Sophocles and Suffering

Sophocles (495?-406 BCE)

One of the most difficult aspects of reality to comprehend is suffering or the related dichotomy of good and bad in human experience. Sophocles’ play Antigone is essentially about the First Noble Truth of Buddha. “[It] probes the nature of suffering, and finds in it a universal condition, one that exists at the very heart of the human experience.”[i]  Or as Buddha would say “life is suffering.”

Suffering is caused by Antigone’s belief that it is her moral responsibility to refuse the demands of the state when Creon the King orders her to leave the body of her brother Polynices unburied.

No rational being would deny the universality of suffering, but the crucial question is what does all this suffering mean? And of course, why do bad things happen to good people? “Sophocles did not share Aeschylus’ view that man learns by pain, or the Christian idea that we are purified by agony. Both opinions are ultimately optimistic because they are based on hope in some future vindication of our misery. In contrast, Sophocles faced the problem of pain without hope, as an essential fact of life that no one could escape. With this outlook he was keenly attuned to both the sadness and the tragedy inherent in living.”[ii]

Our challenge today is to learn from the insights of the great artists and philosophers but ultimately to transcend their limited understanding. They were all limited by P-B and struggled with the illusions inherent in that dysfunctional worldview. Buddha was correct in his observation that life entails suffering. However, that suffering is not effectively addressed by precepts such as The Eightfold Path any more than suffering today can be ameliorated by the Ten Commandments.

Aeschylus’ view that pain is a teacher has by now been effectively disproved by humanity’s continued suffering in the absence of any profound understanding of the nature of reality. We do not learn by suffering—although some individuals (such as Oscar Wilde, Chapter 19-Introduction) experience a shift in consciousness as a result of intense suffering—but that is not the result of a “learning process.” The Christian viewpoint that we are purified by suffering is little more than a political ploy to keep control of the believers by keeping them in a dependent adolescent ego-state. Suffering cannot be escaped in the future because there is no future—at least not the one imagined by the religious or philosophical escapist.

The only way to deal with universal suffering is to embrace it. In that way we are being realistic and most importantly we are being effective. By shifting paradigm and realizing that we live in a friendly Universe, we come into the present moment, a state of awareness beyond afflictive emotions. Afflictive emotions are, after all, the source of our suffering. By not reacting or resisting our experience of reality we live in a transcendent relationship to it. Pain is embraced as a normal aspect of a valid and wonderful life contained in a perfect Universe. We come into the realization that all of our experience of life is necessary to make it the complete experience of the good, the true and the beautiful.

Sophocles and Suffering

[i]     Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper, 1989, page 45.

[ii]     Ibid.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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