That Incomprehensible Mystery at the Heart of All Things

January-February 1991By Michael E. Smith

Michael E. Smith is Professor of Law at the School of Law of the University of California at Berkeley.

Oedipus Rex. By Sophocles.

Sophocles’s play Oedipus Rex is one of those literary classics that we are apt to have studied in our school days, but never to have read or seen enacted since. That’s too bad. The tragedy is gripping — evocative of pity and terror. Its implications are profound. The poetry of the odes is sublime.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that these different worldviews exist side by side, and people move between them. Let me give two contemporary examples to illustrate my point.

I was fortunate enough to have had a professional reason to reread the play, having recently resumed teaching a basic criminal law course after a 20-year hiatus. Enlightened scholars of our criminal law generally agree that wrongful acts may not be justly punished in the absence of a “guilty mind.” That is to say, the culprit must have intended the harm done, or at least have been careless about it. Enlightened moralists are apt to take a similar view. Suffering without witting choice, they say, is an injustice.

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