Monthly Archives: August 2017

3. Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and Antigone

“… The deepest trait of our earthly existence may be that the element of tragedy enters into the lives of us all, even the happiest of mortals.

“These two tragedies of Sophocles help us to understand this. Though one is the story of a king and the other the story of a princess, what befalls them could befall any of us. Oedipus and Antigone are each confronted with a choice between alternatives, neither of which can possibly turn out well. Yet they must choose. There is no escaping that. Nor, having chosen, can they escape the consequences of their choice.

“… This is the tragic element which, once we see it writ large in the tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone, we can detect in out own lives and in the lives of those around us.”

Thus Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff introduce their guide to Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and Antigone in the opening volume, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, of Encyclopedia Britannica’s ten-volume The Great Idea Program. They go on to give a biographical note on Sophocles, consider Oedipus the King as a play, quote from what Aristotle says about tragedy, consider Antigone as a tragedy, and discuss several (nine!) questions about the two plays and tragedy in general.

Here I’ll just give a biographical note on Sophocles, identify the choices that Oedipus and Antigone had to make and provide links to the text of the two plays on the Internet so that you can find out how they chose and what happened as a result, and give one of the quotations that Adler and Wolff make from Aristotle and one the questions they pose on tragedy.

The Life of Sophocles

Sophocles was born about 496 B.C. and died in 406 B.C. Thus his life coincided with the rise and fall of Athens, his being born a few years before the victory over the Persians at Marathon (490) and dying just before the end of the disastrous Peloponnesian War with Sparta (404). When only fifteen or sixteen he was chosen to lead the Boys’ Chorus in celebrating the decisive Greek sea victory over the Persians at Salamis. In 442 he served as one of the treasurers responsible for collecting tribute money from the subject states of the Athenian Empire. In 440 he was elected one of ten generals, and he served with Pericles (the greatest leader of the time) in an expedition to bring a wavering ally back into line. He went on embassies, and in 413 (when 83) was one of the ten commissioners chosen to manage the affairs of the city after a terrible defeat in Sicily.

The Sophoclean tragedies are the most decisive facts in Sophocles’s life. He spent his last 65 years writing plays to be performed at the Great Dionysia festivals held annually in Athens. As early as 468, when he was only 28, he defeated the great Aeschylus in the festival playwriting competition. In all he wrote 123 dramas for the festival, competing 32 times (usually each competitor presented four plays at a festival) and winning at least 18 times. Only seven of his plays survive.

Sophocles’s epitaph honours his learning and wisdom and calls him “the favourite of the Graces and the Muses.”

Oedipus the King

Oedipus the King opens with a conversation between Oedipus, king of Thebes, and the priest of Zeus about the suffering which Thebes is experiencing. While they are talking, Creon (the brother of Oedipus’s wife, Iocasta) arrives bringing an answer from Phoebus (Apollo, the Greek god of the sun) to Oedipus’s inquiry about what he can do to deliver Thebes. Here is what Creon tells Oedipus:

“Phoebus our lord bids us plainly to drive out a defiling thing, which (he saith) hath been harboured in this land, and not to harbour it, so that it cannot be healed.… “By banishing a man, or by bloodshed in quittance of bloodshed, since it is that blood which brings the tempest on our city.… “Laius, king, was lord of our land before thou wast pilot of this State.… “He was slain; and the god now bids us plainly to wreak vengeance on his murderers‒whoever they be.” (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, in volume 5 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 100)

Oedipus tells Creon and the priest that he would seek vengeance for the land and the god. He sends a messenger to bring the seer Teiresias to use seer-lore to discover who the slayers of Laius were. Reluctantly Teiresias tells him:

“I say that thou are the slayer of the man whose slayer thou seeks. “[Moreover] I say that thou hast been living in unguessed shame with thy nearest kin, and seest not to what woe thou hast come.” (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, page 102)

Oedipus rejects Teiresias’s claim. However on investigation he discovers not only that he was one of the men who killed Laius, not knowing who he was, but also that Laius and his wife (Iocasta, now Oedipus’s wife) were Oedipus’s real parents. Oedipus’s being married to his mother is what Teiresias was referring to when he told Oedipus, “Thou has been living in unguessed shame with thy nearest kin.”

To find out how this could have happened and what Oedipus did on realizing it, read the play at


Antigone opens with a conversation between the two daughters of Oedipus, Antigone and Ismene, about Creon’s having provided one of their brothers, Eteocles, with a proper burial but decreed that the other brother, Polyneices, should not be buried. Antigone tells Ismene that she plans to bury Polyneices.

