By Ronald L. Hall

Ronald L. Hall, Stetson University


By all, or by almost all, of the (American) accounts, the events of September 11th were tragic. This is evidenced by the fact that immediately following these events virtually everyone in America began to refer to the terrorist hijackings and subsequent attacks on The World Trade Center and the Pentagon as “our national tragedy.”

I was as shocked and horrified by these events as anyone else, and quite ready to go along with this characterization of these attacks as tragic. My guiding assumption here was that an event qualifies as tragic if it is tied up with bad endings of some very serious sort. And what worse endings can we imagine than the deaths of so many innocent people?

But was I being entirely too parochial? Perhaps I was taking an altogether too narrowly American slant on these events. My question was made all the more urgent by the sobering TV shots of Muslims celebrating in the streets. For many radical Muslims, these events were anything but tragic. From their perspective, none of the deaths on September 11th could conceivably count as a serious “bad ending,” indeed, quite the opposite. From the radical Muslim perspective, all of these deaths were good endings. All of the people who died either deserved to die (insofar as they were complicit, directly or indirectly, in America’s policies toward Muslims in general, and toward Palestinian Muslims in particular, and, directly or indirectly, complicit in supporting a morally corrupt American culture), or they were martyrs on a fast track to paradise.

Most Americans would probably agree with the claim that what happened on that “fateful” day was not tragic from the hijackers’ perspective, or from the perspective of the radical Muslim organizations, like al Quaeda, that were behind the attacks. Again, even though the “fate” of the hijackers was exactly the same as that of their victims, that is, violent death, they (the hijackers themselves) no doubt thought of their own (impending) deaths as good endings, perhaps the very best of endings, and those in the organizations who orchestrated the attacks no doubt saw justice being done in a morally corrupt American society. This much, I think, is fairly uncontroversial.

The question that I want to raise, however, is whether or not it makes sense, even from the American perspective, dominated as it is by Judeo-Christian tradition, to call these events “our national tragedy.” This is a particularly difficult question for Americans since, as a people, we are deeply informed by a religious worldview that is similar to the one that informs Islam. Historically, theologically, philosophically, ethically, and so forth, I can think of no better way to characterize this common worldview than to call it “biblical.” The fact is that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are all religions of “the book.”

How then can we characterize the general American perspective on these events? One thing is clear: most Americans would agree with the radical Muslims that the deaths of the hijackers were not tragic. Indeed, most Americans might agree that the hijackers “got what they deserved.” But what did they deserve? Well, from their perspective they got a well-deserved paradise for heroic sacrifice; and from the perspective of most Americans, they got a well- deserved—albeit self-imposed—death sentence for murder. In either case, the hijackers’ deaths—being thought of as justified by both sides, but for different reasons—would most likely not count as tragic for Muslims, Jews, or Christians.

So, we come to the deaths of the people who happened to be in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in the hijacked planes. Most Americans, I venture to say, would agree that they (and their loved ones) were the real victims of the tragedy. And most would agree, I aver, that their deaths were unjust, and moreover that they were serious bad endings, not only for them (if that makes sense), but especially for their loved ones, and somehow for the nation. It seems then that it is these deaths—these serious bad endings—that provoke us to call them tragic.

My question, however, is simply this: “Were we, and indeed, are we, justified in thinking of these deaths as constituting a tragedy?” Answering this question is especially difficult for those Americans—including me—who embrace the biblical worldview.[1]The difficulty here is found in the fact that it is arguable that tragedy has little, if any, place within the biblical worldview. Rather, the worldview where tragedy seems most at home is within what we might call the worldview of classical Greek antiquity. My assumption is that the modern worldview—where we find ourselves today—is the result of the triumph, or at least the dominance, of the biblical worldview over the Greek, though I would certainly not contend that this triumph or dominance was or is thorough or complete. Indeed, the present issue, the place of tragedy in a worldview dominated by biblical models and metaphors, shows to what extent we resist letting important concepts go, even if they seem to go against the grain of our generally accepted worldview. So again my question: “Insofar as Americans embrace the biblical worldview, are we justified in thinking that some events, like the events of September 11th were really tragic?” More specifically, I will ask whether Americans who embrace a biblical worldview are justified in viewing the events of September 11th as tragic. First, however, I turn to examine the Greek notion of tragedy as forwarded by Aristotle.

