Antigone, Heroes, and COVID-19
A mood of decline has settled on America. COVID-19 is filling our hospitals and emptying our coffers. America is weaker, poorer, and still vulnerable. Disagreements persist as to the nature and the needed response to the pandemic. It would be easy to conclude that America’s best days are behind us.
Perhaps this pessimism is misplaced. Years ago I had the privilege of being taught by the University of Chicago’s David Tracy. In his extensive work on religion and literature and cosmology, Professor Tracy introduced his students to classical concepts of heroism.
Tracy was talking about Athens because we were reading Greek tragedians, including Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. His view was that those who produced the philosophy, arts, and politics of Aeschylus’ time were truly history’s greatest generation: They defined a good life, set the standards of truth and beauty, and emphasized how suffering may be ultimately transformed. And they fought to preserve Athens as a place where their ideas would be lived not just in words, but in deeds.
One of the subjects the Greek thinkers spent a great deal of time exploring was heroism.
For the Greeks, heroism was not principally about self-sacrifice, but rather about the individual’s personal growth. One who engages in a heroic act is, simply put, a fuller and more complete person than one who does not. Or at least that’s what they believed in Athens.
Professor Tracy talked about the choice of Sophocles’ Antigone, who must bury her brother to achieve justice—despite the risk she takes to her own life.
But using the historical period from Aeschylus to Euripides, an arc of just under two centuries, Professor Tracy described an Athens that steadily lost its will to define moral greatness and champion heroes. My college notebook recorded this with epigrammatic brevity:
Aeschylus: “Zeus is just.”
Sophocles: “Maybe Zeus is just.”
Euripides: “Maybe there is no Zeus?”
In that triptych you can see the decline of moral objectivity in Athens. The Greatest Generation had faded away and the lessons they taught were steadily dismissed, with new habits of mind taking hold. By the time Euripides was writing, Athens had begun to crumble in self-doubt—and as a society as well.
At this point, Professor Tracy stopped and turned to us:
If you look at many societies that come and go—and even ours to a degree—you will find that a strong society is able to identify its true heroes. We erode when we choose to abandon this practice and we fall into nothing more than a society that worships celebrity.
It strikes me that this statement in a college classroom 15 years ago could very well be talking about American society today.
Because it is clear that the celebrities of our culture dominate our attention today and determine much of what we think and discuss.
In this moment, however, the public has turned its attention and honor elsewhere. Thousands of patients are at this moment in distress in ICUs. Doctors and nursing teams are intubating new patients. Researchers are racing the clock for a vaccine. Social workers are consoling patients.
These heroes do their jobs not because they are seeking glory or celebrity but because they were trained for them. Because they live for them. And it is in the struggle and the sacrifice where life itself is lived.
They have no want for recognition and in this they stands in explicit contrast to the celebrity culture, which we see preening and mugging for the cameras nightly.
The Greeks knew the difference between these two types of “heroes.” So do we.
We owe our heroes praise, honor, respect, and most of all, imitation. It’s how we renew ourselves and our nation, affirm our values and demonstrate to those who will follow us that we value certain truths over all other things.
That was the lesson of Athens that Professor Tracy taught me.
Every society chooses what to be by what it affirms and celebrates. America is no different. We need not follow the path of Athens. And by the evidence around us in this moment, we aren’t.