Oedipus at Colonus

Photo by Carmela Gross


Commentary on the last of Sophocles' tragedies

“Cicero says that to philosophize is nothing else but to prepare oneself for death"(Montaigne, Essay, book I, XX).[I]

In Sophocles' theater death plays an important role. Oedipus at Colonus, [ii] his last play deals with the theme in an unprecedented way. The new position of language towards death draws attention and brings consequences that have not been exhausted. In the initial sequence, there is contact with Oedipus, who, supported by Antigone, arrives at a place. Finding out from a passer-by, Oedipus rejoices, exulting at having finally reached what he was looking for: the place that would assure him a serene death, under divine protection.

This episode begins Oedipus's preparations for death, around which the drama will unfold. Such a death, being the object of a divine benefit, will produce important consequences. In addition to reconciling Oedipus with his fate, it has political value. According to an oracle, if it occurs in Thebes it will be decisive for that city, favoring one or another faction, among the groups that fight for the throne. Otherwise, taking place in Athens, it will bring a gift to all Athenians.

The oracle reflects an ancient Greek belief that attributed magical powers to certain corpses, whose influence was felt from the ground on which they were found. Consequently, the death of Oedipus will be the subject of a dispute that also involves political power. Theseus, on the side of Athens, Creon and Polynices, leading Theban groups, clash during the drama, claiming, each in their own way, the ultimate control of the tomb of Oedipus. The confrontation over the funeral inheritance, mirroring antagonistic policies, and the preparations that Oedipus makes for his own end provide the basic elements that will be developed in the plot of the play.

Thus, the theme of Oedipus' death will carry most of the dialogues. Despite being significant, such a death will remain undetermined, appearing as a gap in the drama, an insoluble embarrassment. Absent from the plot, Oedipus' death signals a loss of reference for other characters. Modernly, this lack has also become a problem for the reader.

In fact, without agreeing that such indetermination could be deliberate, imposing a limit to the story, most modern exegeses overlooked it and sought to fill in the gap, risking the fantasy decipherment of this unknown. However, one can read Sophocles' text directing attention exclusively to the elements presented. That is, the circumstances that precede Oedipus's death and the implications that the decision to die in Athens entails for the other figures in action: Antigone and Ismenia, the daughters who accompany Oedipus in exile; Theseus, king of Athens, to whose care Oedipus entrusts his tomb; and the citizens of Colonus, who welcome Oedipus into their land; reaching also, adversely elsewhere, the princes of Thebes, Polynices and Creon, enemies of Oedipus, despite being relatives.

Oedipus knows he is going to die and discovers step by step how to proceed. His figure is a figure of knowledge. At this level, there are clear contrasts between King-Oedipus e Oedipus at Colonus. The Oedipus of Sophocles' last work, upon reaching Colonus, already differs from the Theban character by the appearance of poverty, old age and blindness, and also by a marked transformation of spirit making his way of acting prudent. The contrast is even stronger between the feelings that knowledge produces. In King-Oedipus, knowing brought distress. In Oedipus at Colonus, knowing causes well-being. In the role of the Theban king, Oedipus exhaustively explored evidence, at first sight disconnected and accidental, to end up facing a disastrous determinism. In exile, accustomed to the fluctuations of fortune, combining his desires at random, Colonus' Oedipus obtains good results. This confrontation indicates that the nature and application of knowledge have changed for the protagonist.

The treatment of feelings, in the Greek context, requires its own exploration. In Greek terms "paskein"and "pathos”, from which the Latin “passion”, root of the Portuguese “passion”, there is a meaning different from that observed in modern experience. Passion, from its Greek origin, means experiencing the effect of an action. In such a sense, the sense of passion is close to what is understood by being passive; opposing, therefore, the notion of agent, as the performer of the act. Thus it is not possible to refer exclusively to the passion without conforming, in Greek terms, to a partial description of the event.

One can better understand the uniqueness of the Greek feeling through a contrast with the modern meaning of passion.[iii] What is modernly understood by passion is linked to a conception formed during the XNUMXth century, according to the prevailing idea of ​​human nature. Passion, from this perspective, is the other of reason. Thus, the affirmation of passion presupposes the exaggeration of an inclination that installs itself in spite of reason, canceling its ordering over conduct, to take its place at the center of initiatives. To this definition correspond unhealthy passions and enemies of reason. Thus, it is not accidental, but necessary for the modern, that the senses associated with those of passion are concomitantly those of perdition, madness, sacrifice, fall, vertigo, etc. Strictly excluded from reason, the passions are excluded by definition from cognitive experience. Romanticism explored this dissociation in different directions, demonstrating how it dooms the passions to obsoleteness and, therefore, to disaster.

In the Greek context, such exclusion does not prevail. Passion is inserted in a broad context of notions given by the figures of act, agent, knowledge, etc. This order also implies broader terms, such as conduct or polis, the set in which the conducts, considered in public terms, are inserted. Therefore, in order to approach the theme of passion in Sophocles' work, it is necessary to abandon interiority, the natural habitat of passions in modern man, for the open air agora, where Greek man, as a “political being”, constituted his center of decisions. That is, from the passion circumscribed in the individual, one passes to passion as a moment of a relationship, and, therefore, necessarily political.

The poetry of tragedies makes sense in such a horizon, where the polis makes up the whole. The tragic festivals took place annually, organized by the city and with official judgment by the public. The texts of the awarded shows completed the archives of the polis, alongside the laws. Hölderlin, in a commentary on Sophocles' style, points out this founding sense of tragic theater: “The form of reason that is tragically constituted here is political and, in fact, republican [...]”.[iv] It can be said that the theater was one of the powers of Athenian democracy, alluding to the sense of the division of powers in a modern state.

In this way, the drama that the public accompanies in the work Oedipus at Colonus constitutes a valid lesson not only for the protagonist, but for the entire city of Athens. In an indeterminate world, governed by contingency or by measures inaccessible to human understanding, Oedipus' behavior teaches how to decide well.

The culture of the XNUMXth century foresaw in the figure of the “good decision” three types of goods that the modern separates, without a common trait: effective and timely action, human happiness and the general good. According to modern experience, which has the individual as a parameter, these three goods are independent. However, within the culture of polis, the three were characterized as predictable effects of a single entity: the “good decision”. There was a problem, prevailing in the time of Sophocles, after polemics, sophistry and politics had split the decisions of the divine order in order to link them, in the new situation, to the direction of the deliberations that took place publicly in the agora.

The confrontation between Sophocles, in the fifth century, and Homer, from a remote era, highlights the dimension of this problem, which originates and evolves concomitantly with the polis. While Homer relies on the help of the Muses, boasts absolute knowledge that transcends mortal experience, Sophocles' tragic language departs from human measures, without presumption of omniscience. Thus, in a passage of Oedipus at Colonus, the Chorus, wishing to admire a fight taking place in the distance, regrets not being able to fly like a dove (1044-95).

The epic economy has as its capital point a conception of the divine, which is characterized by crystalline and transparent traits, making the gods accessible to men. This is an Apollonian conception, according to Nietzsche's notion. In the oral culture in which Homer operates, the narrative is based on the prestige, above discussion, of some copiously repeated formulas. On the other hand, Sophocles' environment is characterized by other practices of the word. Through the spread of sophistry, rhetoric, the practice of polemics, his culture discredits and disables many forms of language, while forging others. Contact with the divine comes to be conceived as restricted and limited to sects, if not impossible.

