BMCR 2019.11.41

The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles: Philosophical Perspectives. Oxford studies in philosophy and literature

Paul Woodruff, The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles: Philosophical Perspectives. Oxford studies in philosophy and literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xvi, 242. ISBN 9780190669454 $24.95 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The book under review commences with an ‘Editor’s Introduction’ by Paul Woodruff that offers a lucid introduction to both Sophocles and his plays about Oedipus, Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus, henceforth OT and OC respectively. Woodruff contextualises the study by offering a short description of Plato’s antipathy towards tragedy as a moment of genesis for the separation of tragedy and philosophy as well as the arguments against this division to be found in the works of Bernard Williams and Martha Nussbaum. Woodruff then posits the following rationale for the volume: ‘We have chosen to write about the Oedipus plays because … these plays can enrich our concept of self- understanding if we read them closely and with attention to philosophical issues’ (2). Woodruff continues, ‘In staging Oedipus’s progress toward self-understanding in the two plays, Sophocles has dramatized insights into the process by which we all come to see our place in larger narratives. The result is more complex and more faithful to human experience than most of what we find in the philosophical tradition’ (3).

Following this confident opening, the first main essay by Noël Carroll begins on a more tentative note: ‘A central question in the philosophy of literature concerns where or not literature can possess cognitive value. That is, is it possible for literature to communicate or convey knowledge to audiences?’ (17). In terms of Oedipus this question of ‘knowledge’ is fraught: the entirety of OT is concerned with the issue of the protagonist’s incomplete knowledge of his identity and his actions. It is welcome, then, that after listing various ‘arguments’ against the relationship of literature and knowledge, such as the ‘no-evidence argument’, the ‘banality argument’ and the ‘no-argument argument’, Carroll offers a positive answer to his opening question. Concerning the cognitive value of catharsis, he declares that ‘[the] gut-wrenching experience that tragedy provokes is part of the data that we need to reflect upon in order to philosophically analyze the emotions in question’ (36); he follows this with the idea that ‘we are able to carry off this process of reflection/comprehension with respect to the tragic emotions that a work like OT enjoins in a way that we cannot with everyday emotions, because our emotion system is decoupled from the pressure of having to react immediately’ (37). The subsequent essay, by C. D. C. Reeve, takes the form of an extended second-person address to the reader qua Oedipus: ‘You are, as you think, the Prince of Corinth, heir apparent to the throne’ (41). The philosophical issue at stake here is the question of evidence, and the degree to which Oedipus is able to correctly understand the evidence he is presented with on his way to the realisation of who he is. Reeve distinguishes between religious and secular evidence, between claims presented by the gods and prophets and those presented by humans, to examine the different forms of irrationality that Oedipus manifests (see esp. 46). Reeve concludes that the play ‘is reverent in the true sense by showing us the disasters we mortals bring upon ourselves when we are insufficiently sensitive to such evidence as we have, and by making us complicit in its neglect’ (63). Sigmund Freud is mentioned only briefly in this second essay, and it seems that one philosophical conclusion that both essays might have taken from his psychoanalytic theories is the significance of the human unconscious and its impact on action, feeling, experience and decision-making. If any simple lesson can be drawn from the multifarious traditions of modern philosophy and its relationship to culture and the world, then it could be that philosophy ought to associate itself as much with the irrational as with the rational parts of experience in order to have any true ‘cognitive’ value.

The following three essays, by Garry L. Hagberg, Peter J. Ahrensdorf, and the editor Paul Woodruff, continue the focus on OT. Hagberg examines how Sophocles’ play models the process of ‘introspection’ as a way of achieving insight into the self. This essay points out the dangers inherent in considering the self to have a similarly stable ontological status to any other object that can be examined externally, like a leaf or a spoon, and points the way, via Sophocles’ drama, to the apprehension of ‘a kind of narratively emergent spectral presence—a possible self that begins as other and then, with steadily increasing detail and specification, grows into an image of oneself that finally allows an isomorphic match’ (95). Ahrensdorf presents the most historically oriented essay of the collection, arguing that Sophocles’ innovative decision to mark Oedipus as a tyrant is determined by the memory of Pericles. The idea that Oedipus and Pericles represented two rational rulers trying to escape the thickets of superstition and religion in their leadership is given clear form by Ahrensdorf when he suggests that Oedipus’ main sin was to consult the Delphic oracle regarding the plague in the first place: ‘What destroys Oedipus …is not his rationalism but his abandonment of his rationalism’ (120). As he continues, ‘Throughout the play … Sophocles warns Athenians specifically against the danger that their immoderate rationalism will provoke an extreme self-destructive religious backlash’ (121).

