Biden’s inauguration occasioned another flurry of internet chatter and reflections on his often used quotation, “when hope and history rhyme,” from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, a version of Sophocles Philoctetes. Making “hope and history rhyme” has always s been an inspiring phrase for me, but, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the literary genre of tragedy and its usefulness to vocation, I was struck by how apt tragedy is for educating us in the type of civic engagement that lines of Heaney and the young poet Amanda Gorman call us to.
Tragedy is about the intersection of aspiration and calamity. It’s about a basically good character reaching toward a noble end. So, in that sense, great tragic heroes teach us what the pursuit of great love and great ambition looks like. But these characters come to ruin through errors in judgement, blindness to self, and what Simon Critchley calls in his lecture “Tragedy’s Philosophy,” “the snares and booby-traps of the past that we blindly trip over in our relentless, stumbling, forward movement.” Martha Nussbaum, in Political Emotions: Why Loves Matters to Justice, likewise explicates with great lucidity the wisdom and value of tragedy (and, in Nusbaum’s case, comedy) in guiding us around hubris and calamity and into justice and wisdom and love.
Reflecting on Heaney’s lines in light of the recent inauguration, it struck me that, in many ways, America is like a tragic hero from a Greek or Shakespearean stage. There is the pursuit of noble ends and ideals and aims, a rise to great prominence, yet through errors in judgement and blindness to self, America, like Oedipus, stumbles over unresolved matters of its past in its “relentless, stumbling, forward movement” toward its future. We can only hope that we citizens, like spectators of tragedy, get an education in fear and pity, the catharsis spoken of by Aristotle in the Poetics as a part of tragedy’s effect on us. The fear and pity evoked by national tragedies both remote and recent can help us walk into the future with greater humility and deeper compassion. Perhaps, unlike Oedipus, we will learn to see before it is to late. Tragedy, after all, is cautionary, and it exists so that our lives end as comedies.
But it wasn’t until Amanda Gorman read her poem “The Hill We Must Climb,” that I realized the more subtle and insidious tragic failing that threatens us. In our own lives the failings are often smaller and less histrionic than tragic failings of an Oedipus, Hamlet, Othello, or Lear. For us, the danger is settling for “just is” instead of “justice.” Gorman’s homophone warns of the seemingly small slippage from our true end and aim into weary, complacent, resignation. These small tragedies will, if they are great enough in number, lead to further national tragedy. Gorman’s brilliant word play warns of a deceptive, counter-fit rhyming of hope and history—settling for something very close that is in fact very distant. It is a false rhyme that suggests weariness, complacency, or skepticism have triumphed. This reminds me of another Heaney line, from his poem, “North,” taken from a volume of the same name written in the worst years of the Northern Irish Troubles: “exhaustions nominated peace.”
To refuse “just is” and strive for “justice” will be tiring and painful. And yet, here again, tragedy’s wisdom is aptly suited to our historical moment. After all, the wisdom of tragedy—humility, pity, devastating recognitions of our errors in judgement and action, a healthy fear born of the realization that we, too, can fall—is the wisdom of suffering. As Aeschylus puts it in Agamemnon: “Zeus, who guided men to think,/who has laid it down that wisdom/comes alone through suffering.”
We have suffered enough. Some of us have suffered much more than others and suffered so very unjustly for so very long. To persist in the face of injustice and suffering requires that we lose sight neither or the worth aim of “justice” or the ever present failing of “just is.” To use another of Gorman’s wordplays, to stop striving for “harmony” brings us only to “harm.” This collective endeavor to strain after a rhyme of hope and history, to recognize the error of “just is,” the “harm” in not pressing on to “harmony,” is indeed “The Hill We Climb.” And to climb this hill we must learn to aspire and to avoid calamity. And this is, precisely, the two-fold wisdom tragedy provides for our collective vocation.
Jason Stevens is an Associate Professor of English at Cornerstone University. He is interested in the role of the imagination, particularly the poetic imagination, in places of political violence and distressed social conditions. Click here to see other posts by Jason at Vocation Matters.