Oedipus at the Border

The US has never been a democracy. Perhaps, for some, the most recent indefinite imprisonment of undocumented immigrants in concentration camps finally shattered confidence in this US fantasy. And yet, for others, no amount of ...

The US has never been a democracy. Perhaps, for some, the most recent indefinite imprisonment of undocumented immigrants in concentration camps finally shattered confidence in this US fantasy.1 And yet, for others, no amount of structural violence or authoritarian measures—even when directed at the most vulnerable—would ever pierce a hole in the ideological conviction that the US is democratic. But what, exactly, is the democracy that the US is not?

Here, most of us cannot resist the allure of returning to the ancient Greeks, those said to have invented democracy. However, the way in which we turn to the Greeks makes all the difference. Demetra Kasimis’s The Perpetual Immigrant and the Limits of Athenian Democracy and Simon Critchley’s Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us constitute two helpful meditations through which turning to the ancient Greeks allows us to make our “democratic” present necessarily unfamiliar.

Today, many feel that the mere existence of elections in a state means that it is a democracy. But as Aristotle so eloquently put it, “Whenever some, whether a minority or a majority, rule because of their wealth, the constitution is necessarily an oligarchy, and whenever the poor rule, it is necessarily a democracy.” What distinguishes democracy and oligarchy from one another is not, as Aristotle makes clear, the rule of the majority decided by vote. The question is, and always has been, poverty versus wealth.

Sometimes, it’s true, the democracy of Athens appears to be radically egalitarian. In fact, the ancient Athenians—understanding that “popularity” was a by-product of wealth—once institutionalized election by lottery: this was to guarantee that it was the people, not the wealthy, who ruled. Here, perhaps, Athenian democracy appears to be more egalitarian than the contemporary democracies that claim to be their descendants.

Yet the hope of this essay is to question the ideal of a democratic US without uncritically idealizing ancient Athenian democracy. For me, even radical policies like election by lottery still show how far Athenian democracy was from political egalitarianism. That’s because equal participation in the government of the city—which is what “freedom” means in political terms—was denied to all women, metics (often translated as “resident aliens”2), slaves, and disabled Athenian men. Even in the Western world’s first democracy, the vast majority of the population couldn’t exercise political power and collectively govern the city.

While the ancient Greeks are worth studying—for our better understanding not only of the past but also of the present—it is the limits, exclusions, and failures to institutionalize democratic egalitarianism that are worth turning to, not the uncritical characterization of their democracy as the perfect paragon to which we should return. This means that we should look closer at this model upon which so much of Western thought is based, in order to see what compromises the ancient Greeks made, what violence they perpetuated, and what solutions they may have struggled to implement.

Like all good historical meditations (specifically those that revisit the past to which our political vocabularies remain indebted), these books do not offer a go-to manual for reform. Instead, they offer tools with which we may formulate questions about the limits of our democratic imagination.


How Oligarchy Breeds Tyranny

By Jill Frank

For their investigations into democracy, Kasimis and Critchley turn to ancient texts. Kasimis reads Euripides, Plato, and Demosthenes to find out how ancient Athens classified the metic. In so doing, she demonstrates that blood—on which ancient Athenian democracy relied for the distribution of political membership—has consistently failed “to accomplish what it is tasked to do.” Her analysis of the role that blood played in the democratic past is as important in the present, given that nearly all modern democracies, too, continue to rely on blood to distribute political membership.

Kasimis shows that the problematic of who is and is not a member of the people remains now, as it did then, a difficult and vexing question; even when blood-based restrictions are put in place, people are always able to work around or deceptively dodge such restrictions. In ancient Athens, at least, this led to an intensification of class and ethnic policing.

Similarly, Critchley’s absorbing readings of Euripides, Gorgias, Plato, and Aristotle show a democratic view of ancient tragedy: an art form that is founded upon “what is contradictory about us,” and one particularly suitable for dealing with the “grief-stricken rage that flows from war.” This is the Anne Carson–inspired definition of tragedy that helps Critchley argue for tragedy as “the experience of moral ambiguity.”3

As the most well-known critics of ancient democracy and tragedy, Plato and Aristotle play a crucial role in both Kasimis’s and Critchley’s texts, though their critical interpretations differ considerably.

