Who Am I? (Mis)Identity and the Polis in Oedipus Tyrannus

  Karakantza, Efimia D. 2020. Who Am I? (Mis)Identity and the Polis in Oedipus Tyrannus. Hellenic Studies Series 86. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_KarakantzaED.Who_am_I.2020.

3. The Self in the Polis

The prior chapter’s definitions—of what constitutes a polis, of political creation, and of social imaginary significations that add meaning to the perceptions of “Athens” and the “Athenians” at the turn of the fifth century BCE—have already touched upon the notion of identity in the polis. What it is to be an “Athenian” is the collective notion applied to, and experienced by, the citizenry in Athens. Vigorous debate and participation, creation of policies, extensive networks of collaboration between the citizens, public festivities, rituals, commonality of action—in peace, as well as war—all these constitute the public, collective notion of being a political and social subject; they define what it is to be a citizen.

3.0.1 Public self

The paramount postulate that we need to bear in mind is that the self in ancient Greece is essentially public. [3] This is not to say that any individualistic characteristics are excluded from the ambient notion of the self in ancient Athens. But, what is a “self”? At this point we should consider the definition provided by Richard Sorabji:

Similarly, my preoccupation is not with the “undetectable soul or immaterial ego,” but with the embodied individual who lives in a classical city-state and within the specific social and political environment of the polis, possessing its own ideological structures regarding the perception of a self. This is my working definition of the self. A modern-day Athenian is not an individual in the same sense as an Athenian of classical Athens, for the notion of the self, as a multitude of other cultural constructs, is historically determined, which raises the following question: “how did the ancients understand what it is that I am, fundamentally, as an acting and affected subject, interpreting the world around me, being distinct from others like and unlike me?” [

A further issue complicates my argument. We understand what it is to be Pericles, Alcibiades, or Socrates, but what about Oedipus, Achilles, or Odysseus? Is there any chance to reconstruct the notion of the self in classical Athens by means of fictional characters? In the previous chapter I dealt with the new perception of “what it is to be an Athenian” in the aftermath of the Athenian Revolution of 508 BCE. The Athenians thought of themselves as autonomous individuals in an autonomous city-state and thus repudiated any possibility of becoming a dependent client state to Sparta. In the Castoriadian vein of interpreting political praxis, this was possible because the Athenians first imagined themselves differently and then effected change in the public realm. The action of imagining must happen as a prior prerequisite to change. In the social imaginary, human beings pose and answer questions that in time become seminal questions of philosophy. Castoriadis says:

Thus poetry becomes both the setting and the agency for building up individual characters that think, act, deliberate, and take decisions within the framework of their polis. Alongside the viability of the current institutions, the playwright presents us with individuals who face personal dilemmas and who are also accountable to their community for their thoughts and actions. Moreover, individual characters in poetry present individual traits. What it is to be Oedipus or Orestes or Achilles can be understood by considering the particular assemblage of traits that constitute the unique psychological and mental make-up of these persons; [
7] and in some cases (such as Oedipus or Odysseus) comprise their bodily traits as well (the marks on the ankles and thigh, respectively). Viewed from this perspective, my question can be formulated as follows: how do we balance the individual and the public dimensions of defining the self in classical Greece?

3.0.2 Particularity and Accountability

I will begin by quoting Alasdair MacIntyre’s definition of the heroic self, for I firmly believe that understanding Attic tragedy requires a thorough appreciation of the heroic self of the Homeric epics, a concept with which the later genre is in constant dialogue: [8]

It is interesting to note that the two traits defining the heroic self are “particularity” and “accountability.” Both Achilles and Hector have their own particular characteristics, their “individual distinctiveness or uniqueness,” which is one of the prerequisites of the notion of “self” and “selfhood.” However, what is important to understand as especially applicable to ancient Greece is what MacIntyre calls “accountability.” As a person in a heroic society I am accountable to my community for doing or failing to do what I owe to others, depending on my position in this particular community—as are Hector (doing) and Achilles (failing to do). Public esteem, the respect of others, and the reputation of heroic deeds pass from father to son (the kleos of the family). The public character is so emphasized that honor in Homeric society assumes a tangible material dimension plain for all to see. The famous speech of Sarpedon to Glaukos, when he urges him to take their stand in the frontline of battle, lays out the twofold character of timê: they are highly esteemed among the Lycians, as if they were gods; and fighting in the frontline brings them fine estates, beautiful orchards, riverside fields, and prime portions at symposia (Iliad 12.310–321):

