Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Oedipus Rex, Fate and Free Choice

I am always fascinated how some of the same philosophical questions that torment us today have been around for millenia, for example free will vs fate.

Apparently, twenty five hundred years ago, Greek society was facing the same religious/secular schism that we face today. Many philosophers, such a s Protagoras, felt that the notion of fate was an archaic superstition and that there is no higher purpose to existence - a random universe.

Of course, Oedipus is the quintessential portrait of a man who fulfills his fate by running away from it. However, from a dramatic point of view, watching a man destroyed by fate is not a very fulfilling for the audience. One of the reasons why this play is a classic is summarized by Bernard Knox, a scholar of Hellenic Studies:
Oedipus did have one freedom: he was free to find out or not find out the truth. This was the element of Sophoclean sleight-of-hand that enabled him to make a drama out of a situation which the philosophers used as a classic demonstration of man's subjection to fate. But it is more than a solution to an apparently insoluble dramatic problem; it is the key to the play's tragic theme and the protagonist's heroic stature. One freedom is allowed him: the freedom to search for the truth, the truth about the prophesies, about the gods, about himself. And of this freedom he makes full use. Against the advice and appeals of others, he pushes on, searching for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And in this search he shows all the great qualities that we admire in him - courage, intelligence, perseverance, the qualities that make human beings great. This freedom to search, and the heroic way in which Oedipus uses it, make the play not a picture of man's utter feebleness caught in the toils of fate, but on the contrary, a heroic example of man's dedication to the search for truth, the truth about himself. This is perhaps the only human freedom, the play seems to say, but there could be none more noble.
from the introduction to Oedipus Rex in Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays


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