Bernard Knox - Essays Ancient And Modern

Study Guide to Bernard Knox's Introductions to Sophocles' Oedipus the King

This Study Guide is directed to Bernard Knox's introductory essays to Robert Fagles'  translation of the play (in the Penguin paperback edition entitled "Sophocles, The Theban Plays".  There are two:

(1) "Greece and the Theater" (pp. 13-30), and 

(2) The Introduction specifically to Oedipus the King (pp. 131-153).

Questions on Bernard Knox's essay "Greece and the Theater"

It would be well to read this essay before you undertake to read Sophocles' play, as it provides very useful context for understanding the context of Greek theater in general, and of Sophocles' Theban plays in particular.

  1. What does Knox see as important about the geography of Greece?  How does this bear upon the subject of ancient Greek (specifically, Athenian) theater?

  2. What happened after the repulsion (in 480 BCE) of the Persian attempt to subsume Greece that had the effect of fostering the Dionysian festival at Athens?  (Question to keep in mind as you read further in Knox:  how did the aftermath of this victory contribute to the war with Sparta that ultimately ended in Athens' disastrous defeat in 405 BCE?)

  3. What features of the religious cult of Dionysus may have contributed to the development of theater?

  4. Why did the actors wear masks, and how did this affect the way in which the plays had to convey emotions to the audience?

  5. What was the function of the Chorus in Greek drama?

  6. How did characteristic features of Athenian political life affect the way in which theater was conducted in Athens?

  7. Why was the fact that audiences were already familiar with the subject matter of the plays an enhancement of their effect rather than a detraction from it?

  8. The subjects of tragedies were taken from the ancient past, as Athenians understood this to have been.  Yet the plays managed, through this deflection, to engage contemporary social and political issues.  How, according to Knox, was this paradox possible?

  9. What features of Sophocles the man are attested by the material that has come down to us about him outside of the seven of his plays that have come down to us intact?

  10. You'll want to familiarize yourself with the history Knox gives, in summary form, of "the Theban saga."  You won't be responsible for remembering all of this, but it is important (why?) to keep in mind, while reading Oedipus the King, that the Athenian audiences at the Festival of Dionysus were already familiar with this material before any of the dramas based on it were presented to them.

    1. What would be the order of the plays if they were to be presented in the order in which their events were understood to have transpired in the overall Theban saga?

    2. What is the order in which they were composed by Sophocles?

    3. Why does Knox think it is better to take them up in the order in which they were composed, rather than according to the chronology of their stories?  (Note that he classifies his reasons as "negative reasons" and "positive reasons.")

Questions on Bernard Knox's Introduction to Robert Fagles' translation of Oedipus the King

You would do well to divide your reading of Knox's Introduction here into two phases.

Read the first third of his essay (p. 131 up through the second paragraph on p. 138) before you undertake the reading of the play.

  1. What is Freud's objection to the thesis that Oedipus the King is a "tragedy of destiny" or fate?  What evidence does he put forward for his claim?

  2. What alternative explanation of the play's perennial power to move audiences does he propose?

  3. What does argument does Knox propose against Freud's explanation?

  4. Knox also points out that Sophocles play has served as "the model for a modern drama that presents to us, using the ancient figures, our own terror of the unknown future which we fear we cannot control -- our deep fear that every step we take forward on what we think is the road of progress may really be a step toward a foreordained rendezvous with disaster."  (His exemplar of this drama is the French playwright Jean Cocteau's Machine Infernale.)

    1. If you've read Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, can you see how this novel might be placed within this modernist tradition?

    2. What do you take to be Knox's view as to whether or not this picture of the human situation represents the theme of Sophocles' play? 

  5. What, according to Knox, is the gist of the play in the interpretation of the critic Francis Fergusson?

    1. What does Knox acknowledge as valuable in such an interpretation?

    2. What does he find inadequate about it?

      • Keep in mind Knox's description of the play (p. 134) as devoid of supernatural events and "relentlessly secular."  As you read the play, does this description hold up?  

      • You'll want to return to this passage of the essay, and consider fairly the qualification Knox makes in the phrase "given the mythical situation."  Does this concession give away too much, or is it consistent with his overall point? 

      • Is the distinction on which the final sentence of the last full paragraph on p. 134 turns a logically solid one, or does it strike you as a false dilemma?  Explain. 

  6. A central thesis in this introductory essay as a whole is that the action of the play "reflects, at every point, contemporary realities familiar to the audience that first saw the play."

