The Religious and Moral Ideas of Sophocles

The Religious and Moral Ideas of Sophocles

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Home Lecture Books The Religious Teachers of Greece

Lecture 8: Sophocles

All that we know of the life and character of Sophocles is in keeping with the spirit of his Muse. In a comedy produced just after he had died, a contemporary poet thus writes his epitaph: “Happy was Sophocles. He died after a long life, blest by the gods and skilful in his art, having composed many beautiful tragedies. He suffered no evil, and his end was peace.” 1 Aristophanes, in a well-known line, describes him as “cheerful in Hades’ kingdom as on earth.” 2 According to the life of Sophocles, the charm of his character was such that all men everywhere loved him, and he was dear to the Gods beyond all other men—θϵοϕιλής, ὡς οὐκ ἄλλος. 3 “It was his temperament,” says Sir Richard Jebb, “to look around him for elements of conciliation, to evoke gentle and mediating influences, rather than to make war on the forces which he regarded as sinister:—it might be said of him, as of a person in one of his own plays, οὔτοι συνϵ́χθϵιν, ἀλλὰ συμϕιλϵι̑νἔϕυ.” 4

I have said in a former lecture that of all the great Greek poets, Sophocles is, perhaps, the most religious. In ordinary Greek ethics, as we have often seen, the most fundamental concept is that of moderation or self-control (σωϕροσύνη. With Sophocles it is rather piety (ϵὐσϵ́βϵια). As Dronke has observed, he gives a higher consecration to human virtue by connecting it with religion, the source and fountain from which, as be believes, all virtue springs. 5 It is the duty of reverence (ϵὐσϵβϵι̑ν τὰ πρὸς θϵούς) which the deified Heracles declares to be supreme above all other duties.

“Revere The gods: all things my father Zeus to this Counts second. Piety dies not with men; But, whether they live or die, yet it endures.” 6

Let us endeavour, if possible, to discover those elements in the drama of Sophocles to which its distinctively religious character would seem to be due.

We note at the outset that Sophocles is not disposed to reject the orthodox representations of the divine nature. He is in no sense of the term an iconoclast, like Euripides; nor does he definitely break with any of those conceptions of the Godhead which, however unworthy they might be, had still a sanction in the religious consciousness of his age and nation. Once or twice he seems to criticise them, but that is all. 7 In Sophocles, the omnipotent Gods are still the givers of evil as well as of good: 8 he does not ascribe to them moral purity, any more than Aeschylus or Pindar; 9 and he is not concerned to deny the truth of the old adage that the Gods make evil seem good to one whom they are minded to destroy. 10 It is in harmony with the whole attitude of Sophocles that he allows these and similarly crude ideas to maintain their position by the side of purer and more enlightened views, without, as a rule, attempting to refine or spiritualise them into something higher. These conceptions formed part of the national religion, from which he had no desire to cut himself adrift; and he does not scruple to employ them throughout his dramas. It is another question whether Sophocles himself really believed in all the lower elements of the traditional theology. Such a question would have to be considered in the light of his religious teaching as a whole, and the answer would probably be in the negative. But however this may be, for the truly characteristic and essential features of Sophocles’ religion we must look elsewhere.

One of the most noteworthy and fundamental of the religious ideas to be found in Sophocles is that of an immutable moral order or law, the origin and sanction of which are alike divine. The clearest affirmation of this doctrine is in a chorus of the Oedipus the King, thus translated by Professor Jebb: “May destiny still find me winning the praise of reverent purity in all words and deeds sanctioned by those laws of range sublime called into life throughout the high clear heaven, whose father is Olympus alone; their parent was no race of mortal men, no, nor shall oblivion ever lay them to sleep; the god is mighty in them, and he grows not old (μϵ́γας ϵ̓ν τούτοις θϵός, οὐδϵ̀ γηράσκϵι). 11

These divinely-appointed principles are represented by Sophocles as of prior obligation to every human law; and he has illustrated and enforced their paramount claims on our allegiance in what is perhaps the most beautiful and affecting of all his plays, the Antigone. The whole action of that drama turns upon the idea of a conflict between the law of God and the law of man. The rival principles come into the sharpest possible collision, with tragic consequences to the chief actors on both sides; but the poet leaves us in no doubt as to the path where Duty points. In a notable passage of his Confessions, St. Augustine declares that “when God directs anything to be done against the law or compact of any State, even if it has never been done there, it is to be done; if it were discontinued, it is to be resumed; if it had never been ordered, it is to be ordered.” 12 The play of Sophocles is an excellent illustration of this remark. On the one side stands Antigone, the champion of those unwritten laws whose origin is from on high; on the other side, Creon, representing the principle on which the stability of civic life depends, that of subordination to authority, and unquestioning obedience to the laws and ordinances of the State. Antigone does not deny that in sprinkling a handful of dust upon the body of her brother she had knowingly and deliberately transgressed against the royal edict; but she justifies herself on the ground that otherwise she must have disobeyed the higher law ordained by Zeus himself.

