Skepticism & Punishment

A very interesting topic was bought up in the seminar on Thursday, which was the skepticism of the existence of gods in the 5th century. Such skepticism arose alongside great thinkers, and manifested itself in Oedipus Rex. Oedipus’ agency & his obvious defiance to the gods is an obvious example–what is alarming, however, is the doubt that arises within the chorus.

As the elders of Thebes, one would expect them to be defiant to Oedipus’ actions in the play, and to stand by the gods. This does show at first though, right after Teiresias confronts Oedipus for being the man who murdered Laios and Oedipus denies his involvement. The chorus instead takes on neutrality, claiming, “Zeus and Apollo know/they understand/only they see” (pg. 46), taking note that only the gods know the truth, not the prophet nor Oedipus. Sure, a small amount of skepticism shines through with the chorus’ questioning of whether or not the prophet (speaker of the gods, hello) could really see more than anyone, but ultimately the chorus places the fate & answer to the plague of Thebes to the gods.

This firm belief ends–or perhaps, wavers– as the play approaches its climax, or Oedipus’ Enlightenment (he is the son who killed his father). The chorus shows their doubt with, “…o Zeus if that is your name” (pg. 63, l. 1153) and then further when they state, “nobody prays to the god of light no one believes/nothing of the gods stays” (pg. 63, l.1158-1159). This was bought up in class on Thursday as well. This is read as an ultimatum of sorts, as the chorus basically says in this passage, “If the man who murdered Laios is punished, then we will no longer believe in the gods.”

A stark contrast then follows, when it is revealed that Oedipus did indeed murder Laios. What’s also worth mentioning here, I believe, is that everyone other than Oedipus believes that him being alive is punishment enough. As the shepherd says to Oedipus, “If you were the baby that man took from me, Oedipus/ what misery, what grief is yours!” (pg. 77, l.1490-1491). Even the chorus does, as in the next passage it seems that their faith in the gods has been restored, contrasting the belief of “nothing of the gods stays” (pg. 63 l.1159) with a new belief, “…nothing human lasts” (pg. 78, l. 1522).

Paired with the fact that Oedipus Rex was shown during a time where religious skepticism was surfacing, the chorus could even be compared to Athenian society; that by the end of Oedipus Rex, their faith is restored as Oedipus is punished by the truth, or the light (Apollo). Ultimately, then, Oedipus’ punishment lays within his existence, and not by what he bestowed upon himself (stabbing his eyes out, removing himself from society).



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