Sophocles lived in the 5th Century BC, arguably the age at which the Greeks started questioning the validity of their Gods and Religious beliefs. As a playwright and as a keen social observer (he is credited with winning the maximum number of awards for his plays during his lifetime among his contemporaries), Sophocles might have felt an obligation to emphasize that Fate and Gods were what guided the human life. A healthy respect for Fate was required to accept Life in its entirety. The underlying concept of the story of Oedipus Rex is the all encompassing power of coincidences.
One might choose to call it Fate or a deterministic Universe. For Sophocles and all his readers, it is the amazing possibility of symmetry in events. What is Free Will? Freewill is the ability to take independent decisions, and it also includes a deep rooted desire to counter any attempt to predetermine future. Freewill always tends to adopt measures to break loose from any prediction. This tendency to try and break away from any foregone conclusion has been the chief motivation for progress.
But, in the limited context of Oedipus Rex, predictions, instigate the freewill to try and rebel. Prominent evidence of this struggle from Oedipus Rex “An oracle Once came to Laius (I will not say ‘Twas from the Delphic god himself, but from His ministers) declaring he was doomed To perish by the hand of his own son, A child that should be born to him by me. ”(lines 713-715) Jocasta and Laius were forewarned through a Prophecy that a son born through their union shall slay Laius.
But this only led them to banish the child to be killed in the hope that the prophecy is belied. At the same time, the prophecy to Laius and Jocasta was not complete – it did not talk about the incestuous relationship their son would have with his mother. “…Apollo sent me back Baulked of the knowledge that I came to seek. But other grievous things he prophesied, Woes, lamentations, mourning, portents dire; To wit I should defile my mother’s bed And raise up seed too loathsome to behold, And slay the father from whose loins I sprang.
”(lines 816-821) Thus was Oedipus forewarned. He had gone to the Oracle to find out if there was any truth in the scandal that was spreading in Corinth that he was not the son of the king Polybus of Corinth. Instead of giving him any clarity on his confusion, the oracle set him on the course of his life that would fulfill the prophecy. When he learnt that he shall commit murder of his father and incest on is mother, Oedipus was still under the impression that Polybus and Dorian were his parents.
To avoid any such possibility in his life, Oedipus decided to leave Corinth and that journey (prompted wholly by the prophecy) actually set him on the path to his destiny – A self fulfilling prophecy. These two are the most important manifestations of freewill trying to rebel against a rarely revealed future events of fate. When it is prophesied that certain events of great magnitude or villainous impact are about to happen in the future, it is the absolute nature of the freewill to try and avoid it. Arguments suggesting that Sophocles does not support the supremacy of Fate over Free will Eminent scholar E. R.
Dodds in his “misunderstanding of Oedipus Rex” criticizes the most significant ways of understanding Oedipus Rex. His most important grouse is that the scholars and students alike fall prey to viewing Sophocles’ work through the prisms of philosophical thought processes which were non-existent during Sophocles’ time. Besides, the student community that studies Oedipus Rex tries to ascribe motive where none might have been intended. Point wise rebuttal to Dodds’s arguments Dodds. In his scholarly analysis of the popular misunderstanding of Oedipus Rex puts forth the following points in defense of his arguments.
• Sophocles does not intend Oedipus to be a villainous person being punished by Gods for his evil thoughts and actions. • Sophocles does not intend Oedipus to be the prototype Greek tragic hero, whose one tragic flaw creates all the tragic consequences in the drama. • Sophocles does not intend to state that there is no scope for free will and that the Fate reigns supreme. The first point of the argument is valid as Sophocles designs the character of Oedipus as heroic and it is prominently mentioned in most conversations of the stand alone characters and the chorus.
His valor, his compassion and his ability to seek truth even if it be detrimental to his own self are heroic characteristics designed to evoke a mixture of admiration for his strength of character and sympathy for the travails he undergoes. The chorus sing the virtues of the king in unequivocal terms and all the incidents that lead to the story of Oedipus Rex establish his character as admirable, if not entirely beyond reproach. (his suspicion of his brother-in-law might be a lapse, but not a flaw of character) “Upraise, O chief of men, upraise our State! Look to thy laurels! for thy zeal of yore
Our country’s savior thou art justly hailed:”(lines 53-55) Tragic Flaw While trying to relieve Oedipus of the tragic flaw, Dodds tries to reason that the concept of hamartia led by hubris is not evident in the Sophoclean hero. It can be argued that “Poetics” of Aristotle was a guiding light to playwrights and was a great contributor in shaping Greek literature. But it was within the capacity of the playwrights, creative geniuses all, to reinterpret the laws or rules of Poetics to further their own literary achievements. Even while adding his own interpretation to the concept of tragic flaw, Sophocles remains loyal to the concept per se.
The tragic flaw of Oedipus might have been the fact that even when he was forewarned of a future in which his life shall harbor aberrations that the natural universe abhors, he had the courage to try and avoid it. A lesser man would have hid behind the inevitability of Fate or made such drastic changes to his won character as to avoid any such possibility. As Dodds suggests, some of the readers of Oedipus wonder why Oedipus did not give up fighting (even in self defense) against people older than him or in engaging in physical relationship with women older than him.
