Episode 32: Trees Bending to the Torrent

Sophocles’ Theban Plays, 3 of 3. Antigone is a timeless and dark story about a clash of wills. But it’s also fascinating snapshot of the philosophical brawls of 5th-century BCE Athens.

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Sophocles’ Three Theban Plays, Part 3: Antigone

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 32: Trees Bending to the Torrent. In this episode, we’re going to hear the story of Antigone, the third of Sophocles’ three Theban plays, probably produced during the spring of 441 BCE in the city of Athens. If you’re just jumping in and you want to hear the back story, you can hear the first two Oedipus plays in Episodes 30 and 31. You should, however, be able to enjoy Antigone even without knowing the other two plays, and I’ll give you some background upfront so you’ll know exactly what’s going on from the very first scene onward. Antigone. Oh, Antigone. Antigone is one of the great plays from Ancient Greece that’s still common in undergraduate and high school classrooms. Antigone‘s central motif of one strong willed person who will not back down or compromise her beliefs has resonated with hundreds of generations, for many different reasons across the past two and a half thousand years. But even in 441 BCE, the story of Sophocles’ Antigone was not an original one.

Different Versions of the Theban Cycle

Many of the movies that we watch these days are sequels. They’re sequels, or remakes, or prequels, or origin stories. They take characters, and situations, and archetypes that we know, and reinvent them – new James Bonds, new Star Treks, an endless new churn of superhero movies, summer after summer, popcorn bucket after popcorn bucket. People gripe about this. What’s wrong with us, we sometimes wonder – what’s wrong with us, if we just want to hear variations of things we’ve heard before – the same songs with different instrumentation? Why are entirely new stories sometimes hard to find? There are plenty of reasons, of course. But one reason is that sequels and remakes are things that we’ve always done.

Arbre généalogique Antigone

Antigone’s family tree. The bulk of the play is about the opposition between Antigone, her uncle Creon, and her beloved cousin Haemon, who tries to play the role of a mediator.

Sometimes, in literature, it takes many people, and many generations, to tell a single story. The events that took place at the city of Troy that inspired the Iliad and the Odyssey were one such occasion – these epic poems were produced over long periods of time. The story of the Israelites in the Pentateuch and the Historical Books of the Old Testament is another example – the composition of these texts spanned hundreds of years and multiple phases of ancient near eastern history. But another example of a story taking hundreds of years to be told was an Ancient Greek story that spanned several generations back in times of legend – a tale that took place in the city of Thebes.

Today we’re going to return, one final time in Ancient Greek literature, to the city of Thebes, that ancient civilization located about thirty miles or fifty kilometers northwest of Athens on the Greek mainland. Many, many poets concerned themselves with two generations who lived at Thebes – the generation of the doomed King Oedipus, which we concluded in the previous two episodes, and the generation of Oedipus’ children – Polynices, Eteocles, Ismene, and today, most famous of all, Antigone. While there are different versions of Antigone’s story, by far the most famous is the one written by the Athenian dramatist Sophocles, and staged, again, probably in 441 BCE. And by the end of this show, you’re going to know that story well. [music]

Before we delve into the play Antigone, let’s talk about the three Theban plays thus far – just their basic plot lines. In the first one, the tragic king Oedipus discovered that he’d killed his father and married his mother, and, disgraced and broken, he tore out his eyes with his dead wife’s brooches. In the second one, old Oedipus travelled from Thebes to the outskirts of Athens, where, after feuding with his former brother-in-law and cursing his son, Oedipus died. Now, the play that we’re going to explore today – again Antigone, about Oedipus’ daughter going back to the city of Thebes, and what happens to her there.

But in between Oedipus’ death, and Antigone’s arrival at Thebes, a lot of stuff has gone down. In fact, epic events have unfolded – an entire epic war. When you’re dealing with sequels, and prequels, and remakes, all of which were alive and well in the ancient world, sometimes it’s easy to get lost. But we’re not going to get lost. We’re going to talk about this epic war that took place at Thebes after Oedipus died, and before Antigone got there.

Although Sophocles didn’t – to our knowledge – write a play about the epic war at Thebes, his predecessor Aeschylus did. In fact, Aeschylus’ play Seven Against Thebes (467), produced a few decades before Sophocles’ play Antigone was all about this epic war that had unfolded at Thebes. And Aeschylus and Sophocles weren’t the only Athenian playwrights to deal with Thebes, and the family of Oedipus. Two decades after Antigone won Athens’ City Dionysia festival, Euripides’ play The Suppliants (423) retold the story of the great war at Thebes, and fifteen years after that, Euripides’ play The Phoenician Women (408) retold the story of the war at Thebes yet again, this time focusing on Jocasta, who in Euripides’ version never commits suicide. Now, the details of all of that are hard to remember, but the following is not. Decade after decade, the height of Golden Age Athenian civilization went to the theater to see plays about Oedipus and his children – tellings and retellings with variations, a patchwork quilt of productions about the same small group of events and people.

And that wasn’t the end of it, either. The Roman poet Statius, 500 years after Sophocles died, wrote an entire epic about the legendary war at Thebes – Statius finished his Thebaid around 92 CE. Now, Statius isn’t commonly read these days, in spite of the fact that Dante thought Statius was as good as they come. Statius has sort of been dismissed as a derivative of Virgil, (Statius was born about 65 years after Virgil died) and also a lackey to the Emperor Domitian’s famous god complex. But anyway, we’ll get to Statius in a few months.

What I want to do is take the time period between Oedipus’ death, and Antigone’s arrival at Thebes, and fill in the gaps for you a bit, using a general mural made up of the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides, and the epic of the later Roman writer Statius. That way, when we get to Antigone in a couple of minutes, which is without a doubt one of the greatest plays ever written, you’ll know exactly what’s happening, and why.

The Theban War of Succession

So, when Oedipus was disgraced – when his ugly secrets came to the surface, he gave up his throne. He abdicated his throne to his two sons, Polynices and Eteocles. The plan was simple. One brother would rule one year, and the other brother would rule the next, and so on. Polynices was put on the throne, and Oedipus left town, heading down to Athens in the southeast, confident that his boys would continue his fair minded rule and share regency between them, in spite of the ugly family secrets that had come out.1

Seven against Thebes Getty Villa 92.AE.86 antigone

A Campanian red-figure amphora, dated to about 340 BCE, of a hero named Capaneus scaling the walls of Thebes during the legendary Theban war fought between Oedipus’ two sons. This is a major part of the Oedipus cycle not dealt with in Sophocles’ Oedipus plays. Photo by Xenophon.

Now, if there’s one lesson you can learn from Roman imperial history, or the history of the Middle Ages, it’s that when two heirs are supposed to share the same throne, they always do a great job of it, keeping all their promises and happily dividing the power up between them. Just kidding – when two heirs are supposed to share the same throne, all hell breaks loose. The general pattern is that either 1) one brother kills the other brother, 2) one brother kills the other brother after a great deal of warfare, or 3) the brothers try to kill one another and some sort of a burly military guy ends up killing both of them and seizing power within the kingdom. And in all three cases there is general bloodshed and widespread economic devastation. Oedipus, regrettably, did not know this when he took it upon himself to bequeath his throne to his two boys.

So here’s what goes down in the literature that deals with the epic war at Thebes. First, of course, one of Oedipus’ sons came to the throne – his older son, Polynices. And unfortunately, rather soon, Oedipus’ younger son, Eteocles stole the throne from his older brother in a violent coup. Polynices decided that rather than throwing up his hands for the general good of the population, he would go down to the city of Argos, round up an army, and make war on his home town and his brother.

Around the time that Polynices was brainstorming this plan, Polynices traveled down to Colonus, near Athens, where his father was. And – this happened in the previous play – Polynices asked old Oedipus his blessing. He asked Oedipus’ blessing to make war on his hometown and kill his brother. I wonder what Polynices was expecting to hear. As you might remember from last time, Oedipus told Polynices he hoped Polynices and his brother Eteocles would kill one another and said that both go to hell. It wasn’t “Maybe you two could settle this with some leg wrestling, or rock paper scissors, and then dad could take you boys out to the lake!” It was die, die, die, I hate you, go to the bottomless pit, you are vile and brutish, and that kind of thing.

What happened next was that in spite of his dad’s curse, and his sister Antigone’s measured and rational counsel to do otherwise, Oedipus’ son Polynices went forward with his planned assault on the city of Thebes. He, and six other champions from the allied city of Argos marched on Thebes – and this is where Aeschylus gets the title Seven Against Thebes. Seven champions of Argos marched up to the seven gates of Thebes and made war on seven Theban champions. Bit like that biblical story of seven priests with seven trumpets circling the city walls of Jericho for seven days in the book of Joshua. Those ancient folks often used numbers as mnemonic devices to hold their stories together. Anyway, side track. So at the climax of the Theban War, Polynices finally fought his brother Eteocles. And just as Oedipus had prayed, the brothers slaughtered one another. And that was the end of the epic war at Thebes. In the hands of Aeschylus and as we’ll later see, Statius, it’s an enthralling story – but for today’s purposes we just needed to get those events on the table. There’s been a war. One brother was defending the city, the other was assaulting the city, both were morally besmirched by their lust for power, and they have just killed each other. That’s the situation in a nutshell.

