Monday, June 8, 2015

"O you gods, you pure, blessed gods" Oedipus the faithful

It is a commonplace that the dramas of the ancient Greeks display an historical progression, away from society living under the thrall of the gods and toward a society of free-thinking men. An early shadow of the European Enlightenment, if you will. Sophocles, for example, is the playwright who demonstrates a hero openly defying the will of the gods. I have been reading Sophocles all weekend, and I am here to tell you that this defiance of the gods is not to be found within the text of Sophocles' plays.
But if a man conducts himself
disdainfully in what he says and does,
and manifests no fear of righteousness,
no reverence for the statues of the gods,
may miserable fate seize such a man
for his disastrous arrogance,
if he does not behave with justice
when he strives to benefit himself,
appropriates all things impiously,
and, like a fool, profanes the sacred.
What man is there who does such things
who can still claim he will ward off
the arrow of the gods aimed at his heart?
If such actions are considered worthy,
why should we dance to honour god?
Sophocles consistently states the goodness of the gods, openly shows his respectful attitude toward his religion and gives us characters who sincerely appeal to the gods for help, all of this without the least drop of irony. The people of the Theban plays are not shown to be misguided in seeking the aid of the gods, nor does anyone blame the gods for the fate of man. Sophocles was a fatalist, like all ancient Greeks, to be sure. The Enlightenment attempts to teach us moderns to not be fatalists, and so we read Sophocles as if he were an Enlightenment thinker, but he was not. The drama of Sophocles' plays is varied and centered on humans rather than gods, but that, I think, can be explained as a development of the art of dramatic writing and not a reflection of a grand social movement going on in Athens in the fifth century B.C.

In "Oedipus Rex," the drama is twofold:

1. A man who believes in his own superiority learns that upon close examination he is something he despises, and this knowledge is so great that he literally cannot look upon the sullied world he himself has inadvertently created in Thebes, so he blinds himself.

2. A man's tragic fate is foretold and made known to him, and so he goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid that fate, failing of course, because his fate is set. As Aeschylus says in "Prometheus Bound," fate is inescapable even for Zeus. The heroism of Oedipus is his striving to overcome his fate; the tragedy is that he will fail, like each of us.

Oedipus relies on and puts full faith in the oracles. He seeks the help of the gods, he invokes Zeus when he places a curse upon the murderer of Laius, and is in all ways a faithful servant of the gods, even as he is being driven to exile at the end of the play.
Will you then be making a request
on my behalf when I am so depraved?

I will. For even you must now trust in the gods.

Yes, I do.
In "Oedipus at Colonus," Oedipus is (as is the entire world of the play) even more reverent, making all due fuss at the sacred grove of the Eumenides, praying with a pure heart to Zeus, giving credence to the oracles, etc.
O pay not a lip service to the gods
And wrong them of their dues. Bethink ye well,
The eye of Heaven beholds the just of men,
And the unjust, nor ever in this world
Has one sole godless sinner found escape.
Stand then on Heaven's side
At the end of the play, Zeus himself calls out to Oedipus to come home, and Oedipus is carried to the underworld by the hands of the god himself. Oedipus is a true and faithful servant of Zeus, and the dramatic conflict with the boys back in Thebes has to do with the sons of Oedipus showing too little reverence for the will of the gods. Sophocles was not a revolutionary.

My somewhat scattershot survey of the literature surrounding the Theban plays makes it clear that there is no real consensus about the meaning of these (or any of the ancient Greek) plays, which is pleasing, because they are sophisticated dramatic machines that move in more than one direction at once. But still, as I come to the plays merely to see what's in them, I am not finding what I was told I'd find. Which is excellent, because the plays, every one of them that I've read of late, are so much better than I thought they'd be, so much more alien, so much more alive and kicking.


  1. Look at this, gods gods gods. I thought you were planning to avoid the gods. What I actually thought was that if you started The Oresteia there was no way you weren't going to rush on to the end, gods or no gods. Those plays are so good. As are these, the Oedipus plays. As are etc. etc.

    Sometimes Euripides depicts a society of free-thinking men but the results are not those of the Enlightenment, hoo boy, no. Or perhaps they are, if I include the Terror as one of the results of the Enlightenment.

    For an example of how pious Sophocles was, when the worship of Asclepius was introduced to Athens the altar was first kept in Sophocles's house!

