Tag Archives: Taleb

2022 CAMWS Presentation Abstract for a talk on Aeschylus’s SEVEN AGAINST THEBES

At the 2022 Classical Association of the Middle West and South AGM in Winston-Salem NC, I’ll be  directing a staged reading of Aeschylus’s tragedy Seven against Thebes with TIGR, the Theater in Greece and Rome committee. Since I’ve got my tickets to fly to North Carolina already, I thought I’d go ALL-IN and see if the conference participant would also be interested in hearing a short, fifteen minute presentation on Aeschylus’s play. In the past, Eteocles, the protagonist of Seven, has been seen as a blundering leader who suddenly loses nerve halfway through the play. In my presentation, I argue that his response to the crisis is, from a leadership perspective, well-thought out. He is an effective leader.

Hot off the press is my 477 word abstract for CAMWS’s consideration. Fingers crossed!

Eteocles’s Patriotic Response in Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes

Aeschylus gives the audience, in his character of Eteocles, a portrait of an effective and patriotic leader. As a soldier who distinguished himself in the four major engagements of the Persian Wars, from Marathon (where his brother Cynegirus perished), to Artemisium, Salamis, and Plataea, Aeschylus knew of effective leadership. Furthermore, sixty-two years after Seven against Thebes was first produced, audiences still remembered it for its patriotism: in Aristophanes’s Frogs, the fictional Aeschylus says that every single person who watched Seven against Thebes “was hot to be warlike” (1019–22). Unless Eteocles was perceived to be an effective and patriotic leader, it would have been unlikely that the play could have inspired audiences “hot to be warlike.”

Eteocles’s treatment of the chorus of Theban women has been seen as questionable at best, and misogynistic at worst. Through a concept recently popularized by philosopher, mathematician, and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb called “skin in the game,” I will argue that Eteocles pursues a patriotic and effective strategy in his debate with the chorus (Taleb 2018). By investing the chorus with “skin in the game”—involving them with a share in the victory—Eteocles moves them away from their negative prayers (e.g. “May the enemy not slaughter us”) to positive forms of prayer (e.g. “May the gods strike down our enemies”). His is a patriotic and effective strategy.

Eteocles’s reduction of the Argive attackers into the “other” may also seem counterintuitive to modern notions of humanizing and understanding the enemy. Through the lens of sociobiology, a scientific discipline grounding human nature in biological origins proposed by biologist E. O. Wilson in the 1970s, I will argue that, by reducing the enemy into the “other,” Eteocles activates primal and deep-seated behaviours of territoriality in the defenders (Wilson 1978). It is an ambivalent strategy that anthropologists can identify in cultures today from the Nyae Nyae and !Kung Bushmen to various fringe groups.

I will conclude by talking about how Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes, in promoting the behaviour of patriotism, simultaneously highlights the problem of patriotism: too little patriotism and society fragments but, too much patriotism, and nationalism and racism rise, stalling the spread of culture and information. A character such as Lasthenes walks a thin line. Being “hateful to strangers” (Echthroxenos, 621), he is an effective sentry. His value, in peacetime, however, is debatable.

Patriotism highlights the limitation of biology, the problem of how to build a space age society from genes adapted to Stone and Heroic Age environments. Seven against Thebes is a most crucial play, as it provides a springboard into a broader discussion of patriotism, leadership, nationalism, and other critical issues we face in the twenty-first century.

Bibliography

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. Random House, 2018

Wilson, E. O. On Human Nature. Harvard UP, 1978

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Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

A Risk Theatre Reading of Shakespeare’s MACBETH

The true star of Macbeth is the low-probability, high-consequence event. And the true story of Macbeth is the hero’s reaction to it. In this tragedy, a man is transformed by a series of low-probability, high-consequence events, in the beginning raised up by chance, and, in the end, cast down by the same power he hoped to harness. Macbeth is the story of how low-probability, high-consequence events encouraged a man to wager all-in, thinking that he was bound for glory, and of how the random element fooled him.

For the dreamers who believe that low-probability, high-consequence events could be tamed through progress, the play warns of evil’s allure and the follies of ambition and confidence. For others, whose powers of recognition are clearer, and who perceive the random element working at each existential juncture in life and in history, the hypotheses of other-worldly powers, ambition, and confidence were redundant. To them, Macbeth tells an all-too-human story of how, because of our innate predilection to scorn chance, having always satisfied our intellectual biases by seeking any other explanation than one which involved the random element, we thought ourselves lords of chance and became, instead, the fools of chance.

The definition of a low-probability, high-consequence event is one in which, before it happens, is considered improbable. Sometimes the possibility it can even happen cannot be imagined, such is its remoteness. Examples include the Gutenberg Press, the rise of the personal computer, or the Gunpowder Plot. We can know that a low-probability, high-consequence action has occurred by watching the reactions. Sometimes, it prompts the one who has seen it to alert others. “From the spring,” says the dying Captain, “whence comfort seemed to come / Discomfort swells: mark, King of Scotland, mark” (1.2.27-8). Other times it elicits disbelief. “Nothing is,” says Macbeth, “but what is not” (1.3.144). Sometimes, one takes one’s own life: this was the case of the “farmer that hanged / himself on th’expectation of plenty” (2.3.4-5). Having bet all-in on a bumper crop, when waylaid by the low-probability event, out of rent, out of food, and out of luck, he hangs himself. The danger these events present is that, though they were impossible to predict beforehand, after they happen, we retrospectively invent simplistic explanations of how they arose. In doing so, our sense of comfort is misguided, as we fail to give chance its due. This danger extends to the criticism of Macbeth.

In Macbeth, the action pivots around four low-probability, high-consequence events. The first is when, contrary to expectation, Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor. The second is when, against all hope, he becomes king. The third is when Birnam Wood, impossibly, comes to Dunsinane Hill. The last is when, beyond nature’s permutations, he meets a man not of woman born. That each of these events will happen is foreshadowed by the Witches—Shakespeare’s agents of improbability—to Macbeth, who, in turn, rejects each as being out of hand. By dramatizing the path from prediction to rejection to fulfillment, Shakespeare makes probability the play’s true theme: what happens when more things happen than what we thought would happen happens?