Now, before we start Antigone, let’s talk about some key characters. As Antigone begins, there are four characters you need to know about. Oedipus is gone. His wife is dead. His puffed up gasbag sons have just finished taking each other out. So who’s left to write a play about, anyway? [music]

The Principal Characters and Crux of Antigone

First, of course, there’s Antigone herself. If you remember from Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone was the child who stayed with her father most consistently, the youngest daughter of Oedipus and his wife slash mother Jocasta. Above all else, Antigone’s most distinguishing characteristic is probably her loyalty to family. Antigone’s name is a compound of the words anti- which means “compared to, like,” or “against,” and then gone – which means “birth” or “descendants.” So Antigone’s name, by no coincidence, tells the story of her foremost attribute. She is inexorably tied to her lineage. Throughout the world famous play named after her, Antigone pursues the interests of her family.

But Antigone is not really just a gentle family loving girl wearing a nicely cut, unbleached Iron Age tunic and tasteful sandals. Antigone has a dark side. This dark side is a certain kind of relentlessness not too uncommon in Ancient Greek tragedy – an indisposition to compromise, or an unhealthy ability to commit to a resolution and see it through to its end, regardless of the counsel of everyone around her. Now, surely you know some stubborn people, and have thought about stubbornness. And if you know stubborn people, you know that stubbornness is a strength as well as a shortcoming – it’s certainly admirable to stick to one’s convictions and resolutions, but at the same time adaptability and a willingness to negotiate are pretty useful character traits, too. Antigone’s most salient character trait, alongside her loyalty to her family, is a certain tragic relentlessness that’s as beautiful and powerful as it is dangerous. So that’s Antigone, a huge figure in ancient literature, in two paragraphs.

The Christmas kalends of Provence and some other (1902) (14593945810) antigone and creon

Creon (left) confronts Antigone (right). The Theban king’s descent into violent totalitarianism makes Antigone a character study about Creon just as much as it is about the titular character.

Now, Antigone in the play you’re about to hear has a nemesis. He has appeared in the other two Theban plays, and he is Antigone’s uncle Creon. While Antigone values family above everything, Creon values the interests of the state, or greater collective. Throughout the Theban plays, even when Creon is doing dubious things like kidnapping Oedipus’ daughters in Oedipus at Colonus, the main motivation Creon has is to do what’s best for the city of Thebes. Although the interests of Thebes are Creon’s highest priority, throughout the play Antigone, Creon becomes increasingly autocratic. In other words, he says that what he’s doing is in the interests of the people, but many of the people don’t especially agree with him. I mean, it’s not at all unusual for history’s dictators to claim the public’s wellbeing as a motivation for their persecutions or warmongering or whatever – and Creon, fairly soon within the pages of the play you’re about to hear, will begin to fit this model, saying that he’s acting in the interests of the state but rather quickly devolving into an egomaniacal persecutor.

Antigone and her uncle Creon may have different ideological positions – Antigone for her family, and Creon, on the surface at least, for the state. But they share a very memorable, and very dangerous quality. Both characters have that unbudging self certainty – that stubborn resolution that can be a strength as well as a shortcoming. And because Creon, throughout the play, is in a position of power, his self certainty can be far more destructive than Antigone’s. The core of the play Antigone is the opposition between these two equally self certain characters, and this takes us to the main idea of this episode.

The main idea of this episode is in its title. Episode 32: Trees Bending to the Torrent. This is a line from a famous speech in the play, in which a character tells another character that in a great storm, the trees that can bow beneath the force of the wind survive, whereas the trees that remain stiff and upright snap off and perish. As I tell you the story of Antigone, especially if you’ve never heard it before, pay especially close attention to those moments when Antigone and her uncle Creon refuse to yield to the persuasions of those around them, behaving like stiff trees that break during storms. When we get to the end of the play today, we will see that Sophocles uses Antigone to explore one of the central philosophical questions of Classical Athens, and really, one of the central philosophical questions of world history. That’s again the main idea of this show – “Trees bending to the torrent,” and trees that don’t bend to the torrent, the power of human will and stubbornness to get people to do remarkable things, but also, to do frightful and destructive things.

Character sketches of romance, fiction and the drama (1892) (14784688512) ismene and antigone

An absolutely wonderful illustration of Ismene (left) and Antigone (right) with the younger sister’s tortured resolution captured in her posture and countenance. From Character Sketches of Romance, Fiction and Drama (1892) by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer.

So you know about willful, family loving Antigone, and willful, state loving Creon, and that this is ultimately going to be a play about the power and destructiveness of human will. Now, let’s meet those two other characters. One of them is Antigone’s older sister, Ismene. Ismene is, for good reason, a well liked character. She is a survivor, and a pragmatist. Though Oedipus’ older daughter lacks the fierce willfulness and gravelly one liners of her sister, Ismene has a perceptiveness and adaptable intelligence that make her heroic in a way that’s maybe more realistic, and human than any other character in Sophocles’ Theban plays. Ismene isn’t so famous as her three siblings, but if all the kids had been like Ismene, there probably would have been no war at Thebes, no brothers killing brothers, and history would have continued on reasonably smoothly after the unsightly debacle of king Oedipus and his ill-fated marriage. So that’s Ismene, the practical older sister.

So you’ve met loyal Antigone, her civic-minded uncle Creon, and Antigone’s older sister, the staunch realist Ismene. There’s just one more person you should meet before we begin this amazing story, and that’s Creon’s son, Haemon. When we get to Haemon, we come to a bit of a hiccup in the plots of the three Theban plays of Sophocles. Haemon doesn’t come up in Oedipus the King, nor does he appear in Oedipus at Colonus. Basically, this guy kind of just shows up out of thin air in Antigone. Haemon is Antigone’s fiancé. And he’s a terrific guy. Haemon, again Antigone’s fiancé and Creon’s son, finds himself between a rock and a hard place when trying to negotiate with his willful fiancé Antigone and his equally unbending father Creon. As old king Creon becomes increasingly entrenched and violently dogmatic, Haemon works, heroically and articulately, to try and reason with him.

So to review, there are two unyielding characters – Antigone and her uncle Creon. And there are two flexible realists – Antigone’s older sister Ismene, and her smart and diplomatic fiancé Haemon. The core of the play’s plot is that Creon and Antigone are going to go obstinately, uncompromisingly head to head.

So now you know the situation and main characters of Sophocles’ famous and often staged play, Antigone. As before, I’m quoting from time to time from the E.F. Watling translation, published by Penguin Books in 1974, and included with the other two Oedipus plays in a terrific volume called The Theban Plays. It’s time to open the pages of Sophocles one final time, and hear the ending of the great three part story that we started two episodes ago. [music]

Antigone Reveals Her Plan to Ismene

Antigone, like Oedipus the King, takes place on the steps of the palace at Thebes. If had been in Athens, at the city Dionysia in the spring of 441 BCE when Antigone premiered, that’s what you would have seen. The grand doors of the palace at Thebes stood imposingly over the steps. Here, once, citizens had complained to great king Oedipus that they were dying of the plague. On these same steps, Oedipus had sought, against all counsel, the answer to the dark mystery of his birth. And on these same steps, and from these same doors, Oedipus had emerged and bemoaned his fate with bloody eye sockets after seeing the hanged body of his wife and mother Jocasta. The play Antigone, which takes place some years after these events, is set in this same fateful location, and the story’s crisis emerges almost immediately.

Greek dramas (1900) (14781573262) antigone

An illustration of Antigone from 1900 anthology called Greek Dramas.

Ismene and her younger sister Antigone came out through the palace doors, and Antigone turned to her sister. “There is no pain,” she said, “no sorrow, no suffering, no dishonor / We have not shared together, you and I. / And now there is something more. Have you heard this order, / This latest order that the king has proclaimed to the city?”2

Who was this king Antigone described? Hadn’t the male line of Oedipus been extinguished? Hadn’t Eteocles and Polynices killed one another, and Polynices’ allies from Argos withdrawn from Theban territory just the previous night? The king was now their uncle Creon. Creon had seen the line of cursed Oedipus embroil the city of Thebes with a plague, and then nearly shatter the city with war. And so Creon had taken power for himself.

