The concept of tragic in Romanian philosophy: D.D. Rosca, G. Liiceanu, E. Cioran

Gabriel Furmuzachi

Far from being a deep study of the concept of tragic as approached by the Romanian philosophers, the present essay tries only to reveal three main perspectives of tragic within the Romanian culture.

D.D.Rosca, G.Liiceanu and E.Cioran talk and write about the tragic, yet each in his own way, following a specific situation.

European philosophy offers analyses of the tragic from the aesthetic point of view (Hume – Of Tragedy), from the point of view of life lived under the sign of tragic (Unamuno – The Tragic Sense of Life) or historical analyses of the concept (Nietzsche – Birth of Tragedy). All these are either purely theoretical considerations or follow a concrete experience. More numerous and more complex, these researches have a tendency to leave behind the few essays of the Romanian philosophers. Considered from the Romanian point of view, the tragic as a philosophical concept is not too different from the Western patterns. It is altered however by what C.Noica used to call “the Romanian perception of being”.

D.D.Rosca talks about “tragic existence” in the tradition of Unamuno. He is thus a critic of excessive lucidity and shows the importance of a free train of thought (even if tragic) not altered yet by the uncertainty the adventurer spirit experiences from the very first contact with the world.

G. Liiceanu presents a strictly structured analysis and a very careful look upon the ideas of “tragic”, with the ambition of “creating a philosophy (the peratology) which would eventually compensate for the lack of an up-to-date research and satisfy, at least to a certain extent, the demands of Humanities students.”(1)

E. Cioran talks about the tragic by simply describing his own experiences and to understand him one must never overlook the fact that he does not offer details of a theoretical concept but a multitude of most complex feelings between which the tragic represents the liaison.

Tragic seen by Romanian philosophers is then existence (D.D.Rosca), theoretical research (G.Liiceanu) or experience in itself (E.Cioran).

D.D.Rosca presents his ideas in The Tragic Existence – an Essay of Philosophical Synthesis, published in Bucharest in 1934. The two parts of the book are meant to dissociate between on one hand, the logic of nature and that of spirit seen as two parallel rows with autonomous types of beginnings and endings (The Objective Experience), on the other hand the feelings that accompany the tragic conscience and develop later into starting points of a permanent effort: the effort to relieve deep inner conflicts and fill in gaps lucidely experienced (The Metaphysical Attitude). Just like Unamuno, D.D.Rosca makes the tragic more than a casual topic. He offers a metaphysical view in which the tragic acquires unifying values.

Since it is “impossible to definitely limit, a priori or a posteriori, the domain of reason”(2) D.D.Rosca considers that “the idea of a completely reasonable existence… is in itself only a partial point of view upon the whole. Thus, it is not an exclusive and necessary point of view for if it were so it would undoubtedly impose itself over any intelligent form of life.”(3) The idea of a completely reasonable existence has a simply mythical value. Real experience in fact proves existence is both the rational and the irrational, the reasonable and the absurd. It also proves there is no way to establish a limit between rational and irrational. This limit fluctuates in various directions. The postulate of a reasonable world comes from practical needs. “Reality must be rational because we want it to be for several deep irrational reasons.”(4) Although irrational, the world can only be discovered by man by means of reason, the most fair device for research. Yet, since applying, even perseveringly, rational structures to an irrational reality cannot produce satisfying results in the field of gnoseology or ontology, an obsessive uncertainty appears according to which “the true tragic meaning of life is born deep within our souls the very moment we clearly understood that absolute uncertainty. An uncertainty that widens immensely our sentiment of solitude in front of the mystery of existence.”(5)

The tragic existence begins the moment the spirit tries to convert neutral existence to his own system of values. This is the moment man wants to turn the “emotional functions of conscience” (the values) into beings based on experience. Yet the human effort of turning values into beings is highly problematic for compared to the affective logic of the spirit, the existence is indifferent. In other words, it is both rational and irrational, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, because reality does not welcome our projects, nor does it oppose them willingly. Spirit within nature means therefore adventure and risk based on the chances success and failure have, equally distributed in the real world. “Tragic existence, based on recognizing the dual character of objective existence, is firstly characterized by lucidity; it refuses as impossible both pessimism and optimism because those are totalising judgments of the existence in the perspective of certain values. Secondly, tragic existence is defined byintellectual heroism, the creative tension generated by the thought of the probability of success.”(6)

D.D. Rosca’s philosophy, far from collapsing with discouragement, has a tendency to save our liberty as much as possible. The ultimate experience doctrines (religious spiritualism, scientific rationalism, metaphysical determinism and so on) analyzed and criticized in the first part of The Tragic Experience either deny, whenever consistent with themselves, the reality of this liberty, suppressing at the same time the real responsibility, or consider the material world as secondary existence, as simple appearance.

