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 Rex, Oedipus at Colonus. One of the central questions in OC is the extent to which Oedipus was truly culpable for killing his father and sleeping with his mother. 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?
I’ll post soon on how Sophocles wrestles in OC with the question of what Oedipus deserves.