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Sophocles

Many are the wonders, none
is more wonderful than what is man

Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx with a single word: anthropos. The unimaginable creature with four legs, then two, then three is…the human. The winged half-woman, half-lion monster who proffers the riddle dashes herself against the rocks on hearing Oedipus’ answer. No one else had found the answer, and those who failed were eaten alive. With wit and cunning Oedipus humanizes the image of a being that sheds and regenerates its own limbs. It is simply the life cycle from the crawling infant to the upright child and adult to the aged person leaning on a cane.

But the Sphinx’s death lets monstrosity arise for real. Oedipus is caught in a web of unwitting and uncunning acts. He does not know that the man he killed at the crossroads when he fled Corinth was his father, Laius the Theban king. Hailed as a hero for saving Thebes by solving the Sphinx’s riddle, Oedipus becomes king unaware his bride is his own widowed mother, the queen Jocasta. His sons Eteocles and Polyneices are at the same time his brothers, his daughters Antigone and Ismene his sisters—their mother is also their grandmother, they are one another’s sisters and aunts, brothers and uncles, their brother is their father—in a genealogical vortex that can never be set right. The defeat of the monstrous Sphinx gives birth to human monstrosity.

The first time Sophocles addressed What is being human? was in Antigone, the play that details the aftermath of Oedipus’ patricide, kingship, and incest, though it was written fifteen years before Oedipus Rex. The Theban chorus first celebrates the city’s survival and the rout of the Argives who besieged it. The rivalry between Oedipus’ two sons—Eteocles defending the city, Polyneices attacking it—has ended with their killing of one another. Creon, Jocasta’s brother, is king of the successfully defended city. “Now here I am, holding all authority / and the throne, in virtue of kinship with the dead.” Hearing Creon’s decree against burying Polyneices, the chorus demurs to his authority; on then hearing that dirt has been spread over the exposed corpse, it wonders if this defiance was an act of the gods: “This is the thought that keeps on haunting me.”

It is then that the chorus sings its ode to anthropos: “Many are the wonders, none / is more wonderful than what is man.” The juxtaposition of many wonders | none more wonderful designates anthropos as the being who can be awed by the world’s many wonders and at the same time the being who is most wondrous. The adjective form deinon can mean not only wondrous and wonderful but also terrible and awful. I am using David Grene’s translation, but Robert Fagels captures the fuller meaning of these lines by doubling the terms: “Numberless wonders / terrible wonders walk the world but none the match for man.”

Wonder and terror. Only anthropos can be awe-struck, unlike animals or the gods. At the same time, anthropos is the being who is most wondrous and terrible. The ta deina | to deinotaton juxtaposition-caesura means that “man” is self-overawing. The human is the being capable of terrifying itself through its own awe-inspiring acts.

The chorus goes on to enumerate feats and creations uniquely human: shipbuilding and sailing, hunting and fishing, agriculture, animal breeding and husbandry, building, medicine, and speech and manners. These last two are foundations of civic life:

and speech and windswift thought
and tempers that go with city living
he has taught himself

Not all human feats and creations are self-taught. Plato and Aristotle affirm that artistic creativity stems from the divine inspiration of Apollo, Dionysus, and the Muses. Without the gods no artistic creativity. And without the rebellion against the gods by the titan Prometheus, no fire—that is, no hearth, no metallurgy, no industry, no cuisine. Mortals’ earthly imperative is anthropocentric but not anthropocratic. Anthropos does not rule its world or control its own existence. Not only do essential human powers arise from elsewhere, but the very ingenuity and inventiveness that the chorus celebrates foster disasters as well as achievements:

With some sort of cunning, inventive
beyond all expectation
he reaches sometimes evil,
and sometimes good.

