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'Reason's Grief': Harris seeks a tragic ethics for the 21st century

In his recent book, Reason’s Grief: An Essay on Tragedy and Value, George Harris, Chancellor Professor of Philosophy at the College of William and Mary, argues for a return to the Homeric sense of tragedy as a springboard toward understanding how to live a life in which the good has a chance of outweighing the bad in the 21st century.

Harris believes the lack of a tragic ethic creates more tragedy in the world. All notions—philosophical, political and religious—that keep the human animal from appreciating the ultimate incomparability of values exacerbates the dilemma, he said.

“Homer had this view: The point of life is to live honorably knowing that life is going to be tragic,” Harris explained. In the book, he challenges philosophical and religious constructs that build upon notions of supreme values as diversionary. Central to Harris’ argument are assertions that human values are conflicting and that humans sometimes are confronted with choices in which the conflicting values are “incomparable,” leading to loss that rises beyond  “reason’s regret” to “reason’s grief.”

“Tragic loss is a pervasive feature of human life,” Harris said. “As a species, we must understand that we occupy a very brief period of history and that we will, at some point, vanish without a trace.” Given that backdrop, as well as the way tragedy plays out in individual circumstances, Harris calls for an ethical perspective that accepts such loss and empowers human beings to live robust lives filled with hope.

Harris has struggled to enunciate such hope in the face of his own medical predicament. In 2002, he was diagnosed with myelodysplasia anemia, a form of leukemia. Although he does not deal with his condition directly in the book, he admitted that it “must have” influenced that project. “It makes you aware that there is a beginning and an end, and the end doesn’t necessarily come when you want it to,” he said.

During a recent videotaped interview, Harris reflected upon his own understanding of joy given his own medical condition. “Whether I was created by God, or whether I’m just the result of the laws of nature, I’m alive. I can see colors. I can hear music. … These are the things that fill up life, and I am ecstatic that I got the chance,” he said.

Although Harris devotes many pages in Reason’s Grief to examining the arguments of past thinkers from Aristotle to Kant in light of tragedy, he does interlace his own insights with contemporary examples. Just as previous philosophers tended to be “too optimistic,” so, too, are current governmental and cultural leaders.
“There’s a kind of American optimism that is very dangerous in my opinion,” Harris said. “It devises solutions to the problem that simply exacerbate the tragedy. We need to deflate our expectations in a way. We need to ask what kind of life is possible given the human condition and quit pretending that we can have it all. The nature of our values is such that we cannot have it all, and we create more tragedy by avoiding that topic than if we addressed it head-on.”

Harris made the point relative to the challenges inherent in a pluralistic society where the assumption is that through wealth and advanced technologies the need for sacrifice by members of any group can be eliminated. In Reason’s Grief, he wrote that too many advocates of multiculturalism fail to acknowledge differing cultural values and conceptions of inclusiveness. “That we can learn from other cultures, few would deny,” he wrote. “If that is what multiculturalism is, then that is one thing, a very good thing. But if multiculturalism means rejecting the time-tested values of secular pluralism, that is quite another.”

During the videotaped interview, Harris elaborated. “A pluralistic society needs something to bond it together. It’s not going to be its differences. We can’t celebrate all of our differences. We must find a solution that binds people together in spite of their differences. In my view, the solution to that problem is to share the burdens.”

In Harris’ view, the burdens often are reflective of the tragic losses each group must entail.