Great Books 191
Oedipus Tyrannus on Causality, Determinism, and Identity
Questions of the extent to which nature, nurture, and free will affect our lives pervade great works, and these questions remain universally salient. Both Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Euripides’ Bacchae propose similar paradigms about the nature of fate and how humans interact with it. This essay explores such interpretations, investigating first how the works posit fate and human agency in general and second how individuals, both the characters and myself, function in such a world. Both works present a dualistic interpretation of fate. By illustrating the gods’ omnipotence, the Bacchae and Oedipus postulate that the universe is too complex for humans to fully comprehend. The salience of both works stems from their application to the universal human experience; Sophocles and Euripides both emphasize human agency, positing free will as the means by which humans interact with fate. The choices people make—the manifestation of their free will—depends on human nature. In the Bacchae, Pentheus’ culpability stems from his inhuman nature, and in Oedipus, Oedipus’ nature, centered around curiosity, reflects the universal human drive to understand the unknowable. Beyond merely textual analysis, the question of adoption deeply connected me to the text. Since most adoptees operate without a genealogy, larger societal ideas about fate explains our Being in the world. Oedipus functions as an exceptional test case for adoption because his realization of his identity serves as the tragic climax. Thus, Oedipus’ “recognition and reversal” reiterates the importance of an essentializing interpretation of fate and how we function within it.
In both Oedipus and the Bacchae, the inevitability and unknowability of fate seems pervasive. Every culture attempts to create a paradigm that explains the universe’s entropy, and in these two works, gods’ determinism1 provides such a paradigm. Here, the gods determine every aspect of life. Life, like Oedipus’ prophecies, “live and flutter around him” (Oedipus Tyrannus 482), because understanding the world in its entirety is impossible for humans to conceive of. Consequentially, “what will be, will be” (341). Even Tiresias, the epitome of wisdom, realizes the inaccessibility of universal causality. In Oedipus, the gods mandate actions that fall outside human control. This paradigm is best illustrated when Oedipus pleads for Creon to banish him. Creon relinquishes his ability to determine Oedipus’ fate, leaving it for “the god to decide” (1521). This demonstrates the Greek’s deep-rooted belief that the gods’ determination of fate takes precedence to human agency. Creon will not superimpose his authority over the iron-clad will of the gods. This testament to the divine serves as a teleological attempt to give larger meaning to a world that humans, by their very nature, cannot understand.
Similarly, the Bacchae functions as an even more overt testament to the gods’ omnipresence. Like the universe, Dionysus’ nature is too complex to understand or predict. Dionysus performs supernatural miracles for his Maenads, making “springs of wine” (Bacchae 814) flow from the earth, and honey “pour / From the ivied rods they carry” (815-816). Likewise, Dionysus punishes Kadmus by condemning him to exile and transforming him into a dragon-snake, doomed to lead a barbarian horde against his homeland (1540-1560). Apollo's determinism reflects humanity’s attempt to explain a fundamentally unknowable world. The prevalence of the gods indicates our endeavor to create a universalizing system with which to explain a world that is not conceivable by human apparatuses of causality. Perhaps the gods are merely another construct in the attempt to create a framework with which to organize a world too complex to understand.
Although the omnipresence of the gods and the externality of fate initially appear to dominate the text, both Sophocles and Euripides couch their narratives in terms of human decision-making. This emphasis on agency indicates that, for them, free will functions as an apparatus with which to navigate reality—a comprehensive attempt to understand the universe on a grand scale. Specifically, Oedipus demonstrates how individuals’ nature determines how they choose to engage with fate, and how that engagement ultimately gives life meaning. Even though the universality of fate underlies every aspect of the narrative, Sophocles presents Oedipus Tyrannus primarily in terms of Oedipus’ decision-making. Sophocles highlights Oedipus’ choices as a product of his nature, and Oedipus’ characteristics, such as his readiness to jump to conclusions about Creon (i.e. 538-539) and himself (i.e. 738, 1182-1185), factor strongly into reader’s judgment of his culpability. To this end, the Messenger laments that "the worst pain is self-chosen, deliberate" (1231), indicating that Oedipus’ free will, the way he chooses to navigate reality, is what ultimately condemns him. After gouging out his eyes, Oedipus cries, “Apollo! It was Apollo, my friends. / Agony after agony, he brought them on. / But I did this [his self-inflicted wounds] … / By my own hand” (1330-1333). Oedipus realizes that, although larger divine factors influenced the physical outcome of his life, his own paradigm towards the world shapes its ultimate meaning. Thus, free will functions as a mechanism to engage and attempt to understand, even if not fully, a world too complex for the human psyche.