    1. So right about the Oresteia. Such great stuff, so amazing and captivating. And the Theban plays, which I read 20 years ago and had mostly forgotten (and had, at that time, poorly read I think), are also spellbinding. It's all a constant surprise and I'm so thrilled to have stumbled into this project. I had an interest in Phaedra and the Furies for reasons relating to one of my own novels, but now my interest has broadened and I find myself thinking, "There aren't that many of these Greek plays, so why not just take the time now to read/reread all of them?" They are wacky and wild, just burning with strange glory.

    2. "Just burning with strange glory." Have been thinking that I need to go back to the classical world in my reading. I like your project!

    3. Yesterday I read Sophocles' "Philoctetes." I had low expectations (it's not much of a story at first glance) but it's a fabulous play, just terrific. I'm always happy to read something that points out just what a liar and coward that Odysseus was. I loved it when he ran off stage after Neoptolemus threatened to draw his sword.

      I read "Antigone" last night (finished up on the bus this morning). What a great piece of work. I found myself thinking fondly of "Thaliad" during one of Antigone's speeches. I'll have to go back to your epic some day soon.

      We have some gaps in our "ancient Greek tragedy" collection, so I'll have to hit the book shops today at lunch. Poor, poor, me.

    4. "Philoctetes" is a wonderful play, isn't it? The growing consciousness of Neoptolemus is marvellous.

      I must confess that it's a bit of a hobby-horse of mine to collect as many different translatons as I can of The Oresteia, and to compare them.If I had to name a favourite, I'd go for Tony Harrison's. It's more of a re-creation rather than a translation, I suppose, but it really is quite startling at times.

    5. Oh, lovely thought! Thank you for putting Antigone and Thaliad together in your mind...

  2. It’s always awkward, I think, to discern the dramatist’s viewpoint from the text, as a play consists of what various characters say, and characters naturally speak in character. Even the Greek chorus, I think, cannot always be taken to represent the authorial perspective. The first passage you quote (it’s from “Oedipus”, isn’t it?) sounds as if it is a choral passage, but in the dramatic context in which it occurs, the effect can possibly be ironic. Or, at least, partly ironic.

    I am not saying, of course, that Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides shared our post-Enlightenment views on the matter, but it does seem to me that Sophocles’ view of divinity was not straight-forward piety. Oedipus, for instance, is caught in a trap; whatever he does, he is doomed. Indeed, his very attempts to escape his fate enmeshes him in that very fate he ties to escape. The implicit question is surely; “Why did the gods set this trap for him?” The question isn’t answered, but the possible answers that occur to to the audience don’t say much for divine compassion, or of anything that we, as humans, may consider “good”. And it seems to me that it is this at the heart of the play: whatever the intention of the gods, whatever inscrutable purpose they may have, they are far removed from human concerns; there is nothing in the gods’ actions or intentions that, in human terms, we may describe as “good”. We have to submit to the will of the gods, yes – mainly because we have no other option: but if we are to say that the gods are good, we must say so only on trust, because there is no evidence to support it. At least, not in human terms.

    At the start of “Aias”, the goddess Athena shows Odysseus the madness of Aias. Since Aias is Odysseus’ enemy, Athena expects Odysseus to be jubilant. But he isn’t. Madness, even in Aias, his enemy, horrifies him. Odysseus’ reaction is human: it is something far removed from the gods. If humans cannot understand the gods, here we have a case where the god (goddess, in this case) fails to understand the human: the separation seems too great to be ridged. Maybe the gods have their own reasons for doing what they do, but they are not human reasons: they are beyond human comprehension.

    From a human perspective, I cannot really see anything in Sophocles’ play that suggest a benevolent divinity – a divinity who is to be worshipped out of love, rather than one to whom we must submit because we cannot choose otherwise.

    1. Himadri, that's a thoughtful and well-argued response. I disagree! I'm reading Hesiod's Theogeny, which although 200+ years older than Sophocles' plays, still seems to share the view of the gods held by the great ancient dramatists: the gods have dominion over heaven and earth and have no obligation to make man's lot easier; their primary focus is themselves. Fate binds everyone, including the gods, and is neutral though men and gods will make futile attempts to escape that fate. The dominion of Zeus includes benevolent and malevolent forces, equal and opposite, all loose in the world, all active. This is neither good nor bad; it's just the way things are. The correct response to a god is to worship him; that's your duty. The god, in return, owes you nothing. This is neither good nor bad. The gods are not like humans. This is neither good nor bad. The idea of a deity who is worshiped out of love is, I think, not an idea that would have been considered by the ancient Greeks. Antigone buries Polyneices to honor him and to honor the gods, knowing it would cost her her life. She expected nothing in return from the gods and felt no particular love for them, only her obligations. Oedipus is not fighting against the gods at all; he's fighting against his own will, his pride, his refusal to accept his fate. That's his tragedy. What his fate was is not necessarily tragic, as we are all fated to death. His father was fated to death. Zeus rules over a universe where monsters coexist with Graces, where nightmares coexist with Muses, and both monsters and music are wholly appropriate experiences for man. I think you are reading Oedipus as a modern, and it's a good reading, but also a sort of misreading.

