Tragic Time, Reflections on the Nature of Time in Oedipus, The King
The mysterious quality of time has been an area of personal fascination for years. After all, our understanding of time is not restricted to just how we use it. A culture’s view and concept of time is reflected within its arts and faith(s). Time is more than counting minutes or hours; it goes to the root of how we understand the world—past, present, and future. In my own essay from Catholic365.com, entitled “Parting the Veil of Eternity,” I introduced a discussion on faith and the elusive nature of time with the following words.
What is it that so fascinates us about time? If you’re old enough to remember watching the original Star Trek series on a black and white television, you’ve likely experienced that nagging sensation that time speeds up as you age. Whether this phenomenon has more to do with increasing age or busier schedules, I can’t say, but it certainly seems to be a common and shared human experience. I suggest that this feeling might be associated with that deposit of earthly experience we have stored up over the years. It’s difficult to articulate, but it’s almost as if we reach a tipping point where we have more time completed than to come, and the sense is that time is rushing by us more quickly as we speed downhill towards that unseen finish line. If something like this is indeed true, then, what do perceptions along these lines communicate about eternity: the eternal present? More important today, can it be said that there is a unique understanding or grasp of time evident within Catholic theology and tradition?...
When we pause to look at Sophocles’ Oedipus, The King we catch an insightful glimpse of what time meant to the Greeks. Several different dimensions of time are conveyed: the unchanging companion of fate (time and fate intertwined), finder of truth and true nature of character, and time is also seen as possessing a kind of elegant symmetry and mysterious purpose.
As popularly known (and discussed within this National Public Radio commentary), Beethoven is said to have told an assistant that the opening movement of his fifth symphony represented fate knocking upon the door. As a lover of classical music, these words have helped me see this musical composition with fresh appreciation. There is a quality in this understanding of fate that is also helpful in understanding the nature of Oedipus. He is a character fighting to be his own man in a culture that did not put much faith in free will. He was endeavoring to fight the gods (particularly the will of Apollo), but the one fight you can’t win is destiny. If you examine the past points of Oedipus’ life in the light of his true destiny, you can’t help but draw the conclusion that his victory against the Sphinx terrorizing the people of Thebes was actually a personal defeat with regards to what the future had in store for him. Rather than look at Oedipus as a fool who is unable to reconcile himself with the truth, the reader should appreciate the character’s struggle against the future that lies in wait.
With realization beginning to dawn, the anguish of Oedipus is abundantly clear when he asks “where is a man more miserable than I? More hated by the gods?” (Sophocles, 30) Despite the character’s general knowledge of his fate, however, he actively fights against it with every fiber of his being.
Oedipus has spent all his life dealing with his fate. He has, we learn, been told that he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother. And he has refused to accept that fate. He has spent much of his life moving around, so as to avoid his fate. In other words he has freely chosen, for reasons which we can surely understand and applaud, to construct a life in which what he has been told will happen will not happen. (Johnston, 11)
For the Greek audience, free will was eclipsed by fate or destiny. Time was the ultimate changing force, and nothing, except the gods, could withstand the transformative power of time. While this entropic force, however, wrecked havoc on most, some men were able to hold their ground—at least insofar as character traits are concerned.
This brings us, then, to our second dimension of time as conveyed with this play: time as the finder of truth and character. Just as Bible passages such as 1 Peter 1:7 refer to the “refiners fire” with regards to hardship and trials endured by man, time is the ultimate refining force in terms of human beings and human institutions. Creon’s wise words to Oedipus follow.
