I actually read this for the first time some weeks ago, but tonight I was reading in the same book, B.M.W. Knox’s The Heroic Temper, and had cause to revisit it. Of course, it’s not just about Sophocles, but that will be patent.
“The hero chooses death. This is after all the logical end of his refusal to compromise. Life in human society is one long compromise; we live, all of us, only by constantly subduing our own will, our own desires, to the demands of others, expressed as the law of the community or the opinion of our fellowmen. We learn this lesson in childhood or, more expensively, later; those who fail to learn it end as criminals or madmen. But in Sophoclean tragedy the hero faces an issue on which he cannot compromise and still respect himself. Surrender would be spiritual self-destruction, a betrayal of his physis; the hero is forced to choose between defiance and loss of identity. And in the Sophoclean hero the sense of identity, of independent, individual existence, is terribly strong. They are, all of them, exquisitely conscious of their difference from others, of their uniqueness. They have a profound sense of their own worth as individuals, and this exasperates the anger they feel at the world’s denial of respect. In the crisis of their lives, abandoned by friends, ringed by enemies, unsupported by the gods, they have nothing to fall back on for support but this belief in themselves, their conception of their own unique character and destiny.”
In this sense, I suppose Paul Claudel’s Judas in Mort de Judas (The Death of Judas) is a Sophoclean hero. I think this is all very close to Alisdair MacIntyre’s “competing goods” in After Virtue, a book which, when I read it, plunged me into the deepest depression I have experienced in my life, a Weltschmerz which lasted for about twelve months.
But this passage struck me first and, still, foremost as consolation for the middle school teacher (I taught middle school boys for two years): life is compromise. We learn this lesson in childhood. If not, we end up criminals or madmen. Either way, we go to jail, execution, marginalization, or isolation. So, on the one hand, yes, we’re teaching thirteen-year-old boys more about the basic responsibilities of adult life than about Latin, but on the other hand, we’re saving them (and the rest of us) from their becoming criminals and madmen.
Strange, isn’t it, that the anchorite’s voluntary act, which was the result of the Sophoclean hero’s unyielding self-committment, has so often resulted in the opposite for him, namely, ἡ ἔρημος πεπλήρωται μοναχῶν (the desert has become filled with monks)?*
Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being the gadfly of my discipline out here in the desert.
*Athanasius, Vita Antonii, 41.