“The tragic conscience D.D.Rosca pleads for has therefore the virtue he considers supreme: that of preserving our moral liberty most attentively and most skillfully .”(7)

D.D.Rosca wants to get rid of Unamuno’s contradictory conclusions. It is anyway impossible to formulate coherent conclusions when one thinks that “we live only through, and based upon contradictions”, that “life is tragedy and tragedy is continuous fight, without victory, without hope”(8) and when “conscience is a malady”(9). For Unamuno “the most tragic problem for philosophy is to have the intellectual, sensitive and volitional needs harmonize. This is exactly where any philosophy pretending to put an end to the perennial and tragic contradiction, the very basis of our existence, fails.”(10) There is a continuos agony, a clash between faith (in a universe created for man, and a man created for eternity) and reason (suggesting an indifferent universe and a finite destiny).

The tragic in life comes from the idea that “to believe in God means to create God”. D.D.Rosca wants to draw attention on the fact that “despite the saddest experiences one may have, one should continue being idealist”(11) – a premeditated surrender in front of the more radical Spanish philosopher. D.D.Rosca seeks help in the efficient values, “the only weapon we have and can use in order to transform the existence that regards us. We use it, without always knowing it, to put order in the existence at the contemplative level; and we also use it to put order in the existence at the moral level.”(12) Turning towards the values has its own merits but by recurring to idealism the contact with tragic is loosened, allowing only noticing it, not assuming it. Assuming the tragic is hardly possible. That is why a more theoretical approach could seem much safer. A special kind of research would then be imperative, based on the positive point of view delineating and analyzing the most fair possible the domain of existence of tragic, as far as such a perception would permit. Not to be tributary to any prejudice (i.e. idealism) and in order to have a comprehensive knowledge of the phenomenon, a “phenomenology” is necessary, described by G. Liiceanu in his book The Tragic as a “phenomenology of limit and breaking the limit”.

Trying to be as objective as possible G. Liiceanu begins his discourse on the tragic with some “methodological specifications” that link the concept of tragic with common knowledge, tragedy, eventually philosophy. He intends to find out whether it would be possible to bring forth a theory of the tragic and later analyze it from a philosophical point of view.

Interrogating common knowledge does not appear as a very brilliant idea to the Romanian philosopher since “nobody knows, nobody has his/her own science…, nobody can say anything rigorous”(13) about the tragic; the concept is used without being rigorously determined, people employ it as common, the same way they use justice, virtue etc.

The result, far from being a positive one, suggests a different direction. The direction that deals with tragedy as special artistic form of reflecting the tragic. Yet in this case either, a rigorous determination of the concept is impossible since “tragedies have an a posteriori value in what concerns determining tragic”(14) or, in other words “throughout the history of tragedy, theory and artistic tragic are contiguous and the point where they meet can only be established once the concept of tragic has been elaborated”.(15) Applying this method does not solve the problem. More than that, we become confuse with a series of aporii with the result of recreating the initial difficulties from a different perspective.

Mentioned should be made of the impossibility of a philosophical approach of the concept of tragic since every philosophy generated by acknowledging the tragic (basically the existentialist ones) did not elaborate a positive theory of this concept, but was preoccupied by its significance for human life. “Philosophy is thus mainly inoperative, in a methodological order, compared to the understanding of the phenomenon of tragic”.(16)

Nevertheless Liiceanu does not give up on searching for answers. If philosophy is not able to produce those answers, if it cannot open that discourse, then “it should assume it and bring it to the inner truth which is the unity between knowledge and self-conscience.”(17) Therefore the philosopher brings up a theory of tragic seen as peratology (peras – limit). This theory is an analysis of the tragic phenomenon, where tragic is defined as a phenomenon appeared in the area where conscience and limit meet.