Γλαῦκε τί ἢ δὴ νῶϊ τετιμήμεσθα μάλιστα
ἕδρῃ τε κρέασίν τε ἰδὲ πλείοις δεπάεσσιν
ἐν Λυκίῃ͵ πάντες δὲ θεοὺς ὣς εἰσορόωσι͵
καὶ τέμενος νεμόμεσθα μέγα Ξάνθοιο παρ’ ὄχθας
καλὸν φυταλιῆς καὶ ἀρούρης πυροφόροιο;
τὼ νῦν χρὴ Λυκίοισι μέτα πρώτοισιν ἐόντας
ἑστάμεν ἠδὲ μάχης καυστείρης ἀντιβολῆσαι͵
ὄφρά τις ὧδ᾽ εἴπῃ Λυκίων πύκα θωρηκτάων·
‘οὐ μὰν ἀκλεέες Λυκίην κάτα κοιρανέουσιν
ἡμέτεροι βασιλῆες͵ ἔδουσί τε πίονα μῆλα
οἶνόν τ’ ἔξαιτον μελιηδέα· ἀλλ’ ἄρα καὶ ἲς
ἐσθλή͵ ἐπεὶ Λυκίοισι μέτα πρώτοισι μάχονται.’

But tragedy deals with the heroic self in a refracted way. When the “virtues move to Athens,” to paraphrase the title of MacIntyre’s chapter that deals with the self in classical Athens, [
11] there is a significant change inextricably bound up with the creation of the polis. As discussed in the previous chapter, new perceptions of the notions of “Athens” and “Athenians,” a new political creation privileging the collective and the system of “working together,” new social imaginary significations that reject clientelism to aristocrats or to a foreign political authority are created. Thus autonomy, rather than heteronomy, is promoted as the quintessence of the new collective identity of the Athenians. So, where now stands the individual?

Needless to say, being successful in one’s city does not correlate with merely efficiently managing its administration. Success requires nurturing the ethical self, constructing the system of values of society. Each individual needs to define what comprises an honorable and meaningful life; in this endeavor, citizens attempt to determine what is good, intrinsically valuable, just, and appropriate: what should be endorsed and what repudiated. [16] A successful citizen in ancient Greece needs to be dikaios, sôphrôn, and sophos (to name just the capital virtues). In this society “the most valued existence” [17] embraces such notions as agathon, eudaimonia, eu prattein, agathos bios, and their like. [18] MacIntyre considers at least four groups of texts (the sophists, Plato, Aristotle, and the tragedians, especially Sophocles) in order to draw a picture of the moral vocabulary of the Greek texts. The wide variance in terminology amongst the texts points to a number of Athenian views, but the author continues:

Thus the most important and common ground on which the self is constituted in classical Athens is the polis; the particular characteristics of the individual remain salient, [
20] but it is “accountability” to others in the political and social context that takes precedence over the traits of selfhood. This is very much the case, I argue, in tragedy, as well, despite the overwhelming presence of themes that, in the long reception of the genre, were considered as timeless and universal. The “reality” in the tragedy of classical Athens is that “the moral protagonist stands in relation to his/her community and his/her social role.” [21]

3.1 The “Lonely” Sophoclean Hero as Not-So-Lonely After All

For thinking about Sophocles, MacIntyre articulates a central interpretative principle: “the Sophoclean protagonist would be nothing without his or her place in the social order, the city, the army at Troy.” [22] This formulation challenges the widespread assumption created by Bernard M. W. Knox’s The Heroic Temper (1964). Knox’s elegantly expressed (and debated) views of over fifty years ago still exert a strong hold on mainstream interpretations of the Sophoclean hero, who is found to be intransigent, stubborn, unyielding to friends’ and family’s pleas for moderation, and, above all, enmeshed in the heroic temper; the Sophoclean hero is a lonely and isolated figure. [23] Such a characterization conflicts, it is argued here, with perceptions of the identity of a person (real or imaginary) held by Athenians contemporary with Sophocles. The tragic hero’s supposed isolation, his “shutting off” from the world with decisions that divide his psychic life and that cast him out of the community, is an evidently romanticized construction stemming from our perception of a tragic hero. Knox’s description of the Sophoclean hero resonates with later assumptions of a turbulent romantic psyche:

