Oedipus and Hubris

Analysis on how King Oedipus in Sophocles’ famous play destroyed his life and family by hubris.

The ancient Greeks believed in hubris, or pride. Pride could be either a good or a bad quality, depending on its use. Many people were confident and proud of their achievements and lives, but sometimes that pride rose to unacceptable levels, enough to annoy or even offend others. King Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex was a fine example of one whose life was destroyed by hubris. He was destined, according to Apollo, to murder his father and marry his mother. However, a large portion of the tragedy could have been avoided if Oedipus had been kinder and more tolerant instead of prideful and arrogant, such as when he murdered Laius on the highway, solved the Sphinx’s riddle, and accepted and exercised his kingship.

When Oedipus was a young man, he fled Corinth in fear of fulfilling the prophecy on his foster parents, Polybus and Merope. On the highway, he encountered King Laius at a crossroads and killed him and all of his followers, except one, over a dispute on who was to cross the intersection first. Oedipus didn’t know that Laius was actually his father, and walked on, setting the prophecy in motion. Oedipus felt very prideful and powerful when he killed the group over such a trivial problem such as who was going to cross the road first. It was his own will, not fate, to kill Laius, which could have been completely avoided if Oedipus had never fled Corinth and stayed to look after his parents.

Later on his journey, Oedipus arrived at Thebes, a Greek city-state, where the Sphinx was guarding the city gates. The Sphinx was a monster that had a body shaped like a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the face of a woman. It posed a question to passing travelers, and if they could not answer it, they were eaten immediately. However, Oedipus knew the answer to that question, and the Sphinx became so angry that it killed itself. The people of Thebes soon heard of Oedipus’s heroic deed and King Laius’s murder, which they thought was the work of a highwayman. They crowned Oedipus King of Thebes and allowed him to marry Jocasta, Laius’ widow. No one knew about the relationship between the two, but that heinous event could have been prevented if Oedipus contained his hubris and never boasted or told anyone that he had solved the Sphinx’s riddle. Furthermore, it was by his own free will, and not fate, to accept the throne.

Oedipus’s intense hubris continued even when he was king. When the plague and affliction spread through Thebes, he was determined to find Laius’s murderer, and he even boldly proclaimed that he would exile the man far away from Thebes and made sure that “that man’s life be consumed in evil and wretchedness” (233-234). In addition, when Teiresias told Oedipus in line 347 that he himself was the murderer that he was seeking, Oedipus became rude and uncivil to Teiresias, saying that he was a “sightless, witless, senseless, mad old man!” (356). In yet another incident, Jocasta pleaded with Oedipus to stop his quest when she finally knew the truth, but Oedipus gallantly pledged to find out the truth and resolve the plague. Finally, when Oedipus later questioned the shepherd who found him, he used his kingly power and pride to coerce the shepherd to reveal the truth. All of those situations were not fated; instead they were the works of free will and hubris that ultimately revealed a shocking and dreadful truth about Oedipus’s life.

Free will and hubris, according to the ancient Greeks, were separate from unavoidable fate. Oedipus’s fate was to kill his father and marry his mother. However, everything else, including fleeing Corinth, solving the Sphinx’s riddle, and finally pursuing the truth about his life, was by his own free will, a direct result of his ego and pride. Oedipus Rex is a story about the dangers of pride and arrogance, one teaching about the importance of humility and tolerance, and one stressing about the control of hubris, a potentially perilous quality that destroyed Oedipus’s vision and his life.

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