Volume > Issue > That Incomprehensible Mystery at the Heart of All Things

That Incomprehensible Mystery at the Heart of All Things


By Michael E. Smith | January-February 1991
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.

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.

I have come to doubt this view. Thus I was drawn to reread Oedipus Rex, in which the hero apparently suffers grievously for wrongful acts of which he was quite unwit­ting.

The plot of the drama, for those whose recollections have dimmed, is this: In young manhood, Oedipus solved the riddle of the Sphinx, thereby freeing the city of Thebes from the monster. In return he was granted the kingship and marriage to Jocasta, the re­cently widowed queen of the city. He enjoyed a prosperous reign and had four children by Jocasta.

Now Thebes is beset by another plague. The Delphic oracle says that the city must find the former king’s killer and expel or execute him. Teiresias, the great seer of the gods, reluctantly reveals that Oedipus is the culprit. Oedipus denounces Teiresias and insists on probing the mystery for himself. Little by lit­tle, the whole truth is revealed to him; not only is he the killer, but the former king was his father, and Jocasta is his mother. When all is known, Jocasta hangs herself, Oedipus puts out his eyes, and eventually he is expelled from Thebes. From a later play by Sophocles, we learn that he spends nearly the rest of his life as a wretched wanderer.

To the question, how did Sophocles and his audience account for Oedipus’s downfall? Scholars have given a host of answers. Only a few seem to me to hold water. One of these is characteristic of an early era of Greek thought. The gods zealously guard the boundary that separates them from humankind. Permanent well-being belongs only to the gods. When human beings enjoy great good fortune, soon­er or later they must be brought down. Oed­ipus — powerful, esteemed, prosperous — is ripe for a fall.

Another tenable account comes from a somewhat later era of Greek thought and is a “moralized” version of the first. Human well­being breeds hubris, an arrogance toward oth­er human beings and especially toward the gods. The gods bring the prosperous low, not for their prosperity but for their hubris. Oed­ipus is arrogant enough to suppose that he solved the Sphinx’s riddle without help from the gods, that Teiresias’s message from the gods is worthless, that only what Oedipus can learn by his own efforts deserves credence, that he is entitled to decree his own punish­ment (beyond what the gods have prescribed), and so forth. He is brought down on account of the kind of person he is.

A third view hovers in the background of these two. The gods are worthy of reverence, but their ways are inscrutable. We should be­lieve that Oedipus suffers rightly, though we do not quite understand why.

To Enlightenment-vintage moralists, these accounts of Oedipus’s downfall, especially the last, are apt to seem reprehensible. Christians, I think, should be much more open to Sopho­cles’s outlook. We need not avow every aspect of it to find in his drama profound themes for reflection.

Like Oedipus, we humans are prone to suppose that we can understand all things on earth —

perhaps in heaven also — and can thereby control them. This is especially so of the “talking class” to which I belong. Not only is this folly bound to end in disaster, like Ic­arus’s venture, but to aspire to be like God is the primal sin, for only God is omniscient and omnipotent.

This is not to denigrate our yearning to know the truth and increase the good. Oedi­pus is right to ask the Delphic oracle why Thebes is plagued and to act on the answer. But all that we do should be done worshipful­ly. For the “talking class,” that may mean, above all, to recognize that at the heart of all things, on earth as well as in heaven, is an incomprehensible mystery. What is more, this mystery is to be trusted far beyond what we seem able to understand and control.

Oedipus’s tragedy makes these themes incarnate for us.


P.S. For readers inspired to reread Oedipus Rex but ignorant, as I am, of classical Greek, my only advice is to steer toward a literal transla­tion and away from the deliberately artful. If you would be helped by a musical interpreta­tion of the drama, I confidently recommend Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio, which has the same name as the play.

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