Determinism 9 – The Real Oedipus Complex: Moral Responsibility Without Free Will

[This post is a part of a series on determinism. The previous one is here. The first one of the series is here.]

If Dr. Freud hadn’t named his particular complex after him, Oedipus might have become famous for the way he exemplified the relationship of human beings with their predetermined lives rather than just for that matter of killing his father and marrying his mother.

For Oedipus the force of determinism is expressed by oracles. Even at the time of his birth, his father Laius receives the prophecy that he will die by the hands of the newborn son. And it is precisely because Laius aims to avoid that fate by having the baby killed that a course of events is set in train that leads to the fulfilment of that prophecy. The baby isn’t killed but abandoned in the mountains and adopted by a couple. He kills his father in a chance meeting, not knowing who he is, in an early example of road rage. And, of course, as presaged, he marries his mother, Jocasta, not knowing that she is his mother either. In the course of events he also becomes king of Thebes. The abandoned baby, Oedipus, grows up and goes through life like a human wrecking ball, or an avalanche wreaking havoc. The people of Thebes are suffering from the plague visited upon the city in punishment for the terrible deeds its king has committed. Jocasta ends up hanging herself and Oedipus, when it all comes to lights, puts his lights out, gouging out his eyes in self-punishment.

It is only then that Oedipus accepts his further oracle that he would die in a place consecrated to the Furies, and finally be a blessing, not a curse, to the land where his life ends.

One of the many points about the myth of Oedipus has been made by the Czech writer Milan Kundera. In his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he writes:

“The story of Oedipus is well known: Abandoned as an infant, he was taken to King Polybos, who raised him. One day when he was grown into a youth, he came upon a dignitary riding along a mountain path. A quarrel arose, and Oedipus killed the dignitary. Later he became the husband of Queen Jocasta and ruler of Thebes. Little did he know that the man he had killed in the mountains was his father and the woman with whom he slept his mother. In the meantime, fate visited a plague on his subjects and tortured them with great pestilence. When Oedipus realised that he himself was the cause of their suffering, he put out his own eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later, it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts wree therefore murderers.

Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You’re the ones responsible for our country’s misfortune (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hand of the Russians), for its judicial murders!

And the accused responded: We didn’t know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!

In the end, the dispute narrowed down to a single question: Did they really not know or were they merely making believe? (…)

But (…) whether they knew or didn’t know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn’t know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool? (…)

Oedipus did not know he was sleeping with his own mother, yet when he realised what had happened, he did not feel innocent. Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by ‘not knowing,’ he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.”

The case Kundera makes is that a lack of knowledge concerning one’s actions does not absolve you from responsibility for them. The same case though can also be made about the freedom with which one chooses to perform one’s actions.

If anyone could have argued that he was not free to choose his actions, it was Oedipus. After all, his misdeeds – killing his father and marrying his mother – were predicted by a powerful oracle at birth. And despite actions taken to avoid them, they come to pass. But Oedipus recognises that it is he who has carried out the crimes, even if it was all predetermined and presaged.

Why did Oedipus feel that he needed to take responsibility for his actions even though they were foretold before he knew anything and all steps were taken to avoid them? The point is that it was still he, Oedipus as a person, who had done these acts and so they would be with him until atoned. As the king of Thebes he was in danger of continuing to bring the wrath of the Gods onto innocent citizens due to the person he had become. As the king of Thebes, he felt responsible for the welfare of his subjects. Oedipus’ strict self-punishment leads him to be redeemed, averts the plague from Thebes. Ultimately, having taken responsibility and accepted his predetermined fate, he is sought out as a person who could bring blessing to the land.

We have to make do without oracles, seers and divine punishments. Nonetheless, the things we do are strongly associated with us as individuals. If we harm others by acting on faulty reasons, we are the ones who hadn’t developed sufficient rationality to see the better reasons. We can be criticised for that and it can be hoped that we can correct and better ourselves. Taking responsibility for our actions, owning them, even if they were determined by factors outside ourselves, could be a first step to that kind of improvement and development of greater insight.

We stay responsible for the actions we take, even if we can point to factors that have caused us to take them. We took the actions that had that effect and by doing so set in train an other series of cause and effect. Being the cause of something just gives us responsibility for the impacts. There doesn’t need to be a further concept of moral responsibility that comes from having freely chosen to do it.



  1. He didn’t take “all steps to avoid them.” The prophecy was that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Although he took steps to avoid this in leaving his (adopted) parents behind, he could have taken still further steps in following a path of non-violence and sexual chastity. Perhaps Oedipus’ tragic flaw was that he followed the proscribed cultural norms of the time without exercising what Sartre might describe as “radical freedom,” the freedom to go beyond the proscribed norms of society. In the myth, Laius and Oedipus literally argue over who goes first on a path, a trivial matter from a rational perspective but a principle of honor for an honor-based culture such as those of the Classical Greeks.

    We all have this capacity to act in ways which are contrary to social perscription.

    1. I like this point. I would say Laius and Oedipus were determined by their culture and maybe personalities to act in that way, rather than saying that they failed to make use of freedom that would have been available to them. But it shows that a lack of imagination and an inability to see beyond cultural norms may close down options for actions that wouldn’t be grounded in freedom of will but quite possibly better.

  2. I would suggest less that they were determined by their culture, but rather that they were influenced by their culture in a certain way. If we take their situation at the crossroads as having to potential outcomes, either one kills the other, or one of them swallows his pride and they both walk away, the cultural influence is one facet (and surely an important one indeed!) but is far from the only influence. Personality, weather, even something as seemingly philosophically trivial as what mood they woke up on that day could all play a part.

    What Sartre is aiming for with his concept of authenticity is to act in a way that is true to the personality. The waiter is the key example here, “the waiter: His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid… All his behavior seems to us a game.” When we consider how honor cultures work, we can understand Lauis and Oedipus as bad faith actors, inauthentically performing to conform to the honor-game that they each perceive. Our ability to determine our actions seems as much determined, then, by our conception of ourselves as unwitting pawns of the fates/stars (as the ancient Greeks certainly did) or as authors of our own destiny.

    Of course, all of this depends to a degree on whether one holds to “free will” as more than a mere illusion. I personally view determinism as a tool of the modern aristocracy, of all the privileged classes, because of the implicit support it seems to lend to the status quo.

I'd love to know what you think about this!