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Sophocles' Oedipus
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Suggested Background Reading

The best general introduction to the play is C. Segal's Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge (New York, 1993).

For a general outline of the play and its structure, see the Structure and Meters of Sophocles' Oedipus the King page.

The Mythological Background to Sophocles' Oedipus

See, as well, Andrew Wilson's Oedipus page.

Oedipus was the son of Laius, king of Thebes, and his wife Jocasta. Laius was son of Labdacus, king of Thebes. Labdacus died while Laius was still an infant and control of Thebes was assumed by the evil regent Lycus. Lycus was overthrown by the twins Amphion and Zethus, who assumed the throne. In the meantime, the baby Laius was whisked away to the court of Pelops, king of Pisa (near Olympia in the northwest Peloponnese). On the deaths of Amphion and Zethus, Laius (now an adult) was free to return to Thebes as the legitimate ruler. In the meantime, however, he had fallen in love with Chrysippus, the handsome young illegitimate son of Pelops. Laius kidnapped Chrysippus, took him back to Thebes, and raped him. Chrysippus either committed suicide, was killed, or was rescued by Pelops (the traditions vary). Later, Laius married Jocasta (or Epicasta), daughter of Menoeceus. When the couple were unable to have children, Laius consulted the oracle at Delphi, only to be informed that Jocasta would bear him a son who would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. Laius determined that he would no longer have relations with Jocasta, but got drunk one night and forgot his resolve. When Oedipus was born, Laius had the baby's ankles pierced and gave him to a shepherd to expose on Mt. Cithaeron. (The exposure of children was a common in cases where the child was illegitimate, deformed in some way, or the wrong sex [i.e. female]: see The World of Athens 4.22. Scholars disagree on whether the child was left out to die, as is the norm in myth, or to be picked up by someone else, as was common in the Middle Ages [a curious ritual of adoption]. If the latter, the child would have been reared as a slave.) The shepherd instead gave the child to a shepherd from neighboring Corinth, where the baby was raised as the son of Polybus and Merope, king and queen of Corinth. (Compare Herodotus' story of the birth of Cyrus.) One day Oedipus got into a quarrel with a drunk, who accused him of being a bastard and no true prince of the realm. Oedipus questioned his parents about this and was told not to listen to such slander, but decided to go to Delphi to discover the truth. The oracle did not answer Oedipus' question about his parentage, but instead told him that he was destined to murder his father and marry his mother. Horrified, Oedipus determined never to return to Corinth. On leaving Delphi, he encountered Laius at the place where the three roads meet (the roads leading from Corinth, Thebes, and Delphi). Laius was going to Delphi because he had received signs that the old prophecy about his son was about to come true. A quarrel broke out when one of Laius' retinue attempted to drive Oedipus from the road and Oedipus killed all of them, including Laius, except for one man (as chance would have it, the very shepherd who had been given the job of exposing the baby Oedipus). In the meantime, Thebes was beset by the evil *Sphinx, a winged female monster, usually pictured as a winged lion with a woman's head. (Such figures were imported from the east and are common on tombs. They seem to represent the spirits or guardians of the dead: see Andrew Wilson's discussion.) The Sphinx would land on the walls of Thebes and pose a riddle to one of its young men; when the youth could not answer the riddle, the Sphinx would kill him. (One version of the riddle: "What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?") Creon, Jocasta's brother and regent of Thebes in Laius' absence, was desperate: he offered the throne of Thebes and the hand of Jocasta to anyone who could solve the riddle and rid Thebes of the Sphinx. Oedipus came to Thebes, solved the riddle (whereupon the Sphinx threw herself to her death from the city's parapet), and married Jocasta, thereby unwittingly fulfilling the oracle. Oedipus and Jocasta had four children, two daughters (Antigone and Ismene) and two sons (Eteocles and Polynices). When the truth comes out, Oedipus blinds himself. In Sophocles' version Jocasta commits suicide; in others, she continues to live in Thebes. Oedipus' two sons grow up and fall into a dispute over the throne, eventually killing one another in battle outside the walls of the city (the story of the "Seven against Thebes"). According to the common tradition, Antigone dies when she defies Creon and buries her brother Polynices, who had led a foreign force against Thebes (the subject of Sophocles' Antigone).

The mythographers tend to attribute Laius' evil fate either to his kidnapping and rape of Chrysippus (a violation of the guest-host relationship) or his failure to obey Apollo's oracle. When reading Sophocles' play, however, you should note just how little of the above story is directly mentioned by the playwright. We have seen in reading the Iliad that the ancient poets were free to select from a variety of traditions and to insert modifications in presenting their own version of a particular myth. Sophocles clearly has made certain choices in telling Oedipus' story: e.g., in his play Jocasta dies rather than continuing to live in Thebes. The question that you need to consider is why Sophocles presents Oedipus' story as he does and what themes he wishes to explore.


