A Thought on Suffering and “Game of Thrones”

The internets are all abuzz about the latest episode of Game of Thrones. I am a latecomer to A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, I admit. The first book, Game of Thrones, was published in 1996 and has since risen to the heights of most “Best Fantasy” book lists. At some point I read one of those lists, bought the book, and it sat on my shelf for several years (always in the “to read” category). Then, when the HBO series came out I watched the first episode and quite frankly, couldn’t keep the characters straight (not to mention the tremendous backstory that sets up all the events!). So, I decided I would read the books since they had a nice index in the back with full family lines and this would get me more of the backstory necessary to fully appreciate the story.

Well, I was hooked. I stopped watching the TV series, bought the rest of the books, and was overwhelmed by Westeros and Essos for nearly 3 months. I then went back to the TV series and have been pleasantly entertained by the adaptation.

Now, back to Season 3, Episode 9. I have to admit that I was quite tickled by the reactions filmed by those who knew what was coming of those who did not. Martin is an author that seems to enjoy killing off characters you love and the Red Wedding (as it’s known) is a slaughterhouse for beloved heroes.

There is a part of me that is resentful of the reaction of those who have not read the books. “Read the books, they’re so much better, and you get so much more out of it.”

I had the exact same reaction to the Red Wedding when I read the books that TV fans had this week. And that’s what bothers me. It seems that everyone had an amazing shared experience of horror and disbelief that I suffered through alone. I remembering slamming the book down and charging outside for a breath of fresh air. Looking back now, I would have loved to commiserate with fellow readers, share my suffering with theirs. But I was all alone. No one to confide in, no one to vent to without sounding deranged. So when people had the same reaction this week, I was resentful and condescending because the emotions of the event were no longer fresh for me. Time has healed the experience, but for others it is fresh. I must not forget my own experience and extend to them the “shoulder to cry on” that I lacked. This all might seem a bit overstated since we’re just talking about a fictional story, but I think it illustrates just how real and how powerful art and beauty can move us.

And this is what I take from this experience: suffering (whether at the hands of some real-life problem or at the hands of some sadistic author) is often best managed in community. Even the suffering experienced through art is best a shared experience.

This does not mean I’ll stop reading the books (who knows how many years before The Winds of Winter is released anyway) because there is a depth and breadth of story and character that cannot be match by television or film (it’s simply a limit of the medium). This may, however, call for a book group with whom I can journey through this drama.

Be Wise as Pigs and Innocent as Horses

animal-farmIn his commission of the Disciples, Jesus tells them that they must “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16 ESV). Why the unity of both wisdom and character? Is not simply being a good person enough? In George Orwell’s Animal Farm we are presented with a perfect illustration of why moral virtues must be coupled with intellectual virtues. While Christ uses the metaphor of serpents and doves, Orwell utilizes horses and pigs. In examining Orwell’s characters we can see that both goodness without wisdom and wisdom without goodness are undesirable.

The horse, Boxer, has two defining characteristics. First, he is a morally innocent character. He is obedient, loyal, hard-working, and trusting through and through. One would be hard-pressed to find a more honorable character. Second, he is dim-witted. He is consistently portrayed as lacking any real mental ability. Boxer is introduced by Orwell in a way that unites these two marks of character: “A white stripe down his nose gave him a somewhat stupid appearance, and in fact he was not of first-rate intelligence, but he was universally respected for his steadiness of character and tremendous powers of work” (Orwell, Animal Farm, 4).

