The Misfortunes of Oedipus and of His Daughter Antigone

The Wisdom of the Myths: How Greek Mythology Can Change Your Life - Luc Ferry 2014

The Misfortunes of Oedipus and of His Daughter Antigone

—or, Why Mortals Are So Often “Punished” Without Having Sinned

There can be no doubt: humans do not always deserve the calamities that overtake them and devastate their lives. Natural catastrophes, tragic accidents, and mortal illnesses affect the honest and the wicked without discrimination. They do not choose whom they afflict, and unless we sink to the lowest levels of obscurantist superstition, misfortune cannot and should not be interpreted as divine punishment. This being so, the question cannot be avoided: In a world supposedly ruled by justice and harmony, in a universe at the heart of which the gods are omnipresent and decide everything, what sense do we make of such flagrant injustice? What meaning can we give to the scandal of human misfortune, in those instances where it seems peculiarly senseless? Even if it possesses numerous other dimensions—other “harmonies”—the myth of Oedipus first and foremost addresses this fundamental question. The study of it therefore seems an indispensable complement to the preceding chapters of this book: it clarifies the significance and above all defines the limits of this celebrated cosmic harmony that occupies the center of the Greek vision of the world—or such as will be handed on to philosophy by ancient theogony and mythology.

The life of Oedipus turns to nightmare—despite the fact that, in the language of children, even if he has acted badly he has not done so “on purpose.” Here is a man of exceptional intelligence, with a courage and sense of justice out of the ordinary. Far from being rewarded accordingly, not only does his existence become a hell, but despite all his clear-sightedness, he is at the mercy of events and blind forces that overtake him and that he never begins to comprehend—at least until death puts an end to his unspeakable sufferings. How can such a perversion of justice be possible? How are we to interpret a fate that is as tragic as it is unwarranted, without concluding that the world—far from being a harmonious whole—is but a catalogue of horrors ordained by wicked deities who play with mortals as do children who amuse themselves by tearing the wings off flies or squashing ants? To attempt to answer this question, which inevitably raises itself at some point in any consideration of Greek cosmology, I shall begin by taking a closer look at the story of Oedipus and his daughter Antigone. Secondly, we shall try to understand its deeper significance—and in doing so we shall complete the vision of the world that the other Greek myths have allowed us to progressively construct.

I should point out immediately, before going any further, the general principle that once the cosmos has been disrupted, it is impossible for order to be restored without involving a great deal of (what one might call) collateral damage. This is why, for example, when a father commits an atrocious crime, it is sometimes succeeding generations that pay the penalty, not because—strictly speaking—they are responsible or guilty but because order cannot be reestablished all at once. Of course, no one is accountable for the actions of his parents, but it remains true nonetheless that a child is bound by the deeds of a parent, and that the manner in which our parents have lived can have considerable repercussions for our own lives—whether we wish it or not, and whether we are aware of it or not. If parents have sinned gravely through hubris, it is possible for the world at large to register the shock—and when the cosmos has been disrupted it cannot be repaired in short order. It takes time, and this interval is precisely the interval of human misery that embroils innocent individuals. This is why, if we are truly to understand the myth of Oedipus—rather than confine ourselves to the usual clichés of psychoanalysis or modern philosophy—we must go back to a time before Oedipus himself. For we shall find the origin of his troubles in what occurred prior to his birth.

Such a conception of the world may well seem outmoded. It may shock our modern moral sensibilities, understandably so. In effect, we have acquired the habit of considering that a punishment should never fall upon he who has done no ill: outside of totalitarian regimes, we no longer think of punishing children for the actions of their parents. However, we shall see that the unwarranted is often a reality rather than an absurdity, and there is no shortage of examples to illustrate the truth—even today—that a world out of joint, whether on the natural or societal level, is a world that destroys individuals who have nothing in particular with which to reproach themselves.

However, let us not get ahead of ourselves, but consider the story of the unfortunate Oedipus and his daughter Antigone—these two myths being inseparably linked.

Oedipus and Antigone:

the archetypal tragic destiny—or

how misfortune can strike blindly

As always in Greek myth, there are several versions of the story, and every stage of the life of Oedipus is subject to conflicting accounts. Nonetheless we have one principal archaic source, namely the Greek tragedies and in particular those of Sophocles: Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus (named after the city to which Oedipus comes after the series of catastrophes that I am about to describe). It is of course valuable to take note here and there of other versions, which sometimes afford fresh insights,* but the subsequent literature almost always defers to Sophocles when recounting and interpreting this most famous of all myths. Which is why, for the most part, we shall follow the framework of the Sophoclean story in the following pages.

A few words, first, on events preceding the birth of little Oedipus. He is a direct descendant of the celebrated Cadmus, king of Thebes, of whom we have had occasion to speak at several points already—brother of Europa, who was herself the mother of Minos, the Cretan king whom she conceived by Zeus… . After marrying Harmonia, the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, Cadmus founded the city of Thebes, where the main drama of the story of Oedipus unfolds. Oedipus’s father is named Laius, and his mother, Jocasta. At the point where our story begins, they have just learned from a terrifying oracle that if ever they have a son, he will kill his father and, according to certain accounts, even bring about the destruction of Thebes. As is common in such cases and at this epoch, the parents make the difficult decision to abandon the infant: to “expose” him, as was said at the time, because the child was usually secured to a tree and left to the mercy of wild animals but equally, sometimes, to the clemency of the gods… . Laius and Jocasta entrust the infant to one of their menservants, a shepherd, with instructions to abandon it in an appropriate place. The servant treats the unfortunate infant as one would treat a game bird or suchlike creature: he pierces its ankles and passes a cord through them so as to carry it more easily on his back, with a view to securing it subsequently to a tree, where it will be left “exposed.” It is from this experience that Oedipus will draw his name, which in Greek means quite simply “swellfoot” (oidos, which gives us our modern medical term “oedema,” meaning “swollen”; and pous, “foot”). On his way to the place, the servant of Laius encounters “by chance”—and the spectators of Sophoclean tragedy were well aware that this seeming chance is but another name for the will of the gods—the royal servants from another city, Corinth, whose king, named Polybus, is, as it happens, impotent and unable to produce the child he dreams of having. As the unwanted infant is so very dainty, the servants of Polybus propose taking the child with them. Why not? After all, if Laius has chosen to expose the child rather than kill it outright, this must mean he intends to give it a chance: the Corinthian servants will bring it to their master and the latter will surely wish to adopt it. And so it turns out, so that the infant is saved in extremis… .