Finally, Woodruff explores the philosophical significance of three major themes in the play: the gods, the idea of fate, and the concept of character. He argues compellingly that the theatrical context of the play explains the way that seemingly incompatible ideas like divine foreknowledge, divine agency, human agency and fate can co-exist in the myth and drama of Oedipus (129); ‘The story that frames the Oedipus plays is indeed one of ineluctable fate, but the actions the playwright puts on stage have not all been foretold and are not presented as the product of fate’ (131). For Woodruff, as I understand it, Sophocles’ major philosophical achievement is to have created a work of literature that pulls together such antagonistic explanations of the way the world works, and to have emblematised the intensely human difficulties of managing these conflicting spheres of agency in the character of Oedipus the King.

The concluding three essays, by Philip Kitcher, Grace Ledbetter, and Franco V. Trivigno, focus on OC. Philip Kitcher brings together a range of poetical and literary attitudes towards old age. Juxtaposing depictions of old age and its experiences that range from Simeon in the Gospel of Luke to the poetry of Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot, Kitcher argues that Sophocles includes a humanist philosophical insight into issues of coming to terms with old age and death that is not limited to a more overtly supernatural and religious reading of OC : a quasi-philosophical serenity is described which is deeply human and not reliant on resignation to the power of the gods. As he says, he wishes to ‘view these plays as human tragedies, works that vividly present how the value of what we do and strive for is hostage to forces beyond our control’ (157). Kitcher concludes his reading of Sophocles with a further hopeful note: ‘The power of Sophocles’ final play consists in its ability to make hope possible, grounding it in the establishment of human relations, even for those who are vividly aware of the horrific disruptions that can beset our lives’ (175–6).

Grace Ledbetter’s essay takes as its starting point the uncertainty that Sophocles writes into OC about whether or not the incredible trauma that has dogged Oedipus’ existence is in fact resolved at the end of the play. The truth, Ledbetter suggests, is much more complicated than that: ‘the business of this play finds Oedipus defining and distinguishing multiple images of reality, or “truths,” in an effort to meet the challenges to his conception of himself posed by his traumatic past’ (184). Ledbetter characterizes the play as ‘a therapeutic process that centers on [Oedipus] establishing a complex but ordered picture of his various images of truth and reality (184). These ‘various images of truth and reality’ that Ledbetter differentiates in Sophocles’ depiction of Oedipus’ sophisticated self-understanding are based on the psychoanalytic theory of Shlomit Yadlin-Gadot, and in particular her identification of particular regimes of truth that structure human psychic experience, including factual reality, coherent reality, interpersonal reality, and so on. The essay of Franco V. Trivigno focuses in great detail on the philosophical attitude towards death that Sophocles includes in the third choral ode of OC (1211–48): this reading suggests that the choral ode ‘endorses the goodness of death using a quantitative framework, that calculates pleasures and pains and a narrative framework that sketches the trajectory … of a typical life’ (221). Trivigno argues that, contrary to his view that most philosophers view death as a bad thing, Sophocles considers the death of Oedipus to be fundamentally good: ‘the reason the ending is happy is because Oedipus finally gets to die ’ (231).

This is a successful book; the essays are well-written and the contributors have each done a good job in answering the questions they have been set or which they have set themselves. Its tone is that of an inexpensive undergraduate handbook, trying to set out the basics of Sophocles’ Oedipus plays and their connections to philosophy (see especially p. 9). As a scholar of classical reception I was concerned at this apparently neutral ‘handbook’ style, which suggests that it offers an uncontroversial approach to the philosophical significance of the Oedipus plays. I understand this is fueled by a very different attitude towards the nature of philosophy from the one that I hold as someone who works on responses to antiquity in the writings of continental and postcolonial philosophers like Nietzsche and Fanon. However, at a time of increasing methodological heterogeneity within the discipline it seems important for a book so clearly aimed at undergraduates to present its target audience with a choice (or at least an awareness) of the various ways of approaching the conjunction of ancient literature and philosophy so as to encourage further debate and development. The philosophical legacies of the Sophoclean Oedipus are manifold and ever proliferating, and this book gives a glimpse into just one of the many ways in which they can and should be explored.

Authors and titles

Editor’s Introduction – Paul Woodruff
1. Oedipus Tyrannus and the Cognitive Value of Literature – Noël Carroll
2. The Killing Feet: Evidence and Evidence Sensitivity in Oedipus Tyrannus – C. D. C. Reeve
3. In the Ruins of Self-Knowledge: Oedipus Unmade – Garry L. Hagberg
4. “Tyranny,” Enlightenment, and Religion: Sophocles’ Sympathetic Critique of Periclean Athens in Oedipus the Tyrant – Peter J. Ahrensdorf
5. Gods, Fate, and the Character of Oedipus – Paul Woodruff
6. Aging Oedipus – Philip Kitcher
7. Truth and Self at Colonus – Grace Ledbetter
8. The Goodness of Death in Oedipus at Colonus – Franco V. Trivigno