Lessons from Greek Tragedy: Baltimore, New York, and the Middle East
By Mark Kelley, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Humanities, American Public University
My research the past few years has involved an analysis of literary texts in an attempt to explain the persistent struggle between forces of civilization–governance, community, familial and human bonds generally–and opposition to civilization–the discontented forces of violence, militarism, and mass destruction. We need only watch the news to observe this lethal clash in real-time on a global scale, from U.S. cities such as Baltimore and New York to the Middle East.
This interest has led me to classic works of literature, and in particular to Greek tragedy. What can we learn from Greek tragedy that may help explain recurrent outbreaks of large-scale violence and destruction?
For the majority of the ancient Greeks, mythology provided civilization with normative values and ontological consolation, to alleviate uncertainty by grounding social experience–and especially social rupture and upheaval–in sacred and sovereign order (see, for instance, Hesiod’s Theogony). Thus violence and war and familial and national trauma in Aeschylus and Sophocles, finds cathartic resolution in sacred and civic order.
In the Oresteia, Orestes is purified through his participation in the foundation of the Athenian law court of the Areiopagus, a grand parable of progress and eventual stability following serial disaster; and in the Theban plays, the Athens of Theseus is made sacred through the patronage of Oedipus while alive, and the custody of his remains after his death.
In Greek tragedy, the absolute danger to civilization is division–political faction and civil war, what the Greeks termed stasis. Thebes, anti-city to the united Athens of Theseus, the city whose original citizens sprang from the dragon’s teeth and proceeded to kill one another, represented stasis in its most virulent form (see Pierre Vidal-Naquet, “Oedipus Between Two Cities,” in Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece. New York: Zone Books, 1990. pp. 332-35).
Oedipus’ departure from Thebes and his final transformation into “one inspired with inward vision,” as he hears the voice of, and silently and privately merges with divinity in a secret place whose whereabouts even his daughters are unable to discern, removes him both spiritually and materially from the increasingly internecine Thebes of his past. In the exodos of the poem, the chorus inquires as to how Oedipus died, to which Antigone answers: “As you would have wished for him; / Not in the peril of war” (1678-79).
This last counterpoint, brilliantly realized, is finally the source of the redemption compassed at the end of Oedipus at Colonus, as Oedipus indeed becomes a human divine, transcending suffering and violent internecine retribution to achieve a penetrating, Lear-like understanding of himself and his relation to the world.
Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus demonstrates pathei mathos, or learning through suffering, as Oedipus quits his former self and relinquishes thoughts of dying, tempered and regenerated by what Antigone calls “the lesson in your sightless eyes” (Sophocles, The Theban Plays, tr. E. F. Watling. New York: Penguin Books, 1947. Line 1199). Significantly, Oedipus’ transfiguration presages a wholesale rejection of the martial tradition that his son exemplifies and undertakes.
In Oedipus at Colonus, the transfiguration of man marked by divine necessity and his own hamartia anticipates a future bright with human possibility; the destructive horror that invades civil life here becomes the passport to an enlargement of consciousness.
In Freud’s late work Civilization and its Discontents, the human inclination to aggression is seen as an original, instinctual disposition that constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization. Thus the meaning of the evolution of civilization is no longer obscure for Freud: it is at core the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the evolving drama of the human species.
Freud ended his work with what seems profoundly relevant to the study of Greek tragedy and our contemporary, conflicted world: “The fateful question for the human species,” Freud writes, is “whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.” (Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, in Standard Edition, tr. James Strachey, vol. 21. London: Hogarth P, 1961. Originally published 1930, p. 92).
In “Thoughts on War and Death,” Freud warns, “[w]hen the community no longer raises objections, there is an end, too, to the suppression of evil passions, and men perpetrate deeds of cruelty, fraud, treachery and barbarity so incompatible with their level of civilization that one would have thought them impossible” (Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts on War and Death,” from The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 22 vols. 1914-1916, 14:280).
We learn from the study of Greek tragedy that without a community willing to check the instinctual human disposition to barbarism–martial and civilian–civilization dissolves. Avoiding chaotic mass violence requires a durable social or civilizing construct and a tolerant population disposed to share in, sacrifice for, and maintain that civilizing paradigm.
Amid the myriad complications of religion, race, and nationality that may divide local and global communities, Greek tragedy instructs that without a public willing to check Freud’s death drive, we relapse to “the peril of war” and its consequent “deeds of cruelty, fraud, treachery and barbarity.”
About the Author
Mark Kelley received his B.A. from Boston University, and his M.Phil. and Ph.D. from The Graduate Center of The City University of New York. Dr. Kelley is author and co-editor of three books on English Literature, as well as numerous articles in journals and webzines, on subjects ranging from literature to the academic job market and incivility in academic discourse.