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Oedipus and us
Freedom and fate
In the Sophocles play Oedipus Rex, the king of Thebes discovers (spoiler alert!) that he has killed his father and married his mother. He did so unknowingly, in the sense of not knowing that the man he killed was his father and his bride was his mother. The backstory is that Oedipus was raised by a man and woman who were not his birth parents but didn’t tell him. When he finds out what he has done, he and all around him agree that he has committed the most grievous crimes—patricide and incest—imaginable in Greek society. The fact that he didn’t know he was committing those crimes does nothing to mitigate his guilt.
All this makes for a good play. Aristotle cited Oedipus Rex as the model tragedy. But is it any way to organize a moral code? Should people be punished for actions they didn’t know were wrong?
Complicating the question more—from a modern point of view—is that Oedipus’ crimes had been prophesied by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. Oedipus learned of the prophecy and did all he could to prevent its coming true. He left the city of the couple he thought were his parents and moved far away. But he couldn’t escape his fate, which propelled him into a lethal quarrel with his real, unrecognized father, and into the bed of his real, unrecognized mother.
So not only did Oedipus not know what he was doing, the gods were plotting against him. In the thinking of the Greeks, the gods made him do what he did. Again, this seems unfair.
To us, it is. Yet the Greeks were wrestling with deep philosophical questions to which we have hardly better answers than they did. Why do things happen as they do? To what extent are individuals masters of their destiny, and to what extent is destiny pre-ordained?
The Greeks gave the gods a bigger role in human affairs than people today allow. Most of this was due to their lack of science and its physical explanations for everyday phenomena. Science and technology would put many people out of work, and continue to do so. But among those first rendered redundant were the gods who moved the sun and planets, raised and lowered the tides, spun up storms, sent famines and plagues and did all the other stuff that pre-scientific cultures had no physical explanation for. The science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke memorably wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” A few millennia earlier he would have credited divinity rather than magic for the unexplained.
In the Greek mind, gods were everywhere. Not a sparrow fell without their permission—oh, wait, that was the Judeo-Christian divinity (Matthew 10:29), which shows how pervasive was the resort to supernatural explanations for natural events in ancient times. So it wasn’t surprising that the ancients held the gods responsible for human affairs.
At the same time, we humans—ancient Greeks included—certainly feel like we have free will. Not all who attended performances of Oedipus Rex bought into the idea of the-gods-made-me-do-it. The question of destiny vs. free will was a live one in Sophocles’ day; it’s what gives the play its dramatic tension.
Predestination is defensible as theology, but it’s a bust as jurisprudence. Law has to hold people accountable, and to do so it has at least to act as though they have free will. The gods might have made Oedipus commit patricide and incest, but still he had to be punished. He was cast out of Thebes, after gratuitously blinding himself from shame. His mother hanged herself.
These days we cut people more slack. We are still assumed to know the law. “Ignorantia juris non excusat,” said the Romans: Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Like them, we have to make this assumption. Otherwise no one would be convicted of anything. But especially at sentencing, we let a perpetrator’s frame of mind enter the equation of justice. Oedipus today might be charged with manslaughter or second-degree murder for the road rage killing of his father, who refused to yield right of way at a crossroads. But his marriage to his mother, who didn’t recognize him any more than he did her, would simply be annulled and treated as an unfortunate embarrassment.
We can afford to be laxer. There is less riding on the outcome. Oedipus Rex begins with Thebes suffering a plague and the Thebans pleading with Oedipus as their king to end it. He asks the oracle what to do and is told that the killer of the previous king must be discovered and punished. Things go downhill from there. Today we acknowledge a link between the behavior of our leaders and the state of public health—recall the political fights over covid. But we speak of vaccines and shutdowns rather than the displeasure of the gods.
Even so, many of us take comfort in the belief that things happen for a reason. We can’t prove it, any more than the Greeks could prove that the gods ordained the fate of humans in their day. Maybe we’re not very different from them after all.