Human action, under these conditions, appears quite different from Homeric feats. The retreat of divine power from its position as conditioning actions to a distant and difficult-to-access plane throws human decisions into an abyss, making the world indeterminate. How, then, to establish the course of action?

This question preoccupied variously Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Protagoras, Herodotus, Sophocles, Democritus, and Aristotle, among many others. A common trait demarcates the new “state of mind”: the basic assertion that the situation of essential exclusion between the divine and the human order constitutes an effective organization. From this arises a need that each one faced in his own way: to work out adequate measures for mortal life. Thus, while in the archaic tradition the gods were the condition of all knowledge, the new situation of men requires, in the absence of a divine science, the invention of knowledge suitable for earthly activities. This task has become a common goal.[v]

Sophocles' tragic art, exploring dialogues marked by the clash of opinions to the maximum, is radically different from the epic conception of a systematized world closed in a whole. Denoting the eccentricity of beings, Sophocles exposes the crisis of Homer's unitary conception.

Such a dissociation of the divine and the human follows a different path from the modern path. Atheism and relative indifference to the divine in current experience are basically due to the dominance of rational knowledge. In Sophocles' world, the dissociation of the divine produces the impression of human limits. It marks the fragility and provisionality of a human knowledge that begins to build itself laboriously and with little evidence of capacity. It therefore provokes very different feelings.

The critical process of differentiation has specific features in Sophocles' work. According to this division, the divine scope acquires, in most tragedies, except the last ones, the appearance of a problem. For men, divine desires become as a rule indecipherable; seem even unjustifiable (393-5).

The transmutation of the clear-cut form of the divine, characteristic of Homer, to the aberrant state of the tragic presentation of the divine, retains some more general features of the Greek notion of the divine. The Olympic gods had a sense of regulation or measure. The character of the measure was equivalent to that of the divine. The ancient warning against hybris, making disproportionate a religious offense, has this foundation. It corresponds to a conception of human nature entirely different from the Christian one. The human species, for the Greeks, has a soul force similar to that of fire.[vi] Thus, men are given as originally unmeasured and not individuated, while the knowledge of measure belongs to the gods. The same does not happen in the Christian or modern perspective. Man is given as a rational animal, endowed with free will; therefore as genuinely measured and choice-able; divine perfection, in turn, is characterized by excess. In this way, the infinity of the goodness of the Creator-God, the maximization of holy asceticism, the sacrifice of Christ and the extreme suffering of martyrdom are verified. The Christian approaches divine excellence in selfless delivery to the absolute, while the Greek through moderation and measure.

Therefore, encountering excess, in Greek terms, means encountering a religious crisis. The crisis portrayed by Sophocles, in the midst of immense social changes, undoes the homogeneity and transparency of the divine order praised by Homer, transforming it into a puzzle. Consequently, the gods, instead of teaching correct gestures, as for the ancients, provoke a series of tragically deadly misunderstandings. Sophocles' plots are punctuated by oracular sentences or divine signs that refract human understanding. It can be said that divine decisions are presented in the form of determinations of physical, with a disconcerting and inescapable facade. On the face of it, human understanding is defined negatively; highlighting his own tendencies, which distance him from the destiny traced in the thought of the gods and lead him now to ignorance and now to deceit. The misfortune of Sophocles' tragic heroes is almost always caused by an interpretive error.

Hölderlin considered the primordial opposition between gods and men, at the same time as the intellectual impact that this division entails, for Sophocles, insofar as it establishes a human character. Hölderlin said: “[…] Aeschylus and Euripides know how to objectify suffering and anger better than human understanding in its wandering for the unthinkable” [vii] (whereas it was Sophocles' skill to clearly objectify the baffling ways of human thought). When considering the essential exclusion of natures, Hölderlin's comparison also reveals that the tragic action, conceived by Sophocles, flows mainly through the meanders of human understanding. The movements of human interpretations thus occupy the foreground.

Em King-Oedipus, these two aspects, that of Sophocles' intellectualist tendency and that of an aberrant theology, based on an antagonism, are highlighted. In Greek, the name of Oedipus, “Oedipous”, sharply echoes the verb meaning to know, “listen”. Oedipus' misfortune goes hand in hand with his exhaustive question about the origin. Hölderlin noted of Oedipus's acts in the drama: "in these lines, the madman reigns predominantly asking for a conscience".[viii]

Thus, Oedipus's movement is presented as that of knowledge in search of its principles, while it becomes evident, in the course of actions, that the comprehensive ambition of this knowledge characterizes a type of madness or excessive activity. Only the gods would hold the possibility of this absolute knowledge, intended by Oedipus, capable of looking inside himself, apprehending his own principles and determining his own condition. Pursuing the transparency of destiny that only some gods have, and not always, Oedipus forgets the inherent limits of all human cognition. Like other tragic characters, Oedipus errs by lack of measure.

Em Oedipus at Colonus, however, both the cognitive act and the relationship with the divine bring beneficial consequences for Oedipus. The gods become benevolent. Transparent and cordial, they lead Oedipus through uncertainty, promising help for the isolated and difficult act of dying. How to understand such divine clarity, after the evident disastrous aspect of previous tragedies?

In this work, antagonism ceases to exist. A light descends on the Greeks from heaven, according to Sophocles, clear again. It is not an extrinsic occurrence, or ex machina, marking an interval in the process of excluding natures.[ix] Instead, there is an essential redefinition, or a refocusing, making contact with the divine intrinsic in the course of human gesture. The transformation is widely noticed in the development of the plot, which evolves within the scope of a new natural sharing, capable of giving rise to happiness. The divine plans about destiny are made known in agreement with the human will. In this way, everything that the suggestion promises is completely fulfilled. The senses do not deceive. The present reaches an affirmative and irreplaceable elaboration. Language expands to convey nuances of pathos that the encounters capture, reaching the point of commotion. As a logical closure, divine potency is presented in transparent and accessible types.

What happens is not a return to Homer's primitive terms. The gods in contact with Oedipus contrast with those who actively contributed to the cult of dead heroes in Iliad. A new elaboration of divine power is characterized. In terms of the Greek structure of the divine, that is, as a measure, this means a reinvention of parameters, which also involves a mutation of the sensorial scope, with the necessary dissolution of previous cognitive schemes. Accordingly, a new understanding of time takes place; at the same time, the valuation of death will also change.

Previously to Oedipus at Colonus, the new conception of the divine is already denoted by some indications in other works. A singular cordiality characterizes the relationship between the goddess Athena and Ulysses, in Ajax, and this relationship narrows even more in the intervention of Heracles-god, in Philoctetes, with the aim of obtaining agreement. The acts of the gods are attentive to the feelings of men. Such compassion teaches a wisdom, substantiated in prudence, which understands the general instability of forms. In the same way, the idea of ​​“good decision”, the conception of measured and excellent action, creates multiple roots, becoming also permeated by the feeling of the other.

The opening movement expands, in Oedipus at Colonus, as if meeting with general assent. This is already evident in the first unfolding of the arrival of Oedipus. The soil of the Eumenides, where Oedipus arrived, without having foreseen it, was sacred, and, as such, forbidden to receive human presence. For this reason a passer-by orders Oedipus to retreat promptly. Being informed of the ban, he replied that his fate was being verified in that place. In the rejoinder, Oedipus's interlocutor indicates that he will consult the other citizens, and that they will make the final decision only after hearing the entire exposition of what happened (30-80). Important changes in the characterization of the divine have already taken place: the contracting parties are different.

