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Sophocles & Milton
Sophocles wrote his great works two and a half millennia ago, and yet today they are still fresh and powerful. This is because Sophocles deals with deep and important human situations and emotions. Even though we can no longer imagine what it would be like to live in the world which Sophocles inhabits, we can completely understand his characters because they are fully human and human nature does not change much over time. Though he writes about kings and queens and the wealthy of Greece, his characters have the sense of being representatives of every man and woman, in every era. His characters struggle with pride and with sin and with accepting the will of the gods -- when they do things they should not do, in the end they are punished, and accept this punishment. This gives them a greater morality than sinners who are portrayed in the media or in theatre as never reaping the consequences of their actions.
Sophocles means a great deal to me personally, because his writing embodies many of the most important aspects about being human and also covers aspects of religion that I approve of. I can identify with Sophocles because he was very religious, even as I am. My religion is different that Sophocles' in that I don't believe in an entire pantheon of gods, and I don't believe that the supreme deity has love affairs with countless virgins or sleeps with young cupholder boys. However, in his poems he doesn't really deal with these issues about Greek religion that I don't agree with. Instead, he focuses on those better aspects of his religions that have survived to this day. He focuses a lot of attention on the way in which all of our lives are predetermined by the gods, and how we can only hope to accept that rather than struggle against it. Perhaps the biggest spiritual lesson of Oedipus Rex is that we must submit ourselves to the will of deity, because resistance is futile and only brings more pain.
In order to understand how impressive it was that this idea was understood two and a half millennia ago, one should compare Sophocles' work to the work of a much more recent poet, Milton. Unlike Sophocles, Milton was intentionally writing about religious issues when he penned Paradise Lost. One assumes, since he was Christian, that he thought of Satan and his army of demons as the villains -- however, he has still made Satan so sympathetic and given so much of the space in the story to describing him that some people have thought that Satan was the hero of this book. Indeed, he might be. If Milton's Satan is contrasted with Oedipus Rex, one can see a definite shift between classical and proto-romantic thinking. Both have pride and hubris as their great fatal flaws, and both are visited with great pain and punishment. Afterwards, where Oedipus takes a religious stance and learns to humble himself before the will of the gods, Satan (also known as Lucifer or the fallen Arch Angel) only takes the suffering engendered by his own rebellion as a sign that he should rebel even more.
There are certain similarities between Oedipus and Satan that serve to highlight the differences. Both are, to some degree, tragic heroes because both fall from very high stations through the agency of their own tragic flaws, and both suffer greatly. The similarity between them is particularly strong in that both Oedipus and Satan have the same basic flaw, for in both cases it is their pride that brings them down. This is not merely a case of pride coming before the fall, but in each case pride actually causes the fall. Both Oedipus and Satan sin greatly, and both have some element of guilt which haunts them, as both are left degenerated and in great suffering.
The pride of both Satan and Oedipus is obvious. It was pride that caused Oedipus to kill his father when they met, because his father offered him some small insult. (And, one assumes, he would not have married his mother had his father been still living) It was also pride that caused him to insist on seeking out the answers to Laius' death, even when he was warned repeatedly by all those around him to refrain from his search. Creon himself points this flaw out to him at the end, as he says "Crave not mastery in all, / For the mastery that raised thee was thy bane and wrought thy fall." The theme of mastery which destroys is also important in Paradise Lost. Lucifer was cast out of heaven because he had challenged the dominance of God, who he called the Thunderer, out of his prideful thought that he could overthrow him. Even after being cast out, he had the pride to think that he could continue to challenge God. Satan himself admits that he pridefully thinks it is "better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n." (Milton, Book 1)
Both Oedipus and Lucifer sinned very greatly. Oedipus sinned somewhat unknowingly, but that does not detract from the fact that he did in fact kill his father and marry (and have intercourse with!) his own mother. This is a hugely significant crime. One might also say he sinned in disregarding the words of prophecy and trying to escape from them. Lucifer sinned quite knowingly, by attacking God and then by negatively influencing humans so that they would fall from grace and eventually die. Both felt some measure of guilt or at least remorse for these crimes. As Oedipus laments his fate, he is mainly heaping guilty abuse on himself, and he admits that his punishment is his own choice: "By my own sentence am cut off, condemned" (Sophocles) Satan likewise has some feelings of guilt. Even though he blames God and not himself for the situation he is in, he does speak of regretting having caused so many of his fellow angels to come to such an end. Of him Milton says that in the long years to come he will mourn these things "with reiterated crimes he might / Heap on himself damnation," (Milton, book 1) Guilt is not the only suffering that both Oedipus and Lucifer must go through. Lucifer has been terribly scarred and injured in his battle with God, and the great strain of his fall has left him weary. Looking at him, one sees on "his face / Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care / Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes / Of dauntless courage" (Milton, Book 1) One might see a similar sight looking upon Oedipus, who has dashed out his own eyes. The quote from Sophocles which says "Dark, dark! The horror of darkness, like a shroud, / Wraps me and bears me on through mist and cloud" could quite easily have been spoken by Satan instead, as he stood wrapped around with fire and darkness and sulfur.
Yet while there are similarities in their situations, there are hugely significant differences in the way in which they react to these situations. After the fall, Satan continues to seek mastery over God, and continues to challenge fate. He leads his forces further into hell and builds a great tower there to challenge the will of God. He makes plans to continue his war. Though fighting God has so far brought only suffering, he will continue to fight until the end. Oedipus is quite different. Though at the beginning he struggles against the ordinances of the gods and says he will do everything possible to thwart their plan for his life, at the end he has accepted that he must actually listen to their words and put his faith in them. This is evidenced in his discussion with Creon, which goes as follows:
OEDIPUS: Send me from the land an exile.
CREON: Ask this of the gods, not me.
OEDIPUS: But I am the gods' abhorrence.
CREON: Then they soon will grant thy plea.
OEDIPUS: Lead me hence, then, I am willing. (Sophocles)
In this exchange it is obvious that Oedipus first expresses his own wishes. When Creon says the gods must decide, Oedipus at first reacts with his old pride, assuming he knows better than they do. Yet when Creon gently points out that we must actually await their decree rather than proudly assuming we know what they will do, Oedipus quickly agrees. Earlier he would have protested angrily against Creon for the rebuke, but here it is displayed that he has learned and is willing to accept the mandate of the gods. This could not be more different that Satan's wild antagonism toward God that withstood all rebukes.
Satan never repents his sins at all, though he mourns the consequences which befall his companions. Oedipus is quite the opposite, and cares more for what he did wrong than for its consequences, and in fact asks for harsher treatment…[continue]
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