April 3, 2020
Greek Tragedy, Black Swans, and the Coronavirus: The Consolation of Theatre
A “Classics Coffee and Conversation Hour” Zoom Presentation
Testing, testing: can everyone hear me? Thank you, Professor Luke Roman, for the invitation. Thank you, everyone, for tuning in. I’m Edwin Wong and I’ve got a great half hour talk lined up for you called: “Greek Tragedy, Black Swans, and the Coronavirus: The Consolation of Theatre.” Grab your coffees, let’s dive in.
We unravel, and to whom should we turn? Many of us, even the older ones, have never experienced a pandemic of these proportions. For direction, let us turn to an unlikely art form that has collected over two and a half millennia of experience in risk management: the art of tragedy.
They’re many ways of looking at tragedy. If you look at tragedy as a theatre of pity and fear, it will not help. Aristotle speaks silence. If you look at tragedy as death and destruction, it will not help. Chaucer’s Monk has nothing to say. If you look at tragedy as a theatre of catastrophe, it will not help. Howard Barker is not your man. If you look at tragedy as a collision of ethical positions, it will not help. Hegel has turned away. But if you look at tragedy as a theatre of risk, tragedy will be your Muse during this Great Quarantine.
The coronavirus pandemic: it came out of nowhere, yes? It has a large impact, yes? First, I’m going to argue that tragedy is the art that explores these low-probability, high-consequence events. Next, I’ll show how in tragedy and in life we trigger these types of events. Then I’ll show you tragedy’s path forward.
Let’s start with Euripides’ Bacchae. Most of the time the ninety-eight pound weakling spreading a seditious cult isn’t a god. He’s a charlatan. But Euripides doesn’t dramatize what happens most of the time. He dramatizes the one time that the stranger is a god. Most of the time, Pentheus would have booted the stranger out of town. But this time, he’s torn apart limb by limb.
Does the Bacchae dramatize a low-probability, high-consequence event? In works of literature, closing lines are critical. Consider the Bacchae’s closing lines, spoken by the chorus:
What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. Such was the outcome of this story.
What does the action consist of? It consists of “many things the gods accomplish against our expectation.” “A god,” says the chorus, “finds a way to achieve the unexpected.” Point blank the text says that tragedy dramatizes the impact of the highly improbable. This isn’t a coincidence either: Euripides concludes three other plays—Medea, Helen, and Andromache—with the same refrain.
Next, let’s consider how Sophocles’ Oedipus the King drives home the impact of the highly improbable. How often does the detective on the trail of murder find out that he was the killer? Not often. It’s a low-probability, high-consequence event, and that’s precisely what Sophocles dramatizes.
Next, let’s consider how Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes brings to life the impact of the highly improbable. You’re in the middle of a civil war. You and six other captains will be posted to each of Thebes’ seven gates. Outside, six captains—with your insolent brother as the seventh—will be posted to attack each of Thebes’ gates. You’re trying to figure out if the gods are on your side.
Each captain bears a shield. You can see whether the gods are on your side by interpreting the shield devices. If your guy bears the device of Zeus and the other guy bears the device of Typhon, that’s the gods telling you they’re on your side: in mythology Zeus tamed Typhon.
Besides seeing whether the gods are on your side, you’re also trying to avoid the worst-case scenario: being posted to the same gate as your brother. There’re rituals to purify spilt blood, but no rituals to purify spilt kindred blood. What are the chances that, just as you’ve established that the gods are on your side, you find out they’re actually calling you do die? In other words, what are the chances that the matchups favour you from gates one to six but you find out your brother awaits you at the final gate?
Seven captain can arrange themselves into factorial seven (7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1), or 5040 arrangements at seven gates. Only 1 out of these 5040 permutations yields the sequence of attackers we see: Tydeus at gate one, Capaneus at gate two, all the way up to Polyneices at gate seven. The same goes for the defending captains. They too can arrange themselves 5040 different ways, but only 1 out of these 5040 arrangements sees Melanippus at gate one, Polyphontes at gate two, all the way up to Eteocles at the highest gate.