Oedipus grows up in the city of Corinth, far from his birthplace in Thebes, at the royal court, whose king and queen he evidently believes to be his natural parents. Everything turns out well for him. But one day, during a game, he gets into a quarrel with a playmate. It is a very ordinary argument, such as often occurs between boys. However, his adversary calls him a name that he will never forget and that seems dreadful to him: he calls him a bastard, suggesting that his parents are not his “real” parents, that he is merely a foundling who has been lied to all along… . Oedipus runs back home and questions Polybus, his supposed father; the latter, in his embarrassment, denies the charge, but too feebly for Oedipus not to retain a clouded sense, a vague suspicion of doubt as to his origins. He still wants to be clear in his own mind, so he resolves to go to Delphi and consult the famous Pythian Apollo, just as his natural parents Laius and Jocasta had formerly consulted the oracle. He demands to know who he is, where he is from, who his parents are… . The oracle responds, as usual, by avoiding the question: providing not information on Oedipus’s past but—on the contrary—a prediction concerning his future. And the prediction is terrible: that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother.

From this, of course, Freud will draw the name of his famous “Oedipus complex,” the infantile impulse that—according to Freud—propels boys to unconsciously desire their mothers and violently reject their fathers at some point or other in their development. However, as we shall see, even if this aspect is present in the original myth, it falls far short of providing us with a key. Whatever the case, it remains clear that Oedipus is crushed by the words of the oracle. And so as to prevent its predictions from coming true, he decides to leave Corinth forever, for he still believes that this is the home of his parents, Polybus and his queen, Periboea. By quitting this place, he will avoid any risk of killing his father or sleeping with his mother—except that Polybus and Periboea are not his biological parents, and that in leaving Corinth the unfortunate Oedipus will inexorably and blindly achieve the reverse of what he hopes: he will draw ever nearer to carrying out the dreadful prediction of the oracle. In other words, by his very attempt to elude the oracle, he unconsciously prepares its fulfillment—a contradiction that will furnish one of the most important psychological mainsprings of Sophocles’s trilogy. And, of course, in this context where everything is already anticipated by the gods—as witness the two oracles, which invariably translate divine wishes—Oedipus heads toward Thebes, the city of his true parents, Laius and Jocasta. Now it so happens, to aggravate matters, that Thebes is at this point enduring a terrible plague that is decimating its population. Here again, the spectator can only suppose, even if it is not made explicit, that this scourge has been sent by the gods for whatever reason. But let us continue: against this backdrop of catastrophe, Laius has also decided, like Oedipus, to go to Delphi and consult the oracle once more as to what might be done to save the inhabitants of his city.

We are here at the center of a tragic crux that cannot but seize the attention of the entire audience: imagine the father, convinced that his son is dead, and the son, convinced that his father is in Corinth, each making his way unwittingly toward an encounter with the other! Their destinies cross, literally as well as figuratively: the chariots of Laius and Oedipus find themselves face-to-face, at the crossroads of three routes, so narrow that each is forced to draw his team to a halt. One of them must reverse and pull up on the verge to let the other pass. But both men are proud, each being convinced that he has right of way, if not natural precedence over the other: Laius because he is king of Thebes, Oedipus because he is prince of Corinth. The situation becomes inflamed. Their servants exchange insults, and Laius seemingly lashes out at Oedipus with his whip. They come to blows, and carried away by his anger, Oedipus kills his father, as well as the driver and retinue who accompany him. Only one of the servants escapes with his life, by running away, though not before having witnessed (and this will have importance for what follows) the entire scene… . And so the first part of the oracle has been fulfilled! Without Oedipus—any more than Laius—having taken the measure of what has just occurred, he has in fact murdered his father… .

Entirely ignorant as to his own identity, or that of his adversary, Oedipus resumes his route toward Thebes. Of course, the violent episode that has just taken place is regrettable, but the fault was on both sides, and Oedipus feels that he acted legitimately in self-defense. After all, it was not he who aimed the first blow. He ends by forgetting the whole affair and arrives in the city of his birth after a long and tortuous voyage. Apparently the plague has run its course, but a different calamity—itself equally of divine provenance, no doubt—now grips the city, whose new king (having ascended the throne after the death of Laius) is Creon, brother of Jocasta and therefore uncle of Oedipus. This new calamity has a name: the Sphinx, a female with the body of a lion and the wings of a vulture, who guards access to and terrorizes the city by requiring all the young men to answer a riddle. If they fail to do so, she devours them, and Thebes has started to become visibly deserted… . Here is one version (there are others, but they roughly amount to the same) of the riddle in question:

“Which creature in the morning goes on four legs, at mid-day on two legs, and in the evening upon three, and yet the more legs it has, the weaker it is?”

