Reading “Oedipus” in the Time of Corona: Lessons in the Patriarchy

All page numbers correspond to the 1974 Penguin Classics print, translation E.F. Watling.


“[W]here is daddy when you need him?” — Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, reminiscing about her father, a watchmaker, during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing with Dr. Rick Bright, May 14, 2020.

I’m sure I am not the only one who finds post-2016 American politics surreal. Every day brings new revelations of the Trump administration’s corruption, stupidity, narcissism, and sheer incompetence. Still, Dr. Bright’s whistle-blower testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee this week details an unprecedented betrayal of public trust. First, there were Bright’s unheeded warnings to the Department of Health and Human Services about the inadequate supply of PPE for front-line health care workers, and of ventilators available for patients. That, at least, didn’t get him fired. What did was Bright’s refusal to sign on to unregulated hydroxychloriquine use, which HHS was pressuring him to allow, despite its potential dangers, under the influence of a lobbyist for the drug’s manufacturer (Aeolus Pharmaceuticals), John Clerici. The “chief executive” of the company, Bright learned, “was a friend of Jared Kushner.” For insisting that the drug should only be used in emergency scenarios, Bright was kicked out of BARDA, the government research agency responsible for overseeing vaccine production.

In a sane world, this executive performance should trigger — if not impeachment proceedings, for the second time — the 25th Amendment, under which Congress can remove a sitting president for failure to discharge their duties. It’s not that the Trump administration has a different plan from one which Democrats would prefer. Asked about the ongoing shortages of testing materials in the U.S., including swabs and transport media, Dr. Bright, a career civil servant with 25 years of experience in public health, said: “this tells me… there is no master, coordinated plan as to how to respond to this outbreak.”

Rather than any sense of rational policy in response to the country’s need, the strategy of the Trump administration seems to be a mixture of denialism, grift, and playing it by ear. An example of this incompetence is revealing: although the White House agreed “within minutes” to initiate cargo plane trips from the military to obtain testing swabs from abroad — some 25 million of them, at Bright’s insistence — it has since failed to obtain more swabs, despite their availability and despite enduring shortages.

I don’t know if Corona will be the failure that does Trump in. I would like to think it will, although, amazingly, conservative outlets seem more interested in creating commotion around a fabricated #Obamagate scandal (I’m still not quite sure what this is; apparently, neither is Trump) than in Bright’s testimony. Still, I wanted to write this essay because it appears to me that Trump’s response to Corona distills the essence of his administration. He has, it seems to me, alarming affinities with another failed leader in a time of plague, whose personal doom was symbolic not only of his hubris, but of the rot that had set in to a political regime: Oedipus. It’s not a particularly useful essay — I’ve got no great ideas for winning 2020 or anything like that. But it helps me, at least, to try and make sense of the chaos around us by refracting life through literature. Or, I might just be trying to reduce life to books again… I’ll let you be the judge.

The issue at stake in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is not only man’s place in the cosmos, or in comparison to the gods. It is also a political question, about the role of human authority in the polis’ civic order, with the patriarch (the pater familias, or in Greek, the kurios), being the chief representative of that authority. (For more on the relation of the polis to the kurios, take a look at Michael Gagarin’s classic Early Greek Law, 1986, p. 135). The critique of hubris in Oedipus revolves on his role as a patriarchal figure within ancient Greece, contrasting the tyrannical Oedipus with the civic-minded Creon, and the blind, but technē empowered Tiresias. Both of these figures provide foils not only to Oedipus, but to other archetypes of tyrannical patriarchs in Greek myth, including the brutish Cyclopes of The Odyssey.

Oedipus’ incest, leading him to father two sons and two daughters, reflects a destruction of the generational order, and is, like his kingship, a horrible distortion of benign parental rule. Paternal authority, as we will see (for all the Greek’s sexism), was only rendered legitimate by its subservience to the authority of justice and the polis. Thus, the devolution of Oedipus’ role as father/king follows its self-interested assertion, independent from the state, which leads to chaos, violence, and death. The parallels to our own government — and our president’s person, in particular — will, I am afraid, be all too clear.