Boxer’s lack of intelligence is seen throughout the story. Following the animal rebellion, the pigs come to power and begin the instruction of the animals. “Their most faithful disciples were the two cart-horses, Boxer and Clover. These two had great difficulty in thinking anything out for themselves, but having once accepted the pigs as their teachers, they absorbed everything that they were told, and passed it on to the other animals” (12). The pigs try to teach Boxer to read, but he cannot learn letters passed D, or when he does, he forgets A B and C (21). When Napoleon is able to chase off Snowball, Boxer is deeply troubled, but unable to summon the mental powers to understand why Napoleon did this. After much mental struggling Boxer finally surrenders whatever mind he has left with the motto, “Napoleon is always right” (35). Even when Napoleon recasts Snowball as the villain of the Battle at Cowshed, Boxer knows this is not what happened, but is unable to contend with this falsehood. In spite of his moral unease at this lie, because he cannot think it out for himself, must fall back on “Napoleon is always right” and doubts his own memories (49). Boxer is aware of this defect of mental acuity, but puts off cultivating the mental virtues until retirement: “It would be the first time that he had had leisure to study and improve his mind. He intended, he said, to devote the rest of his life to learning the remaining twenty-two letters of the alphabet” (72). Of course, by then it will be too late for Boxer.

Despite this simple-mindedness of Boxer, he also has an admirable list of moral virtues. He is humble, docile, obedient, diligent, meek, and loyal. When he hears Snowball condemn Mollie’s ribbons, he immediately throws his own straw hat in the fire with all the other human artifacts (14). As Animal Farm is trying to get off the ground, Boxer gets up half an hour earlier than everyone else in order to work and adopts the motto, “I will work harder!” (19). After the first windmill is destroyed Boxer works at night in addition to his day labors (42). At the Battle at Cowshed, Boxer is overcome with guilt when he kills a boy: “‘I have no wish to take life, not even human life,’ repeated Boxer, and his eyes were full of tears (27). When Napoleon sends his dogs after certain other pigs and Boxer himself, Boxer kicks them away and presses one beneath his hoof. Yet even though it was Napoleon who had sent them after him, Boxer looks up to Napoleon to find out what he should do with this dog he has pinned (50). Even after this slaughter by Napoleon and the dogs, Boxer cannot bring himself to blame Napoleon, though he knows something isn’t right. Instead, he blames himself. “I do not understand it. I would not have believed that such things could happen on our farm. It must be due to some fault in ourselves” (52).

It is this combination of excellent moral virtue without corresponding intellectual virtue that ultimately ruins Boxer. After the Battle of the Windmill, Boxer is injured with a split hoof and pellets in his leg, yet he “refused to take even a day off work, and made it a point of honour not to let it be seen that the was in pain” (66). Finally, he works himself to exhaustion pulling stones for the windmill (71). In his blind trust of Napoleon, Boxer allows himself to be led off to what he thinks is a hospital. In what is the most tragic of all the events within Animal Farm, Boxer is makes one last effort to save himself:

All the animals took up the cry of ‘Get out, Boxer, get out!’ But the van was already gathering speed and drawing away from them. It was uncertain whether Boxer had understood what Clover had said. But a moment later his face disappeared from the window and there was the sound of a tremendous drumming of hoofs inside the van. He was trying to kick his way out. The time had been when a few kicks from Boxer’s hoofs would have smashed the van to matchwood. But alas! his strength had left him; and in a few moments the sound of drumming hoofs grew fainter and died away…Boxer was never seen again. (73-74)

In stark contrast to Boxer, is the pig Napoleon. Boxer and Napoleon stand as direct opposite of character and intellect. Where Boxer is simple and weak-minded, Napoleon is shrewd and wise. Where Boxer is moral and innocent, Napoleon is corrupt and wicked.

Napoleon’s brilliant mind as a thinker and a politician is quite evident throughout Animal Farm. Napoleon and the other pigs teach themselves to read and write, no simple task (15). Napoleon himself develops the new philosophy of Animalism and establishes the Seven Commandments (16). He becomes the primary teacher to all the other animals (20-21), and all the animals come to acknowledge Napoleon and other pigs’ superior intelligence: “It had come to be accepted that the pigs, who were manifestly cleverer than the other animals, should decide all questions of farm policy, though their decisions had to be ratified by a majority vote” (29). This is primarily because “the pigs were so clever that they could think of a way round every difficulty” (17). Napoleon’s intellectual ability is matched by his political cunning. He is able to out-maneuver Snowball, chase him off, and convince the rest of the farm that Snowball was really their enemy. He does this by convince the animals that their memories of the Battle at Cowshed was wrong, that Snowball had led the charge against them, not defended them (49). Napoleon is also a shrewd negotiator as he is able to play Frederick off of Pilkington in order to sell off the wood at a high price, even though he is cheated by it and the farm suffers an attack (60-63).