Oedipus hears of this Sphinx and, without hesitation, presents himself to her and asks for the deadly riddle. As soon as he hears it he knows the answer: unquestionably its subject is man himself, who in the morning of his life, while still an infant, crawls on all fours, then on two legs when he becomes adult, and finally on three legs in the evening of life, when he is weak and supported by a stick. According to an ancient prophecy, the Sphinx must die if ever a mortal succeeds in solving one of her riddles. Faced with Oedipus’s answer, she casts herself from one of the highest ramparts and is crushed to death. Thebes is thereby delivered from the monster, and Oedipus enters in triumph. The city celebrates, showering him with sumptuous presents. The crowd applauds his passage, and since Queen Jocasta is a free woman—she was still a young widow when Laius was killed—her brother Creon offers Oedipus his sister’s hand in marriage, by way of thanks, together with the throne of Thebes, which he now yields willingly, having occupied it merely as an interim ruler.

Thus the second of the oracle’s predictions is fulfilled: still in complete ignorance of what is determining the course of his existence, Oedipus has killed his father and now wedded his mother. He provides her with four children over the course of time: two boys, Eteocles and Polynices—who will one day kill each other over the succession to the throne—and two daughters, Ismene and Antigone. For the next twenty years, however, everything will proceed calmly. Oedipus wisely administers the city of Thebes, alongside his wife, who is also his mother, and Jocasta raises their children with loving care.

Unfortunately, when the latter are just reaching adulthood, a terrible outbreak of plague begins to ravage the city once more. Nothing can put a halt to it. Worse still, if such is possible, strange accidents begin to occur and proliferate—women give birth to stillborn or monstrous children, sudden unexplained deaths take place—so Oedipus sends a messenger once again to consult the oracle at Delphi. This latter replies, unambiguously for once, that the scourge upon the city will cease only when the murderer of Laius is captured and punished. Such a crime, in effect, cannot remain unpunished with impunity—which proves once more (in passing) that the gods have been following events closely since the outset, as is indicated beyond any doubt by the fact that all new developments are announced through the agency of Apollo’s direct and oracular representatives.

Oedipus still has no idea that it is he who is the guilty one, and he intends fully to obey the oracle. He organizes an inquiry, and on the advice of Creon he calls upon the most celebrated soothsayer of the region, the famous Tiresias, whom we have already encountered several times in other myths. Tiresias knows the whole truth, of course—otherwise he would not be a soothsayer. But he is embarrassed, not to say horrified, by the secrets in his possession, and feels an insurmountable reticence about divulging them in public, in the presence of Oedipus, who is still in a state of complete ignorance. The latter now becomes angry, accusing Tiresias of the murder and of conspiring with Creon to overthrow him. In short, he makes such a racket that the soothsayer ends by capitulating to his wishes. He pours out the whole story to Oedipus: if Oedipus must know, it is he himself who killed Laius, who was indeed his father, just as the oracle predicted, and who for good measure then proceeded to marry his own mother! Jocasta, overwhelmed by these words, protests and tries to persuade both herself and Oedipus that the soothsayer’s words are wild. To convince him, she relates some of the details of Laius’s murder at the crossroads: it was not one man who killed Laius but a band of brigands; it cannot therefore be Oedipus who perpetrated this act. For good measure, she reveals to him that she had another son long ago but that this child was “exposed.” Oedipus is only half reassured: the description of the crossroads calls up some disturbing memories, but on the other hand everything seems so confused… .

At this juncture, a messenger arrives from Corinth: he announces to Jocasta and Oedipus the death of one whom Oedipus still believes to be his father, namely Polybus. The news saddens Oedipus, but at the same time relieves him: at least he has not killed his father! Except that the messenger cannot help adding an astounding detail: that Oedipus should not be too upset, after all, because Polybus was not his real father. He was exposed as a child, discovered by chance, and adopted by the rulers of Corinth. Revelation! At a stroke the entire puzzle comes together. Oedipus, to be completely clear in his own mind, summons the shepherd who years earlier had been charged with exposing the child of Laius and Jocasta. He discovers that this same shepherd was indeed the servant who accompanied Laius at the moment he was murdered—and who then escaped with his life, since which time he had taken refuge in the mountains and had sworn, to be left in peace, that the king of Thebes was killed by bandits—which, in turn, reassured Jocasta that Oedipus could not possibly be responsible. But this was a lie, and now the shepherd reveals the truth. Yes, Tiresias and the messenger from Corinth are correct: the exposed child was none other than Oedipus and it was he alone who killed Laius. Everyone present can now put two and two together and reconstitute the whole story: the dreadful oracle of Apollo is finally fulfilled, and recognized as such.

We are at the epicenter of the tragedy, and there will be no happy resolution. On the contrary, things can only get worse. Jocasta commits suicide as soon as she knows the real story. As for Oedipus, when he finds her hanging in her chamber, he seizes the brooch from Jocasta’s robe and gouges out his eyes in rage. As always, the punishment fits the “crime”—I place the word in quotation marks, for Oedipus has never in reality intended any of this to happen. Indeed, his whole tragedy is that he has seen nothing in advance of its coming. Despite all his intelligence, he has been blind from start to finish. And just as he has sinned by lack of sight, of foresight, it is by this means that he is punished. To his mental blindness there now corresponds his physical blinding… .

