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  • Ethics and the Experience of Death: Some Lessons from Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Donne
  • Dennis L. Sansom (bio)


If one of the purposes of an ethic is to help order our lives in a way we would think is fulfilling and purposeful, then with it, we should be able to learn about the significance of life in the experience of death. Not all well-known ethical theories can deliver this. Though preferential utilitarianism and duty-based deontological ethics are attractive as theoretical ways to order our lives, they fall short as useful ethical approaches before the humbling effects of death. Can the experience of death teach us something about the importance of life and how to formulate an ethic to live meaningfully while alive? I think it can, and we can learn from art to do this.

To make this case, I examine three ways in which three poets/playwrights address death in selective texts. Each presents a phenomenological understanding of death that highlights inescapable aspects about dying as humans. I hope to explain some of the implications of their aesthetic expressions for developing an ethic that would help order life in the face of the experience of death.1

Oedipus Rex

The first poet I will consider is Sophocles (495–406 C.E.), the great Athenian playwright and poet. His play Oedipus Rex ends with a sobering challenge to the reader:

Behold him, Thebans: Oedipus, great and wise, Who solved the famous riddle. This is he [End Page 18]   Whom all men gazed upon with envious eyes, Who now is struggling in a stormy sea,   Crushed by the billows of his bitter woes. Look to the end of mortal life. In vain   We say a man is happy, till he goes Beyond life’s final border, free from pain.

Sophocles has been trying to teach his listeners and readers a point—just as it was with Oedipus, so it is with everyone: our deaths reveal the summation of our lives. We do not know the end results of our best-laid plans until we experience our end. Oedipus did not.

Sophocles’s ending does more than describe an individual’s tragic fate. It undercuts a glib optimism prevalent in Athens, epitomized by the great Athenian orator and statesman Pericles: “We are unique in our combination of the most courageous action and rational discussion of our plans.” As King, Oedipus is the Periclean ideal—an intelligent calculator, in control and ruling wisely. In the end, however, Oedipus is not unique from others. Like all persons, he experiences the abrasion between his free choices and a destiny he cannot change.

According to Bernard Knox, Sophocles tries to expose the shallowness of this Periclean pride.2 As a young boy Sophocles witnessed the defeat of the larger, invading Persian army by the Greek coalition led by Athens, Sparta, and Corinth. As a man, Sophocles lived during the ruinous effects of the twenty-seven-year civil war between Sparta and Athens, from which Athens was devastated, defeated, and impoverished. Yet, the Periclean pride persisted. The city, in Sophocles eyes, had not learned an important lesson about the course of human life—no one can fully control their and other’s affairs. The worse offense to the gods and the natural course of life is hubris, a pride that we can fashion our own lives to maximize our choices and secure happiness in society.

Sophocles knew well the inevitability of what the Greeks called tyche—the fortuitousness of the course of human designs and schemes. The Athenians had forgotten about its rule over all seemingly rational descriptions of what works best toward human fulfillment. E. R. Dodds describes tyche as “the purely negative idea of the unexplained and unpredictable.”3 Some people translate the word as “luck,” but that fails to express the ontological dimension of the word’s meaning. We cannot make the cosmos conform to our goals and projections, though they may be rational and plausible. Inexplicability and uncertainty are engrained in the fabric of human experience. Human intelligence and enlightenment cannot remove tyche. What wisdom and virtue we gain in life must emerge from our encounter with an intractable world, a...


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