After Antigone and Ismene exit, the chorus of Theban elders and Creon, dressed as a king, enter. From their speeches we learn that Eteocles and Polyneices had killed each other in battle and Creon had become the new ruler. Also Creon explains his edict regarding them

: “Eteoles, who has fallen fighting for our city, in all renown of arms, shall be entombed, and crowned with every rite that follows the noblest dead to their rest. But for his brother, Ployneices‒who came back from exile, and sought to consume utterly with fire the city of his fathers’ gods‒sought to taste of kindred blood, and to lead the remnant into slavery; touching this man, it hath been proclaimed to our people that none shall grace him with sepulchre or lament, but leave him unburied, a corpse for birds and dogs to eat, a ghastly sight of shame.” (Sophocles, Antigone, page 132)

Guards catch Antigone covering Polyneices with dust and bring her to Creon. She admits to him that she had done it despite knowing of the edict, defending herself thus:

“It was not Zeus that had published me that edict; not such are the laws set among men by the Justice who dwells with the gods below; nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven.… Die I must‒I knew that well (how should I not?‒even without thy edicts.… So for me to meet this doom is trifling grief; but if I had suffered my mother’s son to lie in death an unburied corpse, that would have grieved me; for this, I am not grieved.” (Sophocles, Antigone, page 135)

Creon affirms that Antigone will die for what she has done and, suspecting that Ismene had shared in plotting the burial, has her brought to him. Although Ismene had actually tried to dissuade Antigone from burying Polyneices, she tells Creon that she had done the deed and would share the punishment. Creon orders that Antigone and Ismene be confined while they await their being put to death.

Conversations follow between Creon and his son (Haemon), Antigone, and Teiresias (the blind prophet). Haemon, to whom Ismene is betrothed, tells Creon that the people of the city sympathize with Antigone and asks him to spare her (and Ismene); Creon refuses, and Haemon departs after telling Creon that he’ll never see Haemon again. Creon confirms to Antigone that she is going to be confined in a rocky vault until she dies. Teiresias tells Creon that the gods are displeased with his not allowing the corpse of Polyneices to be buried and that as a result a child of his will shortly become a corpse.

To find out what Creon does in response to Teiresias’s message and what else happens, read the play at


Adler and Wolff observe that Aristotle in On Poetics draws on Oedipus the King more than on any other play to illustrate his points. They quote this passage:

“We assume that, for the finest form of Tragedy, the Plot must be not simple but complex; and further, that it must imitate actions arousing fear and pity.… It follows, therefore, that there are three forms of Plot to be avoided. (1) A good man must not be seen passing from happiness to misery, or (2) a bad man from misery to happiness.… Nor, on the other hand, should (3) an extremely bad man be seen falling from happiness into misery, [Adler and Wolff also quote Aristotle’s explanation of how none of the three inspires pity or fear.] There remains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity; e.g., Oedipus … and the men of note of similar families.” (Aristotle, On Poetics, in volume 9 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 687)

Considering that according to Aristotle tragedy should arouse pity and fear in the spectators, Adler and Wolff ask why we enjoy seeing tragedies performed They answer:

“The answer must involve some considerations of the kinds of pleasure. It is clear, for instance, that enjoyment of comedy and enjoyment of tragedy are of different kinds. Perhaps it would not be wrong to say that the enjoyment of tragedy is more intellectual than other pleasures. It is certainly not a simple pleasure like a feeling of bodily well-being.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 34)

How would you answer the question?

1. Socrates in Plato’s Apology and Crito

“Plato’s report of the trial of Socrates and of his last days in prison vividly dramatizes for us one of the moving moments in the history of the human race. The charges brought against Socrates by the Athenians of his day typify the accusations which, in other countries and at other times, have been leveled against men who have been single-minded in their adherence to ideals that have set them apart from the society in which they lived.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, volume 1, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica: 1959, page 1)

Plato was a Greek philosopher who composed a number of dialogues in which an earlier philosopher, Socrates, discusses philosophical topics with various people. In this post I’ll consider two of those dialogues, the Apology on the trial of Socrates and the Crito on his last days in prison. In previous posts I’ve considered the first five of the ten books in Plato’s The Republic, in which he through Socrates discusses justice and the state..

I’ll base my consideration of the Apology and the Crito on Adler and Wolff’s study of them in The Great Ideas Program, the opening of which I quoted above. Their study is divided into three sections: the first on the relationship between Plato and Socrates and the background to Socrates’ trial and execution, the second on the picture that Socrates gives of himself in his defence, and the third on six specific questions about the Apology and the Crito. However I’ll substitute a sketch of the life of Socrates for their first section and include only the first four of the six questions they asked in their third section.