“Nowise from Zeus, methought, this edict came, Nor Justice, that abides among the gods In Hades, who ordained these laws for men. Nor did I deem thine edicts of such force That they, a mortal’s bidding, should o’erride Unwritten laws, eternal in the heavens. Not of to-day or yesterday are these, But live from everlasting, and from whence They sprang, none knoweth.” 13

The subsequent course of the drama makes it certain that Antigone here expresses the poet’s own belief, and not merely a sentiment in keeping with the situation in which she is placed. It has frequently, indeed, been thought that Sophocles did not intend to represent Antigone as altogether in the right. The authority of civic law deserves recognition as well as the higher principle of obedience to the law of God; so that the doom which overtakes Antigone might seem to be a vindication of the lower, as the punishment of Creon is a vindication of the higher law. 14 But as we shall afterwards see, the Aeschylean doctrine that suffering necessarily presupposes guilt is no longer held by Sophocles; and Sir Richard Jebb has made it clear that Antigone would have been pronounced guiltless, both by the poet himself and by his audience. It is true that the Chorus of Theban elders, although they disapprove the edict of Creon, are at first disposed to censure Antigone for having disobeyed it.

“To furthest brink of boldness thou didst stray, And stumbling there, at foot of Justice’ throne, Full heavily, my daughter, hast thou fallen. Religion prompts the reverent deed: But power, to whomso power belongs, Must nowise be transgressed; and thee A self-willed temper hath o’erthrown.” 15

But the attitude of the Chorus undergoes a complete transformation in the course of the play; and it is their later, not their earlier view, which we must take to represent the poet’s own judgment of his heroine. 16 The Athenian spectators would have agreed with the poet. For, on the one hand, Creon would seem to them an unconstitutional ruler or tyrant, with no real claim on the obedience of his subjects; and, on the other hand, they would feel that Antigone was “fulfilling one of the most sacred and the most imperative duties known to Greek religion.” 17 To leave the dead unburied was to inflict dishonour not only on them, but also on the Gods. 18 We may be sure, I think, that when Antigone claims to be “sinless in her crime,”—ὅσια πανουργήσασα, 19 —she is expressing what every spectator, as well as the poet himself, believed to be true.

It would accordingly seem that in the view of Sophocles there is a law eternal in the heavens, beyond and above all transitory human laws. He affirms the right and even the duty of the individual conscience to rebel against the law of the State, whenever they come into deadly conflict with each other. We must obey God rather than man. This is just the principle for which Socrates died. 20 It should also be observed that what the poet calls the eternal ordinance of Zeus, becomes in philosophy the ordinance of Nature. “There exists,” says Aristotle, “a natural and universal right and wrong, even where men have made no compact or bargain among themselves, and this natural right is instinctively apprehended by all” (ὃ μαντϵύονταί τι πάντϵς) “This,” he adds, “is what the Antigone of Sophocles appears to mean, when she declares that it is right to bury Polyneices in spite of the prohibition: she means that it is right by nature; for the law in question is “not of to-day or yesterday, but from all time; and when it was first revealed none knoweth.’” 21 You will see from this passage that the Sophoclean doctrine of a divinely-appointed law, appealing directly to the individual conscience and of higher authority than the decrees of any particular community or State, belongs to a type of thought which has played a great part in subsequent theology. It is, in fact, the basis of what is called “natural religion,” for it involves the idea of a revelation written by God or Nature in the heart of man. 22

The peculiarly religious character of the drama of Sophocles will appear, I think, from the view he takes of the place of suffering in human life. We have seen that Aeschylus invariably represented suffering as due to sin, thereby saving, in the words of a distinguished critic, “the justice of God at the expense of facts.” 23 With Sophocles a more reasonable attitude prevails. He recognises, of course, like all the poets, that sin is one of the most frequent and fertile sources of calamity. Thus it is the presumptuous pride and self-confidence of Ajax that brings about his downfall. “Others may triumph with the help of Gods; as for me,” cries Ajax, “I am strong enough to stand alone.” 24 Athena points the moral to Odysseus in these words:

“So having eyes to see, keep thou thy lips, And of the gods speak never a boastful word; And show no swelling port, because thy hand Is heavier than another’s, or than his Deeper the soundings of thy hoarded gold. For a day lays low, and a day restores All human things: and humbleness the gods Love, but all evil-doers they abhor.” 25

