Often in ancient Greek tragedy we find protagonists committing the sin of hubris (extreme pride or arrogance). Recall in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon that Agamemnon returns home with a stolen concubine from Ilium, and also he fails to foresee the extent to which Clytemnestra holds a grudge against his decision to sacrifice Iphigenia. In another case, consider the hubris of King Xerxes who was forced to return home to Susa after a spectacular failure against the Greeks at Salamis in Aeschylus’s Persians. Both men, Xerxes and Agamemnon, were raised high above the ordinary man in their splendor, but both fell to the lowest of depths, fueled by their excessive hubris.
However, in Sophocles’s “Theban” plays, the question is more nuanced. What transgression does Oedipus make? What sin of pride does Oedipus make? Is Oedipus the victim of a tragic fate or was it possible for him to escape his foreboding prophecy?
Oedipus has been called a representative study in classical repression, a favorite assessment by Freudian psychologists. The protagonist, Oedipus, is bound by his unrelenting inquiry, his need to discover his own origins, and thereby, to learn his own horrid circumstances so his blinded eyes can finally see the horrible truth of his existence. This is, of course, in spite of the constant pleading of Jocasta, his wife and also mother, who begs that he not inquire further into the matter. Perhaps she is aware of the grave circumstances, as well.
At any rate, Oedipus is unique in that he committed transgressions, without knowing they were despicable in the eyes of the gods -such as killing his own father and marrying his own mother. Both criminal acts were done unwittingly. In a word, he was a sinner without any awareness of his own own of sin. However, in the classical world, intentionality mattered little. It was Christianity, or the vulgarization of Platonism, that better demonstrated our yearning for intentionality, not merely an activity, as the primal concern in acts of justice or injustice. What was Oedipus’s intent? Clearly, he had no intent to marry his mother and kill his own father, in fact he was desperately trying to avoid this outcome. We, the audience, feel great sorrow for Oedipus, yet we also are demanding his destruction. We want to see the full extent of his ecstatic curse revealed. The audience demands it. In a different way, the audience feels a sense of tender pity for Jesus in the New Testament as he suffers a brutal death that he claims was all part of the divine plan from his father for the kingdom of heaven. An entirely different experience can be found in Greek tragedy.
Oedipus is a tragic hero because the audience feels a sense of redemption from his horrid self destruction, and, speaking broadly, Greek tragedy presents the antithesis of endless pity and suffering. It conveys both a sense of horror, as the audience sees the uncontrolled divine fate that befalls human beings no matter their status in life. Yet it also gives gratification and meaning to the reader or viewer when we see that all humans are subject to great suffering and punishment. Not every tragic hero is like Prometheus, a demigod who is punished by the gods, but rather some like Oedipus are doomed to a fate for which they are not being punished -there is no natural state of judicial retribution, as the fates and the furies clearly remind us. In this way, classical Greek tragedy reassures and reinforces the need for the polis as a bulwark against the horrifying truth of endless suffering. Additionally, in Oedipus the audience is exposed to a sense of chaos and terror which stands in opposition to the modern rational man. Recall Nietzsche’s famous distinction between the two, through “the last man”. In both cases, we find an absence of the gods, and instead in ancient Greek thought, the tragic hero faces divine retribution that is either earned or unearned, but is nonetheless his fate that must befall him. It is utterly irrational, which is perhaps why it is so terrifying. As another analogue, recall the Book of Job, wherein Job is brought horrible afflictions merely for a wager between God and the Adversary.
The most horrifying and tragic thing about Oedipus is that he is most certainly not a villain. He did not commit a crime for which he is being punished, such as committing a transgression against the gods. He is simply being forced, by his own fate -which he tries desperately to escape -to experience extraordinary suffering of the kind unknown to most men. However, the self destruction of Oedipus and his family is a kind of creative destruction that can lay the framework for a better Thebes in the future. Therefore, in Greek tragedy there is a sense of hope in building upon the ashes of a man who has been utterly and unfairly destroyed by his own lot.