The ancient Greeks took tragedy seriously. At the very height of Athenian power in the 5th century B.C., in fact, citizens of the world’s first democracy gathered annually to experience tragedy. Great theatrical productions were staged, presented to the entire community, and financed by the public treasury. While the dialogue and plot lines varied, the form, and the lesson, remained consistent. Prominent individuals fell from great heights due to their own errors, ignorance, and hubris. The injunction was clear: The destiny of society was in the hands of fallible men, and even in its hour of triumph that society was always perched on the abyss of catastrophic failure.
This tragic sensibility was purposefully hard-wired into Athenian culture. Aristotle wrote that tragedies produce feelings of pity and horror and foster a cathartic effect. The catharsis was key, intended to spur the audience into recognition that the horrifying outcomes they witnessed were eminently avoidable. By looking disaster squarely in the face, by understanding just how badly things could spiral out of control, the Athenians sought to create a communal sense of responsibility and courage and to encourage both citizens and their leaders to take the difficult actions necessary to avert such a fate.