Expanding the Liberty Canon: Sophocles, the Tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone

Notes On Liberty

Sophocles (496-406BCE) was the second of the three great tragedian of ancient Athens, the first, Aeschylus, was discussed in my last post.  Sophocles is best known for a group of three plays known as the Theban plays, referring to the city of Thebes, which was one of major states of Ancient Greece when it was divided between many city states.

The three Theban plays should not be thought of as a trilogy strictly speaking. Ancient Greek tragedies were written in trilogies, but these plays were written separately at different times. They are what is left over from a number of trilogies by Sophocles, as is normal with ancient authors many of his texts are lost. The three plays fit together as story, but do not have the level of integration of plays written together for performance as a trilogy at the competitions where tragedies were initially staged.

The Theban plays…

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Antigone: Sacrifice and Justice

The last of Sophocles’ Theban Plays  is Antigone, which was not written as part of the same set as Oedipus the King or Oedipus at Colonus, but is a good fit. Antigone is one of two daughters of Oedipus who comes into conflict with Creon, the brother of Oedipus’ wife (and mother) Jocasta. Her two brothers Polyneices and Eteocles have fought over the rule of Thebes, which led Polyneices to besiege the city to take it from Eteocles. Both die in the battle, but Creon who now takes power, has very different ideas about what it to be done wit the corpses of the two brothers. Eteocles was ruling the city, was therefore guarding it against Polyneices, and Eteocles orders an honourable funeral for him. Since Polyneices was the invader of the city, he is counted as an enemy by Creon, who commands that the body of Polyneices should be left on the battlefield, unburied and unmourned. The idea produces complete horror for Antigone,whose sister Ismeme is also horrified but less willing to take action though in the end wishing to share Antigone’s sacrifice.

Antigone takes the decision to resist Creon, and insists on burying Polyneices. The act is something that brings her into a sharp conflict between familial duty based  on divine law, and the commands of the sovereign. Leaving Polyneices unburied means that he becomes part of nature, as vultures and wild dogs will feed on him. There is an exclusion from human community and for Antigone a horror at the thought of her brother’s body decaying in the wild. Antigone is not yet married, and is clearly not at all experienced in intimate relations, as would have been expected of a woman of her standing. She is the daughter of incest, and there is a hint of improper desire in her attitude to her brother’s body.

Her repeated disobedience to Creon leads to entombment while still live, so that she becomes someone on the border of life and death. Oedipus crossed boundaries, killing  a man at the crossroads in the woods outside Thebes, the challenged and defeated the Sphinx, he became king in a city where he had no hereditary right, he found he had confused mother and wife, lost his sight, and went into the wilderness . Antigone challenged Creon, twice tried to bring her dead brother from the desecrating wilderness to ceremonial burial, and was placed between life and death. Antigone’s punishment leads to her suicide by angling in the tomb, paralleling the death of her mother after finding she has married her son. The death of Antigone leads to two further deaths, as her fiancé Haemon commits suicide after finding Antigone’s dead body in the tomb. Haemon is the son of Creon, and his death leads to the suicide of his mother Euydice.

Creon’s command to leave the body of Polyneices unmourned, and his determination to enforce this command on his niece, leads to the death of his niece, his son and his wife. The death of his son follows Creon’s retreat from his wishes to enforce his commands absolutely. Like Oedipus, he comes in conflict with the prophet Tiresias. Tireseas exposes Creon’s claim to just kingship when he provokes anger. This follows, as with Oedipus’ earlier anger against Creon, Creon’s anger and conflict in relation to Antigone, Ismeme (the other daughter of Oedipus) and Haemon. Unlike Oedipus though, Creon does give way to the advice of Tiresias, who predicts disaster for the city otherwise. He gives way to that advice and voice of the chorus, standing for the people of Thebes. His initial stance is to claim to listen to the people, but to insist on the absolute authority of his own commands.