To most people, the Witches are not agents of improbability, but rather supernatural agents. Like the oracles of old in Greek tragedies, the Witches would prophecy to Macbeth his fate, fate being the antinomy of chance and probability. But, the funny thing is, to dramatize fate—to bring fate onto the stage—fate had to be cast into the play as a random event that takes place against all odds. That such an event could have taken place against overwhelming odds is then attributed back onto the powerful action of fate. The feeling of surprise that a miracle has occurred is the proof that fate exists. But really, there was no fate, only the fulfilment of a low-probability, high-consequence event that the audience appreciates to represent fate. Fate in tragedy is a literary artifact, is probability dressed up as fate. In this way, Macbeth, by exploring fate, became a venue to explore the impact of the highly improbable. Wherever there is fate, there is also chance: the way fate manifests itself in literature is by overcoming the random element. At last, fate and chance are synonymous, two sides of the same coin.

Macbeth begins with Scotland in alarm. The first crisis sees the rebel Macdonald leading Irish soldiers into Forres. King Duncan sends in Macbeth and Banquo. But, in the act of dispatching Macdonald, a second crisis strikes. Seeing Scotland convulsed by civil war, Sweno, Norway’s king, seizes the moment. He allies with another Scottish rebel, the Thane of Cawdor. With covert support from the thane and fresh Norwegian troops, they open a second front at Fife. Macbeth and Banquo remobilize to win the day. The opening action sets the scene for the first two of the four low-probability, high-consequence events.

After the battle, Macbeth and Banquo, on the road to Forres, encounter the Witches:

Macbeth. Speak, if you can: what are you?

1 Witch. All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.

2 Witch. All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.

3 Witch. All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter. (1.3.47-50)

The first Witch accosts Macbeth by name and title. This draws his attention: when his father died, he had become Thane of Glamis. The second Witch teases him with a present tense pronouncement, calling him Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth finds this both disturbing and unlikely. The news that Duncan has executed the traitor and given his title to Macbeth is still in transit. Then, the third Witch goes in hook, line, and sinker, hailing Macbeth as tomorrow’s king. Macbeth finds this impossible:

Macbeth. Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more.
By Finel’s death, I know I am Thane of Glamis,
But how of Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor lives
A prosperous gentleman: and to be king
Stands not within the prospect of belief,
No more than to be Cawdor. Say from whence
You owe this strange intelligence, or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you. (1.3.70-8)

The Witches vanish. At that moment, Angus and Ross enter. Acting as though the mouthpiece of chance, Ross hails Macbeth the Thane of Cawdor:

Angus. We are sent
To give thee from our royal master thanks,
Only to herald thee into his sight
Not pay thee.

Ross. And for an earnest of a greater honour,
He bade me, from him, call thee Thane of Cawdor:
In which addition, hail most worthy thane,
For it is thine.

Banquo. What, can the devil speak true?

Macbeth. The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?

Angus. Who was the Thane lives yet,
But under heavy judgement bears that life
Which he deserves to lose.
Whether he was combined with those of Norway,
Or did line the rebel with hidden help
And vantage, or that with both he laboured
In his country’s wrack, I know not,
But treasons capital, confessed and proved,
Have overthrown him. (1.3.101-118)

Macbeth’s surprise—“Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?”—relays to the audience the improbability of what is happening. Banquo too, stunned, says: “What, can devil speak true?” a little too loud.

As the true star of the show, not only do low-probability events change our perceptions of how many things there are in heaven and earth, they also change the plot’s trajectory. Macbeth, previously fighting traitors, turns traitor. With the low-probability event, Shakespeare boldly pivots the trajectory of the play. The imperial theme begins.

Shakespeare’s Swans

Part of the good interpreter’s task is to sound out yesterday’s iambs on today’s instruments. For yesterday’s plays to jingle and jangle to modern ears, new approaches are required, approaches which resonate with today’s preoccupations. Today, there is a preoccupation with low-probability, high-consequence events: 9/11, the Great Recession, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Deepwater Horizon, and other events give us reason to reflect on how nothing is impossible, once it happens. In the last decade, a new term has arisen to describe these events: today, we call them “black swans.”

The term “black swan” comes from Roman antiquity, and its journey to the present day has been itself swan buffeted. In the beginning, it meant something entirely different. The Roman poet Juvenal coined the term in the Satires where he likened a wife, perfect in all her virtues, to “a prodigy as rare upon the earth as a black swan (6.165).” Since it was believed that the perfect wife does not exist, the black swan became a byword for the impossible. This was the term’s first meaning.

In 1697, European explorers sighted black swans off the coast of Australia. With one sighting, the improbable overcame the probable and a belief system—that all swans are white—fell. As a result, the term was orphaned. In 1843, however, John Stuart Mill reinvented it. In A System of Logic, Mill transformed the term from an expression of impossibility (which it could no longer denote) into a visual representation of the power of the unexpected. In Mill, the black swan is the empiricists’ bogeyman. It symbolizes the philosophers’ horror of how one observation can wreck any number of inferences based on any number of observations made over any immemorial period of time. In philosophical circles, the black swan came to symbolize the danger of formulating general principles from particular observations, otherwise known as the problem of induction. Another swan event, however,  was required for the term to enter the public consciousness.

