Tag Archives: Great Ideas

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 http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/oedipus.html.


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 http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/antigone.html.


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?


How to Read a Book

While reorganizing my books recently, I reread Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book (New York: Simon Schuster, 1972) and, the author of its original version’s (Adler in 1940) being a co-author of The Great Ideas Program, decided to recommend it here.

The back cover of How to Read a Book describes its contents thus:

“You are told about the various levels of reading and how to achieve them‒from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. You are told how to pigeonhole a book, X-ray it, extract the author’s message, criticize. You are taught the different reading techniques for reading practical books, imaginative literature, plays, poetry, history, science and mathematics, philosophy and social science.
“Finally, the authors offer a recommended reading list [of works in Great Books of the Western World and Gateway to the Great Books] and supply reading tests [on works included in Great Books of the Western World] whereby you can measure your own progress in reading skills, comprehension and speed.”

Here I’ll just distinguish between the four levels of reading identified in How to Read a Book and summarize the steps the authors recommend taking in the third level of reading, analytical reading. I won’t consider approaches to the different kinds of reading matter identified above or duplicate the reading list and reading tests.

Adler and Van Doren call the first level of reading Elementary Reading because it is ordinarily learned in elementary school. It could also be called rudimentary reading, basic reading, or initial reading. It includes at least these four stages: reading readiness (acquired in pre-school and kindergarten experiences), learning to read very simple materials (typically acquired in first grade), a stage characterized by rapid progress in vocabulary building and increasing skill in “unlocking” the meaning of unfamiliar words through context skills (typically acquired by the end of fourth grade), and mature reading characterized by refinement and enhancement of the skills previously acquired (typically acquired by the end of elementary or junior high school). The question asked of the reader at this level of reading is “What does the sentence or paragraph say?” How to Read a Book devotes Chapter 3 to this level of reading.

Adler and Van Doren call the second level of reading Inspectional Reading. It could also be called skimming or pre-reading because it begins with systematically skimming or pre-reading the book, but it also includes a superficial reading of the book, a reading through it without stopping to look up or ponder what the reader doesn’t understand right away. Its aim is to get the most out of a book within a given time, usually a relatively short time and always too short a time to get everything out of a book that can be gotten. Questions typically asked at this level are “What is the book about?” and “What are its parts?” How to Read a Book devotes Chapter 4 to this level of reading.

Before proceeding to consideration of the next level of reading, Adler and Van Doren give some tips on becoming a demanding reader. They identify four questions a reader must ask about any book: What is the book about as a whole? What is being said in detail, and how? Is the book true, in whole or in part? and What of it? They suggest several ways a reader can mark a book to make it his or her own, such as underlining major points and important or forceful statements. They describe three kinds of the notes a reader will make in and about books‒structural in inspectional reading, conceptual in analytical reading, and dialetical in synoptical reading. And they encourage readers to form the habit of reading because “one learns to do by doing” (How to Read a Book, page 53). These tips constitute Chapter 5 of How to Read a Book.

Adler and Van Doren call the third level of reading Analytical Reading. They devote two or three chapters to each of the three stages of analytical reading identified by them, and they conclude their consideration of the level by summarizing the rules for analytical reading that they presented in those chapters:

The First Stage…Rules for Finding Out What a Book Is About
1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. [Chapter 6]
2. Select what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity. [Chapter 7]
3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole. [Chapter 7]
4. Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve. [Chapter 7]
The Second Stage…Rules for Interpreting a Book’s Contents
5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words. [Chapter 8]
6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions b dealing with his most important sentences. [Chapter 9]
7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences. [Chapter 9]
8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve. [Chapter 9]
The Third Stage…Rules for Criticizing a Book as a Communication of Knowledge
9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. [Chapter 10]
10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously. [Chapter 10]
11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make. [Chapter 11]
12-15. Show wherein the author is uninformed, misinformed, or illogical and wherein his analysis or account is incomplete. [Chapter 12]

The above rules concern reading a book in itself without reference to other books. However Adler and Van Doren recognize that sometimes reference to other books is necessary for full understanding of a book. Thus in Chapter 13 of How to Read a Book they discuss these aids to reading: relevant experiences, other books (especially the so-called great books), commentaries and abstracts, and reference books such as dictionaries and encyclopedias. They recommend “that outside help should be sought whenever a book remains unintelligible to you, either in whole or in part, after you have done your best to read it according to the rules of intrinsic reading” (How to Read a Book, page 169).