The traditional view, offered by Critchley, is that Plato was anti-rhetorical, anti-theatrical, and anti-political. Though somewhat familiar, Critchley’s view is compelling: ancient tragedy functioned as the political philosophy of ancient democracy, a genre that Plato and Aristotle sought to depoliticize through their moralizing doctrines.

Kasimis’s reading of Plato’s Republic, by contrast, is unique: she argues that Plato’s famous work is not simply the thought experiment of an idealist philosopher, but a historical-political meditation on the limits of Athenian democracy. In fact, Kasimis shows that Plato critiques Athenian exceptionalism as resting “on a fictional foundation.” Even Plato, it seems, had doubts about the democratic egalitarianism of ancient Athens.

Kasimis notes, for example, that Plato chose to set his dialogue not in the home of a rich Athenian citizen, but, unexpectedly, in the house of a rich metic. She also argues that even traditionally derided concepts in the book—like the critique of poetry and mimesis—can be understood as Plato’s challenge to Athenian ethnic prejudices that awarded superiority to natural-born citizens over foreigners and “resident aliens.” By paying attention to Plato’s rhetoric, Kasimis even suggests that Plato’s most unredeemable concept, the “noble lie,” should be understood as his best-guarded “open secret”: a dramatic strategy to render democracy’s reliance on blood-based membership open to political critique.

Kasimis uses these clues to show how, even in Athenian democracy, the effort to tie citizenship to blood is not only tragic, but ineffective. This is because the lines between citizens and aliens seem to be “impossible to settle once and for all,” and thus they reveal “their availability for alteration, manipulation, and strategic adaptation.”

Sophocles employed a conscious vocabulary of hierarchically stratified membership that helps us frame Oedipus’s political situation in the play.

Combining both Kasimis’s and Critchley’s approaches, I will now revisit the ancient tragedy Oedipus Tyrannos from the overlooked position of the metic. This tragedy epitomizes Critchley’s overall ethical understanding of the dramatic genre, which dares us to confront the fact that “what we do not know about ourselves” is what “makes those selves the things they are.” More importantly, it is the play that Aristotle—a resident alien himself—holds as the highest exemplar of the tragic form.

Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannos, first performed in Athens around 429 BCE, tells the story of Oedipus, son of Laius and Jocasta, king and queen of ancient Thebes. What is often overlooked when Oedipus’s fate is analyzed is that he was able to kill his father and marry his mother because the Theban shepherd disobeyed his masters. Fearing the prophesy, Laius and Jocasta had ordered the shepherd to kill their son. The shepherd, instead, gives the child to a neighboring shepherd from Corinth, who gives the child to Polybus and Merope (the rulers of Corinth, well known as a slave center in Greek antiquity). Oedipus, as a newborn, was already a border crosser.4

Polybus and Merope keep Oedipus’s origins a secret. Hence, when he grows up and learns about the prophecy, he believes the Corinthian rulers to be his parents by blood and flees, ultimately fulfilling his tragic fate. Accidentally, Oedipus kills his father, Laius, at the crossroads. He then solves the riddle of the Sphinx and is given Jocasta in marriage, for having saved Thebes from the deadly monster. Consequently, Oedipus becomes their new, “foreign-born” (metic) king.

Having fathered four children with Jocasta, Oedipus sees Thebes burdened with a new plague. The gods punish Thebes with infertility for having failed to bring the killer of Laius to justice. Oedipus calls for the seer, Tiresias, to learn how to address the rage of the gods. When Tiresias reveals that Oedipus is the criminal he seeks, he identifies Oedipus as a metic that will soon learn that he is a true native citizen—but will “have no joy of the discovery.”

Depicted in a work performed for an audience long subjected to Pericles’s 451 (or 450) BCE citizenship law (which, as Kasimis shows, required double Athenian parentage for the acquisition of citizen status), Oedipus’s position—a ruler of Thebes known to be of Corinthian origin—should not be taken as a rhetorical flourish. Instead, Sophocles employed a conscious vocabulary of hierarchically stratified membership that helps us frame Oedipus’s political situation in the play.5

Oedipus’s story traffics not only in metoikia, but also in slavery. As I have argued elsewhere, we should read the play as the political consequence of the otherwise disavowed agency of slaves.6 All of Oedipus’s actions—committing patricide and incest, becoming the ruler of Thebes—occur because a Theban shepherd decided to disobey his masters. Here, I wonder if—conscious of the stratified system of political membership that allowed Polybus and Merope to claim Oedipus as their own—these two slaves did not try to redirect the target of the prophecy? In this reading, these slaves employed Oedipus as a weapon to destroy not the house of Laius, but the rulers of one of Greek antiquity’s main slave centers.


