Classics Essays

The Virtues of Reading Sophocles

Sophocles (496 BC-406 BC), like his slightly younger contemporary Euripides, lived in exciting and transformative times. But where Euripides blasphemously ridiculed the gods and showed their callous cruelty, Sophocles—at least among the handful of plays that have survived—leaves the gods conspicuously absent from his dramas. Instead of the gods being our deliverance, the family is the instrument of salvation and the bulwark against tyranny in his surviving plays—but not without harrowing darkness before ascending into the light.

Amending Ancient Wisdom

Sophocles was closer to Aeschylus than Euripides in his content and message. Like Aeschylus, Sophocles was also more frequently honored at the festivals and playwright competitions than the younger and more impetuous tragedian who exposed the hollowness of the dark sacristy of the Athenian pantheon. This bears out in his plays where love and filial piety, themes that were present in Aeschylus, become the major themes in Sophocles. However, unlike Aeschylus—who located filial piety as contingent with the gods—Sophocles located the nexus of filial piety purely between humans. Electra’s deliverance with the advent of Orestes, or Antigone’s heartbreaking devotion to Polyneices which awakens Creon, the ruler of Thebes, to his failures, even the sympathy the reader has for isolated Philoctetes, all point to the importance of family life in providing meaning, comfort, and civilizational stability in Sophocles’ works.

Beyond filial piety and deliverance, the other great theme that concerned Sophocles was the tyranny of the state. Creon embodies statist tyranny in Antigone. Even pitiable Oedipus is the strongman of the state in Oedipus Rex, going as far as boldly eulogizing himself as the, “ruin that saved the state.” Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus, in Electra, are equally statist agents who are interested in the lust for power that characterizes the naked reality of human politics.

Athens had slipped from the open democracy that it was when she led the defense of Hellas against the Persians. Though the Athenian delegates and Pericles, in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, proclaim in an open-air forum the greatness of Athens, that greatness was waning prior to the war and certainly exacerbated itself during the conflict when Sophocles was composing his late works. The backdrop to the tragedy of Electra is the Trojan War, a war in its brutality every bit the equivalent of the Peloponnesian War. 

Likewise, Philoctetes has the Trojan War as its immediate context. Philoctetes was written during the final decade of the Peloponnesian War; the loneliness and desolate isolation that Philoctetes embodies is the same loneliness and isolation that drove Clytaemnestra to plot to kill Agamemnon. The difference being that Philoctetes was mercilessly abandoned for his smelly foot and left for dead on an island all alone. Philoctetes survived but is taken advantage of by returning Greek heroes (Odysseus and Neoptolemus). Poor Philoctetes, however, is robbed of a life, a family, and the happy ideal of life with others.

“Love, especially as directed to the family or for family, is what makes life worth living in the rage-filled and dark cosmos that the ancient Greeks inhabited. That filial love, however, was rapidly dissipating during the time of Sophocles.”

In this respect, Sophocles is amending the same wisdom imparted to the world from the pen of Homer and Aeschylus. Love, especially as directed to the family or for family, is what makes life worth living in the rage-filled and dark cosmos that the ancient Greeks inhabited. That filial love, however, was rapidly dissipating during the time of Sophocles. (And this is what caused Euripides to present love as a, “dangerous thing.”) Sophocles lived through the rise and decline of filial piety, which corresponded, in his mind, with the rise and decline of Athens.

Sophoclean Natural Law

It would be wrong to maintain that Sophocles—or any of the Greeks for that matter—had an understanding of natural law in the same way that scholastic Christians did. In fact, reading back onto the Greeks the high moral law is, ironically, part of the Christian inheritance of the West. Apart from Aristotle and Cicero (especially the latter), it is hard to ascertain anything resembling St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae and its ruminations on the natural law, which was also developed through centuries of Catholic thinking and encyclicals. Nevertheless, we do see the faint glimpses of the natural law in Sophocles which was more fully developed—if we can say that—than in Aristotle and Cicero (who still pale in comparison to their Catholic successors).

The closest revelation to Sophocles’ natural law (and the centrality of the family to it) comes through the person of Creon, especially as connected through Oedipus Rex and Antigone. Patricide and incest are objects of shame in Oedipus Rex. Such crimes—though Oedipus is fated by the gods to commit such heinous acts—are the focus of scorn from Sophocles’ pen. Blinded and ashamed, Oedipus prepares to leave Thebes but not without talking to Creon one last time. In the final dialogue between Oedipus and Creon, Oedipus implores Creon to nurture Antigone and Ismene and blesses him before his exile.

Prior to this touching moment, the closest thing to a resolution in the play, Oedipus was filled with pride and the lust for power. Accompanied by Jocasta, his mother whom he took as his wife, the two coldly assert that to be liberated from one’s parents makes one happy. Moreover, we are informed that Oedipus’ foster father, Polybus, loved him and loved him ever so dearly. Upon hearing the news of his supposed father’s death, Oedipus rejoices which exposes his hollowness. “You were a gift. He took you from my arms,” the shepherd messenger tells Oedipus. “A gift?” Oedipus retorts, “But he loved me as his own.” The messenger replies, “He had no children of his own to love.” Jocasta, overhearing the conversation, is overcome with guilt and shame and leaves to commit suicide. 

Oedipus and Jocasta had mocked the gods and scorned fathers and mothers in the lust for self-power and gain. Although we know the gods had fated them to misery, one cannot help but feel a certain rage at both in celebrating the death of parents. Their celebratory emptiness was their choosing, Sophocles seems to hint at, which makes their crimes worse than if they had simply played out the lot that fate had dealt them. As such, the family is utterly destroyed except for Antigone and Ismene who mature under Creon’s watchful and loving arms.

However, in Antigone, with Creon suffering from political challenges, his relationship with Antigone changes for the worse. He condemns Antigone for wanting to bury the body of her traitorous brother. Creon had decreed, civically, that none of the enemies of Thebes are to be honored. Polyneices is to be left on the blood-stained field of battle; his body to be the food of vultures for his rebelliousness. Antigone, by contrast, affirms the law of filial love in wanting to bury the body of her brother. (Burial was one of the most important of rites in ancient Greek society.)

Creon and the loving, not necessarily strong-willed (as usually interpreted), Antigone come to crossing blows over how to react to the death of Polyneices. Creon has ordered, with the authority of the state and law, to let traitors rot and be consumed by rats and vultures. Antigone, on the other side, exhibits the spirit of love to bury the body of her brother in a dignified grave. Creon’s tyrannical actions sever his bond with Antigone. Ismene’s submission to civic tyranny instead of the moral law equally destroys her relationship with her sister…

Read the rest of my essay: Sophocles and the Necessity of the Family (Merion West, 26 August 2019)

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