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The Opposite of Talking

You know you are right, but should you be so certain? What happens when your certainty that environmental regulations destroy jobs meets my certainty that environmental degradation destroys us all? “What’s that you say? I can’t hear you!” we are both shouting. We do not converse. Your certainty blinds you to my truth as my certainty blinds me to yours.

Decades of such certainties have brought us to this self-destructive impasse, as we squander the tools that the ancient Greeks devised for us (without ever fully implementing them themselves): self-restraint, empirical deduction, logical debate, and democratic political institutions.

Oddly, our certainties frequently conflict even when our interests align. We all need secure jobs, economic opportunity and growth, safe air, water, and food, and protection from disease, assault, and murder. Our survival requires sustainable, non-toxic methods for addressing disputes when our certainties collide.

Here’s where Greek literature comes in. Many sustainable, non-toxic solutions will be technological, but the will, effort, and resources to discover them, and the willingness to embrace them, won’t come from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Those disciplines can discover what to do, but not how, why, or whether to do it. By contrast, literature takes us outside ourselves, challenges our certainties, and exposes our blind spots. Historical and fictional tales about other people (in whose stories we have no personal or partisan stake) cultivate our critical moral judgment. Lacking a vested interest, we can judge the characters’ actions and choices more objectively. Greek tragedies, for example, showed ancient Athenians their own shortcomings and promoted critical self-assessment and creative problem-solving. They can do the same for us today.

As the Athenians were devising and conducting their unprecedented experiment in radical, direct democracy (508 – 322 BCE), Sophocles’ Antigone (c. 443 BCE) offered them a lesson in how not to resolve conflicts.

The title character, Antigone, is the daughter of the famous Oedipus (also, as it happens, his sister, but that is a different story.) As the play begins, her two brothers (who are also her uncles and nephews – and each other’s – but, again, that’s another tale) have just killed one another fighting over the throne of Thebes. One died defending Thebes, the other died attacking it, having marshaled an army from a neighboring citizen-community. The newly-installed king of Thebes, Antigone’s uncle Creon, has declared a noble funeral for the defending brother, but he has decreed that the body of the attacking brother, the traitor, be left unburied for birds and dogs to ravage. In a nutshell: Antigone buries her brother anyway. Creon finds out and buries her alive in a cave. Antigone commits suicide, as does Creon’s son and his wife. No one wins.

If Antigone values her dead relatives too much, Creon values his live ones too little. She claims that only family ties matter, whether relatives are dead or alive. He claims that family ties are irrelevant (theirs certainly is a peculiar family) and only the bonds of citizenship matter. Both Creon and Antigone are correct – just not exclusively so. Family relationships matter. So do civic ones. Eventually recognizing his mistake, Creon still can’t get it right. He opts to bury the corpse before going to rescue the live girl. By then, of course, it’s too late: Antigone has hanged herself. As the play ends, Creon has destroyed his entire family (his wife hanged herself, his son stabbed himself), and Antigone helped him do it.

No creative problem-solving on offer here, just absolute certainties. Creon knows that burying the body of a traitor within the precincts of Thebes would bring pollution on the citizen-community and offend its gods. Antigone knows that not burying the body at all will offend the gods of the netherworld, who uphold the bonds connecting blood kin. Both Creon and Antigone are right, but both are so certain of their own exclusive correctness that neither can incorporate new information or accept good advice. Neither ever considers the possibility of exploring discussion, compromise, or a creative solution.

The obvious creative compromise is staring everyone in the face, but it never even comes up in the play: bury the traitorous brother outside the precincts of Thebes. That would appease the gods of the netherworld without offending the gods of Thebes. Unlike the audience, the characters within the play remain incapable of seeing this option.

Creative solutions to our own problems may be similarly obvious, if only we allowed ourselves to see them. If, unlike Creon and Antigone, we could transcend our own certainties, we could collaborate constructively, as Creon and Antigone so spectacularly fail to do. To return to the example I began with, like Creon and Antigone, you and I are both right: we need jobs and we need to conserve the environment. We all have an obligation to protect those who will suffer most from our abandoning fossil fuels, and we all need a habitable environment. I must recognize that sustainable energy strategies cannot succeed by destroying individuals and communities dependent on fossil fuels. And you must acknowledge that, as polar ice caps melt at an ever-increasing rate, rising seas will generate natural disasters and economic and political crises. We must both stop assuming that environmental conservation is the inevitable enemy of job-creation and economic growth. Capital markets world-wide would eagerly embrace “clean” energy, if it were cost-effective. We must both get creative.

Our interests align even as our certainties collide. Whether we are Republicans or Democrats, rich or poor, social Darwinists or bleeding-heart liberals, ardent industrialists or tree-hugging environmentalists, we must all recognize that we inhabit this planet together. Sophocles’ cautionary tale of Antigone and Creon reminds us that in every conflict, not just environmental or economic ones, our certainties may be blinding us to better ideas.

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