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Is it Justice? Sophocles--World Poetry Project

Updated on January 10, 2012
Oedipus, who in addition to exiling himself from Thebes, tore out his own eyes
Oedipus, who in addition to exiling himself from Thebes, tore out his own eyes
Map showing the location of Colonus in relation to the city of Athens
Map showing the location of Colonus in relation to the city of Athens
Philoctetes by Berry
Philoctetes by Berry
Philoctetes, again
Philoctetes, again
The wound of Philoctetes, by Abildgaar, 1775
The wound of Philoctetes, by Abildgaar, 1775
Antigone before King Creon
Antigone before King Creon
Oedipus with the corpse of Antigone
Oedipus with the corpse of Antigone

The Greek tragedians who have survived appear to have been concerned with the subject of Justice, certainly a worthy subject for extended consideration. It is sometimes helpful in considering justice today, in our country, in this time, to take a step back and look at it in ancient times, as presented by people who are not invested in the appearances and realities of the present day. In so removing the controversies and the emotional furors that can distract us from the subject at hand, the nature of justice and its effects, we may come to a better understanding of the concept than we would addressing it through the present day squabbles of media personalities, judges, juries, prosecuting and defending attorneys, and political candidates, all of whom are a little too ready and a little too untroubled in their claims to know what justice is and their guarantee of its realization, if only they are obeyed and heeded, for my tastes.

We have seen justice in Aeschylus: eventually all crimes come home to roost, and someone pays for the blood and wrongs of the past, if not the author of the past wrong, the descendants who as members of the oikos retain responsibility for the wrong done. Today, we will look at a very different concept of justice presented within the works of Sophocles, that great tragedian so beloved by political science professors. Here we find justice as a function of state, justice as a claim of the individual, and justice as a divine property and action in fundamental conflict with one another, the consequences of one involving a separate, perhaps oppositional response linked to the requirements of the others. Antigone owes her brother a burial; this is her personal, ethical duty. The state requires that traitors be not so honored, and this is also justice, but a political justice that has little to do with Antigone's personal tie of kinship to the fallen. Divine justice remains a referent to which both parties in the conflict can point, seeking validation for their point of view. Justice involves, then, insoluble conflicts, confrontations between the state and the oikos , custom and law. One may choose one side or the other, but this choice is not wrong or right, it is political: it illustrates adherence to specific formations, structures, and displays of state power.

Of course, many lengthy, thorough analyses of justice in the plays of Sophocles, on state and personal responsibility and power, are available. He is one of the touchstones of classical thought. The opinion above is just my own, based on what I have read and what I draw from Sophocles. Opinions, even scholarly opinions, should be received as what they are, not used as replacements for thinking it out and asking questions yourself. We all interact with texts in our own fashion, have our own questions, and discover our own answers.

The selections in World Poetry from Sophocles are: a chorus from Oedipus at Kolonos translated by Anthony Hecht, a chorus from Philoctetes translated by Armand Schwerner, and two choruses from Antigone translated by E. R. Dodds and by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald. Robert Fitzgerald, by the way, has produced an excellent translation of the Aeneid, while I personally find Robert Fagles translation of the Iliad to be superior to others I have read.

The chorus from Oedipus begins with a description of the shrine at Kolonos where Oedipus seeks refuge. It is a love-song to Athens, dwelling on that city's strength and power, its military strength, its moral superiority, and its location as a blessed place in the eyes of the gods. This is Athens after the Persian Wars, at the height of its power. Power is a thing you cannot avoid in Greek literature. They were not shy about it, about their desire for it or its benefits. Sometimes their naked appreciation for power can be disconcerting to modern readers, as in Thucydides history of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens illustrates its dominance over lesser polities in a rather brutal fashion. In this chorus, however, love for the polis in its power is followed by a testament to the weakness of man:

What is unwisdom but the lusting after

Longevity: to be old and full of days!

For the vast and unremitting tide of years

Casts up to view more sorrowful things than joyful;

And as for pleasures, once beyond our prime,

They all drift out of reach, they are washed away.

Greek pessimism appears in all its strength and bitterness. This time it does not resolve with a love of the temporary, with an affirmation of the here and now of passion and joy, but continues:

Not to be born is, past all yearning, best.