In like manner the doom that falls upon Creon and his household in the Antigone is the immediate consequence of his sin against the unwritten laws of Heaven. But at other times the poet makes it clear that the most grievous sufferings are compatible with the innocence of the victim. Antigone, as we have seen, is wholly innocent. An even more striking example is furnished by the story of Deianeira, perhaps the most touching and pathetic figure in the whole of Greek drama. The destruction in which she involves both Heracles and herself does not result from loyalty to a divinely-established law, as in the case of Antigone. The motive which impels Deianeira is something tenderer and more human—the desire to reclaim the love of a faithless husband; but none the less does Sophocles acquit her of blame. “῞Απαν τὸ χρη̑μ̕˙ ἥμαρτϵ χρηστὰ μωμϵ́νη: “This is the sum: she erred, intending well”— 26 so Hyllus pleads, and so, we may be sure, the dramatist himself believed. In one of the fragments we read, “No one who sins unwillingly is evil” (ἄκων δ̕ ἁμαρτὼν οὔτις ἀνθρώπων κακός). 27 The involuntary error as well as the deliberate transgression is sometimes fraught with far-reaching consequences of suffering and woe; but for these consequences the agent is not, in the view of Sophocles, to be held morally responsible. The same lesson may be learnt from the history of Oedipus as dramatised by the poet in Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. Some have supposed that Sophocles intended to represent Oedipus as having contracted a moral as well as a ceremonial stain through the terrible deeds which he committed; but Dronke has succeeded, I think, in proving that the poet had no such purpose. 28 The self-reproaches of the hero at the close of Oedipus the King, and the cruel penalty which he inflicts upon himself, do not justify us in attributing to him moral guilt: they rather bear witness to his piety, indicative as they are of the horror which a religious nature would feel at having been the unconscious instrument of such unholy acts. But it is to the Oedipus at Colonus that we must look for a full solution of this question. In that play, Oedipus is now finally assured of his innocence in the eyes of Heaven. He is a man more sinned against than sinning—τά γ̕ ἔργα μου ἔ πϵπονθότ̕ ϵ̓στὶ μα̑λλον ἢ δϵδρακότα: 29 nay more, as Sir Richard Jebb remarks, “he has come to look upon himself as a person set apart by the Gods to illustrate their will,—as sacred.” 30 It is in this aspect that Sophocles represents him throughout the greater part of the play, and more particularly in the scene when he makes his mysterious departure from the world.

“On the silence fell A voice of one who summoned, and its sound Stiffened with sudden fear the hair of all Who heard: for the god called, and called again, ‘Oedipus, Oedipus, why tarriest thou With these so long? ‘tis time that we were gone.’ But by what manner of death died Oedipus, No man can tell, but Theseus, be alone.

For it was not any firebolt, swift from heaven, Despatched him, no, nor a whirlwind from the sea Rose in a minute and caught him from our sight; But either the gods took him, or the earth Was kind, and opened for him her cavernous jaws. For nowise lamentably he passed, nor slain By sickness, pitiably—a marvel, how—Whose like was never.” 31

We may therefore conclude that suffering did not to Sophocles of necessity imply the presence of sin. But it is obvious that this brings us face to face with a new difficulty. How is one to reconcile the justice of the Gods with the calamities which they sometimes permit to fall upon the innocent? That the problem sometimes exercised the mind of Sophocles, we cannot but believe; and we have all the more reason for thinking that it did, because Sophocles is not less convinced than Aeschylus that Justice sits by the throne of God. 32 Even when there is no more help in man, the thought that God is just and will yet avenge the righteous inspires new hope and courage, as when the Chorus comfort Electra with these words—θάρσϵι μοι, θάρσϵι, τϵ́κνον ἔτι μϵ́γας οὐρανῳ̑ ἔ Ζϵύς, ὃς ϵ̓ϕορᾳ̑ πάντα καὶ κρατύνϵι: 33 “Courage, my child, courage: great Zeus still reigns in heaven, who sees and governs all.” What are we to say, then, about the sufferings of the innocent? Does the drama of Sophocles suggest any explanation of undeserved calamity?

We have seen that in Aeschylus suffering is sometimes regarded as a discipline. “We learn by suffering”: πάθος μάθος. In like manner, Oedipus claims to have been taught by suffering and time; 34 and in spite of the scene in which he spurns his suppliant son, 35 we feel that Oedipus at Colonus is a different being from Oedipus at Thebes. If not softened, he is at least chastened and enlightened. 36 “Much is revealed to the soul that is cradled in calamity.” 37 The Theseus of the Oedipus at Colonus has been called “the one perfect character” in Sophocles, “the ideal for all time of the perfect gentleman, a companion portrait to Shakespeare’s Henry v, but of infinitely finer temper”: 38 and it is in the school of adversity that he has learnt the lesson of charity and human kindness. 39 At other times a hope is expressed—it is no more than a hope—that the balance may be redressed hereafter. Antigone would fain believe that the Gods for whose unwritten laws she offers up her life will do her justice in another world. In Hades, perhaps, her deed is accounted holy; and longer is the time she must please the Gods below than the Gods on earth. 40

“But a good hope I cherish, that, come there, My father’s love will greet me, yea and thine, My mother—and thy welcome, brother dear: Since, when ye died, I with mine own hands laved And dressed your limbs, and poured upon your graves Libations; and like service done to thee Hath brought me, Polyneices, now to this.” 41