Sophocles as a Playwright

For background on Sophocles' life and works, see s.v. "Sophocles" in the on-line Perseus Project's encyclopedia.

Sophocles' approach to tragedy is quite different from that of Aeschylus. The choral element is greatly reduced: the odes are shorter, tending to present a recapitulation of the preceding stage action and contemplation of its significance. (In this regard Sophocles' chorus is often said to be an "ideal spectator" — a barometer of sorts, intended to shape and guide the audience's responses.) Instead, the characters dominate the play. Sophocles' plays are more dynamic than those of Aeschylus: the characters interact in a more naturalistic fashion and the plot is driven by this interaction, and by the decisions which the characters make as a result (cf. The World of Athens 7.46-49). Thus we are more aware of the characters as individuals, with distinct personalities, rather than as symbols or thematic foci as in Aeschylus. Notice, in particular, the way Oedipus dominates the play, both in terms of his presence and in the way his various decisions determine the course of events.

Read the Oedipus.

Interpretations of the Oedipus

The best introduction to the problems posed by Oedipus is E. R. Dodds' article, "On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex." [FN 1] Dodds considers three lines of interpretation, each of which he regards as misguided:

1) The fatalistic reading:
Oedipus is merely a puppet of the gods, doomed beforehand to a terrible fate. Unlike, e.g., the oracle about a "great empire" given to Croesus, the oracles given to Laius and Oedipus were not contingent on any human decision: they stated with absolute certainty that the baby would kill his father and marry his mother. A variation on this reading finds in Oedipus' fate another example of inherited guilt: like Croesus, Oedipus falls due to the act of an ancestor (Laius' rape of Chrysippus). [FN 2]

2) The "fatal flaw" reading:
Oedipus' fate is the result of his own rashness and arrogance. He is headstrong and foolish (in not questioning Polybus and Merope in more detail or pursuing his original question with the Delphic oracle; in killing a man "old enough to be his father" only then to marry a woman "old enough to be his mother"; in not listening to Tiresias). He is also violent and "hybristic" (he slaughters Laius and his entire retinue on the most insignificant of grounds; he is ready to condemn Creon and Tiresias on flimsy evidence; he is cruel to the Theban shepherd). [FN 3]

3) The aesthetic reading:
the play does not yield to systematic analysis but instead presents a moving and theatrically effective rendition of the Oedipus myth.

Consider these approaches to the play based on what you know of Greek culture (review The World of Athens 3.1-17 and, e.g., the character of Achilles in Homer's Iliad) and what Sophocles presents to his audience. Focus on three issues:

1) The character of Oedipus as presented in the play. How is Oedipus viewed by others in the play (e.g., the old priest at the beginning and the chorus)? What kind of ruler does he seem to be? In what ways is he similar to Homer's Achilles?

2) The themes and images that recur in the play. Note esp. images for sight and blindness, clarity and obscurity, light and dark. Notice as well the prominence of the Delphic Oracle in the play. What is the effect of all of this?
    [Note: on the nature of the Delphic Oracle, review the relevant section of the Herodotus course notes page.]

3) The use of dramatic irony in the play — i.e. places where a character says something that carries a significance of which he/she is unaware. Sophocles is noted for his skillful use of dramatic irony; in Oedipus the ironies seem to drive home a real point. What is it?


Sophocles' Oedipus and the Greek Enlightenment

A modern audience, under Freud's influence, tends immediately to associate the story of Oedipus with the infamous Oedipus complex. Even Freud admitted, however, that Sophocles' play does not express the son's desire to replace his father and possess his mother: Oedipus acts in complete ignorance of Laius' and Jocasta's identities, nor is there any indication that Oedipus' relation to Jocasta is in any sense "oedipal" (although Freud did maintain that the play's phenomenal popularity is due in part to the way in which it sounds these themes on a subconscious level). The question arises, then, of just what the play is about. One thing to note: Oedipus does not deal with how Oedipus came to kill his father and marry his mother but with his discovery of the truth some years later. If we approach Oedipus as a play of discovery, of one man's quest for the truth of his own identity, many of the curious features of the play begin to fall into place. (Note, for example, how the initial quest for a cure for the plague and, as a result, for Laius' murderers is replaced, as the play progresses, by the quest for Oedipus' true identity.) In this regard, Oedipus is often read in comparative literature courses as the first detective story in Western literature.