    1. Can you see how this thesis bears on the reason Knox gives, in his general essay "Greece and the Theater," for not presenting Sophocles' Theban plays in the order in which their events occurred in the overall Theban saga on which they are based?

    2. There are three major sub-theses in Knox's case for this claim.

      1. The first concerns the then-burning issue about prophecy.

        • What was this controversy?  (Can you state it succinctly in the form of "whether X or Y"?)

        • What deeper issues was it tied up with?  (That is:  what of fundamental importance was at stake in it?)

        • Is prophecy a live issue with Americans today?  What about the issues it was tied up with, for Athenians:  are any of these of importance for Americans today, or are they (say) long-settled?

      2. The second concerns the suffering of the inhabitants of the city of Thebes with which the play opens.

        • What is the connection Knox figures Sophocles' initial audience would make?

      3. The third concerns the characterization of Oedipus, who (according to Knox) "is easily recognizable as an epitome of the Athenian character as they themselves conceived it and as their enemies saw it too."

        • The traits that make up this character are the subject of Knox's focus in the middle third of his essay (pp. 138-142).  I suggest that you postpone getting into this part of the essay until after you have read the play at least once.

        • Still, you can be alert to this issue:  what might the play be designed to put before Athenians, about themselves?

  7. Are the matters that Knox points to here things that tend to make the play less relevant to modern readers?  That is:  are they, for us, chiefly of "only historical interest"?  Or can you see ways in which they might have to do with the play's perennial power to move audiences -- including audiences in our own day?

    • Consider that Knox is not unaware that this issue has crept onto the table.  But consider, too, that he may be challenging the reader to notice this, and to reflect seriously upon it as he considers the play in light of what he has said so far.

Read the final two-thirds of Knox's essay (p. 138-153) after you've read the play at least once.

  1. Start with the second paragraph (the first full paragraph) on p. 138 and read through p. 142.  

    • What are the distinct ways in which Knox argues that Oedipus "is easily recognizable as an epitome of the Athenian character as they themselves conceived it and as their enemies saw it too"?  

      • Can you reduce this section to a logically organized outline?

      • Which of the "typically Athenian traits" Knox attributes to Oedipus relate to issues connected with the contemporary controversy over prophecy?

  2. What is peripeteia (a concept emphasized by the philosopher Aristotle, in his thinking upon tragic drama)? 

    1. What are the instances of it that Knox emphasizes in his discussion of Oedipus the King?

    2. How does Knox connect it with his portrait of "fifth century man"?

    3. Why did Aristotle regard the peripeteia in Oedipus the King as especially effective?

    4. What is its role in bringing Knox to his discussion of the general theme of "free will and human freedom," to the discussion of which he now turns?

  3. What objection does Knox consider to the thesis that Sophocles' play is concerned with this theme?

    • What reply does he offer to this objection?

      • What role in his reply does his citation of the passage from Homer's Iliad play -- the passage in which Agamemnon tries to explain his behavior in depriving Achilles of his prize?

      • What is interesting about the way Greek philosophers centuries after Sophocles -- notably the Stoics (Chrysippus died in 206 BCE) -- pose the problem of freedom and fate?

      • What difference did the triumph of Christianity make in the treatment of this problem?

      • What attitude towards the problem of free will and determinism would you attribute to Milton, on the basis of the passage Knox cites from Paradise Lost (written in the last third of the 17th Century CE)?

  4. What do you see as the importance of Knox's claim, within his essay as a whole, of his claim (p. 145) that "to the ordinary man, now as in Sophocles' day, there is a problem in the coexistence of predictable pattern and free will, whether that pattern be thought of as divine providence, the will of history, or the influence of the stars"?

    • What kind of determinism is he referring to in the phrase "the influence of the stars"?  Would his point have been stronger if he had substituted (say) "the laws of biochemistry" for "the influence of the stars"?

    • Would "the tendency of history" (or "the march of history") be better than "the will of history"?  Is "the triumph of capitalism" a result of "the laws of history"?  How about "globalization":  is this something you are inclined to accept as "inexorable"?

  5. What are "the two obvious ways," in Knox's view, in which the "contradiction" between human freedom and determinism can be avoided?  Try to state them in your own words, on the basis of what Knox says about each.  (Cf. p. 146.)

    1. Is his conception of the polarity adequate?  

      1. For example:  is a universe of "pure chance" any more consistent with human freedom than a universe of complete pattern and order?

