Closer Readings Commentary

Sophocles, Socrates, and the Greek Polis

When the ancient historian, Herodotus, looked to the earlier civilizations of the Mediterranean, he lamented the circumstances of his native Greece, "a rocky land and poor." In the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, the Greek polis or "city-state" of Athens had a population about half that of modern-day Wichita, Kansas. Such were the size and physical circumstances of the city-state that, within the space of about two-and-a-half centuries, gave us the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Menander; statesmen such as Themistocles and Pericles; the philosophers Socrates and Plato; Thucydides, the historian; Demosthenes, the orator; the sculptors Phidias and Praxiteles; and Ictinus, architect of the Parthenon.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the city-state in the life of an Athenian citizen in the age of Sophocles and Socrates. Our term "city-state" is an inadequate translation of the complex Greek idea of the polis, for nothing quite like it existed before or has since. The concept of the polis and its relationship to the individual citizen became for Sophocles and Socrates a source for brilliant drama and subtle philosophy.

The conflict between the wishes of the individual and the demands of the polis is a theme central to Sophocles' play, Antigone, and Plato's philosophical dialogue, Crito, which recounts the arguments of Socrates while in an Athenian prison. These works and the conflicts they dramatize are the subject of two EDSITEment lesson plans. The first, Live From Antiquity!, guides students through an analysis of Antigone, and the second lesson plan, Argument in an Athenian Jail: Socrates and the Law, introduces students to Socrates' arguments that he should not attempt to avoid the penalty of death imposed on him by Athens.

In Live From Antiquity!, students examine how Sophocles dramatizes the conflict between duty to the polis and duty to one's own family. While a modern American audience might be inclined to cheer for Antigone, who movingly defies the state with her defense of "the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven," an Athenian audience would, at least at the outset, sympathize more readily with Creon, the King of Thebes, who is presented as a defender of the polis and its laws. The Athenian audience would have been alarmed, however, by Creon's sarcastic and blasphemous dismissal of Antigone's appeals to the gods.

Equally surprising to a modern American audience may be Socrates' contention that one owes more to the polis, to the city-state, than to one's own family: "our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor." Argument in an Athenian Jail: Socrates and the Law guides students through the twists and turns of Socrates' position by drawing upon the resources of the EDSITEment-reviewed EpistemeLinks; this website also helps students to apply the arguments of Socrates in contemporary circumstances.

Perhaps because we are accustomed to thinking of Greece, and of Athens in particular, as the birthplace of Western democracy, we may be surprised to find, in the words of Socrates and Sophocles, ideas and ways of life radically different from and an implicit challenge to our own. By challenging our unexamined assumptions, Sophocles and Socrates make us examine the basis of our beliefs, and thus help us to assess contemporary conflicts in a fresh light.

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