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Evaluation of Sophoclean Plays From the Objectivist Perspective to Evaluate Tragic Inspiration
“The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.” (“Atlas”) asserts Ayn Rand, the creator of the objectivist philosophy. Antigone and Oedipus Rex by Sophocles are some of the greatest and well known plays in the history of theatre. These original tragedies are still as powerful today, in the foreign present, as they were in ancient Greece because the values that unite humanity and the causes of our suffering have gone much unchanged. So what can Rand’s statement add to the understanding of two great tragedies, the very nature of which makes the audience emphasize with suffering and confronts them with death? The objectivist position believes the true purpose of tragedies is to inspire in their audience a sense of optimism about humanity, that the success of the play is determined by the protagonist as an individual, a tragic hero who must be a great in ability, representative of the best in mankind but connected to the audience through the common nature of human suffering to act as a warning and motivation to achieve.
The tragic hero is “…all mankind: representative of all humanity in embodying some fundamental, persistent aspect of man’s nature… human passions and power of human reason; and in showing in his suffering and his knowledge the necessary common ground with his fellow creatures…” (Krook 367) His purpose in the tragedy is to replace the common and base observations of mankind; Rand warns “…do not let your vision of man be distorted by the ugly, the cowardly, the mindless…” (“Atlas”) The tragic hero prevents this fate by exemplifying all that man should and could be, and by connecting to his audience lets them know “The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.”(Rand “Atlas”)The tragic hero is supposed to be a great figure on the landscape of humanity that inspires, his/her suffering used as a tool only to connect the audience the idea that their humanity is an awesome responsibility. When evaluated from the Objectivist perspective, that tragedies are works of art meant to inspire the best in humanity, new meaning can be found in Sophocles’ plays Antigone and Oedipus Rex.
The objectivist perspective is derived from the philosophy created by Ayn Rand and uses the same principles to evaluate literary works and their characters as it does reality. “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” (Rand “Atlas”) The metaphysical beliefs of objectivism are that reality exists and it is the task of man’s conscious effort to interpret it but not create nor invent it. Reality exists outside of man’s consciousness and doesn’t change or stop existing just because he stops thinking about it. The epistemology is that only reason can be used to acquire knowledge, for objectivism completely rejects the notion of mysticism, knowledge from the divine, and skepticism, that one cannot know. Emotional and intuitional knowledge are mere reflections of actual knowledge, quick barometers that judge events and actions that are not preset biologically but consciously determined by one’s values. Most importantly objectivism believes in the nature of mankind as heroic and that all men are ends in themselves and are capable of extraordinary achievements through unrestrained ability. Men must survive through the volition of their own consciousness, which requires freedom from tyranny, for no man can think for another, and this imparts in him the self efficacy of mastering his environment and the idea that he is not a tool for others or the victim of his environment, fate or the gods. The ethics of objectivism are rational self interest. Men must use their minds to determine what is good for them and how to obtain it without violating the rights of others. To always act in one’s self interest means to seek happiness and never sacrifice one’s values. Man is not bound by society’s claim upon him, and all though not infallible in knowledge, must aspire to be infallible in integrity. He must never stop thinking, burdening the responsibility of his existence on others, who should not accept it. The aesthetics of objectivism assert that art is a reflection of one’s metaphysical views and values. Art should portray how man and the world should be. Rand herself believed in romantic realism, ideal people to be looked up to in realistic settings.
This makes objectivism an excellent perspective to evaluate and analyze tragedies. The tragic hero is a heroic being, a pinnacle on the human landscape, someone of great ability and represents the best in man and the best about human nature. This is the exact setting of romantic realism described by Rand; a person of awesome nature stands in contrast to a common setting, allowing the audiences to experience the great. Gaining knowledge of reality is a central tenet of objectivism and the passage from ignorance to knowledge is an essential part of every great tragedy. Another essential item to the tragic hero’s downfall is his self determination of his own fate. It is not enough to have a bad thing happen to a person that is virtually beyond their control or fated to happen, it is the man’s self infliction of his wound that pains the audience’s sympathies. Objectivism champions self determination of fate and even allows for errors in judgment, although not in integrity, a man who is simply mistaken (providing he corrects himself) is not evil, but a man who breaks his integrity has committed an evil act.
Antigone is especially interesting to look at as a tragedy. It has two protagonists with which the audience may sympathize with. This duality of egos allows for an in-depth glance into the heroes of the play. It is also relies heavily on theistic themes, this proves particularly challenging in the evaluation of the characters, as objectivism is a strictly atheistic philosophy and interpreting individuals while gods play an active role can prove difficult.