And second best is, having seen the light,

To return at once to deep oblivion.

Oedipus, that man, becomes the representation of all men before the bitter fate of decay and death, the unavoidable end of youth. And it appears to be not death that bothered the Greeks, or rather the Greeks showed no obsession with death, no love for it but no overwhelming fear either. Decay, that they feared, that moved them. Hipponax's lost teeth, all those young aristocratic warriors fallen into poverty and powerlessness, the continuing tide of loss that once begun did not stop--this was the hell of Greece. The Hyperboreans were the answer to it, a race of people who did die, but did not age, who kept the integrity of the body even as the years passed.

Armand Schwerner's translation of a chorus from Philoctetes introduces us to another facet of Greek society, the power of friendship, and more than the power of it, the necessity of it. Without friendship, man turns savage, loses his bearings, for he is disconnected, without responsibilities and without support. The solitary man has no oikos , no place and no haven.

Philoctetes is a character drawn from legend, a warrior who suffers a poisonous wound that will not heal. He stinks of corruption and of decay, and so he is left behind on the way to Troy, to suffer alone, to heal or to die, alone. (A good modern treatment of the character of Philoctetes is Derek Walcott's Omeros set in the Caribbean). Philoctetes is not guilty of a crime. His suffering seems arbitrary, without metaphysical cause.

he is his own neighbor, he groans

to his neighbor, limping through the heavy

round of day on day on day

no friend to mirror his misery to him, to offer

healing attentiveness, to calm the rage

and quell the pain

Suffering here is disconnected from crime. Philoctetes is innocent. He has not even committed an unwitting crime, as had Oedipus, nor, again as Oedipus, had he demanded this punishment, fixing the penalty before the perpetrator was known. Suffering is merely what happens to man, what happens to Philoctetes, and it is useless and cruel to argue it into a greater significance than that.

Antigone is a great favorite with political scientists, for it presents the reader with a clear distinction and tension between the rights of the state and the rights of the individual oikos , Here we are far from the innocence of Philoctetes, and into the guilt of houses and the long-working justice of the divine schema:

Blessed is he whose life has not tasted of evil.

When God has shaken a house, the winds of madness

Lash its breed till the breed is done.

Antigone is Oedipus's daughter, and certainly it is a strange, ill-starred family. Oedipus, cast out and exposed as a child by his parents, that they would avoid an oracle that said he would kill his father and marry his mother, his very exposure ensured that he did just that, when, raised far from Thebes, he returned there a stranger. His guilt revealed to the city and to himself, he leaves the city, no longer its king, and civil war rages between his sons. Both sons are the losers in this struggle, and Creon is made king, a cautious man who has the city's good at the forefront of his mind, and the city's good lies in law, in stability, in balance. Enter Antigone, a girl who is anything but balanced and stable, and between Creon's law that the body of her brother remain unburied and her own will to bury him lies the tragedy that is the subject of the play.

For time approaching, and time hereafter,

And time forgotten, one rule stands:

That greatness never

Shall touch the life of man without destruction.

This is a strange celebration of the golden mean. Do only moderately well, have only moderate virtues, or suffer. The reward for arete is doom.

The second chorus from Antigone included in World Poetry shows man in his power and his weakness.

Numberless are the world's wonders, but none

More wonderful than man…

He conquers the sea, riding the waves as if they are horses. He conquers the earth with his plough. He takes bird, fish, and beast for his food. His mind conquers with reason the vagaries of the world. He uses his words to deceive and to gain. Yet all this power, of body, mind, and spirit, fail before death. All the efforts of man end in this injustice.


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    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks for reading. Part of the challenge of this World Poetry Project for me has been choosing selections with which I can make some connection, and which I can write about without merely summarizing a wikipedia article or some history nugget I have pulled from an outside source. With the Greeks, this has been relatively easy, but some culture blocks and periods are more challenging for me--India and the Rig Veda for example. I really can't connect with it in any substantive way, and therefore can't write about it effectively.

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 6 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      Wow this is very interesting...I really like to read about the past..different countries....very good hub..I voted up...debbie

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 6 years ago from Canada

      What a beautifully crafted, intriguing page you've shared here Ed Michaels! Thank you. Regards, snakeslane