In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the eponymous king is a good and accomplished man. He saves the city of Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, the embodiment of destiny, demonstrating that human intelligence can overcome one of the most powerful forces in the cosmos. Oedipus goes on to become the beloved King of Thebes and marries the beautiful Jocasta. Unfortunately, Thebes is subjected to divine punishment, as someone has sinned against the nature of things by killing the former king. Oedipus seeks out the murderer, only to discover that it is himself. As prophesied, Oedipus unwittingly killed his father and lay with his mother, bringing plague upon his city. Horrified, Oedipus finally succeeds in healing the city through removing its pollutant-himself. Oedipus tears out his eyes and goes into exile. The story is the emblematic tragedy of a good, competent and intelligent man, brought down by destiny. One of its morals is that we may temporarily outwit fate, but can never fully escape it. Since our shared fate is ultimately annihilation, life is fundamentally tragic. At its most pessimistic, this vision finds expression in the views of Silenus of Greece, who argued that the best thing in life is never to have been born, and the next best thing is to die young. It would have been better for Oedipus to have perished at the moment of his triumph, after overcoming the Sphinx, than live to see fate catch up with him.
Samuel Kronen has recently described Thomas Sowell as a tragic optimist. Sowell—whom I have written about before—is one of the best regarded conservative intellectuals in the world and the author of dozens of books. Kronen follows Sowell in arguing that our understanding of reality is underpinned less by reason and more by “vision.” As he puts it, quoting Sowell, “visions are what we feel before we think, an intuition about what causes things to happen in the world. Visions, according to Sowell, ‘fill in the necessarily large gaps in individual knowledge.’” Kronen argues that progressives have an “unconstrained vision”: they want to free human beings from the shackles of the past in order to create a better future. This vision sees the problems of human life as fundamentally social problems, to be managed by the state, and regards any naysayers as deviants who need to get out of the way or be cancelled. By contrast, Kronen admires Sowell’s “tragic” or “constrained” vision, which he describes as follows:
It is only by recognizing the inherent constraints of human life and, indeed, the tragedy of it all, that we can set about gradually improving our lot without falling into bitterness. If we don’t know how far we’ve come, it’s hard to know where we are going. “Heedless of the past,” Sowell warns, “we are flying blind into the future.” On the other hand, denying human tragedy sets in motion a perpetual spiral of activism in which the feeling of moral participation becomes an end in itself and life is made more tragic at the altar of good intentions. Sowell’s blend of tragic optimism and conservative humanism is an antidote to the moral zealotry of our political and cultural moment.
The Tragic Vision of Life
What Sowell and Kronen call “visions” are close to what Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, calls a sentimental attitude and what Ian Shapiro would call the “Burkean outlook.” It is not a philosophy, or even something that can be rationally explicated—it is pre-rational: an emotional bearing that precedes any cognitive process or examination of empirical data. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this: we all bring our individual outlooks, attitudes and visions to bear on our examination of the world, and this is part of the way in which human experiences vary. But it is important not to inflate such visions into something more profound than they are. A vision is simply an emotional approach. Some visions are rich and informative, others are not. In the hands of a Sophocles, Siddhartha Gautama or Simone Weil, the tragic vision deals with the ineradicable nature of human suffering and tries to combat it through art, reflection and reform—sometimes radical reform. This is not the kind of vision that all too often animates Sowell’s work, which is dark but cynical, expressing popular sympathy at some moments and disdainful elitism at others.
A genuinely tragic view of life incorporates universal sympathy for human suffering and our hope of overcoming it without expectations. It recognizes grace and even accomplishment in the failings of others, including those of the people who try to rise above their human limitations in order to better their own lot and that of others. At its most profound, the tragic view of life even encompasses empathy with the most cataclysmic failings of others—recognizing that there but for the grace of God go I.
Leo Tolstoy is one such exponent of the tragic vision. Written in the author’s fifties, his A Confession ruminates at great length about the pointlessness of existence and vividly details the internal life of a deep thinker who found only vanity and hypocrisy in his own doings and in those of others. And yet by the end of the book Tolstoy has come to rediscover his religious faith and commit to a demanding mission to reform the corrupt aristocracy of Russian society in the name of the poor. His classic The Kingdom of God Is Within You continues to strike this balance: it is scathing about established privilege and demands the end of wealth disparities and of war, while acknowledging the moral limitations that beset rich and poor alike and the intractability of the task at hand. Another iteration of the tragic vision was put forward by James Baldwin. In his 1965 debate with William Buckley Jr, James Baldwin attacks white supremacy and Jim Crow as evils of almost Biblical proportions and demands dramatic change. But he also empathizes with the humanity of his oppressors, musing that the spiritual decay they have undergone may have been worse than the racism they inflicted:
I suggest that what has happened to white Southerners is in some ways, after all, much worse than what has happened to Negroes there because Sheriff Clark in Selma, Alabama cannot be considered—you know, no one can be dismissed as a total monster. I’m sure he loves his wife, his children. I’m sure, you know, he likes to get drunk. You know, after all, one’s got to assume he is visibly a man like me. But he doesn’t know what drives him to use the club, to menace with the gun and to use the cattle prod. Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts, for example. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse. This is being done, after all, not a hundred years ago, but in 1965, in a country which is blessed with what we call prosperity, a word we won’t examine too closely; with a certain kind of social coherence, which calls itself a civilized nation, and which espouses the notion of the freedom of the world.
