Low Probability High Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: A Look at Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes

Going to Boston in January 2018

If at first you don’t succeed, try again! Though my proposal for the Shakespearean Theatre Conference was rejected, my proposal to speak at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies in Boston went through. Cool. I get to talk about my favourite tragedian, Aeschylus. And I also get to talk about my favourite tragedy, his play Seven Against Thebes. From what I remember, it’s a big conference. Hellenists and Latinists from all over the world converge on a hotel and fill it right up for the better part of a week. At any given time, there’s ten or twenty sessions going on, and they cover everything to do with the Greek and Roman world. There’s a ballroom filled with exhibitors: publishers with their books, travel agents (offering guided tours of Greece and Rome), and salespeople hawking software systems. Circus atmosphere. And lots of professors meeting up with their old buddies. And lots of boozing. One of my friends is a manager at Fairmont Hotels. The hotels circulate amongst themselves a report of how all these different organizations behave when they hold their conferences. The report on the Society for Classical Studies says that we’re a mild-mannered and generally well-behaved bunch that like the sauce. I can’t deny that, last time, to my amusement as I walked past the bar, this one old professor wearing a tweed suit happened to have one too many and fell off his barstool. His colleagues were picking him up, and trying not to laugh as they asked if he was okay. This is going to be fun! I’m looking forward to going.

 Lionel Pearson Fellowship

The last time I was there, the Society for Classical Studies was still known by its original name which was the American Philological Association. Philology is the study of languages and their development. I guess because the term “philology” overlaps with “linguistics” they finally decided to change it. Or perhaps the acronym “APA” created confusion because the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association uses the same abbreviation?Anyway, in 2004, I was one of the four finalists for the Lionel Pearson Fellowship. The winner got to study for a year in England or Scotland. That year they annual meeting was in San Francisco and they flew all the finalists down for the interviews. There were four of us. They sat us down together in a room. There were three judges. And for what seemed like a long time, they would ask us questions about the Greek and Roman world. I thought I was prepared. But, as I listened to the other finalists, it dawned on me that there are some exceptionally bright and well spoken students out there! I remember wondering thinking how they could be so knowledgeable. It was an eye opening experience. After the interviews, they gave us maps and set the finalists through the city to to a team building treasure hunt. And that night we had dinner together with the judges. The winner that year was Lauren Schwartzman, and from her performance during the interview (which I witnessed firsthand), that’s who I would have put my money on! Funny thing, the next year when I started at Brown, one of my colleagues was Robin McGill, who had won the Pearson Fellowship the year before.

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

They were looking for a 650 word abstract and here’s my successful proposal:

The worst-case scenario in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes happens if Eteocles and Polyneices confront one another at the seventh gate. Because of the multitude of permutations possible with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, the worst-case scenario is a low-probability event. The resulting miasma, however, makes it a high-consequence event. I argue that Seven Against Thebes provides an important lesson in risk management by bringing about, against all odds, the low-probability, high-consequence outcome. The lesson is that we are in the most danger when we are the most confident.

By repeated references to gambling, dice, and chance, Aeschylus encourages us to consider the likelihood of the worst-case scenario in terms of probability. Lottery images abound. First, the attackers draw lots to determine their stations (55-6, 375-6). Second, Eteocles invokes Hermes as the god of chance and lots when he comments on the matchup at the fourth gate: “Hermes has brought them together with good reason” (508). Commenting on another matchup, Eteocles says: “Ares will decide the outcome with dice” (414). Third, Eteocles alludes to an ominous throw in dice games (6+1) when he says that he will assign six defenders “with himself as seventh” (Roisman, 22n.15). Gambling references invite audiences to ask themselves what the odds of the worst-case scenario are.

What are the odds of the brothers meeting at the seventh gate? The odds are 1:49, or roughly two percent: the probability, therefore, is low. Although Aeschylus’ audience lacked modern probability theory and a way to compute the exact odds, Aristotle makes it clear that they could indeed differentiate between likely and unlikely outcomes (Cael. 292a29). Because of all the possible permutations with seven defenders, seven attackers, and seven gates, Aeschylus’ audience would recognize that, in a random setting (i.e. one where captains are posted to their gates by lot), the likelihood of the brothers meeting at the final gate is low.

