“How could you quench the fire of your eyes?”

… asks the leader of the chorus upon learning of Oedipus’ self-blinding (P85, line 1729). Such poetical phrasing is what we’d expect of the chorus, of course. In Greek tragedy the dialogues constituting the episodes were prosaic in comparison with the loftier, lyrical style of the choral stasima. After all: the chorus emerged out of songs, specifically improvised songs chanted in honour of Dionysus. (The dithyramb.)

We would be too quick to dismiss the chorus leader’s wording as simply metaphor, though. There’s something to be learned here about the way the Ancient Greeks understood vision.

When Sophocles composed the play, around 429 BC, evidence suggests that competing theories of vision existed. (I’ll get to these competing ideas in a moment.) What wasn’t at issue at the time was that the eye consisted of “internal fire.” For the Greeks, four elements — air, water, earth and fire — composed the entire universe. And the eyes, the Greeks held, were composed of the element fire.

The dispute was over whether this fire made vision possible by means of emission — a kind of flaring outwards towards objects, if you like — or if the reverse was the case: that something representative of the object entered the eye, where it was then processed into visual perception. The former theory was championed by no less than Ptolemy and Euclid; and was also held by our soon-to-be friend Plato. A complex form of intramission, as the latter general theory is called, is what we, of course, still hold today. Aristotle was of a similar mind to us in believing that the experience of vision was worked out in the eye, which was the final destination of rays entering from outside the body.

The chorus leader’s question doesn’t tell us which view Sophocles subscribed to. (Unless you’ve found further evidence in Oedipus Rex, perhaps?) That blinding constituted the destruction of fire, however, is very likely exactly what Sophocles believed.

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