The story of Oedipus is designed to inculcate into the hearers a two fold lesson; the first being that of the value of virtue and the second being of the value of reason. Oedipus lacks both virtue and reason, being of a highly akratic nature, or at least it can be argued so, especially in the Greek fashion, which I will make some attempt to prove. It is through the exposition of the consequences that arise from being bereft of reason and virtues that the man Sophocles attempts to establish their desirability in the mind of the hearer. As it is said, fear is a good.
So, proceeding from that thesis, having narrowed down our search to the akratic nature of a single man, Oedipus, I think that it is best to at first with brevity say what I mean in the main. Oedipus appears as a man of virtue, a savior even. By the priest he is called “noblest of men” (line 46). However, I will point out that he is not called this because he is in fact the noblest of men, but there is some duty in the words of the priest. It is not pedantry to point out that the priest is talking to the king and indeed I would be indolent if I did not so much as point out that Oedipus had in fact been the savior of their city. Hitherto, I have not brought down the virtue of Oedipus, but I will. It will become evident that Oedipus has very little control over his passions.
However, before I take in the hand the defamation of a character as great as Oedipus is said to be, let us first be certain of the general so that we might avail reason concerning that which is particular.
Here is my mean, we must be sure to identify precisely those things which I have claimed to be lacking in Oedipus, namely virtue and reason. Plainly, I do not say anything on my own authority, but I appeal to your own knowledge of the general and exhort you to use it in the particular. Is not virtue a vice when practiced without moderation? Can a person be just if their integrity is so great that they become merciless? Is not mercy a good? Only, again we see that mercy itself is a good, but not for all. When mercy is misapplied is it not a means of enablement for lawlessness and disorder? There can be no question. The discernment for the particular applications concerning these virtues requires reason.
Reason is precisely what makes humans human. It's the ability to think abstractly, to go beyond instinct. It's the necessity of logic and intellect to survive that makes us human; without intellect man dies. As a person Oedipus is extremely instinctual and this causes many problems for him. We see this when he is pushed off of the highway,” The driver, when he tried to push me off, I struck in anger… And then I killed them all (810-817).” Beyond this, reason is what makes virtue virtuous. As stated before, without some discernment of proper use, virtuous things cannot be applied appropriately without luck.
Where exactly does this impious nature in Oedipus come from? I say ‘impious’ because virtues and reason are holy qualities; at least they are to me and they were to the Greeks (lines 302-304). A writer for the explicator agrees, and points out the same, saying,” Light, to the ancient Greeks, was beauty, intellect, virtue, indeed represented life itself. The Choragus asks Oedipus, ‘What god was it drove you to rake black / Night across your eyes?" Further, I say impious because we discern that while they are holy things, this in fact denotes another characteristic, which is divinity. Things are not divine because they are holy, they are holy because they are divine and proceed corporeally and incorporeally, respectively, from the Divine. So, from whence does this impiety in Oedipus derive? Certainly, his impiety begins in his mother and father. In Nassaar’s exposition of Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus the King’, he points out that,” … his (Oedipus’) father Laius decides to kill Oedipus at birth, and his mother's scorn for Apollo and his prophecies is traceable to this terrible event. She defies and rejects Apollo and his priests for the sake of Oedipus, nursing a lifelong contempt for them.”
Lauis is guilty, insofar as he becomes impious by trying to thwart the gods. Instead of submitting to their omniscient ways, he rather arrogantly, from the god’s point of view, assumes he will make their prophecies come to nothing. Because of this impiety he “pierces the ball joints” of his son’s ankles and arranges to have the infant exposed, thrown out (line 1040).
So, it can be seen that Oedipus is of impious blood from the start, with many evidences in the story reiterated by many characters. However, this is only one sort of source and one source indeed for his impiety. There is another source of his impiety and it is the same as his father’s; namely fear. Despair is the mother of iniquity in these men's lives as it is in most people’s lives. Their despair and fear drive them to disrespect the gods. Instead of being fatalistic and stoic in facing their fate, they behave nihilistically. Their actions are arrogant, putting man too high; assuming that they could and would bring Phoebus’ prophecies to nothing. Oedipus tries to accomplish this by running away from Corinth.
