This week, by a strange twist of fate, I have been completely immersed in ancient Greek literature. None of my classes are in the Classics department, and only one is a straightforwardly literary course; but in all but one class this week has been the week to delve into ancient Greece. (The sole exception is my American literature course, for obvious reasons—although, at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if our professor whipped out Sappho’s poetry and tried to convince us that she was actually from Manhattan.) This being so, I’ve spent a lot of time these past few days thinking about Greek tragedy.
I am an amateur to the subject, and I can’t pretend that reading a handful of articles has made me an expert. However, a phrase in an article by Froma Zeitlin stuck me: “the tragic universe is one that the [self] must discover for himself as other than he originally imagined it to be”. In the tragedy, the hero moves from ignorance to knowledge—but the knowledge that is gained is never pleasant. The universe that is uncovered is one that simply is, without explanation or justification. Crimes are not necessarily knowing acts against a moral order; they are simply infractions against the way things ought to be, and so are punished, not by some higher law or justice, but by unbending natural processes. Take, for example, the famous myth of Oedipus. As a young man, Oedipus finds out from an oracle that he is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother, so he exiles himself from his homeland and from the parents who he loves. In fact, he makes what we would see as the right moral choice—knowing that murder and adultery are wrong, he removes himself from temptation. In the course of his wanderings, he kills an old man on the road, saves Thebes from the Sphinx, and marries the grateful queen of the city, who has been recently widowed. His killing of a stranger on the road is certainly morally questionable, but in all other respects he is a basically just man and a good king.
We all know how the story ends. There is a plague in Thebes, and the oracle says that the only way to get rid of it is to find the murderer of the old king. Oedipus sets out to find this man, and in one terrible afternoon finds out that he, himself, had killed the king—and worse, that he is the son of the king, and so the son of his wife. With this knowledge, Oedipus knows that he is cursed, and blinds himself from the horror. What is fascinating to me, however, is that while (in Sophocles’ version of the play) Oedipus blames his fall on Apollo (1289), the Chorus, which is generally wiser in the ways of the world, says only “Time sees all, and has found you out / Despite yourself” (1174-1175). The gods are not concerned in Oedipus’ fall; it was inevitable once set in motion by his birth.
This view of the world may seem completely alien to us; but doesn’t it, in fact, lie behind our sense of the mercy of God? If God had not been merciful, if he had not forgiven those sinners who cried out to him and ultimately wiped out all sin through Christ, Oedipus’ story would have been our own. As Paul writes in Romans, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” This is Oedipus’ pain—try as he might, he cannot escape from the guilt to which he was born. His lack of knowledge cannot excuse the horrors that he has done. There is no hope for Oedipus, because in his universe there is no one to give mercy, no one to expiate his guilt; there are only the relentless laws of nature. Let us remember that this was once our world, too.