Part I: Oedipus’ Thebes: The Absent Agora

“ I grieve for you my children. Believe me, I know/All that you desire of me, all that you suffer;/And while you suffer, none suffers more than I./You have your several griefs, each for himself;/But my heart bears the weight of my own, and yours/And all my people’s sorrows.” — Oedipus, p. 27

The plot of Oedipus shows a striking absence. From reading Homer, one gets the impression that the civic life of ancient Greece was dominated by the agora, the assembly in which public needs were discussed, debated, and resolved, either by formal vote or general assent. The very first scene in the Iliad, for example, describes the host of Greeks at Troy gathering to discuss the plague wreaking havoc among their ships. Achilles speaks first, suggesting that a seer be called to interpret the god’s anger, but it is only because he has called the assembly together that he gives the opening address. The seer in question, Chalcas son of Thestor, addresses the whole gathering. As it turns out, Apollo rages at Agamemnon, who earlier overrode “all the rest of the Achaeans” (ln. 20–25) in refusing to allow the Chryses, a priest, to ransom his daughter from the spoils. It is understood by all that Agamemnon, called out, will have to yield his prize for the greater good (see also: Aristotle’s Politics, 3:14, 1285a 10–15, on Agamemnon’s obedience to the assemblies).

Similarly, when Telemakhos, in The Odyssey, seeks redress for the suitors ravaging his family estate, Athena advises him to go to the agora: “at daybreak, call the islanders to assembly and speak your will, and call the gods to witness” (ln. 320–323). Whether it be an individual grievance, or collective crisis, the place to go for redress is the agora. But when the plague hits Thebes in Sophocles’ Oedipus, nothing like this happens. Rather, the people — “sons of Cadmus,” as Oedipus paternalistically names them — petition Oedipus to solve their problem for them, as one might expect from a father, or a god: “If we come to you now, as your suppliants, I and these children, it is not as holding you equal of gods, but as the first of men, whether in the ordinary business of mortal life or the encounters of man with more than man” (p. 26).

They all fall upon Oedipus. In contrast to the Achaeans, there is no sense of a responsible collective; Oedipus alone bears his “people’s sorrow,” while the citizens of Thebes only nurse their “several griefs” (p. 27). The people of Thebes — maybe traumatized by the Sphinx’s terror? — lack a sense of their own collective power, or what Aristotle in the Rhetoric calls dunamis. Power, for Aristotle, is a potential (dunamis) for collective action, that can be galvanized through speeches in the assembly so as to achieve that which is “possible to be” (dunaton genesthai). The production of dunamis is thus one of the ends (telos) of the formation of communities: people band together so as to achieve what can only be accomplished through group coordination. For such political achievements, discussion and speech — the persuasive arts of an enlightened rhetoric — are indispensable, as they depend on buy-in from others:

“All those things are possible, the beginnings of whose coming-into-being lies in things we could compel or persuade; and these are the things or people over which we enjoy superiority or exercise authority, or whose friends we are.” (Rhetoric, 1392a 25–30)

Thebes, in contrast, to this Aristotelian vision, shows a bare civic life. The people exercise no collective power, and the sons of Cadmus live entirely in awe of their king. Indeed, despite his subjects’ profession of his mortal limitations, Oedipus seems to view his role nearly as a god. When the citizens pray to Athena, Apollo, Artemis, and Dionysus, Oedipus himself rises to respond: “You have prayed; and your prayers will be answered with help and and release/If you will obey me” (p. 31).

It is no wonder that Thebes suffers a rot — and one long preceding Apollo’s plague. The barrenness of the plague, its “blight/On barren earth/and barren agonies of birth” (p. 30) reflects the sterility of Thebes’ political and social life, the perverse repression created by an authority figure that, instead of marshaling collective potential through rational persuasion, identifies himself as the sole savior of the city, and as power’s only proprietor.

It is not Oedipus’ industrious activity on behalf of the city that is reprehensible, but the spirit in which it is undertaken — and indeed, the people’s own laxity in accepting it. While Aristotle’s Politics considers monarchy a valid form of government, this is distinguished from tyranny, where the king “rules in an unaccountable fashion over people who are similar to him or better than him, with an eye to his own benefit” (4:10, 1295a 20–25). Of all the forms of government, a tyranny is the most destructive to the polis; it is “least of all a constitution” (4:8; 2:2), and the reason is not hard to surmise: “there is no constitution where the laws do not rule” (4:5, 1292 30–35). Laws — applying equally to rulers and ruled —are what create a shared accountability. They direct community practice toward a chosen policy interest, and utilize collective resources to achieve it. Without this equality before the law, however, no common good is possible. There is no dunamis, and no polis.