      2. Note that Knox is careful here to say "the two obvious ways" and not "the only two ways."  (What is the difference here?)  Later, though (p. 147 [cf. Question 6 below]) he seems to pass over to the stronger claim.  How so?

    2. Knox maintains that "[b]oth of these extremes are of course repugnant to the human spirit, and especially to that of the West, which is that of the Greeks"?  This sentence contains a multiplicity of claims.  Are you in agreement with each of these? --

      1. that both alternatives he has described are "repugnant to the human spirit"?

        • What explanation does he offer for his own sense of repugnance to these?  Is this explanation something you find yourself in agreement with?

        • Does the repugnance of the consequences of some thesis to the human spirit mean that that proposition is false?  (If I don't want to accept that I have cancer does that mean I don't have cancer?)  

          • Is Knox leaving open the question of whether one of these ways of avoiding the contradiction is true, but shifting attention (eventually) to ways in which people through the ages have avoided choosing between the alternatives (and thus taking a position on the truth of the matter)?

      2. that both alternatives are " [the spirit of the West]"?  (Is he excluding Augustine, Newton, Dalton, Darwin, and Marx from his conception of "the West"?)

      3. that "the spirit of the West" is "the spirit of the Greeks"?  (The Greeks he is referring to are pagans.)

    3. How does he use his summary of Anatole France's Penguin Island as a clincher for his argument that "as a logical proposition, the two concepts are irreconcilable"?

  6. Knox asserts (p. 147) that "[T]he only way to believe in the pattern and the freedom at once is not as a logical proposition but as a mystery" and that "the medium of exploration [of a mystery] is not philosophy but religion -- or art."

    1. What does it mean "to believe in a mystery"?  Is this akin to believing that there are such things as square triangles?  Or is it something else?

    2. What might Tertullian have meant by the remark attributed to him?

      1. The "central Christian mystery" Knox is referring to is the doctrine of the Trinity.

      2. Never heard of Tertullian?

      3. Did he really say credo quia absurdum, and if so, why?

      4. What clues in the local context of his remark does Knox afford as to what he has in mind by this "religious" mode of believing in a mystery?

    3.  Knox here (p. 147) appears to pose religion and art as alternative modes for "exploring a mystery."

      1. What might it be "to explore" a mystery?

      2. From his tone, would you say he holds one in higher regard than the other?  Does he hold them in equally high regard?  Equally low regard?

      3. Are they in principle incompatible, or could they be resorted to in collaboration with each other?  (Could art -- treatment "in poetic terms that transcend logic" [what that might mean we have yet to see] -- be employed to "to explore a mystery" that is being believed in the mode of religion?

  7. Why, according to Knox, is the attempt to hold this particular pair of irreconcilable concepts (freedom and necessity) a "particularly dangerous" task for drama?

    1. Why, in his view, must the will of a hero of a dramatic work be free?

    2. What else must be the case about the hero's will?  Why?

  8. How, in particular, does the play Oedipus the King manage to portray Oedipus as a free agent even though the fate prophesied for him is realized, despite (and indeed through) his attempts to avoid it?

    1. See the last full ¶ on p. 149. 

      • How is Oedipus' heroic achievement (as Knox sees this) connected with the traits of Oedipus that make him symbolic of "the fifth-century Athenian spirit"?

      • How does the consequence of this achievement, however, seem to be a mockery of human freedom?

        • Is Knox in agreement with those readers who have discovered some flaw in Oedipus' character that would justify the catastrophe his heroic achievement brings?

    2. See also the main ¶ on p. 150.

      • How does this expression of human freedom, in Knox's estimation, temper the impression that the play mocks human freedom?  

      • Do you find yourself in agreement with Knox here, or does he seem to be straining to make a case?  To decide this, you'll want to take into account the following:

        1. What motive does Knox attribute to Oedipus' decision in the act in question?

        2. How does this act, in his view, have "an impressive rightness"?

        3. Does Oedipus' behavior, between his return from the palace and his leaving the scene, in your view bear out Knox's description of him as having achieved "a new strength which sustains him in his misery and gives him the courage needed to go on living, though he is now an outcast, a man from whom his fellow-men recoil in horror"?

  9. "The play then is a tremendous reassertion of the traditional religious view that ___________."  Be sure you nail this down.

    1. Notice how Knox comes back around to his differences with Freud with which he opened his essay (pp. 131-133).

    2. It might also seem that he has come to the position that the play "avoids" the contradiction between freedom and necessity both as religion and as art.  But has he?