Dodds answers saying that we are not to question what is not in the play. In fact, this might be the tragic flaw of the protagonist. Even after he is warned of the possibility of patricide and incest, Oedipus does not leave behind his virtuous qualities of valor (which leads him to kill Laius) and compassion (which leads him to free Crete from the songstress and take Jocasta as his wife). His sense of righteousness makes him leave Corinth to avoid patricide and incest as he believes Polybus and Dorian to be his parents.
This flight is in the strongly held belief that he detests the unnatural acts of patricide and incest and it is within his capacity to avoid them by charting his own course and at the same time retaining his primary character traits of compassion and courage in the face of adversity. Dodds stresses his argument that Sophocles does not intend to make any statement on the finality of Fate and he bases it on two points. • Sophocles is not the victim of any knowledge of determinism which was a later stage philosophical development largely credited to the Kantian determinism.
• Sophocles does not intend to preach the supremacy of fate because most incidents of the Play are a result of the exercise of Free will. Sophocles might not have been privy to the philosophical leanings of the determinism of the late 18th and early 19th century. But that does not exclude the gamut of his knowledge from knowing anything of that. In fact philosophical treatises have been, for the most part, clarified pronunciations of the existing thought derived through scientific observation.
Determinism as a clear treatise might not have been available to the Greek playwrights but the concepts of a superior design to life which has the power to supersede human interventions has always caught the fascination of creative contributors as evidenced from the earliest forms of literature. The French concept of Poetic justice or the Christian concepts of adequate justice have been used in works earlier than these periods but they have been recognized and grouped only in the last four to five centuries.
It is not that the critics are viewing the older works through newer prisms but the scholars are able to identify the evidence of such concepts even in earlier works. This is intellectually honest analysis and it is hard to understand why Dodd argues them to be invalid. For instance, if Pasteur discovered germ theory of disease in the early part of the 19th century, why is it not valid to find that similar germs or micro-organisms were cited in the out break of any contagious disease in the previous centuries. The scientists and philosophers in both cases have only discovered what was either already existent or known in some different form.
Therefore, it seems invalid to argue that Sophocles might not have had the supremacy of Fate or determinism in mind when he crafted the symmetrical cycle of events in Oedipus Rex. Dodds says that Oedipus Rex is a manifestation of Free will. In his own words, “Oedipus might have left the plague to take its course; but pity for the sufferings of his people compelled him to consult Delphi. When Apollo’s word came back, he might still have left the murder of Laius uninvestigated; but piety and justice required him to act.
He need not have forced the truth from the reluctant Theban herdsman; but because he cannot rest content with a lie, he must tear away the last veil from the illusion in which he has lived so long. Teiresias, Jocasta, the herdsman, each in turn tries to stop him, but in vain: he must read the last riddle, the riddle of his own life. The immediate cause of Oedipus’s ruin is not “Fate” or “the gods”—no oracle said that he must discover the truth—and still less does it lie in his own weakness; what causes his ruin is his own strength and courage, his loyalty to Thebes, and his loyalty to the truth.
In all this we are to see him as a free agent: hence the suppression of the hereditary curse. And his self-mutilation and self¬-banishment are equally free acts of choice. ”(Dodds 1985, p71) But these are not manifestations of free will but the struggle of free will against an all powerful fate. All the attempts made by the wise and virtuous Oedipus to avoid the aberrations of nature at his won hand are defeated partly by design and partly by curious coincidences. Conclusion
Aristotle’s Poetics suggests that Greek drama is not pure entertainment. It had a communal function to contribute to the development of the community. It is easy to believe that Sophocles was a strict adherent to this principle because he won the most competitions during his lifetime compared to any of his contemporaries. His dramas were popular with both the entertainment-seeking public and the critics. Therefore it is safe to assume that Sophocles tries to establish the depravity of the acts of Patricide and incest through Oedipus.
The message that resonates is that if a man of great wisdom, courage and all admirable qualities like Oedipus can fall prey to the hands of fate and commit the most heinous of acts, it is but the duty of the wider public to guard against any temptations that might make them break the natural or communal law. Besides, if Oedipus could not over come his guilt even after trying his entire life to avoid such acts and if the guilt is so all consuming that he blinds himself and seeks exile, it is better for the normal man to watch out for any of these sins.
The all-consuming guilt is so over powering that no man can remain nonchalant after committing any of these crimes knowingly or unwittingly. A good moral for a drama that retains its mystique and appeal due to its craftiness and perfect symmetry in the cycle of events References Dodds. E. R. (1985). The Ancient Concept of Progress and Other Essays on Greek Literature and Belief: And Other Essays on Greek Literature and Belief. New York : Oxford University Press (Translated by Malcolm Heath). Aristotle. 1996. Poetics. London: Penguin Classics
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