A plague has struck Thebes, and the Oracle declares that the city is cursed due to the presence of a murderer who is an abomination in the sight of the gods. This murderer killed the former king of Thebes Laius. And the current king, Oedipus, sets out doggedly to find the killer so he can deliver his land from the plague. The only catch?
Oedipus is the killer.
Unbeknownst to him, he slew the previous king without realizing the identity of the man he was killing, and then he married the king’s widow, Jocasta. But it gets worse. The previous king was Oedipus’ own father. Thus, he fulfilled a terrible prophecy: that he would kill his father and marry his mother.
This is the plot of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the first and perhaps most brilliant detective story in Western literature, in which sleuth and criminal, detective and murderer, are one and the same person. Sophocles expertly doles out clues one by one, as, with growing horror and mounting dismay, we begin to see the terrible truth alongside Oedipus, whose famous moment of anagnorisis—his realization of his true situation—leads him to gouge out his eyes.
But what makes this story so powerful and worthy of holding a place among the most profound works of literature that deal with grief, guilt, fate, free will, and the divine, such as King Lear or Crime and Punishment, is not merely the cleverness of the plotting, nor even its shock value and haunting imagery, but its attempt to grapple unflinchingly with complicated moral issues.
Oedipus begins the play with a degree of self-satisfaction as king; he sees himself as something of a great man. By the end, with his old sense of self torn to shreds, he has truly become great through his dedication to the truth—however unpalatable—and his radical acceptance of responsibility for the evil he’s done, even though much of it was through ignorance. Such an attitude of taking complete ownership of the consequences of one’s actions is more and more lacking in our contemporary culture of victimhood.
What is a culture of victimhood? According to a 2014 paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, victimhood culture is a culture “in which individuals and groups display high sensitivity to slight, have a tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to third parties, and seek to cultivate an image of being victims who deserve assistance.”
Campbell and Manning argue that our society has transformed into one built around victimhood culture, as distinct from the honor cultures or dignity cultures of the past. They point to the increase in complaints of microaggressions as evidence of a shift in our culture’s attitude toward social conflict and injustice. Microaggressions are seemingly small words or actions, intentional or unintentional, that insult or threaten a minority group. This victim mindset related to microaggressions results in part from an overarching narrative that society is unjust and that certain groups are oppressed by other groups. Targets of microaggressions seek public attention and the help of some outside authority by emphasizing their suffering and innocence. Victimhood and shifting blame becomes a kind of virtue.
Contrast this with an honor culture or dignity culture. According to Campbell and Manning, an honor culture is one in which reputation plays an important role, and people are expected to fight back, sometimes physically, when they are insulted or injured. Over time, in the West, the honor culture was replaced with a dignity culture.
In a dignity culture, people focus less on reputation and more on their own inherent worth and virtue. In such a culture, developing a thick skin and shrugging off insults is seen as a good thing. When necessary, disputes are resolved in as rational a manner as possible, with an appeal to outside authority, such as the legal system, if needed.
Nowadays, we can see growing evidence that our culture values victimhood, as opposed to an honor or dignity culture. Consider college campuses that promote “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” shield students from uncomfortable topics, and reward them for claiming a victim status. Or consider the fact that most political conversations revolve around rights, with very few people discussing responsibilities. In a victimhood culture, our tendency is to shift the blame for problems and sufferings onto others—perhaps the injustice of society or some oppressive group—and not to take any responsibility for it ourselves.
But Oedipus teaches a radically different approach to morality and social problems. Part of what makes the play both compelling and unsettling is its insistence that, often, we are the problem in society, not someone else. Oedipus spends most of the play hunting for someone to blame for the plague, the murder, and so forth.
In the end, though, there is no one to blame but himself and his own free choices. His heroism comes when he accepts this. He doesn’t take the easy way out of blaming fate, or the gods, for his terrible situation. And he might be forgiven for doing so since he didn’t know he was killing his father (though he knew he was killing someone) and marrying his mother when he performed those actions. He doesn’t play the victim. After having blinded himself, he cries in one of the most poignant passages of the work:
That I have laid upon myself is just.
If I had eyes,
I do not know how I could bear the sight
Of my father, when I came to the house of Death,
Or my mother: for I have sinned against them both.”
Symbolically, Oedipus is an everyman figure whom we accompany on a journey toward facing personal guilt and responsibility. Of course, Oedipus wasn’t the only one at fault—his parents tried to kill him when he was a baby, after all, in order to foil the prophecy, an action that sets off a chain of events culminating in the prophecy’s fulfillment. Nor am I suggesting that injustices never occur on a societal level, that no one group is ever oppressed by another, or that fate doesn’t deal some hard blows. But Oedipus is wise enough to know that he is not completely innocent and that he must take some responsibility for his own situation.
There may be some wisdom for us in this ancient play in which Sophocles seems to admonish us: When faced with evil, suffering, and social problems, look first to yourself, and only, perhaps, afterwards point the finger at society, the Fates, or the gods. And there’s another piece of the story: Because Oedipus faces the truth, admits a portion of guilt, and voluntarily takes on suffering to atone for it, he is, in the sequel play Oedipus at Colonus, accepted and forgiven by the gods, and the land where he dies becomes a blessed place.
But first, Oedipus’ path to recovery began with his admission of guilt.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons-Antoni Brodowski, CC BY-SA 4.0