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Ancient Greek Literature: Tragedy

Throughout history there have been many great leaders, some better than others, but overall they have all shared various traits that are essential to a person in power. Ancient Greek literature has continuously proved that leaders possess specific qualities, including negative ones such as moira (destiny), hubris (extreme pride), and peripeteia (reversal of fortune), all three of which are often referred to as tragic flaws in literature. In the play “Oedipus the King,” written by Sophocles, destiny plays an enormous role on the concept of Oedipus’ fate and free will. Essentially, fate and free will have been greatly debated throughout centuries by various philosophers. Philosophers such as Aristotle, Augustine, and even Sophocles himself, have all addressed the importance of fate and free will not only in literature, but in everyday life as well.

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Fate and free will are arguably the most important topic addressed in “Oedipus the King,” (Sophocles 2008). The story goes as this, Oedipus’ parent’s are told that his prophecy is that he will kill his father and marry his mother, so out of fear they send Oedipus away before he is able to get to know them. Oedipus then grows up to do exactly that without realizing it— since he had been sent away as a young child with no knowledge of who is real parents are. It is at this point when the question arises: was what happened to Oedipus fate, or did his own decisions and tragic flaws lead him to this tragic downfall? In an argument for fate based on text from the play, the character Tiresias, who the reader discovers is the prophet in the play states, “this day will give you a father, and break your heart.” (Sophocles 1. 425). In other words, Tiresias is telling Oedipus his prophecy, or prediction of his fate, in which he informs Oedipus that when this day comes Oedipus will find out about his mother’s death, the truth of his father’s death, and the truth about his birth. Although, many will argue that every single choice that Oedipus made throughout the course of his life ultimately lead up to him discovering these horrific truths.

Before the reader can determine the cause of Oedipus’ downfall, the audience must first understand what free will and fate truly mean. Free will is often described as the belief that a person has the ability to make a decision about one thing or another, and this decision influences or determines their path in life. In an article written by Raymond Bergner, he discusses some of the cases for a belief in free will. He states that in free will, when people make choices they get a feeling that they just made a genuine decision on their own— although, this may simply be an illusion if fate is real (Bergner 2018). In relation to the story of Oedipus, free will may just be the cause for Oedipus’ downfall considering one of the key factors of free will is that free will holds yourself and others accountable for their behavior. By holding yourself or another accountable for a certain behavior means that you are capable of choosing to make a decision which resulted in that behavior, proving that the choice made was a direct indication of free will. Similarly, in another article written about free will, the author explains that being able to understand social considerations and being able to make a choice about a particular topic, means that free will is being applied (Strong 1904). Therefore, Oedipus’ acknowledgment of the incest in his marriage and the murder of his father at the end of the play may indicate that free will is to blame since he was conscious of the choices he made.

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Oedipus’ downfall, and truth is sometimes referred to by critics as being twisted, dark, and sometimes even evil. One philosopher that explores the relation between evil and free will is Augustine. Augustine’s theory of free will is explained thoroughly in an article written by Jesse Couenhoyen. Essentially, Augustine believed that misusing free will is the direct source of evil, and that evil only exists through the fault of humans (Couhoyen 2007). This philosopher’s views on free will are directly routed in religious content, such as believing if God is all powerful, meaning that humans do not have the right to choice, then there should be absolutely no evil in the world. So implying Augustine’s views on free will to Oedipus would mean that because of his ability to make his own choices, his downfall was bound to be twisted, and evil due to human fault. Also in relation to Oedipus, Couhoyen explains that Augustine believed that choices made by humans often have no explanation and are filled with secrets and mysteries. This connects to the play in the sense that the reader is frequently confused by Oedipus’ determination to discover the truth, even if it uncovers various secrets. Furthermore, Oedipus’ downfall was brought on by himself due to the misuse of his free will.

In contrast to Augustine, Aristotle takes a stance in supporting fate as opposed to free will as an undeniable aspect of life. In an article written by John Dudley, Aristotle’s views on chance and fate are thoroughly discussed and explained. Aristotle’s most profound argument explained in this article is the concept that the path one takes to reach the ultimate goal of happiness is extremely unpredictable due to various unforeseeable events which have a direct impact on our actions and life course (Dudley 2018). These unforeseen events that impact our lives can be considered acts of divinity in which fate is a direct result. Dudley also goes on to identify Aristotle’s view on chance by stating chance can only be caused by God, and it can be defined as recognizing a meaningful or important moment at an unorthodox or unexpected timing. Instead of realizing and accepting his fate when Tiresias shared it, Oedipus’ hubris caused him to recognize his fate too late. This also applies to Oedipus’ parent’s as well; if they had just accepted their fate, perhaps they would not have tried to trick the Gods, and perhaps they would have considered murdering their son.

