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Our Tragic Flaw: Confronting Violence in Ourselves and the World (c) Parke Burgess, 2018




This book began with an alarm, the panic of crisis, a sense of terrible urgency. Although this seems to me a necessary way to begin, to propel ourselves outward beyond the seductive veils of complacency and denial, we must pass beyond even this. We will fall back into the gravitational pull of the inadequate conventional moral stance if we do not also transcend the limitations of emergency thinking. We must push through to a further realm in which our moral view, and the activism it inspires, unfolds in the context of eternity, informed by a deep and abiding sense of our actual existential situation, which is peace.

This book calls upon you to imagine seriously a not-too-distant future in which all inhabitants of this strange and unlikely planet commingle harmoniously. But we must be careful here. By “commingling harmoniously,” I do not imagine some new Eden every bit as implausible as the original one. Let us take our cue, instead, from the concept of harmony as it has been exhaustively developed in music. There, harmony is not limited to sweet and serene sounds that coddle the senses. Harmony refers to any coincidence of pitches, both dissonant and consonant. Harmony encompasses the study of all interactions of musical pitch, including those found in Stravinsky’s savage Rite of Spring or Penderecki’s chilling and horrifying Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Any who have had the good fortune of becoming intimate with a Bach fugue or a Gesualdo motet know perfectly well that harmony has never been without an abundance of poignant, even fierce, tension. Admirers of Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue know that two centuries ago there was already a place for brutality in Western art.

Harmony does not entail an absence of conflict or a continuous state of untrammeled beauty. Harmony, fully understood, refers to the whole trajectory of conflict, encompassing all manner of tension and resolution. In short, harmony reflects the whole content of life. But it reveals this content as art, as a dynamic flow whose expression is inherently beautiful, even as it passes through painful episodes. A harmonious view leaves nothing out, regarding life as an artful dance in all its seasons.

So, when I speak of all people and creatures commingling harmoniously, I do not mean that everyone gets along perfectly without the slightest itch of friction. In real life, this will never happen. Rather, I mean that all of us gifted with a moral sense can engage in the complexities of life with an appreciation of its artfulness—its inherent, complex beauty—without becoming caught up, and lost, in its inevitable fractiousness. The genius of the East, especially as manifest in the technology of meditation most highly developed there, is to recognize that this harmony arises exclusively in the present moment, a geography formed of timelessness and unlimited spaciousness. This geography provides the canvas upon which our lives acquire their meaning, and upon which our activism unfolds to best effect.

So, yes, we live in a time of unprecedented crisis in which the very fall of humankind has achieved a new immediacy and urgency. It is important to know this, or at least to entertain the idea in a serious way. If I am right, then we represent a tragic species living at a perilous time, close to the apogee of our poignant, woeful tale. This ought to color our conception of ourselves and our time in history, to be sure. But when we reside in a sense of timeless spaciousness, alert even to the tragic gravity of the present moment, we best rise to the challenge of our time, because we are most open to it, and we best remain resilient to its stresses.

In this frame of reference, futility and despair are states through which we may pass from time to time but where we never dwell long. These feelings arise only when we become attached to outcomes, which is a kind of denial about what’s true. We become moralistically obsessed by what ought to be rather than what is. As soon as we enter the land of ought, we become entangled in the briars of guilt and shame. Here, futility and despair come into full bloom. Instead, I suggest we regard morality, paradoxically, as about is over ought: about discovering what’s deeply true rather than what we merely wish were true. A peaceful world is not something we manufacture out of the whole cloth of our imagination, but something we discover already immanent in the world in which we find ourselves. Our imagination untethers us from a fixed and impoverished view of our world so that we may freshly observe its actual rich profusion of possibility.

When we look deeply into the texture of life as it continuously presents itself to us in the moment, its actual truth slowly and unfailingly reveals itself. To the extent that we can pay attention to this revelatory process, we become progressively more wise. Moral action becomes increasingly spontaneous and organic, as we react in ever deeper accord with the nature of reality. There is nothing remotely impositional about this moral stance whatsoever—we encounter no ought. We impose nothing; we are not imposed upon. Moral action becomes a process of uncovering what’s already true rather than replacing what seems to be true with something we might, for whatever reasons, prefer.

Our actions only seem futile when we measure them against the enormity of that toward which we strive. It is tempting to think that any one step of a thousand-mile journey cannot possibly make a difference. As the old adage reminds us, however, the only way to complete a long journey is to take the first step, then the second, and so on. No step, so long as we are pointed toward our ultimate destination, is wasted or futile. It is the only way to advance. Of course, we would prefer that every step were a giant leap toward the goal. We think we ought to be farther along, that our actions ought to be having a greater measurable impact. Nevertheless, if we pay close attention, our experience continually affirms that the truth is always what it is without the slightest deference to whatever we might prefer. Futility happens only when we lose sight of the actual. When we fully understand this principle, then we can accept futility simply as an indicator that we have fallen into a simple and innocent error of perspective, one that is easily corrected.

