Some Things I Learned from Sophocles, the Ancient Playwright

The theme of ephemeros pervades ancient Greek tragedy. The recurring premise of men as ephemeroi, creatures of a day, shapes characters’ fate and the plots of the tragedians’ works. In each play, the course of the events unfolds within a single day, and characters can either rise or fall in the quick time frame of only twenty-four hours.

Characters can all deteriorate within one day amidst a whirlwind of upheaval.

In Herodotus’ Histories, Croesus, king of Lydia, questions Solon of Athens concerning what person is an example of happiness. Solon’s response is emblematic of the entrenchment of the ephemeros concept in the ancient Greek mentality. He counsels,

“But in every matter it behoves us to mark well the end: for oftentimes god gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.”

Essentially, even the happiest of men have a precarious standing on their good fortune, and no one’s happiness can be properly evaluated until their accounts in life are complete. Daniel Mendelsohn expands, breaching out from the concept of “creatures of a day.” As Mendelsohn explains, peripeteia, or a reversal of fortunes, is a hallmark of the ancient Greek tragedies. I looove this narrative technique of juxtaposing good luck with ill fortune. He asserts:

“that, because we are only human, our knowledge is merely knowingness, our vision partial rather than whole, and we must tread carefully in the world.”

The traditional ancient Greek heroes, however, (such as Ajax, Creon, Antigone) are recalcitrant and adhere resolutely to their convictions, barreling ahead and not “treading carefully.” Both admirably and to their detriment, they refuse to compromise their values.

One prime example of the headstrong hero and the ephemeros motif is Sophocles’ Ajax. The plot of Ajax follows the line of Ajax’s fate, as he loses the right for possession of Achilles’ armor to Odysseus, and his subsequent fear of humiliation leading to his suicide. Ajax’s peripeteia sees him, a strong, respected warrior, second only to Achilles among the Greeks, crashing down to a terrible demise. The mutability implied in ephemeros is a stark contrast to Ajax’s nature. He is not able to be flexible and adapt to such marked changes in fortune.

Ajax’s inability to compromise brings about his self-destruction.

A second example appears in Sophocles’ Antigone. The chorus concludes the play with the ominous,

“Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy,
and reverence toward the gods must be safeguarded.
The might words of the proud are paid in full
with mighty blows of fate, and at long last
those blows will teach us wisdom” (1467-1470).

The “mighty blows of fate” are the effects of peripeteia, and underscore how quickly men’s positions can change, due to their essence as ephemeroi. The chorus’ warning in Antigone echoes the words of the chorus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: “By suffering we learn” (120). As each chorus instructs, the sufferings of bad fortune can impart wisdom, albeit at a terrible cost.

Ephemeroi, or creatures of a day, is a description of men that focuses on the transitory nature of life, and highlights the loose hold we have on that life.

These Sophoclean characters suffer, and by their suffering, they can learn from their mistakes.

What do you think? Is there a lot to learn from the fates of the Sophoclean characters? Do modern plays impart any similar lessons?

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