Tragedy had a narrower and more specific meaning in ancient Greek society compared to the modern world, where it can refer to a wide variety of circumstances. For that matter, the structure and purpose drama in the ancient world was not simply for mass entertainment like contemporary films, plays and television programs, nor was it produced by private companies in expectation of making a profit. Just the opposite, it had a distinctly religious and educational purpose, particularly in demonstrating to the audience the fate of those who offended the gods. In these ancient tragedies, the hero or protagonist had a certain character flaw that caused brought about the wrath of the gods. Hubris (hybris) is usually translated as ‘pride’ in the sense that ‘pride goeth before a fall’, but a more proper translation would be ‘arrogance’. In the Sophocles trilogy, for example, King Oedipus had this type of arrogance and pride in his wisdom and abilities, but in the end his fate caught up with him and the result was blindness, madness, exile and death. In the end, he lost everything, including his wealth, power and position, and was reduced to a wandering beggar and outcast. In his book Poetics, Aristotle explained that all tragedies like these would finally culminate in a climax that would produce a catharsis and strong emotional reaction from the audience, such as pity for the fate of Oedipus.
Tragedy in the modern world has a far more general meaning, although of course there are still dramas in which the hero is brought down by tragic flaws, even though audiences generally expect them to triumph in the end. Every day, however, television and other mass media bring modern audiences news of tragedies that are far removed from any definition that Aristotle and Sophocles would have understood. These tragedies include floods, fires and famines, as well as mass shootings of school children and family members by demented gunmen. Even war and genocide are often described as tragedies and their victims as tragic. Celebrities with drug and alcohol problems, the poor, unemployed and homeless, and refugees from persecution are all regularly described as tragic cases. When the Titanic sinks in the movies, it is considered tragic that so many people died needlessly, particularly all those immigrants locked below decks in steerage without nearly enough lifeboats for them. Indeed, any circumstance that produces victims, no matter whether accidental, intentional or simply as a result of natural causes will often be described as ‘tragic’, and the more victims there are or the more horrible their fate, the more tragic it seems.
Ancient Greece certainly had wars, plagues, famines and natural disasters, and in fact life in that world was probably harsher, shorter and more brutal than for middle and upper class persons in the more advanced countries today. They may even have felt pity or sympathy for the victims of these unfortunate circumstances, although it would be anachronistic to imagine that they had the more sentimental and humanitarian sensibilities of moderns. After all, they lived in a world where slavery was the norm and the lower classes in general did not receive particularly good treatment, while power was mostly in the hands of the wealthy and privileged few. Of course, this also true in the modern world, but it is just not as blatantly so as in a society that had kings and aristocrats. From the ancient Greek viewpoint, applying the term ‘tragedy’ to any and every situation of victimhood—real or imagined—would most likely have seemed excessive and overdone. By calling virtually every situation of pain, death and destruction a ‘tragedy’, moderns have watered down the term into meaninglessness. Perhaps the moderns mean well and surely feeling pity or sympathy for the victims, but the excessive use of tragedy in the mass media also tends to leave audiences numb and blasé, perhaps even cynical about how the mass media makes money by constantly tugging at their heartstrings.