BMCR 2002.07.01

Die Unfähigkeit, sich zu erkennen: Sophokles’ Tragödien. Mnemosyne Supplementum 227

Eckard Lefèvre, Die Unfähigkeit, sich zu erkennen : Sophokles' Tragödien. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava. Supplementum, 227. Leiden: Brill, 2001. xi, 320 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9004123229 EUR 69.00/$81.00.

One of the most familiar themes in Sophocles is the man who does not know who he is: Oedipus. What Lefèvre is concerned with in this book, however, is a slightly different sense of self-knowledge: that of the Delphic precept γνῶθι σαυτόν, knowing and recognizing the limitations of human nature. Sophocles created a collection of main characters who do not acknowledge these limitations. In addition to the obvious examples (Ajax, Antigone, Oedipus), L. argues that nearly all the main characters in these plays are incapable of self-knowledge. In addition, each play except Trachiniae has at least one character who does know himself or herself, and in each play someone, often the chorus or a divine character, reminds listeners of the importance of self-knowledge and σωφροσύνη. As Athena points out in Ajax, “the gods love good people ( σώφρονας) and hate bad ones” (Aj. 132-133); in other words, self-knowledge in this sense is basic to a good relationship with the gods. L. uses the characters’ varying capacity for self-knowledge as an organizing principle for his reading of the seven plays. Although there is much here that is familiar (and indeed several chapters are adapted from articles L. has been publishing over the past 15 years), the synthesis is valuable. L. has worked on all aspects of ancient drama, Greek and Roman, tragedy and comedy, and his broad and deep knowledge of the plays is obvious throughout.

After a brief introduction, L. devotes one chapter to each play, then closes with a summary. Each play’s chapter is structured the same way: first, an overview of the play and its Problematik; then identification and explication of passages where the chorus or another character recommends self-knowledge; next treatment of the various characters who do not know themselves, followed by treatment of those who do; and finally a section on gods and mortals in the play. Within the discussion, the phrase “er (sie) ist (un)fähig, sich zu erkennen” recurs like a refrain. The precisely parallel structure does not seem forced: L. makes a convincing case that the theme of acknowledging or rejecting human limitations is fundamental to each of the plays.

In his initial overview of each play, L. begins with the Romantic critics, particularly Goethe, August Schlegel, and Friedrich Schlegel. Their readings focus on the characters and on how they are affected by fate and the gods; L.’s own reading responds to them and is part of the same tradition. Although the Romantic idea of the Sophoclean hero who takes on the universe single-handed is familiar to anyone who has read even a little bit of modern scholarship on Sophocles, discussions of their work are relatively rare. L’s is therefore welcome. The Romantics argued about the relative merits of Sophocles’ plays, and L. uses their debates to set up his own discussion. For example, he quotes A. Schlegel’s opinion that Trachiniae is so bad it probably isn’t genuine, followed by his brother’s opposing view, that the combination of the deep pain we feel for Deianeira and the supreme delight we take in the play can only be true Sophocles (p. 11). L. goes on to summarize other critical judgements of the characters: most scholars pity the charming, innocent Deianeira and find Heracles arrogant and unpleasant. Through the course of the chapter we find out that neither Deianeira nor Heracles is capable of self-knowledge. Deianeira tries to do the impossible, even though her motives are good, and Heracles shows the same sort of ὕβρις as Ajax. In fact, part of what makes Trachiniae such a bleak play is that none of its major characters is conscious of human limits. There is no Ismene or Odysseus to balance the excesses of the main characters.

The most striking chapter is the last, in which L. argues that Sophocles was even more important for the development of New Comedy than Euripides. He points out several similarities between Menander’s characters and Sophocles’: stubbornness, inability to recognize the situation they’ve landed in, a tendency to jump to conclusions, and general immoderation. Menander’s characters do ultimately learn to recognize their own limitations, and this is part of what produces the happy endings of the plays. Indeed this is a distinguishing feature of New Comedy as compared with Old. Aristophanes’ characters often try to exceed the limits of human nature, and usually get away with it, something that is only possible in his fantasy world, not in the more realistic worlds of New Comedy or of tragedy.

L. suggests, moreover, that the gods who appear in Sophocles are close to the ἀγαθὴ Τύχη of New Comedy, since they are not entirely individuals but representatives of Divinity as a whole, when they speak for other gods or for all the gods. Because good triumphs over evil in the end, in Menander’s plays and in Electra, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus, we are invited to see a divine ordering principle keeping the world going, and this is precisely Tyche. Finally, L. observes that the apolitical nature of New Comedy seems similar to the late plays of Sophocles, in which the main character (Philoctetes or Oedipus) is set apart from society. This seems to be the weakest part of this argument; in both Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus, a war looms in the background, and other characters try to pull the main character back into their society. In Menander, on the other hand, the outside world rarely impinges on the characters’ lives.

L.’s juxtaposition of Sophocles and Menander brings out some useful points about the later dramatist. I am not convinced that he has demonstrated that Menander was influenced by Sophocles, still less that Sophokles, wie es scheint, der Neuen Komödie in noch größerem Maß den Boden bereitet als Euripides. (p. 279) Nonetheless the chapter raises questions that are worth thinking about.

The book includes a 14-page bibliography and indices of names, concepts, and passages. L.’s lucid and thoughtful discussion shows how the idea of self-knowledge has wider application in the plays of Sophocles than is immediately obvious.