Ancient cults were linked to lineages. The gods' favorites were their own descendants. A Iliad presents many cases of this kind of protection, according to the rules of ancestry: between Zeus and Sarpedon, Thetis and Achilles, Aphrodite and Aeneas, etc. In the new formulation of the divine, active in Oedipus at Colonus, the gods are predominantly public beings. The requests they fulfill contribute to the common good. Thus, the goddess Athena, Ajax, was a deity aligned not only with Odysseus, in personal dispute with Ajax, but with the entire Greek army, whose deliberation in favor of Odysseus was unduly contested by Ajax. Similarly, in Philoctetes, the intervention of Heracles, as a divine ancestor of Philoctetes, aimed at the common interest of the Greeks who relied on this hero and his bow for the conquest of Troy. Heracles quelled his heir's hatred for Ulysses, as for the Atrids, so that Greek success might be possible. Such divine favor to the collective, presented by Sophocles, contrasts with that of the Homeric Zeus, in the  Iliad, who, in order to add more luster to the unique glory of Achilles, put the rest of the Greeks to shame.

In the response of the inhabitant of Colonus, linking Oedipus' permanence in the sanctuary to the city's consensus, one notes the change in dealings with the gods, from the restricted sphere of ancestry to the public instance of polis. According to this trend, the gods acquire a political aspect suited to public culture. Consensus becomes a prerequisite with sacred value, preceding all action.

The unfolding of the episode brings other news. Oedipus reveals to the interlocutor the condition of vagabond and foreigner, invoking the name of the gods, so that the interlocutor does not avoid some answers. Such an appeal confirms the coincidence of the spheres of the divine and the political. What Oedipus wants, when he asks to be elevated from his status as a marginal, is citizen treatment; that he be heard and answered with answers. The invocation of the gods guarantees such effectiveness; takes place as a pledge of the practice of listening and exchanging information on an equal footing. Serves an excluded person as a pass to access citizenship. The appeal has an effect: Oedipus' faulty situation benefits from a sursis, and the interlocutor is willing to take the dialogue forward.

The meaning of this Oedipus supplication bears a resemblance to the function of supplication according to tradition. In the epic, the supplication preceded the reception of the foreigner and raised the condition of host in the other. Thus, it propitiated the reception in the dwelling. In this act, an interfamilial rite opened, with the guest swearing in the future to reciprocate the protection. Hosting, including the donation of trophies, was a rule of thumb for the dominant houses, which characteristically could welcome visitors with distinction. However, the similarity of both supplications is not complete. The welcoming rite, which unites Oedipus and the passer-by, unfolds through a new offer.

The openness to the other, through listening, produces this disposition instead of donating trophies; it makes attention a gift. Linking an errant foreigner, with no other good than life, to a citizen in full enjoyment of rights, elevates human life, even when in the worst conditions, to a good worthy of consideration. In this piece, there are other proofs of the new notion of humanity, elevating life to the category of a good. At various times, Theseus, ruler of Athens, listens to Oedipus with all due respect, despite the fact that he is criminal and miserable, and accepts his instructions. Oedipus himself, when refusing to listen to his son Polynices, with a hateful voice, is urged by Theseus and Antigone to listen, even if it is only to later disagree. Previously in Philoctetes, the importance of listening was already highlighted on many occasions.

The interrelation between sacred respect and openness to the other overcomes a traditional repugnance related to impurity, which is still active in the first impetus of the Chorus of rejection of Oedipus (291-5). It also overcomes the sense of heroic beauty that equated the beautiful with the good. Through the confrontation of discourses, in Sophocles' theater, every life experience proves to be valid, having something to teach. Welcoming is not practiced only between peers, but aims at uniting disparate feelings and propositions. Human value is not characterized by obstinacy and deafness, which were stamped in many of Homer's heroes, but by attention to the diversity of the other.

Therefore, sensibility is reformulated in a common whole, in a new conception of life that raises a superior attention, with the quality of a sacred obligation. Every feeling based on this conception of man, as a part of a whole, is radically different from those that modernly originate in the individual, being understood as the passions or passions of a single person. The first time Theseus speaks to Oedipus, such a living parity is already presented, which is not established through the similarity of forms, or the identification of pairs, but in the common use of communicative opening (551-68).

Compassion, the feeling of passion, not as a fact limited to one person and therefore isolated, but as an integral part of the common whole, is a decisive requirement for understanding the novelty of Sophocles' formulations. Compassion is the comprehensive composition that makes it possible, within the scope of polis, the “good decision” with the consent of the gods. It signals the emergence of a kind of optimism that is characterized by the link between a sense of opportunity, measured action, human happiness and the common good. With the openness to the other, a religiosity is formulated in terms of civility. bearing in mind such Philia of sacred value is that it will be possible to understand the meaning of changes that give Oedipus at Colonus a unique tone, signaling a shift in Greek theatre.

In the conception of the divine, it can be said that there is an exchange of the theogonic model, traditional in previous poetry, for that of a theodicy; that is, the issues related to the origins and affiliations of the gods give way to the praise of a greater, harmonious and just order. Thus, the Choir deifies in a beautiful hymn the order of beings, praising the life of the stars, animals and plants, the fecundity of the land and the peculiarity of the place, and then the city and the artifices that give it prosperity: the snaffle and the oar (668-719).

The current understanding, in order to introduce oneself to such a conception of the whole, demands previous incursions to closer experiences, for example, of Poussin's painting or of some Renaissance artists, also patenting unitary conceptions, however, less foreign to the current experience. With this preparation, one can access, through the difference in cultures, some contact with the feeling of jubilation transmitted in the choir's singing, praising the texture of a new cosmos.

Through this movement of universal reunion, embracing human relationships, the ordering of celestial bodies, the organization of the divine and the balance of physical, providing along this vast course a new world, foreign to the Homeric system and tragic eccentricity, is what distinguishes the striking feature of the new structure of the divine. In this conception, the gods abandon the distant and autocratic plan, determinant of the tragic conflict, for that of a frank, cordial and communicative attitude, translated in the correlative order of a public justice that exonerates Oedipus, assuring him the liberation of his evils.

The assumption of clarity that organizes Sophocles' art at this time, even more than at others, has implications for language on multiple levels. As for the quality of strength, capable of coining a meaning in speech, that is, the power of elocution, it is necessary that it merges, not in feelings that escape others, but in a common experience. This characterizes the public sphere. The prestige of the oracle loses influence, extending the knowledge generated in the dialogue. Experiencing situations on an equal footing becomes the necessary condition for speech. It is due to the lack of this common link, embodied in the communication of feelings, that Oedipus rejects Creon's language, pointing it out as false, while he intends to want the good of his relative (728-99). Creon's perfidy, says Oedipus, consists in proclaiming feelings that he knows are not reciprocated. How is it possible to want something that is not reciprocated? With a question of this order (775), Oedipus begins the demonstration that will lead to the unmasking of Creon's projects.

Our attention needs to expend an extra effort to follow this controversy. In modern experience, considering the limits of the individual and the notion of person, elaborated in Christian doctrine, the existence of unrequited feelings is honestly admitted, or as a rule misinterpreted. This cloudy zone, responsible for the ambiguous character of feelings, is an element of current realism. However, such a possibility does not exist within the limit of honesty established by Oedipus. Feelings are simultaneous and mutual, in short, they are transparent, or they constitute a decoy. Such a conclusion, at the root of Oedipus' warning, is imposed from the proof of the act of openness to the other. Thus, when the light of common feelings does not appear, not opening up to the other through which feelings correspond in the proper mode of presence, it is proved that speech has a double dimension, covering up a hidden purpose. The proof of feelings, therefore, is decisive for the qualification of the origin and purpose of speech.

