• Devin O'Donnell

Saint Nicholas vs. the Tragic Metaphysics of Oedipus and Antigone

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

Happy St. Nick's Day! Today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas. Nicholas is known for many things. He was the son of wealthy Roman aristocrats and inherited that wealth. From his youth, however, he did not waste his substance on wild living. Nor did he hoard it up like a dragon. Instead, his Christian faith compelled him to give that wealth away, secretly helping others in need, giving money or things that would allow them live a better life. It is from Nicholas that we derive some of our practices such as filling stockings and the reenacting of the myth that a corpulent and jovial fellow visits the houses of good children by way of a chimney to give them gifts. There is always a kernel of truth in a myth, and this is no different. The key is to glimpse the self-denying "saint" behind the commercialized and shallow "Santa." But there is more to Nicholas than Christmas tradition.

He was Bishop of Myra and was present at the first Council of Nicaea. It was here that on hearing the heretic Arius mocking the divinity of Christ Nicholas struck him in the face. Though his indignation was for good reason, the act cost him Nicholas his bishopric for a time. Later, it was restored, but he still continued to give his wealth away and live for God. The real life of Nicholas can only exist in a world where the gospel has broken into the frame with the possibility of hope. In the incarnation, Light has shone upon "those who sit in darkness" (Isaiah 9:2).

In a tragic world, however, no such hope exists. It is a closed system. The best we can do is carve some kind of order out of the primal chaos which lies at base of everything. In pagan cosmology, sometimes that chaos breaks through and not even the gods can protect you. Oedipus is the prime example. As his story unfolds, as he receives each new revelation about who he is and where he really comes from, his sorrow is compounded by the fact that he can do nothing to change his fate. There is no hope for redemption. His sins have already all been committed and even repentance is portrayed as meaningless since he cannot change what he's done. This is tragedy. It is clean of hope and of any romantic potential, any possible dynamic redemption of character or situation. This is why Oedipus puts out his eyes. Sight figures so prominently in Greek thought, and Oedipus no longer wishes to "see" or face the things revealed to him. But there is a deeper meaning here too. It is a return back to the original darkness of chaos, out of which sprang the cosmos (according to Hesiod).

Because Oedipus cannot see a way out, he is faced with the primal darkness of Chaos and absurdity. His suffering is meaningless; at best, he can only muster an ironic defense against the suffering he bears. Antigone is no different in this sense. The setting is simply a civil conflict, between man and the state. But the point is that a tragic metaphysics touches everything, every institution, every creature. As our catechism states, pagan cosmology is "a closed system of fate, where all stories begin better than they end. Life is meaningless suffering." Christian cosmology, however, is the opposite:

After creating the world, God says it is good: “Behold, it was very good.” Then Adam sins, plunging the story of life into a fall. But there is redemption. Solomon declares, “Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (Ecc. 7:8). There may be a fall, but there is redemption. There may be suffering, but it's not meaningless. The Christian world is one where things end in a better state than at the beginning.

This is where Christmas recreates the world. Creation is made new again in the Incarnation of Christ.

Traditio Agenda for Monday:

  1. Prayer

  2. A Contemplation of Sight, Irony, and Tragic Heroes

  3. Tragedy Lecture on the surgery of Oedipus

  4. Antigone (watch the 1961 film version)


  1. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Pray, that you may not stumble.

  2. Bring Iliad books (We read Homer!)

  3. Continue to work on memorizing Poetry Out Loud (POL) selections

  4. 12-line Imitation of POL due Friday (12/10)

  5. Finish Sophocles Worksheet (due Wednesday 12/8)

  6. Finish JTB & Jesus Worksheet (due Tuesday 12/7)


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