The end of his life is equally sorrowful. If again we follow the version of Sophocles—there are others, but his has become canonical—Oedipus immediately quits the throne, which is once more provisionally occupied by Creon. Oedipus flees to Colonus, where the former king and savior of Thebes, having reigned for twenty years, will now eke out a blind and miserable existence of vagrancy. His daughter Antigone, who is kindhearted and has a keen sense of family, accompanies and watches over him. He then directs his steps to Athens, ruled at this time by an excellent king, the benevolent Theseus. Along the route, near a small wood, he comes to a spot that he recognizes as the place where he must die: this grove in effect belongs to the Erinyes, or Furies, those dreadful deities born from the blood of Uranus, which soaked the ground of Gaia after the castration visited by Cronus upon his father. The Erinyes, we should here recall, were from the outset entrusted primarily with avenging all crimes within families—of which poor Oedipus has become the unwitting and unwilling world champion, so to speak. It is normal that, under such circumstances, he must end his unhappy existence in the hands of these famous “kindly ones.” But the grove is sacred. The servants of the king of Athens believe they are doing the right thing by chasing Oedipus from this ominous place. The latter asks them to send for Theseus, who, well intentioned as ever, arrives immediately at the scene. With true benevolence, he takes pity on Oedipus and accompanies him to his death: the ground opens, the Erinyes carry him off, but no one will know the exact place of his death. Theseus performs the funerary rites for Oedipus, as a token of friendship and by way of pardon for his involuntary crimes… .

In broad terms, this is the basic scenario and framework of the myth. It remains to add a few words about the further consequences for the children of the unhappy hero. This is dealt with in Sophocles’s Antigone, but also in the only surviving play by Aeschylus to take the Oedipus myth for its theme (he did so in several other plays that have unfortunately been lost): Seven Against Thebes. Eteocles and Polynices, the two sons of Oedipus, behaved badly toward their father when they learned the details of his story. They humiliated and maltreated him, to the point that Oedipus ends by entreating the wrath of the gods against them. Successfully so: the two brothers will become their own worst enemies. To try and settle their differences, in the struggle for power that has come to the fore now that Oedipus is dead, they agree to take turns as rulers, from one year to the next: Eteocles will occupy the throne of Thebes for the first year, Polynices for the second year, Eteocles once again for the third year, and so on … except that once he is in power Eteocles refuses to stand down for his brother. So the latter raises an army to retake Thebes and enforce their agreement. This army has seven commanders, corresponding to the seven gates of the city that Polynices now proposes to besiege—whence the title of Aeschylus’s drama: Seven Against Thebes.

To summarize the outcome of the play: Thebes, well protected by its ramparts, valiantly resists the assaults of the seven, and their army loses the battle decisively. The two enemy brothers face each other before the seventh gate and, in single combat, succeed in killing each other. Creon, who as a result is returned to power, decrees that the brother who defended his city, namely Eteocles, shall be buried with honors, while Polynices, who assaulted the city, shall be refused burial: the supreme humiliation. His body will be left to the dogs and the birds. And anyone who dares to flout this edict will be summarily executed!

It is at this point that the tragedy of Antigone begins. Although very brief, it has caused a great deal of ink to flow, innumerable commentaries. The plot is of the simplest, however: Antigone declares—if we follow the ending of Aeschylus’s drama—that she must assume her responsibilities within the community that has given her life, namely her family, whatever the misfortunes that have befallen it. The private sphere must in her eyes take precedence over the laws of the city. She therefore defies the orders of her uncle, Creon, and proceeds to bury her brother Polynices. Naturally, she is arrested and condemned to death, at which point the drama of Aeschylus ends. If we continue the story according to Sophocles, we learn that Creon is initially inflexible, but under pressure from those around him he reverses his decision and decrees that Antigone—who has been thrown in prison and is awaiting execution—be released. When they come to release her, they find that she has hanged herself. To make matters worse, the wife of Creon also kills herself, leaving the old king to ponder the consequences of bad decisions… . Later, the sons of the seven, who are known as the Epigoni, wishing to avenge the death of their fathers, take up arms and destroy the city of Thebes.

Thus does the sinister cycle of the Theban legends come to an end. There are innumerable interpretations of the fate of Oedipus and the revolt of Antigone. The myth has inspired fascination for centuries and continues to do so today, when not a year passes without new learned contributions. In the light of this it may seem presumptuous to risk further commentary, albeit impossible not to do so in the present context. It is with the greatest caution, therefore, that I propose—instead of another modern reading—to try and return to how the Greeks themselves may have understood the myth, if we pay attention to what Aeschylus says when he makes discreet but specific reference to accounts of the original founding of the city of Thebes.

What in effect do these various myths say? First of all, that Oedipus is quite obviously not “guilty,” in the sense implied by our modern conceptions of justice. Oedipus is neither aware of the chain of events in which he is caught up, nor does he cause them to happen. Equally clearly—as is indicated by the crucial role of the oracles in this story and, through them, that of the gods—he is the plaything of a higher destiny that eludes him at every turn. To which we may add—since we should not forget the minor players in this affair—that the Thebans (or at least the common people) are likewise innocent of any responsibility for the calamities and other scourges that afflict them, repeatedly, down to the final destruction of the city by the Epigoni.

The truth of the matter is that an ancient curse weighs from the outset upon the entire line of Theban rulers—and this curse, linked to an original transgression, cannot end until there is a restoration of order within the reigning family and within the city. In the end, the restoration takes place in similar fashion to the myths of Deucalion or Noah, through the wholesale destruction of all the protagonists. These unfortunates can do nothing right, and herein lies their tragedy. They are annexed by a destiny that both eludes and crushes them, whatever they do, for the curse goes back a very long time. It is primarily linked—if we return to the generation immediately preceding Oedipus—with the crime once perpetrated by his father, Laius, against the son of Pelops. We need to know that Pelops had in those days received and raised Laius as if he were one of his own family. The latter (for reasons that we shall not broach here) passes his entire childhood in this household. But one day Laius falls in love with the young Chrysippus, son of Pelops, and attempts to rape him. The horrified young man commits suicide, and Pelops, maddened by anger and grief, invokes the gods with a dreadful request: that if ever Laius should have a son, his son will slay him (as always, the reciprocity between crime and punishment), and that the city of Thebes will be destroyed. According to some mythographers, Hera and Apollo can never forgive the Thebans for having made Laius their ruler with no thought of punishing his crime.

