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.

2. Defining the Polis

In order to understand this action of being imagined (which is the functioning of the radical social imagination), we need to reflect on the nature of a human institution, taking the meaning of an ‘institution’ in its broadest sense. In his seminal book The Imaginary Institution of Society, Castoriadis defines an institution as “a socially sanctioned, symbolic network in which a functional component and an imaginary component are combined in variable proportions and relations.” [21] The imaginary component is responsible for the radical activity of the social creation: of the new institutions, the new ways of living and thinking, and the new significations on the social plane, what are defined as “the social imaginary significations.” [22] The latter is what holds a society together. In Castoriadis’s words:

The new concept and its political application aimed at undermining the strong local ties between aristocrats and their clients or other locality-based bonds with possible political implications. The body politic was reorganized on a cross-class and cross-regional basis. The radical character of the reforms is masterfully exemplified in the combination of the three equal thirds (trittyes) from the coastal, urban, and inland regions of Attica in order for each new tribe to be created. In their year of service, the fifty Councilmen of each new tribe, people who had never met before, had to work closely together as members of the same tribe. During the thirty-five or thirty-six-day period that the tribe had the presidency of the Council (Boulê), one third of the Councilmen of the same tribe had to sleep, eat, and spend each day together in the public building of Tholos, where they were constantly on duty, ready to respond to any political emergency. The random mixing of the populace in the formation of the tribes and the imperative for close collaboration was not confined to the political praxeis of the Council; other important venues were the People’s Courts, the groups created ad hoc to deal with various administration issues, and, of course, the military service, with the majority of the Athenians serving as heavy infantry, hoplites, or oarsmen in the war ships. A powerful symbol of the new social order was tribal participation in civic celebrations. For example, dithyrambic choruses composed of one hundred members (fifty men and fifty adolescent boys) of each tribe opened the celebrations of the Great Dionysia—one of the prime venues where Athenian civic identity was consolidated. The result was that the Athenians made polities, deliberated, fought and died, or danced together as citizens of the same tribe, albeit coming from distant localities (demes), different backgrounds, and various social classes. [35]

One of the effective tools for reshaping the new social-imaginary signification attached to the abstractions “Athenians” and “Athens” was a novel networking system, starting from the local level of the demes and embracing the whole of Attica, fostering a “master” network. [36] This master network, the result of a complex and extremely sophisticated concept, created new ties among the diverse and dispersed members of the ten new tribes, consolidating a new civic identity extending across the whole of Attica. This was perhaps the first time that such a conscious and consistent effort had been made to create the ground for a political system that would promote equality, collaboration, and solidarity among otherwise disparate citizens. The master network formed a platform where people coming from isolated, small, or unimportant demes had to work together with the wealthy or the better educated people from the city, the port, or other important demes. They worked as equals on a cooperative basis sharing the “collective responsibility for decisions that could not be enforced by external authority”; [37] their political praxis was the result of their self-instituting activity. The transfer of individuals’ knowledge [38] from the administration of their local networks to the master network favored an unprecedented aggregation of knowledge of political affairs, thus producing the successful paradigm of the participatory and deliberative political system of Athens. In terms of assessing its performance compared to contemporary rival cities, Athens outpaced its rivals by a substantial margin. In all domains where success is normally measured—growth, wealth, intellectual life, artistic creations—“Athens was an outstandingly successful state.” [39] During the exceptional performance of the 180 years of democracy (508–338 BCE), the Athenians managed to sustain a large hegemony, accumulate public and private wealth, establish institutions that prioritized the common well-being, erect public buildings of unique beauty, and produce unparalleled intellectual life. In Ober’s words:

In the last sentence of the quotation, my emphases point to the essential characteristics of Athenian democracy. One final point emerges that, although stated as a feature of the political system, complements the overall picture of the identity of an Athenian of the classical period: the perception of being highly experimental, innovative, and daring, [
41] powerful witness to which is found in the funeral oration of Pericles, as reconstructed by Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War–4.1):