In the play he progresses to a more real willingness to listen to other voices, and does not arrive at anything like the total downfall of Oedipus. However, that evolution of his understanding that his power is best used when not exercised t the most extreme limit follows three deaths which leave him isolated as king in that his closest family members have gone, because of his tendencies to autocracy. An autocratic tendency focused on his attempt to deny the most basic relation of the community to death, and of family members to keep dead members within the community after death, through the proper ceremonies. A way of regulating the relation between life and death that is about the relation with the gods, which is a way of summing up the community’s relations with death, nature, its outside in various forms, internal divisions, and its enduring nature despite death and change. Antigone is named after the central female character for good reasons, but it is the story of how a male ruler who learns to understand that power is better exercised within limits, through a most devastating series of personal losses and challenges to his authority.

The play Antigone has two points of concentration: the sacrificial death of Antigone; the melancholic survival of Creon. Sacrificial death of a woman who might challenge male power is inevitable in Greek tragedy, its values are those of a very patriarchal society. The plays expose a deep ambiguity in which it is recognised that women can be agents of justice and possessed of the capacity to criticise power gone beyond measure. Creon can only be a good ruler after learning from Antigone, becoming her in some way. He placed her alive in a tomb, which might serve as a metaphor for her relation to his kingship.

Oedipus at Colonus: Outcast and Prophet

Oedipus at Colonus is the second of Sophocles’ Theban plays, though it was not written as the sequel to Oedipus the King/Tyrant which is the first Theban play. The three ‘Theban Plays’ (the third of which is Antigone) were written for separate groupings of plays, and the other plays in the groupings have been lost. Oedipus at Colonus was performed before Oedipus the King/Tyrant. It is not surprising that the Theban Plays are often taken as a trilogy, since they do fit together fairly neatly and Sophocles must have been kept to a very consistent version of the stories of Thebes under Laius, Oedipus and Creon across various writings and performances. There are a great many other version of these stores in myth and in drama, which we will not go into, bıt the reader of Greek tragedies should be aware of the flexibility of Greek myths and the many different versions.

Oedipus at Colonus is the Athenian play in the Theban Plays, since Colonus itself was part of Athens, and is still a recognised district of the city. In Ancient time it was outside the walls but not very far. The play gives the impression of being a bit further away than in Sophocles’s own time. A recognition possibly that Athens was smaller in the deep past, since these plays along with Homer refer to the Mycenaean Greek world 800 years before Golden Age Athens. The play reinforces the sacredness of Athens by making Colonus a sacred place, suitable for the death of Oedipus who has become sacral rather than polluted in this play. The play has a big streak of Athenian propaganda running through, just as Shakespeare’s plays were conditioned by Tudor and Jacobean state propaganda. Oedipus, the fallen King of Thebes, turned prophetic figure and innocent victim finds justice and protection in Athens, where Thebans still try to reach him and persecute him. First Creon appears using force against Oedipus’ daughters Ismeme and Antigone in an an attempt to induce Oedipus to return to Thebes. Oedipus recognises immediately that Creon only wants him to go back to Thebes for his own reasons of the strategies of power. King Theseus of Athens, who appeared earlier offering protection to Oedipus, returns just in time from worshipping Poseidon to rescue Oedipus. A stranger arrives a bit later, who turns out to be Oedipus’ son Eteocoles, seeking help in his struggle with his brother Polyneices and with Creon. It is Theseus who persuades Oedipus to talk to Eteocles, emphasising the role of the Athenian ruler as a judge and wise guide to all the Greeks. Oedipus refuses to assist Eteocles and curses the city. This is part of a complete abandonment of Thebes and a acceptance of Athens as his real homeland. However, his daughters are prepared to return to Thebes after the ‘death’ of Oedipus, so returning to the curse made by their father.

Oedipus’ death at the end of the play is not a cşear case of death, as no one sees him die and his body disappears. One suggested possibility is that he has been allowed to pass to the world of the death without pain, a rather modest favour from the gods, since the world of the dead is itself a very gloomy place of ghostly semi-conscious existence. There is some play with the possibility that  Oedipus has been taken by the gods to their own world, which can happen in Greek mythology. There is no direct suggestion that this happened, but it’s possibility is allowed. In any case, Oedipus has moved from King-Tyrant to something more like Tiresias, the blind prophet persecuted by Oedipus in Oedipus Tyrannus when he claims that Oedipus has murdered his father and married his mother. Oedipus blinded himself at the end of Oedipus Tyrannus, linking him with Tiresias. As with Tireseas there is some play with the other forms of perception he has, though less with prophetic qualities. We learn that Oedipus sees with his ears, so that the use of language is emphasised over vision. A way of thinking which has an interesting relation with drama as a form.

