The idea that children are told what they are going to do for the rest of their lives may seem oppressive and cruel to some and to others the best way to educate. In the Republic by Plato the idea that each child is predestined to fulfill a role in a ‘perfect’ society is not an uncommon subject. Socrates and his cohorts discuss how each person has either gold, silver, or bronze in their bodies which will help to determine what their role in society will be and how they should be educated. The concept of a predetermined future and education based on how you were as a child is a concept people may cringe at believing there is no freedom in it. However, there are countries in the modern world that do use a method similar to the early educational description Socrates and his contemporaries put forth. Countries like Germany have an educational system in place that is totally run by the state and after the age of 10 children are split into different schools based on their skills. The most popular and traditional streams of German education are Gymnasium, Hauptschule, and Realschule. Children who show great promise and success will move on to Gymnasium to complete their Abitur which qualifies them for a higher education; these children would possess gold in the Republics perfect society. Realschule tends to turn our children who pursue steady employment and would, therefore, contain silver in their bodies. Lastly, the children who show skill in a certain area will move on to Hauptschule to help nurture that skill, but after graduation stigma towards the lowest ranked secondary school will make it harder for children to find jobs; these children would contain bronze. The German school system may seem harsh from an outsiders point of view but because of the separation, there is a greater overall success compared to schools from other nations. Although the school system Socrates and his contemporaries described sounds oppressive and cruel there is solid proof that their form of education leads to a better country and society.
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In the so-called “just city” that Socrates explains in the book The Republic By Plato, it is clear that one of the main ideas he expresses throughout the book is the principle of specialization. The principle of specialization is set up to create a “desirable” city suited for everyone. It is a place where personal freedom and creativity is not valued because these desires to Socrates mean creating unjust individuals eventually leading to an unjust society.
The people living in this city are forced to perform a role that they are naturally suited whether they enjoy it or not. There is not space for disagreement as everyone has a set role and duty they are expected to fulfill. Similar to society today, there seems to be three main classes; the producers, auxiliaries, and guardians. Unlike society we are living in today, the classes are based upon whether you are fit to rule, carry out the jobs of the rulers, or just a normal every day person with a job. Sadly, if you are a producer in this city there is no chance in becoming an auxiliary or guardian/ruler. Even if you are a naturally gifted doctor with hidden passions to become a businessman, there are no exceptions here as it the best way in Socrates’ mind to ensure people do their jobs to keep the system productive. By separating the classes, creating a division of labor towards the “good life,” Socrates believes all of this will allow the city to become simple yet “just.”
Although Socrates creates a just city, the meaning of justice or being just is quite subjective and uncertain between himself as well as his peers. Justice to Cephalus is “living up to your legal obligations and being honest” where as Polemarchus and Thrasymachus have other ideas to this meaning. Polemarchus sees justice as “[owing] friends help, and [owing] enimes harm”, meaning giving back what is lawfully due to a person. While Thrasymachus sees justice as “nothing more than the advantage of the stronger.” Oddly enough, as Socrates observes these men’s definitions of justice, he presents no opinion of his own. It then comes to my attention that if Socrates cannot fully define what “justice” is, how can his theory using the principle of specialization be legitimate towards a just city?
We are talking about Plato’s Republic this week and next in Arts One, and over the summer I started getting interested in doing sketchnotes–basically, trying to take notes with both images and words.
I have found this a really useful method for forcing myself to take in information and make it my own, to condense ideas down to what I think is most important, and to put that into my own “words,” so to speak. I think it helps me remember things better than just copying down as many words from a lecture or presentation as I can by typing on a keyboard (what I would otherwise be doing).
I have a long way to go before my drawings are attractive (and I’m slowly working on that), but I’ll be sharing my sketchnotes on our Arts One lectures throughout the year, here on my blog.
Here’s the first set!