    2. Or maybe I do agree. Your last sentence: I cannot really see anything in Sophocles’ play that suggest a benevolent divinity – a divinity who is to be worshipped out of love, rather than one to whom we must submit because we cannot choose otherwise. is essentially my point about Sophocles and the ancient Greeks: they did not share our perspective about gods, nor we theirs.

    3. Hello Scott, I don't know that we are that much in disagreement. We agree, for instance, that the gods in Sophocles' plays, whether we view them literally or metaphorically, are not benevolent forces: rather, they are morally neutral, and their motives inscrutable to humans. I haven't read the Theogeny, but from what you say, Sophocles' view of divinity seems similar to Hesiod's. But I don't know that Sophocles sees the gods, as Hesiod does, as being bound in Fate just as mortals are, and lacking free will. They may be, of course, but in Sophocles' dramatic world, we simply do not know: in this dramatic world the gods are utterly inscrutable.

      Where we mainly differ, I think, is on the question of whether Sophocles considers the gods to be worthy of praise. I agree that there are many injunctions in the plays to worship and to respect divinity, but never, from what i remember, is there any reason advanced in support of this. And the nature of the drama seems to suggest - to suggest, no more - that perhaps the gods may *not* be worthy of our respect.

      The gods may themselves be morally neutral; or they may even be morally good, though only by moral criteria to which we mortals have no access or understanding; but, as humans, we can only see them in human terms. We have no option on this matter. We may entertain the possibility that, seen on some set of terms other than human, the gods are morally neutral, or even morally good judged by criteria other than our own; but while we may entertain these possibilities, I do not see how it can be possible for us to embrace them. For the human perspective is the only perspective we have, and from this human perspective, the actions of the gods, whatever. moral justification they may or may not have that are hidden from us, inevitably result in human misery and suffering. This is, after all, why these plays are tragic.

      In Sophocles' unremitting depiction of the tremendous suffering brought on humans by the action of the gods, is it not at least legitimate to see here an implicit criticism of the gods? When we hear injunctions to honour and to respect the gods, is it not reasonable, given the horrific context, to ask ourselves the simple question "Why should we?" And if we do find ourselves asking that question, is it at least not conceivable that Sophocles had intended us to?

    4. "never, from what i remember, is there any reason advanced in support of this" - but that is what piety is. It does not matter if there is a reason. The pious man does his duty to his gods regardless. See The Aeneid for the grisly details.

      I cannot recommend "Misunderstanding the 'Oedipus Rex'" by E. R. Dodds more strongly.

    5. Although Tom spared us all by saying in a succinct way what I would've said in 1,000 words, I will keep my hand in by redundantly quoting the Dodds article at a bit of length:

      "I take it, then, as reasonably certain that while Sophocles did not pretend that the gods are in any human sense just he nevertheless held that they are entitled to our worship. Are these two opinions incompatible? Here once more we cannot hope to understand Greek literature if we persist in looking at it through Christian spectacles. To the Christian it is a necessary part of piety to believe that God is just. And so it was to Plato and to the Stoics. But the older world saw no such necessity. If you doubt this, take down the Iliad and read Achilles' opinion of what divine justice amounts to (xxiv. 525-33); or take down the Bible and read the Book of Job. Disbelief in divine justice as measured by human yardsticks can perfectly well be associated with deep religious feeling. 'Men', said Heraclitus, 'find some things unjust, other things just; but in the eyes of God all things are beautiful and good and just.' I think that Sophocles would have agreed. For him, as for Heraclitus, there is an objective world-order which man must respect, but which he cannot hope fully to understand."

    6. I believe Himadri is accurately stating the position of Euripides, actually, as in the "howling spiritual lunacy" of Orestes or the Iphigenia plays.

    7. Goodness! - bringing in E. R. Dodds really is mobilising the heavy artillery against my position! But it's perhaps worth pointing out that not all the heavy artillery fire on the same side. Here, for instance, is Walter Kaufmann in "Tragedy and Philosophy", towards the end of an extended analysis of Sophocles' "Oedipus":

      "Finally, 'Oedipus' raises doubts about morality. It leads us to question the justice of the gods, if gods there be, and it forcibly suggests that perhaps moral values cannot bear the strain of being pushed to the point of absoluteness. These points are best considered separately. the first is indeed blatant in all the extant tragedies of Sophocles and makes all talk of his conventional piety ridiculous..."