But for the most part—and it is here that the essentially religious spirit of his drama is best seen—Sophocles seems to invite us to lift our eyes from the suffering of the individual to a consideration of the ulterior purpose which Providence is thereby seeking to fulfil. As the action of the Trachiniae unfolds itself, we are led to see that Deianeira’s involuntary error, with all its tragic consequences, was the appointed means by which Heracles should be delivered from a life of toil, and attain to immortality, in accordance with the will of Zeus. 42 The long martyrdom of Philoctetes is represented as foreordained by the Gods, in order that Troy might not fall before due time: it subserves the larger purposes of the divine administration. Neoptolemus sees the hand of Providence throughout. “By heavenly ordinance, if such as I may judge, those first sufferings came on him from relentless Chrysè; and the woes that now he bears, with none to tend him, surely he bears by the providence of some god, that so he should not bend against Troy the resistless shafts divine, till the time be fulfilled when, as men say, Troy is fated by those shafts to fall.” 43 And at the close of the play, when Philoctetes is about to embark for home, leaving his high destiny unfulfilled, the now deified Heracles appears from heaven to warn him that, by the counsel of Zeus, he is the instrument ordained for the overthrowal of Troy. The sufferings he has endured will serve but to enhance his future glory:

“Yea, and know well, this debt is thine to pay, Through suffering to make glorious thy life.” 44

The position of Sophocles with regard to the place of suffering in human life is to a certain extent anticipated, I think, by Heraclitus. According to the Heraclitean view, “God accomplishes all things for the harmony of the whole.” “Men,” Heraclitus says, “deem some things right and others wrong; but to God all things are beautiful and good and right.” 45 I do not, of course, suggest that Sophocles borrowed the idea from Heraclitus: it is an idea to which many religious thinkers have independently attained. I merely say that the Heraclitean fragment seems already to express what Sophocles teaches about the providential government of the world. Since Matthew Arnold wrote his sonnet, it has been a commonplace to say of the Athenian dramatist that he “saw life steadily, and saw it whole.” Sophocles would have approved, I think, of the lines of Browning:

“For, what we call this life of men on earth, This sequence of the soul’s achievements here, Being, as I find much reason to conceive, Intended to be viewed eventually As a great whole, not analysed to parts, But each part having reference to all,—How shall a certain part, pronounced complete, Endure effacement by another part?” 46

But it is not only the life of the individual that the poet thus regards. He seems to have extended his outlook to the whole movement of human destiny, and to have seen therein the fulfilment of a single harmonious purpose, which is none other than the will of Zeus. Heraclitus, as will afterwards be pointed out, maintains that the harmony of the universe not only permits, but is actually founded in, discord. Sophocles would certainly have stopped short of so extreme a view; but at the same time he seems to recognise that the universal harmony is not incompatible with partial dissonances, and among these, apparently, we are to reckon the calamities that sometimes overtake the innocent. None the less he would have said, I think, that if only we could see things from the universal point of view—sub specie aeternitatis, as it were—we should perceive that even these dissonances promote the harmony of God. “Undeserved suffering,” says Professor Butcher, “while it is exhibited in Sophocles under various lights, always appears as part of the permitted evil which is a condition of a just and harmoniously ordered universe.” 47

A further question naturally suggests itself in connexion with Sophocles’ belief in a single all-embracing plan or purpose according to which the world is ruled. If there is a unity of purpose, must there not also be a unity of power? In more than one of the early Christian apologists, we meet with a fragment, attributed to Sophocles, in which the unity of God is emphatically affirmed. “There is in truth but one God, who fashioned the heavens and the great earth and the sea’s dark gulf and the mighty winds. But in the error of our hearts we mortal men have often set up in solace of our woes statues of Gods in stone or wood, or images fashioned in gold or ivory; and we deem ourselves pious when we offer sacrifices to them, and in their honour hold unmeaning festivals.” 48 But this fragment has long been recognised as spurious. It is of a piece with another fragment ascribed to Sophocles by Justin Martyr, embodying the Stoic and Christian idea of the dissolution of the world by fire. 49 Each of these two passages belongs, in all probability, to the not inconsiderable number of forgeries made about this period with the object of establishing the favourite patristic notion that Greek philosophy and poetry prepared the way for the Gospel. More recently, and with more reason, it has been contended that the polytheism of Sophocles was “if not nominally, at least practically monotheism.” In the Essay on “Sophocles and Shakespeare,” to which I have already referred, Mr. Churton Collins remarks: “What concerns us is that the poet has sublimated him” (i.e. Zeus) “into the Father of Law—the eternal, immutable upholder of Justice and Righteousness and Purity, with Apollo Pythius for his prophet—with all other deities as his symbolized functions or his symbolized ministers; that he has become πάνταρχος θϵω̑ν, πανόπτας—the All-ruling Lord of Heaven, the all-seeing One, King of kings and Lord of lords, Aristotle’s τὸ θϵι̑ον πϵριϵ́χον τὴν ὅλην φύσιν—the Divine Power containing the whole of nature. Thus ‘the Gods’ and ‘God’ become synonymous: thus the polytheism of Sophocles becomes, if not nominally, at least practically monotheism.” 50 A kind of “preparation” for monotheism has also been found in the variety of epithets which the poet applies to Zeus, such as ϵ̔ρκϵι̑ος “God of the homestead,” ἱκϵ́σιος “protector of suppliants,” τροπαι̑ος “stayer of the fight,” and so on, all of them significant of particular aspects of the one Supreme Being, or of particular relations between him and mankind. But in this usage there is nothing peculiarly Sophoclean; and the point rather is whether the Gods (other than Zeus) of whom the poet speaks—and all the most important members of the Homeric Pantheon appear in Sophocles—are only “symbolized functions” or “ministers” of Zeus and nothing more. To me it seems that, with the exception, perhaps, of Aphrodite, whom Sophocles in one of the most remarkable of his fragments, 51 appears to rationalise into the principle of passion pervading the whole of nature like the Aeneadum genetrix of Lucretius, the Sophoclean Gods are still conceived as personal beings, with special characteristics of their own, in addition to those which belong to the Godhead as such. The one essential difference between the polytheism of Homer and the polytheism of Sophocles is that in Sophocles there is no longer any conflict of wills in the celestial hierarchy: the authority of Zeus is not only supreme, but unquestioned. To this extent, no doubt, the theology of Sophocles points towards monotheism, and monotheism is perhaps its logical result; for “where there is no discord, plurality is a form of unity.” But we must still believe that Apollo, Athena, and the rest were believed by the poet to be distinct and separate individualities, unless we are to suppose him capable of the kind of conscious allegorisation which was afterwards practised by the Stoics.

