Brief Incomplete Comment on Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (Oedipus Rex)

Adapted from an e-mail I sent recently; I am aware this doesn’t address Benardete’s “trapdoors,” it’s not meant to.

What is below is mostly from the essay “On Oedipus Tyrannus,” by Seth Benardete, in the book Ancients and Moderns: Essays in Honor of Leo Strauss. You can deduce how this reading came about by thinking through Teiresias and Creon. In rejecting the prophet as self-interested and attacking a member of his own family as only interested in overthrowing him, Oedipus demonstrates his impiety, his ‘hubris,’ his attempt to be more than the gods and everyone else. But why does Oedipus want to be more than the gods? Is he a bad guy?

The real irony of Oedipus Tyrannus is that he is a good guy, but his claim to rule is fundamentally corrupt. For the Greeks, kingship was lawful rule, where one became king because the law said so. Tyranny was rule by means of merit – one could be a tyrant merely because one is stronger and willing to use violence, or, in Oedipus’ case, one was stronger by putting the burdens of a people on himself.

Oedipus’ claim is that human rule alone is possible. Benardete wonders if Oedipus beings the play leaning on a stick, because of his initially swollen feet. If so, he solves the riddle of the Sphinx (you have to look this up, it’s outside the play) by merely recognizing two stages in his own life: the baby (walks on fours) and the old man (walks on 3, two legs and a cane) aren’t the answer to the riddle but distractions. This means Oedipus never really solves the riddle, for he never recognizes what man as man – man standing upright and seeing for himself – truly is. “Seeing” explains the end of the play: Oedipus sees truly when he finds out the awful truth, and thus chooses never to see any more.

The true awfulness is in what it takes to be a tyrant, to believe that we alone can rule each other. Piety and family (dependent on piety: all the Olympians are related) have to go if merit is the sole criterion for rule. So it makes sense metaphorically that Oedipus would marry his mother and kill his father – in a world where merit alone rules, and there are only pious guidelines preventing incest and parricide, why not? The world merit alone rules in is introduced by Oedipus himself.

Again, note that Oedipus is not wholly bad. If he is mistaken, he may be mistaken in a way that Sophocles himself might be in error. After all, Strauss says that in the Odyssey Hermes gives Odysseus a plant to avoid Circe’s spell. He doesn’t snap his fingers or just will Odysseus as stronger: rather, it seems, the gods are those who know how all things work. The Greek gods are human reason perfected. Oedipus, in not understanding the relation between man and seeing, cannot be reasonable. But if one truly sees, then Sophocles’ argument for piety and family as simple goods doesn’t quite hold up – it is because we see that we have questions about such things.

1 Comment

  1. Wow! It is no coincidence that i stumbled at this post. I am in a play now, Oedipus, that is. And i am Queen Jocasta. I have a prelude to oedipus, entitled, “jocasta”. I shall send you the link tonight when i get home from our rehearsal.;)

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