The Aristotelian View of Tragedy

Aristotle, perhaps more than any other single figure, has given us our most commonly accepted definition of tragedy. He taught us that a story or a play is tragic only if it has what I have been calling “a serious bad ending.” His way of defining it involves reversals of fortune that result in serious human suffering that in turn evoke in others the dual emotions of pity and fear. His classic definition is as follows: “A Tragedy then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also having magnitude…with incidents arousing pity and fear, whereas to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.”[2]By extrapolation, we can say that a minimal condition for a person’s life-story counting as tragic is that it involves incidents that arouse pity and fear. If we adopt this minimal criterion for tragedy, as I think we must, then are we justified in claiming that the events of September 11th were tragic?

We can’t adequately answer this question, however, until we are clear as to how to apply this Aristotelian criterion. Moreover, we can get clear about this, only if we have an adequate understanding of how Aristotle conceived of these emotions of pity and fear.

Consider first the emotion of pity. On Aristotle’s view, it is rational to pity someone who is suffering an unfortunate turn of events only if this suffering is serious (or has magnitude) and only if it is not deserved. For Aristotle, it makes sense (it is rational) to feel pity only if it would be irrational to think that the person who is enduring the (serious) suffering can be morally censured or blamed for bringing it about. “Pity,” Aristotle says, in the Poetics, “is occasioned by undeserved misfortune.”[3]And in the Rhetoric, he says: “Pity may be defined as a feeling of pain caused by the sight of some evil, destructive or painful, which befalls one who does not deserve it.” And what are such painful and destructive evils? His answer is: “death in its various forms, bodily injuries . . . ”[4]and so forth.

Secondly, consider the emotion of fear. The undeserved sufferings of others naturally provoke fear in us since whether or not we suffer is not merely a function of our moral actions or character. Even the best of us, on Aristotle’s view, are subject to bad luck, to the blind forces of chance or necessity, to what the Greeks called tuche. Tragic events provoke fear in us because we realize that such events could happen to us and that it is not within our power to be safe from them. Tragic events remind us of our human vulnerability, our human fragility. And this is scary. As Martha Nussbaum puts it:

Aristotle stresses repeatedly that what we pity when it happens to another we fear in case it might happen to ourselves . . .. And since pity already, in his view, requires the perception of one’s own vulnerability, one’s similarity to the sufferer, then pity and fear will almost always occur together . . .. Aristotle adds that fear implies that these bad things are big or serious, and that it is not within our power to prevent them.[5]

Much of our ordinary use of the term “tragedy” comports with Aristotle’s insights. Clearly our national tragedy provoked in most Americans both pity and fear. But it did not provoke this in everyone, nor was it provoked for all of the parties in the events. Americans generally had no pity for the terrorists, and terrorist supporters had no pity for the victims. And without pity (and its companion emotion of fear) there is no tragedy. That is, when people get what they deserve, pity and fear are not appropriate responses and hence the life-stories of such people are not tragic. Certainly, from the perspective of most Americans, all of the hijackers deserved to die and hence not one of them deserves our pity. On the other hand, and again from the American perspective, the non-terrorist passengers aboard these planes did not deserve their fate and would accordingly be pitiable and their death fearful. According to Aristotle’s criteria then, from the perspective of most Americans the deaths of the perpetrators of the attacks (the villains) would not be tragic while the deaths of the victims would be.