Writers on Sophocles have sometimes laid stress on the distinctively spiritual character of his religious sentiment, 52 as compared with that of earlier Greek poetry. True religion, he seems to suggest, does not consist in outward deeds, but in purity and loyalty of soul. It is the ψυχὴ ϵὔνους—the loyal heart—which is acceptable to the Gods. The most noteworthy expression of this sentiment is when Oedipus asks one of his two daughters to make an offering on his behalf to the Eumenides, at whose shrine he is about to lay down the burden of his life. “I cannot go; for I am disabled by lack of strength and lack of sight, evils twain. But let one of you two go and do these things. For I think that one soul suffices to pay this debt for ten thousand, if it come with good will to the shrine”—ἢν ϵὔνους παρῃ̑. 53 The touching and beautiful phrase, ἀντὶ μυρίων μίαν ψυχήν, “one soul in place of ten thousand,” from its resemblance to the Christian λύτρον ἀντὶ πολλω̑ν, “a ransom for many,” 54 has frequently been cited as a testimonium animae naturaliter Christianae.

No intelligent reader of Sophocles can fail to be struck with at least one obvious contrast between him and his great predecessor—I mean the note of sympathy for human weakness that makes itself heard throughout his poetry. “All men,” says Teiresias, “are prone to error”—ἀνθρώποισι γὰρ ′τοι̑ς πα̑σι κοινόν ἐστι τοὐξαμαρτάνϵιν: “but when an error has been made, that man is no longer ill-advised or unblest, who tries to heal the evil into which he has fallen, and remains not immovable.” 55

The duty of forgiveness, like all other duties, has a religious sanction: for Mercy as well as Justice sits by the throne of Zeus. I have already pointed out 56 that the example set by the Gods is rarely appealed to by Greek moralists before Plato, with whom “assimilation to God” becomes for the first time the ethical end. There is, however, a touching instance in the Oedipus at Colonus. “But forasmuch as Zeus himself in all his works hath Mercy for the partner of his throne, shall she not also find a place by thee, my father?” 57 For a Christian parallel, we have the exhortation of St. Paul: “Be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, even as God also in Christ forgave you.” 58

The sufferings as well as the sins of human life move Sophocles to pity. The melancholy of Sophocles is different, I think, from that of other Greek writers, though it clothes itself in similar language: it is quieter and more subdued, more like the pathos of Virgil, a poet with whom in other respects Sophocles has much in common. “Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.” Man is but a breath, a shadow—πνϵυ̑μα καὶ σκιὰ μόνον. 59 Only the Gods are free from trouble: 60

“To all men sorrow and joy alternate come, Revolving, as in heaven The twisting courses of the Bear.” 61

In more than one passage the poet cites the old Greek proverb, “Call no man happy till he dies.” 62 The climax is reached in a chorus of the Oedipus at Colonus:

“Not to be born is past disputing best: And, after this, his lot transcends, Who, seen on earth for briefest while, Thither returns from whence he came.” 63