Furthermore, Napoleon is as wicked as he is smart, and his wickedness is manifest in his hypocrisy. He takes the cow’s milk for his own consumption (17). He takes away the pups from their mother, one of the very criticisms he had made of Farmer Jones (22). He moves the pigs into the house, again which was forbade to the other animals because the house is a symbol of decadence and evil (41-42). He starves out the Hens to get them to produce more eggs which will be sold off to humans (46). In a vicious demonstration of power, he has numerous animals slaughtered in public (50-51). After the Battle of the Windmill the pigs get drunk, and like most people suffering the effects of a hangover, Napoleon forbids anyone from consuming alcohol with punishment as death. Of course, once the hangover wears off, Nap sets off a special part of the farm just for growing barley. Only the pigs are allowed to consume it (65). Napoleon is also consumed with sex as he is apparently sleeping with all the sows, “producing thirty-one young pigs” (67). He begins wearing ribbons which they had forbade Mollie from wearing (67).

While the other animals are starving, Napoleon and the other pigs consume sugar and other fine goods. “The pigs seemed comfortable enough, and in fact were putting on weight if anything” (68). Of course, he his height of evil and hypocrisy is sending out Boxer to the knacker and using the proceeds of his death to buy whisky (73-75).

From these two examples we can see the importance and necessity of combining intellectual and moral virtues. Both of these are necessary for the fully developed person. Intelligence without morality leads to the great abuses of power that have occurred throughout history. Morality without intelligence leaves one open to the abuse. If you cannot think for yourself, you are at the mercy of those who can. It is in this light that Christ commands his disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16 ESV). Paul also applies this same principle in his exhortation to the Ephesians:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Eph 4:11-14 ESV)

Orwell, in Animal Farm provides a fine example of the importance of uniting the intellectual and the moral virtues. For without both, we see the great catastrophe that can occur both within the individual and in society.

Works Cited:
Orwell, George. Animal Farm and 1984. Orlando: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003.

On Reading Books: A Confession

There was a time when I would have been embarrassed to say how many of the “great books” I have not read. There was a time when, if someone were to ask me if I had read some classic work like say, The Aeneid, I would have lied, said I read it, and even feigned some discussion with what I knew of it generally. There was a part of me that, because I teach philosophy, history, theology and the like, and because I have a bit of a reputation as someone who knows a bit about a variety of topics, that I was ashamed of the fact that there were so many classics that I had not, in fact, read. What would they think of me, if they knew I had never actually read Moby Dick!?

I have also made it a priority to build a library in my home. When people would see how many books I own, I often got some snide remark about whether I had read them all, and there was a part of me that felt I needed to justify outwardly this “show” of books, even though I knew they were not for show, but for study. As Umberto Eco said on the subject:

The visitor enters and says, “What a lot of books! Have you read them all?” At first I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children’s encyclopedia bought in installments. But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion. It could be said that they are still people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already read books and do not think of the library as a working tool. But there is more to it than that. I believe that, confronted by a vast array of books, anyone will be seized by the anguish of learning and will inevitably lapse into asking the question that expresses his torment and his remorse.

Furthermore, while I have taught at a classical school for eight years which draws on C.S. Lewis for its name and is saturated with references to The Chronicles of Narnia: and yet, until two years ago I had never read a single word of The Chronicles of Narnia. I know I faked several conversations at school, and probably during the interview process as well. I’m sure there are more complex reasons for why I felt compelled to be dishonest about this: pride, shame, embarrassment, etc.

Again I have to say that I used to lie about the books I’d read. I have now come to see that there is no shame in having failed to read some “great work”—for there are far too many for anyone to have read them all. Furthermore, there are even far too many of the “essentials” to have read them all! I still get a kick out of people who are shocked to discover I have never read, say, Pilgrim’s Progress. “It’s on my list,” I say, “I’ll get to it!”

