Essay 14: Education via Literature: Crafts Versus Craftiness

We have already mentioned the famous “Ode to Man” in the Antigone of Sophocles, a play which serves as a theme in Heidegger’s classic, “What Is Metaphysics?”

One aspect of “man” that Sophocles highlights for us is the troubled link between craftiness (bad skill) and crafts (admirable skills, say carpentry.)

His “Ode to Man” goes like this:

“Wonders are many, yet of all
Things is Man the most wonderful.
He can sail on the stormy sea
Though the tempest rage, and the loud
Waves roar around, as he makes his
Path amid the towering surge.
Backwards and forwards, from season to season, his
Ox-team drives along the ploughshare.

“He can trap the cheerful birds,
Setting a snare, and all the wild
Beasts of the earth he has learned to catch, and
Fish that teem in the deep sea, with
Nets knotted of stout cords; of
Such inventiveness is man
Through his inventions he becomes lord
Even of the beasts of the mountain: the long-haired
Horse he subdues to the yoke on his neck, and the
Hill-bred bull of strength untiring

“And speech he has learned, and thought
So swift, and the temper of mind
To dwell within cities, and not to lie bare
Amid the keen biting frosts
Or cower beneath pelting rain;
Painful sickness he can cure
By his own skill…”

“Surpassing belief, the device and
Cunning that Man has attained…”

(Antigone, Choral Ode 1, Oxford University Press, 1998, page 13)

Sophocles introduces the “strain” between good skillfulness and tricky “cunning” which leads not to comfort and greatness but to woe.

Notice that this Sophocles vision of man as good-craftsman but bad-craftsman of schemes and plots is a deep theme in later culture.

In post-Sophoclean writings (say Roman literature) writing there is the constant tension between “machina” (our machine) and machination.

These writers sense in some implicit way that technology and crafts are benevolent “tricks” based on man’s inventiveness (as you see mentioned in Antigone and the “Ode to Man”) but that man becomes destructively wily and cunning, destroying himself and others.

One classic example of this comes from the great History of the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides. Pericles is the orator of genius while Alcibiades is a “crafty” demagogue and trickster whose words are not uplifting à la Pericles but part of a “deception” game. His sudden manipulative call for an invasion of Sicily in 415 helps to finish Athens.