Sunday, February 05, 2006

"Never think my thoughts, whoever does such things"

Man the master, ingenious past all measure
past all dreams, the skills within his grasp--
he forges on, now to destruction
now again to greatness. When he weaves in
the laws of the land, and the justice of the gods
that binds his oaths together
he and his city rise high--
but the city casts out
that man who weds himself to inhumanity
thanks to reckless daring. Never share my hearth
never think my thoughts, whoever does such things.

--Antigone, by Sophocles, tr. Robert Fagles

The last lines of the "hymn to reason" sung by the Chorus in Antigone. The Chorus expresses the sentiments of the community, the city, the citizens of Athens. It speaks for the audience, acting sometimes as narrator, sometimes as counsel, but always as the voice of the polis. And the irony and the premonition in those words is clear in the context of the play.

Creon sets himself beside the law, forges on as the new ruler of the city-state to weave the laws of the land into the situation of the treason and the death of Polynices. But, of course, he overreaches. He fails to include the justice of the gods, and finally it is their justice that brings the punishment he had meant for others, down on him three-fold and more. But the hymn praises reason, even as it draws a charmed circle around those admitted to the light of the hearth, and those to be forever kept out in the dark places, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. And it does so in a manner beyond tribal, down almost to familial: "Never share my hearth/never thing my thoughts, whoever does such things."

The Greeks understood the power of reason; but they understood its limits, too. Hubris brings tragedy, not reason, but reason cannot eliminate hubris. Even reason will not allow the blasphemer, the one who "weds himself to inhumanity," into the charmed circle.

And then it becomes a matter of how we define "inhumanity." The Greeks had their own ideas. Were they here today, they would consider all of us "barbarians." The Romans extended their elevation of reason by the Pax Romana. The Hebrews spoke of the children of Abraham, and everyone else: the Gentiles.

Reason is not going to bring everyone to think like "us," to share our thoughts. And the idea that we will ever, in the name of reason, abandon our definitions of "inhumanity..." Well, the Greek tragedies teach us the consequences of those wishes.

And the daily newspaper.

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