In 2007, mathematician, options trader, and philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb released The Black Swan. He argued that Wall Street’s risk management models, far from containing risk, exacerbated risk and endangered the financial system. Being rooted in the idea of past as prologue, these models gave traders false assurances that they could wager all-in: every swan will be white and events progress forwards, inexorably, quiescently, in a predictable steady state. But, if time were a punctuated equilibrium and arrived in fits and starts like ketchup out a glass bottle, full of revolution, a world of hurt awaits. Taking the cue from Mill, Taleb called these unforeseen, unexpected, and catastrophic events black swans. Mainstream financial pundits, busy riding the boom, disregarded Taleb, whom they regarded as an eccentric voice crying out in the wilderness. But, without warning, the Great Recession broke out in 2008 to break each one of the world’s oldest and most decorated financial institutions. The timing of Taleb’s book—having come out the previous year— seemed prescient.

Though experts disavowed that such a catastrophe could be ascribed to as fleeting a notion as chance, Taleb’s ideas were backed by a badass image (a sinister swan) and hardcore math (attacking the venerable bell curve). When the media suggested that the Great Recession could be understood as a swan event, a low-probability, high-consequence event precipitated by, of all things, chance, a firestorm of controversy ensued. It was at this time that the term “black swan” to denote the impact of the highly improbable entered the popular consciousness.

Before there was Taleb, there was Shakespeare. Only Macbeth was not taken as a warning of the highly improbable, but rather, a warning of the dangers of confidence, ambition, and evil. Perhaps that was because people did not associate Shakespeare with probability theory, which, having been recently founded in the sixteenth century, was still in its infancy. Shakespeare, however, grasped with his playwright’s intuition the inordinate impact the highly improbable. Consider his use of the improbable elsewhere to generate fantastic outcomes: Desdemona, in Othello, dropping the handkerchief, spotted with strawberries or the letter-carrier, in Romeo and Juliet, being caught in the wrong house at the wrong time. Hamlet’s injunction to Horatio—“There are more things in heaven and earth, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”—also warns of the impact of the highly improbable (Hamlet 1.5.167-8). Shakespeare’s tragedies are full of curious improbabilities and now, when they are all the rage, is the time to talk about Shakespeare’s swans.

The Imperial Theme

Shakespeare’s understanding of the highly improbable and its dramatic applications can be illustrated through Macbeth’s interaction with Angus and Ross. Macbeth’s question: “Why do you dress me / In borrowed robes?” is spoken from the viewpoint of his initial reality. In this reality, Duncan is his cousin and king. He will lay his life on the line fighting foreign kings and native rebels to defend this reality. In this reality, all swans are white. But the moment Angus and Ross confirm the second Witch’s pronouncement, Macbeth sights the black swan. A new reality opens, one in which he is king. It is the improbable that draws him to the existential fulcrum. In this reality, having seen the swan, he knows the impossible is possible. The plot pivots into the imperial theme.

Finding himself, unexpectedly, Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth muses: “Glamis and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind” (1.3.118-9). The greatest that lies behind is to be king. Not only have the Witches prophesied thus, Ross, in his fruitfully ambiguous phrase that the new thaneship is “an earnest of greater honour,” intimates that Macbeth could be named heir apparent, a declaration consonant with the system of tanistry used in medieval Scotland where the crown, not yet bound by primogeniture, would revolve between collateral branches of the leading families.

Why would the greatest lie behind? We perceive the past, not the future, as that which lies behind. “Leave the past behind,” we say. We perceive the future as that which lies ahead. “Look to the future,” we say. The future is something we see approaching. Our expressions reflect our biases. Since we fear uncertainty, we disarm it by putting it in plain view. To highlight the role of the unexpected, Shakespeare turns convention on its head by placing the future behind, rather than before Macbeth. The future now steals up to Macbeth with the result that, when it catches him, it takes him by surprise. The image highlights the elusiveness of chance: not only does it lie in the future, sometimes we cannot even see it coming.

The improbable event has so unseated Macbeth that he allows himself to consider murder. But the thought of murder is so abhorrent to his previous beliefs that his hair stands on end and his heart knocks against his chest (1.3.137-44). His last recourse to preserve his previous reality is, ironically, to trust chance: “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (1.3.146.7). As soon as he considers it, however, Duncan names his son heir. Crushed by having the prospect of the crown presented and ripped away, Macbeth moves further towards murder with his “Stars, hide your fires” soliloquy (1.4.50). Within a day, Duncan will be dead, clearing the path for Macbeth to be invested at Scone. The imperial theme is complete.

The Engine of Suspense

After the first two swan events take place, two remain: Birnam Wood and the man not of woman born. When Macbeth faces his first setbacks, he seeks a fresh start and goes back to where it all began. He will seek the Witches. All they presaged has come to pass. They said he is Thane of Cawdor, and it was confirmed. They said he will be king, and he became king. They said Fleance would found the Stuart line, and Fleance proved hard to kill.

To show Macbeth the path forward, the Witches conjure three Apparitions. The first Apparition tells Macbeth to beware Macduff. Even without the Apparition, Macbeth knew Macduff would be trouble: Macduff had declined to attend both the coronation and the state dinner. The second and third Apparitions prove more helpful, setting in motion the last two low-probability, high-consequence events:

2 Apparition. Be bloody, bold and resolute: laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth. Descends.

Macbeth. Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies
And sleep in spite of thunder. Thunder

[Enter] : a child crowned, with a tree in his hand.

What is this,
That rises like the issue of a king
And wears upon his baby-brow the round
And top of sovereignty?

All.                               Listen, but speak not to’t.

3 Apparition. Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him. Descend[s].

Macbeth.                       That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements, good.
Rebellious dead, rise never till the Wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-placed Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time, and mortal custom. (4.1.78-99)

Like the prospects of becoming thane and king, Macbeth finds the likelihood of either eventuality so low as to approach nil. His courage swells with apodictic certainty:

Macbeth. Bring me no more reports, let them fly all;
Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane,
I cannot taint with fear. What’s the boy Malcolm?
Was he not born of woman? (5.3.1-4)

Exactly as Hecate predicts, Macbeth, consumed by certainty, begins reciting the Apparitions’ words like a novel mantra:

Hecate. He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes ’bove wisdom, grace and fear;
And you all know, security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy. (3.5.30-4)

He repeats it to the Doctor: “I will not be afraid of death and bane,” he says, “Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane” (5.3.59-60). “Thou wast born of woman,” he says, gloating over Young Siward’s corpse (5.7.12). He becomes another of chance’s fools.

