Mouse in a Maze: Oedipus RexBy Charla Morgan In Oedipus Rex, Sophocles does far more than illustrate the fate-centered worldview embraced by the Greeks at that time: He questions the validity of the worldview itself–suggesting that the Greeks allowed fate to define the very nature of their existence in order to avoid facing some of the more terrifying aspects of personal freedom. Like his fellow Greeks, Oedipus acknowledges the existence of personal freedom, but he defines it as something far less potent than it really is. Ultimately, Oedipus considers personal freedom nothing more than an exercise in futility: a failed attempt to escape a tragic set of circumstances master-crafted by the gods. In assigning responsibility for his circumstances to the gods, he avoids the kind of self-examination that–however painful and scary it may be–leads to true enlightenment. Even at the story’s end, when Oedipus has the chance to evaluate why he crashed head on into a fate he so desperately tried to escape, it never occurs to him that he failed to grasp the true meaning personal freedom: that we alone are responsible for the choices we make, and that those choices determine the strength of our character, the depth of our insight, and the course of our lives.
Taking an honest look at personal freedom–as well as the damage caused when one fails to do so–is arguably one of the most profound contributions that Sophocles makes to our understanding of the human condition. The fact that Oedipus deluded himself about personal freedom–and why–is still poignant today because, even though we modern mortals seldom invest ourselves in the idea of fate, we nevertheless buy into religions that claim at least some control over us. Whether we are Christians, scientologists, or something else, we mirror the ancient Greeks in our desire to use the dictates of something outside of ourselves to avoid the fact that we are completely responsible for our own lives. Thus, like Oedipus, we tend to make honest, but futile attempts at exercising our personal freedom–visiting psychiatrists or buying self-help books, for example. At the same time, we run away from honest self-examination as swiftly as Oedipus flees Corinth–and for the very same reasons: because the truth is often painful and scary.
Like modern-day people, the ancient Greeks defined personal freedom as something that was limited at best. To begin with, they had a problem with the whole idea of ownership. Although the Greeks loved owning things like jewelry, property, and even olive plantations (Tautain 12), the idea of owning their actions was another matter entirely. In order for them to own their actions, they would have had to embrace a very potent definition of personal freedom: that one always has a choice between alternative courses of action, and that those choices–not fate–determine the path of one’s life. This concept of personal freedom meant taking complete responsibility for oneself, one’s actions, and one’s life–something that terrified the Greeks as much as any plague or drought (“Determinism” 2-4).
Likely Page BreakFate, on the other hand, allowed the Greeks to believe that the gods dictated their lives, and that whatever the gods had planned for them was unchangeable. It also helped them make sense of things they didn’t fully understand–everything from natural disasters to murder. The logic went like this: If the gods deem something inevitable, then there must be a good reason for it. If there’s a good reason for it, then it makes a certain kind of sense and everyone can feel at least a little bit better about it. Under the fate umbrella, an individual’s personality traits were also dictated by the gods and unchangeable: For example, if the god’s deemed that a person be quick-tempered and high-strung, then–like Oedipus–that person would tend to act rashly–even violently–and ultimately meet a tragic end. No amount of introspection or self-analysis would enable that person to acquire a new set of better traits–those that might offset the anger, for example, and alter a tragic fate. Thus, fate let the Greeks off the hook: They didn’t have to hold themselves accountable for their actions or their lives. It also rendered their personal freedom a kind of futile exercise: If actions were influenced by predetermined and unchangeable personality traits, then free will was limited and therefore powerless against fate (“Determinism” 2-4).
In the classic Greek tradition, Oedipus completely buys into this perspective on the nature of human existence. While he outwardly denies the validity of an oracle’s prophecy–that he will “marry his own mother (and) shed his father’s blood/With his own hands” (Sophocles 946-47)–he inwardly believes it. Panicked at the thought of this tragic fate, he latches on to his limited ideas of personal freedom. Like a mouse in a maze, he turns left rather than right, hoping to outwit the gods and alter his fate. To begin with, he flees Corinth–the place where he and his adoptive parents have lived as a family–thinking that he will simply leave behind all of the people who factor into his fate. However, because he is utilizing only a limited concept of personal freedom–taking everything at face value and never engaging in any kind of self-examination–he runs head on into the fate he so desperately tries to avoid. For example, along his journey, Oedipus flies into a fit of “rage” after being forced off the road, unknowingly kills his birth father (760-772), and eventually marries his birth mother. Oedipus’ actions not only hasten his arrival at the other end of the maze, they make him realize too late that–regardless of what he did or didn’t do–only one, predetermined exit awaited him all along. Like any delusional Greek, Oedipus concludes that fate is inescapable–that personal freedom is powerless over whatever life the gods had predetermined for him: “Oedipus, noblest of all the line/of Kadmos, have condemned myself to enjoy/These things no more, by my own malediction/Expelling that man whom the gods declared/To be defilement in the house of Laios” (1326-1330). He never gets the real lesson: that he lives in a maze of his own making, that personal freedom really means insight through self-examination, and that–given enough insight–he could have chewed his way out of there.
Through Oedipus, Sophocles demonstrates that people often choose not to recognize personal freedom for what it really is: the only real way out of the maze. Had Oedipus only stopped and thought about what he was doing, he might have engaged in self-examination and realized that he was running away from the trauma of his own childhood. Thus, the “fear that drove (him) out of Corinth” (950) might have been seen for what it really was. With insight gained through self-examination, Oedipus might have stayed in Corinth, faced his adoptive parents, made peace with his birth parents, and altered his life’s path. Oedipus, of course, never does any of these things–even though he is quite capable. Although he is given to inappropriate fits of rage, he also possesses great intelligence and compassion. For one thing, Oedipus is incredibly kind–determined to cure a plague that ravages his people: “Never doubt that I will help you/In every way I can” (13-14). He is also incredibly clever–able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx and then be crowned not only a king, but a “mortal god” (962). Oedipus never allows these better personality traits to open his eyes. He never stops to ask himself: “What am I really running away from here?” If he had, he might have come up with something like this: “I’m running away from how I felt when, as a child, I not only learned that I might be adopted, but that my real father ‘pierced (my) ankles/ And left (me) to die on a lonely mountainside'” (677-78). Oedipus remains ignorant because he fears painful self-examination even more than his tragic fate. It’s not that he’s incapable of becoming enlightened, it’s that he’s unwilling to do so.
Likely Page BreakIn my opinion, Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex to question the fate-centered worldview of his fellow Greeks. In doing so, he also questions us. It’s as if he knew that future generations would also turn a blind eye to the truth by avoiding self-examination. As Christ said more than 400 years after Sophocles’ death, “The truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). Sophocles wanted us to know that embracing the truth not only defines personal freedom–it is the key to understanding ourselves and the true nature of our existence.
“Determinism, Free Will, and Predestination–Ancient Greek Philosophy.” 24 Oct. 2008
Determinism Free will and Predestination – Ancient Greek Philosophy 15 Mar. 2008.
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Sophocles, Oedipus Rex. Literature: Structure, Sound. Boston: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2006.