What Goes Around Comes Around, or What Greek Mythology Says About Donald Trump

What Goes Around Comes Around, or What Greek Mythology Says About Donald Trump
Donald Trump’s helicopter landing at the White House, Oct. 5, 2020, as he returns from being hospitalized at Walter Reed.
Liu Jie/Xinhua via Getty Images

It was 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.

What Goes Around Comes Around, or What Greek Mythology Says About Donald Trump
Trump stands, maskless, on the Truman Balcony after returning to the White House.
Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Retribution and rashness

I don’t recall my teachers mentioning nemesis or até, forces or principles that are closely associated with hubris in Greek mythology.

Nemesis is more often personified, and hence capitalized, than até. Nemesis  is a goddess of retribution, and she can follow acts of hubris with the certainty of a law of gravity – except that there may be a considerable time lag, as if one dropped a plate and it took a generation for it to break. That concept likewise appears in the Bible’s book of Ezekiel, which says “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the teeth of the children shall be set on edge.”

Até is a more unpredictable figure, not necessarily personified – classics scholar E.R. Dodds in “The Greeks and the Irrational” tentatively defines até as “a sort of guilty rashness.”

On the other hand, Até can be unforgettably personified, as when Mark Antony addresses the body of Caesar and predicts civil war in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar:”

“And Caesar’s spirit ranging for revenge,
With Até by his side, come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines, with a monarch’s voice,
Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war…”

Goddess or not, até, like nemesis, can be thought of as a kind of mechanism whereby one evil is succeeded by another. There’s a chain reaction, a cause and result. Nemesis seems cooler, more targeted and precise; até lets all hell break loose, and also is the hell that breaks loose. Categories blur in the chaos.

‘He himself is the polluter’

When I studied and taught Sophocles’ tragedy “Oedipus the King,” the stress was on hubris, irony, blindness. What wasn’t emphasized is that the play was written during and is set in the midst of a plague.

The citizens of Thebes, in the tragedy’s opening scene, implore their wise and resourceful ruler Oedipus to save them from this disastrous illness. Oedipus, moved by their plight and confident in his own capability, promises to do exactly that. His effort to hunt down the criminal whose unpunished sin is polluting the city and causing the plague leads to Oedipus’s own exposure as the source of that pollution.

But he persists in his hunt for the truth – even though the truth, as every student learns, turns out to be that he himself is the polluter whom he seeks. Trump, like Oedipus, is the source of the pollution - or at the very least, a vector, a spreader, an enabler. Unlike Oedipus, the president has actively discouraged the hunt for the truth.

The final words of the tragedy are addressed by the chorus to the citizens of Thebes. Presumably the plague will be routed; the city has indeed been cleansed. In contrast, the citizens of our country keep on dying. The president removes his mask and proclaims his triumph.

Aristotle recommends in his “Poetics” that in the best tragedies, the pivot or reversal – called “peripeteia” – from the height of success to disaster is accompanied by some kind of knowledge – anagnorisis, or recognition. “Pathei mathos,” sings the chorus in Aeschylus’s tragedy “Agamemnon”: wisdom comes through suffering.

A scene from the Theater of War’s production of ‘Oedipus Rex’

The simultaneity of Oedipus’s enlightenment and his catastrophe is one of the factors that made Aristotle so admire this elegantly plotted play.

The untranslatable, chaotic force of até plays out in the cycle of reversal followed by recognition; arrogance followed by retribution. What are we supposed to think?

Whether we rejoice or mourn, whether we’re elated or fearful, and whatever happens in the weeks and months to come, this news – that the president had COVID-19 – arrived with a freight of predictability: This particular infection seems, in retrospect, if not inevitable then at least overwhelmingly likely.

Hubris: not seeing what’s in front of your nose. Even as lawsuits and tell-all books have piled up, Trump has always seemed triumphantly immune. Not any more.

Tragedy’s lesson

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.

What does Oedipus learn in the course of the drama? Quite a lot. He may blame the gods or fate for his plight, but he also takes responsibility for what has happened.

What will Covid – his own personal, irrefutable experience of COVID-19 – teach Trump? Humility? Compassion? Respect for expert advice? The existence of Nemesis? His own diagnosis of hubris, with a measure of até thrown in?

The answer is all too clear. Released from the hospital, Trump tweeted: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life!” He also said “Maybe I’m immune” and took off his mask when returning to the White House.

