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Ancient and modern

Ancient and modern: Antigone and algorithms

The thoughts of Sophocles on the limits of man’s technological progress

1 September 2018

9:00 AM

1 September 2018

9:00 AM

Hardly a day goes by without someone making excitable predictions about human progress and how, thanks to AI, we are all going to become algorithms served by robots. The ancients took a different view.

All ancient man had available to him was what nature in its raw state offered. Only fire (e.g. cookery, metal-work) or man’s ingenuity (e.g. papyrus, concrete, the arch) could significantly alter it. But men could still fantasise about flying to the moon, or imagine a world in which ‘Every stream ran with wine; fish came to the house, baked themselves, and served themselves up at table; rivers of soup, swirling with meat chunks, flowed by the dining couches; thrushes, served with milk cakes, flew down men’s gullets.’


But they could at least celebrate what technological advances they had made. The playwright Sophocles composed a passage in his tragedy Antigone which began ‘Many things fill one with awe, but none more so than man!’ He then listed how ‘all-resourceful man, skilled in invention, ingenious above all expectation’ navigated across the sea in winter, ploughed the earth, hunted, fished, snared birds, tamed animals, learned to communicate and ratiocinate, made laws and constructed shelters from frost and rain, though ‘only from Hades shall he procure no refuge’. But, Sophocles ended, whatever progress man made technologically, the fate of any city ultimately depended on man’s capacity for good or evil.

Earlier Greeks saw man’s capacity for evil triumphing — a golden age of plenty for all degenerating into one of iron, of ‘men with the law in their fists, disrespectful of family and friends, honouring criminals, abiding by no oaths … faces filled with hate’, when ‘Decency and Moral Disapproval’ would finally disappear from the earth. Romans called their ancestors maiores, ‘greater men’, implying their successors were worse.

And our age? Does progress make us better or worse humans? Presumably algorithms served by robots will be saved from that dilemma by being so constructed as to find that question meaningless. If so, the last survivor will only be able to say ‘What a piece of work was man’.


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