Although the nature of fate and causality may be beyond the scope of human understanding, the nature of the individual determines the means by which they engage that fate. In the Bacchae, Euripides portrays Pentheus as inhuman. Characterized as “descended from / A dragon, fathered by […/ …] some/ Savage murderous giant who / Battles the gods” (Bacchae 632-638), the Chorus portrays Pentheus as the epitome of the unnatural. Although the Chorus may be biased against Pentheus, Euripides supports this characterization through other characters and Pentheus’ own actions. Fundamentally, Pentheus’ nature, one of rationality and irreverence, dictates his choices. Although Pentheus’ direct responsibility for Thebes’ irreverence towards Dionysus is minimal, Euripides magnifies his culpability by highlighting the connections between his disposition and free will. Although his fate is ultimately determined by Dionysus, Pentheus’ inhumanity and disbelief in divinity generates the naiveté that both results in his death and prevents him from experiencing life’s “joyous rapture” (277). Consequentially, Pentheus’ rejection of Dionysus symbolizes his rejection of human’s primeval nature. Euripides juxtaposes Pentheus to those who participate in Bakkhaic revelry, those who accept their nature and revel in it, through the thematic device of wine. Tiresias contrasts wine—and by extension, Dionysus—to Pentheus as humanity, distilled. Wine symbolizes primal human nature in that it ensures “we mortals have what’s good in life” (334), and reveals what is left behind when exteriors are stripped away. Ultimately, Pentheus’ exaggerated character reiterates the connections between human nature, free will, and fate. As humans, our nature informs the actions we take, which comprise free will—the paradigm with which humans engage fate.
In Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus chooses to engage his fate through an obsession with knowledge. Initially, Oedipus’ curiosity about his origins made him flee Corinth (780-798). Later, Tiresias reveals that Oedipus’ culpability, what ultimately led to his demise, was because of Oedipus’ persistent questioning; Tiresias tells Oedipus that “[he] would not have come if [Oedipus] had not summoned him” (432). Thus, Oedipus calls for his own fate. Oedipus’ attempts to control knowledge and understanding reflects a deep need to engage a fate over which he has no control, and this drive for understanding is universal to human experience. Oedipus’ exceptionality—portrayed as “god-like” by the Thebans—demonstrates how he actually represents both the citizens of Thebes and all of humanity. In the opening, the Chorus extols Oedipus as the paragon of Thebes; the “country calls [him] its savior” (49), and in return, he represents the city. It is this paradox, that an individual represents the collective, which is indicative of the universality of Oedipus’ character. Oedipus’ tyranny is not purely domination, but ubiquity. Instead of simply an individual character trait, Oedipus’ curiosity represents something far more fundamental to the human condition. Like Oedipus, humanity struggles to understand the essentializing project of history. Curiosity uniquely empowers all actions by determining how we engage with fate; thus, curiosity itself represents free will
Ultimately, for me, one of the most interesting and resonant aspects of this investigation of fate and agency was how it relates to adoption. When Oedipus realizes his true identity, he must rely not on his genealogy, but his understanding of his relationship with fate to make sense of his situation. Because he thinks that the Corinthians are his biological parents, Oedipus assumes their identity as his own. When Oedipus learns the grotesque details of his fate, his real father and mother, Oedipus’ sight symbolizes a much deeper threat to his self-proclaimed identity. Oedipus sees the light: his “forbidden parents […/ …] forbidding marriage, [and] forbidden death” (1184-1185). Through apostrophe, Oedipus calls out to the mountain, Citheron, to explain his twisted fate (1391). Deprived of a genealogical explanation, Oedipus’ evocation of Citheron symbolizes his need to engage larger societal interpretations of fate to anchor himself. However, the outside reflects in. Deprived of his supposed genealogy, Oedipus is left only with himself, which forces him to question whether his fate was a byproduct of his own nature. These questions, questions of identity, are strikingly familiar to adoptees.
In no other context have I investigated so thoroughly a unifying theory of fate and causality, so acquiring such a framework has been immensely freeing. Something about both Oedipus and the Bacchae rang deeply authentic to me. The ideas they present about causality and free will were intuitively interesting questions, but I never expected this work to ultimately influence my perception. Like Oedipus, I was also abandoned at birth, left to decide whether my life was merely in the hands of a clockwork universe, or a test to prove my self-worth. Some odd twist of fate landed me into a remarkably privileged social position for no reason at all. The responsibility to make that count was tremendous. However, adopting a framework that posits free will as a means to navigate reality creates, for me, a state of acceptance. Understanding free will as a subjective experience and a comprehensive attempt to grasp the universe on a broad scale has created a home, or at least a foundation from which to build. Beyond adoption, the issues Oedipus and the Bacchae address have resonated throughout the centuries because they reflect the way all of us engage the world. The longevity of these works lie, not in its fleeting metaphors, or even necessarily its historical significance. No, their portrayal of the fundamental human experience explains the works’ intransience, an experience shared by Oedipus, Pentheus, and us all.