In addition to all the functions mentioned earlier—driving the action forwards, exploding and reshaping worldviews, and pivoting the plot—black swan events also fire drama’s engine of suspense. They are part of a metatheatrical game played between dramatists and audiences.

A funny thing is that low-probability events, while low-probability to the characters (who are invariably blindsided by them), are, from the audience’s perspective, high-probability events. When the second Apparition tells Macbeth that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth,” Macbeth understands that, chances are, it will not happen. The audience, however, is of the opposing belief. They understand that a man not of woman born will certainly strike Macbeth down.

Similarly, when the third Apparition tells Macbeth that “until / Great Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill /Shall come against him,” Macbeth understand that, chances are, it will not happen. The audience, however, is of another belief. They understand that, like a Houdini or a David Copperfield—Shakespeare will wow them by pulling off the impossible in plain sight. The moment the Apparitions speak, the theatregoers start trying to figure out how Shakespeare will accomplish the impossible. On the one hand, the playwright telegraphs cues to the audience, and, on the other hand, the audience tries to figure out these cues. This metatheatrical game between playwrights and audiences is drama’s engine of suspense. With a few cues, the dramatist stokes the fires of a thousand imaginations.

When the Apparition tells Macbeth that he will never be vanquished until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill, Shakespeare is telegraphing to the theatregoers that it will happen. Since it is not immediately obvious how Shakespeare can accomplish this, the theatregoers try to figure it out. As they try to figure it out, they feel the thrill of suspense. “Am I on the right track?” thinks one. “This is how he will do it,” thinks another. In these thoughts is the magic of suspense, and its magic increases with improbability. To bring about a probable event only requires the skills of a probable dramatist. To bring about the improbable event requires the skills of a most improbable dramatist. In this way, when Macbeth responds to the Apparition by saying, incredulous: “That will never be,” the audience understands it two ways. On the one hand, Macbeth is saying that it cannot happen. On the other hand, it is Shakespeare saying to the audience through Macbeth: “If I pull this off, you will admit I am a dramatist of the most improbable skill.” And so, this game of suspense between dramatist and audience plays out.

As the endgame approaches, Malcolm closes on Inverness with the English forces to revenge his father. Shakespeare has a chance to locate the action. The English, being unfamiliar with the terrain, request a bearing:

Siward. What wood is this before us?

Menteith.                                  The Wood of Birnam.

Malcolm. Let every soldier hew him down a bough
And bear’t before him; thereby shall we shadow
The number of our host, and make discovery
Err in report of us. (5.4.4-7)

In the cat and mouse game of suspense, this is the moment the audience has been anticipating. Shakespeare satisfies the audience in the following scene where the Messenger arrives, breathless:

Macbeth. Thou com’st to use thy tongue: thy story, quickly.

Messenger. Gracious my lord,
I should report that which I say I saw,
But know not how to do’t.

Macbeth.                       Well, say, sir.

Messenger. As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I looked toward Birnam, and anon methought
The wood began to move.

Macbeth.                       Liar and slave.

Messenger. Let me endure your wrath, if’t be not so.
Within this three mile may you see it coming.
I say, a moving grove. (5.5.28-37)

From two scenes earlier, they know that ten thousand march on Inverness. In any other play, the Messenger would have simply reported that troops approach under camouflage. In this play, however, Shakespeare plays up the improbability of the commonest of tactics to place the audience in check. He has brought Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill.

Though the improbable has, once again, happened, Shakespeare reminds the audience through Macbeth that their game is not done. The man not of woman born still lurks, undiscovered:

Macbeth. They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,
But bear-like I must fight the course. What’s he
That was not born of woman? Such a one
Am I to fear, or none. (5.7.11-14)

The probable, most of the time, prevails over the improbable. The improbable, however, has one decisive advantage. The probable can occur many times, and that is all that it can be: probable. The improbable, however, only needs to happen once. So it was with the black swan and so it is with Macbeth. As the end approaches, Macduff finds Macbeth:

Macduff.                      Turn, hell-hound, turn.

Macbeth. Of all men else I have avoided thee.
But get back, my soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.

Macduff.                      I have no words.
My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain
Than terms can give thee out. Fight. Alarum.

Macbeth.                       Thou losest labour;
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress, as make me bleed.
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield
To one of woman born.

Macduff.                      Despair thy charm,
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
Untimely ripped. (5.8.3-16)

Checkmate. The improbable man is the man born from caesarean section. The suspense, building since the second sabbath, resolves. The audience feels entertained, having seen how Shakespeare brings to pass the highly improbable, and many times.

Tragedy is a compact between dramatist and playwright. Its structure consists of a series of low-probability, high-consequence events, foreshadowed and fulfilled. Tragedy showcases the playwright’s ingenuity in bringing about the highly improbable. Minor feats of improbability for minor playwrights and major feats of improbability for major playwrights. Such a reading interests us, who are today most interested in finding new ways to explore the unexpected, as more and more, we see that in life as in tragedy, the more improbable it is, the harder it hits.

Not Intended Consequences, but Unintended Consequences

Tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events to remind us how good actions can have bad consequences. Unintended consequences arise when the swan event happens because the world has been changed: though no one knows what to do, everyone must act quickly. When Sweno and the Thane of Cawdor see Macdonald revolting, they must act at once, risking all: there is a tide in the affairs of men. This all-in risk, in turn, further antagonizes the unintended consequences: the greater the risk, the further the risk taker’s resources are stretched beyond what the risk taker can cover. The risk taker stands naked in the rain. Actions made in the new world, made in haste and multiplied by risk, tend towards unintended consequences.