The experience of feelings ensures that language is not capable of everything, but only of acting in interaction with coexistence; requires a shared experience as a condition. Creon did not, on other occasions, consider Oedipus' feelings, although he ardently desired their fulfilment. What leads you to believe that he will do so this time, despite repeated oaths to that effect? As a result, Oedipus concludes that Creon conceals his disposition while promising to discover it soon, including through his own words. In fact, it is shown later, by the threats that Creon foresees the use of brute force (761-875).

The words “fly”, according to a traditional formula used in the epic. In a passage of Oedipus at Colonus, the Chorus gives an appropriate and thorough explanation of the winged swiftness of the words multiplying by the people, in contrast to the tortuous paths necessarily traversed by walking (303-7). Therefore, words synthesize experiences. All words bear origin marks. The power of reach, in alliance with the momentum sentimentality of words, conveys to those who hear the roots of speech. This act, while leading the listener, reveals what is at the base; takes you to a higher level. Therefore, hearing makes one see far. This is where the advantage of listening becomes evident, as Antigone points out to her father when he is reluctant to listen to Polynices, the son she does not trust. Every plot is unveiled, becoming a word, assures Antigone, in order to lessen Oedipus's fear of listening (1181-8).

The guarantee of access to clarity through words indicates the value of the knowledge that Oedipus transmits to the Athenians through his hosting. In the opening episode, Oedipus announces to the interlocutor that he brings good for the leader of Athens. What gift, asks the other, can a poor blind man offer a sovereign? Oedipus counters that his words will see through him (72-4). He certainly trusts in what he has to say, in the teaching to be given (580). Saying he sees through words, he reveals more vigor in his argumentation than in his gestures, weakened by blindness and age. A similar exchange of one aptitude for another is also verified, according to Oedipus in the saying of a proverb, referring to the voice as luminous (138-9).

Such an assessment is not due to the Oedipus state, but proves general acceptance at that time; it is typical of democratic culture, which anticipates reasoned consensus to action. In this sense, in Sophocles' earlier work, Philoctetes, Ulysses significantly warned Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, therefore the swiftest of archaic heroes, that words could do much more than physical strength (Philoc., 88-105). In this way, still, the words predominate in the formation, taking the better over the genetic traits.

The efficiency of words for the synthesis of experiences is remembered by Oedipus as an asset, when he says goodbye to Antigone and Ismene. When used, the words bring the limits of the original experiences; they show them, and synthetically demarcate the impact, with few sounds. Thus, they intensify and abbreviate the experience of every feeling, promptly freeing attention to the future. “For”, as Oedipus teaches his daughters, “one word releases all suffering” (1611-9). The praise of dialogue, in many ways, is characteristic of the culture of polis. As highlighted by the Chorus of Antigone, such an invention brings together the ancient word, aerial thought and civil impulses (antigen., 353-9). It is your job that generates knowledge in this culture. It is he who governs the administration of the city, entrusted to the game of arguments. It is in this resource that lies the way to cure afflictions, as Oedipus says, bequeathing this teaching to his daughters.

What does Oedipus have to teach the Athenians besides the art of dialogue? He mentions an advantage that will only reveal itself after he is dead and his funeral instructions under Theseus' mandate are carried out (576-82). Such an advantage does not present itself immediately, but, giving results in the course of time, thus has the nature analogous to that of a teaching. Oedipus addresses the Athenians in the role of master; only in this way, and with the gift of his own dead body, will he be able to repay the shelter of the city (73; 258-91; 607-28; 1518-55).

In addition to being summed up in words, the gift of Oedipus, asking to die in Athens, consists only of a dead body, swept away by time; judging by appearance it has no value. It cannot be compared to the corpse of a hero, fallen in combat, at the height of beauty and youth. According to Homer, the gods gave protection and perfumed such deceased, with the purpose of delivering them immune to the families for the solemn funerals. A Iliad and Odyssey narrate how the main heroes obtained this kind of illustrious funeral, and consequently enjoyed eternal youth in everyone's memory. Oedipus' battered and decrepit body does not indicate divine care, nor does it seem like a gift to Athena (576-82). A giver's warning is necessary: ​​the advantage he offers will not be estimated immediately, but only in the long term.

For this value to become public, a type of rite must be fulfilled, proposed by Oedipus, consisting of several stages; the first requires that Oedipus, without any help, despite his blindness, show Theseus the place where he will expire. There, Oedipus must die without any human assistance other than the witness of Theseus. Another prescription imposes that the place of death remain definitively secret, forbidden to the descendants of Oedipus and the citizens of Athens, and cannot be visited for any reason.

Theseus is left with the obligation to preserve and transmit the secret exclusively to his successor in the city government, who will have to proceed according to the same criteria, and so on. These norms are repeated several times, as if they were requirements to be laid down for right public conduct (1518-55; 1586-666; 1725-32; 1760-7). It follows from this that the circumstances of Oedipus's death, like his tomb, officially constitute a reason for a public interdict; that is, something to be learned and respected, and cannot be ignored, at the risk of giving rise to a search and a finding. The instructions strictly fix a limit; concretely define the ban on family and public worship of the memory of the deceased.

It is essential to note in this decision of Oedipus, first of all, a desire unheard of at the time. The anonymity of the tomb, the silence in the place of worship, and the consequent oblivion of later generations, were no compensation for aristocrats and heroes. On the contrary, according to Homer, these coveted imperishable renown. To this end, the cult of the corpse was fundamental, as demonstrated, above all, by the funeral of Achilles, reported in canto XXIV of the Odyssey. Oedipus' orders, objectively reversing the heroic process, lead him to oblivion.

The end of Oedipus stands out not only literarily, but objectively, from Greek funeral customs. What he intended no one desired. In Athens and other Greek cities, the aristocratic funereal usages, spread by Homer, were repeated with only a few modifications, constituting a widespread goal. When Sophocles was alive, in the XNUMXth century, even citizens with no public projection wanted a funeral monument. The funerary steles, sometimes as testimonies in the first person, extolled the qualities for which the disappeared person could remain in memory. Thus, in addition to the traditional funerary monuments dedicated to combatants, there are praises for professionals, scholars, or dedications to close relatives. Some of these inscriptions found on stelae from the XNUMXth century, placed in contrast, highlight the novelty of the funeral instructed in Oedipus at Colonus:

Here is the tomb of a virtuous woman, near the road
of passers-by; it belongs to the late Aspasia;
to honor his noble character, Evopides built
this monument, she was his wife [X]

I, Cosina, was buried near the Hysematas racecourse,
This man of merit, so that many will keep his memory, even in the future;
He died in the war and lost his young life,
He was full of prowess in his athletic victories and full of experience for his age. [xi]

Contemplating the tomb of K… deceased son of Ménésaechme,
pity and lament that he is dead, he was so beautiful[xii]

 Magnificent is the monument that his father built to
defunct Léarete; because we will see her more alive[xiii]

The citizens built me ​​up, an immortal monument for the dead,
In order to show its value also to the men of the future,
And their ardor like that of their ancestors...
By dying, they took away their victory in war as a memorial...
The ether received their souls, the earth their bodies.[…][xiv]

In comparison with such a widespread project, the end of Oedipus stands out. It is important to note that Sophocles does not end the presentation of this preference by thwarting it, as in other tragic examples. Instead, Oedipus's will hits the target squarely. The anonymity, in which the protagonist intends to wrap the traces of his death, is confirmed through the gap in the plot, leading to a kind of dramatic aporia, the reason for the impossibility of determining Oedipus' death. This state of incognito with respect to the tomb is highlighted again in the final moment of the play, through Theseus' speech recalling the irrevocable order of Oedipus (1751-79). In fact, in the course of the plot, several versions are opposed, but none manages to establish in a definite way the death of Oedipus. The gap and the concomitant indeterminacy realize the desire conceived by the protagonist in the form of an anonymous death. Thus, a question arises: what do anonymity, for the protagonist, and the related limit or incompleteness of the work, for the poet, mean as references to death, in the Greek world?

