Suggestions about Sophocles and the Family of Oedipus

by  George Anastaplo


[Adapted from George Anastaplo, The Constitutionalist: Notes On the First Amendment (Southern Methodist University Press, 1971; Lexington Books, 2005), pages 798-99, note 32.]


One may find variations of the problem [discussed in the text], seen in the relation between city and family, presented in plays such as Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus and Aeschylus’ Oresteia. (See chap 7, nn. 35, 91, chap. 8, n. 2, chap. 9, n. 9, above.) Creon, invoking the claim of the city against the family, fails to discern that his authority comes to him through his family; Antigone, invoking the claim of the family against the city, fails to discern that her pride of family has been nurtured by the political role of her family in the city. Agamemnon is greeted on his return home as “king, sacker of Troy’s citadel, and issue of Atreus.” Aeschylus, Agamemnon 783-84. But what he had had to do to become the sacker of Troy (as well as to remain king?) corrupted his family relations and led to his destruction. (This juxtaposition is seen as well in the conflict in Aeschylus’ Eumenides between the family-linked old divinities and the city-linked new ones.) Seth Benardete says of Sophocles’ Oedipus (“Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus,” pp. 2-3):

… The play therefore moves from the question of who killed Laius to that of who generated Oedipus. It moves from a political to a family crime, which is, paradoxically, from the less comprehensive to the more comprehensive theme (compare 635 ff). Oedipus’ discovery of his parents silently discloses his murder of Laius, but to discover himself as the murderer of Laius would not have disclosed his origins. Sophocles indicates this shift from one theme to the other by the absence of the word polis after its twenty-fifth occurrence at 880, the context of which is the denunciation of tyranny. Tyranny links the political and family crime. [Italics added]

Consider the shifting back and forth in the play between “one” and “many” killers of Laius. See Benardete, ibid., pp. 5, 7, 14, n. 13. It is useful to notice that, although both Oedipus and the audience are convinced he did kill Laius, the evidence is not brought forth to support this conclusion; that inquiry is abandoned when Oedipus gets on the track of who he is. Sophocles leaves this vital question technically (legally?) open. (An identification of Oedipus as the killer at the crossroads could easily have been brought in to round out the case if the playwright had so desired.) May not this be because the question remains essentially open? Who did kill Laius? One or many? Oedipus, alone, at the crossroads? Or Oedipus as an instrument of the gods, of the “fates,” perhaps even of Laius and Jocasta, to say nothing of the city itself? The audience cannot help moving (without perhaps being conscious of it) from one assessment to the other (as does Oedipus himself in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus?). Does not this contribute to the timeless fascination, and even terror, of the play? One is responsible–and yet again one is not?

Consider also Antigone’s “distracted” lines at Antigone 836-45:   these reflect the fact that the family (one’s parents and brothers) is for a child something “given,” perhaps even natural. One realizes, on the other hand, that one’s own husband or child depends upon marriage and hence upon the city. Thus, the lines which scholars dismiss as distracted, perhaps even as spurious, point not (as some say) merely to irrationality on her part but rather to her awareness of both her strength and her vulnerability. But awareness is not the same as understanding:   and so she challenges a new convention (Creon’s decree) in the name of an older one (which some mistakenly see as either natural or divine in its origin). And yet the city does depend on the very family that it legitimates: it is appropriate that Creon is destroyed through his family. See chap. 8, nn. 135, 169, above.

Consider, in Shakespeare’s Roman plays, the parental influence on behalf of the Republic that is brought to bear on Coriolanus and on Brutus and the absence of such influence on Julius Caesar. I can suggest the deterioration of the Republic by remarking that what Volumnia was to Coriolanus, Cleopatra was to become to Antony.

Creon’s attitude is reinforced by contemporary anthropology: “Far from being the basis of the good society, the family with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets is the source of all our discontents,” said Edmund Leach, Provost of King’s College, Cambridge. “The family looks inward upon itself. There is an intensification of emotional stress between husband and wife, and parents and children.” Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 27, 1967, p. 5. But the political community would also be vulnerable to the anthropologist’s invocation of “the good society,” a society which (to the anthropologist) would be in principle worldwide but which is likely in practice to promote “individuality” at the expense of all communities as well as of the family. Compare, in Plato’s Meno, the first attempt by Meno to say what virtue is (71E-72A):  the attempt breaks down, something which Meno himself is perhaps aware of as he limps to his conclusion after a brave (i.e., self-centered) start. Socrates’ use in an illustration immediately thereafter (72A-B) of the gregarious bee hints at the crippling lack of respect for the community in Meno’s opinion about virtue. (An excessive emphasis upon community may be seen, on the other hand, in the Chorus in Antigone immediately after it is discovered that someone has defied Creon [lines 332-372]: nothing is said, in the comprehensive anthropological history set fourth there, about the family! This unnatural state of affairs invites and receives violent correction.) Compare, also, chap. 7, n. 35, chap 8, n. 193, chap. 9, nn. 3, 21, above.

Compare, on Oedipus and Antigone, Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics (Garden City: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co., 1961), pp. 90-91, 123-139, 143, 148.

The traditional relation between city and family is revealed by the license plates assigned to the household of Chicago’s remarkable mayor [Richard J, Daley], a revelation which reflects the fact that the “real man” is expected to lose himself in political life, while the woman is expected to devote herself to the life of the family. (See Thucydides, Peloponnesian War 2.45.) Thus, the license plates on Mrs. Daley’s automobile bear the initials of her married name and the number in the street address of the family home; his license plates display the number of votes he secured upon his first election as mayor. They are said to be, as a couple, quite happy. See Plato, Republic 433A-E, 453B-D; chap. 7, nn. 59, 77, above. Compare Plato, Republic 454D ff., Apology 31D-32A.


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