Tense and distraught, Antigone looked at her sister Ismene. Creon had done something awful, she said. Their brother Eteocles had died defending the city whose throne he refused to share with his brother. And Eteocles had been given a fine funeral and honored burial. But Polynices, who’d attacked the city in an effort to take regency from his brother – Polynices would have no burial. King Creon intended that Polynices be eaten by carrion birds. If anyone tried to bury Polynices, Creon had proclaimed, it would be deemed an act of disobedience to the state. Antigone added that anyone who tried to bury Polynices would be stoned to death. “So now you know,” said Antigone. “And now is the time to show / Whether or not you are worthy of your high blood” (127).

What did Antigone mean when she told her sister Ismene that it was time for Ismene to prove her worth? Antigone wanted her sister to help her defy the new king Creon’s orders, secure Polynices’ body and give it a proper burial. The ever-practical Ismene was skeptical, to say the least. Their parents had died, she said. Their brothers had died. Now, it was just the two of them left. They were women, she told her sister, and their power against the state was minute. It would be a dreadful folly to rebel against Creon, and the power that he represented in Thebes.

Antigone did not berate her sister for this advice. Antigone, nonetheless, said that she intended to bury her brother. Her only crime would be reverence, and besides – life was short, and the eternity that one spent with the dead was what really counted. The sisters then shared a famous series of remarks.

“At least be secret,” said Ismene, “. . .If you can do it; but you’re bound to fail” (129). And Antigone resolved, “When I have tried and failed, I shall have failed.” But Ismene shook her head. “[There is] [n]o sense in starting on a hopeless task,” she said. But this counsel only hardened Antigone’s resolve. “Leave me alone / With my own madness,” she said. “There is no punishment / Can rob me of my honorable death” (129). Ismene saw that there was no arguing with the adamancy of her younger sister. “Go then,” she said, “if you are determined, to your folly. / But remember those who love you. . .love you still” (129). And, with this exchange, Ismene went back into the palace, and Antigone hurried off to begin her perilous errand. [music]

Creon Reveals His Adamancy

With Antigone and Ismene offstage, the chorus of Theban elders – which will be a frequent presence for the remainder of the play – the chorus of Theban elders climbed up the palace steps. The perspective of the chorus was different from that of either sister – they were the voice of the median citizen of Thebes. The old men of the chorus praised the dawn – the bright golden sunlight that had come up over the river, almost as though the sun itself were responsible for chasing off the invading army of Polynices. They had been terrified at the sight of Polynices and his thousands of men, and they briefly recollected the course of the short war. Above all else, the old men of the chorus thanked the gods that the war was over, and announced the coming of the new king, Creon.

Creon looked familiarly at the elders of Thebes. He said that he’d called them together because he knew that they’d always been loyal subjects to Oedipus, and he made a lengthy speech in which he explained his ruling philosophy and his decisions about the feuding brothers Eteocles and Polynices.

Creon proclaimed that he’d come to the throne because he was next of kin. He realized, he said, that being a ruler was the greatest test of a person – a test that would bring out his mettle and true colors like nothing else would. Perhaps because he knew the difficulty of his new position of sovereign, Creon said that any king who did not open his lips to seek advice was damned to failure. Having established all this, Creon told the Theban elders of the political philosophy that would inform his reign.

The state, Creon said, came before everyone. It came before friends, because friendships could not exist without the auspices of the state. He even emphasized that the state was life itself. Having said this, Creon explained his decision about the recently departed sons of King Oedipus. Eteocles had died defending his city. And subsequently, Creon said, Oedipus’ younger son would enjoy the graces of a state burial and funeral. But Oedipus’ older son, Polynices, who had led an army against his home city – Polynices would not be buried, and dogs and birds would eat his remains. Creon said that whether men were dead or alive, their rewards, and their punishments, would be dictated by the state.

A further exchange between Creon and the elders of Thebes revealed that Creon had established a guard over the dead body of Polynices. Anyone who tried to lay it to rest – anyone who allowed it to be moved, would be sentenced to death.

The Crisis Unfolds

Just then, a sentry rushed in. After catching his breath – and with great hesitancy, this sentry delivered his news to Creon. Somehow, the sentry said, someone had reached the dead body of the traitor Polynices, and buried it, scattering dust over it, and thus giving it the rites of a sanctified burial.

Creon demanded to know more. The sentry said he and the other guards were perplexed. There had been no sign of the culprit – no sign of digging, or wheel ruts, nor tracks. The men who’d been guarding Polynices’ body were terrified – they accused one another, they drew lots as to who would tell the king, and then, the sentry said, he had been selected to deliver the bad news to Creon. The chorus of Theban elders said that maybe it had been an act of the gods, but Creon didn’t think so. No, Creon said, some insurrectionists were hiding in the city – they’d been bribed. Far too many people, growled Creon, were corruptible under the sway of money.

And then a darker side of Creon began to emerge – a side so fanatically tied to the interests of the state that it made him willing to sacrifice individuals to what he perceived as the greater wellbeing. King Creon said to the poor sentry that if the perpetrator weren’t brought to him, then the sentry himself would be tortured until more truths emerged, and that this torture would make the poor sentry, in Creon’s words, “a living lesson against infamy” (134). The sentry protested – he hadn’t done anything. But Creon didn’t listen. Money, he said, could drive anyone into duplicity. With these words, Creon wheeled and went into the palace.

Creon Confronts Antigone

Antigone And The Body Of Polynices - Project Gutenberg eText 14994

Antigone apprehended as she tries to bury her brother.

With Creon gone, the sentry fled. The chorus of old Thebans sung a song of meditation on the domination of mankind on earth, and as it came to a close, they saw someone approaching. It was Antigone, under the guard of Theban soldiers. Antigone, they said, had been the one who’d buried Polynices. Creon, having been alerted, stormed back out of the palace. The sentry whom King Creon had threatened earlier explained what had happened. The sentry had returned to his post, terrified of the king’s threats. And the guards who’d been watching Polynices’ body tore the dirt off of it, so that the dead man lay naked again under the blazing sun. Then, the guards had gone to a hiding place, behind a hill and away from the stench of the decomposing body.

Sure enough, they’d seen her. Antigone had come back, and, after screaming at the site of her brother’s unburied corpse, she’d begun his burial rites again. The guards had apprehended her at just this moment – but upon being arrested, Antigone had shown no fear.

Creon asked Antigone to confirm the story. She did, and the sentry and other guards were freed from blame. Creon asked Antigone to explain herself – why had she contravened the king’s orders? Antigone’s explanation was clear and concise. Creon, she said, was merely a man. His orders were the ephemeral instructions of a single human ruler. The mandate to bury one’s own dead family, on the other hand, was the timeless instruction of the gods. She had followed the latter, and she asked Creon, pointedly, whether she had been acting foolishly, or he had.

But Creon was not impressed. “Ah, but you’ll see,” he said,
The over-obstinate spirit
Is soonest broken; as the strongest iron will snap
If over-tempered in the fire to brittleness. . .
This girl’s proud spirit
Was first in evidence when she broke the law. . .
But, as I live. . .She shall not flout my orders with impunity.
My sister’s child – ay, were she even nearer,
Nearest and dearest, she should not escape
Full punishment – she, and her sister too,
Her partner, doubtless, in this burying. (139)

And with this unexpected added accusation, Creon ordered Ismene to be fetched from the palace. While Ismene was being brought, Antigone told Creon she didn’t fear death, and that all of his subjects agreed with her, but would say nothing. Creon shook his head. His subjects, he said, were on his side – the side of the state!

Antigone and her uncle Creon argued about what had happened, and Creon maintained his position stolidly. Polynices had been an enemy of the state of Thebes. Creon said enemies of the state remained enemies of the state, even after their deaths. Antigone said she was sharing love and forgiveness, and not hate, and at this, Creon had cutting words. “Go then,” he said, “and share your love among the dead. / We’ll have no woman’s law here, while I live” (140). [music]

Haemon Counsels His Father Creon

A moment later Ismene was brought out of the palace. Oedipus’ older daughter was crying, and Creon criticized her bitterly, accusing Ismene of treachery. Ismene then lied. She said yes, she had been in league with Antigone, and had planned the seditious act with her sister. But Antigone denied it. Antigone didn’t want Ismene to die with her. Ismene, after all, had chosen life. Seeing the two sisters arguing, Creon said neither of them would be choosing anything – Antigone, after all, was as good as dead.

Now, for the first time in the play, the subject of Antigone’s fiancé Haemon – remember that this is Creon’s son – came up. Ismene demanded to know if Creon would be so brutal as to murder his own son’s fiancé. And Creon, who is the speaker of an increasingly vicious series of one liners as the play progresses, said the following. “Oh, there are other fields for [my son Haemon] to plough. . .No son of mine shall wed so vile a creature” (141). Having made it abundantly clear that he no longer wanted his son Haemon to – uh – plough his niece Antigone, Creon let forth another quotable morsel of misogyny and told the girls to get themselves into the palace, which was where women belonged.

