Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.09.05

Markus Altmeyer, Unzeitgemäßes Denken bei Sophokles. Hermes Einzelschriften 85.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 2002.  Pp. 330.  ISBN 3-315-07963-7.  EUR 70.00.  

Reviewed by Ruth Scodel, The University of Michigan (
Word count: 1449 words

This book is (unmistakably) a revised German dissertation. In a brief introduction, the author sets forth his thesis that the second half of the fifth century experienced a transformation in mentality. Sophocles' heroes in their contemporary context appear old-fashioned, and Sophocles prefers the older values. A chapter follows on each extant tragedy, from "Unzeitgemäßes Denken im Aias" to "Unzeitgemäßes Denken im Ödipus auf Kolonos." For some of the plays the chapter is a continuous reading, for others the discussion is organized around characters and concepts.

Defining the question this way seems to be an attempt to address the most central and familiar questions in Sophoclean criticism without simply repeating the same old arguments. Much recent German interpretation re-argues the debate of "hero-worshippers" vs. "pietists," or debates where the sympathies of the audience should lie. This book's chapters begin with the author's positioning himself within these debates. So the author cites partisans of both Creon and Antigone at the beginning of the Antigone chapter, but can then say that the issue is not really who is to blame. On Electra, he opens by announcing that the vengeance in itself is just and morally unproblematic. Altmeyer's approach synthesizes the pietist and heroic sides; Sophocles' heroes, though their actions are not unproblematic, become representatives of the old aristocratic morality. It is an interesting and intelligent strategy.

Although the argument sometimes depends on the thematic use of particular terms, it tends to generality; this is not a book about Sophocles and sophistic, but about basic attitudes. In "contemporary" the author includes not just sophistic thought, but more general attitudes to public and private, to power and social order. "Modernity" is loosely defined as moral relativism, confidence in human capability, civic rather than familial orientation, utilitarianism. So Creon in Oedipus Rex is defined as "modern" by his pragmatism, but his use of argument from probability does not receive extended attention.

So, in Ajax, Altmeyer presents the (familiar) view that Ajax stands for an older form of heroism, while Odysseus, whose basic motive is self-interest, shows a modern and unimpressive form of the older aristocratic charis. Philoctetes also easily fits the scheme. In Trachiniae, he suggests that Deianeira's resort to the love-potion is a "contemporary" action, a reliance on contrivance that goes against her values. Heracles' end is to be understood in the light of his apotheosis, and Sophocles again reminds his audience of the greatness of a fearful hero like Heracles (the Oedipus of OC is a similar case). In Antigone, Creon represents the contemporary, Antigone the past. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is less "modern" than many readers, influenced by Knox, imagine. Altmeyer sees a conflict between newer attitudes to justice and moral evaluation, which would regard Oedipus as innocent since he acted in self-defense and ignorance, and the older views that condemn him, which he himself shares. In Electra, Orestes' concentration on doing the job efficiently is modern and questionable. In OC, Creon is the representative of corrupt, sophistic modernity, but Altmeyer also suggests that Theseus is a version of the Odysseus of Ajax, who, however, still represents traditional values. This is the only place in Sophocles where modernity seems to be good.

The book often points towards fascinating territory. The reader needs to be careful, though. The author is sometimes tendentious with Greek and overreads individual lines. Since Altemeyer often cites rather than quotes, the reader needs to check the text. More broadly, Altmeyer sometimes forces complex interactions into his categories. For example, he claims that Creon's view of kerdos is utilitarian, while that of Antigone, Haemon, and Tiresias is ideal. Yet "profit" is almost by definition a "utilitarian" word. When Antigone says it is a profit to her to die, the author is not wrong to compare this claim to the traditional aristocratic motto of living well or dying well, but Antigone's remark rests on a calculation of her circumstances. Haemon's argument is mostly as political as his father's.

