The people of your age, just like the people of my own, want to cling to one of two false ideals: that we have no real choice; that we can choose but that our choices are simple, straightforward, and easily revoked. But neither is true to the deep reality that we are moral, ethical beings whose lives are shaped by our choices.

Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?

Sophocles: On Fate

I see that your age is not very different from my own. You still want to blame everything on fate and to escape from the consequences of your own free will choices. Don’t get me wrong. Fate, destiny, the will of the gods: these things are real and exert their influence on all of us. None of us is radically free; none of us is the absolute master of all that he surveys.

Still, we are creatures who choose, and whose lives are determined, in great part, by the choices we make. We have wills, and our wills collide with those of others. At the center of all my plays stands that collision.

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Consider my greatest hero, Oedipus of Thebes. His life was hemmed in on every side by fate: a fate that was strengthened by the great lengths to which Oedipus and his family went to escape it. Oedipus’s parents, Laius and Jocasta, received an oracle that their son would kill his father. In hopes of avoiding so terrible a destiny, Laius ordered one of his shepherds to take the baby Oedipus to the top of Mount Cithaeron and there let him die of exposure.

But the shepherd took pity on the innocent child and handed him over to a herdsman from Corinth whom he had met on the mountain. The herdsman took the boy back to Corinth where he was adopted by the childless king and queen. My Oedipus grew up believing he was the Prince of Corinth, until, one day, a drunken soldier accused him of being a #######.

Driven by his impulsive nature and his passion for solving riddles, Oedipus sought out the Oracle of Delphi to learn the truth about his birth. But the oracle spurned him and chased him from the temple, filling his ears with the horrible prophecy that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother.

As intent as Laius to escape his fate, Oedipus vowed never to return to Corinth. But his fate pursued him nonetheless. As he journeyed in search of a new and better destiny, he came to a place where three roads converge. There he collided with Laius out on a hunting party with his men. When Laius tried to expel Oedipus from the road, rage possessed the young man, and he killed Laius and the men in his entourage—never suspecting that Laius was both a king and his biological father.

After that, Oedipus came upon the sphinx, and, by answering her riddle, saved Thebes from her tyranny. In gratitude, the Thebans made him their king (their own king Laius having disappeared) and married him to Jocasta. The two, ignorant of their relationship, went on to have two sons and two daughters.

Many years pass and a plague falls upon Thebes. The Oracle of Delphi is consulted as to the cause of the plague; in reply, she says that the plague will continue until the murderer of Laius is found and punished. Inspired by his love for Thebes and his desire to save her once again, Oedipus sets out to solve the oracle’s riddle and uncover the murderer. One by one, his brother-in-law, Creon, his wife, and the blind prophet Tiresias warn him to stop his search and leave the unknown unknown. But his will is too strong. He will not be dissuaded.

When Tiresias, in a fit of rage, suggests that Oedipus is the murderer and casts doubt upon his parentage, Oedipus becomes all the more determined to bring every secret to light, no matter the cost to himself. With the force of a hurricane, Oedipus blows down all opposition to his quest and presses forward to the revelation of his own tragic birth.

When he learns who and what he is, he blinds himself and commands Creon to exile him from Thebes, that he may return to Cithaeron, the mountain where he should have died so many years before.

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You students of the twenty-first century are often too quick to write off Oedipus’s sufferings as the product of a fate over which he had no control. But that is not true. Though he was fated to kill his father and marry his mother, he was not fated to find out the horrible acts he had committed in his youth. Neither was he fated to put out his eyes; that awful deed was performed by his hands alone.

Oedipus’s tragic fortune is brought on by his own stubborn persistence, by his refusal to leave the unknown unknown. He will solve the riddle though all the world should stand in his way; he will save the city he loves and bring to light his true identity.

Man shows his dignity in such willful acts, even if those same acts bring about his destruction. I do not counsel you to follow in the footsteps of Oedipus, but I do challenge you to take your decisions seriously. None of us chooses where or when we will be born; neither do we chose our talents, our culture, our status, or our sex. Most of the things we have are given to us and we cannot change them, but we can choose how we will use or misuse, nurture or starve those gifts.

And we can choose as well whether or not we will take the advice offered us by our family and our friends. My Oedipus refused to listen when Jocasta and Creon and Tiresias told him to end his search, and he paid a terrible price for that refusal. But he also gained self-knowledge.

The people of your age, just like the people of my own, want to cling to one of two false ideals: that we have no real choice; that we can choose but that our choices are simple, straightforward, and easily revoked. But neither is true to the deep reality that we are moral, ethical beings whose lives are shaped by our choices.

We all stand at a perpetual crossroads; each of our choices takes us down one path and, necessarily, closes off the one we did not take. Sometimes, as was the case with my Oedipus, three roads come together, and our choices are made all the more complicated.

But we cannot stand forever at the crossroads. We must choose and make our way down the path we have selected. That that path may also be the one we were fated to take does not undo the reality of the choice.

Choose wisely.

—Sophocles

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is The Plague of Thebes: Oedipus and Antigone (1842), Charles François Jalabert, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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