Two graduates from my high school have expressed the goal of becoming prime ministers of Canada. In order to be the best prime ministers they can be, they’re attending university to gain the knowledge and experience that will eventually help them to govern the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if those two did end up being prime ministers one day. What sets them apart, perhaps more than their determination and drive, is their curiosity: they’re curious about the problems that Canada faces, what causes them, and how to solve them. This curiosity is what audiences through time would’ve recognized not only in their political leaders but also in leaders of many intellectual fields. Curiosity is what ancient Greek audiences would’ve recognized in their own leaders – leaders like Oedipus. Like my fellow graduates, Oedipus is curious about why things are the way they are and what they could be. What sets him apart, however, is that he becomes an obsessive problem solver. Oedipus takes an excellent quality to have as a leader – curiosity – and takes it one step too far.
The play opens with a problem being presented to Oedipus. From the very beginning, we see that Oedipus takes his role far beyond that of a king: encouraged by his desperate subjects, he elevates himself almost to the level of a god. He wants to know the cause of the plague; from there, he can find a solution. As the answers he seeks seem to be further obscured by his own questions, Oedipus does not see this as a hint from fate or the gods to stop pursuing the truth; instead, he pursues knowledge with even more determination than before. Normally, in other situations, this would’ve been the appropriate course of action. In the crises that plague our world, we expect our leaders to get to the root of whatever problem we’re facing. We live in a time that upholds science as the highest authority – there are not gods or fate when in the modern world. If we cannot find an answer, we find another approach. To thrive in this world, curiosity is one of the best traits that one can possess. It’s a world that Oedipus, had he not been at the mercy of the gods or fate, would have loved.
But one cannot know everything, nor can one control every variable in a situation no matter how much information there may be. And that’s where the play’s staying power comes from. Even now, in an age where science reigns supreme and the only things that are real are the ones that are visible, there’s so much we don’t know yet and much more that we may never know. Oedipus is a lot like who we are as a culture today: we have this insatiable desire to know everything that we can, to use what we know to have as much control over our lives as possible. We hate not knowing how exactly to eliminate poverty, we hate not knowing why loved ones get cancer. It’s unacceptable to simply not know. We have to know, even if it harms us.
Oedipus had to know. Even if the knowledge destroyed him.
I don’t know if my two fellow graduates will ever become prime ministers of Canada. Maybe they’ll discover a different passion while they’re in university. Maybe they’ll drop out of school altogether to join a circus or something. What do I know?
Throughout Oedipus Rex, the importance of fate and the role it plays, provide the structure for a debate of whether or not Oedipus is culpable for his actions. The overarching theme of fate versus freedom is one that magnifies the longevity and resonance of the tragedy.
The prophecy of Oedipus demonstrates a fatalistic attitude and society, which is in turn, a denial of free will. Although at first glance Oedipus operates under free will, his choices ultimately end in the fulfillment of his fate. This element of causal determinism serves to depict how Oedipus truly had to choice in the matter of fate. Oedipus’ curiosity attempts to fight the universal causality of Greek society at the time, but the fatalistic societal beliefs deny the agency of humanity. So what can be interpreted as Oedipus’ somewhat conscious denial of the situation at hand is faultless because, in the end, he cannot fight the prophecy.
Oedipus is seen as a master of all things, except himself. The role of fate separates him from the gods, even though the polis of Thebes see him as such. Even the master is not above fate. The people of Thebes were so quick to proclaim Oedipus the hero and raise him to a god-like status, depicting the importance that the Greeks placed upon their gods. The gods’ served as an explanation to the unexplainable, a scapegoat, a belief system in which humans could be rid of difficult choices. In a sense, they are willingly giving up their free will.
But Oedipus fights this. Despite warnings against finding Laios’ killer, he perseveres in a quest for knowledge, in a quest to save the city he rules. This action reflects a very human quality and demonstrates a weakness of man, and the desire to know the unknowable. He is choosing free will over freedom, and yet he is still a victim of the fatalistic society he lives in. It is an act of human rebellion to reject the easy explanation.
We still struggle with fate versus free will, or more modernly, hard determinism versus hard libertarianism. This philosophical debate helps to eternalize Oedipus Rex, as our search for compatibilism is ongoing.
