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The Ethical Teaching of Sophokles

Author(s): Arthur Fairbanks

Source: International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Oct., 1891), pp. 77-92
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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International Journal of Ethics.

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The Etkzcal Teachingof Sopizokies.


of deterringthroughfearvariestoo much accordingto all the

relations of the individual. Their evils certainlydo not act
as spurs to reform. Almost no one believes any longer in
theirjustice. We ought to decide to drop entirelythe aim of
inflictingevil, and that is the essence of punishment. Justice
will demand that whoever has committedinjuryshould make
compensationforthe injury,and, perhaps,still morethan that.
Denial of libertyfora time should have its meaningonly as a
condition for the discharge of these duties,where it cannot
also serve as an education (and this maybe limitedto persons
underage, otherwiseit mightrequirethe assent of thesubject).
This hard duty will have more force as a deterrentthan
threatenedpunishment. In this way it may come about in
practice, that the criminals by nature and professionwould
be placed in lasting confinementas the conditionsuited to
them. Whoever forces himselfto that, because it is more
attractiveto him than repellent,gives evidence in that very
preferencethat his moral or social condition is diseased.
But all these reformswill at the same time tend towards
a research for other means of preventingcrime than can be
found in the threatenedor real consequences of what he has





"SOPHOKLES paints men as they ought to be, I paint them
as they are," is said to have been the remarkof his younger
rival and contemporary. Sophokles was more an artistthan
IEschylos; but the moral world remainedfor him,as forthe
older poet, the sphere of tragedy; his works are dramas,but
the motives they use and the interestthey excite and the
high purposes of their author are all drawn fromthe moral
relations of men. In examining the ethical teaching of
our work is not simplythat of literary
Sophokles, therefore,
criticism,but rather it is a study of the moral sentimentsof

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InternationalYournal of Ethics.

the age, as used and as elevated by the dramatist. And this

was the earnest,vigorous age of Greek culture. The youthful enthusiasmof Sophokles was kindled by the victoriesof
Greece over the Persians. Then came thatwonderfulgrowth
of the Athenian democracy,until the Athenian state became
all but an empire; in this life he was ever a quiet leader..
He was the personal friendand colleague of Perikles,and of
Thukydides. As an artiston the stage, he could know those
artistswiththe chisel and the brush,to whom the perfectionof
Greek architectureand sculpture and painting is due. All
that was Greek,the strengthand the weakness of the Greek
character,we findin Sophokles; throughhim we studyhis city
and his age.
The question whether moral earnestness kept pace with
general culturein Greece cannot be answered fromtragedy
alone. Lax moral practicewas the frequentattendantof vigorous moral discussion; rarely would the Sokratic theory
of virtue be foundless true than in Greece; and tragedywas
but one sphere of moral discussion. Again, it is easy to overestimatethe moral teaching of such a writeras Sophokles, by
reading intohis moral termsa meaningonly developed in later
centuriesof moralexperience. These questionsand difficulties
do not lessen the value of.tragedyas a witnessto ideals,actual
even when unconscious,and as the expression of an effortto
advance these ideals throughthe medium of art.
The fundamentalfactofethicsis thesense ofduty,the ought.
The objects prescribed as duty,the mode in which duty is
treated,and the phases of it emphasized,vary fromtime to
time; but the fact remains. Philosophic Greek thoughtdiscussed the ends of action ratherthan the consciencewhich
judges action right; but in Greek literatureand in Greek life
the prominentethicalfactis an aestheticconscience. The fine
nature revoltsfromsin, and the resultsof sin; sin is discord
in a work of divine art,a discord in the world-harmony,
the very thought of it is repulsive.-The interest of the
Pziloktetescentresabout Neoptolemos. He has been brought

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The Ethical Teachingof Sophokles.


fromhis island home to take Troy, and forthis he needs the

bow of Herakles. The exiled possessor of this bitterlyhates
the Greek chiefs,his formercomrades,and no persuasion or
force can obtain it. Yet we wonder that even an Odysseus
seeks to persuade the son of Achilles to deceit; * and Neoptolemos's answer does not disappointus:
"I was notbornto act withevil arts,
Nor I myself,nor,as theysay, mysire.
Preparedam I to take the man by force,
But notby fraudd... . .I wish,
O king,to missthe markin actingwell,
Ratherthanconquer,actingevilly." t

