James Comey in 2017. AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Greek tragedies shed light into human nature’s darker corners. They can also illuminate the character of former FBI chief James Comey, whose unbending adherence to principles evokes ancient themes.
Once upon a time, there was a prominent, powerful man in government who cared deeply about integrity and following the rules.
He said, “You cannot know a man completely, his character, his principles, sense of judgment, not till he’s shown his colors … Experience, there’s the test.”
Leaders have a sacred obligation to those they rule, he said.
“As I see it, whoever … refuses to adopt the soundest policies but fearing someone, keeps his lips locked tight, he’s utterly worthless.”
The responsibility to act with integrity extended to others in leadership, he believed. He could never “stand by silent … nor could I ever make that man a friend of mine who menaces our country … Such are my standards.”
You can imagine reading these sentiments in James Comey’s new memoir, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” a book that is provoking a spectrum of responses.
But these words are actually excerpts from a translation of Creon’s first speech in Sophocles’s “Antigone,” written almost 2,500 years ago.
I am a professor of classics who studies the literature of the ancient Mediterranean world. In the wake of the publication of Comey’s memoir – and under the current president in general – I believe there is a case to be made for reading the ancient Greek tragedies: not just because they shed light into some of human nature’s darker corners, but because the practice may even help us find common ground in our fractured political climate.
Creon’s terrible lesson
For some, Comey’s book only pours salt in the wounds of the so-called October surprise. That’s when Comey, then the director of the FBI, announced that the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails was reopened. Comey insists that in his position, he had the awesome task of adopting the soundest policies without fear of retribution; for the sake of the country, he could not stand by or keep silent.
For others, the memoir provides ample evidence that Trump is “morally unfit to be president.” Comey is no friend of a president who menaces our country, echoing Creon’s “Such are my standards.”
Creon’s tragic story begins after the downfall of King Oedipus, when the rule of Oedipus’s city Thebes fell to his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, who were supposed to hold joint command.
Eteocles, however, refused to share the ruling of Thebes with his brother. So Polynices gathered an army of allies and attacked the city in an aggressive act of civil war and fratricide.
Both brothers were killed, leaving their uncle, Creon, to inherit the troubled kingship.
Creon issued an edict that only Eteocles should receive an honorable burial; the body of the aggressor Polynices should be left to rot. Antigone, sister of both dead men, defied the edict and paid minimal funeral rites to her brother Polynices because she believed that the laws of the gods outweighed all human laws.
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For her disobedience, Creon, who lived by rigid rules, condemned her to death. He is ultimately convinced to change his mind, but not before Antigone commits suicide along with her fiancé Haemon – Creon’s son – and Haemon’s mother – Creon’s wife.
Creon learned his lesson too late.
Principles above all else
In spite of the obvious differences between Creon and Comey, I believe the comparison with Greek tragedy, while not exact, is illuminating.
Both men appear to share the same tragic flaw: an unbending adherence to principles. Both men believe they are acting in the best interest of their community. Both men align their words and deeds, and in their actions they reveal their character.
And the actions of both men have unintended consequences.
Both men can be defended for upholding the rule of law. Both men can be condemned for causing harm to fellow citizens.
Of course, we cannot expect Comey to come to any grand realizations like Creon, and Comey has made it clear that he is not going to issue any apologies for adhering to his principles.
Rather, reading Greek tragedy equips us with a framework for understanding ourselves a little better.
Tragedy sparked shared reflection and ‘katharsis’
In ancient Athens, the traditions of tragedy began in religious festivals. The theater was from the outset a place where performance, for actors and audience, was entwined with religious worship. Furthermore, the performance of tragedy was a distinctly political aspect of the life of Athenian citizens.
Athens in the fifth century was a democracy, inclusive and participatory. The religious festival, including the award of prizes to the top playwright by a jury of 10 citizens chosen by lot, reflected not only the organization of the city but its pride and its intellectual achievement as well.
The myths, retold from generation to generation, preserved and created images of universal significance. The myths also distanced the audience from the story being told in terms of space and time, and this distance allowed the playwright to portray topics that were socially uncomfortable, politically contentious, religiously irreverent and culturally radical.
Tragedy gave the audience the opportunity to look at itself, to examine its less than noble qualities and, in the process, to come clean about what it means to be human and to be happy. This process is called katharsis, the Greek word for “cleansing.”
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Although Sophocles’s audiences in fifth-century Athens were members of a participatory democracy, they were by no means homogeneous politically. Athens was in the middle of the Peloponnesian War. For 30 years, citizens regularly debated strategies and by the end, gauging from Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, some were even protesting the war.
The tragedies presented ethical conundrums to unravel, with no clear-cut answers: Which is more powerful, fate or free will? Divine law or human law? Persuasion or justice? Justice or expedience?
Through the stories on stage, audiences were able to think through some of the most pressing issues of their day, in spite of their political differences.
There’s something cathartic, cleansing and even liberating about Comey’s memoir. A cynic will view the book as his attempt to whitewash, or at least control, the stories and maybe even clean up his image.
But it also seems to be a book that – as Greek tragedy did for its audience thousands of years ago – appeals to those on either side of the political divide and can free us from crippling partisanship, even if only for 304 pages.