For Sophocles’ contemporaries, a hero like this would not make any sense. Although it is the hero’s own decisions that result in his becoming an outcast from the community, it is precisely his ardent desire to remain within the community that makes him act, think, and argue as he does; the hero’s honor within the community cannot be impugned. Knox’s claim that “to the hero himself the opinion of others is irrelevant” cannot be correct. An obvious “suspect” is Ajax, who is “deaf” to his sailors’ words of persuasion, as well as to the desperate pleading of Tecmessa. He insists—to the point of committing suicide—that his damaged heroic honor (that is, the high esteem he enjoys among his peers) is irreparable, and so he decides to die, because to live without the respect and esteem of the Achaeans is to endure a life not worth living. This is put eloquently in the following celebrated lines of Ajax (479–480):

ἀλλ’ ἢ καλῶς ζῆν ἢ καλῶς τεθνηκέναι
τὸν εὐγενῆ χρή. Πάντ’ ἀκήκοας λόγον

Because his public self has been destroyed, his life becomes unbearable. The only time he tries to persuade himself to change is in response to his wife’s pleas, because he has been sensitive to her pleas and listened to her arguments. In the “deception speech” he makes a sincere attempt to convince himself, measuring himself against the recurrent cosmic circle of change. Everything seems to be going well until Ajax begins to reflect on the issue of philia within the army of the Achaeans. Philia, as we very well know, is not only an individual feeling of affection (and the manifestation of it) toward our friends—as it can be today—but a tangible network of socially sanctioned loyalties. [
27] Political and social alliances, alongside family ties, form strong social bonds that mark one’s position in society. [28] When Ajax begins to reflect (in the “harbor of friendship” passage) on the instability and untrustworthiness of these alliances, he despairs of being a part of such a duplicitous system and returns to his determination to die. Philia fails twice in the story of Ajax: first in the Judgment of Arms and second in the raid of Ajax against his fellow-warriors; the shift of loyalties undermines the social standing in the army at Troy. This is not just a casual mutation of the reciprocal bonds implied in philia; rather it entails extreme danger, as is shown in the fearful appeal of the Salaminian sailors to Ajax to recover his senses and stand by them, for without his protection the Atreidae threaten to execute them publicly (Ajax 251–256):

τοίας ἐρέσσουσιν ἀπειλὰς δικρατεῖς Ἀτρεῖδαι
καθ’ ἡμῶν· πεφόβημαι λιθόλευστον Ἄρη
ξυναλγεῖν μετὰ τοῦδε τυπείς,
τὸν αἶσ’ ἄπλατος ἴσχει.

Fear has been in the air ever since the parodos of the play: “I quake exceedingly and am sore afraid, like a winged dove with troubled eyes” (μέγαν ὄκνον ἔχω καὶ πεφόβημαι / πτηνῆς ὡς ὄμμα πελείας, Ajax 139–140), says the chorus. The rumor of Ajax’ sally upon the cattle the previous night haunts the Salaminians in the parodos, destroying Ajax’ kleos and their own: “loud murmurs beset us for our shame” (μεγάλοι θόρυβοι κατέχουσ’ ἡμᾶς / ἐπὶ δυσκλείᾳ, Ajax 142–143). Publicly acclaimed honor leads to the threat of publicly administered revenge. Moreover, public humiliation of the enemy, whose image is thus sullied and stature destroyed, is what the goddess Athena suggests: “and to mock at foes—is not that the sweetest mockery?” (oὔκουν γέλως ἥδιστος εἰς ἐχθροὺς γελᾶν; Ajax 79); it is also what Ajax most dreads: “Alas, the mockery! How have I been shamed?” (oἴμοι γέλωτος, οἷον ὑβρίσθην ἄρα, Ajax 367). There are, in fact, fourteen references in the play to malicious laughter against Ajax and his pitiful failure to take proper revenge on his enemies, as an Iliadic warrior would (γέλως / γελᾶν 79, γέλων 303, γέλωτος 367, γέλωθ’ ὑφ’ ἡδονῆς 382, γελᾷ 383, ἐπεγγελῶσιν 454, γελᾷ 957, γέλωτα 958, γελώντων 961, ἐπεγγελῷεν 969, ἐπεγγελᾶν 989, γελᾶν 1011, γελῶν 1043).