Keeping our focus on the connection between tragedy and the companion emotions of pity and fear, let’s consider whether Aristotle has given us enough resources for determining when pity and fear are and are not appropriate responses to the events we encounter. The key here for him is seriousness, or magnitude of the suffering. I don’t take exception to his claim that pity is an appropriate response to a case of suffering only if that suffering is underserved or to his claim that such cases of suffering are exactly the sorts of events that provoke in us the deep fear that we are similarly vulnerable. I am less sure, however, as to how we might judge when a case is serious enough for pity and fear to count as appropriate responses. That is, I cannot find in Aristotle an adequate criterion for making this judgment of what magnitude of seriousness is enough to make a case of suffering qualify as tragic. Is there any mark that guides us in determining when a case of suffering crosses the line of seriousness to become tragic? I do not object here to the idea that there may be a sliding scale of tragedy, since it does seem that some things are more tragic than others. I would hope, however, that such a sliding scale would not become a slippery slope that lets every case of suffering—the pain of my amputated little toe, for example—count as tragic. In other words, granting that we might very well have to settle for a sliding scale of seriousness, or a sliding scale of the tragic, this need not imply that it would not make sense to say that at some point on the scale we would pass beyond the point at which the term “tragic” would no longer apply.

Is there any clear mark of this point on our scale on the other side of which we would cease to call an event tragic? Perhaps there is no such hard and fast mark, but there are some guidelines. I would like to suggest one here. What I have in mind for marking the difference between sufferings that are serious enough to qualify as tragic and those that are not is found in the distinction between what I would call repaired (and hence reparable) undeserved sufferings vs. irreparable undeserved suffering. Clearly it is intelligible to make such a distinction. Moreover, it also seems intuitively clear that irreparable underserved suffering is more serious than reparable undeserved suffering, even if that suffering is not in fact repaired. To my mind, this difference is so great as to make it reasonable to think of such cases of underserved irreparable suffering as the ground zero of seriousness, and hence as the ground zero of the tragic. Other cases of undeserved suffering that are reparable but not in fact repaired are less tragic, and indeed cases of repaired undeserved suffering may not be tragic at all. In this latter case, we may well refuse to call such events tragic if the suffering it produces is merely a temporary setback, and with time is reversed.

For the sake of argument, then, I will adopt this amendment of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy since it is highly unlikely that anyone would deny that any case of irreparable underserved suffering is more serious than a case of repaired underserved suffering. The amended criterion comes to this: every case of undeserved and irreparable suffering is tragic, and cases of undeserved but repaired suffering are not serious enough to qualify as tragic. In saying this, I am trying to capture the difference between events that end badly and events that end well—that is, the difference between tragedy and comedy. This amended definition of tragedy may help us with our original question as to whether from a biblical perspective the events of September 11th were or were not tragic.

A Biblical View of Tragedy

In trying to formulate how someone who is committed to a biblical worldview would answer the question whether the events of September 11th were tragic, I turn to George Steiner’s book entitled The Death of Tragedy.[6]Steiner addresses precisely the issue with which I am wrestling. In addition to proposing a definition of tragedy along the lines I have developed here, Steiner also makes the claim that tragedy has no legitimate place within a biblical framework. (If Steiner is correct about this, then those Americans who claim a biblical heritage could not properly understand the terrorist attacks as tragic.) Of course Steiner’s claim that tragedy has no legitimate place within the biblical framework is based on his definition of tragedy and on his understanding of the biblical worldview.

Steiner’s conception of the tragic and his claim that it has no place within the biblical worldview is hinged on a distinction I have already introduced and which he makes much of, namely, the distinction between the Greek and the biblical worldviews. Steiner says that tragedy was as central to the Greek vision of reality as it was alien to the biblical perspective. What is Steiner’s definition of tragedy that leads him to make this assertion? An element of Steiner’s definition is captured in his claim that, “ . . . where there is compensation there is justice not tragedy.”[7]

To see this contrast between justice and tragedy, consider the differences between the biblical story of Job and the Greek story of Oedipus. As Steiner sees it, the story of Job doesn’t really count as tragic since in the end there is compensation and hence justice. (It does not alter the weight of this claim to point out that the compensation story was a later addition to the original story that ended with Job repenting in dust and ashes. In fact it supports Steiner’s point, for it shows that this tradition could not let that bad ending stand.) To put this in different language, Job’s undeserved suffering that resulted from his losses was not irreparable because his losses were not permanent. Because his losses were only temporary setbacks and not irretrievable, they could be restored, and in fact they were restored. The story of Job ends well. In contrast, in the case of Oedipus, we find a story of underserved suffering for which there is no compensation, no reparation, and no final redemption. The story of Oedipus ends badly.

