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Oedipus Fate And Free Will Essay

The ancient Greeks believed that their gods could see the future, and that certain people could access this information. Prophets or seers, like blind Tiresias, saw visions of things to come. Oracles, priests who resided at the temples of gods—such as the oracle to Apollo at Delphi—were also believed to be able to interpret the gods' visions and give prophecies to people who sought to know the future. During the fifth century B.C.E., however, when Sophocles was writing his plays, intellectuals within Athenian society had begun to question the legitimacy of the oracles and of the traditional gods. Some of this tension is plain to see in Oedipus Rex, which hinges on two prophecies. The first is the prophecy received by King Laius of Thebes that he would have a son by Queen Jocasta who would grow up to kill his own father. The second is the prophecy that Oedipus received that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Laius, Jocasta, and Oedipus all work to prevent the prophecies from coming to pass, but their efforts to thwart the prophecies are what actually bring the prophecies to completion.

This raises a question at the heart of the play: does Oedipus have any choice in the matter? He ends up killing his father and marrying his mother without knowing it—in fact, when he is trying to avoid doing these very things. Does he have free will—the ability to choose his own path—or is everything in life predetermined? Jocasta argues that the oracles are a sham because she thinks the prediction that her son would kill her husband never came to pass. When she finds out otherwise, she kills herself. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus has fulfilled his terrible prophecy long ago, but without knowing it. He has already fallen into his fate. One could argue that he does have free will, however, in his decision to pursue the facts about his past, despite many suggestions that he let it go. In this argument, Oedipus's destruction comes not from his deeds themselves but from his persistent efforts to learn the truth, through which he reveals the true nature of those terrible deeds. Oedipus himself makes a different argument at the end of the play, when he says that his terrible deeds were fated, but that it was he alone who chose to blind himself. Here, Oedipus is arguing that while it is impossible to avoid one's fate, how you respond to your fate is a matter of free will.

Fate and Free-Will in Sophocles' Oedipus the King

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Fate and Free-Will in Sophocles' Oedipus the King


In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, the themes of fate and free will are very strong throughout the play. Only one, however, brought about Oedipus' downfall and death. Both points could be argued to great effect. In ancient Greece, fate was considered to be a rudimentary part of daily life. Every aspect of life depended and was based upon fate (Nagle 100). It is common belief to assume that mankind does indeed have free will and each individual can decide the outcome of his or her life. Fate and free will both decide the fate of Oedipus the King.

Both sides of the argument can be greatly supported.  The Greeks believed in the idea that personality of the individual greatly affected his or her life (Nagle 120).    Their personality was what decides their own free will.  A wise man will make good decisions in his life; an ignorant and stubborn man won't be so fortunate.  The character traits of a person have a certain positive or negative affect on the choices that he or she makes.  For Oedipus, one of these attributes was the desire for knowledge and truth about his own existence. This driving force in the play led to the truth of his origin.  This ties in with his own aspect of free will.  His free will is based on his drive for knowledge.

Throughout the entire play, Oedipus pushes Tiresias, Creon, Jocasta, the oracle, the messenger, and the shepherd for information regarding his beginnings.   Each one of these characters in some way or form refused to give him a thorough answer.   As he draws closer to the answer, another character tries to stop his journey.  Oedipus continues moving onward even though others request he didn't.  "Oh no, listen to me, I beg you, don't do this....Listen to you? No more.  I must know it all, see the truth at last " (Sophocles 195).  His desire for truth kept pushing him to continue his search, ultimately leading to his downfall.  The entire time Oedipus had the capability to discontinue the plight.  However he made the independent decision to continue.

Another instance where choices directly linked Oedipus to the prophecy was at the crossroads.  Oedipus demonstrates an important trait in his character, stubbornness.  This trait is visible when Oedipus reacted to the man pushing him aside at the crossroads.

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  "the one shouldering me aside, the driver, I strike him in anger! ....I killed them all--every mother's son!" (Sophocles 189).  In ancient times when a caravan was coming down the road they usually pushed you to the side.  Oedipus didn't like this and flipped out, killing all of them.  It was his stubbornness that caused this to happen.  His personality led to the decision to kill the caravan and unknowingly, his father too.  If he were a wise and content man, then his decision would have differed.

When Oedipus defeated the Sphinx by solving the riddle, he could have refused to take the missing king's throne.  He could have also declined to marry the former king's wife, unaware that the queen was his own mother.  He accepted both of these without any regrets.  If his decision was different it might have altered the course of events in the future.  His personality made sure that the decisions went the way they did.  These choices were made by Oedipus with his own free will, his own decisions.  He didn't have to accept these gifts, but did none the less.  These conclusions would lead to his own demise, but they were his own mistakes, not fate.