Motives of ambition,of respectfor the army,and of reverence for the expressed will of the gods, are urged till the
young man yields; but throughoutthe account of his deception we may read betweenthe lines the rebellionof his pure,
genuine nature. And at last it is too much; ambition,obedience,everythinggives way,and the deceptionis confessed.
Such a revoltfromevil is feltby Elektra,when she contemplates her mother'ssin.
"Ah, day of all thatever came to me,
Most horribleby far!
O night! 0 sufferings
strangeas wonderful,
Of banquetsfouland dark!
Dread formsof death whichhe, myfather,saw
Wroughtout by theirjoint hands,
murderedhim who was mylife,
Who, traitorous,
And so broughtdeath to me." I

Her sister lacks the moral force to support her in all the
caused by this attitude,so thatsister
deprivationand suffering
and mother alike are objects of scorn, subjected to severest
reproaches. Elektra welcomes the thought of death or of
solitary banishment,to relieve her fromthe proximityand
thought of such evil.-Such, again, is Antigone's feeling
towardsa commandwhichshe regardsas impious. Her whole
* Iliad, L-,312-313.

t Phil. 88-goa,94b_95, Plumptre'stranslation.




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nature rises in noble scorn at the thoughtof a brotherlying

unburied,and all the ties of obedience to the state,care forher
own life,and love forher betrothed,are suddenly snapped.
The aesthetic character of this judgment is even better
shown in the cases of Aias and of those about CEdipus. Aias,
disappointedof a prize,has sought to slay the commandersof
the Greek army; but Athene turned aside his blows, so that
theyfellon thecattle. Coming to himself,he feelsthat he can
neitherstay nor go home.
" The shameis past all bearing."*

His life is marred,the only thing he can do is to end it

bravely; and the feeling is strong enough to overcome his
love forwifeand child.-When CEdipus's sin is revealed,and
he appears on the stage with blinded eyes streamingwith
blood, it is hard to distinguishthe moral fromthe aesthetic
effecton the chorus. Jokaste had already committedsuicide
from horror of her own unconscious deeds, and CEdipus
wildlyblinds himselfon seeing her dead. It is as much the
revoltingphysical aspect of the man as the moral taintwhich
makes them turnfromhim withthe words,roeas> optxav-napiXec,
,aot.t And in the long lifeof wanderingwhich followed,it was
physical mutilationoftenerthan moral evil which turnedmen
against him.
Greek excellence lay in finenessof culture. Moral sensibilityand sensitivenesswas cultivatedwith delicate sensibility in everyline. The feelingof shame I ratherthan conviction of wrong was the result produced by this aestheticconscience; moral perfectionwas not the controllingelementin
the ideal. I do not mean that the value of obedience to imposed law was entirelywithoutrecognition. The meaning of
the Antzigonelies in the conflictthere depicted between this
human law and the aestheticlaw assigned to the gods. The
commands of the rulerand the state demand obedience,? but
every one sympathizeswith her who disobeys these laws in
* Ai. 466, oiKc ert roTopyov
I Audi El. 249, 607; Ai. 1076, 338; 0. K.

t 0. T.


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@ Ant. 66o, 870.

The Ethical Teachingof Sophokles.


obedience to her conscience. And this same play suggests

that finenessof culture,and what I have called the aEsthetic
conscience, are not necessarily associated with weakness of
moral fibre. Antigone dies in the effortto do her duty;
Elektra welcomes the thought of death and banishment;
Neoptolemos gives up the hope of futureglory,all the dream
of a young life; it is the moral and physical energyof CEdipus which impressesus, in his prosperityand in his blindness.
It is devotion to duty which wakens moral enthusiasm,in
aestheticGreek no less than in sternerTeuton.
The moral system.


Law and justice.