Adler and Van Doren identify the fourth level of reading as Synoptical Reading. Although it could also be called comparative reading because it involves reading many books and placing them in relation to each other and to a subject about which they all revolve, it involves more than mere comparison of texts, its also enabling the reader to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. Before doing a project of synoptical reading, the reader must know that more than one book is relevant to a particular question and know which books should be read, thus creating a bibliography. Then the reader should inspect (skim or pre-read) all the books in the bibliography, giving him or her a clear enough idea of his or subject to make analytical reading of some of the books worthwhile and allowing him or her to cut down the bibliography to a more manageable size. Adler and Van Doren identify and discuss five steps in synoptical reading: finding the relevant passages, bringing the authors to terms, get the questions clear, define the issues, and analyze the discussion. How to Read a Book devotes Chapter 20 to this level of reading.

Adler and Van Doren conclude the body of How to Read a Book by considering what good books can do for us.

“A good book [rewards] you for trying to read it. The best books reward you most. The reward, of course, is of two kinds. First, there is the improvement in your reading skill that occurs when you successfully tackle a good, difficult work. Second‒and this in the long run is much more important‒a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable‒books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.” (How to Read a Good Book, page 341)

That’s one of my reasons for rereading Great Books of the Western World, or at least those parts of it discussed in The Great Ideas Program. The other is to provide me with a foundation for sharing my love of good books with my family and friends through Bob’s Corner.

2. Aristotle’s Politics

“We live under a constitutional form of government. We are, as citizens, constituent members of the State and its ruling class. No man is our political superior: those who hold the offices of state are our representatives, chosen by our suffrage. We are thus free men and equals. In other countries, where the reign of constitutional law is unknown and no one is a citizen, the despotic power wielded by some men subjugates the rest.

“The blessings of political liberty and equality, which we so often take for granted, are the gift of two great inventions for which we are indebted to the ancient Greeks–constitutions and citizenship. In the whole history of political thought and action, there are no ideas more revolutionary than these. Aristotle’s Politics is the first full statement of the theory of these ideas. Its opening book repeatedly calls our attention to the fundamental difference in the condition of those who, on the one hand, live as slaves or as the subjects of despotic kings and those who, on the other hand, live as citizens under constitutional governments and who, therefore, are ‘free men and equals, ruling and being ruled in turn.’” (“Aristotle: Politics” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Woolf, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 47-48)

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who was born in the small Greek colonial town of Stagirus on the Aegean Sea near the Macedonian border in 384 B.C.; attended Plato’s Acedemy in Athens in 367-347; helped set up and taught in an academy in the newly-built town of Assus on the Asian side of the Aegean Sea in 347-44; moved to Mytilene, capital of the nearby island of Lesbos, where he studied natural history in 344-342; tutored Alexander (the Great) and studied/taught in Macedonia in 342-336; established and taught in a school in Athens called the Lycaeum in 336-23; and died in Chalcis (his mother’s hometown) in 322. Great Books of the Western World devotes two volumes to his writings, most of which represent lectures which he delivered at the Lycaeum.

In volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, The Development of Political Theory and Government, Adler and Woolf discuss Books III-IV of Aristotle’s Politics. In them Aristotle considers citizenship, the various forms of government, and the best state.

