In 430 BC, the second year of its war with Sparta, the legendary democracy of Athens in ancient Greece was struck by an unknown infectious disease. The Athenians first suspected that the Spartans had poisoned their reservoirs. As it turned out, though, their undemocratic adversary wasn’t to blame. According to the historian Thucydides, the plague came from faraway Ethiopia and entered the city by ship. Since Athens had built its empire with naval power, it was perhaps grimly fitting that its greatest strength would prove in that moment to be its signal weakness.
The plague spread quickly. “At the beginning, the doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods,” wrote Thucydides. “In fact mortality among the doctors was the highest of all, since they came more frequently in contact with the sick.” (Sound familiar?) The disease soon overwhelmed the city’s rudimentary health-care system and dead bodies lay about the streets, rotting and unburied. And yet, despite the plague, the Peloponnesian War continued. That forever war of the ancient world (sound familiar again?), already in its second round, wouldn’t end until 405 BC, a quarter-century later.
Over five years and three successive outbreaks, the plague would, however, ultimately claim more Athenian lives than the war. Nearly a quarter of that city-state’s population, an estimated 100,000 people, would die from the disease. Even its esteemed leader, Pericles, would lose two sons. Another victim: the vaunted Athenian political system. According to classical scholar Katherine Kelaidis, “The Great Plague of Athens wrote the first chapter in the end of Athenian democracy.”
During those plague years, Athens didn’t, however, completely lock down the city. It continued, for instance, to hold its annual drama festival at the Theater of Dionysus where, at some point, a new play by Sophocles had its debut. In itself, that was anything but unusual as he wrote more than 100 plays during his long lifetime. But this drama also proved painfully topical. Sophocles took the legendary story of Oedipus the king and added a wholly original element: he set its plot in motion with a plague.
Oedipus Rex takes place in Thebes while “a fiery demon” grips the city. Its king, Oedipus, desperate to understand why the gods have called such a plague down upon his realm, sends an emissary to the famed Delphic Oracle to find out. Its answer is unexpected: to rid Thebes of the plague, he must bring to justice the murderer of the previous king. As it happens, Oedipus himself killed that previous king. What’s worse, that king was also his father. In doing so, Oedipus had, however inadvertently, fulfilled the first part of a previous Delphic prophecy: that he would kill his father and marry his mother. In other words, he is the cause of the religious pollution that has brought plague down on Thebes.
All of this qualified Oedipus as the classic example of the tragic hero, a son of nobility who lacks self-knowledge, in this case an understanding of his true origins. Moreover, he demonstrates an extraordinary arrogance, believing that only he can rule wisely or save Thebes. Even when the oracle predicts a tragic outcome for him, he scoffs, believing that the will of the gods is no impediment to his actions.
The Greek word for this kind of arrogance is hubris and, in Greek drama, it’s associated with the pride that precedes the fall of a powerful man. The inevitable result of hubris is a visit from Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, often depicted with a sword and scales.
Focused as it was on the inevitable downfall of a tragic hero in a plague-stricken city, Oedipus Rex must have been deeply disturbing, if not terrifying, to watch in the Athens of that moment. Given the pandemic at hand, it's remarkable that Athenians were still staging plays at all. But like Oedipus, its citizens undoubtedly wanted to better understand the cause of their affliction. This early example of horror fiction -- with its plot twists involving murder, incest, and pandemic -- surely helped some of them come to terms with their predicament and decide who or what to blame for it, just as, almost 2,500 years later, we watch films or read novels about plagues, among other things, to try to grasp ours.
In that first season of the plague, the citizens of Athens would indeed turn their fury against their leader, Pericles, and drive him from office. Later, after a brief return to power, he, too, would die of the disease.
Every Society Gets the Tragic Hero It Deserves
Now, another democracy is being overwhelmed by contagion. It, too, is involved in endless wars and led by a man whom millions of its citizens once believed to be the last-chance savior of the country.
