Greek tragedy is a kind of scripture that teaches us by showing, not telling, what we need to know. I call it a scripture because it is a religious discourse about human beings and their relationships to the divine realm of abundance and to the material world of scarcity. But it is also drama, a scripted matrix of interpersonal words and actions, as human and social as any conversation in the audience. Like all drama, tragedy is about individuals, but it also speaks to public life – Thebes and Athens and Corinth are not just crowded places but living societies with their own crises, wounds, and needs. Oedipus himself is a gifted man, endowed with an intellectual power that exposes him to special dangers. But he is also the Everyman that Freud made him. Though most people are spared the crimes of patricide and incest, and though psychoanalysis may have been wrong to posit a repressed yearning for them in every heart, it remains permanently true that nobody is in complete control of his own destiny. Just as we, the audience, can read the very script which the characters must live out, so the gods can read the fates which we must live out. Tragedy puts us (for once!) in the divine position of the invulnerable spectator, free to experience a safe terror as we identify with the endangered hero; free to feel a guarded pity for him insofar as we enjoy our blessed distance from his ruin.
Austere as it is, the art of Sophocles comes closer to life than any treatise on ethics could. It is free of precepts and instruction; within it, only experience teaches. Indeed, the work of growing up and old has in common with these tragedies the power to disclose necessary knowledge without the distortions that come with direct expression. As Oedipus learns, direct expression doesn’t work anyway: he and Laius are each given clear oracles which they cannot successfully exploit. Apollo is not silent, but mortal persons lack His divine leverage upon their own affairs; without it, they can’t use what they’ve been told. Any person, couple, family, or nation that has ever disregarded a prescient warning will recognise the exquisitely human agony of the tragic hero and his people. It was Nietzsche who found life in this world so unjust and horrific that it ‘could only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon.’ For him, Greek tragedy showed how the most grievous dilemmas and disasters have a wild beauty which only suffering reveals. There is a dangerous truth to this Nietzschean idea, because a misreading might allow interested opportunists to claim that all pain can be regarded as tragically beautiful, including whatever they or their leaders may choose to inflict. But tragedy is a picture of human suffering whose meaning inheres in its absolute inevitability; nothing could be more different from the sadist’s license to deliberate cruelty.
Apollo destroys Oedipus: not the Sphinx, not Creon, not some invading army. In Homeric epic, Apollo physically strikes Patroclus between the shoulder blades, and soon the man dies in battle. In Sophoclean tragedy, the god wields the man’s own nature as the instrument of his destruction. Teiresias warns ‘Apollo is enough,’ and in his eventual agony Oedipus combines this with his own responsibility:
O you who have done terrible things,
How did you endure the breaking of your eyes?
Which of the Gods had set you on?
It was Apollo! Apollo, O my friends –
That brought my wicked sufferings to pass;
But no one struck my eyes
But I myself in desperation.
The god creates the conditions for the crimes which the man commits; then the man, by way of his noble character, punishes himself. This passage is special because it repeats Homeric motifs – the question ‘which of the Gods,’ followed by the answer ‘Apollo,’ comes from the opening of the Iliad, and the image of a blinded man who attributes his mutilation to ‘No one’ comes from the Cyclops episode in the Odyssey. But the ethical structure is distinctly Sophoclean. In Antigone, the tyrant Creon issues an edict that criminalises pious acts which the heroine then performs, through her noble character; she opts for the punishment when she commits the crime, and makes no effort to avoid capture. Near the end, she tells Ismene that ‘I chose to die’; but a little later she says Hades is leading her to the banks of the river Acheron, then says that Creon is leading her captive. The god, the self, and the other are brought into a special, disastrous kind of contact that irreversibly changes the people without changing the god at all.
In Oedipus the Tyrant, we’re told of Laius that ‘fate drove down into his power,’ but we also hear Oedipus describe the stick-fight that killed the man. In Antigone, the ruined Creon says ‘the God struck down into my head.’ But in the same speech he takes the personal and human responsibility we recognize from the protagonists of the other plays: ‘The blame of it can never move / And be affixed to some man’s guilt, away from mine! / It was I . . . ’ It is crucial that the person at the center of the story be disposed to tragic suffering by his or her nature. What is irresistible is not simply the might of the god, nor the epistemic traps of logical entailment that comprise the plot; it is the performed fact of the person’s life as he or she lives it. The truth here disappears if we hide it in the word ‘character’; nobility is not some constraint that forces Oedipus to wound himself, Antigone to break a bad law, Creon to keep his word at all costs. Nor is it a magical property resting on a shelf in the mind until the circumstances warrant its use. It is an ethically strong moment that becomes aesthetically compelling when viewed from the safety of the amphitheater or the library. Tragic decisions are made at the peril of one’s own moral life. The willingness to endure meaningful suffering – no matter how futile – is the only route to the salvation (literally, ‘saving’) of that moral life without which meaning is impossible.