2.1 Tragedy as a Self-Restraining Mechanism of Athenian Democracy

To my mind, however, the major contribution of tragedy as a controlling, correcting, and self-restraining mechanism of the political system lies in its ability to mediate deliberation about the viability of the current institutions. As an example, I will consider here the abandonment of the corpse of a traitor to the city unburied to be eaten by animals, as the ultimate dishonoring sanction of the polis, as in Ajax and Antigone. In both tragedies, the playwright favors burial, contrary to the widespread practice in Athens of forbidding such burials in its land and its hegemony. [48] Honoring and dishonoring the dead is part of the discourse of civic identity. I am not suggesting that the solution that Sophocles advocates is a straightforward suggestion to the body politic to change or modify the practice. I am suggesting that the playwright calls for deliberation on an institutionalized political action that touches upon issues that often follow civil strife and political upheaval, issues capable of profoundly traumatizing the Athenians. In his treatment, the playwright introduces to the story complex matters interwoven with family ethics and divine justice, together with notions of personal honor and pride, thus throwing the subtle complexities of these issues into stark relief. In characteristic Sophoclean manner, the denouements of both plays refrain from offering any unequivocal solution (a feature that perplexed scholars often call the “open-endings” of his plays). Of course, the social order (seen in tragedy as integral to the wider cosmic order) must be re-established, but the intense tragic feeling of the endings eats into the very essence of this order; the restoration always comes at a high price.

The final point that I would like to raise in reference to the contribution of tragedy in the re-imagining and consequent redefining of existing institutions is that the particular issues of each play invoke a higher notion of justice to be debated. In the deliberative system of Athenian democracy the concept of justice is paramount and runs through all aspects of life, a prerequisite for the constant activity of decision-making. We are aware of at least one major change of decision in the case of the dissent of Mytilene (428 BCE) as a result of fierce deliberation, which Thucydides recorded.

In a stormy meeting of the Assembly, the Athenians decided to change the brutal decision taken in the previous meeting to punish the rebels by killing the entire adult male population and selling the rest into slavery. [49] According to the historian, [50] while the trireme was still on route to convey and implement the decision, the anger of the Athenians was supplanted by remorse, leading to the second Assembly that voted for the moderate decision to spare the dêmos and punish only the oligarchic leaders of the revolt. The notion of justice in various forms had been brought into the debate, even if the deliberation was in part about “whether justice [had] anything to do with the decision.” [51] Whether it was about justice, or about the utility for the Athenians of preserving the Mytilenean dêmos, as the argument of Diodotus went, is not at question here. The fact was that everything concerning the life of the polis had to be debated publicly, and measured against common assumptions of “what is right, and what is not,” even if this argument was not openly expressed. In the Mytilenean debate, a multitude of other issues of vital importance at the time were implicitly touched upon, among them “the relationship between the deployment of power, domestic politics, and social diversity,” “the relationship between an individual speaker’s personal interests and the public interest,” “the discontinuity between public and private interests,” and the reconciliation between “prudent … policy and decisive action.” [52]

In many other debates in the Assembly as reconstructed by Thucydides, similar issues were raised, as is the case with particular issues debated by the dramatis personae of tragedy. Every aspect of civic life was discussed in the Assembly, as well as in tragedy, where a higher notion of justice is constructed as a measure and a goal. And if in the Mytilenean debate Cleon and Diodotus claimed that their argument was not about justice, in the famous Melian deliberation, as every student of the Histories knows, everything was about justice.

2.2 Summing Up

My effort to define the notion of the polis started with the strict definition of the polis as a technical term. It took us from the walled city and its hinterland to the political community and its institutions. In both cases we could read the symbolic that resides in the imaginary. The importance of the construction of new social imaginary significations regarding the identity of the “Athenians” and “Athens” (what Ober calls the “new abstractions” of the terms) is manifested in (and is a prerequisite of) the Athenian Revolution, just before the radical reforms of Cleisthenes in 508 BCE. Those reforms are explained as an act of radical creation in the Castoriadian sense, that is, a moment in history when a society creates itself. This self-creation presupposes a period when important social significations had been modified (in the case of Athens this happened throughout the sixth century BCE) and projected onto the imaginary, that is, they were re-imagined. As the Athenian polis is a societas instituans [54] (and not a societas instituta), nothing, no law or institution, is enforced by an external or higher authority. Everything is the result of the self-instituting activity of its citizens. Therefore, the activity of imagining and re-imagining its social significations is constant and paramount, and it is interwoven with the autonomy of the political praxis. In this context, controlling and self-restraining mechanisms of the political system have been devised, [55] for the body politic is responsible for deliberating on and modifying the institutions.

