Hark the herald

The story of Oedipus, the man who unknowingly murdered his father and married his mother, is told by a number of ancient authors, including the Athenian tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. In the Euripidean play The Phoenician Women we learn of some of the effects on the younger generation. (The women of the title are prisoners of war on their way to Delphi; they observe and comment on the action of the play.)

Oedipus was born the son of the king and queen of Thebes, Laius and Jocasta. With a crime in his past and warned by an oracle that if he had a son the son would kill him, Laius exposed Oedipus on a mountain with a spike through his feet (hence the name ‘swollen-foot’). A shepherd rescued him and brought him up as his own son – salvation with a sting, for Oedipus, when later advised by the Delphic oracle that he would kill his father (and marry his mother), believed this applied to his rescuer and fled, but met and killed (in an act of road rage) his real father on the road to Thebes. There he married the widowed queen, his mother.

When the truth emerged, Oedipus could no longer act as king. The victim of a curse himself, he puts a curse on his two sons when (according to the Phoenician Women) they lock him away: one of them would kill the other. Rather than fight to see who would be king, the sons agree to divide the kingship between them, to take it in turns year by year, with the elder going first. But after a year Eteocles refuses to cede rule to Polynices, who goes into exile, marries the daughter of the king of Argos, and returns with a force to claim Thebes.

Jocasta is overjoyed to see him again. She embraces him and says how much she wants by word and gesture and dance to express her feelings of pleasure (Phoenician Women 304-317). She now hopes to regain ‘the delight of her old joys’ – a hope destined to be horribly thwarted as the drama proceeds.

Jocasta’s brother Creon had become king or regent after Oedipus, and he was now in charge of the defence of Thebes. His situation is further complicated when the prophet Teiresias says that he must sacrifice his son Menoeceus for the good of Thebes, to appease the war god Ares, who had been offended by the city’s founders, from whom Creon and Menoeceus are descended. Menoeceus is also the name of Creon and Jocasta’s father, the father-in-law of Oedipus.

In the context of Epicurean philosophy, the name Menoeceus has very different connotations, being the name of a contemporary of Epicurus to whom the philosopher addressed a letter summing up much of his ethical doctrines. The date of the letter is unknown, but in general terms we can place it about a century or more after the death of Euripides. Athens had changed considerably by then; and yet awareness of old literature and myths persisted, and no doubt old associations of the name Menoeceus were not forgotten.

Also not forgotten were the old preoccupations with gods and oracles, vengeance and cursing, death and destruction. These were enduring themes that still had the power to stir up fear and superstition. Epicurus set himself against the old tales and the beliefs and behaviour that went with them. Basing his views on a scientific understanding of reality, he rejected traditional beliefs and sought to replace them with a practical and realistic outlook.

Where the old stories threatened doom, Epicurus offered hope; where they emphasized the inexorability of fate, Epicurus emphasized the human capacity to organize life by the power of reason; where they told of unending cycles of conflict and suffering, Epicurus presented a straightforward theory of pleasure and happiness; where they dealt in tangled relationships human and divine, Epicurus provided a philosophy of life set in the context of an abundant nature and a material universe.

A key part of the new dynamic was the role of friendship as a source of confidence and security. According to Principal Doctrine 27:

Having friendship is by far the greatest of the things which wisdom organizes for the happiness of one’s whole life.

According to Vatican Saying 78:

The highest concerns of a high-minded person are wisdom and friendship, of which one is a mortal good, the other immortal.

Friendship brings assurance (Vatican Saying 34) and hope (Vatican Saying 39).

In the Phoenician Women, Jocasta could dance about in delight and think of a renewal of old joys, but her hopes were forlorn where human hearts were hard and the gods hostile. Epicurus preached a different message entirely. As Vatican Saying 52 indicates (quoted below), friendship is the herald of an outlook that recognizes the good things that nature supplies and responds with gratitude. Friendship itself is thought of as dancing around – the same word that occurs in the tragedy, used in a different setting now – and this time the dance is one of a delight that spreads around the world.

Thoughts for the Day, September 9: ‘Friendship dances around the inhabited world calling us all at this very time to be awakened to thankfulness.’ (Vatican Sayings 52).

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