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Sophocles and the Necessity of Family

Instead of the gods being our deliverance, the family is the instrument of salvation and the bulwark against tyranny in his surviving plays.”


Sophocles (496 BC-406 BC), like his slightly younger contemporary Euripides, lived in exciting and transformative times. But where Euripides blasphemously ridiculed the gods and showed their callous cruelty, Sophocles—at least among the handful of plays that have survived—leaves the gods conspicuously absent from his dramas. Instead of the gods being our deliverance, the family is the instrument of salvation and the bulwark against tyranny in his surviving plays—but not without harrowing darkness before ascending into the light.

Amending Ancient Wisdom

Sophocles was closer to Aeschylus than Euripides in his content and message. Like Aeschylus, Sophocles was also more frequently honored at the festivals and playwright competitions than the younger and more impetuous tragedian who exposed the hollowness of the dark sacristy of the Athenian pantheon. This bears out in his plays where love and filial piety, themes that were present in Aeschylus, become the major themes in Sophocles. However, unlike Aeschylus—who located filial piety as contingent with the gods—Sophocles located the nexus of filial piety purely between humans. Electra’s deliverance with the advent of Orestes, or Antigone’s heartbreaking devotion to Polyneices which awakens Creon, the ruler of Thebes, to his failures, even the sympathy the reader has for isolated Philoctetes, all point to the importance of family life in providing meaning, comfort, and civilizational stability in Sophocles’ works.

Beyond filial piety and deliverance, the other great theme that concerned Sophocles was the tyranny of the state. Creon embodies statist tyranny in Antigone. Even pitiable Oedipus is the strongman of the state in Oedipus Rex, going as far as boldly eulogizing himself as the, “ruin that saved the state.” Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus, in Electra, are equally statist agents who are interested in the lust for power that characterizes the naked reality of human politics.

Athens had slipped from the open democracy that it was when she led the defense of Hellas against the Persians. Though the Athenian delegates and Pericles, in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, proclaim in an open-air forum the greatness of Athens, that greatness was waning prior to the war and certainly exacerbated itself during the conflict when Sophocles was composing his late works. The backdrop to the tragedy of Electra is the Trojan War, a war in its brutality every bit the equivalent of the Peloponnesian War. 

Likewise, Philoctetes has the Trojan War as its immediate context. Philoctetes was written during the final decade of the Peloponnesian War; the loneliness and desolate isolation that Philoctetes embodies is the same loneliness and isolation that drove Clytaemnestra to plot to kill Agamemnon. The difference being that Philoctetes was mercilessly abandoned for his smelly foot and left for dead on an island all alone. Philoctetes survived but is taken advantage of by returning Greek heroes (Odysseus and Neoptolemus). Poor Philoctetes, however, is robbed of a life, a family, and the happy ideal of life with others.

Love, especially as directed to the family or for family, is what makes life worth living in the rage-filled and dark cosmos that the ancient Greeks inhabited. That filial love, however, was rapidly dissipating during the time of Sophocles.

In this respect, Sophocles is amending the same wisdom imparted to the world from the pen of Homer and Aeschylus. Love, especially as directed to the family or for family, is what makes life worth living in the rage-filled and dark cosmos that the ancient Greeks inhabited. That filial love, however, was rapidly dissipating during the time of Sophocles. (And this is what caused Euripides to present love as a, “dangerous thing.”) Sophocles lived through the rise and decline of filial piety, which corresponded, in his mind, with the rise and decline of Athens.

Sophoclean Natural Law

It would be wrong to maintain that Sophocles—or any of the Greeks for that matter—had an understanding of natural law in the same way that scholastic Christians did. In fact, reading back onto the Greeks the high moral law is, ironically, part of the Christian inheritance of the West. Apart from Aristotle and Cicero (especially the latter), it is hard to ascertain anything resembling St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae and its ruminations on the natural law, which was also developed through centuries of Catholic thinking and encyclicals. Nevertheless, we do see the faint glimpses of the natural law in Sophocles which was more fully developed—if we can say that—than in Aristotle and Cicero (who still pale in comparison to their Catholic successors).

The closest revelation to Sophocles’ natural law (and the centrality of the family to it) comes through the person of Creon, especially as connected through Oedipus Rex and Antigone. Patricide and incest are objects of shame in Oedipus Rex. Such crimes—though Oedipus is fated by the gods to commit such heinous acts—are the focus of scorn from Sophocles’ pen. Blinded and ashamed, Oedipus prepares to leave Thebes but not without talking to Creon one last time. In the final dialogue between Oedipus and Creon, Oedipus implores Creon to nurture Antigone and Ismene and blesses him before his exile.

