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Friday, October 1, 2010

What is tragedy?

Tonight I was watching the news and saw reports of armed conflict throughout the world.  I thought what a tragedy that the intellectual capacity and gifts of man are applied to devising war—where the bottom line is to kill or be killed.  Then I thought of police in domestic society who have to turn intellectual capacity and gifts to maintaining order against crime, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, illegal firearms, robbery, murder, even in comparison less serious matters as enforcing traffic laws and answering disturbing the peace calls.  Surely the necessity of expending intellectual capacity and gifts on such domestic societal failures is also a tragedy.  Then I thought of dead end or monotonous jobs, and said to myself surely that is a tragedy too.  All of the potential skills, intellectual capacity and gifts directed at mundane tasks.  Surely any kind of work that does not require constant creative challenge is a misuse of human potential.  But even creativity is subject to tragedy—where tons of effort and creativity are directed to less than momentous (even frivolous) ends.  And even “serious” creative efforts can be seen to have empty and tragic elements.  I am reminded of Edison’s comment: “None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration” ( Even creativity is 99% trial and error, setbacks, and failure.  What we see is that human tragedy is in the end redeemed by a positive social purpose.  Virtually every activity that is not starkly antisocial is so redeemed.  In the willful human context, tragedy is when intellectual capacity and gifts are turned to antisocial purposes.  It is a tragedy that man can have these drives to harm others and simultaneously self-destruct.  The ultimate tragedy may well be an ethical fissure somewhere deep within the brain.   

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