With the sisters gone, Creon mused darkly to the chorus. The house of Oedipus, he said, was cursed. A curse on a house was as ineluctable as a great wave filled with a slurry of black sand.

Creon’s meditations were interrupted by the arrival of his son Haemon. Haemon had heard the bad news. He had heard that father had ordered the execution of his fiancé. Creon invited Haemon to speak on the matter, and Haemon said he abided by his father’s decision. Creon approved, and treated his stricken son to a long speech about how women could be wily and deceptive, that he had to uphold the interests of the state at all costs. In fact, he said, the person that was appointed to lead the state must be obeyed at all costs – whether that person’s mandates were right, or wrong. Thus emphasizing that the power of the state was immutable and absolute, regardless of its morality, Creon concluded that he wouldn’t betray the state at any cost, least of all for a woman.

Haemon heard all of his father’s words. He said he knew that Creon was publically unopposed. But he also said that everywhere there were whispers of pity for poor Antigone. People felt sorry for the bereaved sister of misguided Polynices. Haemon’s advice to his father Creon was diplomatic and perceptive, suggesting, as other moments in Sophocles’ Theban plays do, that at least some amidst the younger generation had the potential to overcome the obstinate self certainty of the older generation: [music]
Let not your first thought be your only thought, [young Haemon said to his father Creon,]
Think if there cannot be some other way.
Surely, to think your own the only wisdom,
And yours the only word, the only will,
Betrays a shallow spirit, an empty heart.
It is no weakness for the wisest man
To learn when he is wrong, know when to yield.
So, on the margin of a flooded river
Trees bending to the torrent live unbroken,
While those that strain against it are snapped off. . .
I think, for what my young opinion’s worth,
That, good as it is to have infallible wisdom,
Since this is rarely found, the next best thing
Is to be willing to listen to wise advice. (145)

And that again is the E.F. Watling translation, published by Penguin in 1974, and part of a book called The Theban Plays. The chorus, after this speech, concurred that Haemon had made good points. But in the exchange that followed, Creon revealed, increasingly, that he was not a selfless champion of the collective, but instead a vengeful autocrat who would persecute anyone who questioned his decisions.

Because when Haemon again emphasized that the sympathies of the Theban people were generally with the poor distraught Antigone, Creon growled that he didn’t care what the Theban people thought. Creon said he was the king, and was only accountable to himself. Now, would Haemon notice the paradoxical nature of his father’s political statements, and accuse Creon of unapologetically labeling his own personal prejudices and interests as those of the state? Why yes, actually, Haemon would do just this!

Haemon said that his father was no longer representative of the state of Thebes – he was becoming a solitary autocrat, and would only be considered a good king on a deserted island, where he had no subjects. Now this is one of those moments at which, confronted by such ironclad reasoning and clarity, you would hope that Creon might say, [music]
You know what, son? There have been a lot of blowhards strutting around here lately. You’re right. In trying to serve my state, I’m becoming as bad a demagogue and tyrant as anyone. You’ve helped me see that. Let’s get Antigone, and Ismene. I’m going to treat everyone to sandwiches, and some pink lemonade. It’s a good thing I’m capable of compromise, bec –

But no, Creon did not say this. What Creon actually said was that his son was a villain and a coward, and that his will was as feeble as a woman’s. Creon was on the verge of having Antigone brought out and executed right there in front of Haemon, but Haemon, cursing his father, strode off. [music]

The Condemnation of Antigone

Creon’s wrath against Antigone continued unabated, in spite of young Haemon’s earnest efforts. And Creon came up with a new plan. Antigone wouldn’t be immediately executed. Instead, she’d be taken to an isolated spot in the desert and walled up inside a cave. She’d be given enough food to last a little while – and Creon wanted this to happen so that his complicity in her death would be minimized in the eyes of the commonwealth of Thebes. Because – uh – I guess if you bury someone alive with a couple of hoagies and a juice box then you’re less guilty when they suffocate slash starve to death. Right. Well – that was Creon’s reasoning, anyway. After voicing this – clever – plan, Creon strode offstage.

Alone onstage again, the chorus mused on the power of love – love’s capacity to affect all, gods and men, righteous and unrighteous. Aphrodite, the chorus agreed, in some ways held sway over everyone. Then the chorus saw a sad sight. Antigone had emerged from the palace doors, and told the chorus she was on the way to her grave. The chorus attempted to console her, telling her she was at least dying beautifully – that she had the prerogative of going to her grave by choice, which had a certain kind of nobility to it.

But Antigone said it was meaningless. The old Thebans of the chorus warned her that her death was a worthy homage to her brother and parents before her, but also, that “authority cannot afford to connive at disobedience. / You are the victim of your own self-will (149). Antigone did not counter them.

Creon emerged from the palace and announced that it was time to carry out the sentence. Antigone said that at least she’d have the consolation of being with her great father Oedipus in death. And she added that she’d done what she’d done for Polynices because a brother was a unique thing. She could, after all, have another husband, if a husband died. She could have another son, if a son died. But with Oedipus and Jocasta gone to their graves, Antigone would never have other brothers. Antigone asked the assembly, what she had done wrong, and how she could have been saved, when she had only done what she had done out of devotion to her family. After a few more words, Antigone was led away.

In Antigone’s absence, the chorus of Theban elders reflected on the fates of other people who’d been imprisoned – Danae, the mother of Perseus, whose father had imprisoned her due to a prophecy that she’d bear a deadly grandson. A king called Lycurgus had tried to end the worship of Dionysus and been imprisoned for it. They recollected the sufferings of a hero called Phineus – ancient strange legends of far off places, and then an old man, a seer, arrived onstage.

His name was Tiresias. He has made an appearance in the play Oedipus the King – the great prophet who was a fixture in Greek mythology from Homer onward. Tiresias hailed King Creon, and said he had grave words for the ruler.

“[Y]ou stand,” he warned Creon, “on a razor’s edge” (152). Tiresias told Creon that in the midst of visions he had suddenly heard the sounds of birds – birds killing each other, and a strange language, and the sound of tearing talons. Tiresias had attempted a sacrifice, but it would not burn – it only dripped filth into the ashes, but the flames would not accept it. It was a message, Tiresias said, that a blight was falling over Thebes again, due to the continued abuse poor Oedipus’ son Polynices was suffering, and the old seer Tiresias gave King Creon the following warning.
Mark this, my son: [Tiresias said, and he brought up the subject of Polynices] all men fall into sin. But sinning, he is not for ever lost Hapless and helpless, who can make amends And has not set his face against repentance. Only a fool is governed by self-will. Pay to the dead his due. Wound not the fallen. (153)

Creon, as before, was unmoved. He said that Polynices would be left to rot – even if the eagles themselves bore Polynices’ remains up to Mount Olympus, Polynices would still be left behind to decompose. Creon, as Oedipus had once done, accused Tiresias of voicing prophecies to benefit himself. But Tiresias denied it, and offered Creon a final oracle. Creon, said the seer Tiresias, would answer for both the unburied corpse of Polynices, and the live burial of poor Antigone. The gods did not condone Creon, or his actions, and the Furies would tear him to shreds. Creon would not escape. With these dark words, Tiresias took his leave. [music]

Creon Finally Caves

The chorus warned Creon that Tiresias was never wrong, and Creon said indeed Tiresias’ prophecy had seemed dire. What was to be done? The chorus asked permission to make a suggestion. Might it be that after having been warned by every living person in the city of Thebes, and having heard the supernatural oracle of the most famous and infallible prophet in all of Greece, that Creon could scrape together some vestiges of reason and bury the remains of Polynices, and let poor Antigone out of her tomb? Hmm? Could he maybe do this? Yes, actually, said Creon. Yeah, it was probably time to back down. Those words about hell and furies and the will of gods finally broke through to the budding fascist. As a matter of fact, he couldn’t follow their advice soon enough.

Creon personally grabbed shovels and spades, and gathered some other Thebans. First, they would dig Polynices a proper grave. And then, he would join his countrymen in freeing Antigone. Which – uh – you would think he’d get the buried alive girl out first, rather than dealing with the dead guy, but as you’ve seen, Creon was sort of – dumb as [censored]. Thus disclosing his plan, Creon left the elders of Thebes onstage a final time. The chorus said a prayer to Dionysus, the patron deity of Thebes, and a messenger arrived onstage. Whatever had happened, the chorus knew – with Creon, and Antigone, and Haemon – they would hear of it from this newcomer. [music]

The Horrors and Humiliation of Creon

So, some time has elapsed during the chorus’ song – and remember, when really intense things happen in Ancient Greek plays, they usually happen offstage, and they’re reported from a herald or messenger. That’s precisely the case in this particular scene of the play Antigone. The messenger who went to poor Antigone’s tomb said that Creon’s fate had fallen fast. Haemon was dead – he’d taken his own life. Creon’s wife emerged from the palace. Slow down, she said. What had befallen her son? She wanted to know. The messenger told everyone what had happened. Polynices, who’d been partially eaten by dogs by this point, had finally been washed and then immolated over a blaze on fresh branches – his ashes had been carefully buried.