For Steiner, the Greeks commonly assumed that such irreparable damage is most often caused by blind forces of necessity and chance (forces of tuche) all around us shaping our lives for good or ill, and that these forces lie outside the governance of reason or justice. [And] worse than that…[these forces can] . . . prey upon the soul and turn it to madness or . . . poison our will so that we inflict irreparableoutrage upon ourselves and those we love. . . .Tragedies end badly. . . . Tragedy is irreparable.[8]

According to Steiner, it was Christianity that inherited the Judaic vision and its implicit repudiation of tragedy-as-undeserved-irreparable-human suffering. But, as Steiner sees it, Christianity did more than inherit this vision: its doctrines of the resurrection and its promise of heaven, and the final redemption of all believers, dealt the coup de grace to tragedy. He claims:

At Gethsemane the arrow changes its course, and the morality play of history alters from tragedy to commedia. Finally, and in precise counterpart to the prologue of disobedience, there is the promise of a celestial epilogue where man will be restored to more than his first glory.[9]

Suppose then that we accept, as I do, Steiner’s definition of tragedy as undeserved and irreparable human suffering. Does it follow that a biblical worldview excludes the possibility of acknowledging the reality of tragedy so defined? More precisely, is Steiner correct to think that a biblical perspective cannot grant a legitimate place to the reality of tragedy, so defined, because adherents to this worldview believe that there are no ultimately bad endings, at least for the faithful? And is he correct that whatever ultimate bad endings a biblical worldview can acknowledge, namely the bad endings for the damned, are not really tragic either, because these bad endings are just? More pointedly, given Christianity’s beliefs about the ultimate redemption of the faithful in heaven, is Steiner correct to say that the Christian perspective can find no legitimate place for tragedy because this perspective excludes the possibility that human beings are subject to undeserved irreparable suffering?

Let us try to answer this last question by first accepting Steiner’s definition of tragedy, and then going back to apply it to our original question: “From the biblical perspective, was our national ‘tragedy’ really tragic?” Granting that, from the perspective of most Americans, it is not problematic that the damage caused that day was undeserved by all but the terrorists themselves, this question now turns out to be the question of whether the events of that day inflicted any irreparable suffering. If we insist that they did, something I want to insist on, then we are faced with the following dilemma: If the events of September 11th were indeed tragic in Steiner’s sense, and if he is correct that tragedy in this sense has no legitimate place within the biblical framework, then either this framework is deeply flawed, perhaps irreparably (tragically?) so, or he is mistaken that this worldview cannot acknowledge a legitimate place for real tragedy.

My view is that tragedy in Steiner’s sense is a real possibility for human lives and that indeed our national tragedy was actually tragic insofar as it caused undeserved and irreparable human suffering. That is, I simply cannot abandon the belief that tragedy is a real human possibility, and often a real human actuality. This is difficult for me, since I am also an adherent (of sorts) to a biblical worldview. My problem then, and I think the problem for many, is finding a way of making sense of how such tragic events can be accommodated within this biblical perspective. In fact I am so committed to finding a place for the tragic, that I am willing to, indeed, I will be forced to, abandon my embrace of the biblical perspective if I find that it cannot accommodate the tragic.

Let’s come back then to the question of the victims of the tragedy. “For whom, if any, were these events tragic?” I think that we might include the victims themselves, but that we must certainly include all of those who valued the victims’ lives, ranging from loved ones to fellow Americans to fellow human beings.