Aristotle opens his consideration of citizenship by asking, “Who is the citizen, and what is the meaning of the term?” (Politics in volume 9 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952, page 471). After considering various answers to the question, he defines a citizen as “he who has the power to take part in the deliberative or judicial administration of [the] state [which he is a citizen of]” page 472). In accordance with the custom in his day, his definition doesn’t include women and children (or slaves), but today they can be citizens. After defining who is a citizen, Aristotle considers the virtue of the citizen, concluding that “the good citizen … should know how to govern like a freeman, and to obey like a freeman” (page 474).

Aristotle begins his consideration of the forms of government by affirming that government (the supreme authority in a state) must be in the hands of one, a few, or the many and by distinguishing between true forms of government and their perversions, true forms of government being ones in which the rulers govern with a view to the common interest and their perversions being those forms of government in which rulers govern according to their private interests. He goes on to identify the three forms of true government as kingship or royalty, aristocracy, and a constitution and their perversions as tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy and then, because of difficulties about these forms of government, examines each of them at length.

Two things stood out to me in Aristotle’s consideration of the best state, his stressing the importance of a large middle class (neither very rich nor very poor) in having stable government and his recognizing that a particular form of government may be best for some people and another form for other people. Incidentally Aristotle devotes the last two of the eight Books in Politics to picturing the Ideal State and describing the educational system it should have.

Please feel free to ask me to elaborate anything that I’ve said above about Aristotle’s consideration of citizenship, the forms of government, and the best state in Books III-IV of his Politics.

See also my post on Book I of Politics, https://opentheism.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/aristotle/.

1. Plato’s The Republic

Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived in the city-state of Athens from 428/427 to 348/347 B.C. For several years he operated a school of higher education, called the Academy, in his home. He composed a number of dialogues in which an earlier philosopher, Socrates, discusses philosophical topics with various people. In The Republic they examine the nature of justice. Arguing that it would be easier to see justice in the state than in the individual because of the state’s larger size, Plato (through Socrates) considers the ideal state in Books II-V of its ten Books.

Plato begins his consideration of the state by stating that it exists to enable people to aid each other in providing for their needs and thus requires the presence of workers in different occupations–he identifies artisans, traders, retailers, and labourers as necessary in any state and various professionals as also present in a “luxurious State.” He goes on to observe that as a state’s population rises its territory may become insufficient, causing it to try to annex some of its neighbours’ territory, and thus it needs warriors as well as workers. Next he adds that it will also need rulers, which he argues should be chosen from the class of warriors. Initially Plato calls the warrior class “guardians,” but later he suggests applying that term only to rulers and designating warriors “auxiliaries.” He proposes that to ensure that the auxiliaries put the good of the state before themselves they have no private property or wives (and households) of their own. He argues that this will promote unity in the state, which he claims is the greatest good in the state.

My first reaction on reading Plato’s description of the ideal state was alienation at his proposing not allowing those in the military to have private property and wives and households of their own. Reading others’ comments on his proposal made me realize that I wasn’t the only one to have such a reaction. For example, in The Great Ideas Program Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff observe, “This writing has shocked some people by its proposal of … the possession of all things in common, including wives and children” (Volume 2: The Development of Political Theory and Government, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1959, page 1). They continue, “It has shocked others by its portrayal of an authoritarian, hierarchal state, with a ‘guardian’ elite, a philosopher-king, and a ‘royal lie’ [that God had framed the different classes] to keep the lower classes content…. It has also been considered a heavenly community … and its influence has come down the centuries to utopian communities in the United States … and to the communal settlements in modern Israel” (pages 1-2).

Incidentally here is what Plato concluded about justice. He identified four virtues in a state–wisdom, which he associated with the rulers or guardian class; courage, which he associated with the warriors or auxiliary class; temperance, which he associated with the working class; and justice, which he summed up as “when the trader, the auxiliary, and the guardian each do their business” (The Dialogues of Plato in volume 7 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952, page 350). Then he said that just as there are three classes in the state there are three principles in the individual–appetite, reason, and passion–and that in the same way as a state is just when each of the classes does its own business an individual is just when “the several qualities of his nature do their own work” (page 354).

See also my post on Books I-II of the Republic, https://opentheism.wordpress.com/2017/02/11/plato/.