And then, Creon and his men had gone to the rock chamber where Antigone had been entombed. Creon had heard calamity from within, and, breaking through the already disturbed bricks that had walled up the tunnel, he had seen something that would haunt him forever. Antigone had hung herself with a rope “woven [of the] linen of her dress” (158). It was a scene unmistakably like Antigone’s mother’s death – Jocasta had also hung herself, and Oedipus had seen the corpse in just this same fashion. Creon, at this point, had asked why young Haemon had come to see the tomb of his condemned fiancé.

Haemon had turned to his father, his eyes dark and baleful, and he spat in Creon’s face. He tore his sword out of his scabbard and went for his father, but the king fled. With Haemon’s love dead, and his father thus violently estranged, Haemon had felt like he had no recourse. He had fallen on his sword. As he bled to death, he staggered over to the suspended corpse of Antigone, his blood gushing over her linens and darkening her pale cheeks. And so, the messenger summarized, “Two bodies lie together, wedded in death, / Their bridal sleep a witness to the world / How great calamity can come to man / Through man’s perversity” (159). Hearing the news, Creon’s wife went silently back into the palace.

After a moment, the messenger and old men of the chorus present in front of the palace remarked on the queen’s absence. The messenger went through the doors to check on her.

Just then, Creon arrived from the scene of his son’s death, carrying Haemon’s body. Creon’s earlier sense of personal infallibility had been wholly deflated by his losses. He had deserved it, he said – he had acted wickedly, and the punishment had been a divine one. But, even though he knelt there with his son’s blood all over him, Creon didn’t yet know all of it. The messenger from earlier reemerged from the palace, and Creon saw the bloody remains of his wife.

She had killed herself at the altar with a freshly sharpened knife, the messenger said. Her last words had been a violent curse against Creon. And Creon’s last words in the play, in contrast to the grandiloquent, self-assured monologues he voiced earlier, were fragmented and faltering. The failed king merely mumbled that he didn’t know what he would do, and that fate had crushed him.

The chorus of Theban elders, exhausted at the chaos and trauma of the Theban War, the terrible feud over Polynices’ body, and the violent obstinacy of the king, and the death of his niece, and wife and son, could only brokenly conclude that “This is the law / That, seeing the stricken heart / Of pride brought down, / We learn when we are old” (162). And that’s the end. [music]

The Conventional Reading of Antigone

So that brings us to the end of Sophocles’ three Theban plays – one of the most famous dramatic cycles in world literature. There are other takes on the story of Oedipus and his unfortunate children, but you’ve just heard the most famous one.

The Plague of Thebes antigone and oedipus

Charles Jalabert’s The Plague of Thebes (1842). The painting shows Antigone and her father going through Thebes while the city is still stricken by plague, perhaps on the way to Colonus.

Now as far as ancient Greek plays go, Antigone is very famous and commonly read. One of the reasons for Antigone’s popularity is that it seems to resonate with our values today. In some ways, the play Antigone is a story about a brave young woman and a misogynistic oppressor, a story about feminine resilience against a masculine power structure. I’ve taught the play before, and that seems to be an instinctive reaction in modern interpretations – to argue that Antigone is the hero, and Creon the villain, and that Antigone scores a victory at the cost of her life. It’s a great reading, but it’s not the one we’re going to use in the remainder of this episode. We’re going to have a little bit different interpretation.

What I want to do now, is to take the play Antigone, and contextualize it with what was happening in the city of Athens in 441 BCE. The last line of the play, once Creon is stricken and disgraced to find his wife and son dead, along with his niece – the last line of the play is a meditation of the chorus. The chorus says that the story is about “pride brought down,” and that pride being brought down “is the law.”

Now, if you’ve ever encountered Greek tragedy anywhere, you’ve heard the word hubris. And it’s not unlikely that you know what hubris means – it means overweening pride, and fierce egocentricity – pride that is unsustainable and will inevitably be chastened by the turns of fortune’s wheel, just as proud Oedipus finds he cannot escape what fate has written for him, and inflexible Creon pays dearly for his overzealous persecutions. Literature is stocked with thousands of stories about hubris – I started this podcast with the story of the Tower of Babel, and there just seems to be something in us that responds to tales of arrogant glory crumbling into ruination – the decay of Ptolemaic Egypt, the fall of Rome, the diminution of Byzantium – whether it’s in literature or in history, we just seem to love this stuff.

But, just as I don’t think we can say Antigone is a straight up feminist play about a brave heroine, I also don’t think we can look at a play as famous and important as Antigone, say it’s about hubris chastened, and then dust off our hands and go onto the next one. I think we need to go deeper – deeper into the mid to late 400s BCE, and explore something that was emerging in the Greek speaking world during this time.

In the previous two episodes, you heard a bit about how the other two Theban plays can be understood in the context of the Peloponnesian War. But the Peloponnesian War wasn’t the only thing going on in Athens in the late 400s. There was also an intellectual movement taking place – one of the most influential movements in philosophical history. This movement was called sophism. And although reading Antigone as a feminist tale, or as a timeless story about pride humbled by the knuckles of fate is a good start, I think that understanding Antigone within the intellectual currents that produced it – within sophist philosophy, can help us understand why Antigone is a masterpiece amidst masterpieces. [music]

Sophism and Platonic Philosophy

I want to start by giving you a simple introduction to sophism. At a high altitude, sophism is really easy. Here goes. Western philosophy commonly begins with a group of philosophers called the Presocratics. There are many of these philosophers, and we’ve met some of them, but broadly speaking, what they had in common was that they came about before, or slightly before, or in some cases were roughly contemporary with the life of Socrates. The idea of Presocratics, and then Socrates, and then everything afterwards is a bit like the Christian one of BC and AD – in both cases a singular, pivotal figure is the fold around which history is understood.

So the historical Socrates lived from about 470-399 BCE. Socrates was about 25 years younger than Sophocles, and the play Antigone would have come out around Socrates’ 30th birthday. In all probability, the philosopher Socrates would have seen the great playwright Sophocles’ award-winning play at the city Dionysia in 441 BCE, and as with all Greek tragedy, Antigone was a play that explored contemporary philosophical questions vital to classical Athens.

Socrates, however, with his famous snub nose, bulging eyes, and distinctly homely face, would not have been the only philosopher present in the theater in the spring of 441 BCE. In 441, Athens was an imperial powerhouse, with rivers of silver flowing into its coffers and amazing construction projects rising up on the Acropolis. In addition to architects, and financiers, and opportunists of all sorts, the city was also filled with intellectuals. Some of these intellectuals were philosophers whom posterity would nickname “Sophists.” Let’s talk about those Sophists.

If you’ve taken a philosophy 101 course, and you remember just one thing about Ancient Greek philosophy, it’s probably that the philosopher Plato wrote dialogues in which his teacher, Socrates, engaged in long debates with other thinkers, that Socrates’ method of debate was to pose questions to his fellow conversant, and that this style of argumentation is called the Socratic method. So Socrates lived first, and when Socrates was about 45, his pupil Plato was born, and a huge amount of Plato has been preserved, through which we have most of what we know about the philosophical climate of Athens in the mid to late 400s.

I have a feeling that if you’re the kind of person who seeks out educational podcasts, and regularly listens to this show, all of this is old news to you and you’re nodding and saying, “Yeah, yeah, buddy, I got that. Socrates was Plato’s teacher, he taught with the Socratic method, gotcha, gotcha, gotcha.” So let’s take it up just one simple level. The Platonic dialogues show Socrates talking to a lot of different people, on a lot of different subjects, generally winning them over by his spellbinding and occasionally irritating use of the Socratic Method. Who were these people? Why does Socrates argue with them, page after page, dialogue after dialogue?

Many of them – not all of them, but many of them, were Sophists. These men had philosophical ideas that were disagreeable to Socrates and, more importantly, Socrates’ star pupil, Plato. Let’s do something we haven’t done in a little while. Let’s build a T-chart. On the left hand side is Socrates/Plato. And on the right hand side are the Sophists. We’re going to nail down the biggest differences between them – again, Socrates/Plato on the left, Sophists on the right.