It stands out that this is not a casual license, or a poetic accident. Sophocles had presented several deaths of characters with incisive traits, in the course of a victorious poetic activity, lasting more than sixty years.[xv]In this way, the singular conception, dealing with death, was demarcated with conscious traits.

When asking about Sophocles' work, it is necessary to avoid Christian terms. One cannot conceive of the expectation proper to a later horizon. How to ask without starting from a mistake? Turning in a direction proper to the Greek world, to what is native to Sophocles' formulations; that is, historically specifying the question.

This being a difficult undertaking, a poem by Rilke called “The Death of Moses” clearly informs how death is conceived in Christian terms. Therefore, it serves as a contrast, outlining what should be avoided for better contact with the work of Sophocles.


None but the dark fallen angel
wanted; he took up arms, approached
deadly to the summoned. But already again
the jingle receded, ascended,
shouted to the heavens: I am not able!

For serene, by the bush of lords,
Moses had looked at him, continued to write:
verb of blessing and the infinite name.
And the look was pure to the end of strength.

The Lord then, dragging half the heavens with him,
went down and opened the bed of the mountain himself,
and in it lay the old man. From the clean house
called the soul; and here it comes! and account
much of common, friendship without tale.

But in the end it was enough. And that was enough
agreed the finished soul. then the old
God slowly tilted his old face
for the old. In a kiss she took him away
for your old age, older. […] [xvi]

In this poetry by Rilke, the construction of meaning, marking the moment of Moses' death, is based on the relationship between God and the soul. Moses' greater isolation, at that moment, derives from the privileged light that marks, in another aspect, the individual's solitude, his detachment from everything that does not have the divine light in it. Thus, the temporality in which the moment of Moses' death will be marked takes place in an isolated and extrinsic scope to the world, denoting the latter as practically imperceptible, in the words of poetry. The vessel that apprehends and configures time, in this case, is interiority. In this way, God's time flows through the soul of Moses, where they approach for a perfect meeting, like two semicircles, the will of God and the destiny of man. It is in the soul, within the scope of interiority, and through the exclusive relationship with God, that the moment of death or the stagnation of a lifetime is marked.

In Oedipus' patterns of conduct, or in Sophocles' terms, interiority is situated only as a negative instance, about which nothing can be said. Positively, in Greek culture at this time, there is nothing to look for in such a direction. The exclusion of polis, loneliness are confused with infamy, as noted by the Choir of Antigone in line with the public (antigen., 364-83). The same is confirmed in other tragic passages that present loneliness as a result of punishment (King Oedipus, 235-48). The human type, in this framework of references, does not meet the divine, inserted in individual solitude, but through a sign of ancestry in the aristocratic order treated by Homer, or, in another case, as a public part, meaning a collective need, in the molds of the culture of polis. In Sophocles' world, it is on the public horizon, or Philia civic view, that life is interpreted as a good. Aristotle's saying, defining man as a political being, although later, denotes this conception.[xvii] Bearing in mind that the idea that one has of death is always informed by the conceptions that govern life, it is observed that it should be in terms of the goods of life, in this specific case, in the horizon of Philia civic, that Sophocles' formulations about death have effect.

Thus, the character's death, by assuming a public dimension, a meaning on the horizon of Philia civic, has a political meaning. It matters little in the private sphere. It does not signal individual remorse, as Oedipus' speech demonstrates (545-8; 960-1002), nor a loss of family rights, as in the penalty imposed on Polynices, in Antigone. Oedipus's desire is not aimed at the funeral cult, unlike the son who has this ambition according to custom (1399-413). As conceived, Oedipus's death heralds a general political good. Thus, respect for anonymity, the correct adherence by all to the instructions given by Oedipus, will result, as promised, in the preservation and prosperity of Athens (1518-55). If the norms were strictly adhered to, the city would be forever sheltered from enemy attacks (1760-7). It is these data, therefore, that characterize the question. Only in close interaction with this background will it be possible to elucidate the meaning sought by the author in his conception of the end of the character.

How can public respect for a law, placing an interdict, as Oedipus proposes to citizens, carry a protective device, even more so, of incomparable strength? It is known, according to tradition, that the power to grant protection to the city belonged to the hero. Every city could secure a perpetual defender, provided it properly worshiped an ancient hero. Thus, according to a legend current in Sophocles' youth, an image of Theseus would have stood in front of Athenian soldiers, leading them to victory in the battle of Marathon (490 BC).

In the case in question, Oedipus, despite not being a hero, but a controversial figure, an acquitted defendant, at best someone who learned at his own expense, presents himself as a protector. This is something unheard of among the Greeks. In this case, there are still other differences. According to tradition, the tribute to the bones of the deceased hero brought good to the city. The remains of Orestes, for Sparta, and those of Theseus, for Athens, historically played such a role. In the case of Oedipus, it appears that the ban on this cult will do good to the city. In the same way, the posthumous benefit from Oedipus stands out from the tradition, being different from the usual. The hero cult generally helped military strength, even attributing power of conquest. On the contrary, the posthumous benefit of Oedipus works exclusively for the defense of the city; contributes to the polis with strength of a different kind, and, by Oedipus' criteria, will be capable of providing goods superior to many protective shields or spears (1518-55).

In the superior advantage, to survive of such artifice, are intertwined, through the references, two themes. In the first case, it is the general attitude, which must comply with the law proposed by Oedipus, and, in the second, the defensive excellence in the face of external attacks, which must be great, as long as the law is followed. Both themes and their connection constitute polemical motives. In the Stories, by Herodotus, there is a possible interpretation, ordering the two topics, according to a judgment of the time. It should be noted that, in addition to being a contemporary of Sophocles, thus transmitting a fashionable notion, this judgment can say more, since Herodotus, in addition to being an interlocutor, was a great friend of Sophocles. The historian explains the military power of the city as follows: “The power of the Athenians increased more and more, which came to prove to be more advantageous the balance of forces between the citizens and the government. This example suffices to demonstrate it: during the time when the Athenians were under the power of tyrants, they did not distinguish themselves in war any more than their neighbors; but as soon as they shook off the yoke, they gained an enormous superiority over them. This proves that, in the time of servitude, they behaved cowardly with deliberate purpose, because they worked for a master. Regaining freedom, each one devoted himself intensely to working ardently for himself.”. [xviii]

Another proposition, linking the two themes in an analogous sense, occurs in the saying of Heraclitus: “It is necessary that the people fight for the law, as for the walls”.[xx] Herodotus and Heraclitus refer to the military force of the city, in interdependence with the force generated by just actions by democratic rules. It is understood, therefore, that respect for laws, conceived democratically, provides more strength to the city.