But, again, nothing could be further from the truth. In order to endorse such readings, one would need to confine all the sentiments, thoughts, and actions of Electra to a familial conflict, with the daughter harboring strong emotions towards both mother and father. But the oikos in classical Greek thought is an indispensable part of the polis. Electra and her actions should be seen against the background of her degraded social and political status and her diminished position in the rituals of the family and the polis. I will begin with the notorious abasement of her social status when she is forced to serve as a lowborn slave, with meager food and clothing, in the palace of her own father (Electra 189–192):

ἀλλ’ ἁπερεί τις ἔποικος ἀναξία
οἰκονομῶ θαλάμους πατρός, ὧδε μὲν
ἀεικεῖ σὺν στολᾷ,
κεναῖς δ’ ἀμφίσταμαι τραπέζαις.

… like a lowborn slave serve in the chambers of my father, in such mean attire as this, and stand at empty tables!

Pursuing the same vein of persecution and humiliation, Electra is forced to remain unwed (ἀνύμφευτος, 165), with neither a husband (οὔτις ἀνὴρ ὑπερίσταται, 188) nor a male of her house to protect her. [
32] Denied the chance to produce offspring (ἄτεκνος, 164) that would empower her in her husband’s oikos, Electra is virtually suspended between the oikos of her father, which is being destroyed, and the oikos of a husband she is denied. It is important at this point to note that Clytemnestra has had other children by Aegisthus (πατέρα τὸν ἀμὸν πρόσθεν ἐξαπώλεσας, / καὶ παιδοποιεῖς, “in time past you killed my father, and getting children by him” [Aegisthus], 588–589), thus usurping the old line of Agamemnon’s oikos with a new one. Moreover, since she and Aegisthus also attempted to kill Orestes in infancy, it is clear that they intend to exterminate the bloodline of the former ruler, with obvious social and political consequences. [33]

3.1.1 Narrating One’s life

One last remark is indispensable to complete our notion of identity within the framework we have delineated so far and to build a bridge to the dramatic genre as the retelling of a story. A person should be able to “tell a narrative [of his/her] life, because without that one will not have an identity.” [39] The narrative should be coherent, lest it result in a refracted notion of identity, which makes the position of the individual in the polis ambiguous. But more importantly, the narrative of a life, with all its moral decisions, leaves its imprint in the public domain, where it participates in a discourse of debate around these decisions—posing the causes and effects of actions, articulating lines of thought and arguments that support those actions. The narrative of a life is part of its identity. MacIntyre argues along these lines in reference to the Sophoclean protagonist:

We are, as Taylor claims, linguistic animals; as we express our motivations and evaluations in words and images, we give a “shape” to what initially might be confused or partially formulated thoughts and emotions. [
41] And as we try to make sense of our lives and, for that matter, to possess an identity, “we need an orientation to the good”; the latter is woven into our understanding of our lives “as an unfolding story,” which in plain words means that “our lives exist also in this space of questions, which only a coherent narrative can answer.” [42]


[ back ] 1. Sorabji 2006:7–8. See also Gill 1996:406 for the post-Cartesian framework of thought in defining the self.

[ back ] 2. “Personal identity cannot be detached from the notion of the self, of which it is a constituent and indispensable part” (Sorabji 2006:2).

[ back ] 3. Taylor 1989:16–17, 25–52; MacIntyre 2007:141–69.

[ back ] 4. Sorabji 2006:4, 20.

[ back ] 5. Remes and Sihvola 2008:1.

[ back ] 6. Castoriadis 1997a:147.

[ back ] 7. Three meanings of personality attached to “personality” and “self” are also most relevant here: 1. individual distinctiveness or uniqueness; 2. psychological structure, either common to us as human beings, or distinctive to us as individuals; and 3. our essence as persons (in a normative sense); see Gill 1996:1.