In the same article previously discussed written by Raymond Bergner, the author also discusses the case for determinism (fate). He explains that there is a cause for everything that happens in life, and that there is only one possible outcome (Bergner 2018). Whereas in the case of free will, various human choices could lead to many possible outcomes. For Oedipus the argument for fate would say that the cause of everything that happened in his life was his prophecy and his only possible outcome was his fate. In contrast, the argument for free will would say that his various decisions in life lead him to different outcomes which ultimately lead up to his downfall.

The theme of fate and free will throughout “Oedipus the King,” helps to captivate the reader, and emphasize the tragedy of the play. What makes “Oedipus the King,” a tragedy is the fact that the main character (Oedipus) started off extremely prosperous in the sense that he was a king who cared greatly for his people, and he was able to solve the riddle of the sphinx. In a tragedy there must always be a conflict and this conflict typically has something to do with fate or the Gods, especially for Greek tragedies. Furthermore, this conflict of fate in Oedipus will eventually lead to the climax of the tragedy when Oedipus’ truth is discovered. In most tragedies, the ending often has something to do with peripeteia or reversal of fortune. For Oedipus, his blindness of the truth lead to him becoming physically blind, but finding the light of truth along the way. Essentially, every aspect of this Greek tragedy could be related to fate in one way or another.

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Another tragedy written by Sophocles that explores the idea of a tragic hero with a tragic downfall would be the play, “Antigone.” Similarly to “Oedipus the King,” “Antigone,” also addresses the concept of fate. In this play, the main character is Antigone, who is the daughter of Oedipus. The main plot of this tragedy is when Antigone disobeys the king by burying her brother against his wishes. The king says that whoever buried Polynices (Antigone’s brother) body will be sentenced to death. Antigone is questioned and denies nothing about burying the body, and is sentenced to her death. This poses the question of free will and fate in the sense that Antigone made the conscious decision to bury her brother knowing the consequences, so ultimately her decision lead to death and/or downfall. As for fate, perhaps her destiny was to give her life to bury her brother so that Creon would realize his tragic flaws. Greek tragedies continuously convey a deeper message that can be picked apart and explored.

Fate and free will are topics that have been greatly explored throughout centuries by various philosopher’s such as Aristotle and Augustine, but the curiosity of this debate is continuing into modern day. It goes without question that fate or free will is what influences every decision’s made by humans, which then leads to various life paths. As for Greek tragedies such as “Oedipus the King,” the use of tragic flaws and a tragic downfall is essential for the reader to greater explore the deeper meaning of the play. By indicating the deeper message of the play, the reader is able to create a greater understanding of the author’s intentions through research and application.

Works Cited

  • Bergner, Raymond M. “The Case Against the Case Against Free Will.” Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, vol. 38, no. 3, Aug. 2018, pp. 123-139. EBSCOhost, dos: 10.1037/teo0000084
  • Couenhoven, Jesse. “Augustine’s Rejection of the Free-Will Defence: An Overview of the Late Augustine’s Theodicy.” Religious Studies, vol. 43, no. 3, 2007, pp. 279–298. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20006375.
  • John Dudley. “Aristotle’s Views on Chance and Their Contemporary Relevance.” SCHOLE, Vol 12, Iss 1, Pp 7-27 (2018), no. 1, 2018, p. 7. EBSCOhost, doi:10.21267/AQUILO.2018.12.10407.
  • Sophocles. “Oedipus the King.” The Seagull Reader. Joseph Kelly. 2nd ed., New York, 2008. 3-53. Print.
  • Strong, C. A. “A Deterministic Analysis of Free Will.” The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, vol. 1, no. 5, 1904, pp. 125–131. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2011765.

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Ancient Greek Literature: Tragedy
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Throughout history there have been many great leaders, some better than others, but overall they have all shared various traits that are essential to a person in power. Ancient Greek literature has continuously proved that leaders possess specific qualities, including negative ones such as moira (destiny), hubris (extreme pride), and peripeteia (reversal of fortune), all three of which are often referred to as tragic flaws in literature. In the play “Oedipus the King,” written by Sophocles,
2021-08-24 23:04:15
Ancient Greek Literature: Tragedy
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