Relying on prayer and divine help in daily life and when problems arise and not following the wise advice of Maimonides to use one’s intelligence, study the laws of nature, and act according to these laws, laws created by God, can, and usually does result in tragedy to one’s self, family, friends, and acquaintances.
Examples in the Torah and literature
I showed how King David’s life and the life of his family and nation were disastrously affected during his entire life and even after his death by one mistake in my book “The Tragedy of King David.” I will now show how the great Greek dramatist Sophocles taught the same lesson in his famous “Oedipus Cycle: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.”
Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King)
Sophocles was one of the four great Greek playwrights whose works are extant today. The others are Aeschylus and Euripides, both of whom wrote tragedies like Sophocles, and the humorist Aristophanes who mocked the philosopher Socrates as a man whose head was in a cloud. Sophocles lived around 496 to around 406 BCE. He wrote over 100 plays and was quite famous during his lifetime. Only seven of his plays are extant. The Oedipus Cycle of three plays is his most well-known series. Sigmund Freud drew his idea of an Oedipus Complex from it, although it is not hinted in the plays. The famed thinker Aristotle called Oedipus Rex the most perfect tragedy because, among other things, it depicts a man on top of the world who is brought low by a single act, his definition of a tragedy.
In the first play, Oedipus is the king of Thebes. He is happily married, has two daughters and two sons by his wife, and had a good relationship with his wife’s brother Creon. His city is struck by a plague and the inhabitants want him to do something to remove it. He sends a messenger to an oracle and is told that a huge wrong was committed, and the plague will not be removed by the gods until the wrong is righted. Not knowing that he was the man who did the wrong, he orders that the culprit should be found and either killed or banished from the city.
A blind prophet, Teiresias, reluctantly discloses the truth. It is Oedipus who is the guilty person. He is the man who brought the plague to his city Thebes. His crime was that he unwittingly killed his father, the king of Thebes, married his mother, and had children by her. He did not know that he killed his father. He felt he was being attacked by an unknown man, and killed the man attacking him without knowing his identity. Oedipus is shocked, blinds himself and is banished from Thebes. When Oedipus’ wife, his mother, hears the truth, she kills herself.
Why was Oedipus punished?
Why was Oedipus punished for a deed he did without any evil intent and why should the entire populace of Thebes suffer for his deed? I addressed this question in detail in my book “The Tragedy of King David.” The question and answer are not addressed by Sophocles. Briefly stated, no one was punished. God was not involved. What happened was the result of natural law. Every deed has consequences, even innocent deeds, and the consequences can affect many other people, including one’s family and community, as it does here. People need to understand this and be careful how they act. They need to use their intelligence, study the laws of nature, understand how nature works, and act accordingly.
Maimonides wrote in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:17 and 18 that it is not ”through the interference of divine providence that a certain leaf falls [from a tree], nor do I hold that when a certain spider catches a certain fly, that this is the direct result of a special decree and will of God in that moment… In all these cases the action is, according to my opinion, entirely due to chance, as taught by Aristotle… The prophets even express their surprise that God should take notice of man, who is too little and too unimportant to be worthy of the attention of the Creator [Maimonides offers quotes from the prophetical books]…. [Divine providence does not mean that God interferes with and changes the laws of nature. God created the laws of nature and people need to know and use them.] I hold that divine providence is related and closely connected with the intellect, because providence can only proceed from an intelligent being…. [How much providence people receive will depend on their use of their intellect.] Every person has his share of divine providence in proportion to… the person’s intellectual development…. Study this chapter as it ought to be studied; you will find in it all the fundamental principles of the law.”
Oedipus at Colonus
“Oedipus at Colonus” is a continuation of “Oedipus Rex.” It is now twenty years later. Oedipus is very old and very weak. He is lead about by his daughter Antigone because he is unable to move about unaided. She must help him and suffers thereby because of her father’s deed twenty years ago. Oedipus is at Colonus a place named after a legendary horseman. The people at Colonus are not pleased to have the evil man in their midst and want him and his daughter to leave. Oedipus does not want to go. He feels he has suffered enough. He wants to die and be buried here. Fortunately, the king, Theseus, allows him to stay, and helps him later when his mother’s brother Creon comes to take him back to Thebes where he will harm him.
Oedipus discovers that his two daughters love him and try to help him, but his two sons turned out to be evil and are about to engage in a war. His youngest son is holding the throne of Thebes and his eldest son, wanting to be king, gathered an army of seven troops to attack Thebes. The turning of his sons into evil men would in all probability not have happened if Oedipus was home and not in exile, another consequence of his killing his father, along with the suffering of his daughters who need to be involved in trying to care for him, and the suicide of his wife/mother.
(Interestingly, Oedipus dies in a similar fashion to the death of Elijah in II Kings 2.
According “Oedipus at Colonus,” scene VIII, Oedipus said goodbye to those from whom he wanted to take leave, then went off with a single man (King Theseus). “But in what manner Oedipus perished, no mortal men could tell but Theseus. It was not lightning, bearing its fire from Zeus, that took him off; no hurricane was blowing. But some attendant from the train of heaven came for him; or else the underworld opened in love the unlit door of earth. For he was taken without lamentation, illness or suffering, indeed his end was wonderful if mortals ever was.” Later, when Antigone Oedipus’ daughter wants to see his grave, Theseus tells her that Oedipus made him swear that he would never reveal his burial place.)
Aristotle praised this play and said that the quality of a tragedy such as this one can be discovered and enjoyed as well by reading it as by going to the theater to see it produced.
Sophocles “Antigone” is the final play of his “Oedipus Cycle.” It is, in my opinion, a chiasm to the first play “Oedipus Rex” because it has similarities in details to the first play, especially Creon causing deaths unwittingly, the prophesy to him by the same blind prophet of future horrors, and like Oedipus in the first play, Creon is brought low to utter despair, pleading for death.
In this play, we learn that the two brothers, Oedipus’ two sons, killed each other in their battle and their uncle Creon became king. Creon orders that one of the brothers, the one who was ruling Thebes at the time of his brother’s attack, should be buried with honors, while the attacking brother’s body should be left as punishment in the open to rot. Antigone, like many citizens of Thebes, thinks this is wrong. She is caught trying to bury her brother. Creon sentences her to death by being placed in an enclosure and starved. Creon ignores the fact that Antigone is affianced to his son Haimon. Haimon pleads with his father to pardon Antigone and swears that if he fails to do so, he will not see him again. Creon does not back down.
As with Oedipus, the blind prophet Teiresias comes to King Creon and warns him that he has brought a new calamity upon himself and others. He is persuaded to release Antigone, but is too late. Antigone and Haimon have killed themselves so that they can be together in death (like the later Romeo and Juliet play). Also, when Creon’s wife hears that her son Haimon is dead, she stabs herself and dies, as did Oedipus’ wife/mother. Creon cries, “Let death come quickly.… I have been rash and foolish. I have killed my son and my wife.” And the chorus chants, “There is no happiness where there is no wisdom.” Acts have natural consequences that a wise person foresees.