What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today
“He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
I’m an English teacher at an all-boys school, and sometimes it’s my job to make high school boys interested in literature that was written thousands of years ago. It’s not always easy, especially because sometimes I’m not particularly interested myself (looking at you Gilgamesh; sure, I’m glad you learned some lessons after being a serial rapist, but you were still a serial rapist bro.)
When it comes to the Greek tragedies, specifically Sophocles’ most famous of his Theban Plays, Oedipus Rex, there are still many relevant lessons for us here at the dawn of 2020. But first, a one paragraph plot summary for those of you who haven’t been in a literature class in a while:
Oedipus opens the play having saved Thebes from the Sphinx by risking his own life and using his clever wisdom to solve the Sphinx’s riddle. He then becomes king, and attempts to find out who killed the previous king, Laius, only for it to slowly be revealed that an angry old man he killed at a crossroads years before, was, in fact, Laius. He later comes to find out that Laius was actually his birth father, and Oedipus’ wife(and mother of his 4 children), Jocasta, was actually his birth mother (she didn’t know either). He gouges his eyes out with Jocasta’s brooches, and then goes into exile after learning the shameful truth.
So what can we learn from such an antiquated and sorrowful tale?
1. Past Success Does Not Guarantee Good Leadership In The Future
At the beginning of the play, Oedipus has everyone’s trust as a leader, and he’s earned it. He saved Thebes from a Sphinx that was terrorizing the city, by solving a riddle: The riddle was: “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?” Can you figure it out?
It’s man. Four feet: baby, two feet: most of life, three feet: old age with a cane. Many people had tried to answer the riddle before Oedipus, and the Spinx killed everyone who got it wrong, which discouraged most people from even trying at all.
So before the play begins, Oedipus has proven himself wise, self-sacrificing, confident and personable; he is all the things we tend to look for in a leader, even today. When Oedipus finds out that the city is still under a curse because the killer of the previous king, Laius, still resides in the city, he makes it his mission to find out who the killer is, and banish him.
The real point here though is the people trust him. The “Chorus” in a classical tragedy, represents the crowd. Sometimes they sound like the audience watching they play, and sometimes they sound like an audience within the play, like the people of Thebes when the chorus says:
I will not approve of any man who censures Oedipus, for it was clear when that winged Sphinx went after him he was a wise man then. We witnessed it. He passed the test and endeared himself to all the city. So in my thinking now he never will be guilty of a crime. (Sophocles, 605–611)
This comes after the first person, a blind seer has told Oedipus that he should look at himself for the killer of the previous king. It sounds awfully familiar in American politics today. Maybe the stakes aren’t quite as extreme, but the basic idea of: there is a problem, we look to a politician to solve that problem based on what we believe about their past, that politician promises to solve the problem, sometimes earnestly, and then, regardless of the result, regardless of if the politician is actually part of the problem, we trust them still.
Let’s take the easiest example, Donald Trump. Most of us know that he is not as successful as he claims. He has a string of failed business and lawsuits. It is unlikely he is a billionaire, or at least to the degree that he claims. “Mr. Trump told Deutsche Bank his net worth was about $3 billion, but when bank employees reviewed his finances, they concluded he was worth about $788 million” (New York Times). Yet, his supporters elected him on the narrative that he was a successful billionaire. He carries himself as a successful billionaire; his television show, The Apprentice helped fully establish that successful persona in the public’s eye.
So regardless of the truth, in a lot of people’s eyes he has a history of financial success, and he carries himself with confidence and charisma. The problem isn’t whether or not that is a truthful image (although the truth is always helpful); the problem is: maybe past success doesn’t lead to future success anyway. That includes whoever you want to win the 2020 election. Maybe we, the chorus, shouldn’t be looking to leaders to solve all our problems and be our saviors. They don’t really care about your problems anyway.
I’m not going to spend the rest of the article bashing Trump and politics. 1. That’s too easy. 2. There’s plenty of places to go if you want that catharsis (hey, another word that comes from Greek tragedy). Instead, I want to focus on the ways we are like Oedipus.