In one sense, it might appear hard to make the case that what happened to the victims was (or is) tragic for them, since they are dead. Lucretius is famous for making the claim that death cannot be a bad thing for the dead, since something can be a bad thing for someone, or as we might say, a tragic thing for someone, only if he or she experiences it as such, which, for those who are dead, is impossible.[10]To answer Lucretius on this point would take us far afield. My inclination, however, is to think that the untimely and undeserved death of the hijacked passengers, and the death of the people in the buildings the hijacked planes hit, count as irreparable damage to them. What seems obvious to me is that the lives of those killed were permanently ruined, and because this ruination was undeserved and serious, these deaths do count as tragic, even for them.

More obviously, I think, these events were tragic for the people who did not lose their own lives but lost the lives of loved ones. Think of all of the children, wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and fellow human beings, who were devastated by these events. It is hard to think that the ones who lost loved ones escaped having their own lives permanently scarred, if not ruined, by these losses. If the people that suffered these losses of their loved ones did not deserve this suffering and if these losses were permanently damaging, it is hard to see how we can avoid calling them tragic.

Of course, one does not have to die, or to have one’s loved one die, to have one’s life permanently and undeservedly ruined. Consider the following example. Suppose that a relatively young man at the peak of his career falls off a horse and through no fault of his own his collision with the ground breaks his neck and renders him a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. Wouldn’t we say that this person’s life was permanently ruined? And wouldn’t we also say that the lives of this person’s loved ones were also irreparably and undeservedly ruined?

Well, what if this “victim” made the best of his irreparable condition? Indeed, suppose that the quadriplegic does make the best of the life he has left; suppose in fact that he even makes great contributions to the world, which he would not have made had it not been for the accident. Would this mean that what happened to him was not tragic? Clearly not, for even granted that good can be brought out this bad situation, it does not follow that the situation that causes the suffering in this case is repaired, or in some way becomes good. The fact that good can come out of suffering does not imply that the sufferings of the quadriplegic and his loved ones are not irreparable. But what about heaven? Doesn’t the Christian hope that someday, in the next life, the quadriplegic will be fully restored to health imply that his present suffering is reparable? If we come to think so, we might begin to think it is shortsighted to grouse about present suffering simply because it cannot be fixed in this life, for surely it can, and will be fixed in the next. So we might be tempted to conclude that while there may well be many undeserved human sufferings, none of these are ultimately irreparable for indeed all of this damage will someday actually be repaired. This might lead us further to conclude that if there is an afterlife that restores us fully and completely, then there can be no ultimately bad endings, that is, there can be no real tragedies.

The same logic would apply to the people who sustained such devastating losses in the hijacking attacks. I do not think that we would be justified in thinking, because lots of good can be brought out of this very bad situation, that these events were really not tragic after all. We may, however, come to believe that we are justified in thinking that the damage these events caused is not irreparable, since it will be repaired in heaven. This might then lead us to reconsider our judgment that these events were tragic, that is, that they caused irreparable harm.

This is a seductive logic. If we suppose that those who lost loved ones in this national tragedy will have their loved ones restored to them in the next life, we might come to believe that our thoughts of these events as tragic simply reflects our impatience. What the hope of heaven suggests is that these sufferings were just temporary setbacks, not irreparable. Even if we do not get everything back the way that Job did in this life, we will get it all back in the next life. So, to echo Steiner again, if there is compensation, there is justice, not tragedy.

Let me close by questioning Steiner on exactly this point. Steiner’s pivotal claim is that where there is compensation and eventual restoration there is no tragedy. Or to put this differently, if compensation and restoration are forthcoming to all who suffer (and are believers), then no damage to them is irreparable, and indeed all damage will in fact be repaired. And if this is so, there is no tragedy, no ultimately bad endings.

Consider the following two cases. Suppose that my dearest loved one, my wife, suffers a temporary lapse into amnesia. She cannot remember where or who she is and as a consequence is lost for days or weeks. Now suppose that by the same stroke of chance her memory is restored. She returns home, and my loss and hers is repaired. It is hard to see how this happy ending could count as tragic.

