Topics for Further Study
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.
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?
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