Jocasta first enters the play at the height of the quarrel between Oedipus and Kreon. She immediately slips on the role of peacekeeper, attempting to appease the two. The manner in which Jocasta addresses Kreon and Oedipus, and they in turn her, is resemblant of the relationship between a mother and her children – she at first admonishes them for “petty personal bickering” and tells them that they “should be ashamed”. Kreon attempts to explain their situation and leads off with “Jocasta, …” and Oedipus follows with “I caught him plotting against me, Jocasta”, acting as two quarrelling children might. This is the first instance in the play where Jocasta’s role as Oedipus’s lover merges with that of a mother, alluding to Oedipus’s past and simultaneously foreshadowing the truth that he is about to discover.
Jocasta’s predicament resembles Oedipus’s in the irony in her fate – the root of all of her (and Oedipus’s) suffering can arguably be discovered in the action that Laois and her took upon hearing the oracle’s prophecy. The audience finds out about their abandonment of Oedipus when she mentions it like a trivial detail, in a very ironic explanation as to why she does not believe in the prophecies of Oracles. Jocasta blames Laois for Oedipus’s fate as a young child (“when Laois had his feet pierced…”) and, although she seems to feel some guilt or at least sadness about the event – “my poor child”, Jocasta tells the story unapologetically. This event in Jocasta’s past mirrors the role that Oedipus’s unconscious murder of Laois plays in his life – both characters underestimate the importance of their transgressions.
Jocasta is the first character in Oedipus the King to truly understand the circumstances of Oedipus’s past and how he unconsciously fulfilled the prophecies told of him, but even before her ‘big revelation’ sometime between pages 68 and 70, the audience sees how she puts together the pieces of the puzzle, however unbeknownst to her. This ties into the emotional development that Jocasta undergoes throughout the play. Early on she declares, upon being prompted to leave: “not before I know what has happened here”. On page 57 she tells Oedipus that Laois was “built something like you”, and we see her enter a stage of fear and denial shortly thereafter as she says “you frighten me” and “I’m afraid to ask” – although she does not know the complete truth yet, Jocasta is beginning to fear Oedipus’s impending revelation and the implications that it holds for her.
The queen is ecstatic when she learns of Polybos’s death because (she believes) that it proves the prophecies to be false. “The sky has cleared” Jocasta says, ironically, because it is the discovery of Polybos’s death that leads into the truth about Oedipus’s early years that the queen is attempting to forget. Jocasta stays quiet throughout the dialogue with a messenger where it comes to light that Oedipus was not really Polybos’s son and that he was found with his feet tied together, which is also where the audience can place the moment of her revelation. At this point, Oedipus becomes more frantic as he senses that he is close to the truth, but Jocasta on the other hand completely changes her attitude. “What man? Forget about him”, she implores, attempting to stop Oedipus from discovering the truth that has just dawned on her. Her motivations for this are made clear when she declares “Isn’t my anguish enough” – she wishes to spare Oedipus of the pain that the truth carries for him. Upon failing to do so, Jocasta becomes deeply sorrowful. Her lack of anger towards Oedipus for his patricide makes it clear that she holds herself and not him responsible for the tragic events in his life. This feeling of guilt culminates in Jocasta’s suicide, for she has no-one left to blame but herself.
During discussion around Odeipus’ guilt I found it interesting when it was suggested that Oedipus was guilty of criminal negligence (I’m very sorry I don’t remember whose idea this was). I found this to be a very compelling argument because in my mind, Oedipus doesn’t do nearly enough to prevent the horrible prophecy from coming true.
It might be arrogant for me to think that Oedipus could have done anything to prevent his dark destiny, but I would argue that it is far more arrogant for him to take such small steps in avoiding it. Indeed the only way he tries to prevent the prophecy from coming true is to move away from his hometown. For a man as supposedly smart as Oedipus, this seems like a rather feeble attempt to thwart the will of the gods. He didn’t even receive a vague ” Your future holds great peril”-esque prophecy. He was told exactly what would happen and as such should have taken the necessary steps to avoid it.
If, while working at an airport, you get a message that a specific plane will explode that day, it would be reasonable to cancel the flight. If at that point Zeus sends a lightning bolt to destroy your plane while it’s on land then no one would hold you responsible. If however you take the Oedipal route and only give the plane an extra 5 minute spot check, and the plane explodes in flight, you would clearly be to blame.