[ back ] 8. A much longer exposition of my views on the heroic self, as well as a radical reformulation of the well-known dichotomy between the cooperative and competitive values in the Homeric epics advocated by Adkins, can be found in Appendix 2.

[ back ] 9. 2007:147.

[ back ] 10. All translations from Homer are by Murray (revised by Wyatt), unless otherwise stated.

[ back ] 11. Chapter 11 “The Virtues at Athens” in 2007:153–69.

[ back ] 12. See also chapter 5.3 below, where I discuss at length Vernant’s idea of the emergence of the self in the face of the law in the widespread judicial practices of the democratic law courts.

[ back ] 13. 2007:155.

[ back ] 14. 2007:158.

[ back ] 15. 2007:162.

[ back ] 16. Taylor 2004:50. See also Herman (2006:264): “Norms and values remain constant through time only so long as social structures and conditions are constant; as soon as these change, norms and values change too.”

[ back ] 17. Adkins 1960:249. As for the “triple standard of behavior,” Adkins quotes Plato Crito 48b, where Socrates is the speaker: “Are we still agreed that to live eu, to live kalōs, and to live dikaiōs, are one and the same thing”? For the construction of systems of values in ancient Greek society, the following books are indispensable: Adkins 1972; Dover 1974; Ferguson 1989; Christ 2006; Herman 2006.

[ back ] 18. Karakantza 2011a:25.

[ back ] 19. 2007:157-158.

[ back ] 20. “Athenian democracy pragmatically acknowledged the legitimacy of personal self-interest, which was intimately connected with individual freedom, and incorporated this into its ideology of citizenship,” Christ 2006:9.

[ back ] 21. MacIntyre 2007:158.

[ back ] 22. Ibid.

[ back ] 23. Knox 1964:32.

[ back ] 24. 1964:28.

[ back ] 25. 1964:31.

[ back ] 26. All translations of Ajax and Electra are by Lloyd-Jones unless stated otherwise.

[ back ] 27. Karakantza 2011c:42–43, and nn1–3.

[ back ] 28. Philia and philos imply “a network of stable human loyalties that are bound by reciprocal favor and affection,” Karakantza 2011c:41.

[ back ] 29. Translations of Ajax on this page are by Jebb.

[ back ] 30. See MacIntyre 2007:167

[ back ] 31. Peter Stein’s controversial production of Electra in 2007 with the National Theatre of Greece prompted my response in “Throwing out the Menos with the Bath Water: The Sophoclean Text vs Peter Stein’s Electra (2007).” There I discuss how limited his reading is, as it reduces everything to a single focus, that of Electra’s psychopatheia and vindictiveness. Stein said in an interview that the original play was “ugly” and “uneventful,” Karakantza 2013:61–62.

[ back ] 32. Karakantza 2013:66–67; Giosi 1996:174–175.

[ back ] 33. Karakantza 2013:67.

[ back ] 34. Karakantza 2013:69–73.

[ back ] 35. I am referring of course to the emblematic title of the play cycle Mourning Becomes Electra written by the American playwright Eugene O’Neill, which premiered in 1931. The cycle parallels the Aeschylean trilogy The Oresteia with three plays The Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted.

[ back ] 36. Karakantza 2013:72. See also Seaford’s similar statement formulated nearly thirty years earlier than mine: “[Electra] must respond to the perverted and protracted rites of her mother with anomalously protracted lamentation of her own” (1985:317).

[ back ] 37. Karakantza 2013:69; see also Alexiou 1974:21. When dealing with Sophocles’ Electra, Goff (2004:310–311) stresses the idea that “Elektra uses her mourning as a political tool against those now in power” and that “[her] mourning is so effective that, … Aigisthos and Klytaimestra are determined to hide it and to shut Elektra in a dungeon.” According to Foley (1993:143): “a mourning woman is not simply a producer of pity, but dangerous”; see also Bakogianni 2011:1.41–42.

[ back ] 38. MacIntyre 2007:168.

[ back ] 39. Sorabji 2006:8.

[ back ] 40. MacIntyre 2007:167–168.

[ back ] 41. Taylor 1985:36, 103.

[ back ] 42. Taylor 1989:47.

[ back ] 43. Ibid.