“Ode to Man” is a title given to the first Choral Ode in Sophocles’s Antigone. The ode appears in the play after a Sentry reports to King Creon that someone has violated Creon’s decree that the body of Polyneices be left unburied where he died outside the gates of the city of Thebes (Episode 1).
The “Ode to Man” opens with a line that predates Hamlet’s speech that begins “What a piece of work is a man” by two thousand years:
Many wonders there be, but none more wondrous than man. (Strophe 1)
The Ode praises man’s mastery over the earth and “the surging sea” (Strophe 1), “the birds of the air,” and “the beasts of the wild and the wood” (Antistrophe 1). Man has learned speech and politics. Man has made provisions to protect himself from “arrowy rain” and “the nipping airs that freeze,” and he has learned to endure illness and the “fell plague” (Strophe 2).
Man has mastered or learned to endure nearly everything—
Yet for death he has found no cure. (Strophe 2)
This brings the Chorus to Antistrophe 2, which captures the main issues of the play. Antistrophe 2 asserts that, despite all of his remarkable abilities, a man sometimes makes bad decisions. As long as he abides by “the laws of the land” and “reveres the Gods of the State,” then “proudly his city will stand.”
If, however, a man is “bold in his pride” and “from the path of right doth depart,” he will become a “cityless outcast,” and no one will “sit by his side, or share the thoughts of his heart.”
Some people interpret Antistrophe 2 to refer to Antigone, who pridefully defies Creon’s decree, and violates the “laws of the land,” by burying Polyneices’s body. The problem with that interpretation is that the Chorus doesn’t yet know that it was Antigone who violated Creon’s decree, which only becomes clear in Episode 2.
Antistrophe 2 applies to Creon, who, “bold in his pride,” violates the inherent laws of man and the immutable laws of the gods with his decree, which results in the deaths of Antigone; Creon’s son, Haemon; and Creon’s wife, Eurydice.