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Sophocles Reborn—the Sea and the Chorus


The Sea. The June issue of Harper’s is now in the mailboxes (and will be on the website by Tuesday), and among its real gems is a newly discovered poem by Sophocles, assembled from papyrus fragments or on the basis of quotations from later writers, which appeared in the March issue of Poetry. The literary resurrection was carried out by Reginald Gibbons, a classicist at Northwestern in Chicago. The theme of this piece is “The Sea,” and reading it immediately brought back to my mind the famous choir setting from “Antigone” in which the sea plays a similar focal and powerful role.

The Chorus. The first Sophocles play I saw was “Antigone,” and I still remember sitting half-asleep in the theater until this chorus began its thunderous message. I was electrified. It seemed to speak with great power across the ages, with a message about the weakness and vulnerability of humankind and the foolishness, but simultaneous greatness, of its ambitions. It had a marvelous quality which combined foreboding and promise, the essence of the quality of deinotes. For the first time, I sensed the greatness, the universality of Sophocles as a writer. He was not talking about Greece of antiquity, but rather our world and today.

Then many years later, I picked up and read Hans Jonas’s book Das Prinzip Verantwortung (1979) (The Imperative of Responsibility, 1984) and saw in the first chapter how struck Jonas had been by the same passage. Indeed, he adopted it as a sort of theme for his entire work. It raised, he argued, the technological challenge facing humankind in an archetypical way. It tells of man who wants to be the author of his own life–man who supplies his will and his needs. Aside from the challenge of death, he seems always confident as he goes about his business.

But it also raises the question of man’s obligations to society, and to the generations which follow. And this in turn points to the issue which looms so large on our current horizon: a world of finite resources and the prospect of generations which will suffer as a consequence of the excesses and greed of past generations. It’s an inter-generational issue of ethics. Consequently, Jonas says, this timeless text must be understood differently today. It must be read as embracing a far wider range of responsibilities–of obligations derived from ethical considerations–binding on the masters of the polis and the venturers on the sea.

Jonas, like the whole class of Heidegger students to which he belonged (an amazing class, indeed, with Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Herbert Marcuse, and Karl Löwith), was able to appreciate Sophocles in the original Greek and rendered his own translations. Thus he prepared a translation of the chorus for Das Prinzip Hoffnung. His translation moves the text precisely in the direction he discusses, towards a greater consciousness of posterity, a blend of wonder, marvel, foreboding and even horror.

But this text is chosen for a purpose, namely, that it provides a preface to the challenge that faces us more acutely with each passing day.

We are, all of us, guardians of this world. We possess and use it thoughtlessly, oblivious of our responsibilities to our fellow humans–those who have proceeded us and those yet to come. For the world of antiquity, this thought was common and belonged to the foundation of ethics. Yet in our self-obsessed world with its debased and consumerist appreciation of art, the ties between generations and societies seem distant. This is not as it should be. The forces driving globalization, the power of technology, provide the means for a massive contraction–a force through which societies and generations may be drawn ever closer together–as indeed is needed for humankind’s survival at this fated stage.

When Sophocles wrote, it was difficult to conceive of the world and its resources in finite terms. But that time has come. Man has been “clever,” all too clever in his mastery and exploitation; man is failing in his duty of trust for posterity.

Sophocles gives the fundamental formula for the happy existence of the species, expressed in terms a lawyer, a philosopher, a theologian would love–embrace the Law, the law of the city and the God-given right (as Jonas renders them, Gesetz and Recht). But today we should take some care with the God-given right–care to see in it an ethical duty to posterity. A duty of good stewardship. This indeed is a matter of urgent necessity, but it faces a powerful and arrogant ignorance borne of culture attuned to consumption but not to leaving a legacy for those who follow in its wake.

I have rendered the Antigone Chorus using Jonas’s directions as to a more “modernized” meaning, but also looking at the Storr translation from the Loeb Library edition (vol. 20, pp. 341-42).

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