Locked in, like most Americans, I have spent more time than usual with my thoughts and memories. My otherwise silly degrees in Political Science, English, and Classics, have boosted my spirits during the current tribulations. I’ve studied narratives and historical moments that deal with plagues. So as I retreat into my bookshelf I get reminders that humanity has dealt with the mysterious torments of disease. Meanwhile I get to escape the torture of the present. I can’t watch any more coronavirus news. I think I’ll turn into a gigantic plasmid if I do.
Sophocles suggests himself as an important conversation partner during all of this. His most famous work is of course the trilogy of surviving plays about the House of Thebes and its hapless patriarch Oedipus. Younger than Aeschylus but older than Euripides, Sophocles was from a wonderfully readable generation of tragic playwrights. I love both Aeschylus and Euripides but the former often fills his plays with long repetitive speeches while the latter tends to go overboard with hysterical female protagonists and their outbursts. Give me some Sophocles and his beautifully paced, complex plot lines, minus Euripides’s overwrought dramaqueenery. Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone form a trilogy about the collapse of the royal family running Thebes. When Sophocles wrote this, Thebes was the rival city to Athens and Sparta, a town known for its excellence in trade. Of course Sophocles was writing about mythical characters who would have lived about 800 years prior. Athenians watching his plays were doing something akin to us watching movies today about people who lived during the signing of the Magna Carta.
It all begins with a plague. Which is why I bring all of this up.
Glittering Thebes, currently enjoying prosperity under its king Oedipus and his older wife Jocasta, finds that people fall dead from some strange disease. Oedipus summons advice and discovers from the oracles that the gods have struck Thebes with a deadly plague because they must avenge the killer of the previous king, Laius. As long as the murderer(s) of Oedipus’s royal predecessor go unpunished inside the city, the disease will ravage the people.
Oedipus insists that whoever killed the king must be brought to justice so that the plague will be lifted from Thebes. Oedipus tells his uncle (and brother-in-law) Creon, ” Right worthily has Phoebus and worthily have you bestowed this care on the cause of the dead: and so, as is meet, you shall find me too leagued with you in seeking vengeance for this land, for the god besides. On behalf of no far-off friend, no, but in my own cause shall I dispel the taint. For whoever was the slayer of Laius might wish to take vengeance on me also with a hand as fierce. Therefore in doing right to Laius I serve myself.” (80)
This is what we might call a rash vow. Oedipus takes responsibility for the plague by saying that he will see to it that whoever killed Laius should be laid low. Otherwise Oedipus as king would be guilty of something just as bad.
As it turns out, the murderer who must be brought to justice is none other than Oedipus himself, though when Oedipus made the rash vow, he was ignorant that he was pointing the finger at himself. It was Oedipus who killed Laius, during an argument on a roadway years ago. This happened when Oedipus was from a neighboring province and didn’t know who Laius was. In finding all this out from Tiresias, the blind prophet, Oedipus also discovers that Laius was his father. And things get more complicated from there. When Oedipus had arrived at Thebes as the hero who destroyed the Sphinx, the grateful town had repaid him for his heroism by making him king and marrying him to the forlorn widow of the late Laius–Queen Jocasta. So as it turns out, Oedipus is currently married to his dad’s widow, widowed by Oedipus.
Jocasta is Oedipus’s mother. So our protagonist finds out that the mother of his four children is also his mother.
Oedipus discovers that many years ago (probably some thirty-five years back), his parents were king and queen of Thebes and he was a baby prince. The royal family was warned however that this prince would bring ruin on Laius, so Jocasta agreed to have the baby killed to avoid such a fate. Instead of killing the baby, however, the servant simply threw the baby out on a wild mountain. The baby was adopted and brought to Corinth where he was raised as the Corinthian king’s son with the name Oedipus. Oedipus means “swollen foot” in Greek. The Corinthians called him that because his feet had been bound and deformed by the people who meant to kill him.
Oedipus finds out a bunch of bad news all at once. It turns out that he killed his father and married his own mother; his birth parents tried to kill him; the people who raised him were not really his parents at all; his four children are bred of incest; he is guilty of both regicide and parricide; and worst of all, it’s his fault that people in Thebes are dying of the plague. Determined to do some semblance of justice amid all this chaos, he blinds himself and casts himself out of the city.
