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

Suggestions by friends-

-From the Talmud “A man loves his son before all, but his son loves his own son before all”.

– We’re not quite sure how to phrase it, but something along the lines of the human tendency to be emotionally captive to the expectations of others, even when we don’t think they deserve that authority over us.

3 thoughts 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.”


  2. Einstein’s observation that existence is analogous to imprisonment. Despite the internet and social media, we (the vast majority) feel compassion (or joy for that matter) for others only when suffering (or happiness) is directly connected to us (immediate family, friends, etc.). We rarely experience the grandiosity of the universe at large, only our small corners and individualistic circumstances. To refute Sartre, we are decidedly not free; instead, we are hemmed in by economic, social, and particularized conditions.


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