But against these sombre reflections, the last of which is wrung from the Chorus by the spectacle of Oedipus still buffeted by fortune, should be placed the hymn to man in the Antigone, the larger part of which is a song of triumph celebrating man’s conquest of reluctant nature. ἄπορος ϵ̓π̕ οὐδϵ̀ν ′ρχϵται ′τὸ μϵ́λλον: “resourceless he ne’er faces what must come”: against Death alone he fights in vain. 64 The melancholy of Euripides sometimes sinks into despair; but in Sophocles the sentiment is chastened and subdue by faith in the Providence that shapes our lives. Even in the darkest hour, the consciousness that God still reigns is never far away: ἕτι μϵ́γας οὐρανῳ̑ Ζϵύς “Set thine eyes upon the Gods, and should they bid thee travel beyond the right (ξω δίκης), thither thou must go: for nought to which the Gods lead is base (αἰσχρὸν γὰρ οὐδϵ̀ν ὡ̑ν ὑφηγου̑νται θϵοί).” 65

Finally, we have to consider the attitude of Sophoclean drama on the question of immortality. This is a subject on which very different views have been maintained by different scholars. According to Dronke, immortality is the natural crown and coping-stone of the religion of Sophocles, and we are therefore bound to attribute the belief to him. 66 Mr. Churton Collins, on the other hand, declares that in Sophocles, as in Shakespeare, “it is quite impossible to say on which side the balance of probability really inclines,” 67 whether for or against the view that he believed in immortality.

If we examine the passages in which Sophocles makes allusion to death and its sequel, we shall find, I think, that they fall into three classes. In the first, death is spoken of in the usual conventional way as ὁ αἰϵ́νυπνος, ὁ παγκοίτας, “the giver of eternal sleep,” “the God who gives sleep to all.” 68 It is needless to say that no inference can legitimately be drawn from these and similar epithets. The second group of passages describe what is virtually the Homeric Hades. The land of the dead, like Homer’s Erebos, lies far in the west, 69 or beneath the ground, 70 a night-enshrouded kingdom 71 under the rule of Hades and his bride Persephone. 72 Other Epic features are the lake of Acheron, 73 and Cerberus, the untameable watch-dog of Hades, lying crouched before the gates of the Stygian halls. 74 To this land Hermes in his capacity of ψυχοπομπός 75 conducts the shades. Sophocles is still on Homeric ground when he describes the tortures of Ixion, 76 and when he attributes to the prophet Amphiaraus a more substantial existence than the other shades enjoy. 77 To the third category we may assign those passages which carry us beyond the Homeric conception of futurity. Of these by far the most remarkable is where Antigone expresses the hope that her kinsmen will receive her with loving welcome in the other world:

“But a good hope I cherish, that, come there, My father’s love will greet me, yea and thine, My mother—and thy welcome, brother dear.” 78

Nowhere else, I think, in speaking of the future life, does the poet strike so individual and personal a note. To the rest of his utterances on the subject, parallels can always be found in earlier Greek poetry. It is repeatedly implied in the Electra that the spirits of the departed retain, as Plato might say, both δύναμις and φρόνησις, power to affect the fortunes of the living, and intelligence to understand the prayers and invocations addressed to them by their descendants. 79 This is no more than we constantly find in the Oresteia of Aeschylus; and Pindar has anticipated the fragment referring to the mysteries:

“Of mortal men Thrice blessed they, who, having seen these rites, Pass to the realm of Hades: they alone Live yonder; with the rest all evil dwells.” 80

The mysteries alluded to are, of course, the Eleusinian, and not those unauthorised and unofficial mysteries which were associated with the name of Orpheus. Here, as elsewhere, if we except the fragment that speaks of a judgment after death, 81 Sophocles keeps his drama pure from Orphic and Pythagorean elements. There is, I think, no certain allusion in his plays or fragments to the familiar features of Orphic ethics and eschatology—the entombment of the soul in the body, metempsychosis and the circle of births, together with purgatorial punishment in the intervening state.

These, then, are the most characteristic and important references to a future state in Sophoclean drama. If we have regard to the nature and conditions of dramatic poetry, we shall be slow to attribute to Sophocles a sure belief in immortality on the strength of isolated passages of this kind. Nor do I think it can be said that such a doctrine is necessarily involved in the dramatic action or in the dénouement of any of the plays. Dronke, indeed, maintains that the Sophoclean conception of Providence must of necessity have carried with it the belief in a future existence capable of redressing the inequalities and disproportions of this present life. 82 I do not think we need suppose that the poet developed his ideas with so much consistency; and in point of fact the notion of recompense hereafter is much less prominent in Sophocles than in Pindar. But the question what Sophocles himself believed on this subject is as irrelevant as it is impossible to answer. The relevant consideration here, as elsewhere, is that he gives expression in his poetry to certain ideas which have a value in themselves, whether they spring from any dogmatic creed or not. We can say, at all events, that the thought of immortality was often present to the mind of Sophocles, and that once, at least, in the speech of Antigone, it is clothed in a new and, as it would seem, characteristic form. Hardly less characteristic, perhaps, is the suggestion of immortality in the lines which more than any other single passage express the religious teaching of Sophoclean drama: “Remember that ye show piety to the Gods. All other things our father Zeus counts second to this: for piety dies not with men: whether they live or die, it endures for ever.”