Antigone the tragic heroine is an interesting mix of characters. She is a duality of what objectivism champions and what is despises. On one hand she possesses a strong will, firm base of morals, great integrity and self confidence. Antigone’s main role in the play, burying Polyneices’ body, pits the two heroes against one another and is the cause of all the suffering of the play. As such it is important to understand why Antigone decided to provide rites to Polyneices. One reason for her adamantine stance on burying Polyneices is because it was custom that the women of the family to bury and provide rites to the dead. However even her sister Ismene is not persuaded by this line of reason “I, for one, will beg the dead to forgive me…It’s madness, madness” (77-81 Fagles “Antigone”). A true individual is not bound by collective motivations of tradition; they make their own way so tradition alone should not force Antigone’s hand. Another possibility is Antigone desires to spite Creon; in their arguments she appears to hold a particular dislike for Creon and it is possible that burying Polyneices was intended to antagonize him. This makes her no more of a heroine because performing an action to inflict pain on others is profoundly selfless; a selfless person is not an individual.
Antigone claims that it is the gods will that Polyneices be buried, however as mentioned before, an individual does not act on any judgment save their own. It is not good enough that the gods have decreed it, the hero must agree rationally and morally with the action. The true irony here is that Antigone is presupposing the will of gods, beings who very definition is that they are beyond men’s’ ability to comprehend. Claiming to know the will of the gods violates another rule of the gods, hubris of knowledge. Even more contradictory is how Antigone agrees that enemies of the state should not be buried in her opening lines, “The doom reserved for enemies marches on the ones we love the most.” (12-13 Fagles “Antigone”) As a matter of justice, Antigone decries that Eteocles was buried properly and that it is not just that Polyneices is left to rot when Polyneices is a traitor to the state (the same argument can be made for Eteocles as well). It seems Antigone’s statement in the opening of the play is most revealing in describing her motivation; “…how many griefs our father handed down…There’s nothing, no pain-our lives are pain-no private shame, no public disgrace, nothing I haven’t seen in your griefs and mine.”(2-8 Fagles “Antigone”) Antigone believes that because she is the daughter of Oedipus she is doomed to a life of pain and misery and because of this it is preferable to die a death of glory than continue living. This is the antithesis of a martyr. “It is not death that we wish to avoid, but life that we wish to live.”(Rand) Her assumption that sins of the family are inherited destroys the concept of the individual and mocks justice. Antigone does not value living more than avoiding death, the true signs of a martyr; she values dying more than trying to live. Antigone makes a poor tragic figure because she picks a fight she intends to lose so she can stop suffering. Antigone is not an individual and therefore she cannot be a pinnacle on the landscape of humanity, more of a flat plateau rounded down to the lowest mean; saying you are wretched because someone you have no control of is wretched and related to you is a travesty.
While the argument can be made that Antigone is a tragic hero, she was simply mistaken in her self-righteousness. What is important is her strong spirit that moves the audience. Her steadfast belief of what is right even while threatened reveals a person of great integrity and courage that does inspire the audience to optimism of mankind. However, when reevaluated in the light of this quote from The Fountainhead “To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. That’s what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul-would you understand why that’s much harder?”(Rand “Fountainhead”) Antigone’s action becomes much less noble. Antigone continually discards her ego; simply repeating her stance without thinking of the consequences it has on others and most importantly herself. She exclaims “Give me glory! What greater glory could I win than to give my own brother a decent burial?”(561-562 Fagles “Antigone”) putting her brother’s burial above herself and trading her life for other peoples approval. Antigone also mentions several times her vision of joining the dead and being vindicated by the deathless gods when a true individual would be “…concerned with this life and no other”. (Rand “Atlas”)She finally manages to antagonize Creon enough that he will show her no mercy. When his sentence falls with severe finality she drops her abhorrent pretense that she welcomes death and laments the fact that she will have “…no wedding song…I am agony! No tears for the destiny that’s mine, no loved one mourns my death.” (964-968 Fagles “Antigone) She does not recognize her own role in her fate, claiming it was destiny that was responsible for this misery and realizes that her burying and mourning of Polyneices body will prevent her body form being buried properly and mourned and that she will not join the deathless gods down below. It also prevents her marriage to Haemon, which she values or she would not lament her loss of it, punishing both her and Haemon by depriving them both of the happiness that could have been. Antigone’s sacrifice of all she values in her life, a life she views as misery stricken, in order to uphold a deed she had poor and selfless motives for reveals a person with limited range of thought on the path of self destruction. This is supported when Antigone kills herself after being imprisoned in a tomb and provided with temporary provisions. If Antigone truly believed the gods would save or vindicate her, she would have waited; if she valued her life she would have waited as long as possible before killing herself and attempted to escape. However there are no signs of escape presented in the book: Antigone kills herself almost immediately after being imprisoned showing either lack of conviction in what she fought for, which begs the question of why she performed it in the first case, or that she simply wanted a means to kill herself to save her from what she found to be the terror in living. “And if I am to die before my time I consider that a gain. Who on earth alive in the midst of so much grief as I, could fail to find his death a rich reward?” (516-519 Fagles “Antigone”)
When considered as a tragic hero, Creon’s recent inheritance of kingship must be recognized. He never had to earn the crown and in fact he mentions in Oedipus Rex (written after Antigone) that he wouldn’t want the crown if it were to be offered to him. Now that he is King of Thebes, Creon feels that he must legitimize his position and he asserts his authority by acting tyrannical as king. There are numerous reports, from both Antigone and Creon’s own son, Haemon, suggesting Creon’s dictatorial nature.Now that the war is over, Creon should be focused on making peace, allowing bodies to be buried and revoking martial law, but instead he enacts it.
