Every now and again, I find myself reading (re-reading, actually) Aristotle’s Poetics or his Ethics. There is a good reason that St. Thomas Aquinas simply refers to Aristotle as the Philosopher.
This past week, I was once again at the Poetics and read the portion on the Ideal Tragic Hero. Aristotle described the ideal tragic figure as one who is a good man but who also has some tragic flaw. Hubris or tragic pride can be called the “pride that comes before the fall.” But in Attic law, hubris is also degrading or causing shame to a victim through words or actions.
Still, Aristotle wants his heroes to have some failing, so that the hero’s fall is deeply moving but not without expectation. It is pity that Aristotle thinks is what should be aroused in the fall of the hero. Fear is another offspring of such emotion—fear that comes from seeing the misfortune of a person such as ourselves.
But what about the suffering of a blameless character? Aristotle cannot even countenance such an idea. The spectacle of a blameless or a perfect person can only horrify. If such a person were to suffer tragically, the audience could not bear it. Without the justice of tragedy befalling a flawed character, the audience would feel no hope for themselves in seeing the suffering of a figure so unlike themselves. The only reaction would be horror.
Maybe it is because of the Easter season, or because my mind always turns to things theological, but I thought how true that is for us in contemplation of Good Friday. The horror of the Lamb of God suffering is sometimes too much to bear. Aristotle, writing 300-plus years before Christ, called it right on the nose.
It was the next day when my old friend and colleague, Gerry O’Sullivan reminded me (not knowing what I had just been reading) of De Profundis written by Oscar Wilde. De Profundis is actually a letter written by Wilde while he was serving a jail sentence. The title is Latin for “Out of the Depths” which is taken from Psalm 130:1 which reads in Latin: De profundis clamo ad te, Domine or in English, Out of the depths have I cried unto you, O Lord. It is the prayer that I sent into the cosmos for all of my childhood and much of my adult life. We all have.
Oscar Wilde was calling out in his misery and humiliation and he began to identify with the Savior. From the jail cell, he wrote:
“I had said of Christ that he ranks with the poets. That is true. Shelley and Sophocles are of his company. But his entire life also is the most wonderful of poems. For ‘pity and terror’ there is nothing in the entire cycle of Greek tragedy to touch it. The absolute purity of the protagonist raises the entire scheme to a height of romantic art from which the sufferings of Thebes and Pelops’ line are by their very horror excluded and shows how wrong Aristotle was when he said in his treatise on the drama that it would be impossible to bear the spectacle of one blameless in pain. Nor in Æschylus nor Dante, those stern masters of tenderness, in Shakespeare, the most purely human of all the great artists, in the whole of Celtic myth and legend, where the loveliness of the world is shown through a mist of tears, and the life of a man is no more than the life of a flower, is there anything that, for sheer simplicity of pathos wedded and made one with sublimity of tragic effect, can be said to equal or even approach the last act of Christ’s passion. The little supper with his companions, one of whom has already sold him for a price; the anguish in the quiet moon-lit garden; the false friend coming close to him so as to betray him with a kiss; the friend who still believed in him, and on whom as on a rock he had hoped to build a house of refuge for Man, denying him as the bird cried to the dawn; his own utter loneliness, his submission, his acceptance of everything; and along with it all such scenes as the high priest of orthodoxy rending his raiment in wrath, and the magistrate of civil justice calling for water in the vain hope of cleansing himself of that stain of innocent blood that makes him the scarlet figure of history; the coronation ceremony of sorrow, one of the most wonderful things in the whole of recorded time; the crucifixion of the Innocent One before the eyes of his mother and of the disciple whom he loved; the soldiers gambling and throwing dice for his clothes; the terrible death by which he gave the world its most eternal symbol; and his final burial in the tomb of the rich man, his body swathed in Egyptian linen with costly spices and perfumes as though he had been a king’s son. When one contemplates all this from the point of view of art alone one cannot but be grateful that the supreme office of the Church should be the playing of the tragedy without the shedding of blood: the mystical presentation, by means of dialogue and costume and gesture even, of the Passion of her Lord; and it is always a source of pleasure and awe to me to remember that the ultimate survival of the Greek chorus, lost elsewhere to art, is to be found in the servitor answering the priest at Mass.