You should notice how this quest for Oedipus' true identity comes to be bound up with the question of the validity of oracles. In the central scenes of the play both Oedipus and Jocasta begin to cast doubt upon various traditional ways of reading the gods' will, and at the news of Polybus' death (941ff.) both of them joyously proclaim the folly of human attempts at divination (review The World of Athens 2.19-20). For an audience watching the play in the 430s or 420s, Sophocles' presentation of Oedipus' quest, and particularly of the challenge to traditional religion, would have raised issues that were a matter for heated debate among contemporary philosophers and the public at large. Rather than a play concerning "eternal verities," Oedipus is very much a work that raises burning issues of the day. In order to understand how this is so, we must back up a bit and discuss what is known as *The Greek Enlightenment in the later 5th century.

Like the Renaissance in Europe, the late 6th and the 5th centuries in Greece were a time of fertile conflict in philosophy, religion, and the arts, as traditional ways of looking at the world began to be questioned. The questioning of tradition was nothing new: we have seen, for example, Xenophanes' critique of Homer. What is new in our period are the radically different categories of thought that come to be developed, which entail a radical realignment in people's understanding of themselves, of society, and of the physical and metaphysical world. The older religious and mythological traditions were still very much alive but began to be challenged by new, secular modes of explanation that relied on empirical observation of the world rather than on the explanations provided by tradition: read The World of Athens 7.6-28, 4.43-48. The challenge arose on a number of fronts, but for our purposes the four most important are:

1. The *Presocratic Philosophers
2. The Ethnographers
3. The *Sophists
4. The Medical Writers

The Presocratic Philosophers (The World of Athens 7.8-9). The Presocratics get their name from the fact that they predate the philosopher Socrates (469-399 B.C.), with whom we will deal later. Socrates is generally given the credit (with some exaggeration) for focusing the interests of Western philosophy upon those matters which we in the West today take for granted as the proper subject of philosophical inquiry: epistemology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, the relation of the individual to the community and to the state, etc. Prior to the late 5th century, however, philosophers focused on issues that today we associate with the various natural sciences (esp. physics, chemistry, astronomy, and meteorology). They tended to examine the questions of the origin of the universe (cosmogony) and its operation (cosmology), particularly the nature of matter. Our primary source of knowledge for these philosophers (whose works for the most part survive only in scanty fragments) is the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) and his school, who have their own philosophical axes to grind and who give a very tendentious account of the history of Greek philosophy prior to Aristotle's day. In general, however, we can say that the Presocratics presented materialistic, mechanistic explanations of the universe and its operation which saw the world as governed by vast impersonal forces rather than by gods. For example, Diogenes of Apollonia (fl. 440-430) presented a picture of an ordered universe (or cosmos) directed by a ring of fiery air (aer) on its periphery: this fiery element was what gave order to the movements of the stars and planets, the progression of the seasons, the alternation of night and day, etc. It also accounted for life and intelligence in living things: plants differed from stones by virtue of possessing a highly diluted form of this aer; animals differed from plants by virtue of a slightly purer form of aer; differences in intelligence (either between species or between individuals within a single species) were the result of varying degrees of "purity" in this aer. The result is a curiously impersonal type of pantheism:

And it seems to me that which has intelligence is that which is called air by men, and that by this all men are guided, and that it has control over all things. For this very thing seems to me to be a god [or: divine] and to reach everywhere and to dispose all things and to be in everything. And there is not even one thing that does not have a share of this. But each thing does not have a similar share to another: rather, there are many characters of both air and of intelligence. For it is variable, both hotter and colder, drier and wetter, more stationary and possessing a swifter motion. ... And the soul of all animals is the same thing, namely air that is hotter than that outside of us in which we live, yet much colder than that near the sun. This heat is not the same for any of the animals (since, indeed, not even that of different men is similar one to another): rather, their heats differ, not by much, but so as to be similar.

The philosopher Empedocles of Acragas (fl. mid-5th century) presented a similarly impersonal universe, a cosmic soup of four elements kept in constant motion by the opposing forces of Love (which strove to unite like elements to like) and Strife (which strove to mingle elements indiscriminately: compare the modern enthalpy and entropy):

... when Strife reaches the lowest depth of the whirlpool, and when Love comes to be in the middle of the whirl, in it (i.e. the whirl) all these things come together so as to be one — not all at once, but willingly combining from different directions.