"Oh that'tweremine to keep

An awfulpurity,
In wordsand deeds whose laws on high are set
Throughheaven's clear tetherspread,
Whose birthOlymposboasts,
Their one, theironlysire,
Whom man's frailfleshbegat not,
Nor in forgetfulness
Shall lull to sleep of death;
In themour God is great,
In themHe growsnot old forevermore."*

Right and justice, the final laws of morality,rest back on

the gods, or the reasonable orderof thingsrepresentedby the
gods. These laws do not fluctuatewith changes in the ideas
of the gods, but are rooted in that controllingpower which,
when regardedas reasonable,is called divine,whateverbe its
furthername. Ancient justice (Wx0) is seated in the heavens
with Zeus.t Laws (vY6ot) rest back on the gods, and forthis
reason demand obedience.t Themis (right institutedby the
gods) takes care that the wrong-doer suffer;? reverence,
truth,and faithfulnessare Oises,right by divine institutions
Eternal,divine law can never be set aside by man. As to
Kreon's commands,Antigone says:
* 0. T. 863-873.
Q El. Io64, sq.
t 0. A. I38i, sq.
t Ai 1343, sq.
Duty to parents, Tr. 809.
|| Ani. 88o; 0. A. I556; El. 127' Phil. 8i2.
VOL. II.-No.

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Internationaljournal of Ethics.
" Nor did I deem thyedictsstrongenough,
That thou,a mortalman,should'stoverpass
laws of God thatknow no change;
The unwritten
They are not of to-dayor yesterday,
But live forever,nor can man assign
When firsttheycame to being."*

Antigone dies by human law forobedience to divine law,

but her course wins moral approval,nay, enthusiasm. Faith
in this eternal order of things marksthe moral man. Antigone dies in this faith. Elektra endures years of scorn and
welcomes the thought of death in this faith. And by his
trust in the gods and their oracles CEdipus lives through
years of wandering,of exile fromsociety and of sufferingin
everyform,untilhis sin is atoned for,and he dies a glorious
2. Transgressionof law is a subject of deep ethical thought;
it is the ethical side of sin. Man may use the world forgood
or evil.
"4So, giftedwitha wondrousmight,
Above all fancy'sdreams,withskill to plan,
Now untoevil, now to good,
He turns."t

Transgressionof law is sin against the gods; T it is folly,?

the common disgrace of reasonable beings. 11
The originand motivesof sin were carefullyanalyzed by the
Greeks,and Sophokles emphasizes threeallied causes, selfishand pride. (a) It is the selfish fondness
ness, self-assertion,
forluxury(xActi)? and powerwhich led Polyneikesto cast out
his fatherfromthe state,and leave him to provide forhimself
duringall the years of wandering. The daughtersAntigone
and Ismene care forhim as best theycan. They do the work
of sons,** while Polyneikes and Eleokles in-selfishness
theirown enjoymentand prosecute theirown quarrels at the
* Ant.

t. Ant. 365-367.
4Ant. 1070; 0. T. 1329; Ai. 1129, " Saved by the gods, putnotthe gods
to shame."
0. T. 874, 89i; Tr. 586 and
Q Cf. the Hebrew idea, eg., Ps. xxxv. 8.
565; the lustfulcentaurlaid hold of Deianeira withfooZish hands.
? 0. 7. 888.
** 0. ZK 342, sqq., 425-450.
| 0. 7. 1023, 1024.

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The Ethical Teachingof Sophokles.


expense of the Theban state. (b) A morecommoncause of sin

in men who are deemed worthyof the Greek tragedy,is selfassertion. The very factthat a large and vigorous manhood
was the Greek ideal of excellence, opened the way forexcess
in this direction. It is the impetuosityof Aias which urges
him to avenge himselfon those who had defraudedand dishonored him. The resultingactionwould have been destructivein
the extreme,so that with fine perception Sophokles lets the
temperof the man defeatitself. His resentmentis too much
forhim and driveshim mad, and is satisfiedonlyby the slaughter of the cattle.-Self-assertionwas the cause of CEdipus's sin.
He is not responsibleforhavingslain hisfather. But the same
impetuousnaturewhich led him to turnfromCorinthand his
led him to slay the old man and his servantsat
the Three Ways when struck by the charioteer'slash. The
second sin, of incest,is but a part of the punishmentforthis
murder,and the quick, impetuous temperwhich was shown
in it. Again we recognize the genius of the poet, when an
example of this temperamentappears in the verypictureof a
noble, self-sacrificing
king, which is the firsthalf of this
tragedy. He anticipates his people in seeking relief for
them, and curses the murdererwith all the vigor of his
nature,but his impetuosityand sensitivetemperlead him first
to suspect the prophet,then to accuse Kreon and the prophet
of an attemptto rouse rebellion and displace him. Jokaste
has to point out to him the neglected sufferingof his people.
The audience see an example of sin, just similar to that
which is finallyto cause his utteroverthrow.
(c) In the mind of a Greek the greatest sin and cause of
sin was insolentpride,v
" But pridebegetsthe mood
Of wanton,tyrantpower;
Pride filledwithmanythoughts,yetfilledin vain,
Scaling the topmostheight,
Falls to the abyssof woe,
Where stepthatprofiteth
It seeks in vain to take." *
* 0. T. 873-878;

