Only a rare few are able to summon courage among the drive of others to maintain power.
Seeking analogies in literature, I think of two women from Greek mythology: Antigone and Iphigenia.
The behavior of the powerful men around Antigone and Iphigenia shows how only a rare few are able to summon courage, and dramatizes how, instead, the drive to maintain power takes the form of cowardice and willful blindness.
Courage vs. Silence
In Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone, the heroine, daughter of the late King Oedipus, ritually buries her brother Polynices by sprinkling dust on his exposed corpse.
Her act defies King Creon’s recent edict that Polynices be left to rot, unburied. Polynices and his brother Eteocles fought for control of Thebes, and the brothers killed each other. To Creon, Polynices was a traitor who attacked his native Thebes, while Eteocles, who died defending the city, merits a hero’s funeral.
Antigone’s sister Ismene, fearful, tries to dissuade Antigone from this act of rebellion. We can’t defy the king’s command, she protests. Besides, we are only women, and men are stronger. Ismene asks Antigone to pardon her for refusing to help with the rebellious act of burying Polynices.
Undaunted, and contemptuous of her sister’s cowardice, Antigone proceeds and is arrested. In the ensuing confrontation, Creon asks whether she has heard his recent decree. Antigone answers defiantly that she is answerable not to Creon’s edict but to unwritten laws so ancient that no one knows when they originated.
Who makes the laws? she asks. To which laws are we answerable? If a law is unjust, need we obey it?
Reward Is Not the Point
Antigone disregarded Creon’s law out of loyalty to her brother.
Courage isn’t really about rewards. It may be planned or impulsive; it may come as a surprise to the courageous person. It may inspire others to be courageous, or simply inspire with the vision of what this rare quality looks like.
The courage required for such defiance is the salient point. Antigone tells Creon that her fellow citizens would speak of their agreement with her act of defiance “if their lips were not sealed by fear.”
“In that view you differ from all these Thebans,” says Creon.
No, answers Antigone: “They also share it, but they curb their tongues for you.”
As Antigone points out to Creon, the silence of the cowed Theban populace is not exactly a ringing endorsement of his edict.
‘To Show No Fear’
In Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, the heroine’s father, Agamemnon, decides Iphigenia’s life is more expendable than his ability to lead the Greek army to military victory. Once he has resolved that his daughter must be sacrificed, Agamemnon summons Iphigenia and his wife Clytemnestra to Aulis, where he claims his daughter will marry Achilles. But a distinctly nonmarital altar awaits the trusting young girl.
Part of the thoroughgoing irony of this play lies in the failure of Clytemnestra and Achilles, despite their promises and protestations, to protect the innocent Iphigenia, whose initial horror gives way to a desperate resolve: She has more courage than her mother or Achilles, let alone than her father. Iphigenia finally goes off willingly to be sacrificed.
I must die.
I have to die.
But to die gloriously,
to step free
of lowborn cowardice,
not to be base,
to show no fear –
that is what I wish …
Oh sun that lights the day,
I move now to another life,
to a different fate.
Goodbye, beloved light.
A striking theme is Agamemnon’s refusal to be transparent about the crisis even after Clytemnestra confronts him. He feels for his daughter, but mostly he feels for himself; it’s finally all about him. Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus articulates Agememnon’s character best, as he recalls Agamemnon’s rationalization of the decision to sacrifice Iphigenia:
God forbid …
that you should lose your power and command,
honor, glory, fame, your burnished name.
Agamemnon feels above all self-pity:
I’m cornered, trapped, yoked,
a crafty demon’s prey.
Some dire divinity
has outwitted me.
Later in the play, Agamemnon seems to yield up all power and simply acquiesce to the situation:
No, it’s not a choice. It’s obligation. …
Willing, unwilling – it’s now out of my hands.
If Agamemnon had a phone, it’s easy to imagine him staring at it, refusing to look up, refusing to listen.
The ending of Iphigenia in Aulis has Iphigenia spirited away by a goddess, while a deer takes her place on the altar and is sacrificed instead of the girl. But many readers have found this solution purposefully unconvincing and ironic, and the text may be unclear. We’re certainly invited to imagine a more dire outcome.
However you imagine the end of this story, a constant seems to be that Agamemnon cannot bear to watch, to see. A mosaic from Pompeii shows him muffling his face in his mantle. The Chorus in Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon” describes the sacrifice right up to the climactic moment, and then they, too, flinch: “What happened next I did not see and will not say.”
A 1977 film version by director Michalis Cacoyannis concludes with Agamemnon staring in horror at something we ultimately cannot see, as a terrifying black-robed prophet grabs the girl, while smoke billows around the altar and obscures the view.
Agamemnon seems paralyzed, helpless to act. In the French tragedian Racine’s 17th-century version of the tragedy, as well as in Euripides, the onlookers all stare at the ground.
If they had phones, that’s where they’d be looking.