Sophocles’ Ode to Man
This chorus, my favorite in Antigone, is sung after the Theban king unjustly threatens a messenger with unwelcome news:
Many a wonder lives and moves, but the wonder of all is man,
That courses over the gray ocean, carried of southern gale,
Faring amidst high-swelling seas that rudely surge around,
And Earth, supreme of mighty Gods, eldest, imperishable,
Eternal, he with patient furrow wears and wears away
As year by year the plough-shares turn and turn—
Wonderful man! The thinker and innovator, solving problems for good and for evil. I share Sophocles’ optimism and his appreciation of technological innovation.
His marvels were the triremes, the ploughs, and the laws and walls of the city. Don’t fear the wild animals, the rain, and the winter! Now we worry that our deep nets will extinguish the “sea-born millions of the deep,” and we have moved on to marvel at our machines: computers, spaceships, and automobiles. As before, we know technology can be used for evil.
While we now know Earth was not the “eldest of the gods,” humanity can still be called the “wonder of all”—as best we know, we are the most complex and interesting bundles of atoms in the universe. Likewise, we know that we will die; if not soon, then when the universe does.
Athens had defeated the Persian empire, and their empire was steadily growing, when Antigone was written. How much was his optimism tied to the success of his state?
Why did Sophocles include this Chorus, and why is it located where it is in the play? Is it ironic?
The translation is modernized from “The Seven Plays in English Verse” by Lewis Campbell.