Cf.Ant. 1348-i352;

Ai. 129-134;

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Tr. 280.


InternationalYournal of Ethics.

In careless presumption Philoktetes enters the shrine of

Apollo at Chryse,and suffersten years in solitude fromthe
bite of the serpent. Kreon is the typical example. Asserting his independenceas rulerhe makes laws at variance with
sacred customand divinelaw,and demandsabsolute obedience
to these. He condemns Ismene as well as her sister,until
her innocence is finallyforced on him. He disregards the
pleas of his son betrothedto Antigone. He is blind to the
warnings of the prophet, calling him an impostor. And
when he finallyyields in frightat the divine curses uttered
against him, it is too late. Insolence has done its work; he
findsAntigone dead; his son commitssuicide beforehis eyes,
and his wife hangs herselfon hearing it. Only thus is the
Greek sense of justice satisfied.
Sin is self-cumulative.
T6 8vaasefl' ra'pe~pro
Itra pyeirAee'Ya



8' elz Oa rlvya.

Sin tends to increase sin by calling for revenge. Aias revenges the insult offeredhim by the Atridae; CEdipus says,
" I did but requite the wrongs I suffered,"
t and Kreon, " I
claim the right of renderingill for ill." r But we find in
Sophokles a deeper thought,that one sin opens the way fora
second, that one sin is punished by a second, and the taint
lasts till the race is extinct. Ethical thought to-day is individualizing. " Whatsoevera man soweth,that shall he also
reap." And too easily we forgetthat sin leaves a legacy of
evil to the world. The penaltyis paid, but the effectremains.
The worst penaltyof sin is sin.
We have dramas illustratingthis in the case of the Pelopidae,and the Labdakidwe. Pelops won his bride by bribing
her father'scharioteer,and then slew the latter,and the curses
of Myrtilusfollowed the race. One sin led to another,till
Agamemnon found it necessaryto sacrificehis daughter to
using this as an excuse, joined
Artemis,till Klytwemnestra,
the plot to slay her husband, and was herself slain with
iEgisthos. So in the Theban race, Laios sinned by carrying
* Esch. Agam. 758-760.

t 0. K. 271.

t O.

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The Ethical Teachingof Sophokies.


offa beautifulboy, some say a son of Pelops. In punishmentfor this comes another sin,--disobedience to the oracle
which warned him against his own child. CEdipus,who was
this child,fulfilledthe oracle by slaying his father,and marryingone whom he foundto be his mother. Of the children
by this marriage,the sons perished by each other's hand in
contest for the throne of Thebes, and Antigone was put to
death for burying the brother to whom Thebes's ruler had
denied this honor.
"Blessed are thosewhose lifeno woe dothtaste!
For untothosewhosehouse
The Gods have shaken,nothingfailsor curse
Or woe, thatcreepsto generationsfar.
E'en thusa wave, (when spreads
The darknessof thedeep,)
Up fromthe sea's abyss
Hitherand thitherrolls the black sand on,
And everyjuttingpeak,
Sweptby the storm-wind'sstrength,
Lashed by the fiercewild waves,
Reechoes withthe far-resounding

3. Retributivejustice.


"Where thenthe bolts of Zeus,

And wherethe gloriousSun,
If, seeing crimeslike these,
They hold theirpeace, and hide?"

ere 1Cdra; o'payu


?S;&SoopTirdXYa xa'

The centralthoughtof the Greekreligion,as of Greekethics,

is this,-that a penaltyof suffering
followssin. It may come
early or late, but it is sure.jj Belief in it characterizesthe
virtuous, religious man; respect for it is the motive of religion; It it is the verycore of religiousnessand righteousness.
* Ant. 583-592.
t Eriph. fr. 204.
: El. 824-826. Cf. El. 244, sqq., and 0. K. 621, sqq., and 0. K. 895.
? Ai. 1036, sqq.
1103; 0. K 1536.
|| Ant.
i AE. 174,175.