Finally, Dr Martin Luther King—himself tragically flawed as are we all—suffered greatly at the hands of his oppressors. But he recognized that the response should not be “to react with bitterness [but to] seek to transform the suffering into a creative force … Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue.” King’s creative force led him to envision a world of genuine human equality, in which both racism and poverty are recognized as social failings.
Neither Tolstoy, Baldwin nor King was naïve about the world or about human nature. There work has a tragic quality to it in acknowledging the inexorability of suffering, and the corrosive impact it might have even on well-meaning individuals. But they recognised a duty to rise above bitterness and try to make the world as just as it can be—despite knowing that there were no guarantees of success. This reflects what Cornel West, in Race Matters, might call the deepest kind of love, which is the wellspring of all genuine tragedy: the recognition of oneself in and by others and of the need for each individual to make the world better for the sake of her fellows. The pain we feel when we fail flows inextricably from this love. The tragedy of the human condition is that we cannot pursue justice without risking failure, just as we cannot love without knowing that what we love will die.
The Cynical Vision
The conflict between the [vision of the anointed and the tragic vision] goes back for centuries. Those with the tragic vision and those with the vision of the anointed do not simply happen to differ on a range of policy issues. They necessarily differ, because they are talking about very different worlds which exist inside their minds. Moreover, they are talking about different creatures who inhabit that world, even though both call these creatures human beings, for the nature of those human beings is also fundamentally different as seen in the two visions.—Thomas Sowell
Sowell’s work does not display the qualities we would associate with this interpretation of the tragic vision. He tend to regard the efforts of those who want to change the world with a cynical eye. Ironically, this attitude recalls the quasi-Gramscian leftism of his youth—seeing behind every seemingly well intentioned action either gullibility, hypocrisy or wilful malice. Sowell occasionally presents himself as a populist champion of common sense over the whims of out-of-touch intellectuals who want to impose their will on others. But he has also argued that the uninformed electorate should refrain from voting whenever they don’t vote for conservativism and often cites hierarchies of achievement and accomplishment. So his populist rhetoric isn’t rooted in a deep trust in democracy, given his calls for constraints on the franchise, since the “purpose of an election is not participation.” It flows from a cynicism born of hard experience. For Sowell, anyone who claims to want to make the world a much better place is a sucker or a fraud. Belief in the goodness and sense of ordinary people can be naïve, and it is especially ludicrous to vest your hope in intellectual elites. This kind of cynicism will always have a quasi-populist allure. Its streetwise disdain is sometimes mistaken for common sense, but it lacks the compassion for human failings that marks the authentically tragic vision. Such cynicism can give the illusion of profundity—but the cynic fails to recognize that such distrust of others can induce both self- and societal destruction through the corrosion of civic friendship necessary for a well-functioning democracy.
Following that, Sowell’s cynical vision is also deeply compromised by his obsessive partisanship. Even his tendency to bifurcate the world into two grand visions—a kind of us and them—itself displays the totalizing thinking Sowell claims that the tragic vision rejects. In this Sowell echoes Edmund Burke, who also tended to shift focus from the small and particular to the grandiose and extreme. But unlike Burke, Sowell’s work is very predictable, his narratives formulaic: those with the tragic view of life are always American conservatives of some kind. Whatever they believe is both realistic and desirable, tragic and commonsensical, in line with the experiences of the average man and reflected in a grandiose vision of a cosmos so fragile that it will be threatened with chaos if we raise taxes by 5 per cent to pay for public healthcare. To anyone who believes differently, Sowell responds with withering disdain. He views progressives—including those with a tragic vision of life—who want radical change as, at best, ignorant of their own intellectual limitations and only likely to make things worse by ignoring the accumulated wisdom embedded in longstanding institutions. More frequently though, as in his book Intellectuals and Society, such progressives are portrayed as the hypocritical, selfish and elitist “anointed” who attempt to hide their disdain for the everyman with his conservative views beneath a veneer of parochial concern for victims. At worst, they are duplicitous and malicious: exploiting the gooey sentiments of the masses to hide a resentment-driven politics that is ultimately about putting themselves in charge. As for the few instances in which radical change actually made the world a better place—such as the revolution that brought about the modern United States in the first place—Sowell argues that we need to view these as unique, sacred events, carried out by exceptional men whose efforts are to be venerated, not imitated. We should be the pious disciples of the American radicals, rather than emulating their innovative spirit.
There is a place for such a vision. Visions, after all, speak to deep emotional needs. We’ve surely all experienced distressing moments of doubt as to the human capacity for honesty, integrity and goodness. No doubt Sowell’s cynical vision was honestly come by. But it is not a tragic vision. It is bitter rather than sad and focuses on human folly rather than grace. According to Sowell, any effort to change things for the better will perversely make things worse because we simply cannot know enough to bring about improvement—he does not even acknowledge that unintended consequences can sometimes be beneficial, rather than corrosive. Progressive efforts to improve the lot of the poor have either amounted to nothing, according to Sowell, or have come at too high a price for the rest of society. By putting progressives in power, we jeopardize the fragile accomplishments we’ve managed to bring about so far—better to roll the dice on a postmodern billionaire whose disdain for democratic institutions that took centuries to build was well documented even before he became president. So I say let us have the tragic vision of Tolstoy, Harper Lee and King over the cynicism of Sowell.