Allergic to tragedy

The limits of reason, from Bollywood to Isaiah Berlin.

Ahan Raina

May 19, 2024

I’ve had the great pleasure of coming of age in a golden era of tragedy, specifically romantic tragedy, in Hindi cinema. I consider as part of this tradition films like Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela (2013); Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang de Basanti (2006); Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar (2011); and Aanand L. Rai’s Raanjhanaa (2013). The protagonists in these films are not saints; they make grave mistakes and have lapses in character. Their missteps, however, make them feel particularly human; we see in their mistakes the kinds of errors we make in our own lives. And yet, despite operating within the typical limits of human vice and virtue, these characters each meet tragic ends. Love is lost; peace is lost; friends are lost; family is lost; and more often than not, life is lost. 

These films present the most hopeless of situations: individuals lose everything despite acting as best they can. And yet, in my personal experience and the testimony of others, these films have been some of the most engaging, life-affirming, cathartic, and influential works of contemporary media. When I watch these films, I buy narratively that such tragedy can occur; there’s no sense of melodrama or deux ex machina. While I mourn the characters’ downfall when I watch these films, I’m glad that it happened. I do not wish the characters had acted differently. It would have felt wrong if the equivalents of Romeo and Juliet in Ram-Leela were saved and allowed to marry in peace. The greater the downfall, the more tantalizingly close to resolution these beloved characters reach, the greater the entertainment, the greater the catharsis. And while one might expect that such stories would breed pessimism, instead one leaves these tragedies, if not with optimism, then with an affirmation of life. The death of the star-crossed lovers encourages me to love; to destroy myself in it; to surrender to it; to, as the Sufis would say, become fanaa—annihilate myself—in it. We somehow find ourselves looking up to these tragic figures, seeing them as models of a life well lived.

It is difficult for us to account for this fact of our moral reasoning. It is particularly difficult for our post-Enlightenment moral philosophy to account for it. Our affinity for tragedy fits nowhere in a utility calculus; the notion of a categorical imperative is at best agnostic on the subject. This mismatch is not a fault on the side of tragedy, but on the side of moral philosophy. Tragedy, it seems to me, is an empirical fact of ethical life. If a theory of mechanics does not account for a constant speed of light, we should find that this proves fatal for the mechanical theory. Likewise, an inability to account for tragedy should prove fatal for an ethical or political theory. Our dominant moral thinking has no space for tragedy and this is depriving us of a full life, or rather, a life full of the Good. It is as if we have become allergic to tragedy.

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum speaks to the tension between tragedy and much of our moral theory in the first chapter of her seminal work, The Fragility of Goodness. She discusses an antinomy within the human condition of which the ancient Greeks were aware. On one hand, “the excellence of the good person… is like a young plant: something growing in the world, slender, fragile, in constant need of food from without.” The good life, in this sense, is frail, contingent, and largely out of the hands of agency. Machiavelli called this fragility “fortuna”; Heidegger referred to it as “thrownness.” In Nussbaum’s understanding, however, it is not just that human excellence is vulnerable, but that “part of the peculiar beauty of human excellence just is its vulnerability.” Courage, for instance, is a virtue because in action we may risk annihilation. As Ben Affleck’s Batman told Superman: “You’re not brave… men are brave.” Love is beautiful because we grow old, because it takes work, and because it will end. This is why, according to Nussbaum, the Greek gods regularly fall in love with mortals.

On the other hand, the Western tradition’s obsession with the notion of reason suggests that we are not exactly like plants, and, indeed, have agency. As Nussbaum writes, “if it is true that a lot about us is messy, needy, uncontrolled, rooted in the dirt and standing helplessly in the rain, it is also true that there is something about us that is pure and purely active, something that we could think of as ‘divine, immortal, intelligible, unitary, indissoluble, ever self-consistent and invariable.’” This capacity is what Machiavelli called “virtù.” For Nussbaum, the ethical project of ancient Greek thought can be conceptualized as an attempt “to make the goodness of a good human life safe from luck through the controlling power of reason.” 

But what constitutes a life safe from luck? How large a role can and should luck play in the good life? On such questions many philosophers reveal their theories to be nothing but unconscious autobiography, as Nietszche wrote. For there are risk-takers and there are the risk-averse; the conscientious and the open; those who flow like the wind and those who are solid like steel. The figures of Plato and Kant stand out as paragons of philosophical tight-assery: they believed reason had the power to make us immune to luck, and thus immune to tragedy, and thus they would stand nothing which granted luck a role in the good life. 

