Here’s a little known artifact of American history that is tucked away in the Library of Congress. Did you know that our nation’s capital was originally designed to have a Grand National Monument of a Sphinx? This magnificent beast was to have the head of an eagle and the body of a lioness, and was to be the protector of our citizens’ freedom. Today, we think of the Sphinx as a monument in front of the Great Pyramids, and yet they have appeared throughout the world’s civilizations including ancient Greece, to which America owes much of its cultural and political heritage.
According to Greek mythology, its Sphinx contained the head of a woman, the body of a lioness, the wings of an eagle, and the tail of a serpent. She guarded her people from all who would do them harm. As the legend goes, the Sphinx asked passersby to answer a riddle, and when they could not she devoured them. Greece’s Sphinx was originally intended as a protector of her people but eventually became their tyrant. It was not until Oedipus the King solved the Sphinx’s riddle that it dashed its own body against the rocks, killing itself and freeing the Greek people to create the world’s greatest democracy under the guard of the gods of Olympus.
If America were to create a Sphinx today to guard our Capital, it would be much different than originally envisioned. Certainly, the wings of the eagle and the tail of the serpent of the ancient Greek Sphinx would remain. The eagle wings would remind the American people of the ideals of freedom for which our Sphinx was intended, but the serpent tail would awaken us to the knowledge that Congress is now a deadly beast that must be approached with caution. Instead of the hunting body of a great lioness, our Capital Sphinx’s body would be that of a chameleon, for Congress is really just a chameleon with a law book. Its hue of character changes to suit the partialities of those that seek its preference, neither taking a stance nor changing it from the safety of the current political tree until it is assured the safety of another.
And rather than the head of an eagle, it would be a two headed beast; not the two headed eagle that for centuries represented the dual head of church and state of the Holy Roman Empire, but instead it would contain the two faces of the muses Thalia and Melpomene of ancient Greece that are so often represented in America’s acting theatres as the two masks of comedy and tragedy. For Congress is attempting to serve two masters and must therefore greet them as the actor it is with its two separate faces; one with the comic knowledge of Thalia, and the other with the foreboding face of Melpomene.
No one can serve two masters and certainly not Congress. Either it will love the people and hate the pursuit of money, or it will be devoted to acquiring its own wealth and will instead despise the people. The tragedy of this play is ruthlessly unfolding in our revered Capital even as our financial crisis calls for democratic action. The foreboding Sphinx Melpomene looks down upon the electorate and guards the halls of Congress against their access to its representation. Yet for the very few financial elite of our country, Thalia gladly lets them pass.
From the view of the common man, the Sphinx creates the illusion that Congress is tragically broken, yet from the comic view of the elite, the Sphinx guards Congress to do exactly what it is doing, preserving the status quo against all that would do it harm and serving its one true master. Looking up upon the Capital, the common man tragically sees that billions of dollars are doled out in campaign contributions by the elite to keep Melpomene steadfast, more than could ever be collected by the common man to turn her face away and let them pass. Yet peering down from their temples of finance, the elite are greeted by the laughter of Thalia that it took so sparingly little to win the affection of Congress in protecting their entitlement to garner trillions from financial dalliances while endangering the very existence of our democracy.
Ancient Greece was mythologically saved from the tyranny of its Sphinx for two reasons. First, a flawed but brilliant king was able to solve the Sphinx’s riddle, ours being the puzzle of a two faced Congress. Second, Greece’s sphinx still had a kernel of desire to serve its people that had not been snuffed out by its own corruption, and therefore it dashed its evilness against the rocks so that Greece’s democracy could once again thrive. Our dilemma, however tragic, is not a myth. It requires the desire of those in Congress to serve but one master if America is to continue as the standard bearer of democracy’s great torch. That master must be the people.