This phrase is commonly found in 21st century high schools everywhere. We use it to describe events that are unfortunate. From the break-up of a popular couple, to a car accident in the student lot, we use the word "tragedy" to describe it. I have always thought of tragedy as just as sad story, but what is tragedy really? Where did it originate and What properties define a tragic work?
As with many literary concepts, tragedy finds its origins in Greek drama. Back in the day, all those famous philosophers (such as Aristotle, Sophocles, and all those other wise guys) developed the art of tragedy. The concept has been altered over the years by Roman's and European's alike, but the same basic principles apply.
And what are those basic principles you ask?
Well, first, tragedy by definition is (according to Wikipedia):
"...a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes in its audience an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in the viewing."
Since Aristotle's days, others have argued different theories about tragedy. G.W.F. Hegel, for example, believed that in modern tragedy, individuals’ "self-destructive passions" cause their own tragic events. Still, tragedy at its core is a look at human suffering and the events that cause it.
These are new thoughts for me personally. I had always just defined tragedy as a story with a bad (unhappy) ending, but it is more than that. It involves the inner-workings of the characters more than anything. The tragic events that befall them depend directly on their strengths, weaknesses, decisions, and actions. Also, there is a purpose to it. Tragedies aren't just meant to make us cry, they're intended to teach us about life and help us learn from the mistakes of others.
I think tragedy is probably the most relatable form of literature because all humans make mistakes and suffer the consequences. We can sympathize with the characters and apply what they learn to our own lives.
So the next time you refer to something as "tragic", be sure to check and see that the situation fits the specifics for the genre. The philosophers of old will thank you.