The problem is further compounded by the great writers who are still writing great books. I think I would be cheating myself if I only read books published more than 100 years ago. And if I want great writers to keep writing, there have to be people like me who read (and more importantly, who buy) their work. So, I try to keep a balance between the old classics, the new classics, and just the new ones in general.

Like C.S. Lewis says somewhere (but I cannot remember where), for a good book, after you have read it the first time, then you are ready  to read it (or something to that effect). So, I can safely say that for many of the “great books,” I am ready to read them now!

So, “No,” I haven’t read them all yet. I’m working on them. I have not yet made it to War and Peace and vast majority of Dickens, but I’ll get there, maybe, if not in this life, then certainly in the next.


Growing Up Without Growing Old

Growing up we would often have large family gatherings at my grandparent’s house: a large, two-story home in a small mid-western town filled with cousins, aunts, uncles, and the smells of potatoes, green-beans, casseroles, and pork chops or meatloaf or steak wafting from the kitchen. When it came time to sit down for the meal, a strict division was observed. In the main dining room area (which was not really a separate room, but an extension of the kitchen), with the heavy, crafted dining room table, fancy plate-ware, utensils, and glasses sat the “adults.” In the rear utility room with card tables and chairs, paper plates, and plastic cups sat the “kids.” We, as “kids,” were relegated away from the adult world. As an adult, I understand this practical impulse, children are messy and loud and cannot carry the conversation that an adult can. But as a child, one of the things I wanted most was to sit at the “adult” table, to sit on the big wooden chairs, to hear the “grown-up” conversation, and use the fancy dishware.

I am sure this kind of desire is not unique to my childhood. When children are quite young, parents will often appeal to them “growing up” or “being a big boy or girl” in order to get them to do something. “Be a big boy Trent, and eat your vegetables!” Yet, why do parents do this, and why does it often work? It works because there is a natural desire within the child to become an adult. A “child” is not what we are meant to be. It is a stage in the developmental processes of becoming a fully formed human. Children want to grow up. Boys want to become men, and girls want to become women.

Yet, we often find that when children do, in fact, “grow-up” they are dissatisfied with the adult life. There are bills to pay, obligations to career and family, burdens and responsibilities that they never imagined. So then, we long for a return to childhood. We reminisce about the by-gone, carefree days of our youth. We even tell children to cherish childhood because they will miss it. “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May.” So which is it: do we want to grow up or do we want to remain children? It is almost as if there are two separate worlds that exist between childhood and adulthood, and no matter which we’re in, we wish we were in the other.

The child must grow into the adult, able to reason and bear responsibility, but must not leave behind the wonder, energy, and whimsy of the child. The adult must maintain the spirit for life that is often lost under the weight of adulthood. How exactly this might be accomplished is left for another time. Yet the goal seems to be the ability to grow up without growing old.

Is There Beauty in Sodom?


Lot’s Wife

The just man followed then his angel
Where he strode on the black highway, hulking and bright;
But a wild grief in his wife’s bosom cried,
Look back, it is not too late for a last sight

Of the red towers of your native Sodom, the square
Where once you sang, the gardens you shall mourn,
And the tall house with empty windows where
You loved your husband and your babes were born.

She turned, and looking on the bitter view
Her eyes were welded shut by mortal pain;
Into transparent salt her body grew,
And her quick feet were rooted in the plain.

Who would waste tears upon her? Is she not
The least of our losses, this unhappy wife?
Yet in my heart she will not be forgot
Who, for a single glance, gave up her life.

~Richard Wilbur, from his Collected Poems: 1943-2004.


Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible.

~Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Book IV of Vergil’s Aeneid: A Lesson Concerning “Co-Habitation”

Dido and AeneasBook 4 of Vergil’s Aeneid presents one of the most famous (and tragic) love stories in the history of literature. Dido, queen of Carthage falls madly in love with the story’s hero, Aeneas. As the two give themselves over to each other, Aeneas is called back to his duty to found the Roman people. In fit of rage and despair, Dido throws herself on Aeneas’ sword and commits suicide rather than live without him. Famously, St. Augustine recorded in his Confessions that, as a boy reading The Aeneid, he had wept over the death of Dido. This later caused him to reflect on his own lack of self-knowledge: “What is more pitiable than a wretch without pity for himself who weeps over the death of Dido dying for love of Aeneas, but not weeping over himself dying for his lack of love for you, my God…” (Augustine Confessions 1.13). Yet I would argue that we should not weep for Dido. That, while Dido’s story is sad, she is not suffering at the hands of the gods or fates; that she is not treated unfairly, but rather, she is a victim of her own lack of self-control and wisdom.

From the beginning of Book 4, Vergil describes Dido as a woman enslaved to her passions. Though we see no indication of this while Aeneas is recounting his journey from Troy to Carthage, once he’s finished, Dido is completely beside herself with love for Aeneas. “Now the queen’s lifeblood fed her grievous love wound / An unseen flame gnawed at her hour on hour” (Vergil The Aeneid Bk. 4.1-2). The two dominant metaphors Vergil uses to describe Dido are fire and sickness: She is “stricken Dido” (4.8), her passions “blaze” (4.54), she suffers from “madness” (4.65), a “flame devoured her tender marrow” (4.66-67), “Dido burned” (4.68), and love-sickness “gripped the queen” (4.90). This is hardly a list attributes to admire!

Given this “love-sick” condition, it is not surprising that Dido is consumed in thought and deed for Aeneas. She “fixates” on Aeneas (4.78). She creates excuses, sometimes with the help of Juno, for the two of them to be together (4.129-165). She plays with Iulus, Aeneas’ son, because he is “so like his father” (4.83). While doing all this, she completely abandons her duties to Carthage:

The towers she started do not rise. The young men
No longer drill or build defending ramparts
Or ports. The work stalls, halfway done—the menace
Of high walls, and the cranes as tall as heaven. (4.85-89)

So, Dido has completely lost herself in her passion for Aeneas. She has “let her folly outrun her good name” (4.90-91). These are not the attributes of someone we should emulate or admire, and Vergil rightly calls it folly.

Perhaps out of pity for Dido, Juno arranges for Dido and Aeneas to be together. During one of their outings, Juno uses a storm to bring Dido and Aeneas together in a cave, and there the two give themselves over to passion. Though there is some ambiguity as to whether Juno thinks she has bound the two in marriage, it is clear from the text that no marriage ever took place, and the two of them knew this:

From this day came catastrophe and death.
No thought of public scandal or of hiding
Her passion troubled Dido any longer.
She called it marriage, to conceal her shame. (4.169-172)

Dido knows quite well that this sexual relationship with Aeneas is “shameful,” so she must pretend it is a marriage, and it is this double-dealing that will lead to her ruin. While in this relationship, the lovers show no better common sense than before it. They flaunt their love before the city and live openly in their shame. Jove looks down on “the lovers who’d forgotten all decorum” (4.221) and decides it is time for Aeneas to leave Carthage. Aeneas can leave Dido without contradicting his duty precisely because there was no marriage covenant between he and Dido. Had Dido first bound herself in marriage (as she ought) to Aeneas before their carnal relationship began, all of her misery could have been avoided, but passion led her instead of wisdom.

Furthermore, once Dido discovers Aeneas’ plan to leave, she reveals herself to be one who does not love Aeneas so much as one who wants to possess Aeneas. That is, she is not interested in what is best for Aeneas, but rather she wants to consume Aeneas. When Aeneas refuses to stay, Dido immediately lashes out at him, turns on him, and views him as an object of hate rather than love. This is precisely because he is keeping her from getting what she wants. There is no thought for Aeneas himself. Her irrational passions rear up again and she “raved all through” (4.300), “madness and grief filled her defeated heart” (4.474), and “her love ran wild” (4.531). She even admits, “hot madness drives me” (4.376). When Aeneas tries to explain himself to her, she calls him names (a sure sign that one has been defeated with reason or argument): “monster” (4.309), “traitor” (4.365), “sharp-rocked Caucasus gave birth to you” (4.366-67), “Hyrcanian tigers nursed you” (4.367), “my proud enemy” (4.424), “criminal” (4.498). Such flattery would hardly induce Aeneas to remain. Dido again presents herself as a concupiscent, irrational woman.

