Exploring Greek philosophy Essay

Man is the measure of all things. Exploring this Greek philosophy within ‘Oedipus the King’, Sophocles uses the characters of Jocasta and Tiresias to represent free will and fatalism respectively, to allow his audience to consider whether the play’s tragic outcome is a result of destiny, the actions of the characters themselves or an amalgamation of the two. This conflict is depicted through the dialogue of both Tiresias and Jocasta with Oedipus and their attitudes towards the prophecy, and further to this how the chorus, representative of the audience’s viewpoint, regards both characters throughout the play.As a prophet and a king, Tiresias and Oedipus would have been amongst the most highly regarded noblemen in Greek society.

However by the end of their dialogue in the play, Tiresias is depicted as more powerful than the King due to his staunch belief in the predetermined prophecy and Oedipus’ rejection of it. It is clear that Tiresias commands the same respect as a God, with Oedipus himself stating that ‘Lord Tiresias sees with the eyes of Lord Apollo’ on line 323, honouring them both equally with the title ‘Lord’. Therefore, after Tiresias is reluctant to confess the prophecy, the severe anger with which Oedipus reacts to the highly esteemed man shocks Sophocles’ audience.

It also presents to them another side of his protagonist’s nature, one that could make Oedipus capable of murder, thus strengthening the plausibility of the prophecy as truth. The blindness of Tiresias serves to augment the dramatic irony within ‘Oedipus the King’ to the effect that an association between sight and fatalism is developed, as is that of blindness and a disbelief of the prophecy . As Tiresias uses a mocking tone to counter Oedipus’ insults, such as ‘ah but aren’t you the best man at solving riddles?’ on line 501. The effect of this is merely to highlight how Oedipus confuses the value of his physical sight with Tiresias’ insight and that the latter has more substance. Despite being blind and physically vulnerable, Tiresias emerges as a much more powerful figure then Oedipus by the end of their dialogue, not just because he knows the truth but because he believes in it and in the supremacy of the Gods.

Jocasta, however, despite believing in the existence of Gods, wholly disregards the prophecy and counters the popular Greek assumption of fatalism by asserting that ‘chance rules our lives’. Similar to Oedipus in that she too forms inaccurate conclusions and confuses them with evidence, her rejection of the prophecy is based on an example of her hasty and imperfect logic; that, to her knowledge, one prophecy did not come true and therefore all prophecies must be false. She remains throughout the play as firm in this conviction as Tiresias is in his; this is apparent from the way in which she attempts to persuade Oedipus to her position with use of a dismissive and flippant style, an example of which can be found on line 947; ‘so much for the prophecy, its neither here nor there’. Furthermore, her use of the adjective ‘impossible’ on line 938 as the sole word in a sentence depicts syntax that further emphasises her certainty in the speciousness of the prophecy.

In this sense, Jocasta is also blind; by refusing to see other alternatives to her point of view such as that of fatalism, she, like Oedipus, is perceived by the audience to have a narrow-mindedness and inability to consider the stances of others thus undermining her intelligence and royal standing.Jocasta’s lack of reverence for the Gods resulting from her belief that ‘not a man on earth can see a day ahead’ is met by disdain from the chorus. It is clear that she doesn’t fear the Gods in the same way as the Thebans do from her profane statements such as ‘for the love of god’. Sophocles included speech such as this to create the discrepancy between Jocasta’s fear of the Gods and that of the chorus. By disapproving of her attitude in choral odes such as on line 972-975 where it is expressed that ‘if any man [has] no reverence for.

..the gods let a rough doom tear him down’.

Through this the chorus is leading the audience to agree with them as joint spectators to the tragedy and also reaffirming its own belief in fatalism.The inadequacy of Jocasta’s belief is depicted by Sophocles when she is unable to convince Oedipus to ‘stop [and] call off the search’ despite her impassioned rhetoric in their dialogue. Throughout the play she acts in a maternal way towards him, be it instructive as on line 713; ‘go into the palace now’ or from line 778 where she misguidedly reassures Oedipus of his innocence. The transition of her reassurance to pleas for Oedipus not to delve any deeper into their mystery is marked by her changing diction; from a composed anecdotal style such as ‘one fine day…’ on line 784 to fretful questioning of her husband found from line 928 ‘once he appears, what then? Why so urgent?’ with the short sentences signifying her desperation to conceal the truth from Oedipus after realising herself the ‘something monstrous’ (line 1181) that connects them.

Unlike Tiresias, who remains unfaltering in the truth throughout the play, Jocasta has no source of strength to support her as it becomes clear the prophecy is true which creates the effect of fatalism being a stronger and more reliable thing than ‘chance’.The attitude towards the prophecy and the Gods of Tiresias draws a sharp contrast to that of Jocasta. As a personification of fate and the truth rejected by an angry Oedipus, the fact that Tiresias is the only character whose status remains the same throughout the course of the play is thanks to the prophecy which he resolutely stood by.

The determinism he represents is thus depicted by Sophocles to be victorious, and the stance of the chorus further emphasises the veracity of their principle.The chorus’ view of Tiresias also remains unchanged throughout ‘Oedipus the King’. Despite their desire for Oedipus to be innocent, the chorus never doubt the ability of ‘the skilled prophet’ on line 550 and admit that they ‘can’t deny him’ on line 551, which illustrates their respect for his authority being comparable with that of the Gods. By the end of the play, the chorus is dependent upon the prophecies coming true; ‘never again will I go reverent to Delphi…unless these prophecies all come true’. This dependency is caused by their need for the Gods to maintain order in the heavens and on earth; their need for fatalism.

In ‘Oedipus the King’, Sophocles counters the philosophy of ‘man is the measure of all things’ and instead highlights the perils that taking this perspective can bring. Ultimately Tiresias’ knowledge of the Gods and belief ‘the truth with all its power’ on line 405 that lives inside him and his belief in fatalism is what delivers him from a tragic fate within the play. This contrasts to the fates of Laius, Jocasta and Oedipus, all of whom believed they were above the Gods and controlled their own destinies, either by trying to thwart the prophecy originally, or through excessive arrogance, and all of whom meet tragic ends as a result of their hubris. Therefore, although suicide and self-impalement were not parts of the prophecy, they remain an important beacon in the play, interpreted by the chorus as the outcome of those who do not respect and fear the Gods and their roles as, on line 562, ‘the great masters of…human life’.


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