Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Peter J. Ahrensdorf, Greek Tragedy and Political Philosophy: Rationalism and Religion in Sophocles' Theban Plays. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. x, 192. ISBN 9780521515863. $80.00.
Reviewed by Cressida Ryan, University of Nottingham

The title of this book suggests that Ahrensdorf intends to engage with the increasingly productive dialogue between philosophy, politics and tragedy which has become characteristic of much contemporary writing on tragedy. Divided into three chapters, with an additional introduction and conclusion, however, this book does not quite achieve the integration of philosophy and tragedy it seeks.

The Introduction notes the increasing importance of both religion and reason in our post-Cold War world, but suggests that the best way to think about Sophoclean religious anti-rationalism and political rationalism is through the writings of Nietzsche. Ahrensdorf claims that no one character in the Theban plays represents the poetic voice, but that a Sophoclean voice of humane rationalism can be discerned.

The three main chapters deal with each Theban play in narrative order. In chapter 1 Ahrensdorf argues that Oedipus' downfall is due to his abandonment of reason and turning to traditional piety. He discusses Oedipus' recourse to Delphi and Tiresias as examples of his lack of faith in the reason which won him the throne, and how this demonstrates his desperate desire to protect the city by any means possible, ostensibly acting as an unquestionably good and noble leader. He then examines the decreasing importance of the polis in the play. Oedipus' nobility consists of his power to help the city. The plague therefore challenges Oedipus' nobility in making him impotent, and makes nobility a less obvious virtue for which to strive. He suggests that Oedipus is most scared of harming himself, of losing the personal immortality that his successful reign brings him and so he is ultimately a selfish ruler.

Ahrensdorf opens chapter 2 with a clichéd discussion of the OC as a reversal of the OT, which deals with Oedipus' rehabilitation, taking it for granted that the end of the play represents Oedipus' apotheosis. He discusses the issue of sight and blindness as non-literal markers of ignorance and wisdom, where wisdom involves an awareness of our need for divine assistance. Oedipus is characterizsed as superlatively pious against Theseus' more pragmatic rationalism. Ahrensdorf untangles some reasons why Oedipus should feel he deserves divine favour, assuming that the end of the play is a happy one for Oedipus himself. Oedipus' phenomenal anger demonstrates how he is incapable of accepting what his reason tells him, that we are not immortal. Theseus, who for Ahrensdorf is the true 'hero' of the play (although he does not define quite what he means by hero) therefore has to be depicted free from anger and self-interest.1 The chapter concludes with the clear and important point that religious piety and logical rationalism can be seen set at odds throughout history, including in the present day (pp.83-84).

Chapter 3, dealing with Antigone, is by far the longest (pp.85-150), as Ahrensdorf grapples with the question ofas to whether Antigone or Creon best embodies the tragedy inherent in shifts between piety and rationalism. and his answer is Creon, since Creon changes during the course of the play and thus exhibits attachment to both faith and reason. He argues that Ismene is bound by a desire for self-preservation (a major theme throughout the book), promoting a nobility linked to strength, which prompts Antigone to reveal the true nature of her nobility but also challenges the prudence and nobility of her actions as excessive. He focuses heavily on a reading of the conflict between oikos and polis, and on familial relations, dwelling in particular on the relationship between Antigone and Haemon: 'It is not surprising that it is Antigone, not Ismene, who stirs the heart and inspires the love of the noble Haemon' (p.113).

The Conclusion returns to political philosophy in the shape of Socrates and Aristotle, but not the promised discussion of Nietzsche. Ahrensdorf argues that Plato bans tragedy from the ideal city (in the Republic) because it teaches men a false dependence on the gods, so that they both hope for immortality and fear disaster, rather than facing and coming to terms with their own mortality and their responsibility for it. He notes how Aristotle defends tragedy in the name of a life of reason and discusses the concepts of hamartia and katharsis in this context. He concludes that Aristotle was right to praise the OT as the true model of rationalism in Sophocles 'who exhibits a genuinely philosophic clarity, intransigence and humanity' (p.178).

Alongside problems of content and argument hinted at throughout this review is an enduring identification of literary and historical identities, which significantly weakens the book's argument. For instance, in discussing attitudes towards oracles and seers, he questions Tiresias' infallibility as though he were acting as an historical figure with a truth value (p.89), a literal reading of the text which one might want to challenge. He also claims that Ismene must have thought the burial possible or she would not have urged Antigone on (p.106). Ahrensdorf also creates an awkward psychological realism for characters (such as what Oedipus would have thought back in Corinth), which does not ring true. It also demands a consistency of character in Creon between the plays which seems hard to defend. A clearer distinction between Socrates and Plato would have been helpful as a consistent character for Socrates throughout Plato needs arguing for. Despite acknowledging that the Theban plays are not a trilogy and that there are problems with treating them as one, Ahrensdorf still states that the links are so strong that he will treat them as such (p.56, n.10). The Theban plays were not published together until 1759, or performed as a trilogy until 1936, which makes such a treatment seem excessively anachronistic. Finally, the overarching argument for the unquestioning construction of an authorial voice for Sophocles fits uncomfortably with modern critical approaches and, though it provides a welcome challenge to the post-modern clich/e of the death of the author, it is not argued in these terms.

The bibliography features just twelve items from this millennium, a feature that demonstrates a lack of awareness of contemporary discussions. All recent scholarship by e.g. Markantonatos on the OC is missing, as is Bernidaki-Aldous (1990), Blindness in a Culture of Light: especially in the case of Oedipus at Colonus, which might have helped ground Ahrensdorf's discussion within the arena of contemporary debate.

In terms of typography and formatting, this book does not meet the standard one might expect from CUP. Greek words are occasionally quoted, but without any smooth breathings, and even the rough breathings are poorly typed. Greek quotations also lack apostrophes, and are occasionally completely corrupted by the inaccurate diacritics (e.g. p.31). Footnotes regularly run over the page, which is distracting when this involves a page turn, such as pp.73-74 n.26, 85-86 n.2 or 91-91 n.13. Possessives of names ending in 's' are inconsistent, so that on p.55 we read 'Oedipus's', but 'Achilles'' on p.149. Greek words in English characters are italicized in quotations, but not by Ahrensdorf himself (see especially p.143 on erôs). I noticed two typographical errors: p.11 n.6 'Phoenecian' for 'Phoenician' and p.139 'Haemons' for 'Haemon'. It would help the reader if long quotations were blocked off from the main text.

The final sentence of this book acts as a mission statement against which to judge it: 'It is my hope that this study will substantially broaden and deepen our understanding of both classical rationalism and tragedy and that it will stimulate further political and philosophic studies of the great classical tragic poets.' (p.178). The reviewer hopes that this insight will at least help fuel fruitful research into understanding the burgeoning popularity of Greek tragedy. This relationship between the OC in particular and various religious traditions has been under-explored in the reception tradition and the faith-reason spectrum offers an interesting way into conceiving of the genre in a contemporary context.


1.   Conflating Athens and Colonus, he assumes a pre-existing reputation for Athenian piety, arguing that this was why Oedipus sought it out. Yet the opening of the play suggests that Oedipus stumbles on Colonus at least partly by chance.

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