From this point events unfold with implacable logic: Apollo, through the mouthpiece of his oracle, forewarns the wedded couple Laius and Jocasta that if ever they have a son catastrophe will rain down on them. Laius does not much care for women and prefers boys. So, according to most versions of the myth, it is under the influence of alcohol, when deeply drunk, that he makes love to Jocasta, who conceives little Oedipus.

Here is how the Chorus summarizes events, in Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes:

“I am thinking indeed of the ancient fault, so swiftly punished, but whose effect endures even to the third generation. The fault of Laius, deaf to the voice of Apollo who, from his Pythian shrine which stands at the earth’s navel, warned three times that the king would save his city only if he died without sons. But yielding to senseless desire [Laius is drunk when he makes love to Jocasta], he fathered his own death, a boy, namely the parricide Oedipus, who sowed his mother’s sacred field, where he was nurtured, and dared to plant a bloody crop. Madness had brought the frenzied bridal pair together. And now it is as if a sea of evils pushes its swell onward and over us. As one wave sinks, the sea raises up another, three times stronger, which crashes around our city’s stern… . For the price is high when imprecations uttered long ago are finally settled, and the ancient curse never passes away… .”

Further on we learn that, as part of the same remorseless process, when Polynices (“the illustrious seventh hero”) is killed by his brother, this, too, is the will of Apollo, for the god had reserved the right to take charge of the seventh gate himself, where the mortal combat takes place between the two brothers: “so as to fulfil the punishment of the tribe of Oedipus for the ancient fault of Laius.”

The matter could not be stated more plainly, and it would be fruitless to look for further reasons in one psychological realm or another. The remainder of the play, moreover, insists upon this point repeatedly: the descendants of Laius are all victims of a destiny that eludes them, for which they are not responsible, that enacts the will of the gods as represented by Apollo. The same goes for Antigone herself, who unswervingly expresses her decision to confront death by infringing the orders of Creon—as an individual choice, freely entered into, but occurring nonetheless in a context from which freedom is absent, where everything is constrained and predetermined by cosmic imperatives and by the gods themselves:

“Nor am I ashamed to act in defiance of the rulers of the city. We are of necessity bound to those with whom we share a common womb, born of a wretched mother and unfortunate father. Therefore, my soul willingly shares his evils [those of Polynices], unwilling as these have been, and bears living witness to a brother dead. No hollow-bellied wolves will tear his flesh—let no one believe this, for though I am a woman I will myself find the means to give him burial and a grave, carrying the earth in the folds of my linen robe. With my own hands I will cover him …”

It is a magnificent paradox, and one which perfectly sums up the tragic dimension of this story: Antigone acts independently, of her own free will. She takes the decision herself, fully conscious of the danger she risks—and yet she does so in a context where she, too, has no control over events, in which she realizes that, in truth, she cannot act otherwise: she belongs to her family, far more than her family belongs to her. As a result, she is bound to the curse that weighs immemorially upon her, and nothing can change her course… .

Just as psychoanalysis has given a leading role to the unconscious, in its interpretations of this myth, so, too, feminists and antifeminists alike (for the drama of Aeschylus can be read both ways) have made much of the fact that Antigone is a woman, and as such “naturally” embodies the dictates of the heart, of the private sphere—as against the drily rational sphere of the male polis, of collective responsibility, and so forth. Once again, it is not impossible that these modern connotations are to some degree present in the folds of the myth. It is even probable. After all, the Greeks were no less intelligent than us, and they had their own notions of men and women, the unconscious, the role of the passions, and other themes so dear to modern psychology. But the key to the myth is certainly not to be found here, and while these perspectives are legitimate and relevant for us, they are quite different from those of the Greeks.

We have no reason to disbelieve what Aeschylus says: this tragedy does not have to do with psychology but with cosmology and blind destiny (something quite other than the individual unconscious), which intervenes when the order of things has, for whatever reason, been turned upside down. And ever since men have existed—ever since Pandora and Epimetheus first engendered mankind—such disturbances have abounded. They are unavoidable, as we know, because they constitute the life principle itself, and the mainspring of history. If the succession of generations did not occur, everything would be transfixed for all eternity in the most perfect cosmic boredom. But the passage of generations at the same time brings with it the constant risk of tragic blunders. This is why we must in effect retrace the entire history of Thebes since its foundation by Cadmus if we are to grasp the roots of the misfortunes that strike Oedipus. I have chosen for the moment to stop at Laius and his crime against the son of Pelops. But the worm was in the fruit from the very start.

