Existential tragedies- a partial list

We all know there is a suite of “existential” tragedies inherent to human existence. Defining the concept precisely is impossible, but I would say roughly that an existential tragedy is a tragedy that arises from very basic and universal, or near-universal, aspects of our experience. I thought it could be interesting to list them. Let me know if you can think of any others:

-The inevitability of one’s own death

-The inevitability of the death of those one knows and loves

-The probable unknowability of important cosmic truths

-The apparent existence of meaningless suffering serving no higher purpose

-The inherent trade-offs around what can fit into a single life

-The possibility of unrequited love (and I certainly don’t just mean romantic love- unrequited familial love is usually worse)

-Our total lack of control over the most important factor of our lives- the circumstances of our birth

-The unequal and random distribution of talent

-Our inability to consistently embody even our own idea of the good

-The erosion of treasured (or simply important) memories by time

-The erosion of vitality and beauty by time

-The unknowability of the full results of our actions

-The privacy of experience even when we wish it were otherwise

-The frustration of words that can never fully convey what we mean

-The perpetual possibility of being disbelieved, even when we are speaking important truths about ourselves and our lives

-The possibility of being wracked by want for something which is literally impossible

-Our actions are irrevocable- in a few lucky cases we might be able to prevent or fix all the harm we caused, but even then, this does not undo the action itself

Suggestions by readers-

-The possibility of individual good-will not translating into good results through collective action and coordination problems.

-Sartre’s conundrum- we are condemned to be free and make (often painful) choices, insomuch as even choosing not to choose is making a choice.

– The inherent rivalrousness of most material goods- if someone uses some food or shelter there is necessarily less food or shelter available for others

One thought on “Existential tragedies- a partial list

  1. This is a really useful and evocative list, thanks for posting.

    Possible addition:

    “Material resources are almost all rivalrous: if one being consumes them and prospers, this prevents another being from consuming the same resource. This leads to fierce competition and inevitable suffering.”


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