The Life of Socrates

Socrates was born about 470 B.C., the son of Sophroniscus, possibly a worker in stone, and Phaenarete, a midwife. His family couldn’t have been very poor because they were able to provide him with enough financial resources to serve as a fully-armed hoplite in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. However his later absorption in philosophy and his mission (see the next paragraph) made him neglect his private affairs and fall to a level of relative poverty. He probably loved philosophy more than his family, Xanthippe (whom he apparently married late in life) and their three sons.

The following description of Socrates’ mission is taken from The Columbia Encyclopedia (sixth edition, Columbia University Press, 2000):

“Socrates became convinced that his calling was to search for wisdom about right conduct by which he might guide the intellectual and moral improvement of the Athenians. Neglecting his own affairs, he spent his time discussing virtue, justice, and piety wherever his fellow citizens congregated.… In his self-appointed task as gadfly to the Athenians, Socrates made many enemies.” (page 2645)

In 399 Socrates was brought `to trial for neglecting the gods whom the city worshipped and for corrupting the young. He treated the charge with contempt and was convicted. The prosecutors asked for a penalty of death, and Socrates suggested a small fine. His claim to be a public benefactor incensed the court, and death was voted for by an increased majority. Because no execution could take place in the absence of the sacred ship sent yearly to Delos, Socrates was in prison for a month, receiving his friends daily, An escape was planned by those friends, but Socrates refused to take advantage of their kind offer on the grounds that such a course would be contrary to his principles.

Socrates’ Picture of Himself

Observing that “hardly anyone can read the account [of the trial] without feeling that a grave injustice was done,” Adler and Wolff suggest that “we may do well to examine how we ourselves would react to Socrates … if he were brought to trail in our time.” (The quotations are from Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, pages 4-5.)

Both in his defence and, after his being condemned, his response to the requirement that he suggest a penalty for himself, Socrates was uncompromising, asserting that he would never change but would continue his offensive ways.

“Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one whom I meet and saying to him after my manner: You, my friend,‒a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens,‒are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?”

“If I tell you that to do as you say [go into exile and hold my tongue] would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me. Yet I say what is true, although a thing of which it is hard to persuade you.” (Plato, Apology, in volume 7 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, pages 206 and 210 respectively)

Adler and Wolff comment:

“We may imagine, without considering the rightness of the doctrines involved, the effect such intransigence would have on a court or investigating committee in a ‘cold war’ situation where a Communist in a Capitalist country not only refused to recant but announced his determination to continue his ‘subversive’ activities; or, of course, the effect of such a position taken by a Capitalist in a Communist country.” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 5)

Questions about the Apology and the Crito

Should an unjust law be obeyed?

Adler and Wolff explain that by an “unjust law” they mean a law that commands some unjust action or prohibits some just action. A contemporary example would be a Christian minister’s being required to marry individuals of the same biological sex. Adler and Wolff ask:

“What is a conscientious citizen to do about laws he really believes to be unjust? Should he disobey them? Or are there reasons for obeying even an unjust law?” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 7)

What can be done when a law is unjustly applied?

Sometimes a just and good law is unjustly applied. Adler and Wolff cite the example of the Dreyfus case in France in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully convicted of treason and condemned to life imprisonment (eventually he was exonerated, Adler and Wolff ask:

“How, first of all, can [a citizen] be certain that a law has been justly applied? … When someone has been duly tried and been found guilty by a jury, we assume that justice has been done. But juries and judges are men and men are fallible.” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 7)

“There is a second problem. Suppose that there is … no doubt that the wrong man has been accused, what are we to do? Does the duty of the citizen demand obedience or disobedience?” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 8)

What are a citizen’s duties and responsibilities when a law is unjustly made?

A law may be just in content but imposed as a decree instead of by due legislative process. What should a citizen do?

Was Socrates justified in disobeying an explicit command, because it was unjust?

In the Apology, Socrates disobeyed a command:

“When the oligarchy of the Thirty was in power, they sent for me and four others into the rotunda, and bade us bring Leon the Salaminian from Salamis, as they wanted to put him to death. This was a specimen of the sort of commands which they were always giving with the view of implicating as many as possible in their crimes; and then I showed, not in word only but in deed, that … I cared not a straw for death, and that my great and only care was lest I should do an unrighteous or unholy thing. For the strong arm of that oppressive power did not frighten me into doing wrong; and when we came out of the rotunda the other four went to Salamis and fetched Leon, but I went quietly home. For which I might have lost my life, had not the power of the Thirty shortly afterwards come to an end.” (Socrates speaking in Plato, Apology, page 207)

Yet in the Crito, he refused to disobey the laws when Crito offered to help him escape from prison (and death). Adler and Wolff ask:

“Can we reconcile [Socrates’] support of the law in the Crito with his asserted intention, in the Apology, to obey God rather than his judges?” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 8)