B58-MXH2
Learning to Accept Mistakes:  Medical Theory, Political Trouble, and the Tragic View in Oedipus Rex 
Copyright  by Max Herman, 6/27/02
  When we read Oedipus Rex now, we are reading the best example of Greek tragedy.  It can be 
a very heavy diet, especially for the young and hopeful.  Tragedy is not very similar to the 
average modern mindset.  Most people, at least in the U.S., prefer not to worry about the 
cruelty of fate. And certainly we don't blame our troubles on a tragic law of nature, at 
least not our average troubles, like getting bad grades, or breaking up with a sweetheart, or 
really any of the things that enter our lives as challenges.  We see ourselves as being able 
to deal with things.  How we see, and then portray, our lives in literature affects how we 
live; to avoid excess literary theory we can just say ( as the best literary theory says) 
that literature influences our attention.  And this given way of influencing our attention, 
tragedy, is rather out of use in modern times.  Unless you view modern America as thoroughly 
declining, or the Greeks and their literature as very degenerate, you must wonder why tragedy 
had a greater hold and grip, really, a greater usefulness, in ancient Greece.  
  Short of a complete analysis of Greek culture, a good resolution can be found by looking at 
just enough to see how the play "Oedipus Rex" is a very perfect and clear example of a view 
which is, if not the picture of our nature we find most relevant today, at least a picture 
that was at one point civilization's bread and butter.  Tragedy was, in the metaphor that this 
paper will use to look at this particular play, the Greeks' medical theory, their theory or 
picture of the sickness and health of humankind.  And insofar as our mental well-being is 
concerned, a sense of medical fact can settle nerves that are scared by sickness, and is the 
type of knowledge that breeds upon itself and is the spark of cure.  If tragedy didn't 
understand the cure of all our sicknesses, or the ones with which we are most commonly 
afflicted with today, it was at least a budding consciousness of the idea of human health, 
and an important thing for survival.  Healthy ways of influencing our attention, healthy plays, 
will turn our attention on our health.
  The episode of sickness that we see framed in "Oedipus Rex" is Oedipus's reign as king.  In 
our sickness metaphor and in Sophocles's own imagery, Oedipus is "the land's pollution" 
(l. 353).  It is very easy to trace the disease since the illness is concentrated right in 
Oedipus's person, and in tracing it to look at the subtle observations that Sophocles makes 
about its progress.  Oedipus is the disease; the polis is the body with the "pollution grown 
ingrained within" (l.97).  In examining the tragic picture of disease 
interacting with the body, we look at how Oedipus interacts with the polis. Oedipus comes to 
the city as a savior by answering the riddle of the sphinx.  This is the first stage of the 
disease, and it is significant as such.  It illustrates the overall idea that sickness is 
healthy, or rather, natural in healthy bodies.  Oedipus begins his commerce with the city by 
answering the riddle.  Why do the people say that Oedipus's arrival was "luck with happy omen" 
(l.51), which brought  the reign of "Oedipus whom all men call Great" 
(l.8), and which was "true good fortune" (l.1281), if it was the arrival of a disease?  Here 
we have to be sort of liberal and imaginative in applying our metaphor.  The play is not 
saying Oedipus's coming was good, any more than sickness is good.  The tragic form is what is 
good, the overall picture, the understanding perspective; it is good to see and understand the 
workings of sickness.  Certainly Sophocles did not write with medical imagery to talk about 
Oedipus's early good fortune.  He didn't use the metaphor to write the play as literally as I 
am using the metaphor to read the play.  He used medical imagery when it expressed his 
immediate meaning most forcibly.  But the fortuitous beginnings do fit our model, and are 
important in explaining why the overall phenomenon of Oedipus was healthy.  
  The most ironclad way to protect a body from disease is to kill it.  Living bodies need to 
take things into their stomachs and lungs and bloodstreams for nourishment, hoping not to 
ingest anything harmful, but willing and required to take the risk.  The city needed a leader, 
a savior, and it took the one that came.  The city sought "solution for troubles at its feet" 
(ll.131-2).  In the long run it wasn't totally healthy to take Oedipus in; it was like a man 
dying of thirst who drinks water that may or may not contain some dangerous microorganism.  
But the act itself of making Oedipus king was a healthy one given the circumstances, and this 
of course is central, since tragedy is in its essence "humanity, given the circumstances".  
The initial good fortune is the healthy part of Oedipus, who contained the sickness.  "I pray 
that the God shall never abolish the eager ambition that profits the state.  For I shall never 
cease to hold the god as our protector" (ll.880-2). 
  This is strong testimony to the practice of following the immediate need without imprudent 
regard for a distant future.  After entering the body politic Oedipus starts to cause disease. 
This is in keeping with standard Olympian judicial practice of granting a short, deluded grace
period.  Yet after the real sickness takes effect, it is important to sees how it progresses. 
What is meaningful about the pollution and purgation sequence in the tragic throe is that the 
whole process of discovery and what we would call cure originate from Oedipus himself.  He 
takes all the steps toward his own expunging, grudgingly but more or less conscientiously, 
from sending to the oracle, through his self-interested accusations against Teiresias's and 
Creon's integrity, and finally to forcing the herdsman's disastrous revelation.  Oedipus is 
not willing to let himself off the hook; he wants perfect security or hellfire.  
