Only by keeping your head down as you pick a precarious way through the minefield of human existence can you hope to survive, paying homage to cruelly capricious gods who often enough scarcely deserve human respect, let alone religious veneration. The very human powers which might allow you to find a foothold in this unstable terrain continually threaten to spin out of control, turning against you and bringing you low. It is in these fearful conditions that the Chorus of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King delivers its final gloomy judgement: ‘Count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last'.
This may be a response to the problem of human existence, but it is hardly a solution to it. For tragedy, there is often enough no answer to why individual lives are crushed and mutilated beyond endurance, why injustice and oppression appear to reign sovereign in human affairs, or why men are deceived into chewing the roasted flesh of their own slaughtered children. Or rather, the only answer lies in the resilience with which these issues are confronted, the depth and artistry with which they are framed. Tragedy at its most potent is a question without an answer, deliberately depriving us of ideological consolation. If it demonstrates in its every gesture that human existence cannot tolerably carry on like this, it challenges us to find a solution to its anguish which is more than just another piece of wishful thinking, piecemeal reformism, sentimental humanism, or idealist panacea. In portraying a world in urgent need of redemption, it intimates at the same moment that the very thought of redemption may well be just another way of distracting ourselves from a terror which threatens to turn us to stone.