Another play, Oedipus at Colonus, picks up where Oedipus Rex leaves off. In this play, Oedipus wanders as an outcast with only his two daughters Ismene and Antigone to accompany him. He is haggard and pathetic. Knowing that death is near, he approaches the Athenian suburb of Colonus and asks that he be given a place there to pass away. The king of Athens, Theseus, considers Oedipus’s request for sanctuary and agrees to allow him into a forbidden field (abatos) where he can rest and be unbothered. This plot twist came from Sophocles’ desire to show his fellow Athenians as people who respected human rights and the rule of law–contrasted against (to Sophocles) inferior cities like Thebes and Corinth.
While Oedipus is sheltering in place in Colonus, his brother-in-law/uncle Creon arrives to ask Oedipus to return to Thebes because Oedipus’s two sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, are bickering over who should inherit the throne. Polyneices comes to see Oedipus to ask for his endorsement in the brewing strife between him and Eteocles, but Oedipus curses both of them and says that now his only children are his daughters Ismene and Antigone. Even these, though, must be taken away from him, since the sisters are bound to return to Thebes as princesses.
Finally Oedipus tells Theseus that he would like to die in Colonus. He asks Theseus not to reveal to anyone the site of his burial. In a fascinating twist, Oedipus’s bones, once untouchable because he was a parricidal regicide and an outcast, will serve to protect Athens by warding off bad spirits. The magical power of Oedipus’s guilt will transform into the magical power of protection, since the “untouchable” one goes from being the hated outcast to being the shield warding off hostile spirits.
Finally, Antigone follows our narrative thread after Oedipus’s death. Back in the city of Thebes, Oedipus’s sons have fought a civil war. The sons disagreed about who should have the throne. One brother, Polyneices, shut out from government, went and recruited seven cities’ armies to storm the seven gates of Thebes and invade the city (already devastated by the plague). Eteocles and Polyneices, the two brothers, kill each other simultaneously in battle.
With all of Oedipus’s sons and Oedipus dead, Jocasta’s brother Creon must take power over the city. In an attempt to hold together order in the frail and traumatized city, Creon issues an edict that Polyneices, the brother who recruited foreigners to sack Thebes and depose Eteocles, is an enemy of the state even in death. As such, nobody is to bury him. The city is commanded to leave his corpse exposed to the open air, to rot and be torn apart by carrion birds and jackals.
What follows is a great classic for philosophy and political science buffs. Oedipus’s two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, are still alive in Thebes. Ismene behaves prudently and obeys Creon’s orders against the burial of the enemy dead.
But Antigone, holding a little of her late father’s spirit, will not play by Creon’s rules. Citing her familial obligations to honor her brother, she breaks his rules and goes out to perform burial rituals on her dead brother. Creon is infuriated and imprisons Antigone, who hangs herself in a jail cell.
The speeches back and forth between Antigone and Creon fascinate political philosophers because they represent different stances on the legitimacy of law. Creon resorts to a basic law-and-order argument, insisting that if his own niece defies his commands, the city will descend into anarchy after having narrowly survived a plague and an invasion.
Antigone lays out her case for a distinction between higher and lower laws. At one point she tells her uncle that despite his manmade law, she must answer to the law of the underworld, because that is where she will spend eternity. While pagan, the play speaks to many tenets of Christian martyrdom. For the most part Antigone has received greater sympathy from readers because of her lofty ideals. Some, however, have made the case that she represents rigid ideology and self-righteous fanaticism. One could argue that she privileged her private familial obligations to one brother and in so doing belittled the serious suffering caused by her other brother to the larger social collective of the city.
Debates about Antigone will go on for generations.
What’s important to Americans in 2020 is that Sophocles laid out for us a cascade of social conflicts that all begin with the plague.
What starts with a disease leads to Oedipus’s rash vow and downfall. Along the way the public panic over how to overcome the disease led to the revelation of many truths that everyone had kept secret in order to keep the city functioning. The people of Thebes would rather not have known that Oedipus killed their former king, that their king and queen were an incestuous pair of son and mother, or that they’d been governed by a king with a murderous past hidden from them.
