Sophocles and the Human Tendency towards Destruction

I’ve recently re-read the plays of Sophocles.  Paul Roche translated the Signet version.  This translator has also ably translated Ten Plays of Euripedes and The Complete Plays of Aristophanes.  (Euripedes counts as my favorite of the three Athenian Tragedians, by the way–which puts me in the minority for sure!)  The Ancient Greek proverbs and ideals come across in an authentic manner even though the prose is written in good, modern English.  While reading the play this time, I was impressed with the notion of hubris leading to a fall and how hubris is punished by the gods.  But, my interpretation of how Sophocles understanding of hubris evolves over the course of his plays would not have occurred to me if not for a particular conversation with a friend of mine.

In that conversation, I opined that people have forgotten that God punishes people for pride.  My friend responded that if God really punished people for pride, we would all be dead.  This struck me as a profound insight.  Indeed, is God under any especial necessity to punish people for pride?  Pride, like the other capital sins, carries its own punishment with it.  Pride distorts our view of ourselves, which in turn hinders us in our interactions with the real world.  Socrates made the foundation of philosophy, the love of wisdom, to know oneself.  If we don’t know ourselves, we fail countless times, wound ourselves, and vex the people around us such that we drive them away.  What is more offensive than arrogance?  What could be a worse affliction in and of itself?

Sophocles, like a good Greek, inserts into the mouths of his character the concept that the gods punish people for their pride.  However, as much as the chorus chants such ideas, one sees the genesis of the tragic heroes’ ruin in their own words and deeds.  Part of the thing which makes Oedipus so tragic lies in that he is not ruined by willful ignorance, as pride may be more accurately described, but by his pure ignorance of his origins.  The climax of a Sophocles play is one of self-knowledge: the tragic hero acknowledges how guilty he is.  But, in Oedipus Rex, the climax of self-knowledge does not concern something Oedipus ought to have known, but something he had no way of knowing.  Of all the tragic heroes, only Oedipus has any claim to innocence.

Famous picture of Ajax and Achilles playing a game.

The one character who might come closest to Oedipus of Sophocles’ extant plays is Ajax.  Ajax has a falling out with the leaders of the Greek expedition against Troy and determines to slaughter Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Menelaus–the worst offenders in depriving Ajax of Achilles’ armor.  However, he is bewitched by Athena into thinking some livestock are these leaders and their men.  So, Ajax slaughters and tortures the animals thinking that they are his rivals.  When he realizes what he has done, his shame is so great that he commits suicide despite all the pleas from his wife and attendants.

Still, Ajax can hardly be counted as innocent as Oedipus; but, like Oedipus, he can with reason place the blame for his fall on a god.  (Apollo, in Oedipus’ case.)  But, only in Ajax does a god feature as a character.  And, Ajax (450-430 B.C.) perhaps counts as the earliest play of Sophocles.  Despite the fact of a prophecy warning of Oedipus killing his father and marrying his mother, the instruments of the fulfillment of this prophecy are all human–particularly the Shepherd, who saves Oedipus’ life as a baby, gives him to a foreigner to raise, and stays silent when he is married to Jocasta.  And, in Sophocles’ play, we are never completely sure about the first half of the prophecy: was Laius indeed killed by Oedipus or by brigands?  Oedipus accuses himself, but no one ever confirms it in the same way that the Shepherd confirms Oedipus as Jocasta’s son.

Antigone, the daughter of blind Oedipus, leading him during his exile.

In living and writing, Sophocles learned that hubris indeed causes ruin, but there is no necessity for the gods to make one crazy: people do that to themselves.  This counts as one of the most interesting evolutions of thought in Sophocles’ plays.  And, for us moderns, the important thing to take away is that God tends to be more responsible for liberating people from pride than punishing them for this failing.

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