As the unlucky recipient of an incest prophecy it might just be a good idea to avoid sex. Now if this is too tall a task perhaps Oedipus could have at least confined his romantic pursuits to women who were less than 10 years his senior or perhaps even younger than himself. This would be less foolproof though as the greek gods wouldn’t have had much of a problem making a woman appear younger. Nevertheless it would probably be more effective than a zip code change.
In a similar vein, not killing men old enough to be your father, or even avoiding murder altogether would be a great way to avoid patricide.
Even in a world where godly intervention is commonplace, human beings have a responsibility to avoid causing bad things to happen. If and when their efforts fail they can curse the gods and lament their misfortune but in order to do so they first have to put in an honest effort to prevent it.
In Arts One last week we discussed Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. We put a bunch of questions/topics for discussion on the board and didn’t get to all of them (unfortunately, not an uncommon occurrence in Arts One, but fortunately, it’s because students are so engaged and want to discuss!).
I wrote a question on the board that I had myself:
What of the Oedipus story is included in the action of the play and what occurs before or after? What takes place on stage versus off? And what do these say about what the play is about, what it’s focused on, and what message we might get from it (if any)?
We didn’t have time to discuss this question, so I thought I’d take the opportunity of doing a blog post to provide some of my own thoughts. As with all texts we read in Arts One, my interpretation is only as strong as my evidence–like those of students as well. This is to say: I am not arguing that mine is the only way to answer this question, just because I happen to be the instructor in our seminar group.
What takes place within the action of the play itself?
There are numerous elements to the Oedipus story, including:
- the oracle to Laios and Jocasta that their son would kill his father, and his subsequent abandonment to die as a baby
- his growing up in Corinth thinking Polybos & Merope are his biological parents
- the oracle’s message to him that he was going to kill his father & marry his mother
- his killing of Laios, answering the riddle of the Sphinx, marrying Jocasta
- the plague in Thebes, Oedipus trying to find the murderer of Laios and in turn discovering who he is, what he has done, and that the oracle was right; his self-blinding and asking to be exiled from Thebes
- his exile from Thebes and what happens afterwards
Only the second to last bullet point, above, is what takes place within the action of this play (Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonnus and Antigone address the last bullet point). More specifically, what happens is that Oedipus vows, as king, to do what Apollo said in his oracle to Kreon and find the murderer of Laios, and he continues to search and search for the truth until he does. It’s kind of like a murder mystery in modern terms, except that the audience knows all along that Oedipus himself is the murderer.
So we might say that one focus of the play, at least, is on the seeking of knowledge, and gaining self-knowledge. One could argue that it’s also about a king trying to save the citizens of his state from a plague, trying to do fulfill his kingly duties by doing what the god Apollo commanded–find the murderer of Laios and punish him.
But there’s another aspect to what happens within the action of the play as well: there is a focus on the issue of the knowledge of humans vs. the knowledge of gods. Oedipus is at first treated as a god by the priest in the beginning (and Oedipus himself seems to be answering their prayers as if he were a god at the top of p. 33 in our version), and yet the audience knows that his knowledge falls far short of that of the gods. So we see him not only gaining knowledge and self-knowledge by the end of the play, we see him in the process realizing that he is not at the same level as the gods (though, at the end, he knows as much as they do, so do what you will with that …).
The Chorus states that only Zeus and Apollo see and understand “the dark threads crossing beneath our life” (46), and then later they reflect on the nature of human life and how we are all like Oedipus:
man after man after man
o mortal generations
almost not here
what are we
dust ghosts images a rustling of air
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
we are you
we are you Oedipus (78)
According to the chorus, then, Oedipus does not have the same knowledge the gods do, and neither do the rest of us. Humans are only “dust ghost images a rustling of air”–very little, or perhaps “nothing.”
Similarly, he comes to realize, during the play, that the oracles all were true (and that Teiresias was right about what would happen to him). Despite Jocasta (and Oedipus) saying that we don’t need to pay attention to oracles, it turns out that they were right even when humans think they have discovered that they aren’t.
What takes place off stage or on stage?
Partly this question is going to be answered by the nature of staging drama in ancient Athens. There was a stage with very little in the way of backdrops or props. From what I understand, showing Jocasta hanging herself or Oedipus blinding himself would have been difficult or just not part of the normal way of doing plays at the time. Still, we can maybe glean a little from what takes place onstage vs. off stage in the play.
