Oedipus Rex

Oedipus is a victim of fate, but at the same time his own unrepented decisions leave him without excuse. Free will is not an illusion, but a deep moral liability.

In c. 430 BC, the Athenian dramatist Sophocles (c. 495-406 BC) won second prize at an Athenian drama festival for his production of what has come to be known to us as Oedipus Rex, King Oedipus. Sophocles’ famous tragedy is an original retelling of a well-known Greek hero-myth about a man, Oedipus, who kills his father, marries his mother and has children with her, and is punished by the powers that be for his crimes. 

Such a story might seem like precisely not the one to promote in the first issue of Christian Culture. You might be forgiven for suspecting that such a story, coming from a time and place far removed from the culture and Spirit that produced the Bible, might be more at home on the shelf next to Game of Thrones than with Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton. It was, after all, no less than Freud who (correctly or not) taught us about the “Oedipus Complex,” the resentment of the paternal and the desire to merge intimately and permanently with the maternal.

Yet, the tragedies of Shakespeare, the spiritual dramas of Dante and Milton, and Christian literary culture in general all draw deeply on the Greek tradition of tragedy. Aristotle’s Poetics, a study of Greek dramatic art still reverenced today, holds Sophocles’ second-place play as the prime and most perfect exemplar of this tradition. 

And, so far as Athenians go, Sophocles was a pious man. His hero is not tragic simply because his actions are debased. Oedipus often acts ignorantly, sometimes even innocently. His real sin is his pride (hubris), his relentless drive to justify himself before gods and men and avoid a dishonorable fate. When combined with ignorance, this pride carries Oedipus headlong into blindly pursuing the very shame he is desperate to avoid.

At his birth, Oedipus’ parents, King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes, receive an oracle that their son will kill Laius and marry Jocasta. To escape this prophecy, they nail the baby’s feet together and give him to a shepherd, who will kill him. Instead, the merciful shepherd secretly passes the victim into the care of a Corinthian herdsman, who in turn hands him over to Polybus and Merope, the childless king and queen of Corinth, who raise the child as their own. 

As a young man, Oedipus hears for himself the prophecy of patricide and incest, but believes that it refers to Polybus and Merope. To thwart this divine decree, he flees Corinth and comes to the vicinity of Thebes, his hometown. There, on the road, he is accosted by an old man. Ever prideful, Oedipus slaughters the aggressor and his entourage, though one servant escapes. Unbeknownst to Oedipus, the old man was Laius, King of Thebes, his true father.

When he arrives at the gates of Thebes, Oedipus, through his wits and prowess, delivers the city from the oppression of a sphinx-monster and is acclaimed a hero and deliverer. He ascends to the newly-vacant crown, marries the newly-widowed Queen Jocasta, and settles into his success, believing he has escaped the decree of the gods. 

All of this backstory is revealed in the drama of the play as the now King Oedipus seeks to solve the mystery of the murder of King Laius. Thebes is suffering under a plague until the guilty are punished. At the outset of the investigation, it is thought Laius was killed by a gang of bandits, and Oedipus vows to punish the murderer. Oedipus consults with the blind prophet Tiresias, whose gift of prophecy comes with the burden of never being believed. Tiresias accuses Oedipus of the murder—“you are the man”—warning that, if he presses ahead, he will only uncover his own guilt and destruction. Tiresias is, of course, ignored, but the testimony of other lowly shepherds and servants is not so easily dismissed. What began for Oedipus as a murder mystery changes quickly into a quest for his own identity and resolves into a single tragedy. Blind Tiresias could see, but was never believed. Oedipus, certain of his insight, is blind to reality, and ends the play without eyes.

Again, Sophocles was a pious man, from the city dedicated to the goddess of wisdom, Athena. His works preach a high form of natural theology (see Romans 1:19-20; 2:14-15), that the meaning of existence comes in humility and reverence toward the powers governing the cosmos. Man is the willing agent of his own actions, yet his agency is constrained by wills and webs that often have the strength of inexorable fate. Oedipus is a victim of fate, but at the same time his own unrepented decisions leave him without excuse. Free will is not an illusion, but a deep moral liability. Oedipus is not undone by the restriction of his will or agency, but precisely in acting out his unconquered convictions. 

Sophocles’ wisdom, like that of his fellow Athenian Socrates, bends toward humility and chastened self-estimation. The nobility of the human condition emerges in the acceptance of full responsibility for our actions and their consequences, regardless of motives, and in bearing up under the full weight of life’s injustices while gracefully walking in harmony with the laws of gods and nature. Our own plausible exculpations do not shift the blame to God, the gods, or the cosmos, as the biblical Job discovered, and the piety of Sophocles has something of the spirit of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes.

Aristotle believed that the communal experience of witnessing a tragic unravelling like Oedipus Rex could produce a salutary katharsis, a moral cleansing of the psyche. Read or watched in the right light today, the story of a man hell-bent on his own destruction in the very pursuit of his own salvation can still have the same effect. For readers today, I would recommend Robert Fagles’ translation, The Three Theban Plays (Penguin: 1984).

As an epilogue or analog to the reading of Oedipus the King, you will certainly want to seek a cathartic cleansing of the soul in 2 Samuel 11-12. Here, again, we find the hubris and humbling of the self-condemned hero-king and the prophet who speaks truth to power (“you are the man”). And note here: for all the piety and wisdom of the Greek sources of our literature, truly Christian culture begins with the leavening of the tragic sense of life with absolution and atonement.

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John Henry

Rev. John Henry III is Pastor of St. James Lutheran Church in Northrop, MN and Zion Lutheran Church in Fairmont, MN.

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Christian Culture is the magazine of Luther Classical College. Visit lutherclassical.org for more information about the college.