Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Oedipus and Fate

It is easy to read Oedipus Rex as a dramatic story about fate.  The ancient Greeks believed in such things. They also believed in a whole pantheon of gods who ruled over the Earth from a heavenly sphere called Olympus. But what has any of that got to do with the real world we inhabit? Most people today are a little more rational than to believe in prophesy. Americans mostly believe in what they can see and touch, not in magical tales or miracles. We certainly don’t believe we are ruled by fate; instead, we believe that you make your own fate through hard work and persistence. Nevertheless, many things happen in life that are beyond our control.  We don’t choose our parents, and to some degree, we are products of our DNA. So, we can’t always avoid the accidents of nature that come upon us. But we grew up in the age of quantum theory, where nothing is completely analyzable. We make predictions based on probability, which is derived from the habit of observation. Unfortunately, not everything can be analyzed with precision. In other words, some things happen which are beyond our control or our understanding. But so what? Chance is a measurement of probability, not a curse or bad karma.

Needless to say, Oedipus is caught between a rock and a hard place. There is a plague going on in Thebes. People are dying like flies and are frightened. A kind of panic has taken over the city and the people expect their king to do something about it. In other words, when people are dying, it is the King’s responsibility to do something about it. This is not all that different than people today grumbling about Obama not doing something about Ebola. Isn’t it his responsibility to guarantee our safety? So Oedipus makes some enquiries. He sends Creon off to consult the oracle at Delphi and get some answers. This makes perfect sense. If you feel like you are being punished, then you need to find out why the gods are offended. What else can Oedipus do? Unfortunately, he doesn’t like the answers that Creon brings back to him. All this talk about Oedipus being the cause of the plague sounds like Creon is making a little play for becoming king himself. This is not all that different than how people in Washington respond to hearing bad press.  People in power always blame the messenger (or the media) when there is bad news. It makes no difference whether it is bad poll results or a bad prophesy. Someone must be held accountable.

Don’t like the opinion polls? Then call another media consultant. Just in the nick of time, a man arrives from Corinth. He tells Oedipus that his father has died. Normally, news like this makes you sad. But this bit of news makes Oedipus happy.  He’s off the hook now. He didn’t kill his father, so he can’t be the cause of the plague. But just as he is starting to celebrate, an old shepard arrives with news about Oedipus’ past. It turns out that Merope was not his real mother. So even though he can’t murder his own father, he’s still a little worried about that incest thing. But now, he finds out he was adopted as a baby. So, the story is getting complicated. If he was adopted, then who gave him up for adoption? Uh oh, now Oedipus learns that he was indeed Laius’ son and the prophecy which he hoped to avoid has come true.

Ok, it is a sad denouement. But nothing in this play suggests to me that Oedipus is a victim of fate. His own bad temper has brought about his downfall. First, he lost his composure at the crossroads where he encountered Laius and killed him rather than give way. Then, when Creon returned from the oracle with the bad news, Oedipus immediately suspects Creon of wanting his throne. So, if he had just listened to Jocasta and let the whole matter go, he could have avoided the shame of learning the ugly truth of his background. It seems clear to me that the old expression “character makes the man” is the real moral of this tale. If Oedipus had made better decisions, he would have lived out the rest of his life without ever discovering the facts of his childhood. But if that is true, then it must also be true that sometimes too much information is detrimental to one’s happiness. So, even though it pains me to admit it, and it goes completely against our love of truth, and our reverence for knowledge, sometimes we just have to accept that ignorance is bliss.


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