“Read Sophocles”: Poetry, Philosophy, Beauty

2-volume 19th-century Bible, The Tollkeeper’s House, Toronto

In the midst of a philosophical discussion online, a philosopher/theologian friend (who teaches the “great books” at university) stated, “Read Sophocles.” The point was that if one were to read Sophocles, the philosophical position being elucidated would become clearer.

This is a good use of the classics. I still remember my first encounter with Antigone in high school and the stichomythia between Haemon and his father Creon, preceded by Haemon’s speech, including these lines:

Whoever thinks that he alone possess intelligence,
the gift of eloquence, he and no one else,
and character too . . . such men, I tell you,
spread them open — you will find them empty.
No, it’s no disgrace for a man, even a wise man,
to learn many things and not to be too rigid.
You’ve seen trees by a raging winter torrent,
how many sway with the flood and salvage every twig,
but not the stubborn — they’re ripped out, roots and all.
Bend or break. The same when a man is sailing:
haul your sheets too taut, never give an inch,
you’ll capsize, and go the rest of the voyage
keel up and the rowing-benches under.

Lines 707-718, trans. Robert Fagles (English lines 791-803), pp. 95-96

As the remaining events of the play bear out, Haemon is correct. Creon, King of Thebes, (in case you still need to read the play) has decreed that his nephew Polyneices (son of Oedipus), brother of the titular Antigone, is not to be buried, but Antigone seems to have done so, or attempted to do so. And so he is going to seal Antigone alive in a tomb. This ends up with Antigone, Haemon Creon’s son, and Eurydice his wife all dead and Creon repenting — too late.

There are lots of noteworthy points made and speeches and it’s well worth a read.

And, as with any good tragedy, whether by Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, or Marlowe, you learn a lot through the human drama as it unfolds.

What I am trying to figure out is whether or not this is the chief end of tragedy. I’m not saying my friend thinks so. Maybe no one does, but sometimes, when you read the people promoting the “great books” or “classical education” or the Greek and Latin classics, when they turn on the tap of their rhetoric to convince you that this is a worthy endeavour, it often feels as though — for that moment, at least — the reason is because there are “lessons” to be gained from Sophocles, that we can learn about philosophy from reading ancient poetry, and not just the explicitly philosophical like Lucretius, and that this is the most important reason people should read the greats.

Maybe this is because they are trying to convince skeptical parents and donors that this is a worthwhile endeavour. And maybe I’m misreading everything. And hopefully what I’m about to say will resound with them all.

Whatever lessons and whatever philosophy, ethics, politics, can be gained from reading Sophocles or Homer (and it can, as I have just demonstrated), the basic philosophical utility of the classics is not necessarily the number one reason to read them.

To take up the classically Christian cause of this blog, the monks who copied the Latin classics would likely disagree. I have not read Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, for over five years, but as I recall, the Benedictines and Cistercians of pre-scholastic, monastic theology, read pagan Latin verse primarily for its beauty — chiefly Virgil, but also Ovid, Horace, Statius. This latter poet, as C S Lewis discusses,* was imagined by some in the Middle Ages to have been a crypto-Christian because of his portrayal of the gods. Philosophy was the schoolbook for philosophy (and they had more and more Latin Aristotle to read as time went on, directly from Greek, alongside Plato, and Calcidius and Boethius and Cicero).

Given that, theologically, they were steeped in Sts Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great, it is also worth noting that narrative fiction, such as Virgil or Sophocles or Terence (always a school text), was considered “lies”, so they would have read it (not Sophocles, given that he’s Greek) for the language, for its beauty and subtlety. The advice from St Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana to make your teaching beautiful as well as true (but, at the very least, true) was one they took to heart. And so they read the pagan classics.

As I say, I have no doubt that people in the great books and classical education camps are not reductionistic, and they certainly see the worth in reading something for its beauty. But it’s an important thought to keep in mind.

Let me close with an anecdote on this theme, then. Malcolm Guite visited Rome when he was still an atheist. And there, he encountered John Keats’ poetry and Keats House at Piazza Spagna. And through the sublimity of Keats’ poetry, God began to break through Father Malcolm’s unbelief and soften his heart, making him at least open to the possibility of God, although not yet a Christian.

And so we can find God in the beauty of the poets even without hunting for lessons in philosophy.

*C. S. Lewis, “Dante’s Statius,” Medium Aevum 25 (1956): 133–9.

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