Macbeth’s quest for the crown is set against the backdrop of all the failed attempts on the crown. Macdonald and the Thane of Cawdor dared, and lost their lives. Sweno dared, and was out ten thousand dollars. The opening action establishes that, in the world of this play, the highest risk enterprise is to reach for the crown. Despite the risks, however, the play also establishes Macbeth’s competency to fulfil the task. He was the one who thwarted the ingrates and upstarts, who, by all accounts, had been within a hair’s breadth. If they had been close, Macbeth, who was by far greater than them, could entertain higher hopes. Duncan, an armchair king, hardly stands in his way. From the outset, to kill a king is, paradoxically, presented as both the riskiest and the most assured task: riskiest because the others had failed and most assured because Macbeth is like no other. The deed needs to be fraught with risk to cement Macbeth’s daring. But the deed also needs to be most assured so that when the unintended consequences occur, the audience is surprised. This is the pleasure of tragedy.

Having seen what happened to Macdonald and the Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth knows the risk of “Vaulting ambition, which o’er-leaps itself, / And falls on th’other” (1.7.27-8). In awe of risk, he changes his mind, telling Lady Macbeth they will go no further. “I dare do all that may become a man, he says, “Who dares do more is none” (1.7.38-9). Despite his ample resources and insider knowledge, Macbeth remains circumspect. He refuses to act unless every question mark is removed.

At this point, Lady Macbeth offers the failsafe of failsafes. In addition to the assurances they already possess, she proposes to frame Duncan’s chamberlains for the murder. She will ply them with wine so that they can access Duncan. Once murdered, she will smear them with royal blood and set their weapons—now the instruments of murder—next to them. Everyone will be in a deep sleep after the long day. When the murder is discovered, Macbeth will, in a fit of rage, murder the chamberlains. The truth will die with them. None will know. Her plan, being foolproof, convinces Macbeth. Every question mark disappears. “I am settled, “ he says, “and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” (2.1.80-1).

They put the plan into action. As expected, it works perfectly. Macbeth become king. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain flee, drawing suspicion of murder on themselves. No one knows better. The play shows them controlling, taming, and mitigating the foreseen risks. But then play turns to the unseen risks in the unintended consequences of their actions, cascading one after another in a beautiful sequence of mischance.

Macbeth had wanted to become king. But he cannot become the type of king he had expected. The best he can do is to become a tyrant, a degraded form of a king. This is the first of the unintended consequences. Now he begins consorting with murderers. Friends must die, and Fleance too. But when he marks them with death, further unintended consequences result. To be sure, ghosts can be found in Shakespeare’s other plays. In the world of this play, however, ghosts are like Juvenal’s black swans: they do not exist. Now, for the first time, the undead rise:

Macbeth. Blood hath been shed ere now, i’th’olden time,
Ere humane statute purged the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murders have been performed
Too terrible for the ear. The times have been
That when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end. But now they rise again
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools. This is more strange
Than such a murder is. (3.4.73-81)

Macbeth, too, could not have foreseen how Lady Macbeth, entrenched within her iron will, would crack under pressure. Nor could he have foreseen that the moment he masters stoicism, hardening himself to all perils, is the moment Seyton breaks the news:

Macbeth. I have supped full of horrors;
Direness familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me. Wherefore was that cry?

Seyton. The Queen, my lord, is dead. (5.5.13-6)

Lady Macbeth, too, generates unintended consequences. She had wanted to become queen. But she can only be a posthumous queen, a degraded form of queen: Seyton, as she dies, first addresses her thus.

How did Macbeth fall, Macbeth who removed every last question mark? Some say he fell because of overconfidence. If you believe he was overconfident, ask yourself if Shakespeare could have done any more than what he did to justify Macbeth’s confidence. He gave Macbeth the competence. He gave him insider knowledge. He gave him the best-laid plan. Why should Macbeth not have been confident? His confidence is grounded. He was confident, but did not fall as a result of confidence.

Others say Macbeth fell through uxoriousness. He should not have listened to Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, however, had the foolproof plan. Her plan is shown to be successful. The suspicion of the murder falls on Malcolm and Donalbain. He was swayed by Lady Macbeth, but did not fall through uxoriousness.

Then, there are those who say he fell because of his ambition. The world of the play, however, encourages ambition. The throne is ready for a shaking. Macdonald, the Thane of Cawdor, and Sweno all sense a changing of the guard. Later Banquo—and perhaps Donalbain—entertain their own imperial themes. The king is a poor judge of character, easily deceived, and cannot take it to the field. God had already deserted him: he can only send his wounded to the surgeons, other kings heal their subjects by a divine touch. Macbeth was ambitious, but his ambition was justified.

If not confidence, uxoriousness, or ambition, why did he fall? I think he fell through chance, the unexpected, more things happening than what he thought would happen, black swans, uncertainty, unknown unknowns, and low-probability, high-consequence events, the effects of all of which were compounded by risk. While indiscriminate evil cannot explain why Malcolm should ask the troops to cut down the boughs of Birnam Wood, chance multiplied by risk can. By chance, Macbeth meets a man not of woman born. By risk, he dies. Had he not put so much on the line by killing Macduff’s wife, babes, and lord, the encounter may have been less grievous.

Chance and the unexpected appear to the mind as a gap in nature, as a vacuum where there should have been knowledge. The intellect is poorly designed to comprehend the dark night of chance: though the math to comprehend chance was available from antiquity, it was not until the Italian Renaissance that probability theory laid down its footings. The intellect strives at all times to prove that everything happens for a reason. Thought finds a world where the random element runs amok false and impenetrable. Thought abhors empty space, rails against wild things.

