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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—

Subduing her unwearied strength with children of the steed.

And wound in woven coils of nets he seizes for his prey

The airy tribe of birds and wilding armies of the chase,

And sea-born millions of the deep—man is so crafty-wise.

And now with engine of his wit he tames to his will

The mountain-ranging beast whose lair is in the country wild;

And now his yoke has passed upon the mane

Of horse with proudly crested neck and tireless mountain bull.

Wise utterance and wind-swift thought, and city-molding mind,

And shelter from the clear-eyed power of biting frost,

He has taught him, and to shun the sharp, roof-penetrating rain—

Full of resource, without device he meets no coming time;

From Death alone he shall not find reprieve;

No league may gain him that relief; but even for fell disease,

That long hath baffled wisest leech, he hath contrived a cure.

Inventive beyond wildest hope, endowed with boundless skill,

One while he moves toward evil, and one while toward good,

According as he loves his land and fears the gods above.

Weaving the laws into his life and steadfast oath of Heaven,

High in the State he moves but outcast he,

Who hugs dishonor to his heart and follows paths of crime

Ne’er may he come beneath my roof, nor think like thoughts with me.

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.