It should be taken into consideration from the very beginning that the tragic as a phenomenon can only be encountered at the human level of the being, a hybrid dimension, submitted to both natural and divine causality structures of spiritual freedom. Unlike nature (characterized by pure necessity) or transcendence (characterized by pure freedom), man is placed right in the middle and has to cope with the most unpredictable situations. “…An animal is limit without self-conscience; the transcendence is conscience without limit; man alone represents at the same time the limit and the self-conscience of the limit.”(18)

Having realized that no concrete discussion, no systematic approach is possible to an existential concept so little determined as tragic, the Romanian philosopher considers that in order to reveal it, even if incompletely, an aphoristic way of expression is necessary. This can be fragmentary but should essentially reach our capacity of understanding. The tragic leaves its mark on the human not from a social, objective point of view, but from a subjective one, that of existence. It appears when conscience meets limit. “The tragic must be sought when a conscious, finite being encounters its own finiteness perceived as limit.”(19) “What makes the tragic distinctive is being always situated on the borderline.”(20)

Trying to determine tragic within the limits of the being underlines a definition of this phenomenon: “if you break your limit, you are punished; if you do not, you are not human.”(21)

Peratology discovers then the specifics of human existence in the proximity of limit seen as unique determinant of the human condition. Close to the limit, to an over-limit whose vicinity is almost infinite, man has a chance to discover himself. The discovery is not gnoseological but existential. The accent falls on to be, not on to know; the tragic imposes ontological, not gnoseological changes. Since theory irretrievably degrades the essence of this concept, passion and feeling seem to be the appropriate paths in order to understand it.

(The fear of punishment baffled the limit and implicitly triggered avoidance of the tragic. The two main possibilities of invalidating tragic as understood within the limits of peratology are: “a) making the absolute limit relative, which determines invalidating existential tragic by postulating an alien paradise; b) making the relative limit absolute, which determines invalidating historical tragic by freezing history and postulating an earthly paradise.”(22))

The tragic is not an aesthetic phenomenon; yet it can only be appreciated and fully perceived as such. “Tragedy is the aesthetic form that allows fulfillment of the tragic phenomenon as object, and of the audience as subject and axiological instance.”(23) The tragic audience, in order to reach an appropriate perception of the phenomenon, needs a serious ethical education and the ability to overcome all its determinations, particularities and limited moral tendencies. The Romanian philosopher accepts as necessary the idea that the tragic audience is more of a concept, an idealistic side of the human. To reach the sublime, the very essence of the tragic art, one must cross the superficial layers of the human, towards the deeper ones. The tragic sublime has something specific, for compared with tragedy, sublime is the one to permit the transfer from what exists to what is and goes beyond the artistic connotation of death and suffering. Tragedy evolves from art to wisdom due to sublime, and the tragic audience has a chance through suffering and pain to value life in a very particular manner.

We have seen so far that Liiceanu tries to create a phenomenology of tragic. For Cioran, the tragic is not the object of positive observation, it is experimented and converted into dazzling interpretations by means of words. Talking about the tragic does not have by far the importance that venturing it does. Cioran’s train of thought rejects any form of understanding; it is incompatible with any conceptual explanation and impossible to fit in with any gnoseological category. Beyond any kind of logic he creates his personal logic, irrational, incomprehensible. Tragic and tragedy for him are often the same. There is no access to the concept, for the concept itself is lost within a tragic event, experienced with every instant.

For Cioran, “the true hero struggles and disappears for his own destiny, not for a certain belief. His existence denies any idea of subterfuge; the ways that do not end in death are blind alleys; he moulds his own biography; he carefully works out its denouement and instinctively makes it up out of gloomy events. Off-spring of fate, an escape would be a betrayal of his own death. A man of the destiny therefore never embraces any faith for it would ruin his ending; and if he were crucified he would not look up to the sky. Absolute for him is his own history; the only desire is the tragic will…”(24)

This tragic will is the only possible in his world since “to live means to undergo the magic of possible; but when possible itself hides a past thatwill come, everything becomes virtual past and there remain neither present nor future. Every moment means for me, Cioran reveals in Falling into time not a step forward towards another moment but a tired breath and a rattle. I create dead time, I enjoy the suffocation of becoming.” Cioran’s approach of tragic can be hardly understood unless his life is taken into consideration; a life of ups and downs, remorse and deceptions, desperate screams from the edge of the precipice. The philosopher’s confession in Tearing apart should never be disregarded – “Nothing I have worked on, nothing I have said throughout my life can be separated from what I have lived. There is nothing I have imagined. I was merely the secretary of my own senses.”

It is impossible for the others to live according to Cioran’s paradigm; therefore defining the tragic as the philosopher does in his aphorisms is superficial. For Cioran, the tragic and his own existence were the same; and it could not be differently since suffering, oblivion, agony are common words for him, the background of his own existence. In an unreal world one survives only by thinking of suicide; the phoniness of life makes the thought of existential disintegration important – this is the source of the tragic.

