Two apparently unrelated news items need to be understood in terms of tragedy; although, for interesting reasons, the idea of tragedy has been exiled from our political culture.
Peter Costello, we learn, had much better ideas than Howard, his master, about how to deal with the Republic, reconciliation and the rise of Pauline Hanson. Maybe he did. But for all his insight he couldn’t achieve anything. Despite being the second most powerful person in the country he was — on such important matters — impotent.
And today, the national debate about abortion again reaches the front pages. As usual this is framed as a conflict between women’s rights and the rights of the foetus or unborn child.
“Tragedy” often just means “very sad.” But it’s got a much more important meaning. An event is tragic not just because it’s awful, but because it reveals a profound — and inescapable — problem with the human condition. Briefly, a situation is tragic when whatever we do, however well intentioned we are, we cannot solve the problems that face us.
The elemental instance of Tragedy is the Antigone of Sophocles; it hinges on a conflict between Antigone’s loyalty to religious duty and the survival of the state in a time of war. In the play both demands and deserves our deepest respect; yet, in the specific situation of the drama, we can see that they cannot both be respected in practice. Something of grave and deep importance must be sacrificed. And however rational the choice, one way or the other, we are doomed to a terrible loss.
Tragedy moves away from blame. It’s entirely understandable that Costello should blame Howard, but without Howard, Costello would not have been in a position of power. Costello was impotent not because Howard stopped him, but because Costello couldn’t carry the party or the country with him in any project of doing what he took to be right. The twin demands of being in power and of using power wisely were in conflict.
There are, no doubt, some cases where abortion looks like the right thing to do. But it should almost always be an issue of intense gravity and immense regret. Legislation — which determines the legality or illegality of a course of action — cannot reach the truth. An action might be legal and yet rip apart the fabric of a person’s life.
This conception of Tragedy is exiled from political discussion. The fact is that even wise laws, or noble insights, may not be able to accomplish much good in the world. We desperately want to believe that our problems have solutions — if only we changed the law, get rid of the Prime Minister; yet the root of the problem lies in the tragic conflicts of life: between prudence and generosity, idealism and pragmatism, love and survival.