Aristocratic thought versus a realistic theory of conduct.
Key-words for the two groups:
Aristocrats: idleness, prudence and honor
Realists: versatility, intelligence and self-knowledge.
Versatility is the characteristic of an Athenian democrat according to Thucydides. Euripides taught us about the difference between versatility and idleness. Amphion, the ideal of an educated young Athenian aristocrat, prefers a peaceful man rather than a reckless seaman or governor. We find the resonance of this opposition in the work of Sophocles who also believes in idleness.
Mental intelligence is the main important characteristic of an Athenian democrat- and of Themistocles in Thucydides’ Book 2 of the “History of the Peloponnesian War”. However, this characteristic does not have an ethical element, which is the one thing creating a difference between mind and intelligence.
Sophocles looks for the ethical element of shame (l.249). A man that feels ashamed cannot lie. However, Sophocles that lies will not prevail in the end. An intelligent man will use any resources he has in order to achieve his goals.
On the other hand, Sophocles rejects beautiful words that mask idiotic acts.
At this point, we should say that eloquence (the beautiful words or even the political double-speak) of demagogues has always been and still is nowadays a very serious problem.
Opposite to the mental intelligence of the realists we find Sophocles and his aristocratic idea of prudence. Prudence helps us with discovering the “limits” of the human potential and with logically and carefully observing the changes in our life.
Prudence can help people and protect them from stubbornness, extreme self –confidence and misleading hope, things that nowadays are serious dangers. People like the heroes of Sophocles deal with this kind of dangers.
Prudence has two sides:
un ethical side (modesty and absence of exaggeration)
a mental side (knowing the limits of human potential)
We should keep in mind that “Thoughtlessness is called the true sister of Wickedness”.
So, Prudence means restraint, modesty. Modesty is the opposite of all forms of outrage and passion.
If we examine the gap (that we cannot bridge) between the aristocrats (prudence) and the realists (intelligence without conscience) we end up at a crossroads:
Do we wish to rule everything? Or, do we prefer an honorable failure rather than a dishonoring victory?
The aristocratic ideal in Pindar’s work
Pindar praises on one hand the physical power and beauty of victors and, on the other hand, their ethical strength and restraint. He thought that these qualities were inherited from demigod ancestors. He believed that ideals were based on the innate personal virtue.
Sophists applied to the human behavior the principles of mechanical causality- the principles used by the physical or natural philosophers of the 6th century BC. Pindar thinks that man is the creation of circumstances. “He is good, if his luck is good, and vicious, if his luck is bad”.
Sophocles did not agree with the Sophists’ opinion that man’s behavior is merely a result of natural elements. Being himself aware of the dangers of life, he adopted the opinion that the gods watch over the world and that human behavior has a deeper meaning.
Above all, nature means a course of evolution. In one way, it has to do with this common phrase: “it’s in a man’s nature to do this or that”. This phrase refers to a superior or more modest nature. As to what exactly these two kinds of nature mean, aristocrats and realists (philosophers of the 5th century BC) are divided in two different sides.
For the realists, nature, besides meaning a course of evolution and the development of the whole world, also means man’s modest nature (his passions).
The sophist Antiphon (who is placed at the group of realists) says: “Most of the rights that are registered in the law are against nature” (Hippias, C.1. Antiphon.) Law and convention are powers that constrain nature.
For Sophocles, whose ideas matched those of the aristocrats, the word “φύσις” (“nature”) means that growth comes from a seed that somebody has planted.
Like Aeschylus, he thinks that this seed has been planted by the father (l.1413, 1509) and not by the mother. The child inherits the father’s nature and the child’s nature consists of characteristics inherited by its father.
Chrysothemis has inherited her nature and her ideas from her father and when she accepts the attitude and behavior of Clytemnestra, this means that she has abandoned her own nature.
Her nature is not only the character she inherited but also the highest level of conduct that this character could achieve.
At this point we would like to say that Sophocles appears as a precursor of Plato. Plato builds his ideal of the state on the principal that each citizen is predestined, due to his inherited nature, for specific acts.
What is Sophocles’ response to Pindar’s view that: “If nature is defined by birth, change via education is impossible”?
Sophocles allows nature to evolve sometimes.
An important factor that can help the young people’s natural growth (so that they can have a stable nature and choose a right path) is the city they live in. Sophocles, creating his play “Electra”, seems to regret the little effect that Athens has on its citizens.
At his point, I would like to make clear that the two groups of Realists and Aristocrats are not contradicting each other but they are influencing each other.