Test what I have said. Go to the priestess / At Delphi, ask if I quoted her correctly. / And as for this other thing: if I am found / Guilty of treason with Teiresias, / Then sentence me to death! You have my word / It is a sentence I should cast my vote for-- / But not without evidence! / You do wrong. / When you take good men for bad, bad men for good. / A true friend thrown aside—why, life itself / Is not more precious! / In time you will know this well: / For time, and time alone, will show the just man, / Though scoundrels are discovered in a day. (Sophocles, 24)
Read that last sentence again, because this dialogue captures the essence of time’s mystery to the Greeks—and to us today. Like a small stream will wear away rock over thousands of years, man’s true nature will be revealed—be it good or bad—with the passage of time; no mortal can shield himself from its power of discovery. As Jacqueline de Romilly eloquently puts it, “indeed, this destructive action of time, which is clearly shown by the verbs describing it…is the very mark of the human condition. Gods are not submitted to time.” (de Romilly, 94)
The third dimension of time in Sophocles’ Oedipus, The King is more challenging to articulate than the preceding two. Perhaps it is best described with a reference to Greek architecture. Picture in your mind an example of an ancient Greek temple, for instance, and it will certainly include towering columns and a profound sense of symmetry and order. Indeed, an elegant kind of symmetry is evident in ancient Greek architecture; it’s all about order. Sophocles seems to convey the movement of time in a similar fashion with this work. If you examine the life of Oedipus prior to the period begun in the play, you note that his life began in Thebes, and the play also ends there. While not such an unusual circumstance for dramatic settings, it does lend to the sense of unity of the play. The irony of the character’s fight against destiny is also telling with regards to how Sophocles perceived the nature of time. Time may be the destroyer of mortals, but the nature of time itself appears to take the form of something ordered rather than random. Like Greek architecture, time in this work is similarly ordered and suggestive of an elegant purpose and structure.
All in all, Sophocles’ use of time in his narratives is designed to serve his general interest in the theme of mortals coming to terms with the vicissitudes of their lives and the ways in which the past encroaches on the present. (De Jong, 292)
In conclusion, the tragedy of Oedipus highlights a man’s fight for free will against the force of destiny. Unlike we usually see time in the modern world, ancient Greeks had far less confidence in free will than the capricious nature of fate (as controlled by their fickle gods). Ultimately, man was slave to his fate, and this destiny was unalterable. The Judeo-Christian response would be to emphasize man’s responsibility for his own destiny; his personal choices determine and shape the course of his life. (This is not to say that God fails to know what our ultimate choices will be, but this knowing does not infringe upon the choices themselves. In fact, from the Catholic perspective, a view similar to what we see within this play would be termed heretical predestinarianism. Christians don’t believe that God chooses hell for anyone, but that people make this selection entirely themselves.) We can agree with Sophocles, however, regarding seeing time as the refining fire, revealing character as dross or pure gold. Likewise, most of use could agree that there is a certain kind of elegance or order to time. While this may be more visible to the astrophysicist than the English major, scientific thought infuses our culture thoroughly enough for most of us to have a perception along these lines. What is the importance of this work? Charles Segal offered the following.
The implications of Sophocles’ play make all such universalizing extrapolations possible. The Tyrannus remains a founding text in European culture. It is one of the most revealing documents of Western man’s determination to define self-knowledge in intellectual and rational terms, and one of the most powerful statements of the limitations of the enterprise. (Silk/Segal, 142)
I’d like to end this essay with a passage from Jacqueline de Romilly’s excellent and thoughtful work, Time in Greek Tragedy. It reminds us why time is such a critical component of the dramatic arts.
Time shows through change; and in that respect it is obvious that tragedy deals with time. Its subject matter is always one great event, which overthrows all that existed before: it means death, destruction, reversal of fortune; its strength rests on a contrast between before and after; and the deeper the contrast, the more tragic the event. (de Romilly, 5-6)
Erickson, Karl Bjorn. "Parting the Veil of Eternity." Catholic365. N.p., 14 Nov. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
Johnston, Ian. "Fate, Freedom, and the Tragic Experience: An Introductory Lecture on Sophocles's Oedipus the King." Vancouver Island University. Aug. 2004. Lecture.
Jong, Irene J. F. De., and Rene Nünlist. Time in Ancient Greek Literature. Leiden: Brill, 2007. Print.
"Predestinarianism." CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA:. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2015.
Romilly, Jacqueline De. Time in Greek Tragedy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1968. Print.
Silk, M. S. "Segal's Sophocles C. Segal: Sophocles' Tragic World: Divinity, Nature,Society. Pp. Xii 276. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995. £25. ISBN: 0-674-82100-9." The Classical Review The Class. Rev. 47.02 (1997): 250-51. Web.
"Sophocles Oedipus Rex 1957." YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. The Seagull Reader Plays. Ed. Joseph Kelly. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009. Print.
(MLA Works Cited indentation not used on blog.)