An Alternate Proposal for the 2016 Presidential Campaign
Several schools and universities today require all students enrolled in their institutions to read a common book. This book crosses several disciplines and is discussed in multiple classes throughout the year. Given the state of the 2016 Presidential Campaign, I believe the American public would benefit if we all read a common book. Instead of discussing personalities, we could begin a national discussion on lessons learned from our reading.
I suggest we read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. The story begins with an entreaty from the people of Thebes to their king, Oedipus. Thebes is suffering from a destructive curse. The crops are rotting in the fields. The decaying carcasses of animals litter the fields. Fetuses are dying in the womb. These catastrophes portend that the lives of the people and the future of their community and culture are threatened with extinction. The people call upon Oedipus to save them from this curse and he readily agrees. As King, he believes, he alone can solve the problems of the community and he commits his life to restoring Thebes to health.
For the Greeks, it didn’t matter that Oedipus had inadvertently committed the acts that lead to the annihilation of his people. For the Greeks, it only mattered that the act had been committed and would follow to its inevitable end. The Greek gods were not moralists and they were not interventionists. Their role was to forewarn the community of impending danger, but they did not intercede in the logical conclusion of the act itself.
We can learn a great deal from Oedipus Rex. We can discuss the threat to our livelihood and the future of our culture should The-Man-Who-Would-Be-King is elected in November. Like Oedipus, he is committed to saving his country through his own actions. Like Oedipus, he believes that he alone can overcome the threats to our community. Like Oedipus, hubris — overriding pride, is leading him to make decisions that play upon our fears and aim to redefine who we are as a people.
When we review the history of literature, we learn that the great tragedies are written when a culture is on the cusp of dissolution. The artist foresees this dissolution and, through his art, warns the people of the impending outcome. Some of our most renowned works of art, such as Picasso’s Guernica, force us to contemplate the current status of our culture. In Oedipus Rex, Sophocles considers what is possible when a community, collectively, is unable to address the decay that is growing within its own boundaries. If the American people could value the role of art to arouse us to the world we inhabit and begin this discussion through reading a common book, I believe we can overcome the burden of a single vision determining our future.