On this earth, there is nothing more firm, more noble, more intransigent than the heroic character. I encourage you, children of the twenty-first century, to respect such heroes, even as you fear them and pray that your fate will not be like theirs.
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with we who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Sophocles: On Character
In my previous letter, I wrote to you about choice. Now I would like to shift my focus from the decisions we make to that part of us that makes the decisions. What I said before is true: my dramas deal with choice and the collision of wills. But it is more accurate to say that they are all, finally, tragedies of character.
The wise men of your age all seem to have a different theory about the forces that shape our character, but they are too quick to reduce everything to simple material causes. Human nature is far more complex than that. Our character is not a mere product of physical forces but participates in a spiritual reality that transcends brute matter.
Our characters—and they have not changed substantially in the 2500 years that separate my age from yours—have a substance and a weight that make the mightiest mountain or the deepest ocean seem small and insubstantial in comparison. On this earth, there is nothing more firm, more noble, more intransigent than the heroic character.
Consider again my Oedipus. Even at the end of his life, when he came, old, exiled, and blind, to Colonus on the outskirts of Athens, Oedipus remained fearless, mighty, and willful. He would not bend when his brother-in-law (Creon) and his own son (Polyneices), both of whom had earlier conspired in his exile, begged him to return to Thebes and bless them and their city.
Throughout, Oedipus stayed true to his inflexible nature, yielding only, and that slightly, to the citizens of Colonus and to Theseus, the great King of Athens. But the gods had a good end for him. They saw in him a will as indomitable as their own, and they took him to be with them.
Alas, not all my heroes and heroines would have so strange and fortuitious an end.
Consider Oedipus’s daughter, Antigone. When her two brothers fought for the throne of their father, and, in the process, killed each other, her Uncle Creon, for the sake of order, decreed that one brother (Eteocles) would be buried with honor while the other (Polyneices) would be thrown to the dogs and left to rot. The intimidated citizens of Thebes obeyed Creon’s impious order, but Antigone refused.
Her character would not allow her brother’s body to be defiled. In the end, her refusal led to her own death and the deaths of many others, but she would not compromise her integrity, her devotion to family and piety, her sense of that which is right: in a word, her character.
Think of my poor Ajax, hemmed in on all sides by treachery, divine scheming, and the wiles of Odysseus. Like my Antigone, he, too, took his own life rather than bend to those who would make a shambles of his character. They stole from him both his rightful prize and his sanity, but he asserted his nature and temperament in the end.
Or, again, my melancholy Electra, daughter of the murdered Agamemnon and sister of the tormented Orestes. She came so to define herself by her grief and mourning that she could not see beyond it. She was not a literal suicide, but she did cut herself off from all hope of husband and children. She, too, would not bend to what others would have her be. Rather like Antigone, familial piety consumed her identity.
Why, you may ask, have I told you these tales? Why have I lifted up before your eyes such inflexible, intractable heroes and heroines? Because I want you to see what character becomes when it is pressed to the limit: both a glorious thing, worthy of the gods, and a weapon that turns against the one who wields it.
Look upon them, if you will, as object lessons, but do not simply dismiss them as villains or fools. And please, whatever you do, do not reduce their fates to some single flaw of pride or ambition or wrath. The good and the bad, the virtue and the vice of their characters are inextricably entwined: the one cannot exist without the other. They are their own worst enemies; yet, they remain icons of that which is best in man.
All around them there is chaos and confusion and civil war. But in their soul there is peace and calm. They know who they are and that knowledge gives them courage, the ability to stick to their post no matter the consequences. They become the still center that grounds and stabilizes, and even if they die—often because they die—they help unite their fractured society.
I encourage you, children of the twenty-first century, to respect such heroes, even as you fear them and pray that your fate will not be like theirs. Let their example drive you, not to reject good counsel as they do to their doom, but to maintain the integrity of your own character.
And be assured of one thing: that the gods often honor those whose wills are steadfast and immovable. They did as much for Oedipus in the end, taking him up to be with them and blessing all those who lived in the precincts of his mystical transportation.
And they intervened as well on behalf of my Philoctetes. Though he, like Oedipus, committed his forbidden crime in ignorance, the scheming Odysseus saw to it that he was stranded on the island of Lemnos, left there to rot from his terrible wounds. That is, until Odysseus learned that Troy could not be taken without Philoctetes’ bow, a sacred weapon which had once belonged to Hercules.
Odysseus used treachery to secure the bow, but was foiled by the young man (Neoptolemus, son of Achilles) that he had brought with him to deceive Philoctetes. Refusing in the end to violate his own noble character, Neoptolemus returned the bow to Philoctetes, and then begged him to come with them to Troy and help end the war. But Philoctetes, his character as stubborn and intractable as Oedipus or Antigone, refused.
But that the gods would not allow. Hercules, having been taken up by the gods to dwell with them on Olympus, appeared to the recalcitrant Philoctetes and told him that this one time he must yield. His yielding, however, would lead to good both for himself and the Greek army. Rather than violate the character of Philoctetes, Hercules enabled and empowered the hero to rise above his own stubbornness and find within a greater courage and self-identity that would redeem not only himself but all those around him.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Antigone donnant la sépulture à Polynice” (1825) by Sébastien Norblin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.