How did Sophocles’ Oedipus begin to Understand his Dreadful Destiny

           By George Anastaplo

(First Friday Lecture Series, The University of Chicago – Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, Illinois – April 1, 2011)


My last April First talk in this Lecture Series, in 2005, was entitled, “Does Anything Really Happen in Greek Tragedy?” It may be found, with other things of mine, in the Anastaplo-wordpress website established and maintained by my decades-long Basic Program colleague, Joel Rich.

That 2005 First Friday talk was dedicated to the memory of Gus Matzorkis, who had recently died. He and I had met, in 1947, when we enrolled in the College of the University of Chicago. This 2011 First Friday talk is dedicated, in turn, to the memory of Laurence Berns, who died last month. He, too, was part of that same entering class in 1947, with all three of us in the Vincent House dormitory in this University.

Professor Berns and I collaborated on a translation (published in 2004) of Plato’s Meno, to which he contributed his solid grasp of Classical Greek. Some of you will remember the quite instructive Works of the Mind Lecture, on the Meno, that he gave here in November 2009. It had been my hope that he and I would collaborate as well on a translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, but that was not destined to be. I would have looked forward, in any event, to getting his thoughtful suggestions about various points I venture to make on this occasion.

He will be missed.


It has been said that prophecy among the Ancient Greeks did no more than anticipate events that would happen. That is, such events did not happen because they had been prophesied. Rather, they could be prophesied because they were bound to happen in one form or another.

Even so, we should be puzzled upon noticing that, somehow or other, prophecies themselves can seem to affect momentously the states of mind and the actions of characters in Greek plays. This may be seen perhaps most dramatically, in what Oedipus’ parents, and later Oedipus himself, did (with profound consequences) in response to dreadful prophecies of patricide and incest. Such momentous responses, it can be supposed, could themselves also have been prophesied.

What does all this suggest about the doctrines and opinions (divine and otherwise) by which human beings can be moved in critical respects? And what is suggested about the very possibility (as well as about the utility) of divinely-provided prophecy among human beings? One may even be somehow reminded here both of an ancient conundrum, that a Cretan had said that all Cretans were liars, and of an ancient insight, that one’s character is one’s fate.


King Laius and Queen Jocasta (of Thebes), Oedipus’ parents, and, a generation later, Oedipus himself confront two dreadful oracles—that a son would kill his father and that he would engage in sexual relations with his mother.

There may be seen in other tragedies of that period (Fifth Century Athens) how those particular offenses were regarded which were anticipated by (not necessarily caused by) these oracles.

Consider, for example, the Hippolytus of Euripides, where a queen (Phaedra), in the absence of her husband (Theseus), develops an intense passion for her stepson (Hippolytus). Both she and her determinedly celibate stepson (upon separately confronting her passion) are horrified, as is Theseus himself when he learns, later on (in an unreliable account left by the suicidal Phaedra), about their relations. Such a sexual connection is regarded all around as horrible, even though the young man allegedly involved was “merely” the woman’s stepson. It is evident, in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, that the incest is more disturbing than the patricide for the principal characters.


Patricide, of course, was itself terribly disturbing. Consider Euripides’ Madness of Heracles. Heracles, when possessed by a vengeful goddess (Hera), is moved to slaughter his wife and sons in Thebes. But when he tries, on that same occasion, to kill his father as well, he is prevented from doing so by an intervening Athena. It is recognized in this play (as at line 1075) that killing one’s father is far worse than killing one’s children or wife.

In another play about Heracles, The Children of Heracles (dealing with another family elsewhere of Heracles), he is shown by Euripides to be suffering so painful a death that he can beg a son of his to hasten his death. But the son refuses to do so:  someone else has to perform the mercy killing that is intensely desired. Indeed, so “unthinkable” is any killing of one’s parent that Herodotus reports that the ancient Persians insisted that no child ever killed his parent. How such an insistence is to be understood is very much a challenge for the Western reader.

There was not among the Greeks any such insistence upon the impossibility of patricide or matricide. Indeed, there may even be seen, in marked contrast to the usual horror of parent-killing, the apparent insistence by Apollo (in Aeschylus’ Oresteia) that a son (Orestes) kill his mother (Clytemnestra), after she had killed her royal husband (Agamemnon). Apollo not only commands a somewhat reluctant Orestes to kill his mother but he thereafter defends Orestes from his mother’s Furies. Ordinarily, however, there was no such relief available for anyone who had killed a parent, even if done inadvertently and however much one seemed to have been bound by an oracle.


