Oedipus the King had one of the worst destinies in all of literature. As a young man he learned of his fate to kill his father and marry his mother. Fleeing his family and seeking refuge from his terrible future in a distant state only brought about the actualization of the forecast. Unbeknownst to Oedipus, he had killed his own father and entered the bed of his mother. He lived in this relationship for many years until at last he painfully revealed the blinding truth over the course of one shocking day. Scholars of Greek literature have debated whether Oedipus was a good man who happened to suffer a most unfortunate fate, or if he was in fact a truly bad person, whose fate was only just. In comparison with the writings of Aristotle on The Good, a relative conclusion emerges showing that according to Aristotelian views of good and bad, Oedipus was indeed a good man, and the bad that befell him was a cruel gift from the gods.
In his first dealings with the city of Thebes, Oedipus found them under the curse of the Sphinx. He actually gained his position of King of Thebes by rendering unto the city a great service, namely the salvation of the city from the Sphinxs plague. Aristotle praised the type of cleverness and practical wisdom Oedipus exhibited in his solution to the riddle as being a component of overall goodness. If it were not for Oedipus virtuous action in saving Thebes, the citizens would have suffered untold disasters at the merciless hands of the Sphinx. After proving his worth as a good man and his concern for the citizens of what was seemingly a foreign city, Oedipus was well liked by the people of Thebes.
The people of Thebes liked their ruler, and he in turn ruled over them in a good and just way, trying to help them in their times of need. Aristotle believed that good in man existed in doing his job well. A good carpenter was one who worked with his wood and built things as best as possible; a good ruler presided over his people justly. Oedipus was a good ruler of Thebes. According to the Aristotelian definition, this is a significant step towards being a good man. Oedipus first demonstrated his ability to be a good leader in his helping the city escape the Sphinx. He continued his leadership in the same manner, doing good for the city and winning esteem in the eyes of the citizens. The premise for the book is that he was trying to rid the city of a second plague. He showed no hesitation to give it his best effort, saying “Indeed Im willing to give all that you may need; I would be very hard should I not pity suppliants like these.” Displaying this willingness to he!
lp his citizens and earning such lofty acclaim as being called “great” or “greatest,” Oedipus could not have been a poor ruler or a tyrant. If Oedipus had ruled his subjects poorly, then they would not have addressed him as “great,” so he should be viewed as a good leader, one who cared for his charges, one who ruled justly. In this light, Aristotle would have judged Oedipus to be a good man, or more precisely, a good ruler because Oedipus labor was “for the benefit of others,” one of Aristotles characteristics of a good ruler.
Similarly, in Oedipus quest for the truth, he established his goodness under another category of Aristotelian virtue. When warned by Tieresias of the painful news the prophet bears, Oedipus insisted on hearing what he has to say. When Jocasta pleaded with him to stop his interrogation of the messenger, Oedipus replied “I will not be persuaded to let be the chance of finding out the whole thing clearly.” When the herdsman balked at spelling out Oedipus dreadful fate, Oedipus threatened him, saying “If youll not talk to gratify me, you will talk with pain to urge you.” Oedipus let nothing stop him from his search to discover the truth about himself. Aristotles view is that “Both are dear to us, but it is our sacred duty to honor truth more highly than friends.” Aristotle holds friends in no low regard, so it is evident that his respect for the truth is very high indeed. In Oedipus relentless push toward knowing the truth, he satisfies yet another Aristotelian definit!
ion of a good man.
Another way of looking at Oedipus devotion to finding the truth of the matter of his prophecy and the plague on Thebes may be divined from an analysis of his motives, who he was seeking to benefit from his actions. Aristotle praises those who act in the interests of others, saying “the best man is not who practices virtue toward himself, but who practices it toward others, for that is a hard thing to achieve.” By equating selflessness with the “best man” Aristotle assigns especially high value to this virtue of character. In Sophocles Oedipus the King, Oedipus acted without regard for who would benefit or suffer from the fruition of his inquiry. He knew full well that in his uncovering the awful truth of the old prophecy he would be cursed and disgraced. Oedipus realized the gravity of the situation as far back as his conversation with Jocasta where he said “O God, I think I have called curses on myself in ignorance,” and probably had suspicions even sooner. Still Oed!
ipus went dragging the wretched truth out into the light, saving the city from its distress but ruining himself as well. Oedipus sacrificed himself in order to deliver his city from the plague, establishing him as a good person according to the Aristotelian definition.
Truly the only problem one might see in equating Oedipus with goodness stemmed from his temper, but this confusion arises from a contemporary view of anger, and not Aristotles view. Oedipus sometimes got angry, and when he did, the results were sometimes disastrous. Early in the play the first hint of Oedipus problem with his temper showed itself in the conversation with Tieresias. Oedipus could not bring himself to accept the prophets word, and became insulting and rude. Had he maintained a level head and heed the prophets instructions (“Let me go home. It will be easiest for us both to bear our several destinies to the end if you will follow my advice.”), Oedipus might not have had to realize that his ill-fated destiny had become actuality. Oedipus clashed with Creon, saying that Creon was the one who killed Laius, and that Creon should not be banished, but should be killed. The herdsman received death threats when he was reluctant to talk. As the story of Laius !
death became clear, the audience learned of how Oedipus “became angry and struck the coachman,” before he attacked and killed his father in the coach. An acceptable reason for Oedipus impulsive rage was never given. In modern times a quick temper and displays of anger are seen as bad, but Aristotle saw them differently. Aristotle viewed anger as not especially virtuous, however it was “more excusable to follow ones natural desires,” than to give in to ones appetites for pleasure. He believed that since “anger seems to listen to reason, but to hear wrong,” anger was a lesser bad. Therefore if the seriousness of Oedipus anger is judged according to the Aristotelian view of ethics, he may still be viewed as a good man.
Oedipus the King is a tragic story, of a man who tried to outrun his fate and ironically runs straight to it. Even more ironic is the fact that Oedipus was at base a good man, yet his fate was terrible. In judging the good of King Oedipus one may apply the guidelines advanced by Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics and, as a result, Oedipus may be seen to be a good person.