Despair manifests a further dimension of the problem of ought. When applied to ourselves—how we ought to be—we become hopelessly tangled in the web of shame. We despair when we encounter our own imperfections, especially in the modern perfectionistic milieu. But there is no such thing as perfection as we normally conceive it. Perfection is merely one of those constructs we can produce in our minds that has no correlate in actual experience. Naturally, when we compare our conception of perfection against our own actual performance, we suffer because we are not as we wish to be. I hope it is clear by now that the fault lies not with how we actually are, but with the simple and innocent mistake we make by constructing an idea of perfection and measuring ourselves against it.

The only thing available to our direct experience that we might characterize as perfect is the truth itself. If you want to experience this kind of perfection, you have to let everything go and just flow. To the extent you have gathered some wisdom, you will taste this perfection, even if only fleetingly. But remember, perfection is not something you achieve; it’s an experience that happens to you when you’re open enough to take notice. This kind of perfection is constantly available but rarely accessed because we are trying too hard to make perfection. Remember the old Zen teaching: Don’t make anything. To attempt it is arrogant and, indeed, futile. It leaves us no recourse and so ends, eventually, in despair. Thus, when we feel despair we can know this: we have become too attached to some idea of how we should be, and are closed off to what’s really going on. We can then set ourselves to the task of getting out of the self-constructed and self-destructive world of ought and back into the efficacious realm of is.

Paradoxically, my emphasis on is over ought leads me to a radical idealism: ideals are not manufactured from our oughts but express what is—the deep relations discernible in our actual situation. Our ideals, then, are the specific intentions borne of our general aspiration to live in deep accord with what is. They are ideals because they are hard to achieve in our practical living, too demanding ever to be perfectible, and have been submerged under millennia of largely unbridled violence. Ideals nevertheless establish the direction of our practice, moment to moment, our True North. We can travel north, but we never expect to get there. We know we are doing our job simply by traveling in the right direction; that is enough. When we consult our compass and discover that we have gone a little astray, which inevitably occurs, we simply turn slightly and head off once again toward our ideals. Even one step in the direction of our ideals disperses all futility and despair.

But what of the urgency of our perilous historical moment? Our job is to live artfully in the here and now—fully aware of our predicament but always alive to its possibilities for moral action, intimacy, and beauty. And this very practice offers the most efficacious way to influence the future of our species. If we feel the burden of futility, it is only because we have forgotten that our project is not to save the world but to live truthfully; and if we feel the yoke of despair, it is only because we have forgotten that we are surrounded by the truth at every moment, which contains the seeds of joy, if only we know how to reap them.

The argument I am making here is shot through with paradox, so it is easy to get confused. I am not suggesting we should give in to complacency and give up the struggle to change the world. No! I am saying, rather, that the hard and painful work of making (r)evolution, done well, is also deeply joyful—its joyfulness is how we know we are making the right kind of (r)evolution. Of course, it does not always feel that way—futility and despair will arise—but I am arguing that the joyfulness of living authentically in accord with what is is always available to us, even (or especially) in the midst of the arduous, often terrifying, always challenging work of confronting violence. A revolution without access to this joy would be grim and violent and, I suspect, would likely fail to bring the world any closer to peace.

The idealism I have been describing often comes under intense fire as hopelessly optimistic. This line of attack aims to invalidate (r)evolutionary ideals as recklessly out of step with reality. Human nature and the natural world, red in tooth and claw, are fundamentally and irretrievably violent. To think otherwise is foolish. Steven Pinker, as we have seen, makes this case. He wants to convince us that we must adopt one of two contrasting worldviews.[i] The Utopian Vision, as he defines it, holds that human nature is entirely malleable and can be bent into a perfectly peaceful shape, rendering Utopia a real possibility in the future. Pinker, of course, portrays this view as naive, even ridiculous. The Tragic Vision, in contrast, maintains that human nature is fixed (within certain limits) and unfortunate: among our admirable qualities, we are also violent, power-hungry, and capable of great cruelty. Pinker embraces this view, suggesting that the best we can hope for is a world in which our petty greed and murderousness is constrained only by a powerful state (the Leviathan) that holds a monopoly on violence.

If you have read this book superficially, you might be forgiven for assuming that I hold the Utopian view. A closer reading will reveal, however, that I also hold the Tragic view, as this book’s title suggests. Human nature is fixed, within certain limits, and we do have unfortunate qualities that may very well lead to the self-destruction of our species. Pinker’s analysis betrays its tyranny, however, by forcing a false choice between being naive or being cynical. Imagination in deep contact with our existential situation has no place in his thought.