When the world confronts timid natures with accident and uncertainty, they feel pity and fear. Pity for the tolling of the bell and fear that they too are exposed. These natures, who needed to reassure themselves from chance, sought to contain it, some by devising simplistic explanations (overconfidence, uxoriousness, ambition, etc.,) and others by devising complex metaphysics (the forces of darkness and evil). With these objectively questionable and subjectively comforting explanations, they allayed their fears, saying to one another: “Be more modest in your ambitions,” “Do good,” and other like refrains, thinking that with a change in behavior, next time they could stop Birnam Wood. Their explanations are from the point of view that the mischance of men’s ambitions are caused by man, and not by chance.

When the world, however, confronts more ambitious and confident natures with accident and uncertainty, far from pity and fear, they feel wonder and awe, wonder at how an individual, so full of fire and the seed of greatness, could be struck down by chance, and awe for the smallness of man in the boundlessness of randomness. They see that the killing risks are not the risks they see, but the ones that cannot be seen until after. They see that greatness is not without risk, and that there is a price to live dangerously. These fiery natures Macbeth marshals forwards, into the unknown, into risk, into the dark night of thought, as though saying to them: “Friend, dare to live dangerously, and you too shall die. Why the fuss? I also died, who was better by far than you.”

To these souls on fire, the highest honour is to join Macbeth and the pageant of tragic heroes who, having climbed past every ladder, found a way to climb on top of their heads, ever higher, higher than Ida’s peaks and Icarus’ flight. For them, to live is to dare. But it may be that there are other readings, and that there are as many truths to Macbeth as there are hearts, some circumspect, some like fire, some obsequious, some firing out their chests like cannons, some lily-livered, some cold as iron, hard as rock.

Littlewood’s Law

Some find the concatenation of low-probability, high-consequence events in Macbeth beyond belief. How could one individual become thane, then king, fall into tyranny, lose his lady to madness, see the wood come up the hill, and then meet a man not of woman born? That this too is part of an all-too-human heuristic that shuns chance and uncertainty can be demonstrated through Littlewood’s Law.

J. E. Littlewood, a twentieth century Cambridge mathematician, believed that exceedingly improbable events happen more often than we anticipate. To demonstrate his hypothesis, he devised a thought experiment. First, he called these unanticipated events miracles. Next, he defined miracles as events a million to one against. Through the observation that we experience many events each day, he demonstrated that we encounter the highly improbable monthly:

Littlewood’s Law of Miracles states that in the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month. The proof of the law is simple. During the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one per second. So the total number of events that happen to us is about thirty-thousand per day, or about a million per month. With few exceptions, these events are not miracles because they are insignificant. The chance of a miracle is about one per million events. Therefore we should expect one miracle to happen, on the average, every month.

In life, it is thought that we experience a handful of defining moments, moments full of miracle and wonder such as comings of age, marriage, and convalescence. The implication of Littlewood’s Law, however, is that these existential fulcra whereon life hangs in balance happen more often than we anticipate. Life, far from being a steady state with gradual change, is in a constant state of revolution. The moments of respite are as infrequent as the major upheavals are frequent. In this probabilistic existence, we find ourselves often standing, like Macbeth, outside the safety of circumscribed beliefs.

Macbeth, in dramatizing the crossroad between probability and life, not only illustrates that more things can happen than what we think will happen, but also that these more things happen more frequently than we allow. These strange concatenations of events in the play may be more emblematic of life than critics have allowed. Even in a world of pure good, and one in which the drives of ambition and confidence are constantly held in check, we should expect to see a Birnam Wood event, by chance alone, on the average, every month.

The Old Master

Part of the reason so few have based their readings of Macbeth around low-probability, high-consequence events is that such readings are inherently paradoxical. The low-probability event is only improbable to Macbeth. To the audience, it is a high-probability event. This paradox drives critics to look elsewhere for the play’s keys. Many have done exactly this, basing their reading around ambition, hubris, error, uxoriousness, or the insidious action of evil. It need not be so, as the paradox is easily resolved: it exists to generate suspense. Another reason, however, why so few have tried this reading is that it flies in the face of the old master, Aristotle.

Just as the intellect abjures the role of chance as a causal factor in life, it is perhaps fitting that the greatest of intellects would abjure the role of chance from the construction of the best of plots. Aristotle declares in the Poetics that tragedy dramatizes the sorts of thing that could happen. Tragedy deals with probable events:

It is also evident from what has been said that it is not the poet’s function to relate actual events, but the kindsof things that might occur and are possible in terms of probability or necessity. (1451a)

Not only should tragedy deal with the probable, he goes on to say that chance events, being signs of inferior plot construction, are to be avoided (1454a-b). The net effect of his condoning the probable and condemning the improbable was to preclude chance and the highly improbable from the discussion of tragedy. It is a shame.

Aristotle had reasons for banishing the improbable. He was trying to rehabilitate tragedy. His teacher, Plato, had found tragedy to be degenerate and unceremoniously banned it from his ideal city-state (Laws 817a-e, Republic 607b). To rehabilitate tragedy, Aristotle gave it a social function. To Aristotle, theatregoers seeing the consequences of characters’ actions onstage would better understand the consequences of their own actions offstage. For this stage to street transference to work, however, actions had to be repeatable. For actions to be repeatable, they had to be probable. If a flaw onstage would lead to a similar fall offstage, nine or ten times out of ten, then tragedy could fulfil its social function.

In rehabilitating tragedy, Aristotle turned tragedy into a distant early warning of poor character. For the next two thousand years we would talk about how irascibility led to the fall. The fall was precipitated by confidence, stubbornness, ambition, and other behavioral factors that the agent could change, and by changing, escape tragedy. By neutering the improbable, Aristotle rehabilitated tragedy.

Aristotle has ruled the roost for two thousand years. In new millenniums, however, we seek new truths. In this age of the unexpected, we seek and find, through Macbeth, a new truth for tragedy that speaks to the pervasiveness of the random element. From its dramatization of black swans, Macbeth gains its overwhelming impetus. By affirming how the unthinkable happens again and again, Macbeth touches all the themes of our day. What is more, tragedy is once more dangerous. When it is dangerous, it is exciting and fit entertainment for the highest natures.