      And a bit later:

      "The play questions the justice of the gods more hauntingly than any other tragedy."

      I appreciate it is presumptuous of me to take issue with someone such as Dodds in this matter, but I can only describe the effect these plays make on me, and try to explain *why* they make this effect. No matter how often I read Sophocles' plays, they never inspire in me any sense of piety: indeed, I find myself feeling quite the opposite. So either I am misreading these plays badly (always a possibility of course), or it may be that, at some level at least - since any major work of art operates at many different levels, some of which may be contradictory - the nature of divinity really *is* questioned in a manner that is very far from pious.

      I don't accept that this is seeing Sophocles through "Christian spectacles": as Tom says, I am actually describing the position of Euripides, who very openly questioned the nature of the gods, and very explicitly asked why the gods, who bring so much suffering to humanity, should be held in reverence. I very happily concede that I am seeing Sophocles through "Euripidean spectacles", but does this necessarily make for an incoherent reading of Sophocles? I really don't think so. Euripides and Sophocles lived at around the same time, long before "Christian spectacles" were available, and I don't see why the contention that Sophocles may have depicted implicitly what Euripides had depicted explicitly need be dismissed out of hand. Could this not, at least, be *possible*?

      I have no doubt that Dodds is perfectly correct when he says that "the older world saw no such necessity" (i.e. they saw no necessity to see the gods as just). But I see no reason to assume that Sophocles must have shared this position. It is surely possible, at the very least, that a mind as great as that of Sophocles was capable of thinking differently from the general intellectual trends of his times.

      What I find in the plays of Sophocles are scenes of the utmost suffering and devastation, often (though not always) brought about by the gods, on whose reasons and motives the dramatist remains enigmatically silent. And this very silence leads me to question: I really cannot do otherwise. In the context of such overwhelming human suffering, the various injunctions to revere the gods cannot but strike me as heavily ironic: each repeated injunction to show piety leads me merely to ask "Why should I?" This may not be the only way to respond to these works, but I really can't see why it should not be a legitimate response to the text. And if we do concede that this is indeed a legitimate response, how can we be sure that this was not what Sophocles, at least on some level, had intended?

    8. "I see no reason to assume that Sophocles must have shared this position. It is surely possible, at the very least, that a mind as great as that of Sophocles was capable of thinking differently from the general intellectual trends of his times."

      I guess I don't find this a strong argument to support the idea that Sophocles felt the same way about the injustice of the gods as you do. "He could have, so he probably did" seems to be your argument. I feel on much safer ground to claim that the ancient Greek culture was pretty alien to mine, I guess. I can look at the gods and see that they are unworthy of men's worship, but I don't require that Sophocles also feel that way.

      I've only read Euripides' "Hippolytus," so it will be interesting when I get to the rest of his plays.

    9. "seeing Sophocles through 'Euripidean spectacles'" - yes, well said.

      I suggested Dodds less as an appeal to authority than because it is 1) so relevant and 2) so good.

    10. Sorry Scott, if that was what appeared to be my argument, that's due purely to bad writing on my part. I was trying merely to demonstrate that Sophocles' thought need *not* have taken the same direction as most others of his time- nothing more. As for his intentions, as with any other author, all we really have to go on are the texts themselves: who knows what went on in a mind such as his? So the question we really should be addressing, I think, is not so much "What did Sophocles intend?" - a question we never can answer definitively - but, rather, "is this interpretation consistent with what is in the text?"

    11. And my apologies to Tom also - I certainly did not mean to suggest you were appealing to authority ... Indeed, I regard both you and Scott as authority figures if it comes to that, insofar as I respect your arguments and your points of view! I have not read that piece by Dodds that you cite, but I certainly will do.

    12. Himadri, thanks for clarifying. I misunderstood and I agree, the text of "Oedipus Rex" certainly allows for your interpretation, and Dodds (and me and I think Tom) are leaning on paratextual arguments that support but of course don't prove our argument. So the house of arguments from the text has many rooms.