Can we amend the story to make it tragic? Suppose the amnesia remained and she never returned. Now would the situation be tragic? Suppose after many years of separation that we both die apart from one another. Now suppose that we both go to heaven, her memory is restored and we are reunited. Have things been repaired? I think the answer to this question must be an emphatic “no.” That is, I think that we must say that nothing, not even our heavenly restoration, could compensate our earthly loss. The fact that we are now together does not make it acceptable that we were deprived of a life together on earth. Even from such a heavenly perspective, I would still have to think that the fact that we were so deprived did irreparable damage to us; it was tragic then and is tragic now, and even heaven can’t repair our loss of a life together.

I think of the events of our national tragedy in a similar way. Many were deprived of much and heaven cannot change this, or make it acceptable that they were so deprived. The losses here were irreparable, they were tragic. To reiterate: even granted that loved ones may be reunited in the heavenly hereafter, I cannot imagine that any would say that what happened that fateful day in September was something good. Nor do I think it is plausible to think that the hope for a future restoration nullifies the claim that these events were tragic. That is, I cannot resist thinking that even from a post-mortem heavenly perspective we would still see that these terrorist attacks were and will always be tragic.

If a biblical worldview can allow this to be so, then Steiner is wrong. More importantly, if biblical faith can allow itself to acknowledge a place for tragedy within it, then its perspective would accord more readily to our ordinary experience than it seems to on Steiner’s account. If we grant that events can cause undeserved and irreparable damage then we can continue to think that our national “tragedy” was really tragic, as we all thought at first and most likely still do, without having to abandon faith, including the hope for a hereafter of redemption and restoration.

Of course this does not solve all of the problems for the faithful. Now the problem of evil begins in earnest. And the main agenda of this problem is to answer this question: How can there be tragedy in a world governed by a loving and all-powerful God? Atheism is argued on the basis of taking tragedy seriously. Theism is defended either on the basis of denying tragedy its full reality, or on the basis of arguments—free will defenses and virtue defenses, for example—that show us how to reconcile biblical faith with the hard facts

It is beyond the scope of this paper to rehearse these arguments here. As far as I am concerned, however, such attempts at reconciliation must go in one direction only. Trying to make the hard facts of life, its tragedies included, fit with our faith, as we have just seen, may cause many to think that they have to deny that events like our national “tragedy” were really tragic. I much prefer going in the opposite direction. As I see it, I can continue to embrace my faith only if I can find a way to reconcile it with the exigencies of human life. And this includes reconciling it with life’s hardest fact, our intractable human vulnerability to undeserved and irreparable suffering.



[1]Common to this worldview is the belief in a personal God who—being just—has created a world in which justice will ultimately prevail.

[2]Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York, 1941) 1460.

[3]Aristotle 1467.

[4]Aristotle 1468 (emphasis added). These passages do not settle the issue of whether or not on Aristotle’s criteria, Shakespeare’s tragedies count as “tragic,” since in these cases it seems that the “tragic figures” (Hamlet, for example) bring their suffering upon themselves and so the suffering does not simply “befall” them.

[5]Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986) 385.

[6]George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy(New York, 1961).

[7]Steiner 4.

[8]Steiner 7-8 (italics added).

[9]Steiner 13.

[10]See Martha Nussbaum, “Mortal Immortals: Lucretius on Death and the Voice of Nature” in her The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1994) 192-228.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House. 1941. Nussbaum, Martha. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton: Princeton UP. 1994.

The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 1986.

Steiner, George. The Death of Tragedy. New York: Hill and Wang. 1961.


Ronald L. Hall

Ronald L. Hall is Professor of Philosophy at Stetson University in DeLand Florida. He holds a B.A. from Stetson, a Masters of Divinity from Duke, and a Ph.D. from Chapel Hill. He is the author of: Word and Spirit: A Kierkegaardian Critique of the Modern Age (Indiana University Press, 1993), The Human Embrace: The Love of Philosophy and the Philosophy of Love (Penn State Press, 1999), LogicWorks: The Next Generation, with Rob R. Brady (Philosophical Information Center, forthcoming 2003), and numerous articles in journals and books.