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Seneca's Oedipus and the Limits of Knowledge in Politics

Harriet Fertik

University of New Hampshire

At the very beginning of Seneca’s Oedipus, the protagonist announces that he “fell into ruling” (in regnum incidi, Oed. 14). From Oedipus’ point of view, ascent to the throne was a matter of contingency, in that he could not foresee it or account for it himself (Wootton 2007). My paper examines the politics of contingency and the limits of knowledge in Seneca’s Oedipus. While many studies of this play have focused on its relationship to Sophocles’ tragedy, Roman epic, or Stoic philosophy (Boyle 2011, Seo 2013, Staley 2014), some (Konstan 1994, Dressler 2012) have argued for the specifically Roman character of its treatment of politics. I investigate a neglected aspect of Oedipus’ significance for Seneca’s political thought: I argue that as Oedipus confronts his failures to understand and control the world around him, he both reveals the limits of one-man rule and frames politics as an inevitably unpredictable and uncontrollable enterprise.

In contrast to Sophocles’ Oedipus, Seneca’s tragic king recognizes his guilt for the plague in Thebes from the outset of the play: he is only ignorant of the nature of his crime and of what its consequences will be for him. Yet he suggests that better information does not necessarily offer better certainty about the future: “when you are really afraid, you have to fear what you think is impossible” (cum magna horreas/ quod posse fieri non putes metuas tamen, 25-6). Nonetheless, he continues to seek out knowledge of the world he is supposed to rule: he commands the prophet Tiresias to perform an extispicy, which fails to yield the answers he requires, and then to summon and interrogate the ghost of the old king Laius. When his brother-in-law Creon hesitates to describe the results of the necromancy, Oedipus responds that “rule is dissolved when someone who is ordered to speak keeps silent” (imperia solvit qui tacet iussus loqui, 527). For Oedipus, power means the ability to learn whatever he chooses and thus to gain certainty about the world. Yet Oedipus also demands knowledge that no investigation can provide. When he accuses Creon of plotting against him, Creon protests that he has always been loyal in the past and the king should hear his case (685-99). Oedipus, however, is unconvinced that Creon’s past actions will predict his future ones, and his aim is not to determine likely outcomes but to control all possible variables: he declares, “everything that is doubtful must fall” (omne quod dubium est ruat, 702), and throws Creon in prison (in contrast to Sophocles’ Oedipus, who lets him go). Oedipus dramatizes the desire to impose order on the world, and the tension between the desire for order and the limits of the possibility of knowing and controlling others.

Yet Oedipus ultimately enacts his own ignorance when he gouges out his eyes with his hands and commits himself to “following deceiving paths” (sequere vias fallentes, 1047). Drawing on Honig 2009 and Connolly 2014, I suggest that Oedipus replaces his insistence on dominance and sovereignty with the acceptance of vulnerability and dependence. Near the end of the play, the chorus exclaims that everyone must “yield to fate. Worry and care cannot change the destined web” (cedite fatis./ non sollicitae possunt curae/ mutare rati stamina fusi, 980-82). Seneca’s account of a king and a universe subject to fate reflects his engagement with Greek tragedy and Stoicism, but it also has important implications for his assessment of the political landscape of Julio-Claudian Rome. The sole ruler may claim unique dominance, but he is ultimately the clearest proof of the limits of human understanding and control: his assertions of authority draw attention to his inability to predict and direct the course of events. In Seneca’s Oedipus, the autocrat becomes a representative not of power but of powerlessness, and thus he points to the uncertainty of political life for him and for us.

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Political Thought in Latin Literature

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