Oedipus Rex

Delahoyde & Hughes


The Norton Anthology gets interestingly snippy about one aspect of The Ancient World. After mentioning Pericles’ Athenian critique that “a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts” (qtd. 7), the insistence here is that the century eroded the balance between “individual freedom and communal unity.”

One of the solvents of traditional values was an intellectual revolution which was taking place in the advanced Athenian democracy of the last half of the fifth century, a critical evaluation of accepted ideas in every sphere of thought and action. It stemmed from the innovations in education. Democratic institutions had created a demand for an education that would prepare men for public life, especially by training them in the art of public speaking. The demand was met by the appearance of the professional teacher, the Sophist, as he was called, who taught, for a handsome fee, not only the techniques of public speaking but also the subjects which gave a man something to talk about–government, ethics, literary criticism, even astronomy. The curriculum of the Sophists, in fact, marks the first appearance in European civilization of the liberal education, just as they themselves were the first professors.

The Sophists were great teachers, but like most teachers they had little or no control over the results of their teaching. Their methods placed an inevitable emphasis on effective presentation of a point of view, to the detriment, and if necessary the exclusion, of anything which might make it less convincing. They produced a generation that had been trained to see both sides of any question and to argue the weaker side as effectively as the stronger, the false as effectively as the true; to argue inferentially from probability in the absence of concrete evidence; to appeal to an audience’s sense of its own advantage rather than to accepted moral standards…. The emphasis on the technique of effective presentation of both sides of any case encouraged a relativistic point of view and finally produced a cynical mood which denied the existence of any absolute standards….

In the last half of the fifth century the whole traditional basis of individual conduct, the unity and cohesion of the city-state, was undermined, gradually at first by the critical approach of the Sophists and their pupils, and then rapidly, as the war accelerated the process of moral disintegration…. The mood of postwar Athens oscillated between a fanatic, unthinking reassertion of traditional values and a weary cynicism which wanted only to be left alone. The only thing common to the two extremes was a distrust of intelligence. (7-8)

First, where does Oedipus Rex fall within this scheme? Note Jocasta’s speech about remaining in darkness — the happiness of stupidity — and the Chorus’ speeches including the very last one in the play.In general, does the play express a loss of faith in the gods and a higher order? Does the play reflect a kind of negative stoicism?

More importantly, is the Norton editor responsible for the above assessment of the decline of Athens making a valid case or is this clever sophistry itself? a thinly disguised and reactionary Jeremiad? Is the following process a valid formula:

Sophist education –> moral disintegration –> political disintegration?

(It sounds a bit like blaming the Beatles for the fall of Western civilization.)

Works Consulted

The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Volume I. 6th ed. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1992.

SophoclesOrpheus: Greek Plays