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Every once in a while, something happens here that really takes me aback, and the responses to yesterday’s blog are the kind of thing that does it.

Everybody who wrote in with a comment did the same thing–returned to the conception of the problem in Antigone as one of “good” vs “evil” and “right” vs “wrong.”

But MacIntyre’s entire point is that this is NOT what is going on for Sophocles.

For Sophocles, Creon is right to do what he does


Antigone is ALSO right to do what she does.

Antigone does not do what she does because Creon is wrong, or to protest Creon’s tyranny.

Antigone does what she does because that is what she must do as a sister.

The moral rightness of her actions are defined by her ROLE.

In the same way, Creon does what he does because that is what he must do as king.

The moral rightness of his actions are defined by his ROLE.

Both Antigone and Creon do the morally right thing. 

When morality is defined by roles and not by autonomous individuals, it is possible for two people to BOTH be morally right in what they do and yet to be in conflict.

You all gave exactly the kind of modern reading to Antigone that McIntyre was warning against.

If you think about it, this understanding of a way of approaching morality explains a couple of things I’ve always had trouble with.

The first is the abundance of what I would call “double standards” in the classical through Medieal periods.

In a post-Enlightenment world of autonomous individuals, we assume that, as the saying goes, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.  Therefore if men are to be indulged in screwing around outside marriage, women should be too–what is okay for the man must be okay for the woman, and what is condemned in the woman must be condemned in the man.

But in a moral universe where what is morally right is determined by how well any individual person fulfills a role, this would not be the case.  It would not even be intelligible.

For much of the Middle Ages, moral worth was determined by roles, not by individual behavior–hell, that’s probably been the case through much of human history.

Therefore, for Mary to be morally good, we have to ask what she is–a mother?  a daughter?  a wife?  a queen? 

Each of those roles have different requirements, and Mary can only be called morally good if she fulfills those requirements.

She is not a barber, so if she fulfills the role of barber it is not to her credit–and if she fulfills the role of barber to the exclusion of her ability to fulfil her real roles, then she will be “morally evil” for doing what an actual barber would be called “morally good” for doing.

I have no idea if I’m getting this across.  I thought I was, yesterday, but the comments didn’t disagree with the point so much as they just ignored it and behaved as if it hadn’t been said, so I’m not sure what’s going on.

It also explains a little why Aristotle made such a mess of the Poetics.

And he did make a mess of it.  When I first read that book–and it’s a very small book–in high school or so (no, not as part of the official curriculum), I imagined Sophocles reacting like all the other playwrights have acted when reading the critics ever since–by rolling his eyes and sighing.

Because although the Poetics is supposed to be basing its aesthetic theory on Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus, it is in fact a very bad account of that play. 

Aristotle’s explanation for the action was that Oedipus had a “fatal flaw,” something lacking in himself that drove him to his fate–but, in fact, although Oedipus has indeed got such a flaw (and maybe a few of them) what drives him to his fate is…fate.

Oedipus’s assigned role on this earth is to work out this particular fate.  If he accepts it, he will meet it.  If he fights against it, he will still meet it.  He has no choice, and there is no solution to his dilemma.


Oedipus did nothing to deserve his fate, and his father–his real father, the one he kills eventually–did nothing wrong in putting him out to die as an infant.  In fact, it’s exactly what the old king should have done under the circumstances.

Nor is Oedipus wrong to react the way he does when he hears that the murderer of the old king is known.  In fact, had he acted in any other way, he would have committed a moral wrong.  His declared punishment of the wrongdoer is right and just.  It is right and just even though the wrongdoer turns out to be himself.

For Sophocles, the moral rightness or wrongness of any act was in whether or not the person committing it was fulfilling the duties of his assigned role, NOT in whether or not the act itself was intrinsically good or evil on some abstract measure.

For what it’s worth, Aristotle was almost as uncomfortable about this idea of morality as we are.

I say almost, because Aristotle solved the problem mostly by simply denying that people in certain roles could actually be moral at all.

Therefore, the moral person was a free man in a free state with enough means at his disposal to meet the requirement of magnanimity and generosity, and to be free of the burdens of chasing after money to secure his sustenance.

And yes, under this definition, both Aristotle and his teachers, Plato and Socrates, would have found themselves unqualified to aspire to living the life of a good man.

But my point here, I think, is that even Aristotle had to acknowledge the importance of roles to moral standing.  He could not deny what he saw around him, which was that we do not call a wife “good” for doing the same things a warrior does, or vice versa.

We, of course, do not accept this at all, because we do not accept the idea that people are what their roles make them.  We see ourselves, and have seen ourselves since the late Renaissance, as free and autonomous individuals for whom roles are like clothing.  “I’m going to put on my chef’s hat,” we say, when we settle down to cook after a long day working as an accountant. 

For Sophocles, for Aristotle, even for Aquinas, a role was not something you could take on or off.  You belonged to it–it defined who you were, and what was required of you to be good. 

Therefore, it was possible to identify and codify an objective moral code for human beings, because all you were doing was listing the requirements of the roles.

Which is not the same thing as saying that nobody ever legitimately got to change their role–but that’s for a future day, and I want to go listen to some music.

P.S.  I don’t remember who posted the comment, but I knew, even when I was writing those posts, that Sowell was NOT talking about the broad standard definition of “intellectual” when he was using the word “intellectual.”

And that was my problem with him–I’ve read the book by now, and I know what he’s going for, but the man or woman on the street is just going to go, “Hmm.  Sowell. Conservative, isn’t he?  Well, there the conservatives go again, bashing smart people.”

That is the impression that kind of thing gives, and that impression turns off a lot of people who might otherwise vote Republican and/or be conservatives. 

It’s the Republican Party shooting itself in the foot, once again–no matter what Sowell ACTUALLY meant. 

I still say he should find a different word instead of misusing “intellectual.”

Written by janeh

March 7th, 2010 at 8:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Sometimes'

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  1. Jane, forgive me for sticking with the Sowell sidebar and not pursuing the main point of today’s post.

    You say: “That is the impression that kind of thing gives, and that impression turns off a lot of people who might otherwise vote Republican and/or be conservatives.

    It’s the Republican Party shooting itself in the foot, once again–no matter what Sowell ACTUALLY meant.

    I still say he should find a different word instead of misusing “intellectual.”

    Two things: Sowell is not talking about smart people. He’s talking about intelligent, even well-educated, but very stupid people who just happen to be members of the group covered by his very careful definition of the class he happens to call, for want of a better term, “intellectuals” or the “intelligentsia”. I’d say he uses that term because, for reasons discussed earlier by Robert and I, I think among others, there really is no more appropriate term.

    So far as I have read, he doesn’t accuse all intellectuals of being stupid. Quite the contrary. He is very careful to confine his criticism to the attitudes and behaviour of what is to him the problematic “sub-set” of the total “set” of intellectuals. Whether we agree with his views or not, it’s certainly not an argument against smart people, or even against leftists per se. It’s against people who use their highly specialised academic and intellectual qualifications as expert credentials to pursue their political agenda in areas well beyond their actual professional expertise, and their followers who blindly attribute to them special credibility. Chomsky and his claque are the classic examples.

    Once again, sorry for the diversion, but I know no other way to address this, to me, very interesting topic, short of private email which I’m sure you don’t need any more of.


    7 Mar 10 at 9:13 am

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