Free will can also be found in the actions of Jocasta and Laius.  The choices they made were not made by their own judgement, but rather reactions to a situation that neither of them was prepared to deal with.  Upon hearing the prophecy that foretold the future sins in their household; they made a harsh decision out of fear.  They had little Oedipus sent to die at the foothills of a mountain.  This reaction seems very cruel, but back in ancient times it was very natural.  Being that an oracle foretold the prophecy, Jocasta and Laius responded as any Greek parents would.  They solved the problem by removing Oedipus from the equation, but in the end their decision wasn't the right one.

This leaves the readers of the play to wonder what might have happened if Jocasta and Lauis never sent Oedipus to die as an infant.  Would the prophecy still have taken place? It seems that it wouldn't have, because Oedipus wouldn't have engaged in the misled wandering after he left his adopted home.  Oedipus would have had no reason to fulfill the prophecy, but that is another question that we don't know.  On the other hand, if Oedipus didn't listen to the prophecy suggested to him in Corinth, he never would have returned to Thebes to carry out his destiny.  All these instances can be looked at that free will was the deciding factor. Was it really? Fate can also be looked upon in every instance, equally a strong argument against free will.

Oedipus' desire for knowledge can also be looked at by the standpoint of fate.  He was born with his own stubbornness. The Gods themselves made him that way and it can not be changed.  No matter what his decisions were, their gift to him will lead to the path they gave him.  He can't escape the fate the Gods have given him.  He kept pushing farther and father, but it just led to his downfall.  Nothing he could have done would have stopped that.  The prophets make this clear in their prophecies throughout the text.   All the premonitions they say come true.  They can't be avoided because the Gods made you with your personality and it controls your life. Ultimately they control you.

When Oedipus reaches the crossroads, it was fate that led to the events that took place.  "Short work, by god-with one blow of the staff" (Sophocles 189).  This quote reveals that the gods did play apart in the events that took place.  Oedipus' prophecy was to kill his own father.  Unwillingly because of his stubbornness Oedipus struck down and did indeed kill his father.  Because the gods gave him this trait, his fate was unavoidable.  The traits of Oedipus would generate the right sequence of events that would eventually lead to his prophecy coming true.  Oedipus' personality was the cause of the events.  His free will blended in with the fate given to him by the gods.  All together it was fate that decided these actions.

The prophecy given to Lauis and Jocasta is also another example of unavoidable fate.  Even though it wasn't there own choices to get rid of their son, their reaction to the prophecy set up the events for the future.  If they never sent Oedipus to die at the mountainside, he most likely never would have killed Lauis at the crossroads.  Their reaction was to a message given to them by the Gods.  The Gods dictated what was going to happen.  They told the prophet to give out the prophecy.  Leading to the vanquishing of little Oedipus.  All along every action leads to ones fate in life.

The greatest show of fate in the text is when Oedipus gauges his eyes out with the golden clips.  He does this in reaction to the events that take place.  Oedipus was aware that he alone was responsible for his actions and gauged his own eyes out.  That is the free will standpoint on the issue.  Oedipus was at the same time not responsible for his actions.  The gods controlled his personality and therefore controlled the outcome of his life.   If Oedipus realized this he might not have taken his own sight.  The gods use their power to provoke human's free will.  They were responsible for the demise of Oedipus, but in the same time convince the human that it was there fault.

Free will and fate can be related to every aspect of Oedipus the King.  The gods who control fate manipulate the thinking and concepts in human's free will.  Ultimately fate is what overcomes all.  It may not seem like it, but free will was given to mankind by the gods or God.  So in turn the gods decide the fate of everybody when they created man.  It was already decided and can not be changed.  One can still argue the position that free will is more dominant, but if you relate to creation and how the gods made man, fate overcomes.

In Oedipus the King, Sophocles made it clear to his fellow Greeks that mankind has the ability, even with prophecies and oracles, to make choices free from influence of divine forces.  He also shows that fate does play a part in human's lives too.  They tie into each other for a direct balance.  Overall, fate is the divine power that controls free will and determines one's life.



Works Cited and Consulted:

Abrams, Brendan.  Sophocles and Fate. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1999.

Ehrenberg, Victor. "Sophoclean Rulers: Oedipus." In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex, edited by Michael J. O'Brien. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Fagles, Robert. "Introduction to Oedipus the King." In Sophocles' The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Trans. Robert Fagles. NY: Penguin, 1984. 131-53.

Sophocles.  "Oedipus the King" The Three Theben Plays Illinois:  Scott, Foresman and Company, 1991.

Nortwick, Thomas.  Oedipus: The Meaning of Fate and Free-Will. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.