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Distributivejustice,like law itself,centresin Zeus, but it often

receives a personificationof its own. It is called Nemesis:
37 Oe&v' fl6a xa'c Yaeicf;,



it is called


the calamityinvolving a tendencyto do wrong,which is followed by suffering. Aias is " so tied and harnessedto an evil
"Evil ever seems to be as good
To thosewhose thoughtsof heart
God leadeth untowoe,
And withoutwoe, he spendsbut shortestspace of time." t

thispunishmentby blindness to right

meant definitely
and impulse to sin, which was illustratedin the house of the
The personifiedgoddesses of retributionwere called Erinever mindfulof crime
nyes. These were awful and divine-,?
and untiringjjswift,? sure,** and'craftytt in punishing it.
They had many feet and many hands, so that none could
escape themn.14They were the goddesses of just retribution,


"They wait,
The slow thoughsure avengersof the grave,
The dread Erinnyesof the mightyGods,
For thee in thesesame evils to be snared." 1111

Such passages might be cited indefinitelyto illustratea

thought about which the Greek tragedyas a whole centres.
The threeCEdipus plays put on the stage threescenes in the
downfall of the Labdakidw, three scenes illustratingthree
prolificbroods of sin and sufferingwhich come from sin.
Aias presumedto attemptthe lives of the leaders of the army,
and what sufferingit brings! His fathermust lose an only
son; his barbarianwife,so dearlybeloved,and the infantboy,
become but a, slave-woman with babe to sufferwith her; his
* Phil. 6oi, 602.
t Ai. I23.
|| Ai. 130; El. 491.
Q Ai. 837; El. 112.
** Ant. 1074 ; Aim1034.
ft Tr. 1051; Ant. 1075; Fr. 508.4; Ai. 1034.
H Ai. 843; Tr. 809; Ant. 1075.



Ai. 837, 843.

ft El 49I.

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The Ethical Teachingof Sopphokies.


brother-in-law,and the sailors of Salamis have no one to

lead and protect them,-when honor demands the suicide of
Greek dramas were not sermons,but dramas with dramatic
purpose and dramatic interest. Yet the religious element
neverfaded out, forthe currentof life-events
withwhich they
dealt was determinedby the gods, or rather its power was
personifiedin the gods. This was the deepest thoughtthey
foundin the world,and as such it stirredthem intensely. As
such it was almost the only possible key-note for a great
The question of atonement,or redemptionfrom sin, is
hardly a question of ethics, nor does it belong to tragedy.
The punishmentof sin was the natural sequence of sin, and
laws of natureare inviolable. Only sin against God can be
forgivenby God. Right-doingmay correctthe evil tendencies
that remain,but it does not cheat law of its penalty.
CEdipus was an exemplaryruler,but this did not abate the
years of suffering
and shame. We do find,however,that the
penaltyof sin spends its forcein suffering,
and that suffering
has a sort of purifyinginfluence. For Elektra and Antigone
we feelthat sufferinghas purifiedthe character. Antigone
dies, but forElektra, the curse of the race has spent itselfin
suffering;her spiritis moulded intosympathywithlaw and the
governmentof the world. Philoktetes sinned by presumpis he fittedto
tion,and onlyafterten yearsof solitarysuffering
take a necessary,importantplace in the captureof Troy. The
moral sense of Greece recoiled fromthe evil in whichCEdipus
was involved,quite as much as we do to-day. Yet when he
had wandered for many years in solitude,want,and shame,
the moral sense of Greece recognized the effectof this on
character. The CEdipus at Kolonos is a drama of reconhe appears
ciliation. Chastened and ennobled by suffering,
almost divine in the favors he is to bring to Attika; but the
sons of evil still remainto do and to sufferwrong.

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The ideal man forSophokles.

