Aristotle is different from his teacher Plato. Artistotle liked tragedies, more specifically the hero in a tragedy who embodies both good and evil. Amongst the various tragedies, Aristotle especially liked the tragic tale of Oedipus the King, but not the character of Oedipus.
Oedipus the King, one of the classic ancient Greek tragedies, was written around the 5th Century B.C. and discussed the idea of fate and destiny. Yet hardly anyone recognizes the issue in political systems the story has raised.
The tragedy of Oedipus the King told of the curse placed upon him by the gods before he was born. The prophecy said that one day the King would kill his father and marry his mother. To prevent this from being fulfilled, Oedipus’ father decided to kill the child. However, Oedipus managed to cheat death and became the adopted son of the King of Corinth. Upon reaching adulthood, Oedipus surpassed his peers in prowess and wisdom, and was elected as the First Citizen of Corinth.
One day, Oedipus unwittingly discovered the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. In order to escape from this curse, he fled Corinth in the dead of night. When Oedipus came upon a forked road, there was an oncoming chariot whose driver tried to strike him with a whip in order to get Oedipus to move away from the middle of the road. Oedipus quickly retaliated and killed the chariot driver, who happened to be his birth father.
The first part of the prophecy came true.
Oedipus continued on his travel and came upon the city-state of Thebes, where the people was plagued by a sphinx. The Sphinx blocked the only way in and out of Thebes, demanding that its citizens answer her riddle; those who answered it wrong were killed, and whomsoever that could correctly answer the question would release Thebes from its calamity. Since no one in Thebes could answer the riddle, the King of Thebes managed to escape to look for help but was killed at a road junction, leaving his queen behind. Oedipus with his bravery and wisdom successfully answered the riddle, saving Thebes from a disaster, and the people showed their gratitude by offering the kingship of Thebes and their queen in marriage.
The prophecy of “killing his father and marrying his mother” was fulfilled!
One day, when Oedipus had been king for 15 years, an
epidemic suddenly broke out in Thebes,
and the Oracle foretold that in order to end it, the murderer of the King of
Thebes must be found. Oedipus immediately sent people to find the murderer,
hoping that it would lift the curse over Thebes.
However, Oedipus finally found out that it was he himself who was the murderer of the previous king of Thebes, who also happened to be his biological father. Fifteen years ago, despite his effort to escape from the curse of killing his own father and marrying his mother, he nevertheless fulfilled it himself. Oedipus accepted that he could not escape from his own fate, but at the same time he blamed himself for killing his father with his own hands and sullying his mother’s bed as he believed that he had committed a great sin. Oedipus hated himself for being so blind to the truth, so he stabbed his own eyes blind and exiled himself to Colonus.
2. Tragedy, Freedom and the Rule of Law
Despite having extraordinary abilities and intellect, Oedipus committed a heinous crime; this is Oedipus’ fate and that of all heroes in tragedies. In the story, Oedipus’ destiny seemed to be preordained and inescapable, such as his chance meeting with his biological father after escaping from Corinth. After the murder of his own father, Oedipus unknowingly arrived at his city of birth, as if it was pre-destined. But if we look closely at the tragedy, it is not difficult to see that Oedipus also had a hand in realising his own fate.
Oedipus killed his own father upon a forked road. He could have chosen to take the other road and thus avoiding the eventual assault of his father. Yet, Oedipus is Oedipus and not some ordinary traveller; his prowess, his princehood and his esteemed status as the first citizen of Corinth played a role in fulfilling the first part of the curse. When he faced the Sphinx with her riddle, it was a battle of life or death, but Oedipus’ intelligence and indomitable self-confidence were responsible for making the second half of the curse come true.
Oedipus’ character was also his destiny, but Oedipus did not blame other people for his fate, neither did he blame the environment he was born into, nor did he blame it on pre-destiny; instead, he honestly took responsibility for his own sin, reflecting on his own limitations. Aristotle and those after him believed that Oedipus’ realisation demonstrates hope for humanity – that people can determine their own fate!
Aristotle loved tragedies because he saw in them the weaknesses and limitations of humanity. Even for someone like Oedipus, whose intellect and abilities excelled above others, he was still capable of making mistakes. Therefore, according to Aristotle, everyone including kings should be subjected to the rule of law. This ancient Greek ideology has heavily influenced the concept of the rule of law and democracy in the English-speaking world.
3. The Chinese Political Tragedy
In contrast, the other Greek philosopher Plato did not like tragedies.
Plato believed that people are perfect by nature. Their imperfection is due to their inability to understand. He believed that if people could grasp the truth, they would be able to eliminate humanity’s weaknesses and would no longer commit mistakes. Plato also believed that the average person doesn’t necessarily have the means to see the truth; thus he believed people need the leadership of a wise man who can grasp the truth in a benevolent way and utilise that understanding to establish a better life for his subjects. According to Plato, the wise-man should be the benevolent head of state.
This Platonic thought puts forth the idea that truth, virtue and the perfect life are interconnected. Yet Karl Marx’s communist ideology reaches the same conclusion as Plato. Therefore, it is clear that Platonic thought, if taken to the extreme, is political tyranny, and at the same time a political tragedy.
Plato’s idea of the Philosopher King is similar to the Confucian idea of the Sage-King. The Confucian discourse on the cultivation of character, good management of family affairs and placate society is the belief that if man were to find truth and virtue, he would become the benevolent ruler. This philosophy also suggests that mankind can become perfect.
Consequently, during the end of the 19thcentury and the beginning of the 20th, a large number of scholars and political leaders in China generally subscribed to Plato’s ideas of government in their ideological search for how to transform China’s political system and imitate Western societies.
Rousseau usually comes up whenever freedom and democratic concepts are discussed; and when we talk about a radical political revolution, it’s usually Marx. Rousseau’s idea of freedom is to force people to understand themselves in order to achieve freedom, but Marx’s disastrous experiment needs not to be discussed here.
Chinese rarely think about the thoughts on freedom and
democracy in the English-speaking world as espoused by people such as John
Locke and Hayek. This is because tragic heroes such as Oedipus are missing in traditional
Chinese culture; in other words, it is missing the concept of what tragedies
can happen when political leaders are not kept in check by the rule of law.
Chinese would only question whether or not their political leaders, such as the fabled Yao and Shun, are benevolent rulers. Should they believe that they have finally found that benevolent ruler, they would put utter trust in that ruler unto death, even if that “benevolent ruler” in their political reforms causes blood to flow and the dead to litter across the country. They would accept it all in silence! Isn’t Mao Zedong (may he be damned forever) a good example of that?