“Did you really think we want those laws observed?” said Dr. Ferris. “We want them to be broken. You’d better get it straight… We’re after power and we mean it… There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt.” (Rand “Atlas”)
These words by Dr. Ferris correlate strongly to the rule of Creon as the King of Thebes, specifically his decree that the citizenry of Thebes shall not bury or mourn the death of Polyneices. Creon’s decree, the source of conflict between himself and Antigone is wrought with misfortune and is the mistake of his career and life. Using it to assert his newly gained power, he made a trivial non-issue into a matter of life and death and lost. This decree was made to assert his rule, and not out of a fundamental concern for justice as Creon claims. Creon argues “…how can you render his [Eteocles] enemy such honors…never the same for the patriot and the traitor” (576-585 Fagles “Antigone”). This argument is a good, however, both Eteocles and Polyneices were traitors to the city-state of Thebes and Creon’s lack of concern of the injustice of Eteocles seizing the crown rules out any concern with justice he could have now. As for not burying Polyneices, that is a perfectly acceptable choice on behalf of Creon. If Creon held no particular fondness of the boy, he should not be forced to bury him under the guise of convention; “Everyone has the right to make his own decision/s, but none has the right to force his decision on others.” (Rand “Virtue”) However, preventing others from burying Polyneices contradicts this individuality and freedom that Creon only reserves for himself. When this is brought to light by Antigone’s testimony Creon reacts in a contradictory fashion. He both simultaneously claims to be protecting the state and to be the state when Haemon charges “It’s no city at all, owned by one man alone.” (824 Fagles “Antigone”) to which Creon replies “What? The city is the king’s-that’s the law!”(825 Fagles “Antigone”) His initial claim that he is protecting the city-state is in response to Antigone’s charge that she bears the will of the gods. However, Antigone mentions “These citizens here would all agree [to giving Polyneices a proper burial]… if their lips weren’t locked in fear.” (563-565 Fagles “Antigone”) and even Haemon, in a plea to his father, remarks “The man in the street…dreads your glance, he’d never say anything displeasing to your face.” (773-774 Fagles “Antigone”). Seeing that his laws have brought fear and displeasure into the streets he recomposes the argument that it is up to him to decide the law regardless of its impact on the city. This is an example of an evasion tactic taken to the extreme. Creon, having realized that he is wrong, cannot bear to lose face to a woman or to his son. Instead of pursuing the truth, Creon seeks to preserve his pride and to spite Antigone. He destroys his integrity by refusing, which takes volition, to see and act upon the truth because he doesn’t want to hurt his pride, if one can be proud of an error. Creon’s steadfastness on this issue causes it to be his tragic error in judgment.
“Money! Nothing worse in our lives, so current, rampant, so corrupting. Money-you demolish cities, root men from their homes, you train and twist good minds and set them on to the most atrocious schemes. No limit, you make them adept at every outrage, every godless crime-money!” (335-341 Fagles “Antigone”)
This foreshadows Creon’s coming to character as a petty and emotional individual, whose feelings cloud his rationality and invigorate him with a false sense of pride that cause him to bring pain to so many. “…money demands of you the highest virtues… Men who have no courage, pride or self-esteem, men who have no moral sense of their right…are not willing to defend it [money]…” (Rand “Atlas”) Creon’s resentment of money speaks volumes about his character. His argument with Antigone becomes a farce as both sides abandon reason: Antigone argues from mysticism, divine knowledge and Creon arguing from emotion and intuition to avoid recognizing the truth. Only Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancée argues from reason, and recognizes its importance “…reason, the finest of all their gifts, a treasure.” (765 Fagles “Antigone”) and in a spectacularly tactful manner. Even the citizenry of Thebes agrees that Haemon is making sense when Leader states “You’d do well my lord, if he’s speaking to the point, to learn from him…” (810-811 Fagles “Antigone”) Creon’s vehement refusal to consider the ideas of anyone below him in station causes him to alienate his son and doom him, magnifying the suffering upon himself. “Money is your means of survival. The verdict you pronounce upon the source of your livelihood is the verdict you pronounce upon your life. If the source (money) is corrupt, you have damned your own existence…” (Rand “Atlas”) Creon’s disregard for reason is also seen in his tyrannical rule of Thebes. He prefers the rule of fear to a rule of reason, “So long as men live together on earth and need means to deal with one another-their only substitute, if they abandon money, is the muzzle of a gun.” (Rand “Atlas”). Since he cannot lead his people through courage and leadership and reason he chooses marital law and fear, denying people from enjoying intact freedoms and invalidating them from acting upon their own initiative and reason, thusly squandering their very lives. “Man’s rights can be violated only by the use of physical force….one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment.” (Rand “Virtue”) This type of person does act to magnify suffering to the other characters in the play but does not inspire optimism in mankind but shows us the brutal and pettiness of an unthinking brute.