In the beginning, Cadmus wedded Harmonia, who, despite her name, was herself already the fruit of certain discord, being the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, a rickety and forbidden pact between love and war (not least because Aphrodite was officially married to Hephaestus …). But there is more, much more: you will recall that Cadmus, in order to found his city, was obliged to call upon the services of the “sown men,” those famous spartoi born of the teeth of the dragon who guarded the sacred spring of Ares. The dragon was slain by Cadmus in order to access the water so vital to the sacrifice of the cow that had led him to the spot where his city was to be founded. Now these famous “sown men,” numbering five, are warriors, archaic forces close to the aboriginal Chaos, to earth itself, to the Titans, to Typhon. And here we once more encounter a central cosmological theme, without which we can understand nothing concerning the legends—including that of Oedipus—that surround the history of Thebes. Moreover, one of these “sown men” plays a part in founding the lineage of Oedipus; he is called Echion, a name that inevitably evokes the monster Echidna, the famous half-snake, half-woman who was Typhon’s mate. The fate of the descendants of Cadmus will often prove terrible in the extreme, and invariably turbulent—such as that of Pentheus, his grandson who succeeds him on the throne of Thebes and ends up being torn to pieces by the Bacchantes of Dionysus.

Without entering too much into the details of this protracted history, it is clear that the destiny that weighs upon Oedipus and Antigone goes back a very long way, and that they can do absolutely nothing about this, no more than the young Thebans who are devoured by the Sphinx or the population decimated by plague can alter their fate. That is the way of things. Calamities have always been diverted from Olympus by the gods, at least since they vanquished the Titans, since Zeus effected the original division, ordering the world according to justice so as to finally ensure a harmonious cosmos—at least on high, on Olympus. But not here, down below! On earth, there has to be a little disorder, as a by-product of time and of life itself. It is inevitable. The proof? If we wanted at all costs to banish chaos and, therefore, banish injustice, the only means of doing so would be to suppress history and the roll call of generations: in other words, to suppress human life itself. This is why, since the original division by Zeus, all misfortune is reserved for humans, and matters cannot proceed differently. In truth, some mortals seek out misfortune—they positively beg for it!—as is the case with all those who transgress through hubris. But there are others, by far the greater number, who are not in any way responsible for what befalls them. There are misfortunes transmitted from generation to generation, like an illness, a genetic flaw—except that in this case the flaw is linked to a cosmic disturbance for which this or that ancestor may have been responsible, more or less, but which always recalls us to the fact that the threat represented by the primordial chaos can never disappear: it is consubstantial with the condition of man and the history of men. In some cases, even if this seems cruel and unjust, the gods must repair things and restore order by annihilating the entire lineage of those who have inherited the initial transgression and breach of equilibrium. This would certainly have explained, at least for the spectators of a tragedy, how and why the most atrocious evils fall upon humanity like rain. As I said at the outset of this chapter, no more than the rain chooses to soak this or that individual but falls indifferently on the good and the bad, the misfortunes that strike individual men are by no means always merited. That is the way of things, simply, about which we can do nothing, for these afflictions are an essential part of our human condition: that of mortals plunged into a life and a history that entails at every turn the possibility of an error with which we must learn to come to terms… .

It may strike us as a grim lesson for life, all told, and this kind of surrender to the present, to the world as it is, may seem like a counsel of despair. But we must acknowledge that in reality—if we consider more deeply, instead of clinging to our modernity—the tragic outlook, such as the myth of Oedipus distills in its purest state, almost caricaturally so, is at once full of truth and full of wisdom. I shall try to suggest briefly why this is so, and to explain why it is in our interest, even today, to ponder these lessons.

Firstly, quite simply, because it is true to the facts: human existence is indeed—sometimes, if not always—tragic, in the sense that misfortune strikes without our being able to ascribe a meaning to it. And we are misguided in trying to do everything in our power to forget this. Today, as soon as misfortune strikes unjustly, we succumb to the modern mania of looking for “those responsible.” A river bursts its banks and drowns some campers? The fault of course is with the mayor, the council, the minister, all of whom are incompetent or corrupt! A plane crashes? Quickly, we must hold an inquiry to establish the guilty parties and put them in the stocks… . Whether it is the roof of a school that collapses, a storm that uproots trees, a tunnel that bursts into flames, we must at all costs find a human explanation, a moral fault to be stigmatized imperatively. Let us speak frankly: in no other sphere do we encounter modern folly in such undiluted form. You will perhaps ask why I speak here of “Moderns,” capitalized, as if to indicate a category apart, a species of humanity distinct from “Ancients”? I exaggerate, of course, but in order to isolate a way of thinking characteristic of our time, which, on this point at least, is utterly opposed to that of the ancient world. Humanism, which I approve and defend, has become omnipresent as a framework of thought—so convinced are we of being the absolute rulers of the natural order, the holders of all power, that we have come to think of ourselves, imperceptibly, as controlling everything, including natural forces, catastrophes, even pointless accidents… . And this is a species of delirium, in the proper sense: a denial of reality. For the truth is quite other. Despite the gigantic powers afforded mankind by science, it is no less the case that our destiny eludes us, and will forever do so. Not only is chance a part of human life, not only is contingency woven into human history, but our lives are also composed of such variables, under conditions so complex and so ramified, that the idea of having complete control over whatever happens to us is simply grotesque!

To take an extreme but manifest example: the last world war caused fifty-three million deaths. Do we seriously believe that all of those unfortunates consisted exclusively of the “guilty,” the responsible, the wicked? The truth, of course, is that misfortune strikes—as in the myth of Oedipus—without our having any part in it, and it strikes very hard, as much in the realm of politics and society, which we might imagine ourselves as controlling more effectively, as in the realm of nature. Depending on whether we are born here or there, our chances are unequal, and on a scale that often cannot be fathomed. None of this can de denied. Why under such circumstances would we not be tempted to find an explanation, as the Greeks did with the myth of Oedipus? And the notion of a world out of joint as explaining misfortunes and injustice has its own truth, to which there seem to be no very tenable objections… .