Eteocles’ confidence is also bolstered, paradoxically, by another low-probability event. The matchups from gates one through six, being random, should favour neither brother. But what happens is that the matchups, when taken in aggregate, overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. The odds, for example, that an opposing captain at gate four bearing the device of Typhon on his shield will be matched up against a defender bearing the device of Zeus (who defeated Typhon) is 1:16. But even though this (and other) matchups are unlikely, they do take place. The fortuitous matchups bolster Eteocles’ confidence.

Eteocles interprets the fortuitous matchups as a sign that the gods are on his side because randomness in ancient Greece was anything but random: randomness was a manifestation of an underlying order in the cosmos. The lot, imbued with numinous significance, was expected to reveal the grand design. When the Achaeans, for example, were looking for a champion to duel Hector, they drew lots. Ajax’ lot, as though by design, “jumps out” of the helmet (Hom., Il. 7.181-3). So too the Olympians drew lots to see who would rule the sky, the seas, and underworld (Apollod., Bibl., 1.2.1). They decided by lot because fate or destiny revealed itself through randomness. Thus, when Eteocles sees the random matchups from gates one through six going his way, his confidence goes up.

Against all expectations, however, Aeschylus brings about the worst-case scenario: both brothers are called to the seventh gate. By bringing about the low-probability, high-consequence event against all odds, Aeschylus dramatizes risk: the most unlikely outcomes can have the most serious repercussions. As risk dramatized, Seven Against Thebes may be read as a lesson in risk management. Its lesson is that, like Eteocles, we are in the most danger when we feel the most confident. In today’s age where confidence in technology and progress may lead to the downplay of manufactured risks (whether environmental, nuclear, biological, or financial), ancient tragedy can still offer moderns an important lesson.

I must say it’s an art in itself writing these abstracts and proposals. I’m still learning. What I like about this proposal are the catch terms such as “low-probability, high-consequence” and “we are in the most danger when we are most confident.” Successful proposals are the ones in which the writer can get the reader to remember some catchy phrase (e.g. low-probability, high-consequence). Another technique would be to make a bold statement (e.g. we are in the most danger when we are most confident) that causes the reader to pause. Of course it helps if they pause and decide that they agree with your bold statement!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work by commenting on Aeschylus’ masterpiece, Seven Against Thebes.

2 thoughts on “Low Probability High Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: A Look at Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes

  1. Lloyd Hildebrand

    With your fascination re: probabilities and outcomes I think you would enjoy a book I recently read: The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis about two psychologists (an unlikely duo) who won the Nobel Prize in Economics – about biases, probabilities, decision-making, etc.

    1. Edwin Wong Post author

      Always appreciate the book suggestions, thanks Lloyd! The local library has come through on this title, 23 copies, 9 are available. Here’s the book’s abstract:

      Forty years ago, Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky wrote a series of studies undoing our assumptions about the decision-making process. Their papers showed the ways in which the human mind erred, systematically, when forced to make judgments in uncertain situations. Their work created the field of behavioral economics, revolutionized Big Data studies, advanced evidence-based medicine, led to a new approach to government regulation, and made much of Michael Lewis’s own work possible. Kahneman and Tversky are more responsible than anybody for the powerful trend to mistrust human intuition and defer to algorithms.The Undoing Project is about a collaboration between two men who became heroes in the university and on the battlefield — both had important careers in the Israeli military — and whose research was deeply linked to their extraordinary life experiences. Amos Tversky was a brilliant, self-confident warrior and extrovert, the center of rapt attention in any room; Kahneman, a fugitive from the Nazis in his childhood, was an introvert whose questing self-doubt was the seedbed of his ideas. They worked together so closely that they couldn’t remember whose brain originated which ideas, or who should claim credit. They flipped a coin to decide the lead authorship on the first paper they wrote, and simply alternated thereafter. This story about the workings of the human mind is explored through the personalities of two fascinating individuals so fundamentally different from each other that they seem unlikely friends or colleagues. In the process they may well have changed, for good, mankind’s view of its own mind.

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