Tragedy, a product of the imaginary, is one of the prime mechanisms of imagining, re-imagining, and redefining the ideology that underlies the creation and modification of institutions. One of its avenues is the notion of hybris that warns the Athenians against any excess in behavior and thought; another is the deliberation over the sustainability and viability of the existing institutions. Finally, and of great importance, is the discourse constructed around a higher notion of justice that permeates all political praxeis of the body politic.


[ back ] 1. Hansen 2006:56. Also, “every polis-city was the centre of a polis-state, and every polis-state had a polis-city as its political centre” (59).

[ back ] 2. Hansen 2006:57, 101–105.

[ back ] 3. de Polignac 1995:21–24, 32–88.

[ back ] 4. Original publication in 1968 as “Le chasseur noir et l’origine de l’ephébie athénienne,” Annales 23:947–964.

[ back ] 5. de Polignac 1995:35–36.

[ back ] 6. Hansen 2006:64.

[ back ] 7. Hansen 2006:98.

[ back ] 8. ΚΡ. Οὐ τοῦ κρατοῦντος ἡ πόλις νομίζεται; [ back ] ΑΙ. Καλῶς ἐρήμης γ’ ἂν σὺ γῆς ἄρχοις μόνος.

[ back ] 9. Hansen 2006.

[ back ] 10. Ober 2008a:1.

[ back ] 11. Castoriadis 1997a:359.

[ back ] 12. Even a critic as sensitive and well informed as Hansen, who directed the Copenhagen Polis Center from 1993–2005, refers to Athenian democracy as the majority rule of the “little people” or the “less wealthy.” Note the following statement: “under a rule of the people (demokratia or politeia) it is the ‘little people’ (dêmos), the majority in fact, of the less wealthy citizens who exercise power through a People’s Assembly in which all citizens have the right to speak and vote irrespective of their property status” (2006:111).

[ back ] 13. The “how many people may occupy official positions of authority” is denoted by the –arche suffix: monarchy, oligarchy, anarchy (the last term denoting that magisterial offices of the government are vacant); the equivalent of the “majority rule” would be “polloi-archia,” which does not exist in classical Greek (Ober 2008b:6).

[ back ] 14. Ober 2008b:7.

[ back ] 15. Ober 2008b:8.

[ back ] 16. Ober 2008b:7.

[ back ] 17. Ibid., the last emphasis is mine.

[ back ] 18. Ober 1996:41.

[ back ] 19. Castoriadis 1997b:275 (the original essay, “Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy,” appeared in 1983, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 9:79–115); the terms are found in Thucydides.

[ back ] 20. Castoriadis 1997b:269.

[ back ] 21. Castoriadis 1997a:132.

[ back ] 22. Charles Taylor in his Modern Social Imaginaries (2004:24) defines the social imaginary as follows: “Our social imaginary at any given time is complex. It incorporates a sense of the normal expectations we have of each other, the kind of common understanding that enables us to carry out the collective practices that make up our social life. This incorporates some sense of how we all fit together in carrying out the common practice. Such understanding is both factual and normative; that is, we have a sense of how things usually go, but this is interwoven with the idea of how they ought to go, of what missteps would invalidate the practice” (my emphasis). And further down: “Humans operated with a social imaginary well before they ever got into the business of theorizing about themselves (26).” In a similar manner, Castoriadis (1997a:147) refers to the action of the humans to deliberate in the realm of the imaginary (and the symbolic) as prior to any systematic philosophical thinking; see also Chapter 3 below, p. 27.

[ back ] 23. Castoriadis 1997a:359.

[ back ] 24. Ober 1989:57–59, 66–69.

[ back ] 25. The two extensive accounts, and interpretation, of the events are found in “The Athenian Revolution” (1996), and in “I Besieged that Man. Democracy’s Revolutionary Start” (2007:83–104). The idea of the Athenian Revolution as a spontaneous leaderless uprising of the dêmos permeates all Ober’s writings.