οὐ γὰρ ηὑσϵ́βϵια συνθνῄσκϵι βροτοι̑ς˙ κἂν ζω̑σι κἂν θάνωσιν, οὐκ ἀπόλλυται. 83

  • 1.

    Phrynichus, Musae 1 Meineke.

  • 2.

    Frogs 82.

  • 3.

    39 ff. Dindorf.

  • 4.

    Preface to O. T. p. xxvii. Ant. 523, “’Tis not my nature to join in hating, but in loving” (Jebb).

  • 5.

    Die relig. u. sittlichen Vorstell, d. Aesck. u. Sophokles p. 66.

  • 6.

    Phil. 1441 ff., tr. Whitelaw. Cf. Ant. 1348 ff.; Aj. 127 ff.

  • 7.

    fr. 103 (if genuine); cf. Phil. 446 ff.

  • 8.

    Tr. 1266 ff.

  • 9.

    e.g. Tr. 500 f.; Ant. 944 ff.

  • 10.

    Ant. 621 ff.

  • 11.

    863 ff. Cf. El. 1093 ff.; Aj. 1130 f., 1343 f.

  • 12.

    Book iii. c. 8, § 2, tr. Bigg.

  • 13.

    Ant. 450 ff. Whitelaw.

  • 14.

    See, e.g., Mr. Churton Collins, Studies in Shakespeare p. 161.

  • 15.

    852 ff., 872 ff. Whitelaw.

  • 16.

    1091 ff., 1270, 1349 ff.

  • 17.

    Jebb p. xxv.

  • 18.

    Ant. 76 f. ; cf. Aj. 1129, 1343 f.

  • 19.

    74. See Jebb pp. xxii–xxvii.

  • 20.

    Plato, Ap. 37 E.

  • 21.

    Rhet. i. 13. 1373b 6 ff.,

  • 22.

    Cf. St. Paul, Rom. ii. 15, with Sanday and Headlam’s Commentary pp. 58–60.

  • 23.

    E. Abbott, Hellenica p. 65.

  • 24.

    Aj. 767 ff.

  • 25.

    Aj. 127 ff. Whitelaw.

  • 26.

    Tr. 1136.

  • 27.

    fr. 604.

  • 28.

    p. 72 ff. of the monograph cited on p. 1G4 n, 5 above.

  • 29.

    0. C. 266 f.

  • 30.

    p. xxi.

  • 31.

    1623 ff. Whitelaw.

  • 32.

    0. C. 1382; El. 1064; cf. O. T. 274; O. C. 278 ff., 1536 ff.; fr. 11.

  • 33.

    O.C. 7.

  • 34.

    1348 ff.

  • 35.

    Butcher, Aspects of the Greek Genius p. 128.

  • 36.

    fr. 600.

  • 37.

    Churton Collins, Studies in Shakespeare p. 167.

  • 38.

    O. C. 560 ff.

  • 39.

    Ant. 74 ff., 521.

  • 40.

    897 ff. Whitelaw.

  • 41.

    Tr. 1159 ff.; cf. 1270 (with Jebb’s note) and Phil. 1418 ff.

  • 42.

    Phil. 192 ff., tr. Jebb.

  • 43.

    1421 f., tr. Whitelaw,

  • 44.

    fr. 61 Bywater.

  • 45.

    Cleon.

  • 46.

    Aspects of the Greek Genius p. 127.

  • 47.

    fr. 1025 (reading, with Justin etc., τϵ καὶ ξύλων for ἢχαλκέων, and τϵύχοντϵς for στέφϕοντ ϵς).

  • 48.

    1027.

  • 49.

    Studies in Shakespeare p. 158.

  • 50.

    855. Some critics, however, assign this fragment to Euripides,

  • 51.

    Dronke, l.c. p. 85 ff.

  • 52.

    O. C. 495 ff., tr. Jebb. Ct. fr.97.

  • 53.

    Matt. xx. 28; Mark x. 45.

  • 54.

    Ant. 1023 ff.

  • 55.

    p, 65, above.

  • 56.

    1267 ff. Cf. Hom. Il. 9. 497

  • 57.

    Eph, iv. 32.

  • 58.

    fr. 12, 859. Cf. Aj. 125 f.

  • 59.

    fr. 860.

  • 60.

    Tr. 129 Whitelaw.

  • 61.

    Tr. 1 ff.; O. T. 1529 f.; fr. 588.

  • 62.

    1225 ff. Whitelaw.

  • 63.

    332 ff.

  • 64.

    fr. 226.

  • 65.

    l.c. p. 88 ff.

  • 66.

    Studies in Shakespeare p. 171.

  • 67.

    O. C. 1578; Ant. 804. Cf. Tr. 1173 and fr. 518.

  • 68.

    O. T. 177.

  • 69.

    O. C. 1563.

  • 70.

    Ant. 879. Hades as ἐ̓ννυχίωνἄναξ.

  • 71.

    O. C. 1559.

  • 72.

    El. 110; Ant. 893 f.

  • 73.