The ill in question in Antigone is the terrifying prospect of becoming cityless. The play begins just after Thebes’ very existence has hung in the balance; exiled Oedipus has long been apolis; and now the struggle between Antigone and Creon is about to put at risk all the elements of civic life: belonging, law, rule, justice. The edge, or fold, between honoring and dishonoring “the laws of earth” and “the justice of the gods” is marked poetically by the chorus’s caesura hupsipolis | apolis—high in city | cityless. Whether the ill about to unfold comes from the “cunning, inventive / beyond all expectation” of Antigone or of Creon or both has animated the rich tradition of interpretations, reimaginings, and controversies from Hegel, Hölderlin, and Hebel to Jean Anouilh, Heidegger, and George Steiner all the way to Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler, Bonnie Honig, and Anne Carson.

No need to join that debate here, except to say that the Antigone-Creon agon arises from the core of Sophoclean enlightenment. By that I mean that Sophocles grasps that the humanism suffusing and illuminating the Greek polis rests on the fact that human decision and action engender consequences beyond the actors’ motives and intentions. Recognition of the ineluctable potential for tragedy in civic action found its greatest twentieth-century articulation in Max Weber’s “Politics as Vocation.” Sophoclean enlightenment also has an unacknowledged resonance at the heart of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. I am thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His entire intellectual trajectory was launched by a flash of insight as he was on his long walk to the Château de Vincennes to visit the imprisoned Diderot. Pondering the question put forward in the Dijon Academy’s competition—Whether the restoration of the Sciences and Arts has contributed to the purification of morals—he realized that science and art, to which he was devoted, do not generate or purify virtue.

The First Discourse provides a complex answer to the Academy’s question. Part I opens, like Sophocles’ chorus, with an affirmation of the human mind’s power “to soar…to celestial realms…; and what is grander and more difficult still, to return into himself, there to study man and to know his nature, his duties, and his end. All these wonders have occurred anew in the past few Generations.” Rousseau embraces the Enlightenment’s bold effort to understand the human. Part II, like the latter part of the choral ode, brushes back against the grain. “The Sciences and the Arts…owe their birth to our vices” rather than our virtues. “Astronomy was born of superstition; Eloquence of ambition, hatred, flattery, lying; Geometry of greed; Physics of a vain curiosity; all of them, even Ethics, of human pride.” Conversely, sciences also arise in response to human ills: “Without men’s injustices, what would be the use of Jurisprudence?” Rousseau expresses the insight that human inventiveness “reaches sometimes evil, / and sometimes good” in what might be called a negative or dialectical pragmatism. Where American pragmatism located truth in what works, Rousseau had seen that knowledge that works vacillates between generating ills and compensating for ills.

Rousseau and Sophocles share another insight. Homo sapiens is not human until it names itself. And thereafter it must continually attempt to interpret being human, for the self-designation is neither transparent to itself nor fixed. “We are ourselves the entities to be analysed” is how Heidegger introduces in Being and Time the analysis of Dasein—the term by which he attempts to scrub off the accrued associations in calling ourselves “Man,” anthropos, humanity, or even the human. In Essay on the Origin of Languages Rousseau’s “natural man” in first encountering another is filled with fear and shouts GIANT and only after realizing that the other is another like himself emits a new sound, MAN. Commentary usually falls on the fable’s thesis that language was impassioned and metaphorical before literal and rational. Just as importantly, the fable narrates the first moment the human designated itself: “natural man” names himself only as he recognizes the likeness of another, a recognition arrived at through the detour of passion, illusion, and monstrosity.

Metaphor is inseparable from self-designation in Sophocles too: Oedipus grasps the shedding and growing of limbs figuratively rather than literally. Which brings me back to an unsettled element in Oedipus’ naming anthropos. The Sphinx kills herself when he answers the riddle. Why, though? What if a common assumption about this thoroughly obscure legend is wrong, namely, that the Sphinx created a riddle whose solution only she knew? What if she composed a riddle she knew no human could solve because there was no solution? Then the full power of Oedipus’ response comes to light. Not only does a human being solve the riddle which had no answer, but the answer is being human. Anthropos answers and is the answer, at once outwitting the monster and becoming more monstrous than the monster.

December 2019