The Great Race

In this reading of Macbeth, I have shown how the action pivots around the fulcrum of the low-probability, high-consequence event. By the advantage conferred by this force multiplying machine, with the lightest touch the dramatist can provoke characters to abandon belief systems and risk certain comfort on uncertain hopes. Risk unbound, in turn, leaves characters susceptible to the unintended consequences of their actions: the more risk they assume, the more susceptible they become to each tremor. All the meanwhile, the dramatist plays a metatheatrical game with the audience, creating suspense by dangling before the audience the prospect that he will bring about an event so rare and wild that any lesser dramatist would cringe at the attempt. From the page to the stage, tragedy is a theatre of risk.

This concludes my study of probability in Macbeth. I needed to write this, because, to me, this play was like a great race in which runners would compete, and, in the course of the running, they would run across banana peels. Some of them they would see, and jump over in great leaps. Some of them they would not see, or see too late, and slip. The runner, who led by an overwhelming margin in the final stretch, slips by accident and is unable to cross the line. This same runner, while jockeying for position earlier, had also pushed last year’s winner into the ditch.

Now, listening to the commentators, I was surprised because they would never declare these falls as accidents. Instead they would say that this runner slipped because he ran too ambitiously or that that runner slipped because he ran with too much gusto. As for the frontrunner who never crosses, this, according to them, was to show that cheaters never prosper. If you saw the play as I do, would you not yourself have needed to say this, that it was not error, hubris, confidence, or justice that causes the fall, but that the fall results from something much simpler, namely that, in a course full of banana peels, more things may happen than what we think will happen?

This reading is based on my new theory of tragedy, which is laid out in my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The book has launched the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition, now in its third year. Thank you for reading.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Greek Tragedy, Black Swans, and the Coronavirus: The Consolation of Theatre

April 3, 2020

Memorial University

Edwin Wong

melpomeneswork.com/coronavirus/

 

Greek Tragedy, Black Swans, and the Coronavirus: The Consolation of Theatre

A “Classics Coffee and Conversation Hour” Zoom Presentation

 

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

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.

5

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.

An Enemy of the People – Ibsen

1999, Dover, 96 pages

Book Blurb

In this powerful work, Ibsen places his main character, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, in the role of an enlightened and persecuted minority of one confronting an ignorant, powerful majority. When the physician learns that the famous and financially successful baths in his hometown are contaminated, he insists they be shut down for expensive repairs. For his honesty, he is persecuted, ridiculed, and declared an “enemy of the people” by the townspeople, including some who had been his closest allies.

First staged in 1883, An Enemy of the People remains one of the most frequently performed plays by a writer considered by may the “father of modern drama.” This easily affordable edition makes available to students, teachers, and general readers a major work by one of the world’s great playwrights.

Author Blurb

Widely regarded as one of the foremost dramatists of the 19th century, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) brought the social problems and ideas of his day to center stage. Creating realistic plays of psychological conflict that emphasized character over cunning plots, he frequently inspired critical objections because his dramas deemed the individual more important than the group.

An Enemy of the People as Risk Theatre

Most Ibsen plays fit the risk theatre mold well, and An Enemy of the People is no exception. In this play, Dr. Stockmann, as chief medical officer, investigates incidents of typhoid and gastric fever in a coastal Norwegian tourist town. Dr. Stockmann wants to keep the town safe. Risk theatre looks at the dramatic action as a gambling act consisting of three parts: temptation, wager, and cast. That the doctor wants to keep the town safe represents the “temptation” phase of the tragedy. His concerns motivate him to act.

Dr. Stockmann conjectures that the illnesses arise from the contaminated waters at the local municipal baths. When the test reports confirm his fears of an infusoria infestation, he takes action to rehabilitate the baths. He will publicize his findings in the local blue-collar newspaper, The People’s Messenger. The town authorities who skimped out on the design and implementation of the water supply to the baths (one of whom is Stockmann’s brother) will be in hot water. Reputations will be destroyed. But the doctor is an idealist:

Dr. Stockmann: Who the devil cares if there be any risk or not! What I am doing, I am doing in the name of truth and for the sake of my conscience.

So, according to the risk theatre model, Dr. Stockmann makes a wager: the town’s well-being and the reputation of some of the townsfolk for the truth.

Like most wagers in popular tragedies, Stockmann has a high degree of confidence that he will be successful. He will publish his findings in the paper. Some municipal officers will go down. But the baths will be repaired and lives saved. He has the support of the paper. He has the support of the working class folks, who secretly want to see the wealthy authorities pay. This is class warfare.

Dr. Stockmann has every expectation of success. But–you know the drill now–a low-probability, high-consequence event happens which upsets his best-laid plans. This happens when the mayor, his brother Peter Stockmann, turns the tables against him. Peter begins a fear campaign: if the news gets out, the lifeblood of the town will run dry. The repairs will be prohibitively expensive. The baths will be shut down for years. The local economy will tank. House prices will crash. The blue-collar workers will lose their jobs.

Peter’s fear campaign works. Instead of being called the town’s saviour, in a vicious town meeting, Dr. Stockmann is branded “an enemy of the people.” He is fired from his post as medical officer and loses his practice. His daughter loses her job as a schoolteacher. His two sons are suspended from school. His house is vandalized, all the windows are broken.

To be Free of Conflict You Need to Have No Friends / Family

Reading An Enemy of the People reminded me of a passage from Taleb’s book Skin in the Game. In this book Taleb talks about how whistleblower types are hindered by the risks to friends and family:

It is no secret that large corporations prefer people with families; those with downside risk are easier to own, particularly when they are choking under a large mortgage.

And of course most fictional heroes such as Sherlock Holmes or James Bond don’t have the encumbrance of a family that can become a target of, say, evil professor Moriarty.

Let us go one step further.

To make ethical choices you cannot have dilemmas between the particular (friends, family) and the general.