The philosopher Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (c. 500-428 B.C.) presented a theory that recalled both Diogenes and Empedocles, replacing the former's aer with "Mind" and putting this in charge of an Empedoclean cosmic whirlpool:

Other things have a share of everything, but mind is infinite and governs itself and is mixed with no other thing, but itself is alone by itself. ... And however many things have a soul [i.e. all animals], both the greater and the lesser, all of these mind controls. And mind took control of the entire revolution, so that the universe began to revolve in the beginning. And at first it began to revolve from a small beginning, but now it revolves over a larger area, and it will revolve over a larger still. And mind recognized all things, those that were mingled and those that were separated out, and those that were divided off. And whatever was to exist, and whatever existed which does not exist now, and whatever exists now, and whatever will exist in the future — all these things mind organized, as it did this revolution which now is followed by the stars and sun and moon and air and the hot outer air, all having been separated off from one another.

The remarkable thing about all of these theories is the break that they represent from mythopoetic/religious tradition: what room is there for Zeus and the other Olympian gods in this impersonal universe? (This is a question raised directly in Aristophanes' Clouds.)

As for the physical theories of the Presocratics, the most interesting are those of *Democritus of Abdera (c. 460-370 B.C.), who developed an atomic theory. Democritus claimed that all matter was comprised of atoms (a Greek term meaning "uncuttable" or "indivisible"): small irreducible particles of matter floating about in a vacuum. These atoms were characterized only by size, weight, and shape. Empirical evidence of various kinds was cited for this theory, but most interesting are Democritus' theories of perception. Perception is the result of the interaction between the atoms of an external substance and the atoms of our bodies. Consider taste: things that taste sweet are comprised of smooth, round atoms that stroke the atoms of our tongue; things that taste sour are more jagged, and so forth. Similarly with touch, hearing, smell, and sight. Differences between two individuals' perceptions can be explained in terms of their differing atomic makeups: the same atoms that create a pleasant, rolling, "sweet" sensation on the atomic configuration of my tongue might grate on yours. In the same way, something that tastes pleasant to me when I am well may taste unpleasant to me when I am ill, due to changes in the atomic configuration of my tongue. The interesting thing here (a point to which we will return later) is that all sensation is then subjective: when we speak of sweetness, sourness, beauty, etc., we are not talking about an abstract property that exists independently but about our subjective response to the atoms of particular substances when they interact with the atoms of our bodies. The same thing that tastes sweet to me may taste sour to you — or even to me, on a different day. In reality, all that exists are the tiny irreducible atoms, of a particular size, weight, and shape, floating about in a vacuum:

The sweet exists by convention [i.e. according to nomos], the bitter by convention, the hot by convention, the cold by convention, color by convention; in actuality there exist only atoms and the void. ... In actuality we perceive/understand nothing certain, but rather that which shifts according to the disposition of our body and of the things that enter it and press against it.

Again you should note the break with the past that such a theory represents: the mythical and religious have been ousted by the physical and secular. Note as well the reliance on empirical observation: traditional explanations are rejected, to be replaced by theories based on actual experience. (See below for Democritus' influence on the Sophists.)


The Ethnographers. This is a subgroup of the logographers discussed in the unit on Herodotus — writers who examined the customs and beliefs of both the different Greek poleis and various non-Greek peoples (ethnoi) and laid the groundwork for a science of anthropology. Their studies focused in particular on the distinction between nomos and physis and on the subjective nature of different societies' religious, moral, and ethical convictions.

[For background on the nomos-physis antithesis see the relevant section of the Herodotus Course Notes page.]
The most interesting of such writings to survive is an anonymous work dating, most probably, to the 4th century B.C., known as the Dissoi Logoi or "Two Arguments." [FN 4] This is a sophistic text, composed to illustrate Protagoras' famous dictum that there are two contrary arguments possible for any proposition (see below on Protagoras' theories). In developing his case the author draws heavily upon ethnographic material collected by the logographers and others. For instance, he points out that the Spartans consider it proper for young girls to exercise in the nude, but the Ionians think it disgraceful, while the Ionians encourage their youth to learn music and letters but the Spartans find such things soft and unseemly; the Thessalians select and train horses themselves and do their own butchering, while the Sicilians think such chores fit only for slaves; the Macedonians permit young girls to have sex before marriage, but the other Greeks think it wrong; the Thracians find it attractive for young girls to be tattooed, where the Greeks view tattoos as a punishment and a mark of shame; the Scythians scalp their fallen enemy and have the skull gilded to use as a cup, but the Greeks find such things abhorrent; the Massagetae eat their dead, but the Greeks would exile anyone who did so as a monster [sound familiar?]; the Persians think it proper that men adorn themselves with jewelry and that men have intercourse with their daughters, mothers, and sisters, but the Greeks think otherwise; the Lydians encourage young virgins to prostitute themselves before marriage, etc. He concludes by declaring (in Sprague's translation) that "if someone should order all men to make a single heap of everything that each of them regards as disgraceful and then again to take from the collection what each of them regards as seemly, not a thing would be left, but they would all divide up everything, because not all men are of the same opinion."