The question arises: in what way do Sophocles' formulations, that of anonymity in terms of funerary customs and that of indetermination in the referential sense of language, both dealing with funereal issues, equate themselves to rules of democracy?

We note that the forms used in Oedipus at Colonus differ greatly from other Greek formulas aimed at death. This fact, however, does not oblige them to be incomprehensible. In the public's mind, the clarity of Sophocles' forms should be evident. Oedipus at Colonus won the tragic festival the year it competed. It is presumable, therefore, that the work was not obscure for a public that loved clarity and was used to following discussions. For modern exegeses, the play has become a dilemma. This, however, has more to do with recent reading than with an original condition of the piece; it is a modern misunderstanding, to be circumvented.

A query to Iliad and Odyssey proves that the funeral spectacle constituted a decisive link for the continuity of the lineage. The “beautiful death”, coveted by the heroes, provided a sign of superiority as relevant as the origin, if not more so.[xx] In comparison, Sophocles' work shows a mutation in the understanding of such questions. In Sophocles' theater, it can be said that death, instead of being esteemed, is a sign of divine punishment. More than an index of glory, as understood by the Homeric heroes, it indicates excessive behavior. In this way, several passages make it clear that a revaluation of death, and therefore also of life, is taking place. For example, the Choir of Antigone, by consigning the series of human excellences, recalls, on the other hand, the ineluctability of death despite all human ingenuity and power (353-64). Such judgment does not start from the ambition of immortality, proper to the aristocracy, or from the evident desire to overcome death, characteristic of heroes. the chorus of Oedipus at Colonus takes this new line of interpretation forward, designating death as a dispossession that makes everyone equal (1219-24).

Thus, while the ancient treated death as an occasion to guarantee his individuation, definitively distinguishing his life from others, in the work of Sophocles, on the other hand, an inverse tendency is observed: the admission of death as an egalitarian test. Death becomes, instead of a sign of individuation, an obligatory return to a state of species, making this a broader and more determining condition than the differences that occur in life. One can notice, in this attempt to enhance the comprehensive condition of life or species, an initial index of the notion of humanity. Simultaneously, a shift is observed from genealogical identification, as a rule, cruel, to the feeling of compassion, very present in tragedies, as a new basic act of recognition.

In this way, death becomes, in human terms, a neutral limit; just a common trait, a generic attribute, an experience inherent in the life of the species. Following this logic of neutralization of the aristocratic interpretation of death, it is concluded that the indetermination of death, the anonymous burial, the discretion of the character, as conceived by Sophocles, aim to objectively subtract death from the functions it occupied in the ancient understanding.

Graves were reference centers of tradition. Through them, the illustrious dead issued orders to the living, demanding honorary tributes, compensation in blood, or even dictating obedience to customs. Greek history records these demands from the dead as acts of customary law. References to Orestes' behavior in the Odyssey, function as a repeated compliment to an attitude taken as exemplary within such parameters of straight fidelity to the will of the deceased. Sophocles' theater also refers to this situation, characteristic of archaic relations. The debt to be redeemed from the ancestral dead provides a background for some passages from Antigone, the trachines, Ajax, Electra and including Oedipus at Colonus, where the demand for bloodshed, in order to appease the wrath of the corpse, shows the form of sanction that Oedipus imposes on the Thebans in response to the mistreatment received (603-28).

The conception of death that Oedipus brings as a gift for acceptance requires no other tribute than silence. The announcement of his death, made by the messenger to the Choir, in two words (1580), also stands out for its simple tone, as opposed to the spectacularity of epic funeral stories. In this way, the instituting prestige of death, present in the aristocratic world, is undone. Modernity has obscured the meaning of Sophocles' work. Probably because the influence of Christianity leads to the anticipation of a revealing mystery in death. The democratic inclination, however, leads to clarity of forms.

Since Sophocles' democratic tendency was effective, as evidenced by the political activity developed in the government of Athens, alongside Pericles and the democratic party, one must seek to understand what the work clearly establishes. Thus, the character's attitude, serenely preventing his shadow from passing through the light of another's eyes, aims to prevent the dead body from generating any meaning for the living, as happened in the ancient order. In this way, anonymity and other measures dealing with death combine with other democratic rules, aiming not at the glory of a lineage, but at the common good.

In the set of teachings that constitute the gift of Oedipus to the citizens of Athens, the warning about the omnipotent power of time, repeated on several occasions (607-28; 1518-55 and others), also stands out. From this power, the teaching points out, only the gods are sheltered, while all others must pass through the general and incessant change of forms. Such teaching prepares the living for contact with time; it is consistent with the cancellation of funeral remembrance practices, extending attention to the becoming, where no form persists (607-28). These precepts were not entirely original in the Greek world. Two sayings by Heraclitus (540-470 BC), a thinker from a generation before Sophocles, record a similar content. Thus, in relation to mortuary practices, Heraclitus says: “For corpses, more than dung, are to be thrown away”.[xxx] About the influence of becoming, he states: “You cannot enter a river twice, […] nor touch a mortal substance twice in the same condition […]”.[xxiii]

The gift of Oedipus to the Athenians is therefore part of a broad movement for the renewal of Greek culture. His strategy aims, through the various precepts, to revive citizens' attention to everything and in a favorable way to the various trends in life. The democratic culture of Athens, in polemic with tradition, thus discovers the irreplaceable character of the present. Oedipus thus has reason enough to announce his gift to the citizens as immune to old age (1518-19). This innovative tone of the work is also marked from Theseus, when he asserts that no man can underestimate something concrete and that every fact deserves attention (1150-3).

In this way, renewing attention opens up, as far as possible, a way of access to the unexpected and to invention. It is easy to understand how much this process, when occurring in each citizen, originates a protection artifice, more potent than several armies, as a source of indiscriminate prosperity, as promised by Oedipus (1518-9). Thus arises the conception of a knowledge guided by attention to facts, marked by prudence, compatible with the temporary life of men; making clear an art of living, necessary for democratic culture.

An essential lesson is still outlined in Oedipus' walk, before he dies (1518-55). The unexpected firmness, stamped in his movements, demonstrates the strength of the gods consonant with the steps of the blind man. Oedipus himself announces, meanwhile, that he is being led by Hermes and an underground goddess. Sitting down for a moment on a rock to carry out the last purifications and say goodbye to his daughters, he again hears an anonymous god calling him to meet the end (1586-666).

This precise understanding that takes place between Oedipus and the gods is not a private matter. It does not have the same characteristics presented by Rilke, in the modern poem about the death of Moses. Communication with the gods, in terms of this religiosity based on civility, extends in a crystalline and compatible way to the entire public sphere. Thus, the character's steps, or his rhythmic understanding with the gods, function as a public teaching. Oedipus' walk establishes a suggestive image of autarchy, of the self-sufficiency of a kind of knowledge.

The notion of autarchy, conceived by Sophocles, has two important characteristics. One, with a fundamental content, stems from the conviction of a crystalline contact with the divine, capable of infusing spirit and rhythm into Oedipus' steps. The other situates the universal and extensive aspect of self-sufficiency.

The effectiveness of this knowledge can be attested to the image of a change from blindness to skill. Such a figure of the first stage does not exclude anyone on principle; anyone, indiscriminately, can be part of the blindness; going through the experience of darkness is almost a natural power, or at least something accessible to everyone. Thus, the initial moment, the required aptitude, or the necessary condition for such learning are quite common. On the other hand, as a perfect state or one of full self-sufficiency, such knowledge is characterized by excellent contact with the divine; since the gods are public entities in the case of this religion, such knowledge is equivalent to that of the public. In the figure of Oedipus walking, even blind, without any support, there is, therefore, a rearrangement of the notion of autarchy. In tradition, it was an exclusive quality of the sages. According to Sophocles' conception, starting from the faltering steps of a beggar to reach perfect dexterity, self-sufficiency starts to cover the characteristics of common opinion.