    El. 138; Ant. 812; fr. 480.

  • 74.

    O. C. 1568 ff.

  • 75.

    El. 111, 1395 f.

  • 76.

    Phil. 676 ff.

  • 77.

    El. 841, πάψυχος ἀνάσσϵι,

  • 78.

    Ant. 897 ff. Whitelaw.

  • 79.

    417 ff., 453, 459,482, 1066. Cf. O. C. 91 ff., 787 ff.; Ant. 65 f., 89; Tr. 1201 f. et al.

  • 80.

    fr. 753; cf. fr. 805, and above, p. 137 n. 1.

  • 81.

    703; cf. 480 (lamentation on the shores of Acheron).

  • 82.

    l.c. p. 88 ff.

  • 83.

    Phil. 1440 ff.

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Sophocle’s Politics

James Shearer

Throughout all of Sophocles plays we are able to see underlying connections to the role of politics in Ancient Athens. In all of Sophocles’ plays, Sophocles tries to emphasize the importance of a democracy rather than a dictatorship. He brings to light the idea that one person does not have the capacity to rule a country by itself. Through his plays, Sophocles tries to show that two minds are better than one; meaning that a democracy would probably make better decisions than a dictator. Sophocles wants to emphasize that a dictator makes decisions for the benefit of himself, usually; whereas, a democracy will usually make a decision for the benefit of the people.

In Antigone, there are political overtones when Creon declares that no one is allowed to mourn Polynices, Antigone’s brother. After Antigone defies this law, even though she is Creon’s niece, she is exiled for defying the law of the land. By making this statement, Sophocles wants to show that the king’s law rules the land, even more than blood. However, the point that Sophocles really wanted to emphasize was that the people are the true ruling force in Athens. When the city is said to be cursed by the Gods, all the people want Creon to free Antigone to save the city. Creon is forced to go against his own declaration to save the city. Even though Creon is the deciding power, the people can influence his decisions for the well-being of the city. This adheres to one of Sophocles main themes that the welfare of the city is above any one person, including the king.

A statue of Sophocles from the
Beazley Archives

In Sophocles Oedipus the King, he is trying to show again that the welfare of the state supercedes any one individual. Oedipus shows that he is a fair and just ruler when he states, “But my spirit grieves for the city, for myself and all of you to learn what I might do or say to save our city” (75-84). Even though Oedipus was a fair and great ruler, revealing the true identity of his past is what will save the city. Once Oedipus realizes he is the plague upon the city, he accepts his own declaration and forces Creon to drive him from the city. Sophocles wants to show that even the greatest rulers have done horrible things in the past that will come back to haunt them. One little mistake can be the demise of any man and that is why no one man should be the loner ruler of any country.

In Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles tries to show that keeping a promise is just as important as being just. By keeping his promise to protect Oedipus, Theseus is able to save his city from the destruction of the gods. This again shows that Sophocles is showing that the whole city is more important than one person. Also, in this play Sophocles tries to show that war is not the answer. Oedipus states, “Oh dear friend, give my children the binding pledge of your right hand, and children, give him yours. And swear that you will never forsake them, not if you can help it” (380). Sophocles is trying to show keep peace between Thebes and Colonus. He is trying to show that a democracy is less likely to start a war than one ruler because war does nothing for the people except kill them.

Oedipus as he hears his doomed fate from the oracle Corinth.

From looking at these points, it seems that Sophocles was really trying to state the importance of a democracy. I feel Sophocles understood that ruling a country is a very hard task for only man to do by himself. He was trying to show people that one person can lose sight of what is really important and just far easier than an assembly or council. But how can a playwright really know the importance of having more than one person to
rule a country? Was Sophocles more of a philosopher than a playwright?

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Contrast of Beliefs in Sophocles´ Antigone

762 Words
Feb 16th, 2018
3 Pages

But, author Sophocles seems to portray this characteristic flawlessly in the play Antigone. In Antigone, King Creon decides Eteocles should have a proper burial while Polyneices should just be left to rot after these two brothers have a brutal fight and anyone who buries Polyneices should be punished. But, their sister Antigone opposes this and decides to go against Creon’s word and buries Polyneices. When Creon finds out he goes through an internal conflict trying to decide if he should punish his own niece or let the situation goes. The play has many tragedies that happen in a domino effect and change Creon’s view. In the play, Creon and Antigone often have contrasting viewpoints in certain beliefs and situations. With Creon being the Antagonist and Antigone being the protagonist, the two have clashing beliefs in. The main conflicting beliefs are in their views of laws, the burial of Polyneices, and conflicting personalities. By example, Creon and Antigone have conflicting viewpoints in their beliefs of laws. Antigone believes moral laws developed from gods while Creon believes in moral laws developed from him. Creon says, “It seems that prophets have made me their especial province, all my life long I have been a kind of butt for the dull arrows of doddering fortunetellers! No, Teiresias: If your birds – if the great eagles of God himself should carry him stinking bit by bit to heaven, I…

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