The Wonder and Horror of Man: Homer, Sophocles and Shakespeare

Is it possible for a classicist–much less a Homerist–to travel far from home without thinking about the Odyssey? As I prepare to journey back to the states while contemplating the horrors of violence throughout the world and the man-made catastrophe brewing in Greece (whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the episode is of our own making, and the human suffering completely avoidable), I find myself returning to some passages we posted a year ago.

Homer, Odyssey 18.130-5

“The earth raises up nothing feebler than man—
[of all the things that creep and breathe over the earth]
For we think that we will never suffer evil tomorrow
As long as the gods give us excellence and our limbs are quick.
But when the gods carry out painful things too,
We endure them unwillingly with a tormented heart.”

οὐδὲν ἀκιδνότερον γαῖα τρέφει ἀνθρώποιο
[πάντων, ὅσσα τε γαῖαν ἔπι πνείει τε καὶ ἕρπει.]
οὐ μὲν γάρ ποτέ φησι κακὸν πείσεσθαι ὀπίσσω,
ὄφρ’ ἀρετὴν παρέχωσι θεοὶ καὶ γούνατ’ ὀρώρῃ·
ἀλλ’ ὅτε δὴ καὶ λυγρὰ θεοὶ μάκαρες τελέωσι,
καὶ τὰ φέρει ἀεκαζόμενος τετληότι θυμῷ.

Uplifting? Yes. And it made me think of the famous “Ode to Man” from Sophocles’ Antigone (332-41):

There are many wonders and none
is more surprising than humanity.
This thing that crosses the sea
as it whorls under a stormy wind
finding a path on enveloping waves.
It wears down imperishable Earth, too,
the oldest of the gods, a tireless deity,
as the plows trace lives from year to year
drawn by the race of horses….

?Ο. Πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀν-
θρώπου δεινότερον πέλει·
τοῦτο καὶ πολιοῦ πέραν
πόντου χειμερίῳ νότῳ
χωρεῖ, περιβρυχίοισιν
περῶν ὑπ’ οἴδμασιν, θεῶν
τε τὰν ὑπερτάταν, Γᾶν
ἄφθιτον, ἀκαμάταν, ἀποτρύεται,
ἰλλομένων ἀρότρων ἔτος εἰς ἔτος,
ἱππείῳ γένει πολεύων.

(It keeps going… Go here for the full text).  This, of course, I cannot consider without thinking of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (2.2.303-12):

“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.”

And this led me to listen to the musical ‘version’ from Hair, the sweetness of the song makes the bitter lesson a bit easier to swallow:

Aeschylus, Eumenides: Some Highlights on Man, Mortality and Law



“Mankind’s delusions so sacred under the sky

Shrink as they melt on the earth without honor.”


—       δόξαι δ’ ἀνδρῶν καὶ μάλ’ ὑπ’ αἰθέρι σεμναὶ

τακόμεναι κατὰ γᾶς μινύθουσιν ἄτιμοι



“This affair is greater than anyone who is mortal can judge”


Αθ.       τὸ πρᾶγμα μεῖζον ἤ τις οἴεται τόδε

βροτοῖς δικάζειν·




“Choose neither the anarchic life nor one of despotism.

God gives strength to the middle in all things.”


μήτ’ ἄναρκτον βίον

μήτε δεσποτούμενον


παντὶ μέσῳ τὸ κράτος θεὸς ὤπασεν


644-651: Apollo on Mortal Life


“After the dust has soaked up the blood

Of a dying man, there is no resurrection.

My father can’t cast a spell on this

But all other things he can turn back and forth

Without losing his breath at all.”


ἀνδρὸς δ’ ἐπειδὰν αἷμ’ ἀνασπάσῃ κόνις

ἅπαξ θανόντος, οὔτις ἔστ’ ἀνάστασις.

τούτων ἐπῳδὰς οὐκ ἐποίησεν πατὴρ

οὑμός, τὰ δ’ ἄλλα πάντ’ ἄνω τε καὶ κάτω

στρέφων τίθησιν οὐδὲν ἀσθμαίνων μένει.



696-7: Athena on the right government


“I counsel the citizens here to revere

Neither anarchy nor despotism

And never to cast fear out of this city.”


τὸ μήτ’ ἄναρχον μήτε δεσποτούμενον

ἀστοῖς περιστέλλουσι βουλεύω σέβειν,

καὶ μὴ τὸ δεινὸν πᾶν πόλεως ἔξω βαλεῖν.



704-706: Athena on the establishment of Trial by Jury


“This court must be established free of personal gain,

Revered, sharp-hearted, a wakeful guard I set over the land

For the sleeping people.”


κερδῶν ἄθικτον τοῦτο βουλευτήριον,

αἰδοῖον, ὀξύθυμον, εὑδόντων ὕπερ

ἐγρηγορὸς φρούρημα γῆς καθίσταμαι.

Iophon, Fr. 2

“Even though I am only a woman, I know this too:
the more anyone seeks to understand the affairs of the gods
the less he knows.”

ἐπίσταμαι δὲ καὶ τάδ’ οὖσά περ γυνή,
ὡς μᾶλλον ὅστις εἰδέναι τὰ τῶν θεῶν
ζητεῖ, τοσούτῳ μᾶλλον ἧσσον εἴσεται

Iophon who? The son of a certain Sophocles. Yes, the Sophocles.