Prior to this touching moment, the closest thing to a resolution in the play, Oedipus was filled with pride and the lust for power. Accompanied by Jocasta, his mother whom he took as his wife, the two coldly assert that to be liberated from one’s parents makes one happy. Moreover, we are informed that Oedipus’ foster father, Polybus, loved him and loved him ever so dearly. Upon hearing the news of his supposed father’s death, Oedipus rejoices which exposes his hollowness. “You were a gift. He took you from my arms,” the shepherd messenger tells Oedipus. “A gift?” Oedipus retorts, “But he loved me as his own.” The messenger replies, “He had no children of his own to love.” Jocasta, overhearing the conversation, is overcome with guilt and shame and leaves to commit suicide. 

Oedipus and Jocasta had mocked the gods and scorned fathers and mothers in the lust for self-power and gain. Although we know the gods had fated them to misery, one cannot help but feel a certain rage at both in celebrating the death of parents. Their celebratory emptiness was their choosing, Sophocles seems to hint at, which makes their crimes worse than if they had simply played out the lot that fate had dealt them. As such, the family is utterly destroyed except for Antigone and Ismene who mature under Creon’s watchful and loving arms.

However, in Antigone, with Creon suffering from political challenges, his relationship with Antigone changes for the worse. He condemns Antigone for wanting to bury the body of her traitorous brother. Creon had decreed, civically, that none of the enemies of Thebes are to be honored. Polyneices is to be left on the blood-stained field of battle; his body to be the food of vultures for his rebelliousness. Antigone, by contrast, affirms the law of filial love in wanting to bury the body of her brother. (Burial was one of the most important of rites in ancient Greek society.)

Creon and the loving, not necessarily strong-willed (as usually interpreted), Antigone come to crossing blows over how to react to the death of Polyneices. Creon has ordered, with the authority of the state and law, to let traitors rot and be consumed by rats and vultures. Antigone, on the other side, exhibits the spirit of love to bury the body of her brother in a dignified grave. Creon’s tyrannical actions sever his bond with Antigone. Ismene’s submission to civic tyranny instead of the moral law equally destroys her relationship with her sister.

In the end it is the ancient codes—oh, my regrets!—that one must keep: To value life then one must value law.”

It is not until Antigone and Haemon flee to the culling fields to bury and honor Polyneices, thus making themselves enemies of the state in the process, that Creon—in his loneliness—realizes his errors. He cries out as if to the heavens, “In the end it is the ancient codes—oh, my regrets!—that one must keep: To value life then one must value law.” Creon’s tearful statement is ironic. The law he associates with life is not the civil law he had been forcibly promoting but the moral law of the family which brings and nurtures life. He rushes to the field. Too late. Antigone and Haemon are both dead. Creon realizes his sins and repents. But the tragedy has come full gale though we have learned something important from Creon’s claim that to value life one must keep those “ancient codes” of filial piety.

Family Against Tyranny

In the midst of Sophocles’ works is the struggle between the family and state tyranny. Aristotle maintained that family served as the basis of all civilization. Aristotle wasn’t onto something new. He was restating something ancient which had been forgotten in Athens’ descent into imperialism and, eventually, tyranny. In starting over, Aristotle began again with the basics.

The Athens of Sophocles’ time was a morally degenerate and anti-filial place. The place of the family in Athenian life had been dethroned. The dissolution of family and the crisis of agnatic relationships are not only visibly presented in the tragedians; they are also the focus of the comedic wit and commentary by Aristophanes in the Wasps. Likewise, Plato treats the subject of the dissolution of filial bonds and the supremacy of the state in his dialogues, especially the Euthyphro and Crito.

In calling for a return to “the ancient codes,” Sophocles was advocating a return to the stability and order of the family as the most effective buttress against state power and the chaos unleashed in a society obsessed with self-pursuit and power (which ultimately destroyed Athens in the Peloponnesian War). Electra is the great play which showcases the theme of filial deliverance. Electra has been living under the tyranny of her mother, Clytaemnestra and her adulterous lover, Aegisthus. She is alone and tormented. She loathes her mother for her actions and doesn’t consider Clytaemnestra her mother based upon her actions. No mother would murder her husband and coldly celebrate the news of the death of her son.

Deviating from his great master and teacher, Sophocles rewrites Electra’s deliverance. Aeschylus had Electra meet Orestes at the tomb of Agamemnon in the Libation Bearers. Electra fully knows of Orestes’ plan to execute vengeance, or justice (depending on your perspective), upon Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus. In Sophocles’ version, our heart agonizes and weeps for Electra. She is abused and distraught. When Clytaemnestra celebrates the news of the death of Orestes, Electra proclaims that her world has been taken from her and that she has no will—or reason—left to live. “Did the callous woman cry and mourn for her dead son? Was there an ounce of grief or pain? Not a bit of it. She left us laughing. O my poor dearest Orestes, you have snuffed my life out by your death,” Electra bitterly cries. Her cries are a testament of her love.