Pinker inadvertently leaves the door ajar, however, when he characterizes humankind as tragic. He is right about this, but it means something more than he knows, which provides an exit out of his false binary. Discussing the classic tragic figure of Macbeth, Harold C. Goddard, in his masterful series of essays called The Meaning of Shakespeare, puts tragedy in its proper context:

When rich or noble natures display atavistic traits or slip back into atavistic conduct, as do Hamlet and Othello, those traits begin to assume tragic interest, for tragedy has to do with men possessing the capacity to become gods who, momentarily at least, become devils.[ii]

As Goddard further develops this idea, “Deeds of violence that come exclusively out of the brute in man have no tragic significance.”[iii] So, it is precisely in the utopian potential of humankind that our brutality acquires a “tragic significance.” In this sense, then, I agree with Pinker: humankind has displayed that brutality, those “atavistic traits” that are universal among our kind—but a future defined by these traits would be a tragedy only because, and exactly because, it need not be so.

If my dire assessment of the modern crisis is even close to accurate, we are at great risk of becoming characters in the final act of the greatest tragedy ever staged in the universe (so far as we know): the first beings capable of consciously knowing what they do, destroy themselves in an orgy of ingenuity and power—a devilish deed if ever there was one. But, as Goddard suggests, the tragic quality of this outcome lies not in its death and destruction alone, but in our capacity to have engineered an entirely different, and much less grim, outcome. We might have become “gods”—or to put it in more secular terms, we might have become (mostly) peaceful.

So the real tragedy of human extinction would be this: violence, our tragic flaw, is less true than peacefulness, and yet we would have followed it to its terrible conclusion. Peace is more true as a feature of the cosmos, and, I have sought to suggest, even as a feature of human nature, fixed though that nature may be. Violence is a mistake that, in each instance, we could have avoided. The extinction of humankind, should we incur it through violence, is the same and equally avoidable mistake on a grand scale.

As a tragedy like Macbeth unfolds on the stage, we watch in horror as the title character’s ambition consumes him. Pinker might say that Macbeth was doomed to this path; it was irrevocably in his nature; we can only watch in impotent dismay as he lives out his destiny. But I would argue that the poignancy of Shakespeare’s work lies in our conviction that things could just as well have turned out differently. That Macbeth did what he did does not provide proof, even in retrospect, that he could not have done otherwise. At every moment he might have chosen to be a Jesus or Gandhi or Mother Teresa, just as you and I can. His nature may render him disposed toward ambition, and he might not possess the wherewithal to choose differently in a vacuum, but he’s never in a vacuum—surely people and other forces in his environment could influence him, could call him back to his “rich or noble nature.” We know this is true because we ourselves have been saved in this way any number of times, just as we have saved others.

It is this that we understand as we watch mutely, in horror, as Shakespeare’s masterpiece unfolds. We suffer because we, too, are Macbeth. Shakespeare helps us to see ourselves as flawed and self-destructive in some important way, to recognize the kinds of choices we inevitably face, and, significantly, how to act morally even in the heat of life’s fierce drama. Though I lack Shakespeare’s poetic gifts, I hope that this book can serve a similar corrective purpose. Like all tragedies worthy of the name, this book reflects on our flaws, but only to expose all the more clearly a further horizon of rich possibility.

According to Goddard, even Shakespeare’s grim tale of Macbeth contains the seeds of a renewed future. So eloquently does Goddard capture this that I will leave the concluding lines of this book in his, and Shakespeare’s, exquisite care:


War is winter. Peace is spring. Were ever symbols more inevitable than these, especially in the religion and poetry of northern peoples? Winter is a giant. Spring, in comparison, is a maiden. How powerless she seems in his presence! But because the sun is on her side and moves in every root and bud she undermines the sway of the tyrant. And so does peace in this play. The Old Man, for instance, who talks with Ross outside the castle and bids him farewell in those Desdemona-like words:


God’s benison go with you; and with those

That would make good of bad, and friends of foes;


the Doctor who says at the sight of Lady Macbeth,


More needs she the divine than the physician.

God, God forgive us all!


the Waiting-Gentlewoman who bids him, “Good-night, good doctor”; little Macduff; the pious King Edward. These, and others, play no conspicuous part in the story. Yet perhaps Shakespeare is implying that it is only by the collaboration of thousands like them, whose contributions singly may seem as insignificant as single grassblades do to spring, that war, like winter, can be overcome.[iv]


[i] See Pinker, 2003, a book devoted to this idea.

[ii] Goddard, 1951, vol. 2, p. 116.

[iii] Goddard, 1951, vol. 2, p. 116.

[iv] Goddard, 1951, vol. 2, p. 135.