Expanding the Liberty Canon: Sophocles, the Tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone

Sophocles (496-406BCE) was the second of the three great tragedian of ancient Athens, the first, Aeschylus, was discussed in my last post.  Sophocles is best known for a group of three plays known as the Theban plays, referring to the city of Thebes, which was one of major states of Ancient Greece when it was divided between many city states.

The three Theban plays should not be thought of as a trilogy strictly speaking. Ancient Greek tragedies were written in trilogies, but these plays were written separately at different times. They are what is left over from a number of trilogies by Sophocles, as is normal with ancient authors many of his texts are lost. The three plays fit together as story, but do not have the level of integration of plays written together for performance as a trilogy at the competitions where tragedies were initially staged.

The Theban plays refer to the royal family of Thebes, round King Oedipus, who provides the title of the first play. The title strictly speaking is Oedipus Tyrannos. That ‘tyrannous’ is normally translated as ‘king’ rather than ‘tyrant’ is an interesting comment in itself on ancient Greek politics and ideas about politics.

The philosopers writing in Athens, at the same time as the great tragedies were staged, developed the idea of a ‘tyrant’ as a negative form of political authority, even a monstrous form of authority in which one man rules according to personal desires, unrestrained by custom, law, morality, and institutions.

However, one of those philosophers Plato accepted tyrants into his school, and made a notoriously failed attempt to bring the tyrant of the Greek colony of Syracuse in Greece round to the idea of ruing with Platonic wisdom and justice. It is not just the view of anti-democrats like Plato that tyrants might have some element of legitimacy in some contexts.

The sixth century Athenian tyrant Pisistratus had some respect as a strong ruler with just intentions who reformed Athenian institution.  ın the ancient Greek world a tyrant might still accept a citizens’ assembly and other well established institutions, so that the tyranny was focused on one person control of government rather than the complete subordination of every aspect of that city-state to arbitrary individual will.

The Theban plays are: Oedipus the KingOedipus at Colonus. The story of Oedipus has become very famous, even for those who have never read or watched an ancient Greek tragedy. It also exists in varying forms going back to a brief mention in Homer’s Odyssey. The version in Sophocles is that a a king and queen of Thebes faced with a prophecy that their son will kill the father arrange for him to be exposed and die in the mountains.

The royal servant assigned to the task passes the infant Oedipus onto to a shepherd instead and Oedipus in the end becomes the adoptive son of the king and queen of Corinth. Discovering a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus unaware that the royal couple who raised him are not his biological parents flees and ends up in Thebes where he kills man outside the city, who he later realises is his father King Laius. He then frees the city of a monster, the Sphinx.

Unaware that Oedipus killed their king, or that he is the son of that king, the people of Thebes offer him the vacant throne and marriage to the king’s widow Jocasta. So Oedipus unwittingly marries his mother after killing his father. The play Oedipus the King opens with a plague in Thebes and Oedipus’ search for the reason. The prophet Tireseas is forced to reveal his knowledge, which is that the gods are punishing Thebes for the stain of association with Oedipus, the stain of his unwitting crimes.

Oedipus suspects Jocasta’s brother, Creon, of a arranging the story as part of a conspiracy to take power. In this respect the play deals with the danger of a ruler who is given great power for good reasons, but becomes abusive and paranoiac in his use of that power. Oedipus’ further investigations lead to the confirmation of the story from Tireseas that he had rejected. Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus goes into exile after blinding himself. In this way, the play suggests that tyranny is self-destructive as well as destructive of the state over which it is exercised. It also suggests the need to expel a ruler who threatens both the welfare of the city and restraints on his power. 

Oedipus at Colonus deals with the exile of Oedipus, in which he is protected by the king of Athens from persecution by Creon who has now taken power. As with Aeschylus, we see that Attic tragedy defends the role of Athens as ‘educator of Greece’ (a saying attributed to Pericles as explained in the post before the last one), even while having a critique of power.

Oedipus dies in a way that suggests he is close to the gods, and we can see another layer in the story of the tyrant. As a monster of some kind, Oedipus belongs outside the city state and when he is outside the city, he is in touch with a justice superior to that of the city, which belongs to human communities before state imposed laws. The divine power associated with such laws is, however, dangerous when associated with individual power using the organised violence of the state.

It is Antigone that is usually most associated with ideas of liberty, but I hope that remarks on the two other plays show how they have many ideas about the nature of law and liberty, and the dangers posed by political power. Antigone is the story of Oedipus’ daughter of that name and her resistance to the tyrannical tendencies of Creon.

Her brothers Polyneices and Eteocles had struggled for control of Thebes, ending in the death of both as Poyneices attacks the city, when it is held by Eteocles. Creon decrees that Polyneices cannot be buried with proper ritual and his body should be left outside the city for the wild animals to eat. This was an appalling prospect for ancient Greeks, and the desire for soldiers to avoid such a fate is a major theme of Homer’s Iliad.

Antigone insists on mourning her brother and attending to his corpse in the normal manner. Her defiance of Creon leads to Creon imprisoning  her in a tomb, where she commits suicide. The violence with which he imposes his will leads to the suicide of Antigone’s fiancé who is the son of Creon and then the suicide of Creon’s wife.

In the end Creon learns to accept the advice of Tireseas, the prophet persecuted by Oedipus, and to moderate his insistence on pushing his powers to the extreme. Antigone is the heroine of the customary, and even divine, law of Greece which precedes the edicts of tyrants like Creon, so can be seen as the defender of justice against laws based on political power rather than on the basic principles of human justice, what is often referred to since Aristotle as natural law.

There are questions about how far the original audience would have seen Antigone as a character to be admired though. The society was intensely patriarchal and women defying the authority of men was a horrifying prospect. Perhaps the dramatic context provided an opportunity to push at the limits of the ideas normal to audience, maybe it just allowed them to think that one of the dangers of bad government is that it produces mad dangerous woman, and the play does portray Antigone as unhealthily obsessed with death.

She can be seen as a heroine of justice, and is often taken as a symbol of justice above the state, by those of classical liberal and libertarian persuasion, but others as well. She might also be taken as a symbol of conflicts over justice taken to a dangerous and self-destructive extreme, so that she is guilty as well as Creon, before he learns measure and moderation in the use of power. In any case, there is much to think about with regard to law and liberty in these plays, and it is important to recognise the ‘thinking about’ and not just impose simple interpretations inattentive to the details of the plays. Judgements of liberty and justice require respect for context and particularity. 

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