Was Oedipus Culpable?

As I noted in an earlier post on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, I am (very slowly) working my way through the ancient Greek tragedies.  I recently finished the sequel to Oedipus RexOedipus at Colonus.  One of the central questions in OC is the extent to which Oedipus was truly culpable for killing his father, King Laius, and sleeping with his mother, Queen Jocasta.  And, indeed, to modern sensibilities (or at least my modern sensibilities), Oedipus suffers far in excess of his blameworthiness.  After all, he did not know that Laius and Jocasta were his father and mother — he was raised by the King and Queen of Corinth, and they never told him that they were not his biological parents.  The whole patricide and incest thing was an accident.  So why should Oedipus suffer blindness, exile, and life as a wandering beggar — how he can deserve such a fate?

To be sure, Oedipus did massacre Laius and his attendants following a dispute over whose chariot had the right of way — what seems to be an ancient instance of road rage.  Even if he did not know that Laius was his father, we might say Oedipus was culpable for a hyper-violent overreaction to a minor slight.  

But, if we are to be fair to Oedipus, we need to think about his culpability from the standpoint of the values and beliefs of his culture.  This was a premodern society in which male honor was a paramount value — think of Achilles, that Greek hero par excellence, sulking in his tent over a slight from his commanding officer while his comrades are being slaughtered on the plains of Troy.  And, indeed, I get no sense from either OR or OC that Oedipus was at all blameworthy for the crossroads massacre per se.  It was only the fact — unknown to Oedipus — that his father was the victim that made the event the horrifying moral transgression that it was.

If anything, Oedipus’s culpability may have been in the nature of what we would now call recklessness — consciously proceeding in the face of a substantial and unjustifiable risk.  Oedipus may not have known the truth, but he did get warnings — a rumor that the King and Queen of Corinth were not his biological parents, a prophecy that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother.  We might conclude that Oedipus must have been aware of a risk of patricide any time he used deadly force against an older man, and a risk of incest any time he slept with an older woman.  Knowing the risks, it was at least arguably culpable of him not to back down at the crossroads and not to decline the hand of Jocasta in marriage.

On the other hand, we must still contend with the costs of dishonor that Oedipus might have suffered at the crossroads.  Our concept of recklessness requires not only a substantial risk, but also an unjustifiable risk.  The dishonor of backing down at the crossroads might have been so high as to justify the risk of patricide that Oedipus assumed by fighting.  It’s also possible that Oedipus would have suffered dishonor by refusing the opportunity to step into the position of the dead King Laius (including his position in Jocasta’s marital bed), although I’m much less confident about that interpretation.

Even granting a recklessness-type culpability, there are still proportionality questions — the severity of Oedipus’s punishment should match the degree of his blameworthiness.  Although recklessness is blameworthy, we would regard it as a significantly lesser form of culpability than intentional wrongdoing.  Yet, in a society in which male honor is the highest value, Oedipus suffers what may be fairly characterized as a fate worse then death.  He is condemned to wander the country as a beggar, led around by his daughters.  His utter helplessness and dependence on two females must have been seen as among the most extreme forms of degradation imaginable.  Can recklessness really merit this fate?

Cross posted at Life Sentences Blog.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Andrew Spillane

    Very interesting read. One lowly psychoanalyst by the name of Sigmund Freud once gave his opinion on the nature of Oedipus Rex’s lesson. Without recalling the direct quote, the essence of his comment was that we should not fight against fate and simply submit. A grim outlook on this play, no less, and I’m not sure if I would endorse that position wholeheartedly. But Freud’s conclusion is useful in assessing Oedipus Rex’s tragic ending.

    One could borrow from Freud to add another facet to the play besides the idea of punishment: how cruel fate can be of its own force. At least by modern standards, even if we accept the recklessness argument, that would not warrant the horrific burdens Oedipus bore in the end. But there is more to the plot and message than that. Not only must he face punishment because of actions for which he is blameworthy, but further consequences are also visited upon him by circumstance. Put another way, he was horrendously victimized by fate.

    Making the story even more tragic is that his demise was set in motion by his search for something objectively good: the truth. And it was that unyielding pursuit of the truth that led to his destruction. And so, we have a classical tragic hero.

    I wonder if there is a lesson for us in the midst of legal education on that last point. We are taught to seek out the truth zealously. But how far should we go in plumbing the depths of a case? Do we risk that which a prayer to St. Thomas More seeks protection from: that we do not, to win a point, lose our souls?

  2. Joseph hylton

    The lesson learned by Oedipus is one of ancient vintage. Cain won Yahweh’s displeasure because he was a crop farmer and not a raiser of sheep. How was he to know that the God of Genesis had a preference for animal sacrifice?

    Unfairness seems to be woven into the texture of the universe.

  3. Melissa Greipp

    Oedipus’ recklessness may be an example of a violation of the golden mean, especially in that he received some warnings before he acted.

  4. Edward Fallone

    The ancient Greeks believed that no person is capable of avoiding the fate that the Gods have determined for them. To fight against your fate is the ultimate act of hubris. To accept your fate with honor and courage is the ultimate act of heroism. Hence the phrase “tragic hero.” Aristotle said that the tragic hero must ultimately recognize and accept the will of the Gods. I would argue that Oedipus lacks any moral culpability, and that he is in fact presented sympathetically by Sophocles.

  5. Allen Gurfel

    Oedipus is right to blame himself. The rebuttal offered — invoking Greek notions of fate and the incoherence of blameworthiness that allegedly follows — fails.

    For a moment, considerations of Greek notions of fate, responsibility, and blameworthiness are tabled.

    Oedipus is a pious man who received a prophecy from a god. It follows that he believed the prophecy. If he wished to avoid fulfillment of the prophecy to murder his father and sleep with his mother he could have done so by not killing anyone and remaining celibate. He could at least have done his due diligence with regard to the identity of the victim or conquest. If he had known for a fact that Merope and Polybus were his true parents by birth then that diligence would have been done. He did not know this. To the contrary, he harbored doubts.

    He failed in his due diligence and is therefore blameworthy and correct to assign guilt to himself when he learns that the man he killed was his father and the woman he’s been sleeping with is his mother.

    Turning to fate and responsibility as understood by the Greeks, Sophocles would know better than even a Ph.D. in 2014 AD. If blameworthiness were a completely alien notion to the Greek worldview we would not find Oedipus, a Greek in a play for Greeks, blaming himself.

    There is a distinction between fate and blameworthiness. A person may be fated to bring about the death of a child. If the death comes about by complete accident and without any intent on the part of the person — say, in a car accident resulting from iced roads — then the person is not blameworthy and not deserving of punishment. If the person murders the child in cold blood then the person is blameworthy and deserving of punishment.

    Professor’s Streiter’s response to the above point is to expand the fated fact from merely *the child was fated to be killed by a given person* to *the child was fated to be killed by the given person in a certain fashion*. The fated fact could be expanded ad infinitum in an attempt to nullify the distinction. This will not work. It is very far from clear that the Greeks had a conception of fate comparable to the total determinism of modern philosophy in which every physical motion and even mental state is set. The gods trifle, yes. They set innocent people up, yes. But while the *what* is set, the details of *how* are not. Oedipus will kill his father. Whether he will do it with intent or by accident is left open.

    Further, the Greeks clearly had a sense of deserved punishment. They had a notion of innocent people. If literally all is fated then there can be no innocent people for there can be no guilty people. When all is fated there is no free will. Professor Streiter praises Oedipus for his courage in facing the truth and his compassion in banishing himself from the city for the sake of others. If Oedipus can be praised then he can be blamed. They are two sides of the same coin.

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