Role of fate and free will in Oedipus the King

Oedipus the King

Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King is widely regarded as one of the best examples of classical Greek drama, and for good reason. Oedipus is a classically tragic figure, doomed to fulfill a deadly prophecy despite his best efforts to avoid it. However, the very thing that makes Oedipus the King the Greek tragedy par excellence is precisely what sets it apart from other tragedies, both past and present, because the play’s position regarding free will and human fate is far more nuanced than one might expect based on the usual tropes of drama and tragedy. While Oedipus does fulfill all the requirements of a tragic hero, complete with the hubris that ultimately causes his fall, the play does not argue for the kind of fatalism and determinism that characterizes many dramatic plays. Instead, the Oedipus the King suggests that fate is ultimately the product of free will, rather than the controlling structure within which will is exercised, because in the end it is Oedipus’ actions that determine his fate, and not an overwhelming, possibly divine force. By examining the circumstances of Oedipus’ birth and abandonment, his conversation with Tiresias, and his decision to blind and banish himself, one is able to see how Oedipus’ fate is not the result of an immutable determinism, but rather the almost-random dictates of free will. Ultimately, the tragedy of the play comes not from humanity’s inability to escape its tragic fate, but rather humanity’s apparent tendency to run headlong towards it.

Before examining Oedipus’ story in detail, it is necessary to first account for the seemingly supernatural elements of the play. Obviously, it appears difficult to argue that some kind of supernatural fate does not rule in the universe of Oedipus the King, because the story relies heavily on oracles, prophecies, a seemingly supernatural plague, and even a magical creature in the form of the Sphinx. However, one need not accept the presence of a divine (for lack of a better word) fate in order to account for these features, because they can actually help reinforce the argument that fate is ultimately the product of free will.

Firstly, the magical Sphinx need not diminish the importance of free will, because a fantastic creature can exist independent of a larger supernatural hierarchy. Furthermore, while it is implied that the plague is a result of Oedipus’ killing of Laius and marrying of Jocasta, plagues can quite obviously occur for natural reasons, and in fact, history has shown that human beings tend to attribute plagues to supernatural retribution, even when they are really caused by mundane factors such as poor hygiene, contaminated water, or any other number of completely natural reasons. Finally, the oracles themselves can even be regarded as relatively “natural” actors, because even though they appear to have supernatural knowledge of the future and past, in reality they are basing their predictions on naturally available knowledge, and the veracity of their predictions only comes true when individuals choose to act on them. For example, the Oracle of Delphi’s prediction that Oedipus will murder his father and marry his mother has no import until Oedipus acts on it, and furthermore, because Oedipus goes to the Oracle in order to determine his true parentage, the Oracle’s response is no more supernatural or mystical as a telephone psychic performing a cold reading of a client (Sophocles vii).

However, perhaps the best demonstration of how the play uses seemingly supernatural elements in order to ultimately reinforce the primacy of free will and human action comes when Oedipus consults the blind prophet Tiresias, because Tiresias actually mocks the notion that people can effectively predict the future. Firstly, Tiresias is portrayed as a mystical visionary, but based on his age and station it seems reasonable to presume that he could have discovered the truth about Oedipus’ birth without any supernatural means; after all, the shepherd who rescued him survived, and Oedipus himself heard rumors that Polybus and Merope were not his real parents (Sophocles vii, 27). Thus, his reluctance to reveal what he knows to Oedipus need not come from any supernatural knowledge he has, but rather the very real knowledge he has of Oedipus’ true birth and subsequent patricide and incest.

However, the play goes even further than these hints in demonstrating the irrelevance of any supernatural force to the story’s action when Tiresias mocks Oedipus for suggesting that the blind seer is the source of the plague (Sophocles 27). When Oedipus accuses Tiresias of a being “a conspirator” to Laius’ murder due to his reluctance to tell what he knows, Tiresias responds by asking “Sooth sayest thou?” (Sophocles 26-27). While Tiresias is obviously taking a jab at the dramatic irony created by Oedipus’ ignorance, he is also hinting at the fact that anybody can say whatever they want and call it prophecy. This scene effectively dismantles the logical fallacy of mere assertion (upon which most declarations of supernatural existence depend), because Oedipus attempts to simply assert his own innocence and Tiresias’ guilt while Tiresias is comfortable in the knowledge that he is right, and feels safe “of there be a sure defence in the truth” (Sophocles 29).

Once Oedipus realizes the truth of the destruction that he has wrought in an attempt to escape his seemingly predetermined fate, he blinds himself and decides to leave Thebes forever. Oedipus’ decision to blind himself brings up a rather obvious parallel to Tiresias, but not the parallel that one might expect. The irony of Tiresias’ character is that he is a blind seer, but as demonstrated above, Tiresias’ ability does not necessarily come from any supernatural source. Nevertheless, the message remains relatively the same; namely, that a lack of literal sight allows Tiresias a kind of forethought and vision not afforded to the other characters. In the same way, Oedipus’ blinding essentially frees him from the fatalistic dictates of his own free will. That is to say, Oedipus’ fate was the result of his desire to proactively prevent a prophecy from coming true, and as a result he actually forced it occur. His tragedy stems from his very human drive to predict the future, even with insufficient knowledge, and thus his blinding metaphorically frees him from this drive. When he can no longer see, he is essentially free from the desire to predict and determine his own fate, and thus fate no longer has any hold on him. Thus, when Oedipus asks “Blind am I borne, in fate’s control?,” he is actually referencing his life prior to his literal blinding; in a sense, being able to see is what drives human beings in their attempt to shape and control their own fate, and thus a lack of sight ultimately frees him “fate’s control,” which in reality is the “control” that every person desires to have over his or her life (Sophocles 107).

The role of fate and free will in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is far more nuanced and frankly more interesting than in many other tragedies and dramas, because the play suggests that what people call “fate” is in reality the product of the decisions people make with the often limited knowledge that they have. Though the play includes seemingly supernatural elements such as seers and plagues, when examining the play in detail it becomes clear that these seemingly supernatural elements are merely a means of demonstrating how human beings are frequently fooled, not only by the declarations of others, but often by their own ignorance and hubris. The course of Oedipus’ life is not actually dictated by an overwhelming, supernatural fate, but rather the flawed and misinformed actions of human beings. In the end, the play suggests that Oedipus has actually come to terms with this fact, such that his blinding, while horrific, can be viewed almost as a triumphal moment, when Oedipus finally frees himself of the human tendency to run headlong into trouble as a result of hubris and an overestimation of one’s own knowledge and foresight.

Works Cited

Sophocles. Oedipus the King. London: Macmillian and Co, 1885. Print.

It is worth noting that in this scene Oedipus also engages in an appeal to force, which is another logical fallacy, and fits quite naturally with his hubris and self-righteousness.

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