The chain reaction set off by the plague is vast. First come the revelations of ugly truths, then the escalation of blame and guilt culminating in Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus’s blinding of himself, in addition to his self-imposed exile. All the trauma of the plague becomes placed on the shoulder of one controversial ruler who must be driven out. In the maelstrom following this collective suffering, we see an economy of scapegoating, where heroes become villains and those made untouchable by scorn become talismanic protectors by virtue of their magically powerful status as untouchable.
And then, of course, the vacuum of power left by the removal of the scapegoated ruler leads to civil strife and failing attempts to create laws out of chaos. The weakened trust between citizen and sovereign creates an unstable social setting, in which rulers with undermined legitimacy struggle to acquire an aura of respect. Defiant figures like Antigone expose all human law as weak and illegitimate, while awakening the people to the higher laws that come from the spiritual realm.
The cascade of social strains in the coronavirus case
In America, all the archetypes of the Oedipus myth cycle have appeared in full force. We have, for example, the troublesome oracles and advisors swirling around an embattled king: the Tony Fauci and Paula White types fluttering around an oedipal Donald Trump.
Sigmund Freud misfired when he read the Oedipus myths as a suppressed family romance in which every man secretly wants to kill his father and marry his mother. The actual plays by Sophocles show that the true errors in the House of Thebes lay in rash and angry gestures. It was Laius’s decision to try to kill his infant son, and Oedipus’s bad temper that led him to kill a stranger on the roadway, not even knowing it was his own father. The same base personality of impulsive rage led Oedipus to make rash vows about bringing the cursed one to justice in Thebes, and to interact with his wife in a way that leads arguably to Jocasta’s suicide. Oedipus’s harsh temperament comes out in full display in Oedipus at Colonus when he disowns his sons and says he only wants to die alone. By disowning Polyneices and Eteocles equally, Oedipus leaves the conflict between them unresolved and forces his brother-in-law Creon to try to settle their quarrel by improvising a fatherly role toward them. Freud overcomplicated his analysis by speculating about hidden motives or unconscious drives. If Oedipus had been a calmer person and not killed a man in a traffic argument, then he would have never found himself exposed as a parricide in front of all Thebes.
We see in Trump’s situation many of these core problems inherent in Oedipus. Suddenly forced to take responsibility for a disease outbreak that he had almost no control over, Trump’s brash past is in some ways catching up with him. He’s surrounded by advisors with ambiguous agendas and intricate pasts of their own. I think here of Fauci’s rather disturbing history leading the way on HIV in past decades; it bewilders me why anyone with ties to the disastrous failure to stop the spread of HIV would be called upon to advise the nation about how to respond to this virus.
But Trump is doing the same things Oedipus did, falling back on his impulsive personality and issuing rash vows that will haunt him. Each pronouncement comes with overconfidence; first the virus is no big deal, then we should follow Fauci’s orders and shut down cities, then we need to get everyone back to work by Easter. The unusual road that led Trump to the White House is catching up with him in one important sense. His journey through shaky marriages, sordid business deals, celebrity culture, and late-stage populism has endowed him with a personality that succeeds in some circumstances but can’t necessarily manage a pandemic. Spectacles of populism won’t work to roll back the virus. And like Oedipus in Thebes, Trump is still viewed as an outsider to the political world despite his technically high birth into the upper classes.
America shares many characteristics with Thebes. One shared dilemma is the fact that plagues are not often about diseases, but rather about underlying social problems that have yet to be resolved. For Thebes, the disease was a problem of its own but the lingering problem was that their last king had been murdered and justice had not been met. There could be no peace in the city as everyone felt a silent discomfort with the city carrying on without a formal closure to Laius’s reign.
Diseases are of course real, but they lay bare those underlying tensions. And so Trump metaphorically killed the Obama-Clinton-Bush axis that had governed the United States at least from 1980 to 2016, a third of a century. Many, however, are still not comfortable with how Trump made that happen. And if there is one weak spot in Trump’s ascent, it’s perhaps the issue of healthcare. Obamacare was hatched as a hybrid of Democratic and Republican, free-market and public conceits. It was a false dream, an illusion–it did not make it easier for Americans to get health care. Trump trounced the elite apparatus that gave birth to Obamacare but he never came up with a solution to Americans’ lack of health insurance. We all thought this wouldn’t be a huge problem, but then coronavirus came and it’s clear that Americans are still haunted by the terror of getting sick. Why? Because they live paycheck to paycheck. Because they do not have paid sick leave. Because if they get sick they cannot get paid, so they have gotten by pretending not to be sick when they are.