Of course, oracles may be fulfilled in more than one way, perhaps even in remarkably innocent ways. This may be seen (long after the Classical Greece period) in Virgil’s Aeneid, in which a dreadful oracle about a desperation-inducing famine threatens Aeneas’ band of refugees from Troy. It turns out, to everyone’s relief, that a trivial event serves as sufficient fulfillment of what had long seemed an ominous prophecy.

This kind of relief may even be seen, before everything collapses, in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos. It may be seen, that is, in how Oedipus (in Thebes) understands the death (in Corinth) of his supposed father, Polybus:  the dreaded oracle of patricide, he suggests, may have been fulfilled in that Polybus had died in longing for his long-absent son. This kind of “killing” by Oedipus of his father does not seem to bother him. Certainly, it is not the kind of patricide that had horrified Oedipus when he first learned in Delphi what he would do to or with his parents.

But it might be wondered, what would have been an acceptably innocent fulfillment of Oedipus’ dreadful incest oracle? Consider the implications of a song I remember marching to as an Army Air Corps cadet during the Second World War: “I want a girl just like the girl that married good old dad.”


Of course, benign fulfillments of dreadful-sounding oracles are not likely to be expected by the parties involved. But, it can be wondered, why are such oracles available if nothing anyone does thereafter can ever make any difference at all?

In the Sophocles play, it can even seem, the desperate responses first by Laius and Jocasta and a generation later by Oedipus may have even made matters worse. What was common to their diverse responses was to make it less likely that one could understand who was who, an ignorance that could be deadly. In neither case did the terrified response make much sense.

Thus, Laius and Jocasta undertook to kill a dangerous infant. Should not they have recognized that any child they could indeed kill was not truly a risk for them? That is, theirs was a deeply irrational response which made matters worse (something that the oracle was “designed” to do?).

Thus, also, Oedipus, upon learning at Delphi what was fated for him, abandoned the polis (Corinth) where he was the heir apparent to the throne. He seemed to have forgotten why he had gone to Deplhi in the first place:     to confirm who his parents were, after he had been raised as the son of the King and Queen of Corinth. Did not what he did learn make it even more necessary to pursue further (which he did not do, at the time) the inquiry that had taken him to Delphi in the first place?

Is it not evident—has it not always been true—that levelheadedness is needed in one’s responses to dreadful predictions—whether from a doctor or a broker or a marriage counselor? We can see in the career of Socrates how he responded to an enigmatic Delphic oracle about him, with the result that he came to understand himself better (even as he made himself somewhat more vulnerable among resentful Athenians).

Levelheadedness in response to a dreadful premonition may be seen in a story told about a Roman general who, upon leading an invasion into Africa, stumbled and fell to the ground in full view of his horrified troops. But this dreadful premonition was fully countered by him when, upon lying there, he grabbed the ground and said, in a voice heard by his apprehensive troops, “Thus I seize you, Africa!”


It is not only the dreadful-sounding prophecy that can lead one astray. Favorable-sounding prophecies may also mislead one.

Herodotus tells us of the efforts made by King Croesus, an Asian potentate, to determine which oracular site to patronize during his reign. He settled upon Delphi as the place to consult. His royal career came to a dismal end when (upon consulting Delphi) he was evidently encouraged to attack a rival, having been told that if he did so he would destroy a mighty empire. It was only afterwards that he realized that he should also have asked, “Which empire?”

The question not asked, or not asked long enough, can be significant. Thus, in the Oedipus Tyrannos, Sophocles does not present any explicit inquiry, by anyone, as to why terrible things were fated to happen to Laius, Jocasta, and Oedipus. Perhaps the playwright assumed that his audience would know one or another account that may be relevant here. But that does not account for why Oedipus himself does not wonder, especially during those years when he is aware of critical prophecies without knowing either any connection between himself and Laius or any story about whatever Laius may have done to bring on the fate he had.

