(From Either/Or, vol. 1)
The primary theme in this essay is to compare the “ancient” and the “modern” tragedy: particularly in the manner of how the “hero” relates to the world of the story and to the audience. Like everything in Kierkegaard, the essay does not neatly resolve into proposition.
For instance, on his way to discussing ethical and aesthetic guilt, he makes this observation about “modern” politics — which is remarkably true of present, “
While, therefore, everyone wishes to rule, no one wishes to accept responsibility.
It is a kind of immediacy and self-concern which marks the modern over the ancient tragic hero:
In ancient tragedy the action itself has an epic moment in it; it is as much event as action. The reason for this naturally lies in the fact that they ancient world did not have subjectivity fully self-conscious and reflective. Even if the individual moved freely, he still rested in the substantial categories of state, family and destiny. This substantial category is exactly the fatalistic element in Greek tragedy, and its exact peculiarity. The hero’s destruction is, therefore, not a result of his own deeds, but is also a suffering, whereas in modern tragedy, the hero’s destruction is not really suffering but action. In modern times, therefore, situation and character are really predominant. The tragic hero, conscious of himself as a subject, is fully reflective, and this reflection has not only reflected him out of every immediate relation to state, race, and destiny, but has often even reflected him out of his own preceding life. We are interested in a certain definite moment in his life, considered as his own deed. Because of this the tragedy can be exhaustively represented in situation and dialogue, since absolutely nothing in the immediate remains anymore. Hence, modern tragedy has no epic foreground, no epic heritage. The hero stands and falls entirely by his own acts.
The tragedy lies in a kind of guilt, but it is a guilt which comes upon him — as opposed to the ethical guilt of sin: “Hence, if he goest to the goes to the dogs, it is not tragic, but it is bad.”
He [the lecturer before the “Symparanekromenoi”] then draws out the element of the “comic” or “ridiculous”
the courage, which would thus be the creator its own destiny, aye, its own creator, is an illusion, and when the age loses the tragic, it gains despair. There lies a sadness and a learning power in the tragic, which one truly should not despise, and when a man, in the preternatural manner our age affects, would gain himself, he lose himself and becomes comical. Every individual, however original he may be, is still of a child of God, of his age, of his nation, of his family and friends. Only thus is he truly himself. In in all this relativity he tries to be the absolute, then he becomes ridiculous.
At this point, we can see the ridiculousness of our own (even more “modern”) age in its extraordinary claims of self-definition. There are many, many ways where this observation plays out: in theology, the exemplar Jesus who is merely a symbol against (Roman) oppression; in ethics, in psychology, in politics ….
The desire to be autonomous, to determine for oneself (to “know good and evil” in the language of Genesis 3), promises to make us our own creators. The result is comic — although bitterly so.
Perhaps there is a way to understand history as the continual unfolding of noetic effects of sin versus God’s redemption:
In the New Covenant God makes a new nation, a new people who are regenerated by God; who are kept by God. The rebellion is the false belief that a utopia is possible in the rejection of God, in the creation of our own “new” humanity. Is this age, that rebellion is a bitterly comic “tragedy”; in the age to come, that continued rebellion is hell for those who insist upon it.