Donald Trump didn’t kill his father or marry his mother, nor is he the cause of the coronavirus.
Still, in other respects, he hews to a distinctly modern, reality-TV version of the tragic hero. He, of course, became as rich as Croesus, even as he bathed in the adulation of his television viewers. Thanks to the Delphic Oracle of the Electoral College, he then rose to the most powerful political position in the world. Yet, through it all, he has exhibited virtually no self-knowledge. To this day, his understanding of his own faults remains near zero, while his amplification of his imagined strengths is off the Richter scale. Admittedly, Donald Trump lacks the gravitas of Oedipus and would never have been able to answer the riddle of the Sphinx, but this is twenty-first-century America, not ancient Greece, and every society gets the tragic hero it deserves.
As with Oedipus, the president’s extraordinary arrogance has put the country in peril. His denial of the scientific evidence for climate change prompted him to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, a monumental blunder that will plague later generations. His “deconstruction of the administrative state,” the unravelling of government institutions patiently constructed by his predecessors, significantly crippled his administration’s response to the coronavirus. His gargantuan pre-pandemic addition to the national debt through simultaneous tax cuts and military budget increases put the country at great economic risk. All of these policies were pushed through over the advice of wiser counsels, even within his administration.
Now, on a daily basis, the president appears before the American people and pretends to know much more than he does: about when to lift shelter-in-place restrictions (Easter because “it's a beautiful day”), which experimental drugs to use (“I'm not a doctor, but I have common sense”), and how to meet the needs of states desperate for ventilators (“try getting it yourselves”). Serial failure has not tempered his hubris, not faintly. In adversity, he’s simply fallen back on a tactic he’s deployed his whole life in the face of adversity: double down. If hubris didn’t work, then über-hubris is the cure.
Through it all, Donald Trump has somehow eluded the grasp of Nemesis. Poised with her scales of justice, the goddess watched over last year’s impeachment hearings. Yet courtesy of a phalanx of Republican senators, Trump was not brought to justice, despite his unconstitutional behavior.
Now, it seems, Nemesis has returned, this time brandishing her sword.
Trump’s incompetence in the face of Covid-19 has helped cause a soaring American death toll. The U.S. is being serially laid to waste, a reality for which he accepts no responsibility. Unlike Oedipus Rex, Trump Rex has not the slightest interest in confronting the truth of his sins or the horror of his actions. Don’t expect the president to put out his own eyes, as Oedipus does at the end of the play. No need, in fact. Trump has always been blind and, not surprisingly, his blind ambition combined with his blind greed has culminated in an administration in which the blind are indeed leading the blind.
Come November, it falls to the American people, if all goes well, to deliver the ultimate judgment of Nemesis.
The End of the World?
Dystopian fiction is about how the world ends -- not the extinction of the planet but the end of our familiar world. How we got from here to dystopia isn’t normally central to such novels. In fact, the end of that familiar world has usually taken place before you open the book and you may, at best, see it through brief flashbacks. The point is to plunge you directly into a future from hell like, for example, the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Nightmares don’t work with long explanatory introductions.
In a similar fashion, we’re not experiencing the end of the world itself right now. We’re not (yet) in the midst of nuclear annihilation or, say, the extinction of the human species via some extreme version of climate change. The current coronavirus pandemic is an apocalypse, to be sure, but a passing one. As Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki wrote long ago about the everyday horrors of communism in A Minor Apocalypse, “Many generations have thought the world was dying, but it was only their world which was dying.”
Herein lies the sobering reassurance of such stories. They remind us that worlds, like people, die all the time, only to be replaced by new worlds. Cities fall and rise again, as do civilizations. Even dystopian places like Idi Amin’s Uganda or the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodian killing fields eventually burn out. The handmaid lives to tell her tale and Gilead, too, crumbles in the end.
Athens survived the plague, though its democracy was compromised by war and disease. America, too, will live on. But it will have lost some further measure of its greatness thanks in no small part to the man who, however cynically, wanted to make it great again.