“Oh Oedipus, king of the land, our greatest power!” (16 Fagles Oedipus Rex) are the words an elderly citizen of Thebes uses to address Oedipus and they are not misplaced. Oedipus is a great individual, a true pinnacle on the human landscape. He uses his great intellectual prowess to save his people from the plague, using reason to unravel the mystery of the illness sweeping the city. “Degrees of ability vary, but the basic principle remains the same: the degree of a man’s independence, initiative and personal love for his work determines…his worth as a man.” (Rand “Fountainhead”) Oedipus was a man of great ability, but he was also independent, loved his people and wanted the best for them; he took initiative when confronted with the plague and sent for the Oracle of Delphi before his people requested action of him. Oedipus’ ability is recognized numerous times during the play, he is compared to a member of a skilled profession throughout the course of the play, including a ships’ captain, a healer and a farmer. He is a man of action, never hesitant or lackadaisical revealing a soul of courage that is relentless in his search for his truth. He is also a man of integrity, he sticks by his decree to execute or exile the murderer of Laius, and he did not hold himself exempt from his punishment. Oedipus consistently acts for his own self interest. Oedipus’ back story, known to the audience shows that he has long been a master of his fate. He would not lie down and die for Laius when pushed off the road; Oedipus was too proud of his own life and fought fiercely for the love of it. He never accepts his fate given by the oracle; he does not lie down to die, passively allow it to rule his life. Instead Oedipus takes responsibility of his life and actively tries to avoid his fate. Oedipus never lifts his own hand to harm himself, he lives up to all the ideals in mankind, he is a man of reason and integrity, who loves his life and holds it as his highest value. He is a man of great ability and self determination that inspires the very greatest optimism in mankind. His commoner background and his suffering lowers him from an unattainable idealization and brings his figure into one every person can strive for.
Oedipus in Oedipus Rex is the greater tragic hero and thusly the greater tragedy than Antigone and Creon in Antigone. Antigone is a tragic hero in the sense that she magnifies the suffering of those around her. She brings up strife and conflict and, like Creon, her mind is closed to reason, truth and everything save the will of the gods. She never manages to pass from ignorance to knowledge, as she dies before she can be vindicated. She does not inspire the best in humanity but serves as a warning of the dangers of fanaticism and discarding oneself for “noble” ideals. Antigone, while self determined and never lying about her actions is not as great a tragic hero. She is a not a pinnacle but rather a low plateau because her motivations and ideas are not from herself, but a mixture of fate, the gods, tradition and her family’s sins and she causes her own suffering with an air of irresponsibility that endangers the happiness and life of others. Antigone shows up the flailing of a desperate suicidal looking for a flare of nobility to give meaning to her life more than she could by living. Oedipus shows us man at his ideal, a true pinnacle on the human landscape and still manages to act as a lightning rod of suffering for himself and those around him but only because of his ability and discovery of the truth. Oedipus’s suffering lets the audiences know he is human and allows for optimism in their perception of mankind. When by comparison it Creon acts pettily and emotionally and works to assert his power and control by fear; he demands power and prestige to replace his inability to earn pride in himself. He rejects money believing it to be a corrupting unit, showing that he is against justice, independence and reason. He plants himself firmly in ignorance even after he has passed into knowledge and this magnifies the suffering he will experience later when he is forced to acknowledge the truth Creon and Antigone are not pinnacles on the human landscape, they act in the short term and cause many of their misfortunes from ignorance. In contrast Oedipus is only wretched in his discovery, ignorance to knowledge, of the fate he actively tried to avoid, but wouldn’t sacrifice the idea of the truth over indolence and ignorance. Antigone and Creon are good at magnifying the suffering to themselves and others, but do so by being base and poor figures on the human landscape and do not inspire optimism.
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