Lessons From: Oedipus Rex

How to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy

If you've a love for the Greek tragedies or a basic knowledge of psychology or the history of literature, then you probably know about the story of Oedipus. For those of you that don't, I'll be happy to tell you the story and I swear to god you can't get mad about spoilers this time because the story's been out there for more than two thousand years.

It's a pretty simple story all in all. Basically, before the story begins, Laius is a guest of King Pelops of Elis, and becomes the tutor of his son Chrysippus, who he promptly proceeds to abduct and rape, then kills himself in shame. This casts doom over Laius, and his son Oedipus and all those who come after.

Eventually a boy is born to Laius and his wife Jocasta, and when an oracle tells Laius that he is to perish by the hand of his own son, so his father naturally ties his feet together and orders his wife to murder him with a pin. Again, naturally, she declines, , and orders a servant to do it, but killing babies is generally not a pleasurable business, so she took him to a mountaintop to die from exposure. A shepherd rescued him and named him Oedipus which means "swollen feet", probably because they'd been tied since the moment he was born, and takes him to Corinth, where he is raised by King Polybus as his own, for he had no son.

As a young man, Oedipus hears that he's not biologically the son of Polybus and asks the Pythia, Oracle of Delphi, who his parents were. She ignores the question and said that he is doomed to shed the blood of his sire and mate with his mother, so the man, horrified, flees Corinth to avoid this horrible fate, and goes to Thebes to avoid the horrible fate that the oracle foretold.

On the road to Thebes, he runs into Laius, and they argue about whose chariot has right-of-way. The King strikes Oedipus with his scepter, and he responded by throwing him off the chariot, thus killing him. He then runs into the sphynx who asks him a riddle, and answers it, so the creature throws herself off the cliff and as a reward for ridding the city of its curse he gets the kingship and the hand of the widow Jocasta. The prophecy is thus fulfilled.

This is, as those of you who read it probably know, not the story itself but the background. In itself, the story begins as a plague on the city of Thebes, which is said to be caused because the man who murdered Laius had not been caught. This leads Oedipus to ask Tiresias, the blind prophet, for help, and he claims to know the answer but tells his king to cease his search. Of course, the refusal drove Oedipus angry and he accused the prophet to be implicitly responsible, so in his outrage, Tiresias responded that he himself is the criminal he seeks, and as the king mocked his lack of sight, the prophet said the same of his king, and when the murderer is caught, it will be seen that he is a native citizen of Thebes, brother and father to his children, son and husband to his mother.

Then Creon, his brother-in-law, is brought forth to be sentenced to death, but the chorus persuades Oedipus to let him live and Jocasta comforts him, mentioning a prophecy that never came true for her, because it was not their son but some stranger who killed Laius in a crossroads. This, of course, lights up the proverbial lightbulb over the king's head and he calls for the only surviving witness of the attack, and then he tells his wife the story. They still have hope because it was said that his father had been killed by several bandits.

A messenger then arrives from Corinth saying that his father had died. This delights him because it means that he could never accomplish the first half of the prophecy, but the messenger tells him to rest easy because Merope is not his biological mother. This messenger used to be a shepherd, in fact, and had received a baby who Polybus adopted, and the chorus says that he is the same shepherd who witnessed the murder of King Laius. Jocasta begs her son to stop asking questions and runs into the palace. Thus, Oedipus asks the messenger to tell him the story, and so he does. A servant comes to say that Jocasta hung herself, and her son proceeds to remove the long pins that held her dress together and plunge them into his eyes in despair. Now blind, he begs for exile and asks Creonte to watch over his daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Then the chorus says what was known in Ancient Greece, that no man is to be considered fortunate until he is dead.

What can we learn from this?

I'm not exactly a fatalist, in fact, I believe that absolutely nothing is written in stone and you can only trust in what you're living in this moment, for nothing is certain. That being said, there are many problems which you can try to avoid with all the effort you can muster, and they'll happen anyways. These are called self-fulfilling prophecies and Oedipus Rex is one of the most ancient examples you could probably think of. 

You wake up, feeling like crap and knowing it's going to be a bad day. Everyone's in a bad mood and nothing good happens. 

You run a basketball team and you expect freshmen to be worse at playing, so you put them in less. When they do get to play, they suck, and your expectation is fulfilled. 

You see a girl you like, and your friend convinces you that he knows her and you're totally her type. You expect a good result, and when you go and talk to her, it turns out that she's being friendly and probably attracted to you. 

You're a professor and expect a student to do well, so you help him prepare better. It goes well for him.

This is also known as the Pygmalion effect, and the way to avoid it is pretty simple. Reconsider your expectations. The problem with the protagonists in Greek tragedies was the fact that they pretty much listened to their oracles without question; had Oedipus not tried to flee his destiny, he would've never fulfilled it in the first place, and had his father never sent him away, he probably could've cultivated and nurtured a loving boy. Of course, it's a story meant to be tragic, so there's going to be a bit of fluff in there with coincidences that would never (or hopefully extremely rarely) happen in real life, but if you see things turning out just as you expected them to, maybe it's time to reconsider what you think and what you do. 

Read Oedipus Rex here:

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