[ back ] 26. The two sources that record the events are Herodotus Histories 5.66, 69–78, and Aristotle Athênaiôn Politeia 20–22.1.

[ back ] 27. What is offered here is an “inferential but plausible sequence” of the events (1996:43), which Ober also reiterates later in his work (2007:92–93). Of course, historians do not agree as to various aspects of the events and the consequent reforms of Cleisthenes: do we detect here the “real” origins of Athenian democracy? Was it truly a leaderless revolution? What were the motives of Cleisthenes in introducing his reforms: his self-interest or the interest of the people? Ehrenberg (1973) and Lewis (1963) detect individualistic motives, while de Ste. Croix (2004:136) argues: “we cannot know what Cleisthenes’ motives were in 508.” Ehrenberg reads the events as a person-to-person communication between Cleisthenes and Isagoras. Ostwald (1986:16–17) remarks: “… Cleisthenes was … no ideological democrat but a practical politician concerned with eliminating the roots of internal conflict from the society in which he lived. … Cleisthenes acting as a private citizen in opposition to the ruling archôn, used the dêmos—presumably meaning Council and Assembly—as the forum for passing his reforms. That this was a revolutionary step to take is evident, but it does not follow that the political aims to be achieved by this procedure were equally radical.” My own thesis, evident throughout these pages, supports clearly the radicalism of the Athenian Revolution and the reforms of Cleisthenes.

[ back ] 28. Ober 1996:38.

[ back ] 29. Ober 1989:66.

[ back ] 30. Ibid.

[ back ] 31. Ibid.

[ back ] 32. Ober 1989:67.

[ back ] 33. For major publications on Cleisthenes’ reforms, as well as a short history of how ancient historians shifted their interest from Solon and Pericles to Cleisthenes, see Appendix 2.

[ back ] 34. Ober 1996:33.

[ back ] 35. See the same idea, albeit differently formulated, by Ober (2008a:142): “The experience of marching, fighting, sacrificing, eating, and dancing, together in this newly ‘intermixed’ grouping, would, according to Cleisthenes’ plan, lead to a strengthened collective identity at the level of the polis.”

[ back ] 36. Ober in his Democracy and Knowledge (2008a) studies extensively how, starting with small-scale local networks, information/knowledge was transferred across the extended network of the entire polis by building bridges between the local administration of demes (and the accumulation of social, technological, and political knowledge there) and the numerous political bodies created by the new system of the ten artificial Cleisthenic tribes; the latter form the “master” plan of the administration of the city, where an extensive aggregation of knowledge ensured the success of the “epistemic democracy” of classical Athens (see also n38 below). “Athens knows what the Athenians know,” remarks Ober (150).

[ back ] 37. Ober 1989:73.

[ back ] 38. What Ober calls “social epistemology” (2008a:34). The Athenian democracy as a political system, based on aggregated knowledge transferable from individuals to the collective bodies of citizens materializing political praxis, is termed by the author “epistemic democracy,” to which he dedicates his contribution in J. Elster and H. Landemre (eds.) titled: “Epistemic Democracy in Classical Athens; Sophistication, Diversity, and Innovation” (2012:118–147). At the very beginning of the Introduction, we read: “A democracy may be said to be ‘epistemic’ to the degree to which it employs collective wisdom to make good policy. Scott Page (this volume) offers a formal model of collective wisdom, in the sense of accurately predicting or characterizing an outcome that is produced by two factors: the individual sophistication of participants and the diversity of their perspectives. The city-state of Athens, from the late sixth century through the late fourth century B.C.E, is a case study of a participatory epistemic democracy: an intensively-studied historical example of a community whose remarkable success can, at least in part, be explained by … sophistication and diversity” (118).

[ back ] 39. Ober 2008a:78.

[ back ] 40. Ober 2008a:5, my emphasis.

[ back ] 41. Ober 2008a:275.

[ back ] 42. Translated by Warner.

[ back ] 43. Ober 2008a: 275.

