Blind to Freedom
Athenian citizens believed they had no volition in life, but rather contended with a lack of free will and choice as they struggled with the presence of oracles and belief of destiny. They accepted that deities could foresee the future and select individuals as intermediaries who were able to access and communicate this information to the populace. Both the confines and possibilities of knowledge of the future pose a problem for the definition of free will. The tragedy, Oedipus Tyrannus, first performed in 429 BC and written by Sophocles, examines a time of blurred boundaries between supreme knowledge and man upon the discovery of truth. Sophocles’s orating becomes the base for techniques and claims made by Aristotle in Poetics and Longinus in On the Sublime, in order to understand transgressions and limits. The pursuit and gain of knowledge, as the primary barrier that frames the play, violates the didactic interest, as Oedipus falls into the tragedy of his destiny, unable to thwart or escape the wickedness that threatens him, questioning the existence of choice, and thus, ethical significance.
Riddles, being intentionally phrased to require wisdom to solve, force man to question his capacity of intelligence. The desire for answers remains consistent with Oedipus’ character in ascertaining the resolution of the question posed by the Sphinx, as well as his quest to know himself. According to Aristotle, consistency is necessary for the tragic character, and demonstrates probability (Poetics, 54a27-30). The problem-solver, thus, will always be able to solve problems. The answers to the riddle of the Sphinx and the riddle of who Oedipus truly is parallel each other in eradication of the inquisitor, (“Oedipus the King”, 451, 1288). The myth of Oedipus, once revealed, ultimately leads to his demise. This continuity suggests a world that is not static, but rather one that is constantly undergoing redefinition of itself and its inhabitants.
In order to obtain the knowledge required for resolving challenges, Oedipus himself claims the Sphinx “cried out for a prophet” to solve its riddle, enforcing the notion that only the prophesier has the ability to transgress limitations that the all-knowing may obtain (448). The transgression available in the prophetic and magical erases prior limits in order to reconstruct and redefine meanings. As these limits and boundaries are stripped away, the concepts of them seem to disappear entirely. Nietzsche explains the popular belief that “a wise magus can be born only from incest…” for the unnatural can only obtain the wisdom that transgresses boundaries humans cannot (The Birth of Tragedy, 68). Oedipus’ unnatural prophetic and magical powers that broke both present and future were not obtained by effort, but rather pre-determined through prophecy. His ability to achieve his desires and grasp knowledge were decided before his birth, and not secondary to actions of his own volition.
The principal function of the tragedy is to allow the audience to purge their emotions of pity and terror, and thus, the tragedy must elicit these feelings through employing an error in a human that resembles society and its errors (Poetics, 52b8-10). Naturally, Oedipus adopts the hamartia of a desire for success in obtaining knowledge, eventually leading to his ultimate defeat (“Oedipus”, 432). By definition, the desired character is one that is persistently in action. However, the actions performed by Oedipus that lead to this demise are to be questioned of their original intent, for it can be inferred that they are not of Oedipus’ own thought – they are predetermined by his vocation. This questions Oedipus as a representation of humanity, for he appears to be without control of his own choices. Transgression establishes a liminality during which prior meanings evaporate and distinctions appear; ignorance can no longer function for knowledge because the violation severed this distinction. Oedipus’ transgression, forcing recognition of himself through a reversal of action, furthers the idea of him being supreme to humanity.
Aristotle refers to the plot as the single-most vital component of the tragedy. The plot is a structure of incidents, or actions, of considerable magnitude. The incidents are meant to elicit sympathy no matter the character that performs them. Despite the use of rhetorical figures in the play to separate Oedipus from his actions, no man can be separated from his own destiny. The multitude of misfortunes that Oedipus experiences elicits a fear to hear the striking number of horrors he undergoes, but these misfortunes were notions that did not come to exist because of choices he made himself, but of actions that were inescapable upon the announcement of his destiny (On the Sublime, 23). His misfortunes are not his culpability, because his choices were not made out of free-will, or of an error in his character, but were fate.
The didactic importance of this play fails to be comprehended in totality. Tiresias, as a messenger of the gods and seer of the future, foresees the eventual blinding of Oedipus (“Oedipus”, 517). Despite Oedipus mocking Tiresias when told this, he blinds himself from seeing what he has destroyed (1405-1409). A parallel of their blindness ensues; one blind upon gaining the knowledge of the future, and the other blind upon gaining the knowledge of his past. Symbolic of attempting to remain in the dark, or in ignorance, for knowledge is too bright, Oedipus attempts to revert to his unawareness, but the eradication of ignorance had already occurred. Longinus recognizes the great power that exists in the messenger of God from the Torah, commenting: In this manner also the lawgiver of the Jews, no ordinary man, since he recognized and expressed divine power according to its worth, expressed that power clearly when he wrote at the beginning of his Laws: “And God said.” What? “Let there be light, and there was light…” (Sublime, 9). Longinus categorizes himself from the lawgiver, and from God in the statement made with quotation. Tiresias, like the lawgiver, is no ordinary man, who obtains messages from a supreme being. It is supposed that humanity has the ability to act upon their will to follow, or not follow, these laws, but if Oedipus’ fate is inescapable, then the existence of free-will, and subsequently, a meaning to action, is questioned. Oedipus is blinded by the light of the knowledge of his fate, that the gods, like the Jewish God, had created.
Oedipus’ desire for a success of achieving total knowledge functions as the limit that he desires to transgress. In achieving this transgression, Oedipus is unable to return to ignorance, for the concept as a whole is destroyed with knowledge. The tragedy depicts humanity’s unsuccessful attempts to escape evil and destiny, forcing the reader to question if the actions they choose are made of out their own free will, or if they are simply pre-ordained. This tragedy elicits most, if not all, of the features of great writing, in terms of both catharsis and the sublime, yet the plot fails to provide moral guidance, for morality cannot exist if freedom does not – the boundaries are escapable, but destiny is not.
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