Yet the whole life of Christ—so entirely may sorrow and beauty be made one in their meaning and manifestation—is really an idyll, though it ends with the veil of the temple being rent, and the darkness coming over the face of the earth, and the stone rolled to the door of the sepulchre. One always thinks of him as a young bridegroom with his companions, as indeed he somewhere describes himself; as a shepherd straying through a valley with his sheep in search of green meadow or cool stream; as a singer trying to build out of the music the walls of the City of God; or as a lover for whose love the whole world was too small. His miracles seem to me to be as exquisite as the coming of spring, and quite as natural. I see no difficulty at all in believing that such was the charm of his personality that his mere presence could bring peace to souls in anguish, and that those who touched his garments or his hands forgot their pain; or that as he passed by on the highway of life people who had seen nothing of life’s mystery, saw it clearly, and others who had been deaf to every voice but that of pleasure heard for the first time the voice of love and found it as ‘musical as Apollo’s lute’; or that evil passions fled at his approach, and men whose dull unimaginative lives had been but a mode of death rose as it were from the grave when he called them; or that when he taught on the hillside the multitude forgot their hunger and thirst and the cares of this world, and that to his friends who listened to him as he sat at meat the coarse food seemed delicate, and the water had the taste of good wine, and the whole house became full of the odour and sweetness of nard.
Renan in his Vie de Jesus—that gracious fifth gospel, the gospel according to St. Thomas, one might call it—says somewhere that Christ’s great achievement was that he made himself as much loved after his death as he had been during his lifetime. And certainly, if his place is among the poets, he is the leader of all the lovers. He saw that love was the first secret of the world for which the wise men had been looking, and that it was only through love that one could approach either the heart of the leper or the feet of God.
And above all, Christ is the most supreme of individualists. Humility, like the artistic, acceptance of all experiences, is merely a mode of manifestation. It is man’s soul that Christ is always looking for. He calls it ‘God’s Kingdom,’ and finds it in every one. He compares it to little things, to a tiny seed, to a handful of leaven, to a pearl. That is because one realises one’s soul only by getting rid of all alien passions, all acquired culture, and all external possessions, be they good or evil.
I bore up against everything with some stubbornness of will and much rebellion of nature, till I had absolutely nothing left in the world but one thing. I had lost my name, my position, my happiness, my freedom, my wealth. I was a prisoner and a pauper. But I still had my children left. Suddenly they were taken away from me by the law. It was a blow so appalling that I did not know what to do, so I flung myself on my knees, and bowed my head, and wept, and said, ‘The body of a child is as the body of the Lord: I am not worthy of either.’ That moment seemed to save me. I saw then that the only thing for me was to accept everything. Since then—curious as it will no doubt sound—I have been happier. It was of course my soul in its ultimate essence that I had reached. In many ways I had been its enemy, but I found it waiting for me as a friend. When one comes in contact with the soul it makes one simple as a child, as Christ said one should be.
Christ, like all fascinating personalities, had the power of not merely saying beautiful things himself, but of making other people say beautiful things to him; and I love the story St. Mark tells us about the Greek woman, who, when as a trial of her faith he said to her that he could not give her the bread of the children of Israel, answered him that the little dogs—(κυναρια, ‘little dogs’ it should be rendered)—who are under the table eat of the crumbs that the children let fall. Most people live for love and admiration. But it is by love and admiration that we should live. If any love is shown us, we should recognise that we are quite unworthy of it. Nobody is worthy to be loved. The fact that God loves man shows us that in the divine order of ideal things it is written that eternal love is to be given to what is eternally unworthy. Or if that phrase seems to be a bitter one to bear, let us say that every one is worthy of love, except him who thinks that he is. Love is a sacrament that should be taken kneeling, and Domine, non sum dignus (Lord, I am not worthy) should be on the lips and in the hearts of those who receive it.”
On our own, we are not worthy of such love and forgiveness. Wilde was all too correct. But the love of Christ has made us worthy. Our first response should be gratitude and not the prayer of the Pharisee in Luke 18:11 who said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” Fortunately, Christ’s love is equally for the poor and the proud, the rebellious and the righteous. Sadly, the proud and the righteous often forget that they are still sinners, too.
As for me, I choose to approach Good Friday with gratitude and Easter with great relief.
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