It is precisely the subservience of self to common good that Oedipus denies. Even when he addresses the city’s plight, agreeing to seek the murderer of Laius as Apollo demands, Oedipus does so in the name of serving himself: “You will find me as willing an ally as you could wish/In the cause of God and our country,” he says. It is “My own cause too/Not merely from a fellow-creature will I clear this taint/But from myself.” The killer of Laius might, Oedipus notes,“think to turn his hand/Against me” (p. 29). Hardly a convincing statement of devotion to the city.

The source of Oedipus’ egotism isn’t hard to find: triumphant in his victory over the Sphinx, he is intoxicated by his personal power, which makes him believe he can overcome all challenges alone. “I will start afresh,” he says, pursuing Laius’ killer, “and bring everything to the light.” Never mind that every previous investigation into the murders has failed. His self-confidence is unbounded, and he proceeds without so much as a personal prayer to the gods.

Because he feels he needs no one, Oedipus binds his fate to no one’s — not even to his subjects’. For Oedipus, kingship is a personal prerogative to use as he likes, with no strings attached: it is “the power the city has given me — freely given” (p. 36), he insists, berating Creon for plotting to take “his” gift. Because Oedipus is enmeshed in self-interest, he assumes others are as well, that the blind prophet Teresias, for example, is likewise, motivated by personal gain. “What is to be, it is your trade to tell,” he reminds, when the seer goes reticent. And when he dislikes the prophecy, he decries Teresias as a “peddler of fraudulent magic tricks, with eyes/wide open for profit” (p. 36). It is Oedipus, of course, whose eyes are “wide open for profit,” and who ultimately blinds himself upon realizing how very in the wrong he is.

Because he treats life as a competition, a zero-sum contest for eminence and private gain, he accepts that “in the race of life” his “riches, and royalty, and wit matched against wit” must always be “mated with envy” (p. 36). It is no wonder that Oedipus suspects his brother-in-law, Creon, of seeking to usurp him. In truth, such thinking is pure projection. Creon, unlike Oedipus, only seeks to end the plague, and is more concerned with maintaining his trust with fellow citizens than achieving unfulfilled ambition: “To be king in name was never part of my ambition;/Enough for me to live a kingly life./What more could any moderate man desire?” (p. 42). It is not power, but friendship that motivates him: “I am all man’s friend,” he insists. “Would I change this life for the other? No;/None but a fool would be so faithless.”

Tiresias is the first to realize that Oedipus’ kingship is a farce — that by giving themselves over to Oedipus’s rule the Thebeans have effectively dismembered the polis, and that Oedipus, who gleefully accepts kingship as his due prize for eliminating the Sphinx, uses a facade of common good to facilitate his self-interest. And here we have a political moral fit for modern times: A state founded on self-interest ends in rot, its citizens isolated from one another and alienated from their government and their own collective power. Unbeknownst to himself, it is the division within his own regime that Oedipus describes when declaring the punishment for anyone who would hide Laius’ murderer:

“No matter who he may be, he is forbidden/Shelter or intercourse with any man in all this country over which I rule; From fellowship of prayer or sacrifice or lustral rite is excommunicated… and it is my solemn prayer/that the unknown murderer, and his accomplices/If such there be, may wear the brand of shame/For their shameful act, unfriended, to life’s end.” (p.32)

Oedipus includes himself in the curse, “Nor do I exempt myself from the imprecation,” and concludes, “May Justice and all the gods be with you for ever” (p. 33).

But a kingship based on self-interest, and the division of the common good into a city of competing “several griefs,” is incompatible with justice. Justice can only exist between acknowledged equals, who give each other their due; thus the “friendship,” which Creon values, is a kind of justice (see Nicomachean Ethics, 1155a 25–30). It flourishes in the agora, not in an unequal power relationship like that which Oedipus has established with the city. And whatever the benefits Aristotle believed slaves to get from their masters, justice was not one of them (see Nicomachean Ethics, 5:6, 1134a 25–30; 1134b 10–15).

Tiresias, for his part, will not give up the public space of the agora, the right to engage Oedipus as an equal in their shared accountability for the common good, though the king may drive him from his court: “King though you are, one right, to answer, makes us equal; and I claim it” (p.37). Oedipus may seek to renounce his equality with the people— ultimately, his dependence upon them to achieve any serious project— “Passing for an alien, a sojourner here among us,” as Teresias says (p. 38). But this must ultimately be exposed. For all his denials, Oedipus is “a Theban born, to his cost.”

