Destiny, Fate, Free Will and Free Choice in Oedipus the King

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The Concept of Fate in Oedipus Rex

To the first-time reader of Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Rex, it seems that the gods are in complete domination of mankind. This essay will seek to show that this is not the case because the presence of a tragic flaw within the protagonist is shown to be the cause of his downfall.

In the opening scene of the tragedy the priest of Zeus itemizes for the king what the gods have done to the inhabitants of Thebes:

A blight is on our harvest in the ear,

A blight upon the grazing flocks and herds,

A blight on wives in travail; and withal

Armed with his blazing torch the God of Plague

Hath swooped upon our city emptying

The house of Cadmus, and
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Except for Jocasta, no one in the drama harbors even a trace of doubt about the supreme powers of the gods and the infallibility of the oracle at Delphi.

What about the question of the influence of the gods on the lives of men? Do the gods use predetermination in the lives of men? Such might seem the case since Laius did everything in his power to refute the oracle’s claim that Laius’ son would kill the father and marry the mother; and since Oedipus in Corinth did everything in his power to escape the oracle’s prophecy that he would kill his father, whom Oedipus at that time thought was Polybus, and marry his mother. Since neither Laius nor Oedipus nor Jocasta were able to change their situations despite their best efforts, does this mean that they lacked free will and that the gods determined their lives?

Oswald Spengler in “Tragedy: Classical vs. Western” would seem to think so:

. . . what is named by us “conjuncture,” “accident,” “Providence,” or “Fate,” . . . is just that of which each unique and unreproducible soul-constitution, quite clear to those who share in it, is a rendering. . . .Our tragedy arises from the feeling of an inexorable Logic of becoming, while the Greek feels the illogical, blind Causal for the moment – the life of . . . Oedipus stumbles without warning upon a situation (20-21.

Another critic would probably feel about fate