To find all the permutations possible with seven attacking and seven defending captains, we multiply 5040 by 5040: 25,401,600 different matchups are possible. Now we can answer the question: what were the chances that the matchups from gates one to six favoured you so that, just as you were certain of victory, you are cast down at gate seven? The odds of that happening were 25,401,599:1 against. Most of the time, it doesn’t happen. But Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize “most of the time.” He dramatizes how Oedipus’ curse is fulfilled against overwhelming odds.
I like to think of tragedy as a big risk simulator that dramatizes the impact of the highly improbable. Tragedy looked at in this way becomes of topical interest, a mirror into which we can see reflections of the Great Quarantine.
The arrival of a new god, the detective on his own trail, and two brothers called to the highest gate: there’s a name for these events. Like the day JFK died, or when Chernobyl melted, or when the Challenger rocket ship lit up the skies, or when the Berlin Wall fell, we call these events “black swans.”
The term “black swan” originates from the Roman satirist Juvenal, who likens the perfect wife to “A rare bird on this earth, in the very likeness of a black swan.” Since it was thought that the perfect wife doesn’t exist, the black swan became a byword for objects and ideas that lie outside the realm of belief.
When, in the seventeenth century, black swans were sighted in Australia, the long-standing belief that black swans did not exist went out the window. The term “black swan” could take on a novel meaning. Because the sighting of black swans was a low-probability event (Europeans had been looking at swans for millennia without sighting one) and the sighting of one had high consequences (millennia of data was falsified), the black swan could become a visual representation of unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events.
It was mathematician, philosopher, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb who popularized the term “black swan.” Taleb argues that we are blind to the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. Our cognitive and mathematical models underestimate both the frequency and impact of the highly improbable. The timing of his 2007 book, The Black Swan, was impeccable. The Great Recession, a swan event, broke out the following year. The term “black swan” to denote outlier events with profound implications would enter the popular consciousness.
After the Great Recession, there was a rush to understand the role of chance and uncertainty in life and the markets. Experts mumbled and fumbled and charlatans spoke out. It seemed to me, however, that there was a ready-made art form to explore how things that pop out of the blue can leave a lasting legacy. That art form was tragedy. Euripides tells us through the chorus that tragedy explores how things happen out of the blue. Aeschylus too dramatizes how life is impacted by events which are 25,401,599:1 against. If we wanted to understand the role of chance and uncertainty in life, all we needed to do was to give tragedy a chance. For over twenty-five hundred years, tragedy has been exploring swan events.
In tragedy and in life risk triggers black swan events. By taking risks, Oedipus triggers the black swan event: he is the regicide he is searching for. In another famous tragedy, Macbeth, by taking inordinate risks, triggers the swan event: Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In life, speculators, by taking too much risk, triggered the Great Recession. Risk exacerbates low-probability events because it is a powerful see-saw: it enables you to move mountains.
If you’re in a comedy, you should take risks. The gods are on your side. “Coincidence must really be a divinity,” says Demeas in Menander’s The Girl from Samos, “she looks after many of the things we cannot see.” If you’re in a tragedy, however, the gods are not on your side. Risk skews to the downside. Let’s see how we trigger black swan events in tragedy and in life.
I think confidence triggers black swan events. Take Oedipus. The black swan event didn’t have to happen. He makes it happen with his incessant question asking. Tiresias, Jocasta, and the shepherd all plead for him to stop. But, like a bull in a china shop, he keeps going because he’s sure he can crack the case.
Just like in the tragedy, I think confidence played a role in the black swan event called the Great Recession. Speculators, confident that property prices would continue to climb, leveraged up. Old timers who had seen this movie before plead for them to stop. But, like bulls in a china shop, the speculators charged onwards. Then the bottom fell out. It always does. Not only did the speculators lose their own capital, they lost the capital of others. Many faced ruin.
I think idealism triggers black swan events. Take Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone. The unexpected event is that, in defending his homeland, he destroys his family. The unexpected happens because he’s a zealot. His zealotry rises to such a pitch that when his niece gives her brother—who was a traitor—burial rites, he sentences her to death. Her death, in turn, triggers a sequence of unexpected events which ruins his family.