Counter to all this, an argument might be made that Dido is treated rather unfairly by Aeneas. After all, Dido did not have this relationship by herself. Aeneas was right there the whole time, and gave every indication that he was as much in love with Dido as she was with him. Vergil even says that Aeneas was “deeply lovesick” (4.396) over Dido. So, she had every indication that Aeneas would remain with her forever. When he decides to leave Carthage, it is a betrayal of their love, a betrayal that will end in Dido’s suicide. It is not that Dido cannot have what she wants and so kills herself, but rather that she has been betrayed by her great love and despairs.

However, the text simply does not bears this out. As was pointed out, there was no marriage between Aeneas and Dido, and therefore, Aeneas has no duty or obligation to stay with her. Vergil describes Aeneas as the “right-thinking hero” (4.393) who honors duty above personal interest. In fact, The Aeneid might be seen as a series of personal sacrifices on the part of Aeneas for the sake of duty. While Dido attempts to guilt Aeneas into staying by making reference to a marriage, Aeneas reminds her: “I never made a pact of marriage with you” (4.393). If he had, then Aeneas would be torn by duty to marriage and duty to his ancestors. But as no such pact was made, he does not have to face this dilemma. Dido herself finally admits that there was no marriage, and therefore she has no means by which to demand Aeneas stay: “I could not live a blameless life, unmarried, like a wild thing, and be spared this agony” (4.550-551).

So, we have no cause to weep for Dido. She is a victim of herself and nothing more. She is a woman ruled by her passions, who comes to ruin because she cannot have what she wants. At most, we might pity her for her condition as a love-sick woman, but not because of the end of an ill-conceived love-affair. Furthermore, there is a lesson here against “co-habitation,” people living together without the pact of marriage. When a person enters into an immoral relationship with another, they cannot complain of being “cheated” out of it. Without the covenant of marriage, there is no duty that keeps one person bound to the other. So, there can be no violation of duty if one person simply decides to leave. In fact, it is an act of duty to leave.

Hilaire Belloc’s “Cautionary Tales for Children”

Today in my Rhetoric class I read some selections from Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children for my students.  We are preparing for our annual Fine Arts Festival, and I was modelling poetry recitation (though I did not have the pieces memorized for which my students scolded me). Several of the students snorted with delight, while several stared at me in horror as I read these pieces. “Cautionary tales” is a special genre of poetry in which children who do bad things suffer awful consequences, yet in an absurdly light manner in order to teach a lesson. Here is one of my favorites:



Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion.

There was a Boy whose name was Jim;
His Friends were very good to him.
They gave him Tea, and Cakes, and Jam,
And slices of delicious Ham,
And Chocolate with pink inside,
And little Tricycles to ride,
And read him Stories through and through,
And even took him to the Zoo—
But there it was the dreadful Fate
Befell him, which I now relate.

You know—at least you ought to know.
For I have often told you so—
That Children never are allowed
To leave their Nurses in a Crowd;
Now this was Jim’s especial Foible,
He ran away when he was able,
And on this inauspicious day
He slipped his hand and ran away!
He hadn’t gone a yard when—Bang!
With open Jaws, a Lion sprang,
And hungrily began to eat
The Boy: beginning at his feet.

Now just imagine how it feels
When first your toes and then your heels,
And then by gradual degrees,
Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
No wonder Jim detested it!

No wonder that he shouted “Hi!”
The Honest Keeper heard his cry,
Though very fat he almost ran
To help the little gentleman.
“Ponto!” he ordered as he came
(For Ponto was the Lion’s name),
“Ponto!” he cried, with angry Frown.
“Let go, Sir! Down, Sir! Put it down!”

