Our Cassandra Complex

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Cassandra was a daughter of Priam, the King of Troy. Struck by her beauty, Apollo provided her with the gift of prophecy, but when Cassandra refused Apollo’s romantic advances, he placed a curse ensuring that nobody would believe her warnings. Cassandra was left with the knowledge of future events but could neither alter these events nor convince others of the validity of her predictions.

Cassandra’s prophecies played a part at every important moment during the history of Troy. She fought as hard as she could with the support of the seer Laocoon against the idea of bringing into the city the wooden horse which the Greeks left on the beach when they pretended to withdraw, and she declared it was full of armed warriors. But Apollo sent snakes which ate up Laocoon and his sons and the Trojans paid no heed to Cassandra.

The truthfulness 1 of myths resides in the degree to which the analogies they elaborate perpetually recur in human affairs. Cassandra analogizes to our collective experience of helplessness in the context of destruction of the biosphere2 to the extent that we, like Cassandra, possess knowledge of what will occur if we do not deviate from our present course. Like Cassandra, we are unable to convince ourselves and others of the salience of what we know and are hence unable to alter a future that can be reasonably anticipated based on our present actions. The myth illustrates collective self-destruction3 caused by a community’s inability to believe – and act upon – evidence of a cataclysmic threat.

Aias und Kassandra (Tischbein)

Apollo – the God that curses Cassandra with an ability to see the future – incarnates human rationality. He personifies the human capacity to employ reason as a means of comprehending the natural world. Insofar as Apollo curses Cassandra with knowledge, and insofar as Cassandra’s knowledge is induced by Apollo’s malevolence, the myth analogizes to our ambivalent attitude towards knowledge and reality contact. It also recapitulates a recurring theme in Greek mythology: frantic attempts by a tragic hero to avert catastrophe go unheeded and sometimes bring about the very cataclysm that the hero seeks to avert.

For much of the twentieth century, mental disease was conceptualized in accordance with the Myth of Oedipus. The “Oedipus Complex” referred to the enduring effect of repressed sexual and aggressive wishes towards one’s parents. According to Freud and much of the thinking that prevailed among mental health professionals in the twentieth century, the fate of repressed sexual and aggressive impulses personified by Oedipus was central to understanding almost all forms of psychopathology.

While lessons that can be drawn from Oedipus are not inconsistent with those illustrated by Cassandra – both myths illustrate the destruction of a community in the setting of failed attempts to avert events foretold in prophecy – twentieth century psychoanalysis focused on the content of the thoughts and feelings that were avoided and its impact on the individual. The inclination to focus on Oedipus as an individual and his attempt to avoid facts related to his own individual fate rather than the plague that repressed truth wrought on the community was consistent with a clinical focus on the individual in twentieth century Western European and American culture.

If a focus on the content of Oedipus’s repressed wishes and its implications for the individual patient reflected preoccupations of the highly individualistic twentieth century culture to which the Oedipus narrative was applied, our collective response to the existential threats posed by destruction of the biosphere are most relevant to the 21st century – as is our collective psychological response to such threats.

What leads us to collectively reject and disregard knowledge and reason? Whereas interpretations that focus on the content of repressed facts may have been an appropriate focus of treatment of the individual in the twentieth century, destruction of the biological basis upon which survival is based is contingent upon collective mental processes. Both the content of the truth that is avoided (i.e., destruction of the biosphere) and the processes by which such avoidance is predicated (e.g., distraction and denial) require an understanding that focuses on the community. The problem is best approached by asking not only what truth the individual avoids but also how we act together to avoid it.

The most important variable of all relative to our future survival resides in a form of inquiry that focuses on our minds. Our attitudes and behaviors toward the facts are as important as the facts themselves.Facts about mass extinction and climate change are already known, as are reasonable inferences regarding our future that can be made based on such facts. It is our attitude and behavior in relation to such facts that will ultimately ensure our survival or facilitate our destruction.

As George Marshall notes in Don’t Even Think About It4, no “graphs, data sets, or complex statistics, computer models, scientific predictions, and economic scenarios are conducted around the most important and uncertain variable of all: whether our collective choice will be to accept or to deny what the science is telling us.” While it would seem self-evident that the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that drive destruction of the biosphere warrant inquiry, a reticence to acknowledge this truism reflects the enormity of the challenge that confronts us. More than any symptom or disorder manifested by an individual, a collective penchant for destroying the systems that sustain us represents the ultimate challenge to our ability to make sense of the world around us. Our collective response to destruction of the biosphere exposes an innate propensity analogized in the Myth of Cassandra: to see only what we want to see and to disregard what we would prefer not to know.


1. Truth: That which is in accordance with fact or reality.

2. Biosphere: The regions of the surface, atmosphere, and hydrosphere of the earth (or analogous parts of other planets) occupied by living organisms.

3. Destruction: The action or process of causing so much damage to something that it no longer exists or cannot be repaired. The action or process of killing or being killed. The ruination or ending of a system or state of affairs.

4. Marshall, George. Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. Bloomsbury. London,Oxford, New York. 2014.

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