Sophocles was deeply impressed by Protagoras (the most important sophist and teacher of virtue). Sophocles, like Protagoras, describes the evolution of human civilization and man’s spirit. However, Sophocles in his play “Electra” states clearly the dangers of rationality and puts the theory of moral contamination in the words of an infuriated Clytemnestra (l.528: “It was Trial who killed him also, not only me.”)
The fact that different heroes use the same word but with a different semantic content (ambiguity), like for example the word “prudent” used by Electra and by Chrysothemis, shows us that Sophocles was influenced by Prodicus and his “synonyms”.
The divergence or the convergence of the two groups of realists and aristocrats is aptly described by Busse: “Sophocles agrees completely with the sophists when they honor the creativity of man’s spirit in the sphere of cultural progress, but he also explicitly attacks their immorality, when they consider the ethical law as the creation of specific humans and they place themselves above it without any scruples.”
The sophists’ biggest influence is obvious at the process of reasoning. Sophists’ arguments appear in the works of Euripides, pseudo-Xenophon, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Herodotus.
Protagoras’ method of teaching
His method of teaching was “antilogiae”, contradicting arguments on a subject, known as weak and strong logos. Training his students in this way he meant to familiarize them with alternative ways of reasoning.
Almost all the writers of that period, even, Thucydides, used pairs of arguments in order to present more clearly an antithesis of opinions.
The battle of arguments portrayed the basic questions examined in the play.
Sophocles, during the decade of 450-440, is influenced by the new rhetorical processes, a fact that is confirmed by the political content of the speeches he uses in his plays.
A kind of sophists’ argument is the interest: “men have the tendency of doing whatever is in their own interest.”
However, this idea is against the ideals of justice, honor, rightness, virtue. Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides devotes his work to the analysis of the real (and therefore material) aspects of war. Sophocles’ observation on Euripides is analogue to that of the elder historian on the younger one: “I present people the way they should be” (Aristotle, “Poetics”).
Thucydides presents people the way they are.
Antiphon is generally interested in showing that the human behavior is more influenced by the laws of nature rather than the explicit and inconsistent laws of society. His argument was that of people break the laws of nature they are immediately punished by being unable to survive, but if they break the laws of society there may or may not be a loss.
We find this very interesting matter of the influence of nature and convention (nature-law) in Plato’s “Gorgias” and Aristotle’s “Politics”.
Many people supported the idea expressed by Callicles in the dialogue “Gorgias” that powerful people are meant by nature to act at liberty according to their personal interest. This extreme idea appeared for the first time among argumentative circles when democracy reached the point of its worst excesses.
Man transcending the law
This chapter treats the subject of man’s condition when he defies the laws and places himself above the law.
The state demands that the citizens obey the laws and the government, but under one condition: that the governor does not only care about the interest of his citizens but also knows what that interest is.
Reading many translations and renditions of Sophocles’ text brought on some political thoughts.
Infringement of the law.
Lies that must be denounced.
Vicious circle-chain reaction.
Reparation of justice.
Reinstatement of the law.
Shame, lawlessness, tyranny covered by the mantle of democracy.
Nowadays, people should be interested in these things. We live in times when the “Golden Boys” and governments “make profane love” without any scruples (l.271 “I look at their latest profanity”).
L.275: “All this stupidity”. This is a wonderful expression from a human who sees and experiences these profanities. And this universal being that is “electrified” bears the name of “Electra”.
Because people with authority use whatever laws they like trying to safeguard their private privileges. And this kind of authority is surely tyrannical. I’ m aware of the fact that this word is not going to please certain people, however, I must point out that hubris, as the Chorus in Sophocles’ “Electra” says, is part of a tyrant’s nature. A tyrant rejects the fundamental right of the freedom of speech and annuls equal opportunities (minimum wages exist-and they represent a humiliating number-and the six-figure salaries...no comment!)
And this is what a democratic Europe demands.
Sophocles could not accept that the state was supposed to be exploited only for the privileges of a few people. He thought that there should be equal opportunities for all people. “The unimportant people could easily be saved along with the important ones and vice versa”. Their collaboration would be for the benefit of both the unimportant and important people, thus leading to the progress of the society, rather than the self-interest of a tyrant or demagogue.
Sophocles said that he created the kind of people that had to be created (Aristotle, “Poetics”, 1460). So, we would say that Sophocles’ political ideal example is a governor that runs the city in the citizens’ interest and is obeyed by the citizens.
What happens if this fails?
Clytemnestra (l.1410 “Oh, child, have mercy on your mother!”)