      1. Read carefully the rest of the paragraph (top of p. 153).  Does he seem to be saying that the play here "avoids" the contradiction, or that it appears to come down on the side of one of the alternatives?

      2. Now study carefully the final paragraph of the essay.  Does Knox end up taking back what he seemed to concede in the next-to-last paragraph?

        • What does he mean by "the element of Sophoclean sleight-of-hand"?  (How does this phrase clarify what Knox meant back on p. 147 when he referred to "express[ing] the contradiction in poetic terms that transcend logic"?  [Cf. Question 6.c.iii, above.] )

        • What does he see as "going beyond" this "sleight-of-hand"?

          • Is this also a part of "expressing the contradiction in poetic terms that transcend logic"?  Or does it, as formulated, strike you as consistent with logic?

            • If so, what becomes of what we tookto be Knox's claim back on pp. 145-147?  (See Questions 5.a.ii and 6.c.iii, above.)   There he appeared to say (here's a paraphrase) that there is no way that the normal human spirit can bear the consequences of affirming either way of avoiding the contradiction between freedom and necessity and that such a contradiction is inescapable if we remain within the bounds of logic.  

            • But here he seems to be describing the play as proposing, by more than sleight-of-hand, that a modicum of freedom is compatible with strong necessity, and that the assertion of this limited but essential freedom is sufficient to establish human dignity.

            • So:  is Knox contradicting himself in the course of his essay?  Or have we discovered that, earlier on, we must have misconstrued what he was actually saying?

  10. "[M]an's dedication to the search for truth...about perhaps the only human freedom, the play seems to say, but there could be none more noble."

    1. What is noble about this?

      • Suppose the truth to be discovered were a comforting one, and (moreover) to appear so in the search itself.  Would the search for it be noble?

    2. If the play says this, does it still speak to us?

      1. The play depends on the assertion that prophecy is valid, as proved in the legend about the House of Labdacids (embracing Laius, Oedipus, and the latter's children).  But do you believe in the historicity of this story?  Of course we accept it -- as Coleridge said, we "suspend disbelief" -- as we imaginatively enter into the world of the play.  But, in Knox's description of the play's resonance with its original audience, that audience must have been reluctant to suspend belief in the legend:  that is, it regarded it as history.  Suppose we regard it as merely a piece of our ancient ancestors' mythology?  Can the play finally have the religious force for us that Knox's reading of it helps us to imagine it did for Sophocles' fellow Athenians?

        • Is there some virtual equivalent, more available to our own belief, that we might take seriously of the prophecy machinery so integral to the play?  (Are there some kinds of "necessity" that you believe determine the conditions of our existence in arguably thoroughgoing ways?)

      2. Do you think we have more freedom than Sophocles invites his fellow Athenians to imagine they have?

        • For example:  do you think it makes no sense for Americans to attempt to influence the decisions of their governmental representatives in respect of foreign policy or domestic social policy?  Is our only freedom that of acquiring self-knowledge in our intellectual and collective capacities?  Or is that a misleading view of what Sophocles' theme, on Knox's interpretation, would (if true) entail?

      3. If Sophocles regarded human freedom as limited in the ways Oedipus' seems to be, what sense does there seem to be in his own willingness to participate in civic and military affairs as the evidence suggests he did?  (See Knox's "Greece and the Theater," pp. 25-27.)

        • Before you dismiss the idea that Sophocles could have held these beliefs and acted in these ways, without being less reflective than the author of such a play could be likely to be (an argument that the beliefs Knox attributes to him were not in fact his), give this question some careful thought.

  Return to the Index to Study Guides on Sophocles' Oedipus the King.

  Suggestions, comments and questions are welcome.  Please send them to .

      Contents copyright © 2002 by Lyman A. Baker. 

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

      This page last updated 24 September 2002.

Bernard Knox was one of the first British volunteers to join the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He continued the fight against fascism during the Second World War as a US Army captain, working with the French and Italian resistance, and afterwards became a distinguished classics scholar.

Born in Bradford, the son of a professional pianist, Knox was raised in south London, where he was educated at Battersea Grammar School before winning a scholarship in 1933 to study classics at St John's College, Cambridge. He joined the Cambridge Socialist Club and befriended the dashing young poet John Cornford. Both were part of a generation of students attracted to communism and alarmed by the growth of fascism in Europe.