The Sophists (The World of Athens 7.20-28). Strictly speaking the sophists were a disparate group of itinerant teachers of rhetoric who owed their craft to the rising importance of public speaking in democracies such as that at Athens, where the ability to speak well, either in the ecclesia or in the courtroom, was essential to a successful political career. The sophists did in the realm of language and rhetoric what the Presocratics did in the realm of physics and astronomy or the ethnographers in the realm of anthropology: they subjected language and persuasive speech to systematic study, developing the first etymological studies, grammars, and rhetorical handbooks. Their fame was enormous, as was their notoriety. In some ways they were the "rock stars" of antiquity, mobbed by the younger aristocrats (who admired and emulated them, and paid exorbitant fees for the right to sit at their feet) and abhorred by the older generation. Their reputation was based not only on their skill at rhetoric but on the theories in which they grounded those skills. The sophists incorporated the theories and outlook of the Presocratics and ethnographers with their own interest in rhetoric, developing a far-ranging critique of human society and culture. [FN 5] In general it can be said that the sophists did for the study of human culture and particularly religion what the Presocratics did for the study of the physical universe. Where the Presocratics rejected the explanations provided by traditional religion and myth in favor of a quasi-empirical study of the physical world, the sophists did the same in studying human societies and the various belief-systems upon which those societies were founded. And where the Presocratics presented a secular, mechanistic view of a universe governed only by impersonal physical forces, the sophists, employing the nomos-physis distinction of the ethnographers, described a world in which all values, morals, laws, and religious beliefs were mere human conventions imposed upon a similarly impersonal world, where the two main laws were: (1) the impossibility of circumventing the demands of physis and (2) the survival of the fittest.

In developing their theories the sophists relied in particular on two elements in the approach of the Presocratics and the ethnographers: (1) the emphasis on the subjectivity of human experience and beliefs; (2) their secular, empirical, anthropocentric outlook. The first of these allowed the sophists to promote the importance of rhetorical skills. In a world where all experience is subjective (as, e.g., Democritus taught) and where even the most fundamental human convictions are mere conventions, there is no place for the concept of absolute truth. This is the very notion put forward by one of the first and most revered sophists, *Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490-420), who, in a famous fragment, proclaimed that:

Of all things the measure is man, of the things that exist, that they exist, and of the things that do not exist, that they do not exist.

This fragment has been discussed and disputed at length, but seems to introduce a rationale for the study of rhetoric: if everything is subjective — if the only criterion of truth is what seems true to the individual — then the power to govern other people's perceptions is an important one. What matters is not "truth" — the existence of which is problematic at best — but what you can make appear true to others. If one were skilled enough, one should be able to employ rhetoric to argue any case, no matter how improbable, and this is precisely what Protagoras seems to have claimed. Diogenes Laertius (3rd century A.D.) tells us that, "He (i.e. Protagoras) was the first to say that there are two arguments [logoi] concerning every matter, each contradicting the other" and (here we have Protagoras' own words) that it was possible "to make the lesser argument [logos] the greater" — i.e. to take the weaker case and argue it successfully. If you ponder the implications of such an attitude you can perhaps understand why many people were troubled by it: taken to an extreme it suggests an utterly amoral view of the world, one that would permit the young Greek male aristocrat to argue for (and therefore contemplate) murdering his father, sleeping with his mother, cannibalism, and all sorts of other abhorrent actions. (Cf. above on the Dissoi Logoi.)

The second foundation on which the sophists' teachings rested was their secular empiricism and their anthropocentric view of the world. The Presocratics had demonstrated that you didn't need the gods to explain the origin and operation of the physical world; the sophists examined the world with the same clinical eye and argued that beliefs in divine retribution or divinely sanctioned laws were just as misguided — the equivalent of the naive belief that mother Earth had once mated with father Sky to create rivers and mountains (as the older mythological/religious tradition had maintained). After all, where was the proof? Zeus did not strike sinners dead with his lightning bolts: the latter were mere electrical discharges which struck aimlessly, hitting trees and even the gods' own temples far more often than they smote the impious. And the belief in Zeus itself was a human invention, a matter of nomos, not something grounded in empirical observation or physical reality. Thus Protagoras, in his famous work On the Gods, opened with a general statement of agnosticism:

Concerning the gods I am unable to know, either that they exist, or that they do not exist, or what they are like in appearance. For many are the things that impede our knowing: the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.