Celibacy has been a way to force men to implement such heroism: for instance, the rebellious ancient sect the Essenes were celibate. So by definition they did not reproduce–unless one considers that their sect mutated to merge with what is known today as Christianity. A celibacy requirement might help with rebellious causes, but it isn’t the greatest way to multiply your sect through the ages.

Financial independence is another way to solve ethical dilemmas, but such independence is hard to ascertain: many seemingly independent people aren’t particularly so. While, in Aristotle’s days, a person of independent means was free to follow his conscience, this is no longer as common in modern days.

Intellectual and ethical freedom requires the absence of the skin of others in one’s game, which is why the free are so rare. I cannot possibly imagine the activist Ralph Nader, when he was the target of large motor companies, raising a family with 2.2 kids and a dog.

An Enemy of the People reminded me of this passage because Dr. Stockmann has to ultimately decide not between his welfare and his principles (he can willingly die a martyr to truth), but has to decide between the welfare of his family and the truth. His family is the weak point.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Reaching Out to Famous Writers – Taleb

Have you heard of Nassim Nicholas Taleb? He’s the author of Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the MarketsThe Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly ImprobableThe Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms, and Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Well, he’s a self-described renegade ‘philosopher of uncertainty’ who has set his sights on destroying the bell curve. It turns, out, that the familiar bell curve, which incidentally graced the ten Deutsche Marks bill along with a picture of its originator, Carl Friedrich Gauss, is a deceptive fraud. It focusses our attention on the normal distribution of events, whether the weather, earthquakes, or stock market prices. The ‘hump’ on the bell curve represents the normal distribution of events, the events that are likely. Well, Taleb argues that the unlikely events, represented by the ‘tails’ on the left and right side of the bell curve, is what actually shapes our lives. Who cares if there are no earthquakes for 50 years?–when the earthquake hits, it alters lives. Who cares if the stock market goes up for 10 years?–it’s when it collapses in the 11th year that wrecks folks’ retirement dreams. And so on.

It was in 2007 when I first ran into Taleb’s books. Fooled By Randomness and then The Black Swan. I was living in Providence, RI at the time, and they had a big Borders bookstore in Providence Place Mall (remember those days?). Fooled By Randomness was in the economics section, and, since I was looking for something to read that wasn’t related to my MA thesis, I picked it up. Well, it was a life changing book. After I read it, it occurred to me that you could devise a whole theory of tragedy (that was what I was trying to do) looking at tragedy as a sort of ‘risk theatre’ where the unexpected rules over heroes’ lives. The unexpected outcome, like Euripides likes to mention in the closing riposte of many of his plays, dominates our lives. The heroes make their plans looking at the hump on the bell curve. But they aren’t looking for the tail event to happen. They’re caught off guard and perish. Well, I spent the next ten years connecting this idea to the art form of tragedy. If it’s one lesson I learned, it is that, to come up with something worth pursuing, read outside of your chosen field. If you’re reading what everyone else is reading, you’ll likely start from the same standpoint and end up in the same place. But if you’re reading outside of your field, then, sometimes, you can find something different.

Well, now that the manuscript is completed (I was wondering for a long time whether it could be completed), it’s time to start reaching out to get some reactions. It turns out that Taleb now is quite famous, but not quite famous enough that it’s impossible to find his email address. He has a website, which, to my surprise, includes his email address. I thought, “Hey, maybe I’ll try reaching out to him.” You know, the interesting thing is he’s always talking about black swan events, but he’s never talked about the art form of tragedy, which I’m convinced now is a dramatization of black swan events. The black swan problem is a problem of induction. You can see a thousand white swans over the course of a thousand years and safely declare that there are no black swans. But inductive logic is very fragile. You just need to see one black swan (as they did in Australia), and all your thousands of years of thinking you’re right goes into the wastebasket. Another bird, the turkey also has a problem of induction: it thinks the farmer is a friend because every day the farmer brings food. But come Thanksgiving, things change, and it’s this change that has a big effect on the turkey’s life. So, back to the email: I decided I’ll write Taleb, thank him, and ask him what he thinks about my tragedy as ‘risk theatre’. Here’s what I wrote:

Hi Mr. Taleb,
I’ve been inspired by your books and wanted to share my story with you. It was in 2007 that I first came across The Black Swan in a Borders Bookstore in Providence, RI where I was finishing a MA at Brown University on ancient Greek tragedy. After reading it, I began to see the tragic theatre as a place which dramatized the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. For example, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane hill is a low-probability event. But when it happens, it has high-consequences. Or take Oedipus from Sophocles’ play. The chances that the oracle is right (he will marry his mother and kill his father) is a low-probability event: he has taken every safeguard to ensure it won’t happen. But when it does happen, it has high-consequences. Have you ever thought of tragic theatre as being a place where heroes take risks, and, as a result, are susceptible to ruin?
I did. I’ve spent the last ten years working on a new theory or tragedy called “risk theatre.” Like Aristotle’s Poetics or Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, risk theatre is a theory of tragedy. My theory posits that, in the tragic theatre, heroes are gamblers. They have skin in the game and leverage themselves 100:1, thereby exposing themselves to tail risk. So, although heroes are smarter, stronger, and devise the best-laid plans, the unexpected ruins them. I argue that the tragic theatre is a school for risk because it shows how, the more confident we are, the more we’re in danger. In today’s age where we are surrounded by GMOs, artificial intelligence, and mutual assured destruction ideologies, we can learn a thing or two about risk (mis-)management from ancient theatre.
I recently finished my book: Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected and now I’m shopping for a publisher. I’m writing first of all, to thank you for your inspiring books, and second of all, to ask for your reaction on the idea of tragedy as a theatre of risk.
Sincerely,
Edwin Wong.
Well, Taleb’s website claims that his email backlog is sitting at 10 months. Stay tuned, assiduous readers, it’s just a blink of the eye away!
I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.