54. Tragic Wisdom

The Greek tragic playwright Sophocles presented a truly terrifying image of man: he is the species whose ability to master nature is paralleled only by his failure to master himself (cf. Antigone, 368ff). J. Peter Euben elaborates: “Humans are, at one and the same time, powerful and inventive beyond all other creatures, and destroyers of what they create, killers of what they love most, out of harmony with themselves and out of keeping with their surroundings.  Awesome and terrifying, in control yet uncontrollable, they are masters of nature but unable to master themselves.”[1]

In many ways John Dewey’s (1859-1952) philosophy can be understood as a response to this tragic image. His hope was that philosophy would become more pragmatic by using intelligence to address the problems of men thereby reducing the gap between our success in mastering nature and our failure in mastering ourselves. Dewey gives an example of a failure to reduce this gap:

“There is a contrast—a tragic contrast—which is pointed out over and over again in the life of the country today. On one hand, we have an abundance of crops—so  much so, that for some reason we are destroying them without using them; we have the most advanced and the best equipped industrial plant which the world has ever known or which any country now knows; we have enormous technical ability, engineering skill and material resources. That is the picture on one side: we have all of the sources to give all of the population a decent and a secure livelihood. The other side of the picture you already know and know only too well. There are still at least ten million people unemployed” (The Later Works of John Dewey, Vol 11, p. 275).

Such a contrast is indeed terrible.  But it is not as disturbing as a contrast which points to the very collapse of civilization:

“In some ways this contrast seems to me, if not more tragic, almost more inexpressible and more mysterious than the other. How is it that in one department of life, human intelligence has made such marvelous advances and then, when it comes to our human relations—not our relations to electricity and to radio but our relations to one another—we have what in so many respects is a collapse of civilization?” (The Later Works of John Dewey, Vol 11, p. 277).

Here we are in 2013, 61 years after Dewey’s death and some 2,300 years after Sophocles. We have certainly mastered nature in many ways. Indeed, many physicists think we are on the verge of a theory of everything! But can we boast the same success when it comes to education? Family? Love? Political wisdom? Famine? Human rights? A sustainable environment?

[1] J. Peter Euben, The Tragedy of Political Theory (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 34.

2 replies on “54. Tragic Wisdom”

  1. The powers that be (“property” owners of the means of production) want to keep the masses dumbed down! Goodyear you are a true carrier of Dewey’s torch, illuminating the minds of your students, I think Philosophy and logic and religions of the world should be taught in elementary school, after all they are elementary truths that one must know in order to accurately interpret all of the infotainment around us in this empire of illusion!

  2. Dwight Goodyear on

    Thanks for the nice comment Will! We certainly do need more philosophy in school. I hope you are well and that you music is as bizarre and enchanting as ever! Perhaps you can drop by WCC some time if you are in the area – we can catch up. dwight.goodyear@sunywcc.edu

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