I.e., if one looks for evidence of the gods' existence, in either the physical or the moral universe, it is distressingly difficult to discover. Euripides (who, as we shall see, was very much influenced by the sophists) had a character address the latter point (the absence of a perceivable moral order at work in the world) in a lost play, the Bellerophon:

Does someone claim that there are gods in heaven? There are not, there are not — if, that is, any of mankind is willing to quit playing the fool and ignore the old story. Look at the matter yourselves: don't base your opinion on my words. I say that tyranny kills myriads, and robs them of their goods, and sacks cities, violating oaths in the process. And having done these things, the tyrants are happier and more prosperous than those who live lives of quiet piety from day to day. I know of small cities that honor the gods and yet are subject to larger cities more impious than they are, the smaller being overwhelmed by the sheer number of the latter's greater forces.

Notice the hostility here to traditional mythology and its affirmation of a rational, morally comprehensible universe: such an account now earns the label of "the old story" — i.e., a myth in the derogatory sense of the word.

Having rejected traditional mythology and religion, the sophists — like the ethnographers — dismissed the very belief in gods as a human invention, employing what today we would describe as anthropological, psychological, and political explanations for the origin of religion. Prodicus of Ceos (fl. second half of the 5th century), we are told, argued that the notion of gods arose out of primitive humankind's dependence on certain items necessary to sustain life:

Prodicus of Ceos says that the sun and moon and rivers and springs and, in general, all things beneficial to our lives the ancients considered gods, on account of the benefit that came from them, just as the Egyptians worship the Nile. And for this reason, he claims, bread was worshipped as Demeter, wine as Dionysus, water as Poseidon, fire as Hephaestus, and so on with each of the things that is serviceable.

In a more cynical vein, a character in the tragedy Sisyphus (written either by the notorious politician Critias [The World of Athens, H.I. 57-58] or by Euripides) paints an elaborate picture of the evolution of human society, where religion is invented as a means of social control:

There was a time when the life of men was without order and savage and a slave of force, when there was no reward for the virtuous nor, in turn, any punishment for the wicked. Then it was, it seems to me, that men established laws [nomoi] as chastisers, in order that justice might be the tyrant of all alike and have wanton violence as its slave, and if ever someone did wrong, he was punished. Then — since the laws [nomoi] prevented them from committing deeds of violence openly, but they still did them in secret — then, I think, some man, clever and wise in intellect, first invented fear of the gods for mortals, in order that there might be a certain object of dread for the wicked, even if they should do or say or think something in secret. With this object in mind, then, he introduced the divine, claiming that there is a supernatural being, enjoying immortal life, who hears and sees by virtue of his mind and is of supreme intelligence and who diligently applies these abilities and has a divine nature — one who will hear all that is said among mortals and will be able to see all that is done. If, then, you should plot some villainy in silence, this fact will not escape the notice of the gods, for supreme intelligence is theirs. In telling these stories he introduced the most pleasant of teachings, covering over the truth by means of his lying speech. He claimed that the gods dwelt there where he most might terrify men by saying it, whence indeed he recognized fears existed for mortals, as well as benefits for their toil-laden lives: in the outer vault of heaven, where he saw lightning flashes and dread clashes of thunder and the starry body of heaven, the beautiful embroidery of the skilled craftsman, Time; whence comes the shining molten mass of the Star [i.e. the sun] and whence the moist shower makes its way to earth. With such fears did he surround men, and through this fear he well established his supernatural being, and in a fitting spot, and so quenched lawlessness [anomia] by means of fears.

Notice the hostility here to nomos, whether viewed as the "laws" by means of which society controls the individual's behavior or as the "conventional beliefs" in gods and divine punishment: both forms of nomos stand as an artificial shackle on physis, viewed as individual self interest. This hostility appears in an even more extreme form in the writings of the sophist Antiphon:

Justice consists of not transgressing any of the laws [nomima] of the city in which one is a citizen. Therefore, a man might best employ justice in a manner advantageous to himself if, while amid witnesses, he should treat the laws [nomoi] as great, but while apart from witnesses, he should follow the dictates of nature [physis]. For the dictates of the laws [nomoi] are imposed artificially, while those of nature [physis] exist by necessity. And the dictates of the laws [nomoi] have been arrived at by agreement, they have not arisen naturally, while those of nature [physis] have arisen naturally and are not merely agreed upon. ... most of those things that are just by convention [nomos] have been established in opposition to nature [physis]. For laws have been passed [nenomothetai] regarding the eyes, what they are to see and what not, and regarding the ears, what they are to hear and what not, and regarding the tongue, what it is to say and what not, and regarding the hands, what they are to do and what not. ... And regarding the things that are advantageous, those established by the laws [nomoi] are bonds upon nature [physis], but those established by nature [physis] are free. [FN 6]

(We will discover particular resonances between this text and Euripides' treatment of Phaedra in his Hippolytus.)