In these terms, Sophocles deals with a vital question for the credibility of democratic rules: the value of the decisions taken during the game. Democratic resolutions always denote an absence of certainty, they have no stable foundation of knowledge. Compounding the problem, such deliberations, at the private level or at the majority level, produce results of doubtful application that offer no guarantee of correctness. Prudence, caution and the help of some specific knowledge eventually help, but obviously they are not enough. Such elements prove nothing, and therefore their participation in the course of deliberation, strictly speaking, has no more determining weight than random or other occurrences. Finally, the announcement of preference, in accordance with democratic rules, does not have the same nature as the oracular phrase in intrinsic connection with becoming.

Therefore, in the basic state of uncertainty in which deliberation takes place in the middle of the game, improvisation appears as something inherent. The imponderable factors are potentiated on a geometric scale, in the general vote, with the wide distribution of decision-making faculties. Dealing with such problems is fundamental for everyone's consent to the voting results. It is characterized as an intellectual issue, dealing with the nature of knowledge, which is simultaneously vital for the course of all feelings and for the preservation of civic friendship in the application of decisions. Democratic culture continually confronts this problem, on a small and large scale, in an urgent way. For this, a universal model of knowledge is needed; elastic, to be valid in varying circumstances; extensive, to be used by the public.

In the course of the movements needed by the character, elements at first sight harmful, such as uncertainty and improvisation, in view of the good result achieved, become constituent factors of the “good decision”. The gods act in the contingent, evoking precisely the steps of Oedipus. In this formula, pertinent to the process of revaluation of these elements, we find the stable foundation of the deliberative act, in Sophocles' interpretation: the gods protect the polis democratic.

It is no longer a question of a divine that works according to the needs of the lineage, but that appears in the contingency, exerting a strong influence in the running of the democratic game. Such a formulation is not exclusive to Sophocles: it has general assent in the democratic age of Athens. It is known, from records, that, for many decisive positions in the polis, comparative judgment between voters was not resorted to, but proceeded by drawing lots. In this way, the issue of “good decision” translates, in equivalent terms, into the form of apprehension of the divine, or, it comes to the same thing, of contingency.

Sophocles presents the character's contact with the divine developing simultaneously with the action, as the movements occur (1500-55). In this way, the direction taken by Oedipus is not predetermined. It does not indicate a manifestation of fatality such as the path that leads to Thebes, in King-Oedipus. The direction and rhythm of Oedipus's gait, in this case, are not the result of guesswork, nor do they attest to the fulfillment of an oracular prediction. The necessary effect of divination is that of recognition of the gesture enclosed in itself.

Each eventual point where some step of Oedipus rises or falls did not previously exist; his resolute gait advancing ahead of the group is born of the situation, it is the fruit of the contingent. The proof of this is that the words of Oedipus, as he walks, attest to the strength and initiative of an inventor (1540-55). In this way, Oedipus' new spirit establishes a knowledge of mobility and improvisation; to use a metaphor of the time, similar to the skill of a right-handed pilot in a storm; such knowledge is equivalent to that of an experienced craftsman when dealing with the contingencies of his craft.

Such specific contact with the divine or the contingent factor takes the form of a public apprehension. It denotes a collective act. Craftsmanship, generated in the immanence of contact, open to the influence of circumstances, for modern understanding, defines an art of improvisation. From this point of view, such art, when it becomes effective, appears as a genius predicate; according to the modern, genius is realized in Beethoven's composition, despite being deaf, or in Monet's painting, despite being blind. Therefore, in the modern version, this kind of knowledge arises in the process of individual creation.

The analogous type of knowledge, generated in improvisation, for the Christian perspective, consigns a miracle, deriving from inner faith; the doctrine explains with such an argument the resurrection of Lazarus and other healings performed by Christ. However, for the Athenians of Sophocles' time, who did not face contingency as isolated individuals, but commonly, exercising citizenship, the description of the art of improvising presents traces of collective root; that is, the public act of decision-making in the midst of the indetermination that characterizes the agora. Oedipus's movements, exposed to all sorts of factors, readily recall the deliberative process that must be elastic enough to meet the variation of circumstances as well as the plurality of citizens' feelings. The notion of self-sufficiency, transmitted to the audience through the blind man's suddenly precise gestures, is at the same time collective: it testifies, above all, to a democratic formulation.

Such a conception of autarky requires, as a matter of principle, that the gods favor the polis as much as they favored Oedipus walking. It takes place by exposing everyone to contingencies, just like Oedipus, in the course of the walk, before dying serenely as he had planned. Since, according to Sophocles, such terms imply each other mutually, that is, the gods and circumstances, there is no form of conditionality in such a model of knowledge, no determination prior to action. The notion of fatality, characteristically archaic, is completely discarded from this scheme. Becoming, therefore, presents itself as entirely unexpected.

The description of related knowledge is necessarily limited to the synthetic indication of an ever-present movement. The corresponding learning follows a precept: that citizens do not despise any concrete fact, as emphasized by Theseus (1150-3), but pay attention to everything, since in this way they communicate with the divine. In this way, even under conditions of uncertainty, they will be able to act skillfully and conduct themselves well. Still, such a precept will not be original, but only reiterates a current maxim, from Heraclitus: “If you do not expect the unexpected, it will not be discovered, being undiscoverable and inaccessible”.[xxiii] With this provision, citizens pay attention to the unexpected, making this their principle of understanding.

It remains to elucidate the limits of the indeterminacy of death in language and the precise contours of the gap produced in the plot of the work. The annulment of the particular meaning of death, deliberated by Sophocles, reconverts his action, in other words, into a limiting factor of the human condition. Death participates in the experience, but simultaneously evades it and cannot be stopped. So it cannot be said. The only possible summary of the end of Oedipus establishes the insoluble confrontation of several hypotheses, without any being presented as prevailing over the disparate set (1586-666). The acceptance of this limit to meaning, the impossibility of broadly determining the fact of death, highlights the limits of language; implies a restriction on its value.

To the extent that death is shown to be unspeakable, the words denote that they are valid only and precisely insofar as they are the result of experience or common life. Therefore, in this case, the only statement with force of validity becomes that of the messenger who, limited to his own experience, in the course of a few sentences is practically forced to repeat himself in order not to escape the observation he had made: “Oedipus is dead”/ “Yes, convince yourselves that for an endless time he left life” (1580-4). The notion of the predominance of experience, demarcating the origin of words as much as the restriction of their value, does not belong exclusively to Sophocles, but is again related to the thought of Heraclitus: “Let us not guess idly about supreme things”;[xxv] and “the [things] of which [there is] sight, hearing, learning, these alone I prefer”.[xxiv]

The excessive speed of words was well known to the Greeks. To demarcate the primacy of experience over the natural agility of words, Sophocles points out necessary measures. Thus, the unilateral gesture of insult is outlawed, as the Chorus warns Philoctetes (Philoc., 1140-2). The insult betrays the foundation of the value or the common life of words, it closes the experience, prevents the commonplace, to make an exclusive sign prevail. The opposite excellence is that of listening, which denotes a self-limitation of the natural rapidity of speech and gives time to experience. Listening, meeting the present, appears not as an annulment, but as an activity. A saying by Heraclitus highlights the same movement, which is important to learn: “That is why it is necessary to follow what-is-with [that is, the common; for the common is what-it-is-with]. But, logos being what-it-is-with, men live as if they had a particular intelligence”.[xxv] *

*Luiz Renato Martins is a professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of The Long Roots of Formalism in Brazil(Chicago, Haymarket/ HMBS, 2019).