Oedipus vows rashly that he will smite the guilty man who brought the plague upon Thebes. Then it turns out that he’s the man who brought the plague upon Thebes. Trump finds himself in that painful oedipal situation as well. Trump brought a roaring stock market, booming consumer confidence, and a steady stream of new jobs. But all that economic growth took place and he never revisited the issue of health care. It lingered in the air as a bogeyman issue from a defunct Obama-Clinton-Bush regime that Trump had overturned. By killing off that old regime and not finding a different means of easing Americans’ anxieties about illness, Trump created, in a sense, the cascade of consequences pouring from this virus.
In reality, things were not okay. People were suppressing their anxieties about illness but not resolving the issues that made them anxious. Several seasons in a row with abominable flu outbreaks could have been a wakeup call, but America didn’t do anything about it. That does fall on Trump’s watch, as much as I support the president and would do anything to help him get re-elected.
Trump did have a kryptonite. It was the threat of an epidemic. And his number came up. All that Oedipus held dear — his family, his prestige, his hero status, his governance over a great city — escaped his grasp within moments because of a plague. So too Trump treasured above all the booming stock market, low unemployment, and heightened strength against China in trade. In a flash because of a tiny microbe, that went away.
We have yet to see whether Trump will self-destruct in the way Oedipus did. While many question Trump’s character and motives, I detect signs that he has grown into a person who genuinely cares for the country and wants people to prosper. He may at some point fall on his sword in some allegorical sense and take on the blame for all the ills that came of the virus. We Trump supporters know he can’t be blamed for the illness and he has done as good a job as anyone could have done to respond to it. But that will be like Oedipus trying to tell Thebans he didn’t know Laius was his dad and Jocasta was his mother. In times of crisis, people can’t be placated. They need scapegoats.
Should Trump become the untouchable one at the other end of this crisis, he will certainly cut a noble figure like Oedipus at Colonus asking Athens for a place to rest. He will be, like Oedipus’s bones, at once the magical curse and the magical protection against the evil spirits seeking to harm America.
Oedipus is not the only character from Sophocles’s plays that we see emerging in this cascade of consequences from the coronavirus. I would suggest that their old age does not bar Biden and Bernie from playing Eteocles and Polyneices, battling over who will assume the presidency in the diseased wreckage following 2020. Undoubtedly there will rage a civil war in the Democratic Party that will spill out into the whole country, as people vie to gain the helm of America’s vast riches and power.
We have our Creon figures in Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom, offshoots from dynasties that have seen better days. As they cry for order in their bustling, nervous cities, with each day their dictates feel less compelling. How long can New York and Los Angeles be shuttered and cowed into silent isolation, before we see riots or looting or a transformation of these cities into something other than New York or Los Angeles? Seated in somewhat safer conditions at several removes from the radioactive Trump, these Creonesque governors will try to position themselves as solutions to grave problems they can’t be blamed for. But the rules they issue will start to feel like frivolous background noise as people grow frustrated and hungry over the economic doomsday that’s been thrust on them.
And of course we will have Ismene and Antigone types. We have already seen governors order the cancellation of full funerals, weddings, and church services. We have seen the spirit of don’t-make-waves Ismene in the obedient Christians who say we should do what the government asks us to do. (Go look at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission to get a sense of this go-along-to-get-along Christianity.)
We have also seen and will increasingly see Antigone figures rise who will refuse to stay locked in their homes. See the example of Cary Gordon in Iowa boldly holding services beyond the attendance cap set by the civil law. In the Christian world, I sense this will create many standoffs between pastors who hold services in defiance of the civil law and Creon-types within the church like Bart Barber, who will try to denounce those who break with the civil law to claim their religious liberty.
Sophocles’ masterpieces from the fifth century before Christ present us with an eternal piece of wisdom. Plagues are never the end of social transformation; they are always the beginning of a cascade of social strains and changes. The tragedy of mass death is never, in real life, the finale of history. The finale always comes after a chain reaction of immense upheavals. Will America end up like Thebes after its civil war? Only heaven knows. But the plays are worth studying.