[ back ] 44. We should note, that “whatever has been imagined strongly enough to shape behaviour, speech, or objects can, in principle, be re-imagined (re-represented) by somebody else” in the long process of the self-creation of this society, Castoriadis 1997b:270.

[ back ] 45. Castoriadis 2008:337.

[ back ] 46. See chapter 1 above.

[ back ] 47. In the twenty-eight passages of τόλμας – τολμᾶν and their cognates found in Sophocles, all have negative connotations, denoting an unrestrained, malign action or thought; one passage only is contextualized positively (εὖ τολμᾷ τελεῖν, Ajax 528).

[ back ] 48. I think one of the most apt formulations regarding the polis’ right to deny burial to Polyneices, who is a traitor and not just an enemy to Thebes, has been made by Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood: “The funeral was a family affair, but this does not affect the fact that it was the polis that sanctioned funerary discourse and practice. In Athens the war-dead were given public burial by the polis … . The mirror image of the public funerals of the war heroes, the disposal of the traitor’s body, also belonged to the public sphere. It was normal Athenian practice for traitors, sacrilegers and certain other categories of transgressors to be denied burial” (1989:137, with n20, my emphasis). This is corroborated by the following quotation from [Plutarch] Vita X Oratorum regarding Archeptolemus and Antiphon who were charged, and condemned, for treason (προδοσία) in relation to the regime of the Four Hundred: καὶ μὴ ἐξεῖναι θάψαι Ἀρχεπτόλεμον καὶ / Ἀντιφῶντα Ἀθήνησι, μηδ’ ὅσης Ἀθηναῖοι κρατοῦσι· (834 B.1–2). For relevant recent discussion on the matter, see Karakantza 2011a:40, 40n41; Patterson 2006; Hame 2008.

[ back ] 49. Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War–3: ὑπὸ ὀργῆς ἔδοξεν αὐτοῖς οὐ τοὺς παρόντας μόνον ἀποκτεῖναι, ἀλλὰ καὶ τοὺς ἅπαντας Μυτιληναίους ὅσοι ἡβῶσι, παῖδας δὲ καὶ γυναῖκας / ἀνδραποδίσαι.

[ back ] 50. Thucydides History of the Peloponesian War–5.1: καὶ τῇ ὑστεραίᾳ μετάνοιά τις εὐθὺς ἦν αὐτοῖς καὶ ἀναλογισμὸς ὠμὸν τὸ βούλευμα καὶ μέγα ἐγνῶσθαι, πόλιν ὅλην διαφθεῖραι μᾶλλον ἢ οὐ τοὺς αἰτίους.

[ back ] 51. Ober 1998:101.

[ back ] 52. Ober 1998:102.

[ back ] 53. Karakantza 2011a:27.

[ back ] 54. “The instituting society is the social imaginary in the radical sense,” Castoriadis 1997b:269.

[ back ] 55. Castoriadis 1995:202–203.

[ back ] 56. I condense here the argument of Adeimantus in the fierce debate between himself, Eurybiades, and Themistocles in relation to the location of the naval battle. The Greek text (Herodotus Histories 8.61.1-6) runs as follows: Ταῦτα λέγοντος Θεμιστοκλέος αὖτις ὁ Κορίνθιος Ἀδείμαντος ἐπεφέρετο, σιγᾶν τε κελεύων τῷ μὴ ἔστι πατρὶς καὶ Εὐρυβιάδην οὐκ ἐῶν ἐπιψηφίζειν ἀπόλι ἀνδρί· πόλιν γὰρ τὸν Θεμιστοκλέα παρεχόμενον οὕτω ἐκέλευε γνώμας συμβάλλεσθαι. Ταῦτα δέ οἱ προέφερε, ὅτι ἡλώκεσάν τε καὶ κατείχοντο αἱ Ἀθῆναι (“During his speech Themistocles was again attacked by the Corinthian Adeimantus, who told him to hold his tongue because he was a man without a country, and tried to prevent Eurybiades from putting any question to the vote at the instance of a mere refugee. Let Themistocles, he cried, provide himself with a country before he offered his advice. The point of the jibe was, of course, the fact that Athens had fallen and was in Persian hands”; trans. de Sélincourt/Burn).

[ back ] 57. Herodotus Histories 8.61–62.