Just like in the tragedy, I think idealism and zealotry played a role in the black swan event called 9/11. Bin Laden appropriated religion to launch a holy war which saw four planes flying where no planes were expected to fly: two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and one—were it not for the efforts of heroes—into the White House. In one moment, the world changed.
I believe a concentration of capital and resources triggers low-probability, high-consequence events. Aeschylus says: “God’s sharp lightnings fly to stagger mountains.” Shakespeare, many years later, echoes the sentiment: “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; / The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” When you start a venture, and a low-probability event happens, the consequences aren’t necessarily astounding. If you start up a venture and have access to the wealth of nations, when the low-probability event happens, the consequences may be much greater. “The heavens blaze forth the death of princes” because princes have the means to change the course of history. Consider Xerxes in Aeschylus’ Persians. If he had been a minor king, death would not have undone so many.
Just like in the tragedy, if you have capital and resources—say 340 million USD burning a hole in your pocket—when the low-probability event happens, the consequences may be extremely high. 340 million is the sticker price for one Deepwater Horizon, a powerful oil rig. It can drill deeper and further than ever before. But if it goes awry and explodes and the blowout preventer fails and the blind shear ram fails, then it will spill 600 thousand tonnes of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. If your capital and resources had been less, you still could have had a blowout, but the consequences would have been less dire.
I believe when we devise elaborate schemes around probabilities that only have the seeming of certainty, we trigger black swan events. Prophecy is a good example. Here’s an example from Herodotus. When Croesus, King of Lydia, asks the Delphic oracle whether he should attack Persia, the oracle says: “If Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.” Croesus would only understand afterwards that the oracle meant the destruction of his own empire, a devastating event.
An echo of how the misinterpretation of prophecy can result in unintended consequences occurs in Sophocles’ tragedy Women of Trachis. In prophetic words, a dying centaur tells Deianeira that he will give her a love charm:
Thus shalt thou have a charm to bind the heart
Of Heracles, and never shall he look
On wife or maid to love her more than thee.
When she uses the charm, however, she finds out that it kill Heracles. The charm works, but in an unanticipated manner.
Just like in the tragedy, I think when we devise elaborate schemes around probabilities that have the seeming of certainty, we trigger black swan events. Financial algorithms are today’s equivalent to yesterday’s prophecies. While yesterday’s prophecies spoke with oracular authority, today’s algorithms speak with mathematical authority. In both cases, when misunderstandings arise, the results are devastating. Case in point was Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund founded by two Nobel Prize winners. Their formulas identified irrationally priced bonds. As the prices of these bonds returned to their expected value, they would profit.
The managers at Long-Term trusted their algorithms. They put their trust on display when they borrowed 140 billion dollars to amplify their returns. It turns out that, like the oracles of old, their algorithms were correct. But, what they also found out was that the market could remain irrational longer than they could remain solvent. When their trades went awry, their lenders issued a margin call. With only 5 billion of their own money, they were unable to repay the 140 billion outstanding. Their lenders, a consortium of international banks, couldn’t cover the losses and the global financial system fell to its knees. Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve, playing the deus ex machina, were forced to intervene.
I believe that extraordinary situations increase the likelihood of black swan events. In such situations, you have to act with abandon. You have to throw the Hail Mary. When you do so, you throw risk to the winds. Take Oedipus the King. There’s a plague. Oedipus must continue the investigation or else all Thebes perishes. He has no choice. But, by continuing, he triggers the risk event.
Today, we also experience the extraordinary: the coronavirus pandemic. To find a solution, we’re developing vaccines at a breakneck pace. Vaccines typically take a decade to develop. Today, they’re talking about administering a vaccine to healthy populations in a year. On March 16, three months after the outbreak, Moderna began testing a vaccine on human subjects in Seattle. What could go wrong? Our real life setting, like the dramatic setting in Sophocles’ play, encourages us to throw risk to the winds. When we do so, we invite the black swan.
In conclusion, I’ve asked you to reimagine tragedy as a theatre of risk. I do so because tragedy may be a source of wisdom: it is the art that dramatizes downside risk. Because tragedy simulates swan events, it raises our sensibility of how risk impacts life.