The Lion made a sudden Stop,
He let the Dainty Morsel drop,
And slunk reluctant to his Cage,
Snarling with Disappointed Rage
But when he bent him over Jim,
The Honest Keeper’s Eyes were dim.
The Lion having reached his Head,
The Miserable Boy was dead!

When Nurse informed his Parents, they
Were more Concerned than I can say:—
His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
Said, “Well—it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!”
His Father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend
To James’ miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.

Aeschylus: Death Cannot Be Bribed

μόνος θεῶν γὰρ Θάνατος οὐ δώρων ἐρᾷ
οὐδ᾽ ἄν τι θύων οὐδ᾽ ἐπισπένδων ἄνοις,
οὐδ᾽ ἔστι βωμὸς οὐδὲ παιωνίζεται·
μόνου δὲ Πειθὼ δαιμόνων ἀποστατεῖ.
~Aeschylus, fragment 161

My translation:

For of gods, Death alone loves not gifts,
Neither do sacrificing nor pouring libations accomplish anything,
Nor is there an altar or paean for Him;
From Death alone does Persuasion stand aloof.


Self-Knowledge and the Pursuit of Truth


Inscribed into the pronaos of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is the command: gnothi seauton, know thyself! This aphorism, along with prophecies from the same Delphic oracle, is a dominant theme in Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Tyrannos. Yet, is the Delphic imperative more than just a command? Might it not be a description of human nature? In Oedipus Tyrannos Sophocles demonstrates that this aphorism is more than just an interesting suggestion. It is a deeply rooted desire within human nature. However, this desire is held in contrast with an equally seeded desire of self-love. The results of this contradiction is a cataclysm between desire and reality. Sophocles, however, does not leave us with the clash, but provides the means by which it must be resolved.

Oedipus is presented as a wise and clever man. The first indication of this is his rescuing the city of Thebes from the persecution of the Sphinx. The Sphinx had terrorized the countryside of Thebes by interrogating any traveler she came upon by asking them a riddle. If the traveler failed to answer correctly, she would devour them. Hardly an ideal situation for a city. It was Oedipus who, while fleeing from his adopted home of Corinth, encountered the Sphinx and correctly answered her riddle. This great creature who had killed countless travelers was now defeated by the wisdom of Oedipus. In despair, the Sphinx killed herself and thus the city of Thebes was released. Having recently lost their own king, Laius, Thebes installs Oedipus as their ruler because of his great wisdom.

At the opening of Oedipus Tyrannos, Thebes again is suffering greatly. Now, a plague has descended on the city. The people come to the doors of the palace to seek their salvation once again in Oedipus. Oedipus, showing his great wisdom, comes himself to the altars the people have erected: “The whole city is filled with wailing, lamentations, and prayers to Apollo. Incense fills the air. I have not sent to inquire but have come myself to hear from you directly, I, Oedipus, whom all call famous” (60). The priest representing the people confirms that they have come to Oedipus because of his great knowledge. “We do not come to this altar as suppliants to a god but to you as the first man of the city, wise in the ways of the world and even conversant with higher powers…It was by your own wit and strength, god-given, that you then set our lives aright” (61).

While Oedipus is presented as a man full of knowledge and wisdom, he lacks a surprising amount of self-knowledge. In direct violation of the Delphic imperative to “know thyself,” the one subject that Oedipus seems least knowledgeable of is himself, both intrinsically and extrinsically. Intrinsically, Oedipus is blind to his own arrogance and hubris. When he learns that the city is under a plague because Laius’ (the city’s former king) killer has never been brought to justice, Oedipus makes sweeping pronouncements about vengeance without knowing any further details about the situation. “In the god’s service do I fight and also on behalf of the man who died. As for the killer, whoever he is, whether he acted alone or with others, I pray that he suffer a life of pain as miserable as he is” (71).