Finally, the people of Thebes — the absent protagonists of the plot — realize something is amiss. Seeing Oedipus spurn the prophet and banish Creon, they grow confused: “Surely this is not well/When all our thought should be, how to discharge/The god’s command,” they suggest, doubtingly. Oedipus’ concern for his self-preservation in the face of the plague facing the polis flies in the face of that accountability to the community, and the consequent self-criticism, that is central to virtue: “And what if you are mistaken?” Creon asks. “Kings must rule,” is Oedipus’ reply (p.43). This seems to prick some awareness in the ‘sons of Cadmus’ that they have been remiss in entrusting their fate so entirely to Oedipus, who is after all no god: “I only ask to live, with pure faith keeping/In words and deed that Law which leaps the sky/Made of no mortal mold, undimmed, unsleeping/Whose living godhead does not age or die” (p. 49).

Part II: Patriarchy, Technē, and Truth

Oedipus: “Do you think you can say such things with impunity?”

Teresias: “I do. If the truth has any power to save.” — p. 36.

“Command no more. Obey. Your rule is ended.” Creon, p. 68.

The Greeks knew that the same hubris that allows one to act without any accountability to others, makes leaders ignore sound scientific thinking. In the patriarchal world of the Greeks, this figure is represented by the father who spurns technē. Thus, Homer depicts the Cyclopes in the Odyssey as brutes without either law or science: “[G]iants, louts, without a law to bless them/In ignorance, leaving the fruitage of the earth in mystery to the immortal gods, they neither plow/nor sow by hand, nor till the ground” (Book 9, ln. 110–120). Instead of cultivating the land, the Cyclopes live off the wild grains and goats that proliferate naturally on the isle. In some senses it seems like paradise, “wild wheat and barley… and wild-grapes, in clusters, ripen[ed] in heavens rain” (ln. 110–120). But the same disinterest in the objective that inhibits the Cyclopes understanding of agricultural science, also makes law and politics impossible, and their relationships vicious: “Cyclopes have no muster and no meeting/ no consultation or old tribal ways/ but each one dwells in his own mountain cave/dealing out rough justice to wife and child” (ln. 120–125).

It is easy to recognize, in this monstrous family unit, the perverse reflection of the patriarchal home (see Aristotle, who describes the pater familias as an aristocratic rule; Nicomachean Ethics 1134b 10–20 and Politics 1278b 35–40). The patriarchy’s legitimacy — for the Greeks were deeply patriarchal — lies in the fact (or claim) that it rules for the benefit of the ruled (Politics 1158b 10–15). The father is therefore subject to the constraints of the laws of the polis, as “all types of community… appear to be parts of the political community” (Ethics 1160a 30). The Cyclopes, however, with their inability to enter into political relations, necessarily degrade the family as well, whose obligations become a mere front for the “rough justice” of the ruling kurios. To speak in Hegelian terms, the Cyclopes represent patriarchal authority that is not sublated within a political order, and so remains in opposition to it as a crude exercise of force.

So it is with the Cyclops that decimates Odysseus’ men. Confident in his own strength, the monster cares “not a whistle for your thundering Zeus or all the gods in bliss… we have more force by far” (Book 9, ln. 295–300). As far as craft knowledge, he has the rudiments of shepherding, separating the different offspring in isolated pens, and milking ewes for his milk and cheese. But his work, whose aim is solely to feed himself, runs smoothly only as a “practiced job” (Book 9, ln. 260–265), i.e., not a craft. The efficient milking of the ewes was learned by rote, through repetition, trial, and error, rather than through a system of theoretical principles that guides its performance.

This sort of experienced practice is different from “craft knowledge,” or technē, as Socrates writes in the Georgias. There, Socrates insists that technē is fundamentally different from a knowledge gained from experience alone (of the kind to which his interlocutor Polus attributes technological progress, cf. Georgias 448 c-d). Unlike technē, knowledge gained by experience is a knowledge that has never peeked beyond the immediate; not until an obvious error is encountered does its possessor adjust his practice, and even then, without introspection. Socrates applies this definition of “craft” to criticize the art of rhetoric. The rhetorician's versatile ability to manipulate arguments to his own benefit is not a craft, Socrates says, but “a knack, because it has no account of the nature of whatever things it applies… so that it is unable to say the cause of each thing, and I refuse to call anything that lacks such an account a craft” (Georgias, 465a-b).