- Mostly conversations: Oedipus and the chorus, Oedipus and Kreon, Oedipus and Teiresias, Oedipus and Jocasta, Oedipus and the shepherd, etc.
- Mostly Oedipus is on stage except a few times when he’s not there
- The chorus is sometimes on stage alone
- Jocasta also prays to Apollo without Oedipus at one point
- Jocasta, the chorus, and a messenger speak without Oedipus; she learns of Polybos’ death before Oedipus does
- A servant comes out of the palace to tell the chorus & audience that Jocasta has hanged herself and Oedipus has blinded himself
Off stage but still within the action of the play itself
- Oedipus sends for Teiresias (he says on p. 36 that he has done so, but Teiresias hasn’t come yet)
- Kreon hears of Oedipus charging him with treason; on stage p. 46 he says he has come to answer those charges
- Polybos dies; onstage, a messenger comes and tells Jocasta and then Oedipus
- Jocasta hangs herself; Oedipus blinds himself
So we see that most of the action onstage is Oedipus talking to others, and most of it is him learning the truth about the murderer of Laios (himself). What happens off stage are mostly things that don’t have to do with Oedipus trying to find the truth (except for the first bullet point, above, but that’s a fairly trivial action). This again suggests that Oedipus and his quest for knowledge is at least one of the foci of the play.
I don’t know if this exercise has revealed anything that people weren’t thinking already, but I think it’s useful when one is considering a play to think about what parts of a story the dramatist chooses to include within the action of the play, what takes place onstage and off, to glean some insight into what the play is about. I may try this again with the next play we study in Arts One this year, Brecht’s Galileo. And I’ll be thinking similiar things about the films we watch. And I suppose really, one could also do something similar with novels…
I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, questions, disagreements if you have them! Just write in the comment area, below.
Human beings are creatures of habit: We fight, question, and challenge. Seek power, freedom and knowledge. In the case of ‘Oedipus the King’, Oedipus embodies all these traits in the play as he attempts to defeat fate, save his people, and bring justice to his kingdom. However, feats such as these would be deemed far to great for any man. Thus leading us to the inevitable ending of the play where Oedipus fails to beat fate and in a sense the gods at which point he is left; stripped of his power, blind and crippled.
Nevertheless, this inevitability is challenged throughout the play when characters such as Jocasta and the Shepherd beg Oedipus to stop his investigation because his discovery of the truth is what will lead to his downfall. Finally leading to the key argument I’d like to discuss: “If Oedipus remained ignorant, would he still have failed?”
There were many different traits to the play that display that an ignorant approach to the problem could have led to a different result instead of Oedipus’s pre-determined failure and suffering. One of the forms this is shown through is the play’s Sophoclean approach wherein Oedipus brings himself closer to failure each time he gets closer to the truth, ergo the higher we climb, the harder we fall. This foreshadowed failure is even displayed by Oedipus himself in lines 1472-74 “And I, I am afraid to hear them… but I must”. At this point of the play it is clearly indicated that Oedipus has a choice to walk away from his investigation, however Oedipus claims that he can’t which stems from his human nature to question and seek knowledge even when he knows himself it will bring him great misery. Secondly, the moral of the paly is to accept that not everything is controllable, which is why we are given a character such as Oedipus who displays a great amount of hubris and attempts to succeed in areas in which he believes the gods have failed in because he thinks of himself as powerful as the gods. This leads to the ironic discovery that Oedipus is the master of all things, except for himself. Which is why Oedipus’s greatest weakness is himself; if not for his desire to question, fight and challenge fate, Oedipus may still have been able to retain his power as king.
In class on Friday we discussed in groups whether we thought Oedipus was a good or bad person, or a good or bad king. We didn’t have time to go over the reasons on each side, but I took pictures so you could see them all. Personally, I think it’s fair to say (especially after reading all of these) that he’s not clearly either just “good” or “bad,” that he is like a normal human being in having good and qualities!
If you click on each image it should open separately and provide you with a better quality picture to help you read the words (the second image, particularly, has some words that are a little hard to read so click on that image for a better version).