Oedipus in some way passes on the sacral power of the Theban monarchy by telling Theseus a secret before his death, or disappearance. The content of the secret is not revealed to the audience, but we do learn that the secret protects Athens from future Theban kings. The protection of Oedipus by Theseus is very surprising for Creon, who states that Oedipus is polluted and therefore unworthy of sacred places in Athens. Theseus shows himself to be a better provider of hospitality than Creon, so reinforcing the idea of Athens as the moral leader and therefore the judge of Greece. Oedipus himself argues that he is the innocent victim of fate and a curse on the house of the Kings of Thebes.He regards all his polluting acts as accidents with no blame for himself. This is open to question, his murder of Laius is surely motivated  by his excessive anger at being challenged at the crossroads outside Thebes. Athens enables him to move from polluted refugee to wise man close to the gods.

Athena between Apollo and Dionysius: Aeschylus’ Oresteia, The Eumenides

The last part of Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy the Oresteia  is the Eumnides (The Kindly Ones), which is not really a tragedy. No one dies, or even falls form a position of good fortune. The hero does not have some failure of judgement which leads to disaster, of a kind often accompanied by discovery of some painful truth. The tragedy is in the back story. Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War, because he sacrificed their daughter to raise a wind for the fleet. These events themselves have a backstory in the life of Atreus, the father of Agamemnon. The Eumnides is the story about how law can replace violent revenge as a basis of sanctions against those who cause harm, who violate the basic law of the cosmos, or nature or the gods. Orestes was  driven to take revenge against Clytemnestra by the message from Apollo that he himself would be polluted if he did not kill his polluted mother. Clytemnestra appears as ghost demanding revenge through the furies.

The furies are determined to punish Orestes, causing horror to the God Apollo, who is disgusted by their appearance and their pleasure in sadistic violence. He thinks they belong to the underworld, so exist in contrast with the beautiful Olympian gods associated with the world of sensation, not deprivation of the senses.  His Priestess at the Oracle of Delphi is shown to inhabit some strange dark world though, the underworld nature of the fate is not just connected to the fates. When Apollo seeks her protection, she sees a very strange sight, Orestes with the fates, who are described as very ugly looking bird things. The sanctuary provided by the oracle is one were Orestes is present with his sword covered in his mother’s blood, and with a vine leaf crown, connected with some white wool, and the dreadful fates, right next to him but unable to harm him.

Orestes goes to Athens for judgement, turning the play into a justification for Athenian leadership in Greece, and the dominance it exercised over ‘allies’, which included turning Athenian courts into the highest court for all allied states. In going to Athens, Orestes he puts himself under the divine judicial protection of Athena., the presiding deity at Athens, the Parthenon temple was built by Pericles in Golden Age Athens around the cult of Athena who had a giant statue at the Parthenon. The Furies pursue Orestes to Athens, and Athena organises a trial of Orestes where the vote is divided between the Furies and citizens of Athens, with Athena herself having the casting vote. The vote split between the Athenian citizens (presumably male) and the Furies. Athena casts her vote on the side o Orestes using arguments  referring to the supposed great link between child and father than child and mother. Athena herself was born from the head of Zeus, so we could see her position as the product of a strange start to life, though what she also says is very normal for Greek thought of the time. Orestes himself had very little to do with either parent, his father Agamemnon went away for war for 10 years when Orestes was a child. Orestes never sees him again, and had not seen his mother either for a long time (maybe 10 years) since she sent him into exile on the departure of Agamemnon, until he kills her in revenge for the death of the father he hardly knew. So the arguments about closeness to parents are strange in relation to Orestes’ own life. Athena’s casting vote frees Orestes to be King of Argos with Athenian permission, and places the male above the female. However, Athena does have something to offer the Furies. They are given new form and new residence, so that they are less repugnant and less associated with a dark and fearful underworld. They become the Eumenides, the kindly ones, who judge and enforce law with less of the cruel fanaticism they exhibited as Furies. This is all part of the mythical foundation of a historical court in Athens, the Areopagus, a very long lasting institution in Athens, which St Paul visited.

