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Philosophy and Literature 24.2 (2000) 327-345

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Moral Taint in Classic Greek Drama

Johann A. Klaassen

Nor may the hundred-headed dog give tongue
Until the daughter of Earth and Tartarus
That even the bloodless shades call Death has sung
The travel-broken shade of Oedipus
Through triumph of completed destiny
Into eternal sleep, if such there be. 1


The plays of Sophocles have always been recognized as a rich source for moral philosophers, and many have argued about the moral lesson of Oedipus. However, recent traditional interpretations of Oedipus' situation at the end of Oedipus the King and throughout Oedipus at Colonus 2 tend to concentrate either on his curse or on his guilt, ignoring the possibility of shame and misinterpreting the moral dimension of his fate. They see in the blinded visage of Oedipus either the victim of the wrath of the gods or someone nearly destroyed by guilt. 3 But if we look at one of the passages most often cited in support of this view, we find something slightly different. Having just explained that he has blinded himself because of his "crimes" against his father, mother, and children, Oedipus declares,

To this guilt I bore witness against myself --
with what eyes shall I look upon my people?

(OT, 1384-85)

This pair of lines is more literally translated:

Having disclosed my stain to men,
how could I think of looking straight at them?

(OT, 1384-85 4) [End Page 327]

Oedipus here speaks of his stain, not his guilt; a similar transference may be responsible for the preoccupation with Oedipus' curse. In his investigation into the murder of Laius, Oedipus laid bare the moral taints which he had brought upon himself despite his attempts to avoid them. If we approach Sophocles' portrayal of Oedipus in terms of the moral taints which Oedipus might bear, the possibility of combining guilt, shame, and fate becomes reasonable. In seeking purification, Oedipus gives clues to what sort of stain he hopes to remove. When he does remove the last taint, he is released, and the gods come to carry him away.

In this essay I will show that Sophocles presents a character who feels guilt, shame, and regret, three of our most important moral emotions. I begin with a sketch of Oedipus' moral situation. I then examine the case of Oedipus as a paradigm of taint attachment and removal through the analytical discussions of guilt, shame, and regret in order to show the ways in which the metaphor of moral taint affects our moral perception and judgment. The philosophical point to this examination of Oedipus' moral states, however, is not just that he feels a complex array of moral emotions. Rather, this complex array indicates two things: first, that shame and regret play a much larger part in our moral life than is generally allowed by contemporary moral philosophers; and second, that guilt, shame, and regret can be understood, and are prob-ably best understood, as structured by the metaphor of "moral taint."


The curse which afflicts Oedipus is not his alone. It is an inherited curse passed from his great-grandfather Cadmus, who killed a dragon sacred to Ares before the foundation of the city of Thebes. 5 This curse attached itself with full fury upon Laius, the king of Thebes and Oedipus' father. Laius received a prophecy that his son would kill him. To avoid his fate, upon the birth of a son Laius ordered that the child be exposed on the mountainside. The slave who was sent to kill Oedipus took him instead to Corinth, where he was raised as a prince. Oedipus later became aware of his family's curse, though he misinterpreted it: the Pythian oracle told him that he was fated to kill his father and marry his mother, but he assumed that the oracle meant Polybus and Merope, the king and queen of Corinth, who had raised him. In an effort to escape his fate, he left Corinth, never to return.

Fleeing toward Thebes, Oedipus encountered Laius, who was on his...


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