We are left then with an impersonal universe in which the gods and notions of divine justice are mere myths; in which law, morality, and religion are viewed only as shackles on individual freedom; in which the only absolutes are those of base physis; and in which the individual is a free agent, set loose to pursue his [FN 7] self interest with no consideration of justice, morality, or any of the other fictions promoted by nomos. For an example of how this sort of outlook could affect behavior, see The Melian Dialogue in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War

It is notoriously difficult to find meaning in an impersonal universe. As the influence of the sophists grew and (more importantly) as the Greek world experienced the chaos of the Peloponnesian War (431-04) and, in the 4th century, the rise of Macedon, the figure of *Tyche (random chance, more often regarded as bad than good) became more and more prominent — a fitting goddess for the universe described by the sophists.

Cf. the Course Notes on Aristophanes' Clouds.


The medical writers (The World of Athens 7.32). In their extreme form, the teachings of the sophists were quite troubling. On the other hand, the clinically empirical approach to the study of human society can be seen as part of a movement that leads in the 5th and 4th centuries to the rise various sciences: anthropology, psychology, sociology, linguistics, rhetoric. In other fields as well this new "scientific" mode of examining the world is productive: we will see, for example, how it leads Thucydides to approach history in a manner very like that of a modern historian, although his birth is separated from that of Herodotus by only some 20 years (see Course Notes on Thucydides). Of particular interest in this regard is the rise of medical writings associated by tradition with *Hippocrates of Cos (c. 470-c. 400) and his followers. Like the other groups we have been discussing, the physicians of the 5th century began to employ a more scientific, empirical approach to medicine, developing detailed pathological accounts of particular diseases. In particular, they paid careful attention to cause and effect, rejecting (as did the Presocratics and the sophists) explanations that relied upon the supernatural. Most interesting is an anonymous work in the Hippocratic corpus entitled "On the Sacred Disease." The sacred disease is epilepsy, thought by tradition to be the result of supernatural possession of some sort. (Recall the association of theos with any occurrence or state felt to be beyond human ken.) The author of this work rejects such an explanation out of hand, noting that epilepsy is like any other disease and could be treated if its causes were understood:

Concerning the so-called "sacred disease" the following are the facts: it does not at all seem to me to be more divine than the other diseases, nor more sacred, but, rather, it has the same nature [physis] as the other illnesses, and the same type of origin. Men considered its nature and its cause to be something divine because of their own want of skill and their disposition to marvel at such phenomena, inasmuch as it does not at all resemble other diseases. ... But if a thing is to be considered divine because it causes one to marvel, then there will be many sacred illnesses, not just one, since I will demonstrate that there are others, no less marvelous and astonishing, which no one considers to be "sacred." ... But it seems to me that the first men to elevate this illness to a sacred status were men of the sort that nowadays are magicians and masters of sacred rites of purifications and begging priests [FN 8] and quacks, who put on a show of being extremely holy and of having knowledge unavailable to the common man. These men use the sacred as a cloak and a shield to cover their own lack of any treatment that they might apply and thereby help the patient....

Note the firm conviction that the disease can be explained in secular, human terms. Note as well the hostility toward those who claim a supernatural cause for the illness. These individuals, who advocate traditional religious beliefs and the traditional rites of purification, are dismissed as charlatans and quacks.


Sophocles' Oedipus

Such, in outline, is the late 5th-century intellectual movement known as the Greek Enlightenment. Let's reconsider Oedipus, using the above material as a backdrop. Oedipus is a seeker after truth, a solver of riddles par excellence, a reader of signs. In this regard he is very much an empiricist, carefully evaluating the evidence with which he is presented. Confronted with the mystery of Laius' murder, he immediately begins to read the clues. He has been told, both by the oracle at Delphi (107) and by the testimony of the sole survivor (122-23), that Laius was set upon by a plurality of murderers. (The oracle was merely employing what is known as a "poetic plural," common in Greek poetry [cf. the royal "we" in English]; from what Jocasta later tells Oedipus [758ff.] it is clear that the eyewitness, finding the very man who killed Laius now sitting on the throne of Thebes, lied about the murder to avoid the danger of accusing the reigning monarch.) Immediately Oedipus assumes the possibility of a treacherous plot against the throne. When Tiresias seems willfully to refuse to help in the search and then goes so far as to accuse Oedipus himself of the murder, Oedipus begins to think that he and Creon (the man who brought Tiresias and who reported the oracle from Delphi) are in on the plot together. Many moderns criticize Oedipus for this, finding evidence here of "tyrannical" and "hybristic" behavior. Consider the situation from Oedipus' position, however: he knows that he has no connection with Laius or Thebes; he has two independent "witnesses" to the fact that Laius was killed by a gang of murderers, of which he was never a part; and both he and the audience would know that oracles and seers can be suborned to nefarious ends.