Extrinsically, Oedipus is utterly oblivious to the fact that he is the one he is looking for! For it was he who killed Laius. Not only that, but Oedipus is also unaware that Laius was his father and that his wife Jocasta (the former wife of Laius) is his mother! Oedipus, though wise, is blinded to his true state. When the priest Tiresias confronts Oedipus with this truth, Oedipus’ intrinsic blindness rages again and invents conspiracies to escape it: “I am infuriated enough to say what I begin to suspect—that you [Tiresias] yourself took some part in the killing, inciting, or planning” (76).

In spite of himself, Oedipus does still want to know the truth. He sends for more reports and interrogates others to discover if what Tiresias says is true. He might do this for purely selfish reasons, he wants to clear his own name, or he wants to save the city again and be the hero. It may, however, go deeper than that. “All men, by nature, desire to know,” says Aristotle. Within each of us is the deep-seeded desire to know the truth. If fact, it may be that what Oedipus most fears is that Tiresias is right: “I have a terrible feeling that the blind prophet may not have been so blind” (97). Yet the knowledge of the matter is worth the struggle for truth.

The issue is further complicated, that while Oedipus desires to know the truth, there is another part of him that does not like the truth that may come to be known. This is precisely because the truth would overturn Oedipus’ deluded view of himself. Perhaps he is not so wise. Worse yet, perhaps he has committed patricide and incest and become an abomination to gods and men. Tiresias says it best when he tells Oedipus, “The trouble is in yourself” (79). It is your hubris, it is your arrogance, it is your attempt to thwart the gods that has brought you here. Who would want to hear such things?

The trouble Oedipus is in is nothing more than that which we all face. For we all desire knowledge, including self-knowledge, but we do not love the truth. So we are stuck in a state of utter contradiction. We both do and do not want “to know.” Blaise Pascal summarizes our predicament quite succinctly:

The nature of self-love and of this human self is to love only self and consider only self.  But what is it to do? It cannot prevent the object of its love from being full of faults and wretchedness: it wants to be great and sees that it is small; it wants to be happy and sees that it is wretched; it wants to be perfect and sees that it is full of imperfections; it wants to be the object of men’s love and esteem and sees that its faults deserve only their dislike and contempt. The predicament in which it thus finds itself arouses in it the most unjust and criminal passion that could possibly be imagined, for it conceives a deadly hatred for the truth which rebukes it and convinces it of its faults. It would like to do away with this truth, and not being able to destroy it as such, it destroys it, as best it can, in the consciousness of itself and others; that is, it takes every care to hide its faults both from itself and others, and cannot bear to have them pointed out or noticed. (Pensées, 978, emphasis added)

625659_10151982768975790_1322862231_nWhat we see in Oedipus Tyrannos are the inevitable consequences of this clash of desires. With self-knowledge comes humility and wisdom. Oedipus, forced to confront his own hubris, blinds himself so that his physical condition matches his spiritual condition. For truth is truth whether we like it or not. We either accept this self-knowledge or blind ourselves to reality.

The solution to all this comes from the priest Tiresias, the one who in the end was shown to be the one who truly sees: “What I dare is simply to love the truth” (78). We either “love the truth” or blind ourselves. It is we who do the blinding, no one does it to us. We are the masters of self-deception. Yet we cannot escape the desire for knowledge. We either become lovers of the truth, or blind ourselves to reality. Oedipus Tyrannos, therefore, is an example of what the Delphic Oracle commands: “know thyself!” Yet this self-knowledge, uncoupled with a love for truth, leads to misery and destruction, both from without and from within.

Note: the page references contained herein refer to the translation by David R. Slavitt, which while excellent does not contain line number references which is the typical way of citing Sophocles. 

Soccer, the Sport of the Hoi Polloi

OK, follow me here.

On February 1, 2012 74 people were killed in a riot that broke out in response to a Soccer game in Port Said, Egypt.

Then, on January 26 (today), 2013, a judge sentenced 21 people to death in connection with the riot from Feb. 1.

Now, in response to the judges ruling, 27 people have been killed in a riot protesting the decision.

Yeah, Soccer is the enlightened sport.