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Odysseus Questions the Seer Tiresias. Fresco by Alessandro Allori (1580) on Wikimedia Commons.

Who Can Possess Political Truth?

Robert D. Kaplan—

Tiresias, the old, blind seer, the prophet who knows better than anyone else the will of the gods, is a recurring character in Greek mythology. “Mine is the strength of truth,” within which lies safety, he tells Oedipus, when an angry Oedipus, still king of Thebes, begins to face the horrible truth about who he really is.1 Tiresias specializes in telling his listeners what they least want to hear—the very thoughts they repress. He is no god but almost serves the function of one. Just as you can’t deceive the gods, you cannot deceive Tiresias. He is a replacement for one’s conscience. Like Oedipus himself, old and blind at the end of his life, Tiresias bears the gift of insight precisely because he is blind: one kind of vision has been re- placed by another; a penetrating, analytical way of seeing has replaced a superficial but often deceptive way of seeing. Blindness allows both Tiresias and Oedipus to see the world more accurately— a painful ability, since it means admitting what you don’t want to admit to.

Both Tiresias and the dying Oedipus know that because everything mortal in this world decays, it is wise to think and act as if you were already withered and old, even if you are still young. This will release you from vanity and pride, the enemies of good fortune and the mainstays of self-delusion. There is much to fear in this world: fortune can change not only gradually, especially as one ages and grows more prone to illness and disease, but suddenly. Oedipus, driven by Tiresias’s prophecy, goes from the height of wealth and power to abject misery “in the course of a single day.”2

By the time one is old, one has already experienced heartbreak and disappointment, and therefore wisdom is more likely to be found in the old than in the young. It is all about knowing yourself and your world. Recall the words of another Russian close in spirit to the ancient Greeks, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “Tribes with an ancestor cult have endured for centuries. No tribe would survive long with a youth cult.”3 This is why the twenty-first-century Chinese, still benefitting from the residue of Eastern Confucian culture and its respect for hierarchy and the elderly, have an edge over the post-modern West, which, with its narcissistic obsession with youth, is no longer a spiritual descendant of the ancient Greeks: the very people who gave birth to Western civilization in the first place.

This is also why Oedipus at Colonus, about Oedipus’s wanderings and arrival outside Athens in old age, has always been so highly regarded by critics. Maurice Bowra writes: “Oedipus’ endurance in adversity entitles him to honor and ultimately to heroization.”4 His sustained fortitude in the face of all his difficulties with his family and kingdom, not to mention the travails of his wanderings, is respected by the gods. Once a man of pride and certainty, Oedipus becomes completed and wiser in what he knows about human existence, even if he is not rewarded for it in the physical world, where everyone lacks his depth of foreknowledge.

None are as wise as those who have suffered some great catastrophe, which can include public shame. Policymakers who have failed miserably are thus more likely to be genuinely interesting: more deeply reflective about their lives than those who have known only success. I would like to have known the post-Watergate Nixon, with his keen foreign policy instincts built on fear and thinking five steps ahead; but now armed with shame about his mistakes, his flawed character, and his dramatically reduced financial position. He wrote many serious books in his retirement, advised President Carter well on China policy and President Clinton well on Russia policy, and generally entered the public spotlight only on a serious note. This was a kind of penance and rehabilitation for a broken man.

We mature through mistakes. Mistakes help us to be fearful about what comes next. True wisdom is not to be envied.

As Sophocles writes at the end of Oedipus the King,

Till man lies within his tomb,

Never dare to call him “happy”—wait until your eyes shall see

That beyond life’s bourne he travels, touched by no calamity.5

And here is Sophocles in Ajax,

. . . never

allow yourself to speak arrogant

words against the gods,

or feel proud if your hand strikes harder

than another’s or wealth heaps higher

around you. One day can lift up

and bring down all human things

The gods favor wise restraint . . .6

In short, never dare to call a man lucky until he is dead. This is the famous advice that Solon provides the wealthy King Croesus of Lydia, who will come to know the bitter truth of this prophecy.7 A constant fear of what is around the corner is the foundation stone of humility; it reduces the risk of catastrophes. Fear recognizes that choices are rarely between good and evil, since that is too easy. Crucial decisions are by their nature close calls and are often about choosing one good over another—or one evil over another. In fear rests safety. Lionel Trilling once said about Robert Frost that like Sophocles, Frost was beloved because he “could make plain the terrible things” and so give people comfort.8

1. Sophocles, Oedipus the King, translated by F. L. Lucas, line 356, in F. L. Lucas, Greek Drama for Everyman (J. M. Dent, 1954); reissued as Greek Tragedy and Comedy (Viking/Compass, 1973).

2. Charles Segal, Introduction to Sophocles, The Theban Plays (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1994), p. xxiii.

3. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, November 1916: The Red Wheel/Knot II, translated by H. T. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [1984] 1999), p. 337.

4. Maurice Bowra, Sophoclean Tragedy (Oxford, UK: The Clarendon Press, [1944] 1965), p. 354.

5. Sophocles, Oedipus the King, translated by F. L. Lucas, line 356, in F. L. Lucas, Greek Drama for Everyman (J. M. Dent, 1954); reissued as Greek Tragedy and Comedy (Viking/Compass, 1973), lines 1528–30.

6. Sophocles, Ajax, translated by Herbert Golder and Richard Pevear (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), lines 153–60.

7. Herodotus, The History, 9:16, translated by David Grene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 1:32

8. Lionel Trilling, “A Speech on Robert Frost: A Cultural Episode” (1959), in Trilling’s The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Selected Essays, edited and with an introduction by Leon Wieseltier (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2008), p. 380.

From The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power by Robert D. Kaplan. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

Robert D. Kaplan, the Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, was twice named one of the world’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers” by Foreign Policy. A reporter with decades of experience writing for The Atlantic, he has written twenty-two books, including The Loom of TimeAdriaticThe Good AmericanThe Revenge of GeographyAsia’s CauldronMonsoonThe Coming Anarchy; and Balkan Ghosts. He has served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and the U.S. Navy’s Executive Panel.

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