Eumenides  combines different forms of the sacred, exploring different levels of the divine. The Furies are an obscenely ugly and evil expression of the divine,. Their presence at the Pythian Oracle in Delphi with Orestes who they wish to tear apart suggests a world of fear that a beautiful princely personage call victim in an instant to terrible forces of suffering and destruction, which higher divine forces try to keep within bounds. In that part of the play, the Furies are compared with devotees of Dionysius tearing apart a king. There is a suggestion then of the conflict of Apollo and Dionysius which Nietzsche saw as the heart of tragedy. The tension between Orestes and the Furies is a displacement of that conflict as is the tension between Orestes and his mother Clytemnestra. That the resolution of the conflict is left to a goddess suggests some ambiguity within the official Athenian way of thinking apparently endorsed in the play. Athena is Apollo and Dionysius?

Thoughts on Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers

(2nd of sequence of weekly posts referring to texts in the philosophy and tragedy course I am giving this semester)

In the second play of the Oresteia trilogy, Orestes avenges the murder of his father in a vindication of an ethic of revenge and the of blood to cleanse pollution, but also with a sense of horror and wish to atone for the murder of his mother. His mother Clytemnestra had conspired to kill her husband King Agamemnon of Argıos, working with her lover Aegisthius, who carries out the deed. Clytemnestra’s crime is motivated by Agamemnon’s absence for 10 years during the Trojan War, and by the sacrifice Agamemnon made of their daughter Iphigenia so that the Greek fleet could sail to Troy. Orestes has been in exile since his father led the Greek alliance to Anatolia, and that is part of his grievance against his mother mentioned as he is about to murder her.

Orestes’ sister Electra also has a part in the drama. They meet at the beginning of the play after many years of separation. Electra does not recognise Orestes while mourning at Agamemnon’s burial mound; it is the sight of a lock of his hair which leads her to realise that he is nearby. We have the issue of family bond in that recognition and reunion, a family bond which is under extreme oppression with all the killing that takes place between members of the House of Atreus. An unbreakable bond of physical resemblance, of shared physical characteristics is suggested between brother and sister. The brother-sister bond is famously at the centre of Sophocles’ Antigone, and we will look at that play in a few weeks.

The recognition and reunion between brother and sister in The Libation Bearers gives the opportunity to show different attitudes to the death of Agamemnon. Orestes wishes that he had died as a hero at Troy, while Electra is disturbed by the idea of a battlefield burial in a distant land, preferring the idea that he could have come back and reigned again. The son’s wish that the father had died before returning to Argos brings an interesting tension into his speech and actions. Is there some way in which Clytemnestra and Aegisthius were acting out his wish? Does that explain the murderous revenge, followed by a mixture of triumph and remorse?

Orestes partly justifies his double murder with reference to curses from his father and a fate he cannot escape except through murder. The chorus calls for a killing which will be so deep that it will cleanse the House of Atreus of all the blood since Agamemnon’s father Atreus tricked Thyestes into eating his own dead cooked children . The punishment refers to the earth, the powers of the underworld and to blood. This is in contrast with the role Apollo plays as the god behind the order Orestes claims to uphold. There is tension between the underworld elemental force of revenge and the world of Olympian divinities protecting a political, legal and social system. The title refers to the opening scene in which Clytemnestra has sent women to pour libations on Agamemnon’s grave, though the libation bearers could also be Orestes and Electra.

Orestes is the exile who brings justice to his homeland, the very act of sending him away from Argos adds to his mother’s guilt. His home coming is a murder of his mother and her lover. He appears as a stranger, accepting hospitality from Clytemnestra before killing her. This is an echo of the abuse of hospitality when Paris took Menelaus’s wife Helen back to Troy with him, and the abuse of hospitality of the suitors of Penelope when Odysseus was away at the Trojan War and travelling home. Orestes’ violence is also an echo of the slaughter of the suitors by Odysseus and his son Telemachus. His return to his home in disguise is an echo of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca. The issue of hidden identity and reversed identity is s major issue in The Odyssey followed up various Greek tragedies. Aeschylus stands at the beginning of tragedy bas a major literary for.

