The Conversation - October 7, 2020

What happens next? Unlike Oedipus, Trump has denied that there was ever a dangerous illness in the city – although Bob Woodward’s book, “Rage” makes clear that he knew there was. Unlike Oedipus, he has refused his people’s pleas for help.

It’s hard to process the news of the president’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis without having recourse to some kind of mythological system, some larger frame of reference.

Karma, wrote one journalist, and then reproached himself for the ungenerous thought. Or perhaps it was simple irony on display when, Washington Post reporters wrote, “President Trump contracted the novel coronavirus after months in which he and people around him…avoided taking basic steps to prevent the virus’s spread.”

All these reactions make sense. If there’s one thing we know about a virus that’s still mysterious in many ways, it’s that this coronavirus is expert at going around.

And as a classics scholar, I can assure you: What goes around comes around. Greek mythology provides insight to help us understand today’s chaos.

Failure to see until too late

Many years ago, my high school English teachers put a lot of stress on terms like foreshadowing, climax and denouement. All these words marked points along a steep curve of the development of a story: rising action, turning point, falling action.

There was also a lot of emphasis, as we discussed plots, on a term I then found harder to understand: pride. Pride: arrogance; an exaggerated sense of self-worth. Pride tended to be followed by catastrophe – that falling action again.

As a high school student, I tended to confuse pride with vanity, with narcissistic preening; the tragic penalty of vanity seemed exaggeratedly severe.

What does “pride” really mean? The Greek word it translates is hubris, and pride doesn’t quite cover the range of the meaning of hubris. Vanity may well be part of hubris, but a more crucial sense of the word is terrible judgment, gross overconfidence, blindness, obtuseness, a failure to see what is staring you in the face – a failure to see it until it’s too late. ...
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