Liiceanu concluded that tragic could only be found at the human level of the being (not the natural or the transcendent ones). Cioran notices also that “we belong somewhere between being and not-being…”, but adds “…between two pieces of fiction.”(25) “We are here only to torment ourselves, that is the ultimate reason.”(26) Suffering and tragic are contiguous, they need and complete each other: “Life has no meaning; this is a reason to live, the only one it seems.”(27)

Living tragically in a world that has no other God than Shakespeare is the only important thing. Confronted with his lines no philosophical system withstands since he approaches man and life not existentially, but conceptually and gnoseologically.

“The truth? Shakespeare. No philosopher could assimilate his work without tearing to pieces his own system.”(28)

It is obvious that Romanian philosophers approach the tragic from the most interesting perspectives: as a dimension of human life allowing to discover the importance of values at an existential level; as imposing the appearance of a phenomenological philosophy in order to assure the most efficient perception of a concept so often used, still so little determined; eventually as pretext for living, by exploiting its lack of determination. It is easy to remark that the perception of the tragic for D.D.Rosca, Liiceanu or Cioran is far from being singular, equivalent; that would be impossible for any approach of the concept is personal, its core being precisely each individual’s specificity. The tragic is a sign of being, a “category” of life; hence the relativity of discussions regarding tragic; one should search for its meaning gnoseologically and not existentially. Knowing tragic means simultaneously experience liberty and necessity, rational and absurd, suffering and consolation, human self-assertion and transcendental denial. A positive definition of tragic seems impossible. And what would be the use of it? Could anybody make a distinction, a gradation of tragic situations? It would mean disregarding the very essence of the tragic and reducing everything to “subtle casuistry and diagnosis”. Thus, Liiceanu’s questions (“Was Camus’s early death tragic? Was Ghandi’s assassination, when 70, tragic? Was Kennedy’s? Is it tragic to die in the middle of a war or on the last day? Is it tragic to starve to death? to be unjustly convicted? etc. etc. Or: who is ‘more tragic’? Eschil or Euripide? Sophocles or Shakespeare? Is Miller tragic? What about Beckett?”(29)), any other person’s questions, who approaches the concept with philosophical instruments, will only find their answer in case of disdaining the concept and using it as criterion for a “taxonomy of calamity and suffering.” Refusing, almost obsessively, a collaboration with the rational structures of our mind, the tragic nearly reaches paradox and contradiction, confirming the sinusoid of human existence that often meets paradoxical, meaningless situations. It might seem an exaggeration yet life itself is tragic. Shestov wrote once: “Life? Man is shown heaven, then finds himself thrown in the mud…”

Under these circumstances, defining or determining the tragic is highly unlikely.

Personal experience is the correct path; only that way essence can be perceived. But then, an explanatory theory or a cognitive approach becomes useless and words turn into chains and weighs. We end up as prisoners of our own discourse.

“Concepts? Yet when they’re absent
The word appears…”(30)


Liiceanu , Gabriel – The Tragic, Ed. HUMANITAS, Bucharest , 1993, p. 5

Rosca, D.D. – The Tragic Existence, Ed. DACIA, Cluj-Napoca, 1995, p. 75
idem, p. 81
idem, p. 162
idem, p. 162
Liiceanu , Gabriel – The Tragic, Ed. HUMANITAS, Bucharest , 1993, p. 266
Bagdasar, N. – Works, Ed. EMINESCU, Bucharest, 1988, p. 176
Unamuno, Miguel de –The Tragic Sense of Life, Ed. INSTITUTUL EUROPEAN, Iasi, 1995, p. 13
idem, p. 16
idem, p. 14
Rosca, D.D. –Tragic Existence, Ed. DACIA, Cluj-Napoca, 1995, p.191
idem, p. 174
Liiceanu , Gabriel – The Tragic, Ed. HUMANITAS ,Bucharest, 1993, p.10
idem, p. 22
idem, p. 20
idem, p. 39
idem, p. 41
idem, p. 47
idem, p. 48
idem, p. 48
idem, p. 54
idem, p. 53
idem, p. 118
Cioran, E. M. – A Decomposition Treatise , Ed. HUMANITAS, Bucharest, 1992, p. 193
Cioran, E. M. – Avowals and Anatemas , Ed. HUMANITAS, Bucharest, 1994, p. 107
idem, p. 106
idem, p. 60
Cioran, E. M. – The Syllogisms of Bitterness, Ed. HUMANITAS, Bucharest, 1992, p. 114
Liiceanu , Gabriel – The Tragic, Ed. HUMANITAS, Bucharest , 1993, p.20
Goethe – Faust, Ed. UNIVERS, Bucharest, 1983, p. 41