Orestes’ killing of Clytemnestra uses a the garment within which he says Clytemnestra and Aegisthius trapped Agamemnon; Orestes refers to the danger of a trap in the opening scene when Electra says that he might be part of a trap, and he responds that is the one in danger of being trapped. This suggests the traps of fate, pollution and revenge they are all caught in, and a general triumph of death, as the garment is a funeral shroud. Electra refers to words which will arouse the angry dead, and the inadequacy of Clytemnestra’s attempts to appease the powers of the earth by sending libation bearers.There is constant fear of death, of dark underworld powers combined with attempts to use them. The play ends with Orestes both transfixed by the passion of his killing and its justification, but also aware that it might be see as unjust violence. He is ready to tae his case to Apollo, the god of law and light, while also facing the threat of the Furies invoked by his mother.

The Western and the Tragedy of Natural Liberty

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with illustrative still from the film!

The image above shows John Wayne as Tom Doniphon and James Stewart as Ransom Stoddard in John Ford’s 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Lee Marvin plays Liberty Valance as the sadistic murderous leader of a gang of bandits. Early in the film we see Valance beat up Stoddard until his men pull him away. Stoddard is travelling into the town of Shinbone to practice as a lawyer, and Valance is enraged by the sight of his law books. This confrontation sets up a tension between law represented by Stoddard and a kind of liberty represented by Liberty Valance. Hints about the underlying themes in a film don’t get any broader. Stoddard also represents liberty, as liberty for most people rests on there being effective laws to restrain people like Valance. What Valance represents is what 17th and 18th century writers called ‘natural liberty’, the liberty we have before any laws are established to defend ourselves, defend and improve our property and resist external authority, Valance does this with a fierce passion, but also violates the liberty of others, showing the problem with natural liberty. Liberty is tragically divided against itself.

Stoddard thinks he can bring liberty under law to Shinbone. He is patched up in town and sets up as a teacher to the many illiterates in the town. He aims to find a way of bringing Valance to justice after he realises there is no one who is willing and able to enforce the law against Valance. The local Marshall (played by Andy Devine) is a loveable cowardly buffoon ,who is horrified when Stoddard shows him that he has jurisdiction over crimes Valance commits outside the town. Civic liberty requires force to apply laws against natural liberty.

The struggle with Valance acquires a political dimension as Shinbone is in a territory which is discussing statehood within the United States. Its territory status, which suits the local cattle ranchers, is the reason for the lack of effective law enforcement. Stoddard works with the local newspaper proprietor Dutton Peabody (played by Edmund O’Brien) to organise the townspeople behind the campaign for statehood. Politics even enters into Stoddards’ career as a teacher when he gets the class to talk about the constitution and democracy. Law, education and journalism, three aspects of a democratic community, and the type of liberty which belongs to democratic discussion and decision making, the extended version of civic liberty.

The campaign for statehood succeeds and Stoddard launches a national political career. These come out of his reputation as the man who shot Liberty Valance, who certainly was shot to death just before the convention, which Valance was going to attend in alliance with the ranchers. Stoddard thinks he killed Valance and is unwilling to start a political career on the basis of taking life. Tom Doniphon arrives at the statehood convention, though he had turned down Stoddard’s suggestion that he should be a town delegate. This is the moment indicated in the picture above. He is unshaven and haggard because he realises he has lost his girlfriend Hallie (played by Vera Miles) to Stoddard and because he shot Valance. During the night time shoot out between Valance and Stoddard, Stoodard missed Valance and it was Doniphon who shot Valance while hiding out of sight. Natural liberty has to struggle against itself, for civic liberty to appear. Civic liberty appears from the tragedy of natural liberty.

One reason for Doniphon’s despair is presumably that he broke his own frontier code of honour by killing Valance in this manner. Wayne had already been established in many films as a symbol of frontier self-dependence and honour, and the film which really turned him into that legend was Ford’s own 1939 production Stagecoach. Within The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Doniphon is set up a symbol of tough frontier honour within the film, telling Stoddard when they first meet that out west a man solves his own problems, and that out west it’s unmannerly to let a man drink on his own. Doniphon usually addresses Stoddard as Pilgrim, elevating him to the level of the Pilgrim Fathers, the legends of early American history who set up an early democratic settlement. This seems appropriate to Stoddard’s noble ambitions with regard to law, education, journalism and democracy, the extended version of civic liberty.