Left hand column. Socrates/Plato were religiously orthodox. And in fact, it’s commonplace in scholarship to compare their philosophy to Christianity.3 The philosophy of Plato and Socrates valued discipline, and temperance, and mind over matter. Plato sought out the eternal truisms for ethical self conduct and the organization of the universe, arguing, famously, that a supersensory realm of forms exists, and that this world beyond the senses is the paramount tier of reality. The willing death of Socrates at the hands of the Athenian state in 399 BCE is unmistakably the story of a great martyr perishing for his beliefs, and surely resonated with generations of Christian intellectuals who read it and copied it throughout antiquity. Of all the hundreds of ancient philosophers who might have made it down to us, it’s not a coincidence that so much Plato was copied in the scriptoriums of the Middle Ages. With important exceptions, Plato and his philosophical successors have been co-opted and spliced with Christianity, for two thousand years.

So the left side of our T-chart is really easy. The Socrates/Plato team assembled a nice sturdy ethical and metaphysical system that very often looks and smells like Christianity. They urged people to be moderate, control their impulses, always strive toward virtue, to be true to themselves, and that the world of the senses was a lower tier of reality. What were they defining themselves against, though? Plato’s surviving body of work is too enormous for a single generalization, but we can still say that one of the things Socrates/Plato were speaking out against was Sophism. That takes us to the right hand side of the T-chart.

Salvator Rosa - Démocrite et Protagoras

Slavator Rosa’s Democritus and Protagoras, c. 1663. Had theological history gone differently, Socrates and Plato might be awkward footnotes to Democritus and Protagoras, who generated theories of atomic materialism and subjectivity in the 5th century BCE.

Sophist, originally, just meant “professor.” And the sophists were a group active in the Greek speaking world – particularly in Athens, as professors of rhetoric and argumentation. In the Athens of the philosopher Socrates and the playwright Sophocles, rhetoric and argumentation were probably the most important tools at the disposal of an ambitious man. The city’s most famous men – Themistocles, and Pericles, and later Alcibiades – were frequently also its most capable orators. Oration, and rhetoric, and public speaking were supremely important in classical Athens, because if you could stand up in front of thousands of people and persuade them to cast a vote on something – purely through the power of speech, you had a whole lot of political clout. Connectedly, if you wanted your son to have a future in Athenian politics, you asked around town, and you found the best Sophist you could afford, and got those weekly tutoring sessions going.

So the Sophists were instructors who professionally taught speech and rhetoric to the wealthy youth of Athens. So far, that doesn’t really seem like it could be objectionable to anyone. The problem for Socrates/Plato was that the teachings of some of the more prominent Sophists were directly contradictory to many of the core tenets of Platonic philosophy. Let’s talk about some of those teachings. Now, I know we’ve taken two turns away from Sophocles’ play Antigone. But remember that Antigone was staged for a specific audience, and within that audience would a group of professional instructors – again the Sophists, who were the most respected intellectuals of the day. Sophism, and its grouchy opponent Socrates, were two major forces at work in the Athens of Sophocles, and I think it’s worth a couple of minutes to explore the teachings of the lesser known group. Because I believe that when we finish filling out that right hand column of our T-chart, you’ll see that Sophocles’ Antigone, like many great works of world literature, may seem timeless and enduring in hindsight – but at its inception it may have been about very local, and very contemporary themes. [music]

Deductive Certainty versus Subjectivity

There are about ten sophists on whom we have information from various sources – mostly Plato, but also Aristotle, the third century BCE historian Diogenes Laertius, and the later Roman historian, Plutarch. All of them are worth studying in detail. But since this is a literature podcast, and not a philosophy podcast, like, say, Peter Adamson’s or Stephen West’s, we’re just going to talk about two Sophists – first generation Sophists whom Plato deals with extensively in the Socratic dialogues.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the word “sophistry.” I guess it’s a fairly esoteric word, but it means using fallacious premises that seem plausible on the surface in order to construct an argument. You might tell your mom that all of the other kids were eating all their Halloween candy, so you thought that was what you were supposed to do, as well. Or, a more pertinent example, you might tell your sister that you were going to get yourself killed because you earnestly believed that a good burial for your brother was more important than your own life. Or, you might tell your niece that she had to die in order to serve the interests of a state that didn’t – uh – actually want her to die. Generally, the word “sophistry,” to us today, means the assembly of logically unsound arguments. We see a lot of these arguments in the play Antigone.

The reason that we have this word – again, “sophistry,” and that it’s a negative word, is Plato. Plato’s Socrates, page after page, dismantles the philosophical systems of various contemporary thinkers – Hippias, Callicles, Thrasymachus, and Cratylus. Down they go, round after round, disassembled by the Swiss Army knife of the Socratic Method. And so it seems, through long stretches of the Platonic dialogues, that the Sophists were a homogenous mob of interchangeable graybeards, all spinning a lot of flimflam and hullabaloo. Only, they weren’t. They definitely weren’t.

comparative diagram of platonism and sophism You only have to know one thing about Plato, and one general fact about the Sophists, to understand why we need a T-chart for them. Let’s start with Plato. Particularly in the dialogues Cratylus and Theaetetus, and then in Book 7 of the Republic, Plato works out his most famous allegory – maybe the most famous allegory in western philosophy. This allegory is that most of us are trapped in a world of false impressions, like imprisoned people watching the shadows of things on a cave wall, and believing that those shadows are reality. To Plato, though, a certain kind of person – a philosopher, of course – can escape from this illusory, lower form of reality, and go out into the blinding daylight of real trees, and the moon, and the sun. This lucky philosopher, because of his unique makeup, can perceive and understand the real essences of things – not just the hundred million imperfect tables out there in the world, but the ideal, original table, from which all other tables are made. The philosopher, in short, in Plato’s philosophy, has access to the world of forms – the world of original templates from which all imperfect earthly things are made. That’s the one of the core tenets of Platonic philosophy.

Frankly I’m surprised the theory made it very far. I mean what if I, as a podcaster, said that only podcasters had access to the paramount tier of reality, and that everyone who was not a podcaster was living in a deluded and inferior stage of reality – that all non-podcasters were half-wits blithely drooling in dark caves? Would people notice, perhaps, that my quote unquote philosophy was a tad supercilious and self congratulatory? Would I, maybe, get punched in the sternum? I would hope so. Well anyway, that’s the allegory of the cave and the theory of forms. And the most important thing to remember about it, for now, as far as the Sophists are concerned, is that Plato did believe that a privileged selection of humankind could comprehend a level of truths that were absolute and universal. Again, Plato believed in absolute and universal truths.

Okay, finally, that takes us to the Sophists, right side of the T-chart. The Sophists, generally, did not share Plato’s belief that a realm of absolute reality exists beyond our senses. In fact, against Plato’s metaphysical system building approach to philosophy, the Sophists generally preached skepticism, and subjectivity. The Sophists were fascinated by the fact that reality is radically different from person to person. Being rhetoricians and orators, the sophists understood that even in the center of the civilized world – the Assembly at Athens, for them, truths could meld, and evolve, and turn on their heads. Any argument, the Sophists knew, had an inverse, and within the malleable realm of the human brain, truisms, and ethics, and even sensory perception all had a high capacity to change. What, the Sophists wondered, was anyone doing talking about gods, or universal truths when we couldn’t even agree on whether or not a wind was cold? What were we doing talking about an unchanging eternal reality when we couldn’t even agree on which soup was tasty, and which one was yucky?

So now you have that T-chart in your mind – Plato on the left, sophists on the right. You know that Plato believed in a two-tier reality, with a sort of sludge of everyday people and false sense impressions on the bottom tier, and a shiny realm of philosophers and true forms on the top tier. And you know that Sophists, who were generally skeptical of any universal truisms, would have dismissed Plato’s allegory of the cave and theory of forms hilariously stupid if more of their writings had survivedin bulk. So assuming that a 30-year-old Socrates was there at the Theater of Dionysus in 441 BCE when Antigone was first staged, we can also assume that a certain sophist was there, too. This sophist was a fixture in Athenian society – a well funded teacher who had prepared countless youths for careers in politics. Just three years earlier, he had personally worked with the city’s de facto ruler Pericles on the constitution of a new colony in Southern Italy.4 He would have been about 49 years old. And his name was Protagoras. [music]

Protagoras, Gorgias, and Philosophical History

Socrates, at this point still young and hungry, would have looked at the older Protagoras as a man with an established civic and philosophical reputation. As the first lines of Antigone were spoken – that dialogue between Ismene and Antigone – we can imagine Socrates staring across the orchestra at the wealthy and reputable Sophist philosopher Protagoras and maybe concocting some of his own ideas – those famous Socratic virtues of moderation in diet, the relinquishment of material possessions, and physical hardihood. These were exactly the kinds of virtues that might entice a hungry young intellectual like Socrates, as he looked at the older philosopher Protagoras. The whole of Platonic philosophy might have been born right there in 441 BCE at the premiere of Antigone. Of course that’s an unfounded supposition, but it’s not impossible.

