THE OEDIPUS PLAYS OF SOPHOCLES: Philosophical Perspectives

Edited by Paul Woodruff

OUP (2018) h/b 264pp £64 (ISBN 9780190669447)

Oedipus has history. When he first appears before the plague-beleaguered citizens of Thebes, he has a reputation for being their saviour, having rescued them from the grip of the sphinx. However, at the same time he is the cause of the very plague from which the city is now suffering. He is soon to be the victim of his own success, and his own curse. His insight will discover that he is the object of his own inquiry. Many years later, when now an old man and a blind beggar, emerging from the grove of the Eumenides at Colonus, he will horrify the local inhabitants. His past again pursues him. 

But judgements about the former saviour of Thebes and accursed outcast of that same city are shifting and uncertain, as the two Oedipus plays of Sophocles show. The perspectives of Oedipus in scholarship through Aristotle and Freud to more recent scholars (in particular, Dodds, ‘On Misunderstanding Oedipus Rex’ [1966]) remind us how rich and fertile is the ground, but how shifting and disturbed are the waters. Nonetheless, the collection of essays in this volume, offering philosophical perspectives of the two Oedipus plays of Sophocles, is to be welcomed. The perspectives, while revisiting old ground, are fresh and enlightening.

This volume is the latest in the series of ‘Oxford Studies in Philosophy and Literature’, which have included philosophical perspectives of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Kafka’s Trial and Jane Austen’s Emma. ‘The aim of the series is to make manifest the multiple, complex engagements with philosophical ideas and problems that lie at the heart of the majority of texts’ (p. viii). In his Introduction Paul Woodruff, while acknowledging that, at least since the time of Plato (and his criticism of the poets), the paths of philosophical and literary studies have been divergent, is careful to give the play an historical, social and religious context. He is also careful about emphasizing the links between the two plays, acknowledging the very different times and circumstances of their productions. With this material readers will no doubt be familiar. However, the ensuing chapters offer new and thought-provoking perspectives of the familiar.

In the first chapter, ‘Oedipus Tyrannus and the Cognitive Value of Literature’, Noel Carroll reviews philosophers’ arguments about fiction. He argues that not all knowledge has to be empirical and that literary narratives may suggest philosophical themes. He reassesses Oedipus’ character and the insights which may be made about human behaviour. Using OT as seen through the lens of Aristotle’s Poetics, Carroll examines how catharsis can contribute to learning. Understanding our emotions can help our knowledge and understanding of who we are, and consequently have philosophical value. Having an emotional response (which would have been unacceptable to Plato) as a spectator, hearer or reader without being involved is a valuable experience. Carroll concludes that ‘a central function of philosophy is to remind us of the existential facts that “we all know”, but are prone by human nature to forget, if not to repress’ (p. 38). While the focus upon character in Greek Tragedy through the lens of Aristotle’s Poetics may not be new, the methodically argued case here gives new philosophical value to the reading of the story.

In ‘The Killing Feet: Evidence and Evidence Sensitivity in Oedipus Tyrannus’ C. D. C. Reeve examines how well Oedipus evaluates the validity of the different types of evidence with which he is presented. He shows how Oedipus is inconsistent in his reactions and judgements: he misjudges both the sources of information and the evidence itself, but in doing so he is little different from any of us. We often allow our motives and predispositions to shape our judgements. Hence, we bring disaster upon ourselves, because we are insufficiently sensitive to the evidence. ‘It demonstrates how difficult it is to be evidence-sensitive and perceptively realistic … in that way … we are poor children of Oedipus, following blindly in his maimed footsteps’ (p. 63).

Garry L. Hagberg (‘In the Ruins of Self-Knowledge: Oedipus Unmade’) develops further a line of inquiry begun in the first two chapters; namely, Oedipus’ self-knowledge. Using as a template for his argument the work of Richard Wollheim (Painting as an Art, Thames and Hudson, 1987) Hagberg tracks the stages by which Oedipus proceeds from external viewer to become the subject at the centre of the picture. ‘Sophocles has charted one path to self-knowledge, and he has exactingly shown the progress of a mind at turns seeking it and avoiding it’ (p. 96). As we witness this process we may come to realise that ‘those images within our moral imaginings define us more than we initially might have believed; we are, in innumerable ways, Oedipus’ (p. 96).