In the firststasirnonof the Antzgone,afterpraising man's
power as shown in his controlof earthand sea and animals,
Sophokles sings:
"And speech,and thoughtas swiftas wind,
And temperedmood forhigherlifeof states,
These he has learnt,and how to flee
Or the clear cold of frostsunkind,
Or dartsof stormand shower,
Man all providing....
So, giftedwitha wondrousmight,
Above all fancy'sdream,withskill to plan,
Now untoevil, now to good
He turns. While holdingfastthe laws,
His country'ssacred rights,
That restupon the oath of Gods on high,
High in the state; an outlawfromthe state,
When loving,in his pride,
The thingthatis not good;
Ne'er mayhe sharemyhearth,nor yetmythoughts,
Who workethdeeds of evil like to this." *

with many other lines in

Man's life is indeed intertwined
the course of cosmic events. Few people have recognizedthe
force of influencesnow called heredityand environment,as
did the Greeks. These two influenceswere objectifiedin
that streamof constantlyexercised power, that dark background of life, if not its source, which is called fate. But
man has a libertybeyondfate. Each sin that is fatedhas also
its reason in his own character. Each excellence is self-won.
The quality most admired in man seems to be largeness of
soul, a wide interestin the world,a noble, wise self-assertion.
Odysseus, withall that is trickyand mean,has a breadthof
purpose and a success in carryingout his aims in every line
that is attractiveto the Greek. Orestes undertakesto avenge
his fatherby slaying the king who usurped his throne,and
shows thathe is the man forthe deed. Aias is a very Greek
* Ant. 354-375.

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The Ethical Teachingof Sophokles.


in this particular,vigorous,impetuous,with large desires and

large power of satisfyingthem,with a sense of honor which
could brook no insult. Single-handed he had rescued Agamemnonfromthe very stroke of Hektor; and it is the same
man who would now slay Agamemnon to revengehis wrongs.
There is a touch of barbarismin the man and in the ideal he
represents,but the world is not yet beyond admiringgreatness and energy. CEdipus also found keen sympathywith
an Athenian audience. His very faultsof noble impetuosity
were faultsthat leaned towardsvirtue in the estimationof a
Greek. He was so true a king,so watchfulforeveryinterest
of his people and earnest in his effortsto do them good, so
broad and so earnesta man. The same refinedtaste which
made the Greek sense of duty aesthetic,introducedthis standard of judgment here. The aestheticideal of character first
demanded forceand vigor,largeness of soul (,erabobvXe'a).
And secondly,the aestheticideal of character demanded
proper balance. Much of what was said of sin as the result
of self-assertionmight be repeated here. XtwPpoco'nwas the
check and balance correspondingto tiTera)obPvve'a.For the
perfectman, all facultiesand powers stand in perfectbalance.
It is not unnaturalthat this phase of the ideal should be emphasized in the drama mainlyby condemnationof sins against
it. It was not the functionof tragedyto depict perfectlife,
but thatwhich appeals to men more deeply,grandeurof character in unfavorablecircumstances.
The ideal man is truthfuland sincere. The case of Neoptolemos,son of Achilles, shows that the Greekswithall their
natural cunning knew the meaning of these words. The
wily plans of Odysseus fail. Aias marching on the commandersby stealthgoes mad. Herakies's death is attributed
to treacheryin slaying an enemy,while Zeus had always cared
forhis son in honorable contests.
It is only frompoetrythat we learn of love and tenderness
for one'sfamily as a Greek trait. The Maidens of Trachis
turns on the unrestrained,intense love of Deianeira for her
husband. The love of Elektra forher long-absentbrotheris
beautifullydepicted in those scenes where a false account of

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International_7ournalof Ethics.