Above all, there is an underlying wisdom here—not Christian, it is true, and therefore strange to our way of thinking, conditioned whether we like it or not by centuries of Christianity—which merits reflection. A Christian, believing that everything is more or less willed, or at least supervised, by God, will be drawn almost inevitably to find a sense in the madness of men, an explanation that makes us in some degree responsible for what happens to us: if God is all-powerful, and if he is good, then there cannot really be any other explanation for the evils of this world. We must assume that they proceed from the wickedness of men, from their abuse of their freedoms, so that mankind is in some sense collectively responsible for the catastrophes that befall it. We are here at the outer limits of superstition, and many a dialectical ruse is required on the part of Christians who wish to avoid the trap of superstition.

The Greeks thought differently: for them it was a case of accepting the absurdity of things as they are. A wisdom of the present tense, as it were, which invites us to “make do”—not in the form of resignation but to incite us to develop our receptive capacity, our openness to the world, to profit from life while it is there, while it is going well. This supposes a certain relationship to time that we Moderns have largely lost. Once again: I am a Modern, a “humanist,” as they say, and I have even spent my life in elaborating what I would call a “postmetaphysical” or “post-Nietzschean” humanism. Be that as it may, we cannot remain insensible to the grandeur of ancient Greek thought, nor—above all—to the fact that its strong points coincide so often with our weak points. Where we believe wrongly that we can master everything, the Ancients offer us a different perspective, from which we may draw new inspiration.

What does this mean, exactly? It follows on from what I have already expounded in connection with Stoicism, in my earlier volume, A Brief History of Thought, and which I will resume briefly here, in the context of Greek myth. There can be no doubt that the primary conviction that mythology was to bequeath to ancient philosophy, and notably to Stoicism, was that the twin evils that weigh upon human existence—the twin brakes that curb a full realization of ourselves, such as would proceed from the victory over our fears—are nostalgia on the one hand and hopefulness on the other: attachment to our past and anxiety for our future. The past draws us ceaselessly backward, thanks to the terrible power exerted over us by what Spinoza nicely termed the “sad passions”: nostalgia—when the past was happy—but culpability, remorse, and regret when it was unhappy. As a reaction to this, we take refuge in those mirages of the future that Seneca, in his Letters to Lucilius, already described so well. We imagine that by changing this or that—that car, this house, these shoes, that hairstyle, the holidays, the MP3, the television, our job, or whatever else comes to mind—we shall as a result be happier. The truth is that the blandishments of the past and the mirages of the future are for the most part snares. What they take away from us ceaselessly is the present itself, and thereby prevent us from leading a full life. Moreover, they are the permanent focus of anxieties and fears—the former almost invariably surge out of the past and the latter out of the future. And there is no greater obstacle to the happy life than apprehension.

Such was the conviction, simple and profound, at the core of Greek wisdom, as disseminated notably by Stoicism.* In order to be saved, in order to accede to the wisdom achieved by the victory over our fears, we must learn to live without nostalgia for the past or needless fear for the future, which means ceasing to live permanently in dimensions of time that, moreover, have no existence (the past is no longer and the future is not yet)—and keeping to the present insofar as possible. As Seneca write in his Letters to Lucilius:

We must remove ourselves from these two things: fear of the future, and the memory of ancient ills. The latter are no longer my concern, and the future is not yet my concern.

For as he goes on to say, by dint of living inside these two fictional dimensions, we quite simply end by “missing life.”

But you will say perhaps that this wisdom of the present does not really hold water, and that, in any case, there is little evidence that it was so very deeply held by Oedipus—no more than by Antigone—both of whom quite obviously feel that the destiny reserved for them by the gods is outrageous and insupportable. Besides, we may imagine that the original spectators of these tragedies must have felt more or less the same thing: they must surely have told themselves that this whole saga is frightful and that reality itself is not to be trusted or embraced for being willed and determined by the gods under such terms as these. Put differently, how to reconcile Greek wisdom—considered as love of the real and as reconciliation with the present moment—with the tragic impulse that goes contrary to it and encourages the thought that, even if determined by the gods for ultimately harmonious ends, the world is a thoroughly intolerable place for many of us?

With this very simple question we touch on the most deep-seated difficulties inherent to a cosmological and divine vision of the universe, to which we can, I think, provide three answers.

The first answer, and one that undoubtedly makes the best job of reconciling the wisdom of acceptance with the tragic sense of reality, roughly consists in saying the following: you must understand, poor humans, by the example of Oedipus, that your destiny is not yours, and that it can always turn out badly, taking back what has been given to you. For twenty years, while ruler of Thebes, surrounded by Jocasta and his children, Oedipus experienced glory and happiness. And then everything was taken from him. Worse still: the very underpinning of his happiness, namely the fact of having killed his father and married his mother, becomes the ground of his ultimate and complete undoing. The moral of the story: we must profit from life when it is good and not spoil things by uselessly tormenting ourselves. Knowing that, whatever happens, it will end badly, we must enjoy the present (the twenty splendid years in Thebes) and follow the famous “carpe diem” advice of Horace: seize each day as it comes, without asking ourselves useless questions. The sage is one who lives in the present, not by lack of intelligence or ignorance as to what might come about, but (quite the contrary) because he knows all too well that one day or another it will all turn to ill, and that we must know how to profit from what is given to us now. This is, as it were, the minimalist version of Stoic wisdom.

