Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

SOPHOCLES: Oedipus the King

W. H. Auden begins one of his poems with this observation: About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters; how well, they understood its human position; how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along… The Preacher in Ecclesiastes was an Old Master and he knew a thing or two about human suffering. He said To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose… There’s a time to be happy and a time to suffer. He also assured us that The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…but time and chance happeneth to them all. Nobody gets through life without pain.

Sophocles was an Old Master too. Auden was English, The Preacher was Jewish and Sophocles was Greek. But when it comes to human suffering these guys all say essentially the same thing. It doesn’t matter where they come from: time and chance happeneth to them all. If you’re a human being, and you’re alive, you’re going to suffer. It may not be right now, it may not be next week, but until you’ve safely left this life behind you can never be sure that tragedy won’t strike. Sophocles ends his play with these words: Count no man happy till he has passed the final limit of his life secure from pain. Oedipus the King is proof of that. When the play begins Oedipus seemingly has it all. A beautiful wife, healthy children and he’s king of Thebes. The only problem is a stubborn plague that haunts the city. It turns out that a murder was committed and has never been solved. The gods are angry and demand that the murderer be found and driven away from the city as punishment. Then the plague will be lifted. What does this have to do with Oedipus? First of all, he’s the king. People are looking for him to do something. Second, he himself is the murderer. Oedipus just doesn’t know it at first. And it gets worse. The man Oedipus killed was really his father. He just didn’t know it. The woman Oedipus married was really his mother. He just didn’t know it. When Oedipus finds out the truth his whole world is crushed. Oedipus didn’t know a lot about things in his life. The things he held most dearest to him were not what they seemed to be. His lovely wife was also his mother. His beloved children were also his brothers and sisters. When his wife/mother finds out the truth she hangs herself. When Oedipus finds out the truth he blinds himself.

In some ways Sophocles agrees with the Preacher from Ecclesiastes. Sophocles writes: What man on earth wins more of happiness than a seeming and after that turning away? This was the same experience the Preacher had. We try all kinds of things we think will make us happy. The Preacher built gardens and houses and read books and played music and drank wine and loved women. But after awhile everything seemed to lose its glitter and the Preacher would move on to something else. The Preacher finally decided that There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. At the beginning of Oedipus the King we hear him bragging about I Oedipus whom all men call the Great. Maybe Oedipus should have taken the Preacher’s advice and let well enough alone. His wife/mother (Jocasta) begged him to do just that: Do not concern yourself about this matter; listen to me and learn that human beings have no part in the craft of prophecy… As far as prophecy goes henceforward I shall not look to the right hand or the left…Best to live lightly, as one can, unthinkingly… I beg you, do not hunt this out, I beg you… Was she right? Is it better sometimes NOT to know the truth and just move on? There’s an old country song by Vern Gosdin called If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong. The singer has his suspicions that his wife is being unfaithful and says I don’t want to know the truth. Human suffering is the same no matter whether it’s ancient Israel, ancient Greece or a modern honky-tonk bar in Nashville.


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