Socrates’ critique of rhetoric should be read together with Aristotle’s qualified praise of it. For Socrates, rhetoric, or the art of persuading groups, takes on two forms, depending on whether it unites people around an objective standard of accountability, or holds them in thrall to a particular speaker, who aims at immediate gratification rather than the good. Only the former — practiced by Socrates and “a few Athenians” — is the means to “take up the true political craft and practice the true politics” (Georgias, 521 d-e). This sort of reasoned discussion, as Socrates says to Polus, depends on being able to “take your turn in asking and being asked” (461e-462a), or as Teresias said to Oedipus, in allowing everyone the equality of “a right to answer.”

This readiness for interrogation before an external interlocutor — this accountability — is also necessary for mastering technē. In learning a craft, one must give up the apparent for the real. For example, a doctor can identify illness in a patient that otherwise seems healthy (Georgias, 464a). Because it necessitates criticism of the immediately perceived, in the name of accountability to the objectively true, and because it makes the principles of a practice communicable to and defensible before others, Socrates and his students considered technē a natural partner to civic virtue and the capacity for justice.

It is therefore not surprising that Oedipus’ tyranny is marked not only by a dissolution of the agora and a lack of justice, but by disdain for expert knowledge. “What was your vaunted seer-craft ever worth?” he sneers at Teresias (p. 36). It was not he who solved the riddle of the Sphinx, but Oedipus, relying on “mother-wit, not bird-lore.” The strength of Oedipus’ leadership, as the Thebeans readily admit, is not based on scientific knowledge, but on personal experience—the “experience of trials past” that “gives strength to present counsel” (p.26). Such experience never need confer with another’s expertise. Oedipus’ incestuous relationship with his mother — ultimately his doom — symbolizes the narcissism with which he accepts the absolute correspondence of his own mind and personal history with absolute reality. The injunction of Genesis to leave the familial and familiar is ignored; no ‘otherness’ is needed for his rule — no recognition of a technē’s principles, no communication. Nothing but ‘mother-wit.’ His kingship, as Socrates would say, is no art, but a knack.

“I have a natural instinct for science,” President Donald Trump to the Associated Press, October 17, 2018.

“Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability,” — President Trump, qtd. in the NYT, April 28, 2020.

Congresswoman Nanette Barragán: “Dr. Bright, what impact do you believe that statements by administration leader downplaying the Covid-19 crisis… had on the ability of the public health system to mount an effective response to the Covid 19 virus?”

Dr. Rick Bright: *beat.*

Dr. Rick Bright: “I believe Americans need to be told the truth.” — Congressional hearing, May 15, 2020.

Conclusion: Between Agora and King

The parallel between America’s current health crisis and the drama of Oedipus is only too apt. Like the sons of Cadmus, we too have entrusted our response to the plague to the hubris of a man who unabashedly believes, like Oedipius, that whether right or wrong “Kings must rule” (p. 43). As is increasingly clear, America’s plague comes at a moment when the balance of power between congress and the executive — the agora and the king — is being crucially tested. Victoria Bassetti, writing for the Brennan Center, notes that the current battle in the Supreme Court between the Trump administration and Congress over the president’s refusal to release his tax returns is about more than Trump’s corruption or conflicts of interest. It’s about Congress’ right to hold the executive accountable through subpoenas. The Supreme Court case, whose oral hearings aired live on May 12, “could reshape the constitutional balance of powers for decades,” according to Bassetti, who sees Trump’s arguments in the three cases against him as making the most sweeping claims of executive immunity in history. The Trump administration, in at least two of those cases, has outright claimed that Congress has no right to subpoena the executive branch.

In the United States, we have our own Oedipus, without even Oedipus’ ultimate shame: “I have a natural instinct for science,” Trump once told the Associated Press. It seems this faith in his instincts is what drives the president’s current pandemic response, which has included suggesting medical interventions on live television, on the basis of the fact that, although not a doctor, he’s “a person that has a good you-know what”; contradicting leading epidemiologists, including Dr. Fauci, on the adequacy of the testing available in the U.S.; and predicting an early end for the disease, without a shred of evidence.

What is at stake, for us as for the sons of Cadmus, is not only the ending of a deadly plague or a government rife with graft. It is the restoration — or establishment? — of a polis, a culture of accountability both to truth and to each other, which is the only way to ensure our democracy and collective power can survive. This isn’t only a demand on our leaders to act with justice. It’s a demand for us, like Tiresias, not to abandon the agora for a father-figure that would stand in for the gods.

Occasional journalist; constantly curious; formerly @YUCommentator and @theharlembee; MA Phil University College Dublin

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