At its best, the book gives a new and lively view. The chapter on Electra is the most successful, since he takes a balanced view of Greek attitudes to deception and develops an interesting contrast between Electra and Orestes. The discussion of physis and education in Philoctetes is fully nuanced.

Sometimes, however, Altmeyer merely repeats summary remarks in secondary works, or adopts questionable generalizations. He repeatedly says that the contemporary polis devalued the family, and I am not certain what is specifically meant. Certainly some passages of Athenian rhetoric treat the good of the city as the purpose of the family, but I do not think funeral orations and patriotic speeches in Euripides should be taken as the sole contemporary norm against which Sophocles would be untimely. Faction could be more powerful than family bonds, and comedy shows generational tensions, but we need clearer definitions than Altmeyer provides. Would Athenians of the fifth century have considered Oedipus old-fashioned when he accepts guilt for unintentional, but peculiarly horrific actions, or the Oedipus of OC "modern" when he argues his moral innocence? The Oedipus of OC is perhaps modern in arguing that he would have been justified in killing his own father in self-defense (271-72). That boldness has a contemporary feel, but so does the earlier Oedipus' proof that he was right to blind himself at OT 1369-1386.

Altmeyer refers to Thucydides' account of the Corcyrean stasis and to the Melian Dialogue repeatedly; these are his basic touchstones for the "modern." He tends to see these passages as an accurate guide to the general moral condition of the Greek world, not just in extreme situations, and not just during the war. So any insistence on moral limits becomes old-fashioned.

The book strikingly reveals how distant Germany and the English-speaking world have become in the study of Sophocles (and of tragedy generally). Germans complain that Americans do not read enough German scholarship, and it is true (the German of this book would be very hard for most of my students). As this book demonstrates, however, there is a problem also in the other direction. Although Altmeyer cites work in English and is engaged especially with Winnington-Ingram, it is strange to read a book on Sophocles that never cites Zeitlin, Goldhill, or Foley, or even Segal's Tragedy and Civilization, and that shows no awareness of even such unthreatening trends as narratology or the study of stagecraft. Tragedy is perhaps the area within classics that has been most influenced by broader currents in the humanities. It appears that many German scholars saw the excesses of deconstruction (or even of structuralism) and decided to have nothing to do with theory or its progeny. As a result, though, they work in an impoverished landscape, although they also retain an ability to take tragedy seriously as meaningful in the present that is not so evident in Britain or the United States. Altmeyer several times refers to the "fabula docet" of a play, and, although his readings are not nearly as reductive as that phrase suggests, his arguments would be richer if he had thought about the issues raised by theoretically informed readings. When he discusses at length such an unanswerable question as the exact level of sincerity of the Polynices of OC, the absence of any reflection about the nature of the question is striking.

Altmeyer argues that Creon in Antigone, with his rationalism and polis-centeredness, represents contemporary thought, Antigone an older set of values. That is not unconvincing, or even unsurprising. But he does not consider whether the appeal to "unwritten ordinances" at 453 is not a highly contemporary move, and whether the idea that the gods would demand the burial of a traitor in his native country might not be new and radical: that is, perhaps Sophocles constructs a contrast between "old" and "new" instead of simply preferring one side of an obvious division. Furthermore, nothing is more contemporary during the Peloponnesian War than nostalgia for the allegedly simpler character of the Persian War generation, as both Aristophanes and Thucydides show.

From the American perspective, the book itself is at once out of its time and oddly contemporary. Altmeyer repeatedly refers to Sophocles' stress on the family as the fundamental school and basis of moral life and to the loss of an older morality. His Sophocles insists on traditional religion as the necessary basis of civic life. Sophocles thus sounds like an American right-wing pundit. This is not necessarily wrong; I think it's partially right. Still, it invites reflection on the underlying hermeneutics. Indeed, because in the American academy, hostility to theory is associated with a belief that intellectual and moral integrity has declined, Altmeyer's Sophocles seems almost a trope for the conservative interpreter. We need more conversation.

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