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Moral order gained, then lost

In 490 BC, the legendary runner brought urgent news to Athens of the Greek victory in Marathon over the armies of the Persian Empire. The Battle of Marathon secured a peace that ushered in the Athenian Golden Age, during which a vibrant democracy finally found the balance between the exercise of force and the fulfillment of human needs. Last week, as an American commemoration of the Battle of Marathon unfolded in Boston, that same democratic balance was dangerously stretched amid the Doric columns of Washington, where the Senate cast a tragic vote for violence.

Yet even our definition of “tragic” goes back to Athens, to the spacious imagination that flourished there — especially in the plays of Sophocles, who lived from about 497 to 406 BC. He taught us that every choice has its consequence, that character is destiny, that the exercise of power must always be measured by the health of the whole community. He also taught us that tragedy, when faced directly and bravely, leaves humans not diminished, but ennobled.

The traumas of Boston last week, culminating in the killing and pursuit of the men suspected of planting the bombs, were heartbreaking and repugnant, but they left the city whole. With all citizens commanded to “shelter in place” Friday while responsible officials conducted the manhunt, Boston was itself a character in the extraordinary drama. A vast ad hoc web of Internet users to whom law enforcement had appealed gave new meaning to the term “community policing.” The fugitives knew that an entire commonwealth had become their antagonist. This surely forced the drama’s denouement. There were no bystanders in Boston.

But that also had been true of the city’s Marathon itself, where spectators are always full participants. By week’s end, it was clear that the annual Boston street spectacle not only defines the rebirth of spring in New England, but celebrates the civic, political, and cultural ideals that make our civilization precious. Those ideals were on full display — a fulfillment of what began at the first Marathon so many centuries ago.


From Homer on, Greek culture honored competition (“agon” in Greek, which gives us the word “agony”). But in Athens, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has explained, this spirit of contest was balanced by the politics of cooperation. The virtues of the first (discipline, bravery, self-actualization) meshed with the virtues of the second (empathy, humility, selflessness). Athenian democracy was the reconciliation of these opposites. Strength was joined to tenderness.


The Boston Marathon wonderfully embodies this balanced moral order, too: Every year the fiercely determined runners strive to be best (or for their personal best), while surrounded by multitudes whose cooperation makes the race so radically inclusive.

But death changes everything — a jolting transformation to which Greek tragedy itself gave first expression. “In the face of death,” as MacIntyre puts it, “winning and losing no longer divide.” Instead, competition drops away, and cooperation becomes the absolute mandate. That is precisely what happened in Boston, as the city held Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi, and later Sean Collier in its heart.

Last week, a separate drama unfolded in Washington. “It’s almost like you can see the finish line, but you just can’t get there.” These words could have been spoken by thousands of Boston runners, but were said by the father of a shooting victim who witnessed the Senate vote on gun control.

In the face of death — physically represented in the Senate chamber by survivors of those killed by guns — senators stripped political competition of its virtues, leaving only meanness, selfishness, and fear. This contest involves more than guns. The gun lobby’s triumph was more than a setback on one issue. It was a defeat of a moral order in which empathy counterbalances America’s martial impulses. Indeed, the nation’s gun radicals, with their refusal to acknowledge even the deaths of children, open fire on the most vulnerable spot in the civic body. What makes democracy as fragile as it is precious — and Athens reminds us of this, too — is that a minority of self-obsessed citizens can destroy it. The Constitution will not survive if its Second Amendment is made to count for more than all the others. In “Oedipus Rex,” Sophocles reminds us that the plague will not be lifted from the realm until the leaders see that they themselves are its cause.


Last week, the nation had contrasting glimpses of its future, one in Washington, the other in the city that calls itself the Athens of America. At least in Boston, even in the depth of tragedy, the glimpsed future included hope.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.