In ‘Tyranny, Enlightenment, and religion: Sophocles’ Sympathetic Critique of Periclean Athens in Oedipus Tyrannus’ Peter J. Ahrensdorf reads the play as a mirror of the story of Athens at the time of the play. In particular, Ahrensdorf likens Oedipus to Pericles—an enlightened leader who guides his people through ‘mind not muscle’. But Oedipus’ enlightenment fades as he is confronted with a plague, which drives him towards the irrational. ‘In this way then the plague appears to challenge and weaken the anti-traditional, anti-religious, rationalistic character of Periclean Athens’ (p. 103). Thus, Ahrensdorf suggests that 5th century notions of rationalism were being challenged within contemporary debate; a debate reflected in the play.

In ‘Gods, Fate and Character in the Oedipus Plays’ Paul Woodruff examines the influence of the gods upon individuals and their actions within the Sophoclean plays, but with particular reference to the Oedipus plays. He also reviews the characters of the protagonists, which determine their motives and actions. Thus, he observes that ‘without oracles and prophets neither plot would play out as it does’ (p. 134). And about the importance of character he states that ‘character makes an agent believably human, brings credibility to a story for an audience, and this credibility prepares the audience for an emotional response to the people in the story’ (p. 140). Later (p. 143) he concludes: ‘To sum up: an agent’s character does not drive the story; it explains the story’. We are once again in familiar territory of Sophoclean scholarship, but the perspective is new.

The final three essays deal more directly with Oedipus Coloneus. In ‘Aging Oedipus’ Philip Kitcher employs W.B. Yates’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ to help us consider how we should respond to Oedipus’ aging and death. Later references are made to the Bible, Samuel Beckett and T.S. Eliot to enable him to show how Sophocles and Oedipus come to terms with aging, and how they recognise a ‘link to something higher than human. And with this comes a realisation of an enduring value to life’ (p. 160). Drawing parallels with passages from Eliot’s Four Quartets Kitcher attempts to show that the greatness of Oedipus Coloneus lies its ability to wrestle with similar questions about life, death, reward and suffering, ‘to inspire us to ponder very similar answers’ (p. 181)

Grace Ledbetter in ‘Truth and Self at Colonus’, referring to the work of Yadlin-Gudolt (Truth matters: Theory and Practice in Psychoanalysis, Leiden: 2016) on the role of truth in psychoanalytical theory and practice, argues that the play shows Oedipus self-analysing his perceptions of truth and reality to help him come to terms with the past. Acceptance of the truth is not absolute, but requires us to process our own views of self and the past. The play shows Oedipus organising and processing these. The dying Oedipus searches for ‘truths’, working to (re)construct his life and experience. In so doing Oedipus gains ‘hero’ status, as has so often been noted by critics examining the play. But Ledbetter’s argument is different. She concludes—‘Oedipus is not cured by his own sufferings or by his becoming a “sufferer”, but rather by his own intellectual insight applied to his various images of reality and truth’ (p. 206).

In the final essay (‘The Goodness of Death in Oedipus Coloneus’) Franco V Trivigno employs the third stasimon—‘The best is never to have been born, or, once alive, to die young’ (lines 1225-27)—as his starting point. He examines classical philosophical views of life and death. He argues that there was a strand of ancient philosophical thought which postulated not the ‘badness of death’, but its ‘goodness’. Death is not a deprivation of the good things of life, but a cessation of the pain and suffering of life. On this reading OC makes sense, not as a rehabilitation of a suffering hero, but as a realistic analysis of the meaning of life and death, even if life is full of pain and suffering.

This collection provides new perceptions of old themes and offers challenging interpretations. For those interested in revisiting familiar literary texts, but in new and challenging ways, these essays are both stimulating and revealing.

Simon Tremewan

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