[Consider, e.g., the myth of Ino and, for a historical example, the story of Demaratus: Ino married Athamas, king of Orchomenos. Athamas had two children, Phrixus and Helle, by a previous marriage. Ino, the typical fairy tale stepmother, decided to put them out of the way. She roasted the seed that was stored up for the next year's sowing and, when the inevitable famine occurred, bribed a messenger to report that the oracle at Delphi had proclaimed that the famine could be averted only if Phrixus and Helle were sacrificed to the gods. In the end, the two children were saved by their mother (Nephele, a minor goddess) and Ino met an appropriately unhappy end. For Demaratus, see Herodotus 6.66.]

What is more, Oedipus has been on the throne of Thebes for many years without Tiresias saying a word: why would he speak up only now? Like Ino, Tiresias seems merely to be exploiting a public crisis to implement his treacherous schemes. Finally, Oedipus knows that Tiresias was no help when the Sphinx was plaguing Thebes: that was the time for divine insight if there ever was one, and Tiresias was nowhere to be seen. Given this set of circumstances, it is not unreasonable on Oedipus' part to suspect that something underhanded is afoot. Notice, however, the terms in which he mocks Tiresias as a blind old man who is practicing a trade (e.g., line 357). In the Greek the word Oedipus uses is techne — a term traditionally used of such things as poetry and seer craft (cf., e.g., Aeschylus, Agamemnon 249) but that in the late 5th century might be taken to refer to a learned craft, a skill one picks up in order to make a living. What might Oedipus' mocking of Tiresias call to mind for the audience? (Notice as well the chorus' response at 483ff.)

Jocasta arrives and calms Oedipus; she and the chorus convince him (against his better judgment) to pardon Creon. Upon hearing the reason for the dispute, Jocasta attempts to reassure Oedipus (707ff.) that he has nothing to fear from oracles, which she regards as generally worthless. Like the chorus earlier, she sees them as subject to the errors of the humans who administer them — not a particularly daring or impious notion. Compare, however, her response, and that of Oedipus, to the news of Polybus' death (esp. 945ff., 964ff., 977ff.). Here the two seem to go much further, impugning not only the human deliverers of oracles but the gods themselves and even the very notion of a divine order in human affairs: at 977 Jocasta directly states that tyche rules all things in mortal affairs, and at 1080 Oedipus (thinking of his good luck at being transformed from the poor outcast infant to the king of Thebes) presents himself as the child of Tyche. What is ironic about this? How would it have struck a contemporary audience, particularly given what immediately follows this scene?

In the end, how far does Oedipus' human skill get him? How might Sophocles be commenting on the champions of the Greek Enlightenment and their confident affirmation of human self-sufficiency? What other author that we have read comes to mind in considering the themes and the outlook of Sophocles' Oedipus?


[FN 1] See Course Bibliography. In addition to Dodds' article, you might want to examine M. J. O'Brien's "Introduction" (in the same volume). [Return to text]

[FN 2] See, e.g., Hugh Lloyd-Jones, The Justice of Zeus (second edition, Berkeley, 1983) 104ff. [Return to text]

[FN 3] See, e.g., R. Drew Griffith, The Theatre of Apollo: Divine Justice and Sophocles' Oedipus the King (Montreal, 1996). [Return to text]

[FN 4] For a translation of this and other sophistic texts, see R. K. Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Columbia, 1972). [Return to text]

[FN 5] To a large degree, the distinction that I draw between the Presocratics, the ethnographers, the sophists, and the medical writers is artificial and misleading: it would perhaps be better to view all of these thinkers as different branches of a general intellectual trend. As we shall see, the sophists rely heavily on the teachings of the Presocratics and the ethnographers, while texts such as the Dissoi Logoi or On the Sacred Disease are highly sophistic. Note as well, e.g., the use of nomos in Democritus' fragment on perception. [Return to text]

[FN 6] For an attempt to answer Antiphon's arguments, see the anonymous work entitled Anonymus Iamblichi, in R. K. Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Columbia, 1972) 271-78. [Return to text]

[FN 7] The masculine pronoun here is intentional. [Return to text]

[FN 8] These "begging priests" are the ancient equivalent of today's fortunetellers. [Return to text]

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