The second or maximalist version necessarily goes much further. It equally invites us to embrace the real, but under all of its aspects—even when those are tragic and destructive. Under these conditions, the sage does not restrict himself to loving what is already lovable. We are all of us capable of that. Rather, the wise man is one who in all circumstances succeeds in “hoping a little less, and loving a little more,” as the philosopher André Comte-Sponville expressed it to me once, in an effort to sum up the spirit of this Greek wisdom in a single phrase. And in fact this formula does perfectly express the serenity and strength of character needed to address the catastrophes that blindly confront us one day or another. As such, this is an idea that has traveled down the centuries. We see it already in the writings of the Epicureans as much as with the Stoics, and we encounter it again in Spinoza and even in Nietzsche, who also challenges us explicitly to love the world as it is—not only when it proves a pleasant enough place to be, which would be altogether too facile, but equally when, as in the case of Oedipus, it becomes intolerable:

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity. Not merely to endure that which happens out of necessity, still less to dissemble it—all idealism is untruthfulness in the face of necessity—but to love it …*

In other words, which might be those of Greek wisdom in its “maximalist” version, we must not linger in the illusory dimensions of time—in the past or the future—but try, on the contrary, to inhabit the present as far as possible: to say with conviction “yes,” even to the horrors of the present, with what Nietzsche calls a “Dionysian affirmation,” in reference to the god of wine, of feasting and exuberance.

Much as I am drawn to follow this injunction as unreservedly as it requires, in practice I have never believed it to be remotely feasible or possible for us to say a joyful “yes” to the death of a child, or to a natural catastrophe, or to a war. And in its way, the sad end of Oedipus is sufficient proof that Greek tragedy has little to do with this vision of things, no doubt grandiose in theory but nonetheless absurd in ordinary life. Personally, I have never understood how, after the fashion of Nietzsche or Spinoza or the Stoics, one can say “yes” to whatever happens. Nor am I sure that this is desirable. What would it mean to say “yes” to Auschwitz? To reduce the question to such stark terms is crude, no doubt, in which case, let us be crude. In effect, I have never heard a remotely credible response to this question, however trivializing it may seem, from my Stoic or Nietzschean or Spinozist friends, and it is this that prevents me still from sharing their life affirmations… . Besides, as I have said, Oedipus himself succeeded no better than you or I in assenting to the horrors that beset him.

There remains for us to try and imagine a third way, between the minimalist version of wisdom—which strikes me as very beautiful but already very difficult to practice in the fullest spirit—and the maximalist version, which makes little sense of human reality. This third way seems to me to be latently present in Greek tragedy, almost surreptitiously so. To all appearances, Oedipus does not exactly utter a joyous “yes” to his fate, and it would be disingenuous to claim that the spectators of this tragedy rejoiced to see the cosmos or divine order reasserting itself, however legitimately, against the ordinary mortals whom it crushes so brutally in its passage. Does this therefore mean, because he does not think or act as a good Stoic or Spinozist or Nietzschean, that Oedipus lacks wisdom? I am not so certain. For it seems to me that Oedipus leaves us with a message that is of interest other than in terms of amor fati. Of course, as a Greek who believes in his world and in his gods, he partly accepts his fate, as witness the fact that he punishes himself. He gouges out his eyes, quits his throne, and ends his life in miserable vagrancy. Nonetheless, by these very acts, by his very public suffering—which contains no discernible amor fati, or embracing of the present—he revolts, he protests, he cries out that something is wrong. His daughter Antigone goes even further and, in more extreme form, takes up the torch on his behalf. Not that either of them questions—at least not explicitly—the universe in which they find themselves plunged: on the contrary, Antigone states clearly that she belongs to her family and can do nothing about it. And yet there is a false note. These individuals are formidable: Oedipus is wise, intelligent, kindly, honest; Antigone is courageous, loyal, faithful to her ideals (which are of the highest order) … and yet they are crushed. This needs to be pondered further… .

Their sad tale teaches us first of all better to understand the human condition, better to grasp the sense in which misfortune is an integral and inevitable part of human life—and at the same time why it is always unjust, absurd, and exorbitant. It makes us understand likewise the reasons for embracing a wisdom of the present, a love of things as they are, and for abstaining as far as possible from brooding over painful memories, or fantasizing radiant futures for ourselves. But beyond this initial lesson (which echoes the “minimalist” model), if Oedipus and Antigone become heroic and, in a positive sense, legendary figures—for us as, originally, for the Greeks—then this is because they testify, like no other personages, through their suffering as such, to what is singular about the human condition within the cosmic order. Here we can sense the early ferment of a humanism to come. In the same way as Prometheus, in Aeschylus’s play, revolts against the gods in the name of men, the spectator of Sophoclean tragedy cannot but start thinking, however obliquely, that this world must be changed, improved, transformed—and not merely interpreted. What is certain is that there is a glitch in the scheme of things, and that it has a name: this pebble in the shoe, this ghost in the machine, is none other than man himself. When she pleads for a morality of the heart, Antigone—even if she speaks in the name of the gods—is a revolutionary, a humanist (they are the same, at bottom), who is perhaps unaware of the fact herself but forces this recognition upon the spectator. Far more than amor fati, a mere surrender to the way of the world, she incites us to an interrogation of things as they are. And it is this that is properly human in her character: that it is not reducible to order, not assimilable either by the gods or by the cosmos. We must wait until the birth of humanism, until the appearance of Rousseau and Kant, until the coming of the French Revolution, before this Promethean idea is fully articulated—and here the term “Promethean” takes on its fullest sense, for it was indeed Prometheus who, according to Plato, was the first to see humankind as starting from nothing but capable of achieving everything, including a rejection of the appointed order of things. Herein, to my mind, resides the true grandeur of the double tragedy of Oedipus and Antigone: for the first time, and from deep inside the closed system of Greek cosmology, it attains to the idea of a humanity with virtually unlimited subversive potential.