2. How We Feel About Our Situation Is Mostly Just Narrative
One of the most interesting things about Oedipus Rex, is that nothing actually happens. All of the events in the play take place before the play begins. King Laius has already been killed. Oedipus has already married Jocasta. The only thing that happens in the play is that information is revealed. At the beginning of the play, Oedipus is an adored King, with a wife he loves, 4 kids, and a loving constituency. During the course of the play, he doesn’t really do anything to lose all of that, but he finds out he’s already done everything to lose all of that. That old man he killed on the road years ago? That was the previous king, who was also his father. That woman you’ve been making babies with? That was actually your mother. Who you thought was your mother and father? They actually adopted you and didn’t tell you.
The interesting thing to think about is how this applies to our own lives. How have our past actions shaped our present or future in ways we cannot possibly change or suspect? How much of our happiness, security, and sense of self is based on a narrative that has not been fully revealed? The play ends on a pretty dark note; a tragic one, you might say. After seeing Oedipus, blinded and exiled, the Chorus says, “So while we wait to see that final day, we cannot call a mortal being happy before he’s passed beyond life free from pain.” (Sophocles, 1812–1814). They also mention being uncomfortable looking at Oedipus because he is a reminder of their own fragility, of status, happiness, and ignorance (and I imagine the rain of blood coming from his eye sockets doesn’t help).
There is still a way to spin that positively. Everything changes. Do not get too comfortable when things are good. Do not get too down when things are bad. Life is not a constant plateau of happiness, and all we can do is keep fighting towards the peaks. The uncomfortable truth is, sometimes….
3. Tragedy Is Reality
We are so used to stories with happy endings. Even the sad ones try to create something bittersweet. I get it. Reality can be depressing enough. When Oedipus first shows himself to the crowd with his eyes gouged out, the Chorus exclaims that they can’t bear to look at him. Here, the chorus stands in as our usual reaction to uncomfortable truths.
A few weeks ago, I found out a friend from high school died. You guys know the sort of situation; we were fairly close as teenagers, but saw each other less than a handful of times after graduation. He was a good kid. He got good grades, participated in the youth group at his church, and generally kept his nose clean. After he left for college he started to party, like pretty much all of us do, but he lost control, and spiraled into addiction with various substances. At one point I heard that he was homeless, a thousand miles away from home, and no one knew where to find him. Eventually, an organization found him, contacted his parents, and he moved home and attempted to rehabilitate.
That was, maybe, two years ago or so. If this was a conventional fiction, that would be the start of his redemption arc. As far as I’ve heard, he did take some steps in the right direction; he got a job, and stayed sober for a bit, until he didn’t. He stole some money from his job, and got fired, and kicked out of his house. He died walking beside a highway at night, where he was struck by a vehicle.
Oedpius and other tragic stories remind us that life is not a story book with a happy ending. It is uncomfortable to be reminded of this. Why am I focusing on something so depressing, when life bleak is enough? But should we be afraid to look tragedy in the face? Does tragedy, pain, and sadness, continue to keep its power if we make attempts to familiarize ourselves with it? If we accept that the natural order of things is tragedy, people die, we lose our jobs, natural disasters happen, could that help us appreciate the non-tragic moments even more?
The god’s know what the final score of the football game will be, but we still have to play it. — A.W. Gomme
I hope this doesn’t come off as calloused. I’m not saying you should not be sad when tragedy strikes. We are human, and it is not weak or wrong to feel emotions. I have experienced loss, and I have been devastated by it.
All I’m saying is we should not be surprised by tragedy. I will feel loss again. This is one of the core tenets of Stoicism (which I will talk about in another article soon.) Stoicism was another Greek philosophy that still applies to humans today. We do not, and can not control external events, and perhaps they are even pre-determined, but we do have a modicum of control over our reactions and responses to the external. This does not mean you should not feel sadness, or empathy, or pain, but if you can train yourself to not be surprised when tragedy strikes, you can appreciate when times are good, and cope when times are not.
“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on us, it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.” -Seneca