Kant began his moral philosophy by asking if there was anything which was unambiguously, unconditionally good in the world. He found it in the good will, the will which cared nothing about consequences and only respected the dictates of universal law. The Kantian admits that there may be opportunity for good in the world of love, of relationships, of wealth, of charity; but there is also the chance for betrayal, of unseen consequences, of heartbreak. So he takes the route of the ascetic, prioritizing the universal and the controllable over the stuff which we would consider the marrow of life. Those who live this way will be moral saints, as Susan Wolf says, but, like her, “I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most about are among them.” Perhaps this austerity is to be expected from Kant, a man who lived with such regularity that his neighbors set their clocks to his daily walks. 

The Kantian would probably concede that there is tragedy in the potential conflicts between the different imperatives we act out in our daily lives, when we aren’t necessarily acting with the moral law in mind. He simply believes that this conflict doesn’t matter—he has constructed a “true world,” one away from the world of inconvenient material phenomena, where he can intellectually situate and justify himself. Many philosophers write on Kantian theory; I doubt that any of them have managed to live in such a world. 

Kant is, against his best impulses, solipsistic in his morality, because solely following the categorical imperative might require one to pursue actions which have negative impacts on one’s family and friends. It certainly requires us to treat those who are close to us identically with strangers, for we are to respect all human beings equally (at least, all human beings in those races which Kant believed possessed full reason). Thus, our actions under the good will might spell tragedy for those we love: Kantianism just tells us to ignore it. 

Plato, like Kant, holds that proper reasoning can illuminate a particular mode of life which makes worldly tragedy irrelevant. But he takes things a step further, introducing a complementary metaphysics which holds that one’s good actions in the material world allow his soul to access the true world of ideal forms. Plato hopes to demonstrate that what might appear tragic in the material world in fact furthers the development of the soul. In brief: there is a unity of the virtues across the material and ideal worlds, and there is no such thing as a weakness of the will. If we accept these premises, then Plato believes that the exercise of reason means that true tragedy does not exist: the plights of an Antigone, a Hamlet, or Jordan from Rockstar would not be inevitable if they examined their lives properly. We might say that Plato’s treatment of tragedy is curative: there is a certain way we can approach our lives as we live them, with the development of the soul squarely in mind, which can root tragedy out entirely. In contrast, Kant’s treatment is palliative: he asks us to radically reconstruct our lives according to a moral law which diminishes the emotional weight of tragedy.

Our question then is whether we buy Plato and Kant’s premise. Since their dissolution of tragedy is based on a certain account of the power of reason, we must ask whether reason has the power they suppose, and if we want to grant it that power as well. The two questions are intimately related. The fact that we do not want life-sans-tragedy that reason seems to offer, is precisely the evidence that reason cannot provide such a life. To develop a theory of the good life, we must rely on our intuitions, our lived experience, in other words on those ingredients which ground the process of reasoning itself. And what do these ingredients point us to? That yes, tragedy exists. Yes, tragedy is a part of Life. How can it not be, if even the most splendid of human lives will necessarily suffer the aging and death of the elders one loves, followed by its own annihilation? How can it not be when one’s station in life, a random pandemic, or a random case of bad luck can in an instant dramatically influence the trajectory of our lives? The religious have to deal with the problem of evil. From our perspective, after the death of God and the realization of the existentialist perspective, tragedy and absurdity manifest themselves not as a problem but as an empirical reality.

It is likely that in the long run, proper reason and reflection could resolve many of our current sources of tragedy. The end of tragedy is, however, an unachievable utopia which the arc of human reason bends toward asymptotically. The great danger of the attempt to use reason to make life immune to tragedy, then, is that at some point we began to believe that this utopia was actually reachable. How much blood was spilt, in both the twentieth century and the current one, to force people to believe this utopia was possible? And even in an ideal future, would there not still be unrequited love, ignorance, and sacrifice?

So, what is it that I saw in all those Bollywood movies growing up that resonated with me? Partly, it is the recognition that the tragedy seen on screen was an abbreviated form of the trajectory that my life, and the lives of everyone I knew, will to take. Additionally, since we already know that these tragedies won’t provide us the happy endings we usually desire from our stories, they move us to pivot our focus toward the contingent elements which affirm the otherwise doomed lives of the characters. They praise the ineffable imperatives of love, family, artistic expression, heroism, taking a stand, and pursuing authenticity. Embracing tragedy does not mean glorifying it. Recognizing that tragic works of art affirm life is not the same thing as embracing fatalism. From our first-person perspectives, both our individual lives and our collective political lives are not narratives, but projects in which we must pursue the good and avoid the bad. Tragedy is defined by bad things happening despite our best intentions; one cannot intend tragedy. The recognition of tragedy is simply a realization that no matter how much we work, bad luck will always find us; and that nevertheless, all is not lost—the tragic figure still lives more than most. 