      I also confess that one of my current reading strategies is to see cultures aside from my own as alien and essentially unknowable, which actually violates one of my primary ethical pillars that we are all more alike than we are different, etc. So I'm in a funny place with reading. This has been an excellent discussion. I'm pausing from the Greek tragedies project while I await delivery of a nice set of the complete plays (we have holes in our library at home, I found), and I'm reading Tristran and Iseult, which turns out to be all about fate controlling the lives of the protagonists, and misunderstandings between people, and all the same dramatic devices you find in the ancient Greeks. If I feel smart this week, I might write about that.

    13. Bringing in Dodds certainly looks like a resort to authority. I coulda been a little more clear. & I completely agree with what Scott wrote - ain't no proof of nothing here. Since I am on vacation, my diction has grown more folksy.

      Hey, I just read Tristram and Iseult too! In Swinburne's maddening version. Talk about alien and unknowable - it was practically unreadable.

    14. My, that is a startling thing to do! Never crossed my mind as a goal.

  3. Perhaps -- for those who insist upon gods -- a different way of arguing the case is this:
    The prophetic fate is resisted; even Jocasta at one point -- I cannot now point to the specific language -- urges Oedipus to ignore the prophecies as being so much hokum (my word, not hers). In this sense, then, the characters are "fighting against" the gods since human fate ostensibly has been determined by those gods.
    But -- drumroll, please -- here is another (more secular and humanist) way of arguing the case:
    Truth and knowledge are dangerous. Everyone would have been better off living in ignorance of the truth, but Oedipus -- against the cautions of everyone (e.g., Tiresias and Jocasta) persists in learning the truth. Thus, we are humans are doomed to know the truth about ourselves.
    Now, if my mind worked better these days, my comment might be more cogent. But I am what I am, so that is all I can offer this morning.

    1. Tim, I believe that the theme of ignorance being bliss is a major component of "Oedipus Rex," certainly. Oedipus so despises what he learns himself to be that he literally cannot allow himself to look upon life, and so he blinds himself while standing over Jocasta's corpse. You are right that she urged him to leave off his investigations into his paternity, fearing where it would lead.

      It's interesting to note that the final answer to the question "who killed Laius" is never decisively answered. Everyone assumes it was Oedipus, but it's never declared with finality.

    2. Parlor-game-exercise: How much does Jocasta know and when does she know it? Hmmmm. (In this regard, she "shares the stage" in the exercise with Gertrude in _Hamlet_ because the same puzzle pertains to her.)

      I think Oedipus remains convinced that he was the killer; I see nothing in the play to suggest that he is mistaken. After all, the gods had ordained it.

    3. Yes, I'm sure Oedipus killed his father and impregnated his mother and all of that. But if the play were a detective story, the audience would be left without the final scene where the perp is revealed.

      I think Jocosta figures it all out about the time Oedipus is getting excited about the pursuit of the truth. She tells him to leave things alone and he declares that no, he's going to get to the bottom of it, just you wait and see! He's like a little boy, so happy to show how clever he is. It's really sad, terribly sad and ironic, his joy of the hunt, his conviction that he's going to be a Big Damned Hero any minute now. His reactions and Jocosta's are complete opposites. Beautiful.

  4. "everybody complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it." natural phenomena carry on regardless of human wishes; the plays seem to me to be attempts at dealing with the unknown-maybe changing one's attitudes toward nature(the gods)might help. i guess i see a panorama of intellectual development as the playwrights wrestle with facts, trying differing approaches to see what might work. sort of like physicists studying the quantum world.

    1. I used to have a roommate who said she could do something about the weather. I don't know if it was true, but she promised clear skies for a house party, and we had clear skies.

      I have strong doubts--which drove this post and my subsequent comments--that the Greek tragedians were working out any sort of theological/scientific ideas. I think they were talking about people and life in the context of their culture. I do begin to think that my ideas might be too narrow, though. I'm reading Thucydides, whose life overlapped with Sophocles and Euripides. Thucydides' history accords no earthly events to the action of the gods. He points entirely to the actions and attitudes of humans. Though I see no reason to read any of that as a critique of traditional Greek religion, either.

  5. actually i agree. basic human instincts haven't changed much over the centuries. i'm sure the greeks wanted the plays they wrote to be popular, so that would govern how they produced their works. secondarily, maybe a fair distance later, they might try to explore what they thought was happening in the world around them. maybe these two were the same motivation to some extent. but everyone likes popularity, so mostly they probably followed party lines. exceptions of course; aristophanes, who did what he wanted but was always in trouble, for example. but if one lived in the times of the grecian tyrants, extreme caution would be advisable. but the three majors lived before that i guess so maybe they had a bit more latitude. an examination of the plays, one would think, might indicate how far a playwriter might dare to express radical ideas... maybe that's what all the fuss is about...