Originally published on the website ArtThought IMS.


[I] Montaigne, Michel de, “On how to philosophize is to learn to die”. In: Essay, I, XX. Trans. by Sérgio Milliet, 3a ed., São Paulo, “Os Pensadores”, Abril Cultural, 1984, p. 44.

[ii] Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus In: Sofocle, Antigone — Oedipus Re — Oedipus a Colonus. Ed. bilingual, reproducing the Greek text compiled by Alphonse Dain, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1955. Trans. Italian, intro. and notes by Franco Ferrari, Milan, Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 1982. In the following, all references containing only verse numbering belong to Oedipus at Colonus, ed. A. Dain. The other tragedies of Sophocles, when cited, will be indicated by the abbreviated title, preceding the numbering of the verses.

[iii] I use briefly below a distinction presented in the opening lecture of this cycle, “The concept of passion”, by Gérard Lebrun.

[iv] Hölderlin, “Anmerkungen zur Antigonae”. In: Remarques sur Oedipe/ Remarques sur Antigonae/ Ed. bilingual, trans. and notes by François Fédier, Paris, Bibl. 10/18, UGE, 1965, p. 86 (translated into Portuguese by Maria Lucia Cacciola).

[v] Certainly, a distinct trend, including Pythagoreanism and Orphism, sought to relaunch the exchange with the divine on new grounds, in order to find support in a finished knowledge of being. Thus, in parallel with attempts to constitute properly human knowledge, esoteric doctrines were constituted, postulating the truth of being or a fundamental knowledge, by which other specific knowledge could be organized. However, Sophocles' public endeavor distances him from this tendency.

[vi] Cf. Beaufret, Jean, "Hölderlin et Sophocle". In: Hölderlin, op. cit., pp. 8 and 35. In the same vein, consult Nietzsche's comment on the predominant Greek instinct, calling it “explosive matter”, cf. “What I owe to the ancients”, § 3, in twilight of the idols. Trans. Rubens Rodrigues Torres Filho. In: Nietzsche/Incomplete Works. “Os Pensadores”, São Paulo, Abril Cultural, 1978, pp. 343-4.

[vii]  Hölderlin, “Anmerkungen zur Antigonae”. In: op. cit., p. 70 (translated into Portuguese by Maria Lucia Cacciola).

[viii]  Idem, ibidem, p. 58.

[ix] For the notion of “ex machina” see Aristotle, Poetics, XV, 89, 1454a33–454b7. Trans. by Eudoro de Souza. In: Aristotle (II)/Metaphysics, Nicomachean ethics, Poetics, org. José Américo Motta Pessanha, São Paulo, “Os Pensadores”, Abril Cultural, 1979, pp. 254-5. In the same sense, consult Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, “Aesthetics — The artistic beauty and the ideal”. Trans. by Orlando Vitorino. In: Hegel/ The Phenomenology of Spirit, aesthetics — The idea and the ideal, aesthetics — The artistic beauty and the ideal, Introduction to the history of philosophy. São Paulo, “Os Pensadores”, Abril Cultural, 1980, pp. 260-1.

[X] P. Friedländer, E 139 = IG A 382 (cf. BCH 3, 1879, p. 316). Trans. French by Michele Simondon. In: Simondon, Michele, La Mémoire et l'Oubli. Paris, “Études Mythologiques”, Les Belles Lettres, 1982, pp. 88-9 (translation into Portuguese, based on the French version, N. do A.).

[xi]  P. Friedländer, E 136 (Hesperia 8, 1939, p. 165 sq.). Cf. ditto, p. 91 (trans. into Portuguese, idem).

[xii] P. Friedländer, and 81 = IG I 982. Cf. idem (trans. to port., ditto).

[xiii] W. Peek, GG 40 = IG XII 8, 398. Cf. ditto, p. 92 (port. trans., idem).

[xiv]  W. Peek, GG 12 = GI 945. Cf. ditto, p. 89 (port. trans., idem).

[xv] Sophocles was born in 496 BC He won his first victory in tragic contests in 468, surpassing Aeschylus. He won in all eighteen victories; in the other contests he took second place. He was never third. In total, he composed one hundred and twenty-three dramas, as indicated by Aristophanes of Byzantium. Sophocles died in December 406, following Euripides. Oedipus at Colonus it was presented posthumously, under the care of Sophocles the Younger, the poet's grandson, at the festival of 401 BC, archcontact of Micon, winning first prize. Cf. Ferrari, Franco, “Premessa al Testo”. In: Sofocle, on. cit., pp. 21-29.

[xvi] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “The Death of Moses”. In: Poems/ The Elegies of Duino and Sonnets to Orpheus. Trans., selection and preface by Paulo Quintela, Porto, Ed. Oiro do Dia, 1983, pp 374-5.

[xvii] Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, I, 5, 1097b8-1983 (French trans. by J. Tricot, Paris, J. Vrin, 56, p. XNUMX).

[xviii]  herodotus, Stories, V, 78. Trans. J. Brito Broca, São Paulo, “Classics Jackson”, Jackson, 1957, vol. 2, pp. 38-9.

[xx] Heraclitus. Fragment D 44 (Diogenes Laertius, IX, 2). Trans. by José Cavalcante de Souza. In: The pre-Socratics, org. José Cavalcante de Souza, São Paulo, “Os Pensadores”, Abril Cultural, 1978, p. 83. All quotes from fragments of Heraclitus in this work are taken from “Fragments of Heraclitus of Ephesus”. In: The pre-Socratics, op. cit. Trans. José Cavalcante de Souza. The numbering indicated is that of the Diels edition.

[xx] See Vernant, Jean-Pierre, “Beautiful Death and the Outraged Corpse”. Trans. Elisa A. Kossovitch and João A. Hansen. In: Speech 9, São Paulo, Human Sciences, 1979, pp. 31-62.

[xxx] Heraclitus. Fragment D 96 (Plutarch, Banquet, IV, 4, 3. p. 669A). In: The pre-Socratics, op. cit., p. 88.

[xxiii]  Idem. Fragment D 91 (Plutarch, From E apud Delphos, 18 p. 392 B). The fragment says: “You cannot enter the same river twice, according to Heraclitus, nor mortal substance touch the same twice condition; but due to the intensity and speed of change disperses and gathers again (or better, not even again or after, but at the same time) composes and gives up, approaches and moves away”. In: Os pre-socratics, op. cit., p. 88.

[xxiii]  Idem. Fragment D 18 (Clement of Alexandria, tapestries, II, 17.) In: The pre-Socratics, op. cit., p. 81.

[xxv] Idem. fragment D 47 (Diogenes Laertius, IX, 73). In: Os pre-socratics, op. cit., p. 84.

[xxiv] Idem. fragment D 55 (Hippolytus, Refutation, IX, 9). In: Os pre-socratics, op. cit., p. 84.

[xxv] Idem. Fragment 2 (Sextus Empiricus, against the mathematicians, VII, 133.) In: The pre-Socratics, op. cit., p. 79.

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