Without family—and suffering the burden of tyranny—Electra informs us that life is unbearable. “This is she—a most unhappy woman,” she weeps in front of Orestes (not yet knowing that it is he). Orestes, in seeing his sister in this state of agony, is moved to pity: a testament of his love for her. “I cannot bear to think of your wretched unwedded life,” he says. In this exchange, Sophocles is telling us that life without a family is miserable but is also indicating that life with a family is plentiful and joyful.

When Orestes reveals himself to Electra, she is moved to joy and bliss knowing that her brother is still alive. “O day of bliss,” she proclaims. “Pure bliss indeed,” Orestes lovingly answers. Love, family, and deliverance are bound up together in Electra. The love of a brother and sister, the reunification of a family torn apart by murder and the lust for power, brings about not only earthly deliverance in the form of blissful joy—but also deliverance from the hand of cruel and petty political power. Electra is not a tragedy like Oedipus Rex or Antigone. Electra is a play of deliverance and the triumph of the bonds of love that comes through the tribulations of tragedy.

Unlike in Aeschylus, there is no indication that Orestes kills Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus out of fidelity to the gods. Instead, he is an oracle of reckoning and an angel of deliverance. The real story is not revenge or justice. It is Electra’s liberation—her salvation, if you will, and her liberation from the tyranny under which she suffers. This takes love and family according to Sophocles. Without love and family, life is unbearable. With the arrival of Orestes, love and the reconstitution of a family bring deliverance and the end of tyranny. One can only hope that life with others, with a family, is that which also awaits Philoctetes as he leaves his Robinson Crusoe-like state of existence behind him.

Why Sophocles Matters

If Aeschylus saw strife and love being superseded by persuasion and justice through the ancient divinities—and if Euripides exposed the hollowness of those divinities that Aeschylus piously venerated—Sophocles offered the modus vivendi between the two. After all, Aristophanes pits Aeschylus and Euripides against each other in the Frogs. But in that play, Aeschylus favors Sophocles as his heir apparent.

While Aeschylus offers a vision of laboring with gods for a better world of reason and justice, and while Euripides seems to suggest that man alone is in control of his fate and actions, Sophocles humanizes the hopeful vision of Aeschylus. The gods are never central characters in Sophocles’ dramas in the way that they were in Aeschylus. The gods are conspicuously absent, at least in the plays that have survived for posterity. Instead, we see love and deliverance between humans. The gods remain at a distance.

Sophocles, then, was a traditionalist and a humanist. Sophocles understood the place of love and the family as the cornerstone of civilization and the good life—thus standing in stark contrast to the “dangerous love” of Euripides. The dissipation of the family had led to the forgetting of those “ancient codes” and ways of life that make civic life possible and fruitful. When the family dies or disintegrates, state tyranny emerges to take its place. Yet Sophocles’ advocacy rests on filial piety instead of divine piety. 

Moreover, and more scandalously, if not otherwise darkly, redemption in Sophocles’ is born only in—and through—tragedy. Without tragedy, there can be no redemption. We must plunge into the abyss of death and tyranny before being lifted out of the darkness. The light in Sophocles is surrounded by a cesspool of blood, corruption, and murder. Indeed, the light flows out of that drowning darkness of gore, revenge, and sorrow.

Sophocles was not sacrilegious or irreligious. He honored the gods like a good Athenian. Yet he didn’t seem to think, as Aeschylus did, that the gods are integral players in human development and deliverance. That, he left to us. In some respects, a world where we are responsible for moral action and loving deliverance is just as daunting and haunting a prospect as standing before Athena and Apollo in trial and being melded to be a co-laborer with Reason and Justice. 

The light is brightest when it is surrounded by the darkest cloud trying to suffocate it. And the light of Sophocles shines ever so brightly in that darkness ensnaring it. To journey and stand at the top of Mount Parnassus is a gritty and grizzly struggle. Despite the darkness surrounding us in this journey, Sophocles guides us up the mountain with a dim light, only to reveal a grander light at the peak.

Paul Krause is a graduate student in philosophy writing a thesis on the political aesthetics of Edmund Burke and holds an M.A. in theology from Yale and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University. He is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView and contributed to the book The College Lecture Today: An Interdisciplinary Defense for the Contemporary University (Lexington Books, 2019).

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