When the Spanish Civil War began in July 1936, Cornford immediately went to Spain to help the Republic resist General Franco's fascist-backed rebellion. He enlisted with the revolutionary militias on the Aragó*front, but came home in September 1936 to persuade others to join the fight. He contacted Knox, then aged 21, who recalled: "He had returned to England to recruit a small British unit that would set an example of training and discipline (and shaving) to the anarchistic militias operating out of Barcelona. He asked me to join and I did so without a second thought."

Cornford – who was to be killed in action at Lopera on 28 December 1936 – took his group of a dozen volunteers to the International Brigade base at Albacete, where they were assigned to the machine-gun company of the French Commune de Paris Battalion, with Knox as an interpreter. The British unit took part in the battles in and around Madrid in November and December 1936 at the University City, Casa de Campo and Boadilla del Monte, where Knox was so badly wounded he was left for dead.

"As our section was moving back, dragging the [machine] gun, I felt a shocking blow and a burning pain through my neck and right shoulder and fell to the ground on my back with blood spurting up like a fountain," he wrote. "John [Cornford] came back, with David [Mackenzie], our Oxford man who had been a medical student. I heard him say: 'I can't do anything about that' and John bent down and said: 'God bless you, Bernard' and left. They had to go; they had to set up the gun and cover the withdrawal of our other crew. And they were sure that I was dying. So was I. As the blood continued to spout I could feel my consciousness slipping fast away."

Alone, Knox recovered consciousness and with the help of a young miliciano made his way to the front-line dressing station – with the words from a Tennyson poem, "Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!" going through his head – before being moved to the International Brigade hospital housed in the Hotel Palace in Madrid. His neck injury required further medical attention and he was repatriated in January 1937.

"Back home, I watched in utter despondency as the British government persisted in its policy of appeasement and the prospect of victory in Spain receded fast as Hitler and Mussolini gave Franco a steadily increasing preponderance in weapons and troops."

In 1939 he moved to the United States and married Betty Baur, an American student he had met at Cambridge and who, as a novelist, would use the name Bianca Van Orden. They stayed together until her death in 2006.

In 1942 Knox joined the US Army and was promoted to captain in 1944, by which time he had also become a naturalised US citizen. In July of that year, while serving in England in an OSS (Office of Strategic Services) unit, he was parachuted into Brittany as part of Operation Jedburgh and worked with local members of the French Resistance. In the spring of 1945 he was sent to work with the Italian partisans and took part in heavy fighting during the Gothic Line and Po Valley campaigns.

It was in northern Italy that his epiphany arrived. Taking cover in a bombed-out house, he came across an edition of Virgil lying under brick dust and broken glass. His first thought was: "I wonder if I can still read this stuff?" and he opened the book at random and stabbed his finger at a line. The passage read: "The curving sickles are beaten straight to make swords. On one side the east moves to war, on the other, Germany. Neighbouring cities tear up their treaties and take to arms; the vicious war god rages the world over." He vowed then that should he survive he would resume his study of the classics.

He returned to the US with two Bronze Stars and the Croix de Guerre "avec palme", the decoration's highest category.

Following the Spanish Civil War, Knox had become disillusioned by Stalin's show trials and foreign policy and ceased to consider himself a communist. Though he remained a defender of the Spanish Republic and a champion of the cause of freedom in Spain, he joined no political party in the US and refrained from political activity. But he was taken aback when in 1946 the chairman of Yale University's classics department called him a "premature anti-fascist", a phrase he would subsequently discover was the FBI code for a communist.

His political past did not, however, prevent him from being accepted, with generous funding from the GI Bill, as a PhD classics student at Yale where, following the award of his doctorate, he also taught. In 1961 he was appointed the director of Harvard's Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC. He held the post until his retirement in 1985.

The book that established his academic reputation, Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles' Tragic Hero and His Time, was published in 1957. Later came The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy (1964) and the acclaimed Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater (1979). Among his other books were Essays Ancient and Modern (1990), which includes chapters on his wartime experiences in Spain and Italy, and The Oldest Dead White European Males and Other Reflections on the Classics (1993), in which he challenges the criticisms of the classics made by "advocates of multiculturalism and militant feminism".

As well as numerous articles in journals and the The New York Review of Books, he wrote introductions for Robert Fagles's new translations of Homer's Iliad (1990) and Odyssey (1996) and Virgil's Aeneid (2006), and edited The Norton Book of Classical Literature (1993).

Jim Jump

Bernard MacGregor Walker Knox, soldier and classics scholar: born Bradford 24 November 1914; married 1939 Betty Baur (died 2006; one son); died Bethesda, Maryland, US 22 July 2010.

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