I began with Euripides, who emphasizes in the text how tragedy dramatizes swan events. I went on to Sophocles, and pointed out how Oedipus the King dramatizes a low-probability, high-consequence outcome: a man who damns himself. Then, I demonstrated with math that the outcome of Seven Against Thebes takes place against overwhelming odds. I chose these examples to encourage you to reimagine tragedy as a theatre where risk runs riot.
Then I told the tale of how heroes trigger devastating risk events. I talked of their confidence and idealism. I talked of tragedy’s other commonplaces: kings and queens with capital burning a hole in their pockets. I talked of the fools’ gold in oracles and algorithms. And I talked of how dire straits compel us to close our eyes, say “Hail Mary,” and throw the long desperation pass deep into the end zone.
What’s the takeaway? Well, there’s no magic bullet. Black swans are impossible to predict because they’re not known knowns or known unknowns, but rather, unknown unknowns. They’re the arrival of a new god, the invention of the Gutenberg press, or Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. Such events lie beyond prediction. But there is something we can do. We can, to borrow another of Taleb’s terms, become anti-fragile.
Look at these heroes of tragedy. Despite their strength, charisma, and cunning, they’re wonderfully fragile. When they make a plan, there’s no plan B. They wager all-in: “Go big or go home,” they say as they hunt their white whales. Fragility is absolute conviction that the oracle is true, that the algorithm is right, and that all swans are white.
What is anti-fragility? Anti-fragility is everything that the tragic hero is not. Anti-fragility is a plan B. It is redundancy. Anti-fragility is keeping some powder dry. It is putting eggs into different baskets. Anti-fragility is fluidity, taking the shape of water. Anti-fragility is skepticism. This time may be different. Anti-fragility is not conviction, but the greater strength that it takes to call into question one’s own convictions, the courage to ask: “What is the downside if I’m wrong?”
You will think: “But the coronavirus is different. The heroes of tragedy brought about the black swan. We have been struck down, but we did not wager all-in like the heroes of old.” Is that so? From my childhood to adult life—I’m forty-five now—there’s been two trends: urbanization and globalization. Urbanization packs more and more people into the downtown cores. Pandemics, as Thucydides recognizes, love crowded spaces. What is more, as we urbanize, we build cities nearer to the jungles and the caves where the bad bugs dwell. Then there’s globalization. Globalization connects all the world’s cities in a tight embrace: Wuhan is connected to Milan, is connected to New York, is connected to Tehran. When Wuhan sneezes, the world catches cold.
If we were to read the art form of tragedy onto today’s pandemic, we are the heroes who have wagered all-in on the benefits of urbanization and globalization. While we were toasting each other, Covid-19 stole up to us like a thief in the night. A few months ago, we stood at the sixth gate, standing in the same place Eteocles once did as he started planning the day of celebration. Funny how that is, how we’re in the gravest danger when we’re the most confident. This is tragedy’s legacy.
What’s the takeaway? Let us be anti-fragile. Let us have a plan B. Let us have redundancy in our social networks and bank balances. Let us keep some powder dry. Let us diversify and let us adapt. Let us urbanize and globalize, but let us also challenge urbanization and globalization. But, if we do not want to do be anti-fragile, then let us go all-in like the wonderfully fragile heroes of tragedy. There is glory in that as well. But, whichever way we go, if we take tragedy to be our Muse, we will go in with a greater awareness of how it isn’t the decades that will define us, but the few, and unexpected moments. We will not be defined by what we will, but by that stray moment that steals up to us like a thief in the night. None of us will be where we plan on being in five or ten years. But we will keep going.
If you’ve enjoyed this talk and are interested in more, ask your local library to carry my new book (and audiobook, narrated by Greg Patmore of Coronation Street):The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. In it, I argue that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of tragedy. The book has launched an international playwriting competition with over $15k of prizes each year. It’s hosted by Langham Court, one of Canada’s leading theatres. The competition website is at https://risktheatre.com/. A transcript of this talk is available on my blog melpomeneswork.com/coronavirus/. Thank you for Zooming in and stay strong.