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Tragedy and the Loss of Ethics

Ancient Greek

Tragedy and the Loss of Ethics

Oedipus and Antigone by Charles Jalabert (1842)


By Susi Ferrarello, Ph.D.


Ethics seem like something that would be particularly helpful when you need to make a decision. In reality, ethics quite often seem to be more of a hindrance than a help. In many situations ethics may just get in the way and complicate the path to a resolution.

This is even more evident when where confronted by situation that’s truly tragic. In fact, tragedy seems often to have the power to annihilate and even renovate our ethical beliefs.

In short, tragedy is able to nullify our existing ethics because it lays bare the impossibility of being ethical in that moment when we need it most.


Antigone is an excellent example of this dilemma. As in countless other literary tragedies, there seems to be no right solution to the tragic event she’s living through.

She must make a tragic choice, either deprive her brother of a proper burial—even though this seems worse than death—or disobey her uncle and provide her brother with the funeral rites due to him—though that will then mean sentencing herself to an almost certain death.

Anything she does will be somehow wrong. If she chooses to obey her uncle, she will survive but will betray her own values and the love she feels for her brother. If she chooses to follow her religious duty, she will die because she has disobeyed the law of the state.

Nussbaum, very reasonably I think, wrote that tragedy is that condition in which good people happen to do bad things. Antigone has to choose whether to preserve the civic order or, alternately, to respect herself and the person she cares so much about. In the end, she opts for the latter. Interestingly, we don’t actually see Antigone pondering this choice because the events of the play begin in the middle of the action, after she’s already found her answer in the depths of her soul. There’s no right thing to do, unless the choice that’s made comes from a place of instincts and emotion; and even in this case the choice is only correct for the one who is making it.

The Bright Side of Tragedy

Now, all of the pain and suffering aside, there is also something quite positive in the tragic events of life. Even if good people like Antigone may be forced to take actions that are repugnant to them, these actions will connect them more closely to their destiny and consequently may enhance the love they feel for their own lives. In the end, we can only make the choice we’ll be able to live with for the rest of our lives.

This is why Lesky (1996) defines tragedy as that which comes out of a challenging dike (justice). The justice that comes out of tragedy is not a consequentialist form of justice—that is, if you invest “A” then you will get “A”; but is instead an Apollonian sort of harmony that appears after orgiastic disorder. The justice following tragic deeds takes the shape of a new form of order, which is produced by a shift in humans’ understanding of their own nature. Holocaust, segregation, and apartheid are examples of tragic events that left a permanent mark on human history but at the same time were encouragements to human beings to grow and improve their own natures.

We experience this phenomenon every day in our own individual lives: choosing whether to continue a relationship with a partner whom we love but with whom we cannot live; deciding to discipline a child, even if this means that we will have to see her suffer. We are constantly presented with decisions in our lives, whether we’re ready for them or not, and we’re forced to choose a direction, which will necessarily throw us out of balance and direct us toward new choices. An action needs to be taken. As Seneca wrote, as long as we live, we have to learn how to live; there’s no other choice. In tragic circumstances, we react by necessity to whatever happens to us, and this action is not one among many but is, to use the Greek word, a dran, a dramatic action–an act that will shape the future course of our life.

Of course, we don’t always have the freedom to decide what our life should be since sometimes life is merely what happens to us (tyche). Though we may feel genuine admiration for those who have survived a tragic event, they often say that in fact they were given no real choice except the decision of whether to continue living or not. Tragedy shows us both our moral fragility and our strength; it opens our eyes to the flow of change that shapes our life, whether we decide to embrace it or not.

Life Is an Event

Life is an event, a thing that happens to us. Things that happen are sometimes indicated in Greek by the word tyche (“luck”), though whether good or bad luck they do not say. Luck (tyche) is in simple terms our destiny. As Derrida writes, life is a limited event, a “Oui, peut-être”. “The experience of this limit is a jouissance greater than my jouissance, it is the impossible” (impossible love, 14). It is what is still to be achieved, I would say. Antigone is in love with the impossible and with her life all at once. She remains faithful to what is impossible because her life is an event whose limits have not yet been fully revealed to her, and in the end she chooses to embrace it and to be faithful to what is yet to happen.

Every character is a true hero in this tragedy because each chooses to love the events of life and to act according to its plot. That is what makes the tragedy so real. As Hegel remarked, arguing against Aristotle’s interpretation, there is no fatal mistake in Antigone’s tragedy, because each character had a real love for his own life so fought for it.


Ethics are the clothes (ethos) that we choose to wear so that we’ll be presentable in society, but they cannot be conceived of without life. It is from the most important events of our lives that we draw inspiration for ethical principles and not the other way around. For this reason, events that disorient our lives, whether they be tragic or joyous, also have the power to reorient our lives, taking them in unexpected directions that will bring new meanings to our ethical choices and actions.


Susi Ferrarello
Dr. Susi Ferrarello is a native of Italy who received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Sorbonne in Paris, France. She is currently teaching courses at the University of San Francisco, Saybrook University, and California State University: East Bay. She teaches Latin, Ancient Greek, Italian, Philosophy, and History for Carmenta Online PhD Tutors.

Click here to see Dr. Ferrarello’s full profile on the Carmenta Faculty Page.



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