As the film progresses Doniphon seems more and more sympathetic, representing the good side of the natural liberty, first represented as evil by Valance. Though at first he seems rough and thoughtless compared with Stoddard, as the film unfolds we sense that Doniphon is more sensitive and more willing to sacrifice himself to others. He is the only character in the film with a black friend, Pompey (played by Woody Strode). Pompey is his servant, but they appear to have a friendship of equals; and Pompey is even the dominant figure when Doniphon becomes alcoholic and irresponsible, after realising that he is losing Hallie to Stoddard. At the abstract level Stoddard is concerned with racial equality, as we seen in his class which Pompey attends. Pompey cannot remember ‘Mr Thomas Jefferson of Virginia’s’ phrase in the Declaration of Independence, that ‘all men are created equal’. As Stoodard points out, a lot of people forget that phrase, he might have added that Jefferson himself had a very mixed and complex record on that issue. It’s important that it’s Doniphon who comes closest to an equal relationship with an African-American in the film, he can live the ideals that other people talk about better, but don’t live out. Liberty exists as discourse and as habitual behaviour.

The film is a long flashback into these events, framed by a visit of Senator Stoddard and Mrs Hallie Stoddard many years later. They travel down from Washington DC for Doniphon’s funeral, who evidently never recovered from losing Hallie, and we see Stoddard as a manipulative populist politician, with a slight hint of corruption. That was the result of his courage, and Doniphon’s courage in struggling for liberty under law in Shonbone. Hallie appears to regret that she rejected Doniphon’s love and Stoddard appears to understand. He is dragged into an interview with the journalists of the day and explains the truth about who shot Liberty Valance. Famously, the newspaper editor prefers to print the legend. Fiction arises because we prefer to believe that civic liberty contains the energy of natural liberty and defeated the bad form of natural liberty with that force. Civic liberty leads to self-interested power seeking and the loss of the energy of natural liberty. Or certainly such a danger exists.

Kierkegaard Against the Ethics of Aristotle

We are concentrating on Fear and Trembling here, which I am teaching in an Ethics course.

For Kierkegaard, Aristotle defines something accurately, that is the Ethics of the Ancient world. In Fear and Trembling, he does this more with reference to Arisotle’s Poetics rather than the Nichomachean Ethics, or any other of Aristotle’s texts on Ethics.

What Kierkegaard concentrates on in Fear and Trembling is the recognition of the sin of the tragic hero. There is disclosure and recognition through necessity beyond the control of the hero. Oedipus’ tragic error is revealed not by his confession but by the plagues which assault Thebes, where he is King.

For Kierkegaard, Aristotle defines a view in which the individual is not responsible for sin. It is the nation, the family or fate. Greek tragedy in Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, shows that a sin is inherited from the family , or fate makes the sin inevitable, as when Oedipus actions to avoid the prophecy of his sin, leads to that sin.

In the modern world, it is clear that the individual is responsible for guilt, bears sin. The idea that ethics may contain conflict between the individual and the universal, for the social good, is replaced by an extreme of individual responsibility. The şissue of sin becomes harder to bear than the ethics derived from social habit in Aristotle.

Ethics must refer to subjectivity, Aristotle detracts from that in his view of humans governed by fate. The difficult situation that must be faced now is the melancholic within. The real anxiety we have to face now, on or own, is the need to have faith which will enable us to endanger another person with our melancholia. We can overcome melancholia as an expression of subjectivity that can only see itself as contingent. That may require silence and an inner suffering, which cannot be explained to another person. The universality of Aristotle’s ethics is replace by the bond that exists between the melancholic person and the person who might be a sacrifice to that melancholia. The melancholia that mişght lead us to think, Like Abraham that God has commanded him to kill Isaac . Ethics at its highest rests on a subordination of universal rules to the inner struggle to find the absolute within the contingency of the self.

Ethics at its highest is not obeying rules, it is developing the self that rises above itself in the dialectic of the absurd, in the passion for paradox, with regard to the actions in which the subject becomes ethical in the strongest sense. The self that can be ethical must emerge from the paradoxes of subjectivity. The self that is ethical because it has the capacity to be unethical. Ethics emerges fully when we take the risk that the unethical will destroy in our relations with others.