  This dedication comes from Oedipus's selfish nature.  The only reason he doesn't just 
execute everyone who threatens him is because this selfish nature has a unique component: he 
sees the polis as an extension of himself, so his desires are mitigated by the city's well-
being.  Oedipus commiserates with the suppliants at the very start of the play, "I know you 
are all sick, yet there is not one of you, sick though you are, that is as sick as myself....
My spirit groans for city and myself and you at once"(ll.59-64).  Ironically but fittingly, 
Oedipus identifies his own prosperity with the prosperity of the city, constantly calling 
himself savior or champion.  In a way, he is--he saved the city from the sphinx.  But, his 
role is limited, and he must now leave the city.  In a similar way, politicians today sometimes 
take office just because their platform happens to fit the current trends, and then they are 
thrown out when the people have had enough of their brand of medicine.  Necessity somehow 
tells the body what is a disease, and at what time.  
  However, Oedipus wasn't thrown out directly; there wasn't a revolution.  Yet it was the 
city's "lips that prayed (he) pitied, not (Creon's)" (ll.671-2).  A certain type of man might 
have had Creon's head severed from his shoulders and tried to pretend the plague and famine 
didn't exist.  But, even for a tyrant's city, it is "better to rule it full of men than empty" 
(l.55).  Here again we have to be rather subtle about what kind of a disease Oedipus is.  
Surely not all diseases have this regard for their host victims.  Oedipus is a unique disease, 
who brought good fortune at the moment of infection, and even in full pollution he behaves in 
a unique way.  He wants to rule the city, not destroy it.  His nature, his ambition is to be 
the Great Oedipus, and to be this the city must prosper.  The city comes first; when Teiresias
tells him answering the riddle brought his doom, he says "I care not, if it has saved the 
city" (l.443).  As he strives toward his goal of memorable monarch, in a sense he rises to his 
own level of incompetence, which shatters his self image and makes him indifferent to his own 
political survival.  He is a special type of disease, a human given special circumstances.  
All the diseases which attack states in the form of tyrants have one trait in common: they are 
not out to rule an empty or weak ship.  This rule is not ironclad, some rulers are sheerly 
oppressive out of insanity, but the majority are just sane men seeking power.  
  The political disease that faced Sophocles's Greece was the "tyrannos".  Revolution was more 
or less explained by the belief that obedience was the duty of the people, and the submissive 
and unjudging, though assertively plaintive chorus here performs that duty.  It is also 
interesting to remark in passing that the Greeks saw the intellectual threat to the soul also 
as one of what ideal to follow--they took industrious following for granted.  It is the 
disease of the tyrant, the bad leader, that Sophocles is trying to bring under the umbrella 
of his medical theory.  And he shows that this type of man comes with a built-in cure.  The 
people just attend to their own aches and pains, and the tyrants will pattern their antibodies 
for themselves.  This is not to say that tyranny is purely good, but that healthy states need 
rulers, and in the case that a bad one is sent to the polis, the hope for recovery is not 
pitch black.  
  The third and last stage of the Oedipus-disease, after his albos-like incubation period and 
his self-annihilating pollution phase, is the aftermath or recovery period.  The play ends 
right after Oedipus is banished, so we don't hear about the famine and plague lifting, but 
the chorus says a lot of things that already put the overall experience in a positive light.  
The chorus says to the blinded Oedipus, "indeed I pity you, but I cannot look at you, though 
there's much I want to ask and much to learn and much to see" (ll.1303-5).  Of the deludedly 
prosperous man, the chorus says "Oedipus, you are my pattern" (l.1193).  Clearly the chorus is 
learning something, being changed in some way.  The suffering in this play is really heaped 
only on Oedipus, at least the destruction is his.  The chorus suffers, but it is the suffering 
of learning a powerful lesson, the pain of knowledge, not the pain of being crushed and 
battered under a tyrant.  Similarly, the suffering of tragedy for the audience was the 
suffering of receiving intense knowledge in a form that now we divert into smaller, more 
specific capillaries. In knowledge, in mental health, the city profits from even Oedipus's 
catastrophe.  The coming and going of Oedipus leaves a lasting effect; "To speak directly, I 
drew my breath from you at the first and so now I lull my mouth to sleep with your name" 
(ll.1221-3).  Not only is the disease purged, but the chorus informs their mind with the law 
of human nature that this type 
of disease can be purged without killing the body, and this is good medical theory, good 
tragedy; in Keats's words, it "soothes the cares of man".  Stepping a bit out of our hard-
working argument, we are just seeing how the Greeks learned not to fear government itself 
irrationally; even when it errs we can recover.  
  Even though Sophocles used much language besides medical imagery to accomplish his effect, 
it is informative to try to frame the entire phenomenon of this play in the terms of medical 
theory, which serves us as sort of a counterpart to the clear vision of our nature that 
literature and art, and thus tragedy, attempt to give us.  Seeing what kind of disease 
Oedipus, the quintessential tragic hero, is, we get a better idea of what tragedy has to 
tell us.  He is necessary, useful, by nature curable, and the source of a good lesson.  
Certainly this is a good set of words to reassure us when we are choosing rulers for our 
countries and our minds.  If this general and archetypal form was a newer discovery in fifth 
century Athens than it is today, we have only Sophocles to thank.

***All quotations from: Sophocles I, trans. David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1954
Return to Bylines


Bookmark and Share