his death is recitedin her hearing. The one bit of mildness

and light in the Aias is the love of the fierce,brave warriorfor
the littleson and his mother who had been a slave-woman.
Death would be only pleasure instead of a necessity,if it did
not bring pain to them. And CEdipus is as intensein his
love for his wife and children as in referenceto any great
action. I need but referto the scene where he meets his
daughtersjust afterhaving blinded his eyes.
The Greeks were enough a political people to recognize
devotionto the state as an indispensable virtue; they were
religious enough to make reverencefor thegods an essential
featureof their ideal. The whole public lifeof CEdipus testifiesto the former,and indeed to the latteralso. The Greek
drama was religious in its origin, and breathes a religious
spiritthroughout. It was addressed to a political people, so
that political virtuewas never lacking in its approved ideals.
There are two types of women in Sophokles,-Antigone
and Elektra on theone hand,Ismene,Chrysothemis,Deianeira,
etc., on the other. Elektra and her sister, Chrysothemis,
will serve as examples. Their mother has joined AEgisthos
in slaying her husband Agamemnon,and the guiltypair rule
in Mykenme. Elektra's younger brother,Orestes,was saved
by her care, and is her hope and their fear. Elektra and
Chrysothemislive in the palace, but under constant indignities,withmenial fare,-and havingthe familycrime constantly
beforethem. Elektra is by far the stronger. Her passions
are deeper and more controlling,both the love forher father
and brother,and that love forher motherwhich has become
as intense a hatred since its betrayal. The thought of her
fatheris constantlyin her mind,and her love seeks revenge
forhim. Perhaps the most beautifulscene of the play is her
recognitionof that brotherwhom she had heard was dead,
and the careless joy which might have wrought the ruin of
them both but for the watchfulnessof his attendant. -The
intensityof her moral feeling is evident in the noble speech
answeringher mother'sattemptto defend her sin, and again
in her condemnationof her sisterfornot laying aside woman's

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The Ethical Teachingof Sophokles.


nature to avenge this crime. Many years she waited for

Orestes to come and do his work of vengeance, and she saw
only sorrowin the lifewhich opened before her. The, news
of Orestes's death throwsher on her own responsibility;she
steels herselfto action; the woman sinks beforethe soul and
its duty,-she feels herselfthe instrumentof divine justice.
Intensityof emotion for the right,and single persistence in
pursuitof it,condemn her sister,supporther in adversity,and
impel to action.
Such stern characters demand a milder counterpartas a
foil,and as a relief,lestwe forgetthattheplay deals withhuman
life. Chrysothemis,like Ismene, is more a woman, and more
a Greek. She is Elektra's sister; we findthe same traitsof
character,but her nature is not strong enough to carryher
burden,or, indeed, to realize it. She is firsta woman, and
the difficultiesin the way of unwomanly action are insurmountable; bounds set by nature definethe limits of what
law, natural'or divine,can prescribe. She is one withwhom
the hearer can sympathize,when her sisterkindles,the rather,
a loftyenthusiasmin his breast.
As to the results of this investigation,we may say again
that these ethical ideas are the product of that age. Moral
reflectionis characteristicof the Greeks; our records of it
date back to the seven wise men. Discussion of action and
theoriesof action interesteda philosophic people even more
than theories of the world. The moral code was developing towardsthe resultsin Plato and Aristotle. We should say,
further,that the thoughts we find in Sophokles were undoubtedly far in advance of the actual ideals of his age,
although but a development of these. Moral progress is
ever introducedby great leaders,whose thoughtsare realized
onlylong aftertheyhave lived. Sophokles was such a leader,
and his doctrines of law and duty,of sin and punishment,
find truer sympathyto-day than when offeredto his own
Much progress in ethical thought as Sophokles made,
guided by a poet's intuition,he did not break through the

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International-2ournalof Ethics.

sphere of Greek thought. His ideals, his conceptions of

virtue and duty,may even yet be ideal and unrealized,but
they are Greek in that their stand-pointis -estheticrather
than ethical. A grand fault is approved more than a weak
virtue. Herakles, in rage and pain slaying his attendant,his
wife Deianeira, with her depth of passionate love, are more
attractivethan their perfectson. The sense of shame can at
best only condemnwhat an educated popular taste condemns.
Once assume this -estheticstand-point,however,and the results reached can never cease to excite wonder and admiration. That combinationof mentalvigor,and sympathywith
nature and lifewhich produced Greek art may never be repeated; and the adequate successes of -esthetic morals are
limited to those naive beginningsof highest culture,before
knowledge and cool calculation have supplanted life,-before
the world of science has supplanted nature. Then rightand
wrong was instinctivefor the " perfect"man, and his whole
naturejoined in the revoltagainstwrong; but ideas of right
and wrong were limited by the point of view. The sublime
and the beautiful in action excited moral admiration. Conscience was sense of conformityto an aestheticideal. The
eternal relations of things, natural law in the moral world,
embodied the aestheticideal. It was reserved for a sterner
people than the Greeks to give its true meaning to the
" ought," to turn attentionbeyond the best that is to what
may be and must be.



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