Only the insensate among us can dwell on the Book of Job without feeling horror at the suffering this man endured as the result of a divine wager. And so, too, one does not finish Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex altogether free from the impression that all our talk of free will here on earth is not really just one big cosmic farce. The first of Sophocles’ three “Theban” plays, and likely the most famous tragedy ever written, Oedipus Rex forces us to consider the nature of human agency and seems, at least on the surface, to indicate something rather unpleasant: an inscrutable fate or destiny—not free will or reason—governs man.

But that’s not quite right.

For while Oedipus Rex does raise the above problems, it does not, ultimately, answer them in the way that’s popularly understood, i.e., Oedipus, cursed by the gods, was fated to kill his father and marry (and sire children with) his mother. An alternative reading, and here I recommend the interpretation set out by political theorist Peter J. Ahrensdorf, argues it was Oedipus himself who, through the abdication of his famed rationality and subsequent turn to soothsayers and oracles, precipitated a downfall that could have otherwise been avoided.

The play, set in plague-stricken Thebes, begins with Oedipus in conversation with the high priest of Zeus, who has come in search of counsel for dealing with the pestilence that recently settled in the land. The priest and, later, the chorus of Thebans, seek out Oedipus not simply because he is the ruler, but more precisely because of the special qualities that led to his ascension to the throne. We learn that, 15 years earlier, a terrible Sphinx laid siege to Thebes, preventing (and killing) anyone who could not answer its famous riddle from entering the city. Oedipus, who was at this time in self-imposed exile after receiving word from the Delphic Oracle that he would kill his father (Polybus, king of Corinth) and sire children with his mother, Merope, defeats the Sphinx by answering the riddle correctly, and, as thanks, is wed to the widowed queen of Thebes, Jocasta.

But now, a decade and a half later, we find a changed Oedipus. Unable to manage the plague, he turns, anew, to the Oracle at Delphi to inquire into the causes of the recent calamity. He learns that the epidemic has fallen on the land because of an impurity in the city; namely that the former king (Jocasta’s husband), Laius, was murdered, and that until the murderer is discovered and driven out, Thebes will never find peace. So, what does Oedipus do? Instead of launching an inquiry into the murder—he had, by this time, learned that one eyewitness lived to escape—he consults the soothsayer Teiresias to interpret the Oracle. What Oedipus learns—that he is in fact the murderer—does not sit well, and here, we get a glimpse of the old Oedipus as he rebukes Teiresias:

How was it that when the Sphinx was here,

You did not speak out a word of salvation for these townsmen?

And indeed, the riddle was not for any man who just

happened along to solve, but rather needed a prophet!

As regards it, you were not conspicuous in knowing anything,

Either from the bird omens, or from the gods; but I came—

Oedipus, the one who knows nothing!—and put an end to it,

Hitting the mark by my judgement, not learning anything from birds!

What is surprising in light of this speech, is Oedipus’ continued belief in the veracity of prophecy and the Oracle as the play unfolds. It’s as if he forgot the most pivotal event in his life. As a consequence, and as Ahrensdorf points out, we witness the start of Oedipus’ demise coincident with his turn to piety. After all, and unlike other famous Greek tragedies, no gods appear in Oedipus Rex. And on closer inspection, many of the prophecies in the play predict different things. Finally, we never learn whether or not the plague subsides after Oedipus’ banishment. Could Oedipus’ “fate” be the result of mere … chance?

The delight I find in this text, and the reason it has pride of place in the Western canon, I think, lies precisely in the interplay between the twin forces of reason and revelation at play in each of our souls. While I side with interpreters like Ahrensdorf who view the drama as a warning against the denigration of reason, on the surface of things, Sophocles’ plot is such that it is impossible to pick up the text and not consider, at least for a moment, at whose behest we act our part during our brief time on earth.

Image by Oleg Golovnev


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