One of the students in my Introduction to Literature class, Danie Manos, noted similarities between Pentheus and climate change denialists as we were discussing Euripides’ The Bacchae. It was an insightful observation that brought home the relevance of the 2400-year-old play.
To read the play this way involves seeing Dionysus as a stand-in for nature. When humans respect and honor nature, then nature is benign. But when they seek to dominate it, nature responds with fury, tearing them apart. In the play, Pentheus is literally torn apart by forces unleashed by the angry god.
Danie mentioned having been in England when an unprecedented hurricane tore through the country last year. Others students noted the increase in hurricanes and tornadoes over the past twenty years in our own country, both in number and in intensity. Scientists are increasingly documenting the extent to which these are attributable to humans dumping hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. We can say that we are failing to honor the nature god.
Not that the ancient Greeks suffered from human-caused climate change. Human technology had very little impact on the earth at that time. But Euripides could see what happened when humans stifled natural impulses, whether it was locking up their women or asserting other stringent controls over human behavior. It’s not a stretch, therefore, to extend his observations to what is occurring today.
Of course, nature is not always benign even when we treat it well. One reason that the Greeks worshipped the gods was to placate them. One sacrificed to Poseidon prior to a sea voyage in hopes of a good trip. If the trip still went wrong, then one might conclude that there was something wrong with the sacrifice. Or that, for some unexplained reason, Poseidon chose not to accept the slaughtered bull, but at least we tried. The rituals people went through gave them the illusion that they had some control over an otherwise chaotic universe. Our need to believe we have some control lies deep within us.
In the case of climate change, however, we really do have control. Thus, watching Pentheus walk willfully into his doom is not unlike watching ourselves do the same. We are a living example of dramatic irony. Think of some audience gazing at us, our future foretold, and shaking their heads as we ignore every warning signal that the gods send us.
When Pentheus’ mother and grandfather survey the damage he has brought on himself and them, they lament that it isn’t fair:
Cadmus: Dionysus, hear our prayer. We have done wrong.
Dionysus: You learned too late. When you should have known us you did not.
Cadmus: We know that now. But you are too severe in prosecuting us.
Dionysus: I am a god, and you committed an outrage against me.
Cadmus: Anger does not become a god. You should not be like a human being.
Dionysus: Zeus, my father, agreed to all this long ago.
Agave (with a cry of despair): It is a decree, then. Old man, we are banished. How miserable!
Dionysus: Why put it off? It will be, by necessity.
The humans try to personify the gods so as to define them in human terms. We all naturally do this. But if nature represents blind results, then it will be impervious to our pleas. And just as Cadmus, innocent himself, suffers for what his grandson has done, so all of us will suffer for what the major polluters and their political allies are doing. Nature is not fair.
But in the case of climate change, it is relentlessly and brutally logical.