates with the same solemnity that one imagines accompanied their dramatic festivals. Plato later made out of it one of the great pieces of Western literature, preserving the continuity of the classical Greek context. Is this the real lesson of Greek drama, the tacit, profound message of a Saturnine world which must have tragedy — is it the ultimate conclusion of Greek tragedy that reason is ruin?

Tragedy synthesizes the rational and the irrational with the greatest perfection. And it does not accomplish this through dilution of the principals (or, for that matter, its principles), but presents them in all of their naked and awful power — the purest moral command and the purest moral perversion. Tragedy is the dialectic of law recognized and law violated. In this we recognize the central dilemma of axiomatics, a dilemma that does not diminish our pleasure in its demonstrations nor render its accomplishments invalid. Indeed, the axiomatic method is so successful because it recognizes its limitations, its finitude. It would not be too much to say that axiomatics constitutes a formal institutionalization of the limits of reason.

Axiomatics is another bequest of the Greeks, identified with the name of Euclid. In axiomatics, everything is to be proved; but the axioms are not proved. The axioms are to be necessary and certain, known with an intuitive immediacy, as are all steps in a proof; but we do not recognize theorems immediately as certain or necessary. We understand them to share the truth of axioms only mediately, not intuitively. We have a proof — the most perfect expression of human reasoning — only where we have unproved principles and intuitively opaque results. Without this, the drama of insight, of discovery, the dangerous and exciting paths of mathematical thought are lost.

The whole of reason would be an intolerable bore to the oft-invoked, hypothetical infinite mind (a common “what if” thought experiment). Philosophy, logic, and mathematics would be abandoned due to total lack of interest. So too must tragedy appear to the gods. The gods remain, in Nietzsche’s memorable characterization, “a beautiful dream image,” apparently unaffected by the brutalities visited upon unlucky mortals. This was Spinoza’s insight, which he sought to hammer home through proofs in the geometrical fashion. From Olympus, our petty trials are as nothing. Evil is nothing, born only from the paucity of our moral capacity, an inability to see things whole, and that, on the whole and in the whole, we do not matter.

Reason’s tragic flaw, its Achilles’ heel, is that it is human reason, and as human reason it partakes of human failures, foibles, and limitations. Western civilization is, to a very large extent, the working out and working through of the ideal of reason that first emerged among the Greeks of classical antiquity, and the sad catalog of our history demonstrates only too clearly the many tragedies of human reason.

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