It might have been thought by some of Sophocles’ audience for Oedipus Tyrannos that critical to Oedipus’ career was how it was to be concluded. But does this assume that there was already an awareness of that death and burial of Oedipus made so much of (a generation later) in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus as perpetually beneficial to Athens? Indeed, Sophocles, in Oedipus at Colonus, has the blind old man inform the Athenians of the blessing he has come to make available to them. (In this, he may be a benevolent form of the blind prophet, Tiresias, who is so difficult to deal with in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos.)


One can wonder, of course, what the most thoughtful members of Sophocles’ audiences thought about these matters—about oracles and fate and the relevant gods. How seriously can a theology be taken which somehow or other leads to such horrors as Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter (at Artemis’ insistence) and Phaedra’s infatuation with Hippolytus (at Aphrodite’s insistence) and Heracles’ slaughter of his family (at Hera’s insistence)?

One can further wonder about the seriousness of the theology relied upon here when one recalls both that Homer’s Zeus cannot save his mortal son, Sarpedon, from the doom he is fated to have and that Zeus himself is seriously intimidated by an oracle known not to him but only to the Zeus-tormented hero of Sophocles’ Prometheus Bound.

One can be reminded by such stories of how much chance may determine what gods a people “believe in.” Reliance upon oracles may serve to give the impression that there is a system that makes sense of the whole. But that may be an impression that is a delusion, something suggested by how misleading oracles may be in purporting to draw upon a comprehensive understanding of things. That considerable caution is called for here may be seen in how careful the Gideon of the Hebrew Bible is in negotiating with his Lord about the significance of early-morning dew (or lack thereof) on a piece of fleece.

Such caution is prompted as well when we recall how so great a mind as Isaac Newton dealt with the divinely-inspired data believed to have been provided him by the Book of Daniel. An even greater mind, exhibited in Plato’s Republic, could insist that many popular stories about the deeds (and misdeeds) of the gods could not be true. That such stories are relied upon does suggest that it can sometimes be difficult to make sense of the world we know.


Oedipus himself rose to power (and acquired a royal spouse) because of his success with the Sphinx that was oppressing Thebes. Sophocles has the people of this polis remember with gratitude that Oedipus had liberated them.

We are not told in this play what the Sphinx had said and done. A dangerous riddle, it is often said, had been critical to the challenge posed by the Sphinx. It was, it is also said (but not by Sophocles), a riddle, with respect to the ages of man, which saw the human being primarily in terms of physical capacity (four-footedness, two-footedness, three-footedness).

Is not this account of human development seriously misleading, however realistic and hence impressive it may seem at first glance? That is, should we not wonder whether such an account respects sufficiently that wisdom which can come with maturity?

Indeed, may we not even glimpse here a critical difference between the artist and the philosopher in contemplating such matters?


We should be reminded, as we prepare to close this inquiry for the time being, of possible limitations upon understanding our principal play for this occasion, the Oedipus Tyrannos of Sophocles. Can we ever know enough about what others were saying (including other playwrights) about the traditional story that Sophocles developed on this occasion? Indeed, we do not even have most of the plays mounted by Sophocles himself (including, of course, any of the satyr-plays, perhaps spoofing what he was doing, that may have accompanied his magisterial tragedies).

It might help, as well, to know the circumstances of the year when a particular tragedy was developed and presented. The playwright could reasonably expect that at least the more thoughtful members of his audience would take into account, in attempting to understand a tragedy, key developments of the day. This is obvious enough when one attempts to understand what Artistophanes did in his comedies.

We all know that critical, even vital, developments in our own lives may be both unexpected and not properly understood. Stories are plentiful, for example, about how the winners of spectacular lotteries can end up with their lives ruined. And cannot we all be reminded of disappointments, and even disasters, which turn out to be blessings in the long run? Thus, the long-term efforts of monumental events can be difficult to anticipate, an observation that can be dramatized as one surveys, a half-century later, the happy consequences of a monumental rebuff.

Is philosophy better than art for trying to understand such matters? That is, is the philosopher better able to use art, in thinking about the enduring issues here, than the artist is able to use philosophy? Is it the artist, more than the philosopher, who offers human beings engaging accounts of divine things, including prophecies? Is it the philosopher who can best grasp the limitations, as well as the usefulness, of such artistic accounts?

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