How can such a recognition work its way into our ethics and our politics? Two peers in a golden age of philosophical thought wrestled with this question: Bernard Williams primarily on the ethical end and Isaiah Berlin on the political one. In a tribute to Williams, Nussbaum wrote that he had demanded that philosophy “come to terms with, and contain, the difficulty and complexity of human life.” Williams had found that “much philosophy… had represented a flight from reality, a rationalistic defense against complexity, emotion, and tragedy,” and “simplified the moral life,” for instance “failing to understand… the heterogeneity of values, the sometimes tragic collisions between one thing we care for and another.” 

In referencing the idea of a heterogeneity of values, Nussbaum alluded to a key aspect of the philosophies of both Williams and Berlin: value pluralism. The Platos and the Kants of the world ignore tragedy and simplify the moral landscape by assuming either that all instances of value are rooted in one core value (for example, accordance with the moral law) or that the various virtues exercised by the good individual exist in unity, without contradiction. Berlin and Williams, however, account for the empirical reality of tragedy by adopting the metaethical position of value pluralism, opposite Kant and Plato’s monism. Thus, like the strict utilitarian, we can recognize that the net pleasure experienced by conscious beings has genuine ethical value. After all, this is a rather intuitive recognition. But we can also recognize that there are values besides utility which we can, do, and should care about. These are not valuable only insofar as they can be translated into utility; they are valuable in and of themselves. As Williams himself wrote, Berlin’s thought “warns us against the deep error of supposing that all goods, all virtues, all ideals are compatible, and that what is desirable can ultimately be united into a harmonious whole without loss.”

For the utilitarian or the Kantian, there can be no such thing as true tragedy, which means that there is no rational basis for regret. In a case like the classic trolley problem, the right course of action may be hard for us to do psychologically, and may require a certain kind of virtue, but our hesitation is always unreasoned, an impediment to doing the right thing. The brilliance of Williams was his use of detailed scenario-building and thought experiment to show that there are indeed cases where regret is rational and tragedy is true: these are cases where any action is simultaneously good according to one extant value and bad according to another. We must resist the sense that the incompatibility of values means that everything is relative, or that nothing really matters. This is the infection of Plato and Kant within us acting up; a pathogen so allergic to tragedy that the impossibility of a perfect solution makes all ethics seem futile. 

For Berlin, the acceptance of value pluralism requires us to view the project of liberalism in a new light. If one takes stock of the major threads from which modern liberalism takes its inheritance, we find that all of them take value monism as an assumption. For Rousseau, the process of democracy involved the consolidation of individual wills into a general will, which he claimed never erred. For Mill, democratic liberalism happened to be the most efficient way to implement the harm principle, which lay at the core of his utilitarian moral philosophy. Even in the liberal concept of religious toleration we do not find a celebration of difference and embrace of syncretism, but an act of self-aggrandizing mercy on the behalf of the majority: you are dead wrong, but we’ll allow it. 

If we agree that contemporary challenges to democracy arise from polarization and factionalism in the body politic, then we must open ourselves up to the possibility that our liberal democracies have literally not been built to handle tragedy; for instance, the “tragedy” that different political actors might genuinely have different, incompatible values. In the same way that Williams and Wolf argued that value monism in the ethical realm creates a sort of tyranny on the kinds of life one might live, the more politically minded Berlin adds that monism in the political realm, with its promises of genuine utopia, was an essential ingredient in the explosion of totalitarianism which split so much blood in the 20th century.

It is for these reasons that Berlin called for the transition to what some have called “agonistic liberalism.” The invocation of agon—Greek for “conflict”—takes into account the reality that there will be no perfect solutions: collective political life will require either genuine compromise or the genuine honoring of the values of one group over another. This, however, is not a call to Machiavellian winner-takes-all methods. Indeed, scholars like Berlin would argue that it is monism, and its decision to staking all action on a single value, which breeds such extremism in methods. Berlin calls for us to recognize the “liberty” in liberalism as a pluralistic value—for liberty and agency, generally speaking, allow all people to pursue their ends regardless of what they are.

The question for political and legal theory in the 21st century, then, is how to design our institutions, our legislative practice, and our jurisprudence to contend with the dual realities of tragedy and pluralism. Even if such a project were successful, it will not please all; we will not have Kant’s kingdom of ends, Hegel’s end of history, Rousseau’s general will, More’s utopia. But we will have better, which is all we can hope for. We will have a world which affirms life, where life is more human. A world where we become like our tragic heroes on the silver screen—caring deeply, loving deeply, creating deeply—even though doom is inevitable.

Ahan Raina is a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying philosophy and law.