Oedipus: The Hardest-Luck Guy in Literature

Welcome to this week’s post in the Great Books Project. We are in the middle of five long works at the moment, but we will be finishing Aristotle’s Physics this week.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, Chapters 7-12 (GGB Vol. 2, 391-396)*
  2. The Physics of Aristotle, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 7, pp. 334-355)
  3. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Volume I, Part Two, Chapters 1-5 (GBWW Vol. 44, pp. 88-119)
  4. That Intention is Judge of Our Actions” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 61)
  5. The Almagest of Ptolemy, Book IV, 1-5 (GBWW Vol. 15, pp. 108-122)
  6. The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant, “Transcendental Logic,” Book II, Chapter 1 (GBWW Vol. 39, pp. 120-129; begins on p. 233 of the linked PDF)

*Seven chapters from The Pickwick Papers are excerpted in the GGB series. I’ve elected to read the entire novel and will list page numbers from Volume 2 of GGB when I reach excerpted chapters.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. PickwickThe Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, Chapters 1-6: This book is hilarious! The mistaken-identity duel, the fleeing from the mock battle, the losing of the horse—all this is brilliantly executed, if not with as much verbal economy as we’d expect today. You can easily tell that this novel was originally serialized; it’s almost like watching episodes of a sitcom. 
  2. The Physics of Aristotle, Book VII: Here we have the important argument that because everything that moves receives its motion from somewhere, there must be an unmoved mover. Of course, St. Thomas Aquinas later adapted this argument, as we saw several weeks ago.
  3. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Volume I, Part One, Ch. 6-8: Tocqueville comments here on the unusual power of American judges to find laws unconstitutional; as a result, judges have much more influence in America than elsewhere. He had no idea! He also surveys the U.S. Constitution, noting at one point that the passions of the people make every presidential election “a moment of national crisis.” I’ll buy that. 
  4. Oedipus the King by Sophocles: I hadn’t read straight through this play in more than ten years, and I was struck again by the masterful way in which Sophocles dribbles out the information to Oedipus bit by bit, leading him inexorably to the terrible truth of who he is and what he has done. Oedipus’s lines are dynamite, too; you can cut the dramatic irony with a knife.
  5. The Almagest of Ptolemy, Book III: This section is impressive. Ptolemy lays out here the theory of the circular orbits of planets and the epicycles that explain the apparent variations in orbital speeds. Of course, practically no one believes this anymore, but it’s still a fantastic mathematical theory. All this follows an explanation of how the ancients determined that a year is slightly less than 365.25 days. 
  6. The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant, “Transcendental Logic,” Introduction & Book I: We’re getting into a new section here. From what I can tell, an argument here is that we misjudge things because we ask from our senses things they’re not designed to provide. Reason can unify the things that our understanding presents to us, though.

I’ve clawed back one day in the posting schedule; having a break from classes for Thanksgiving helps. I hope everyone enjoys some time with family this week, and if you are planning to watch football for 9-12 hours over the next four days, consider budgeting an hour or two to read as well.

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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4 Responses to Oedipus: The Hardest-Luck Guy in Literature

  1. I was blessed to read Oedipus in A. P. English while a senior in high school. After reading it, a few of us wrote the heartfelt poem:

    Oedipus, Oedipus where have you been?
    I’ve been to Thebes to kill my kin.
    Married my mom and killed my dad.
    Oh what a tragedy we all had.

    Sometimes high school students do not bring the appropriate level of gravity to a subject.

  2. By the way, I am reading The Pickwick Papers for the first time and I too find it hilarious. Several Wodehouse-like moments, both in terms of characterizations and very funny circumstances in which the characters find themselves.

  3. Alice Jewell says:

    Don’t miss the message from Sophocles that character is fate. Pride goes before a fall in Greek literature as well as in Hebrew.

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