In the sense of Greek drama, where the hero is brought low by a singular failing usually complicated by hubris, or overweening pride, in my view the great American tragedy is the moral and philosophical position of the average Confederate during the Civil War. Here were good, honorable, even noble people fighting valiantly in defense of a cause that they called “state rights” but was actually the right to preserve an immoral economic system, slavery. And they were brought low.
While most large landowners in the Old South owned and worked slaves, the majority of its white citizens did not.1 Small farmers, merchants, government officials, journalists—all the categories of modern civilized life—and most of the Confederate soldiers had no use for holding a human being as a chattel good. They may not have disapproved of the practice, because the economy of their region, the labor-intensive process of growing cotton as a cash crop, depended on slavery. But the average person had no real need to own, feed, discipline, and occasionally buy or sell, another human being. And when the harsh reality of that activity does not impress itself upon a person daily, it becomes easy to dismiss it into another part of the mind.
But it was there, at the root, the main difference between North and South, and the reason for the secessionist disjunction that led to five years of bitter war.
The essence of Greek tragedy is that good and admirable people can sometimes do bad things. It is not that they act through sheer ignorance—as Oedipus did when he murdered his father and married his mother—because that would be a fool’s fate.2 What sets the Greek hero’s tragedy in motion is that sense of pride, hubris, and believing that he or she is stronger and more important than the gods themselves. From pride comes misplaced values, which lead to unclear vision, stubbornness, anger, and often revenge. The resolution of the tragic story is for the individual to see and understand these errors—to understand oneself and one’s place in the order of things—and prepare to do better next time, even if there is no “next time.” The essence of the story for the tragic hero is to “know thyself,” gnōthi seauton, which was the injunction written above the door to the oracle at Delphi.
One might ask why, if I am going to choose a tragic story for America, I do not address the disposition, isolation, and ultimate destruction of the native populations and their culture, which lasted longer and took more lives than the Civil War?
My basic reason is that this act, harrowing and sorrowful as it may have been, was not in any sense a Greek tragedy. While we might feel pathos—an outflowing of pity and compassion—for the native people, their suffering and downfall did not result from an internal character flaw. They were simply caught on the wrong side of history. The Native Americans were, for the most part, Stone Age people living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, although some of the cultures in the Southwest pursued agricultural and herding technologies, planting corn and raising sheep, which only brought them up to the rest of the world circa 3,500 BC. They were facing a European culture that employed a scientific, mechanized, weaponized infrastructure five thousand years in advance. As the old saying goes, the tribes never fired a gun or a round of ammunition that they had made for themselves. The only sin of pride they exhibited was thinking they could stem the flood of white soldiers and settlers into their lands with bows and arrows or captured weapons. And this was not pride so much as a lack of knowledge. They went to war—understandably, because fighting was in their nature—before they really understood how advanced, determined, and numerous the European population was and what level of technology and scientific infrastructure it had at its disposal.
And on the other side—those soldiers and settlers pushing westward from Plymouth Rock under the flag of “Manifest Destiny”—there was no tragedy because, in a word, they won. They might at times have felt badly about it, and many still do today. But the outcome was always inevitable, as described above. But most of the Europeans directly involved did not feel so badly, either, because the natives were hardy and cunning warriors, lacking the gentility and sense of fair play that often comes with technical and cultural advancement. The natives would wipe out entire settler parties and villages when they could, sometimes engaging in the barbarous torture and mutilation of survivors.3 That tends to make the winning side less compassionate, even if from some points of view they were at moral fault.4 Still, the result was not a tragedy for the Europeans. For those settlers and villagers who were wiped out, their fate resulted from either a lack of military preparation in a wartime situation or an abundance of optimism and faith in their own personal strength, but not a tragic character flaw. For the European culture as a whole, there was no tragedy because they were never, in the aggregate, brought low.
For either the native population or the European invaders, the injunction to “know thyself” would merely have reinforced their basic cause and inspired them to fight harder.
But in the Civil War, there was tragedy in abundance. Like any Greek protagonist, the average Confederate citizen or soldier might have looked around, considered the true nature of slavery from the viewpoint of the slave, as well as the Abolitionists’ moral viewpoint informed by two thousand years of civilized Christian thinking and writing, and decided that secession and war were not the appropriate course of action. And for this lack of introspection, they suffered a tragic downfall.
Which brings us to the current day …
In the coming hot civil war—when the culture clash that divides our country boils over—the same moral question, the same potential for tragedy, will face one side or the other. Will the conservative part of America go down in defense of a tradition, the precepts of Western Civilization, that the progressives consider to be outmoded, oppressive, illiberal, imperialist, racist, misogynist, and exclusionary, being on the wrong side—the pernicious side—of history? Or will the progressive part of America go down in defense of a principle, the tenets of Democratic Socialism—or pure socialism, or Marxism, or whatever flavor of utopian collectivism inspires them—that the conservatives consider to be repressive, totalitarian, illusory, a fantasy, and a failed system wherever it’s been tried before, no matter what side of history you believe you inhabit?
One side or the other will have abundant moral and philosophical teachings to consider in opposition to their choice of action. And one side or the other will lose, tragically.
1. According to an analysis of recent claims about the number of slaveholders in the U.S., only about a fifth of individuals and families, and just a quarter of households, in the slaveholding states in 1860 owned slaves. So the vast majority of southerners may have supported the “peculiar institution” but did not directly participate in it.
2. In the Oedipus story, the root of the trouble was his parents abandoning him on a hillside as a baby—with his legs pinned together and therefore his name, “swollen foot”—because of a prophecy that he would one day destroy them. The fault was that of his father and mother, who tried to evade the will of the gods. Oedipus himself was at fault only for his innate anger, which led him to kill an old man at a crossroads, and his pride, which led him to marry the newly widowed queen. But in the root cause, he was merely an instrument of the gods.
3. As to the practice of taking scalps, my understanding is that the Native Americans did not initiate this rite but were taught it by the British during the French and Indian Wars. Scalping was usually fatal to the victim and was a convenient way to count heads taken some distance away in order to collect a royal bounty. In the Native American cultures, especially on the Great Plains, the bravest warriors were respected for their ability to “count coup”—from the French for “strike”—or ride up to an opponent and touch him without killing him. That was an act of honor.
4. For more on this conflict, see Retroactive Prime Directive from September 30, 2018.