Tragedy, I tell my students, doesn’t teach a lesson or preach a moral. It offers a vision. Not: don’t be arrogant, prideful, hubristic. Rather: Men of Thebes, look upon Oedipus.The Conversation

About the Author

Rachel Hadas, Professor of English, Rutgers University Newark

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

More Articles By This Author

You May Also Like




man and dog in front of giant sequoia trees in California
The Art of Constant Wonder: Thank you, Life, for this day
by Pierre Pradervand
One of the greatest secrets of life is to know how to constantly marvel at existence and at the…
Photo: Total Solar Eclipse on August 21, 2017.
Horoscope: Week of November 29 - December 5, 2021
by Pam Younghans
This weekly astrological journal is based on planetary influences, and offers perspectives and…
young boy looking through binoculars
The Power of Five: Five Weeks, Five Months, Five Years
by Shelly Tygielski
At times, we have to let go of what is to make room for what will be. Of course, the very idea of…
man eating fast food
It's Not About the Food: Overeating, Addictions, and Emotions
by Jude Bijou
What if I told you a new diet called the "It's Not About the Food" is gaining popularity and…
woman dancing in the middle of an empty highway with a city skyline in the background
Having the Courage to Be True to Ourselves
by Marie T. Russell, InnerSelf.com
Each one of us is a unique individual, and thus it seems to follow that each one of us has a…
Lunar eclipse through colored clouds. Howard Cohen, November 18, 2021, Gainesville, FL
Horoscope: Week of November 22 - 28, 2021
by Pam Younghans
This weekly astrological journal is based on planetary influences, and offers perspectives and…
a young boy climbing to the top of a rock formation
A Positive Way Forward Is Possible Even in the Darkest Times
by Elliott Noble-Holt
Falling into a rut doesn’t mean we have to stay there. Even when it can seem like an insurmountable…
woman wearing a crown of flowers staring with an unwavering gaze
Hold That Unwavering Gaze! Lunar and Solar Eclipses November-December 2021
by Sarah Varcas
This second and final eclipse season of 2021 began on 5th November and features a lunar eclipse in…
Achieving Harmony with The Seven Chakra Personality Types
Achieving Harmony with The Seven Chakra Personality Types
by Shai Tubali
Our individual differences and unique expressions all fall into seven major categories related to…
and so life goes by marie t russell
And So Life Goes: The Ups and Downs of Our Experience
by Marie T. Russell
While speaking to a friend who has recently 'lost' a dear one to death, I was reminded that we…
Believe In Your Genius: Give Yourself a Reputation to Live Up To!
Believe In Your Genius: Give Yourself a Reputation to Live Up To!
by Alan Cohen
Perhaps early in life you adopted a thought about yourself that defined you as small, ugly,…

Selected for InnerSelf Magazine


How Living On The Coast Is Linked To Poor Health
How Living On The Coast Is Linked To Poor Health
by Jackie Cassell, Professor of Primary Care Epidemiology, Honorary Consultant in Public Health, Brighton and Sussex Medical School
The precarious economies of many traditional seaside towns have declined still further since the…
The Most Common Issues for Earth Angels: Love, Fear, and Trust
The Most Common Issues for Earth Angels: Love, Fear, and Trust
by Sonja Grace
As you experience being an earth angel, you will discover that the path of service is riddled with…
How Can I Know What's Best For Me?
How Can I Know What's Best For Me?
by Barbara Berger
One of the biggest things I've discovered working with clients everyday is how extremely difficult…
What Men’s Roles In 1970s Anti-sexism Campaigns Can Teach Us About Consent
What Men’s Roles In 1970s Anti-sexism Campaigns Can Teach Us About Consent
by Lucy Delap, University of Cambridge
The 1970s anti-sexist men’s movement had an infrastructure of magazines, conferences, men’s centres…
Honesty: The Only Hope for New Relationships
Honesty: The Only Hope for New Relationships
by Susan Campbell, Ph.D.
According to most of the singles I have met in my travels, the typical dating situation is fraught…
An Astrologer introduces the Nine Dangers of Astrology
An Astrologer introduces the Nine Dangers of Astrology
by Tracy Marks
Astrology is a powerful art, capable of enhancing our lives by enabling us to understand our own…
Giving Up All Hope Could Be Beneficial For You
Giving Up All Hope Could Be Beneficial For You
by Jude Bijou, M.A., M.F.T.
If you're waiting for a change and frustrated it's not happening, maybe it would be beneficial to…
Chakra Healing Therapy: Dancing toward the Inner Champion
Chakra Healing Therapy: Dancing toward the Inner Champion
by Glen Park
Flamenco dancing is a delight to watch. A good flamenco dancer exudes an exuberant self-confidence…

New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.