The Ancient-Modern Quarrel over Tragedy

The Ancient-Modern Quarrel over Tragedy
(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

The day after the passing of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965, Leo Strauss delivered a philosophical eulogy to his students, contrasting “the indomitable and magnanimous statesman and the insane tyrant—this spectacle in its clear simplicity was one of the greatest lessons which men can learn, at any time.” The greatness of Churchill, having led a nation that stood alone against Hitler’s Germany in the perilous year 1940 (after the fall of France), was undeniable.

“The tyrant stood at the pinnacle of his power.” Yet the greatness of a statesman should not obscure profound failure as well. Strauss went on to remark: “No less enlightening is the lesson conveyed by Churchill’s failure which is too great to be called tragedy. I mean the fact that Churchill’s heroic action on behalf of human freedom against Hitler only contributed, through no fault of Churchill’s, to increase the threat to freedom which is posed by Stalin or his successors.”

Although Churchill was hardly culpable for the fact that the price of victory over Hitler’s Germany was Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Churchill’s courageous leadership against the Nazi menace had ultimately led to this dangerous reality. Strauss observed that the sheer magnitude of this bitter fate, which subjected millions of human beings to a tyranny that lasted over forty-five years, “is too great to be called tragedy.” Still, his remarks pointed to the meaning of tragedy, however inadequate that term was in understanding the new order that Germany’s defeat brought into being.

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