Anyway, let’s get back to the facts. Whether or not Socrates and Protagoras attended Antigone in 441, and whether they knew about one another at that juncture, we do know a bit about Protagoras’ philosophy from several different sources.

Like many Presocratic philosophers we’ve met, posterity has assigned Protagoras a simple, quotable tagline. This tagline is, “Man is the measure of all things.” And again, that’s “Man is the measure of all things.”5 This is a quote about human subjectivity, and relativism. It means that each of us is confined inexorably to the filters of our own perceptions, and, that we cannot, either individually or as a collective, transcend our subjectivity. The full version of the famous quote from Protagoras is “Man is the measure of all things – of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not” (211). In other words, everything that we perceive, and everything we don’t perceive, is a result of our confinement within our own subjectivity. My blue is different than your blue, I like persimmons and you like pomegranates, one of us likes opera and the other likes hip hop, etc. etc. etc.

This quote – “Man is the measure of all things,” is possibly the most famous quote in Sophist philosophy. And it’s certainly the heart of what we know about Protagoras. Protagoras was, famously, an agnostic, evidently believing that if he couldn’t even trust his own sense perceptions, there was little cause to feel any confidence about the existence of divine beings. And, also famously, Protagoras was, according to one source, “the first to claim that there are two contradictory arguments about everything.”6 It was a common rhetorical exercise in the 400s BCE, evidently, to argue something, and then create a counterargument of equal weight. This rhetorical exercise helped budding young politicos prepare for their careers in the public sphere. But also, when practiced in great quantity, arguing something, and then arguing against it, had an effect on the two or three generations of Sophists who practiced this technique. Arguing, and then counterarguing, had the effect of making any spoken statement seem like little more than a nicely arranged bundle of words – and these words and literary devices could be used to manipulate human subjectivity into believing anything, any time. In a political culture that made decisions based on the rhetoric of powerful speeches, and not based on data, or quantitative analysis, the power of speech must have seemed something almost supernatural.

In fact, another Sophist, Gorgias, who was five years younger than Protagoras, thought a lot about the power of speech. Gorgias, just like Protagoras, also might have been at the world premiere of Sophocles’ Antigone. Gorgias famously argued that Helen of Troy was under no circumstances responsible for the Trojan War. Helen, said this Sophist philosopher Gorgias, may have just been kidnapped or compelled by the gods to leave her Greek husband for a Trojan Prince. But, the Sophist philosopher Gorgias adds, even if Helen were just persuaded by spoken word – even if she just bowed under the power of her foreign lover’s rhetoric – she was still not guilty. Because the spoken word, to the Sophists, had a compulsive power that, when wielded by certain hands, could not be denied.

Alright, so that’s the bullet points of sophism. It’s a philosophy that endorses relativism, and skepticism, and pays especially close attention to the power of language to form and distort our perceptions of reality. To the sophists, we can’t ever apprehend any timeless, omnipresent truths, because our reality is just shifting curtains of sense perceptions – curtains that can be manipulated by skilled orators and wordsmiths.

Let’s back up and look at that T-chart again, just for review. On the left hand side is Socrates/Plato, Plato’s allegory of the cave, his theory of forms, and his notion that eternal unchanging truths exist and that philosophers can understand eternal truths. On the right hand side is Protagoras and his fellow Sophists, with their notions that there are no eternal truths, that language manipulates subjective reality, and, also by corollary, that Sophists themselves are uniquely powerful, because they are rhetorical superheroes. Both sides of the T-chart, you can see, were a bit shamelessly self-important. Anyway, it’s obvious that once Socrates’ disciples started spreading his messages, and the sophists continued their work, the streets and symposiums of Athens must have been overfilled with Socratics and sophists arguing and going at one another.

It’s important, before we jump back into Antigone, to pause for a moment and ponder those Sophists on the right of the T-chart, and their beliefs. Sophism, over the past two thousand years of western philosophical history – sophism has seemed a bit scary, or nausea-inducing. After all, Plato and Christianity ended up emerging dominant, and Islam also shares most of Plato’s and Christianity’s core convictions – that there is an unchanging, divine reality, that this reality is understandable to certain select individuals, and that certain speech is divinely inspired, and immortally true. These ideas have been commonplace for thousands of years. But when we put Protagoras’ most famous idea – that “Man is the measure of all things” – next to them – all of a sudden we’re confronted with the vertigo-inducing idea that all speech, and all writing, is simply the ductile and slippery outgrowth of human subjectivity. Plato spars with Sophism in dialogue after dialogue. But in spite of its seemingly radical skepticism, sophism, once in the hands of a thinker like Descartes, began to catalyze the scientific revolution. And the idea that language shapes our reality has been mainline in humanities scholarship, from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis through the mostly French postmodernism that pervaded the 1980s, 1990s, and later, my own graduate program. I guess I really want to emphasize that far from being a bunch of feeble, nihilistic scribblers, as Plato often depicts them, the sophists were powerful thinkers whose ideas have pervaded world philosophy since the Enlightenment.

So we’ve taken a little aside from Antigone, but I think it’s been a practical and useful one. During our little aside, we’ve built a T-chart that embodies two warring belief systems that were alive and well throughout much of the lifespan of Classical Greek Theater. And now it’s time to open up Antigone once more. We already know that in its closing moments it is explicitly a play that criticizes hubris, or excessive pride. What I want to show you now is how this criticism embodies the intellectual currents of Athens in the 440s. If Socrates and the sophist Protagoras really were there on that spring afternoon of 441 BCE, I think they would have found plenty to talk about after watching Sophocles’ play Antigone. [music]

Antigone, Socrates, and Protagoras

Antigone is, in many ways a play about what happens when people stick to their convictions against all advice to the contrary. The play opens with Ismene trying to tell Antigone to please not throw her life away just so that some dirt can be scattered over Polynices’ corpse. The play comes to a climax when the frighteningly inflexible Creon, ignoring the eloquent counsel of his own son and the general sentiments of the Theban townspeople, buries his niece alive. In both the case of Antigone and the case of Creon, a certain stern, inflexible dedication to principles comes to the forefront. This inflexible dedication to principles takes us back to the main idea of this episode.

The main idea of this episode is, again, in its title: Episode 32: Trees Bending to the Torrent. At a crucial turning point in the play, young Haemon is trying to convince his father to show mercy on Antigone. Haemon tells Creon – and I quoted this before –
It is no weakness for the wisest man
To learn when he is wrong, know when to yield.
So, on the margin of a flooded river
Trees bending to the torrent live unbroken,
While those that strain against it are snapped off. . .(145)

This dichotomy – of trees that bend within a storm, and survive, and then trees that remain rigid – this dichotomy runs through the play. Early on, Ismene tells her doomed sister that “[There is] [n]o sense in starting on a hopeless task” (29). Antigone does not object to the charge that her fixation is insane. “Leave me alone / With my own madness,” she tells her sister. “There is no punishment / Can rob me of my honorable death” (129). Although Ismene begs her sister Antigone to think of all who are still alive, Antigone doesn’t listen. From the opening scene in the play, Antigone refuses to bend to the torrent.

Ironically – and the ancient Greeks loved dramatic irony – the person who best articulates Antigone’s inflexibility is Creon himself. Creon observes Antigone’s unyielding desire to bury her brother, and he remarks, early on,
The over-obstinate spirit
Is soonest broken; as the strongest iron will snap
If over-tempered in the fire to brittleness. . .(139)

And after Creon says this, bizarrely, he proves to be the most obstinate of all. Against the counsel of the Theban elders, against Antigone and Ismene, against the prophet Tiresias, and finally, against his own son, Creon remains adamant. And in another line that we heard before – one that Creon’s son Haemon delivers to him near the play’s climax – this line might have been spoken by a Sophist. And it is again,
I think, [Haemon says] for what my young opinion’s worth,
That, good as it is to have infallible wisdom,
Since this is rarely found, the next best thing
Is to be willing to listen to wise advice.(145)

But, in this play, no one listens to anyone’s advice. And proud Antigone hangs herself. And Haemon kills himself in a fit of grief, as does his mother, and at the end of all of it, Creon vaguely mumbles about having been overtaken by fate. Almost everyone dies, and almost no one learns anything. It’s an ending about hubris, obviously. But more specifically, all of Antigone is a play about the grave perils of self certainty.