Can’t Stop Screaming

By Judith Butler

Thinking through Oedipus Tyrannos in this manner shows us how to understand Athenian democracy both in its time and in our own. In ancient Athens, the stratified division of slaves, metics, and citizens was a consequence of Athenian colonial exceptionalism. Citizens were a privileged few, excluding the many on whom their lives depended; metics, no matter how industrious or successful, even if they were admired by Plato or spoke like Aristotle, were definitively excluded from political life; slaves, by far the majority of the population, were excluded not only from political life but also from a private one, due to their status as the property of the wealthy. The first Western democracy was not an egalitarian regime.

Nor is our own. The unfreedoms of the Greek democratic past continue to haunt the US “freedoms” of the nondemocratic present. Such unfreedoms refer not to something that is written, but rather to something that “does not stop not being written”:7 the racist, heterosexist, and ableist structural violence of US settler colonial capitalism.

With their unique emphasis on alien blood, Kasimis’s and Critchley’s books help us to confront the present of the democratic citizen and what continues not to be written about it. Perhaps it is by starting to write about it, following in their steps, that we might finally be able to confront the settler colonial past-becoming-present of US “democracy” and the inhumanity of its practices.


This article was commissioned by Ivan Aschericon

  1. This is not a recent phenomenon—see Mark Dow, American Gulag: Inside US Immigration Prisons (University of California Press, 2005), and A. Naomi Paik, Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in US Prison Camps since World War II (University of North Carolina Press, 2016)—and should be understood within the broader history of US settler colonial exclusion: see Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy, edited by Joy James (Duke University Press, 2007).
  2. As Idelber Avelar argues in The Letter of Violence: Essays on Narrative, Ethics, and Politics (Palgrave, 2004), Benjamin Jowett’s choice to translate metoikos as “resident alien” in the lexical translation of Aristotle “bears interesting traces of modern, twentieth-century configurations of Anglo-American immigration policy.” Though problematic, these traces are nonetheless productive for the kind of transhistorical connection that I am making with the exclusion of undocumented immigrants in the US as an iteration of democracy’s constitutive exclusion of metics.
  3. See Anne Carson, preface to Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides, translated from the ancient Greek by Anne Carson (New York Review Books, 2006), p. 7.
  4. As a consequence of this rather violent border crossing, Oedipus gets his name, which means “Swollen-Foot—pinned as he was by his feet when he was supposed to be abandoned to die in the arid borderlands. He is named as such in a play where the most important riddle (the riddle of the Sphinx) refers to a four-footed animal (as slaves were pejoratively referred to in Greek antiquity) that became a two-legged creature in the evening (citizen?), and a three-legged-creature at night (metic?).
  5. But the metic drama of Oedipus’s story does not end there. When Oedipus finally learns that he has become the monstrosity that he defeated, he blinds and exiles himself. As Pierre Vidal-Naquet famously argued, in Oedipus at Colonus—Sophocles’s last tragedy on this Theban story, written by the end of his life—an old wandering Oedipus engages in supplication with Theseus, the Athenian king, following the standard Athenian procedure for the official acquisition of metoikia (resident alienage). Theseus grants him that status, motivated by the opportunity to instrumentalize Oedipus as a metic for his military purposes, as it was prophesized that Athens would defeat Thebes at the burial site of Oedipus. Vidal-Naquet, “Oedipus between Two Cities: An Essay on Oedipus at Colonus,” in Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, edited by Jean-Pierre Vernant and Vidal-Naquet (Zone, 1988).
  6. Andrés Fabián Henao Castro, “Can the Subaltern Smile? Oedipus without Oedipus,” Contemporary Political Theory, vol. 14, no. 4 (2015).
  7. Jacques Lacan, On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge, book 10 of The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller and translated from the French by Bruce Fink (Norton, 1988), p. 94.
Featured image: White temple ruins (2017). Photograph by Micheile Henderson / Unsplash