Last Updated on July 29, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411
In his Third Letter on Oedipus, Voltaire, a French Enlightenment philosopher and writer, expressed incredulity at the fact that Oedipus, upon discovering that the shepherd who witnessed Laius's murder was still alive, decides to consult an oracle rather than actively to seek the testimony of this witness. How does Voltaire's questioning of Oedipus's decision-making reveal the differences in religious belief between Athenian society in the fifth century B.C. and the Enlightenment? Research the status of belief in oracles in Athenian culture and compare it to the debates between the Jesuits and Jansenists in Voltaire's France. Discuss this difference in the context of Oedipus Rex.
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During the fifth century in Athens, the skill of sophistry—the ability to be a rhetorically persuasive public speaker, and to gain political power through the effectiveness of one's speech performances—was becoming an increasingly important aspect of civic culture. One of the most famous sophists, Protagoras, is famous for saying "Man is the measure of all things," and this statement is indicative of the sophists' attitude toward man's potential to learn to excel at rhetoric and thereby win court cases, for example, even if their causes are unjust. Research this aspect of Athenian society, and juxtapose the powers of rhetorical persuasion with the treatment of fate in Oedipus Rex. You might wish to start by looking at the well-known first choral ode in Antigone, which warns against the kind of over-confidence in man's abilities that Athens was famous for. How does Sophocles use oracular knowledge to comment on man's belief that he can master the universe through knowledge?
Oedipus Rex was written in Athens shortly after its war with Sparta—commonly referred to as the Peloponnesian War—broke out in 431 B.C. Investigate the war-torn environment in Athens during Sophocles's day by reading Book II of Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War, paying close attention to Pericles's funeral oration in the middle of the book. Imagine what it would have been like to have been an audience member for opening night, 426 B.C., of Oedipus Rex, and write a journal entry from the perspective of such a person.
Were a person in contemporary America to unwittingly commit the crimes of Oedipus, to what kind of moral scrutiny would they be subjected? Do you think it's fair that a person is punished for a crime they did not realize they were committing? How might contemporary society (as opposed to Athenian culture) deal differently with this issue?