The perils of self certainty. Hmm. It strikes some of us as strange that self certainty would have any perils. Some of the most influential creeds in the western world invite us to have faith, and to trust in an extrasensory world of beings and principles, and, against the counsel of others, to have, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “Self Reliance.” What could possibly be wrong with any of this? [music]

Isn’t steadfast confidence in one’s faith and principles a good thing? Isn’t holding tightly to one’s core beliefs, in the midst of the turbulent flow of history, the core of what it means to be an individual? Isn’t being consistent amidst the vicissitudes of history and the ebb and flow of social fads the greatest and most honorable thing that one can do? [/music]

Nope. According to sophism, most of that is dumb. To a sophist – to Protagoras, or Gorgias, as they sat there in the theater of Dionysus, Antigone’s morbid obstinacy, and Creon’s imperious stubbornness would have seemed especially idiotic. Because Protagoras, Gorgias, and the other Sophist philosophers Plato so disliked did not believe in absolutes, or the possibility of certainty. The sophists believed in the limitless fallibility of the individual. The sophists believed that people can become ensnared by lofty sounding rhetoric and subsequently begin harboring outlandish and absurd ideas, and even worse, acting on these ideas. The sophists had little confidence in the existence of divine beings, and so Antigone’s morose march to her own death would have seemed quite silly, rather than an act of heroic individualism, as it’s often interpreted today.

Sophism: A Modest Philosophy

Those of us in the west who are the heirs of Platonism, and Christianity, and Islam – the lot of us can be disquieted by Sophism. So we tend to think of Sophism, and any philosophical system that endorses skepticism and relativism – we tend to think of all of these as irritating dead ends. After all, if we really can’t know anything, and are prisoners of our fallible subjectivity, then what the hell is the point of anything, and how can we even know that we don’t know anything? Now this is the analysis that Plato makes of Protagoras in the dialogue Theaetetus, and Aristotle also reaches in Metaphysics.7 Both philosophers came to the conclusion that radical skepticism is a dead end, and their philosophical system building can be understood as a response to the frightening black pit dug by the sophists. The same tug of war happened later in philosophical history, when Kant responded to Hume, and much more recently, when Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont responded to Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, and other postmodern thinkers, if you happen to be into later twentieth-century philosophy.8 Sophism, whatever it happens to be called in any given century, is a typhoon. No argument can stand against it. The problem is, that like a real typhoon, Sophism leaves in its wake an empty crater. And empty craters are not, philosophically speaking, very usable.

But however destructive Sophism is, there’s also something inherently healthy, and humble about Sophism which I think that Sophocles understood and wove into the lines of the play Antigone. Skepticism, and relativism – really the right and left arms of most Sophists’ ideologies – skepticism and relativism never led anyone to go to war. The idea that my truth might be quite different from your truth – that idea doesn’t encourage us to shout at one another. It encourages us to ask each other questions. Imagine if the Crusaders had inherited Sophism, rather than a particularly bloodthirsty strand of Platonism! As these hypothetical alternate reality Crusaders polished their swords, they might have said, “Hmm, all those Saracens out in the Holy Land – surely there must be something to their belief system. Maybe we should ride out there and eat some figs with them. Scope out those libraries at Baghdad. Yeah.” But no. Alas, it was “We are absolutely certain that our premises are flawless in every way. When we get to Jerusalem, kill everyone, oh, oh, oh – and also let’s stop in Byzantium and also destroy the greatest library in the western world.” Now Sophists can be annoying. But I don’t think they would be capable of something like that.

If we believe that we are infinitely capable of falling into errors and misconceptions, then our best chance of survival is the collaborative exchange of information – exchange like the one fostered by Athenian democracy.9 Hopeful young Haemon tells his father “good as it is to have infallible wisdom, / Since this is rarely found, the next best thing / Is to be willing to listen to wise advice” (145). And we know, reading this gentle, persuasive line, that it’s the best thing that possibly could have been said. But Creon ignores it, certain as he is in the primacy of himself and his state, and Antigone ignores her sister, due to her brooding obsession with correct burial, and in the end, everyone loses.

So Sophocles’ final Theban play closes with a lesson. It’s a lesson, like many in Greek tragedy, that cautions the reader against hubris. But more specifically, it’s a lesson that tells us, in the face of our self certainty and our obsessions with extrasensory phenomena, to adapt and compromise, to admit when we are wrong, and to stay alive for the sake of the people we love. The seasoned, brilliant Sophist Protagoras, watching Antigone in the mid-spring of 441 – he would have nodded and found Antigone a rather sad and cross girl who’d pointlessly gone to her grave. But thirty-year-old Socrates, watching Antigone – Socrates would have seen great heroism in the main character’s relentless adamancy. And 42 years later, Socrates, like just Antigone, against the counsel of everyone around him, went to trial, and killed himself rather than compromising his beliefs. [music]

Jacques-Louis David - The Death of Socrates - WGA6058

Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates (1787), justifiably one of the most famous examples of neoclassical art.

Moving on to Medea

Well, my friends, I hope you’ve enjoyed these shows on Sophocles’ three Theban plays. As always, I also hope you’ll consider picking up a copy of the book for yourself – there are links to the edition I used in the transcription to this episode on my website. With the last six shows on the Oresteian trilogy and then the three Theban plays, I ended up cutting down pages and pages of magnificent quotes, and I think that if you check out any of these six plays for yourself, you’ll find them just as beautiful as I have, and just as likely, they’ll speak to you in ways distinct to who you are, and the experiences that you’ve had.

So we’ve finished the Oresteian trilogy of Aeschylus and the Theban plays of Sophocles. That’s great. And now, I’m excited to say, we’re going on to the work of the playwright Euripides, specifically a play that premiered in 331 BCE – ten years after Antigone, and like Antigone, a play with a very strong female lead. This play is called Medea.

Medea is one of my all time favorite characters in literature. I don’t want to spoil a thing about her story, which I’ll tell in full very soon. For now, if you’ve never heard the tale of Medea, let me tell you this. In the play you just heard, poor willful Antigone faces the opposition of her dogmatic uncle and the political system of Thebes, and Antigone knows ahead of time that resisting Creon and his enforcers will be futile. Eventually, Antigone is compelled to be buried alive, her only consolation that she did not compromise with her oppressor. That’s Antigone. Now, Medea, in the play that we’ll read next time – Medea will also face opposition – the opposition of her king, and her husband, and her entire city. But while Antigone’s instinct seems to be to accept her surrogate place in her city’s power structure and die a martyr for her ideas, Medea’s instinct is different. Medea’s instinct is to fight. And as a sorceress from a faraway land – one schooled in black magic and pharmacology, subterfuge and deadly toxins, Medea isn’t exactly a pushover. In Episode 33: Woman the Barbarian, we’re going to learn why the playwright Euripides, with his unorthodox beliefs and shocking endings, was the black sheep of the great Athenian dramatists who have come down to us. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I’ll play a comedy song momentarily if you want to hear it. Otherwise Euripides, and Medea and I will see you next time.

Still here? Okay, so, I got to thinking about Socrates and Plato. I’ve read a lot of the Socratic dialogues, and, as may have been clear from the content of this and other episodes, I have not yet been persuaded that Plato is the tower of intellectual clarity that many seem to believe him to be. So I wrote the following song, in which Socrates and Plato, using the Socratic method, discuss their philosophy in a musical duet. This one is called “The Philosophy of Socratato.” Hope it’s funny, and that you have a great week.

1.^ There is some inconsistency in the source material to who was put on the throne first, even within the pages of Sophocles, whose Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus were written out of order and four decades apart. I stuck with Polynices being on the throne first, since that was the story we are told in Oedipus at Colonus and the version we heard in the previous episode.

2.^ Sophocles. The Theban Plays. Translated by E.F. Watling. New York and London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1974. Kindle Edition, p. 126. Further references to this text are noted parenthetically.

3.^ An early example of this is the ever unorthodox Bertrand Russell. See Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945, Kindle Location 169.

4.^ See Plutarch’s Life of Pericles (36).

5.^ Waterfield, Robin. The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists. (Oxford World’s Classics) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition, p. 211.

6.^ Quoted in Waterfield, Robin. The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists. (Oxford World’s Classics) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition, p. 211. The quote is from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers.

7.^ See Plato, Theatetus 16.1 and Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1007 18-25.]

8.^ These rebuttals are in Kant’s Prolegnomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783) and in Sokal, Alan and Bricmont, Jean. Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. (Picador, 1999). Of course Kant is mainly concerned with Hume’s doctrine of causality, just as Sokal and Bricmont mainly object to postmodernism’s misconceptions about science, but numerous moments of each argument essentially argue against radical skepticism, just like Plato’s Theaetetus.

9.^ In reading Theaetetus 166-7, Robin Waterfield writes, “So, in Protagoras’ case, the idea that nothing is false must be modified: though nothing is false, some beliefs are better than others, and in the political sphere that means they are more conducive to utilitarian harmony.” I have to assume that someone has drawn out the connections between Protagoras and nineteenth-century American pragmatism that stretched between Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, and through Peirce, Derrida.