Indeed, if there had been any flexibility and mercy to the prophecy, it would have been found in the reason of truth and the virtue of mercy. Assuming that the portent was not one of predestination, but rather of things foreseen, the prospect changes a bit. If Apollo was writing with a divine pen the destiny of the family of Laius, then such a thing is, in fact, what is called double predestination and man cannot fight such divine literature. If, however, Apollo was looking at the events of the future with time rolled out before him like a scroll, it all means another thing; I strongly suggest that this is the case.
Assuming that my theologoumenon is the case, that the god was actually doing a favor for Laius by telling the future, the onus is on Laius for all calamities. It seems unreasonable to assume that the gods would make Lauis impious only to destroy him, in order that fear be struck into the hearts of those they completely control anyway. That is asinine. It seems more right, and offends logic less, if the god solicits the use of reason. If someone says to another,” Something terrible is going to befall you.” which is better to do, act well or act evil?
The portent solicits no particular action. The portent merely “IS” and therefore, the portent being benign itself must be left aside in the question. A new question arises, namely, is it better to be good and do good or to be evil and do evil? It is clear that Oedipus, Lauis, and Iocosta repeatedly fail to attain to that which is good and because of it more sins occur. As often as possible they make twins of their sin. An example is Oedipus pronouncing curses imprudently as if it might alleviate the god inflicted suffering in the land, somehow. He foments ignorance in his own person and incenses himself, abandoning all reason and mercy. While he is making his reason less and less potent, he sins against the innocent and defames Creon with preposterous accusations of treason and plotting. Even, further, in his vain attempt to alleviate curses by pronouncing curses, he once again is found trying to bring the words of the gods to nothing. His sins are multitudinous against god and man. By these means he brings down the vengeance of a god whose judgment is sovereign and incontrovertible in Greek culture.
So, to the particular Oedipus abandons reason by first abandoning piety. Instead of making good his own goodness, he takes to cursing others in an attempt to abase them morally and lift himself likewise. This is a very “un-Greek” thing to do, isn’t it? We see that wherever an enemy is confronted in classical Greek literature, the protagonist makes a beatific litany of the antagonist’s accomplishments, virtues, honors, nobility of birth, heroisms, etc… in order that upon victory over such a person they deem themselves greater in all respects, though this person was great. Oedipus, very incongruently with the other myths, does quite the opposite and cheaply publishes a curse with his lips in order to separate himself from the sins which brought the plague. Let me point out that Oedipus’ attitude, while not only imprudent, espouses some peculiar divinity. Why do all of Oedipus’ contemporaries in the myths need other men in order to be great, but Oedipus does not? Look at mighty Hector, a man of respect, loved of the gods. Oedipus indeed is compared to other men, insofar as he solved a riddle and saved the city. But where is iron put to iron to prove his greatness? Nowhere, indeed! Not only this, but look at the prophet who is given vision from a god. Inasmuch as the prophet is a prophet the gods are glorified because it is precisely they who give vision. Or mighty Hector, slayer of men, he is great because of his loyalty to other men and because of his noble victories over many other noble men. Glory either comes from other men or from the gods, one is vanity and the other is true glory, but nonetheless does glory come from another.
So, what does Oedipus make himself out to be? When we say a man is "great," do we say it because he is greater than other men or do we say it because he is great and, therefore, better than other men? Surely, we say he is great because he is better than the rest, for he became this way and necessitates the need of others to be great by comparison. For, if and we say he is great and therefore better we make him a demigod. This is precisely what Oedipus has made himself out to be through his many vain pronouncements, one of which is when he points out the he solved the riddle with his own reason and not revelations from the gods or augury from birds (lines 400-405); this infuriates the gods. However, as stated before, logic is intrinsically a divine and holy object; notice, then, how irreverently boastful Oedipus is over his wit. He blurts this out while berating a blind prophet of the gods for being indolent with him to save Oedipus pain. He is impious in the midst of a tantrum and, of course, a tantrum is the bastard child of a person who lacks the four virtues of courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice. As Aristotle said so plainly,” Wit is educated insolence.” As it turns out, this is all that Oedipus ever had, educated insolence. In the poem we see that insolence exercised against god and man, and not until calamity befalls him is that insolence exorcised from him. So, one might say, when taken as a whole, the gods had done a sore but good thing to Oedipus. It is better for his flesh to corrupt and be destroyed than to be interned to Hades owing some great debt to the gods. The gods saved his soul and purged him of insolence and impiety. It is only horrific to men because they all at once in the corporeal see what happens to Oedipus because of impiety, which is in reality only what is regularly done in the House of the Dead.
"Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and choice, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim." ~Aristotle~