Condemning Oedipus: The Tragic Effects of Aristotle’s Justice

Stream: Panel 80 - Political Theory: Living According to Nature: Aristotle, Stoicism, and the Frankfurt School
Date: Wednesday, 28 September 2016
Time: 11.00 am – 12.30 pm


In this paper I explore the potentially tragic effects of political institutions’ limitations in calculating justice. I approach this issue through an examination of two divergent responses to the failure to calculate justice. I first turn to Aristotle, who in his Eudemian and Nicomachean Ethics argues for the close relationship between political friendship and exchange. As a result, the stability of relations in the polis is tied to the stability of exchange relations. The stability of exchange relations is in turn tied to the ability of the city’s institutions to calculate its justice, which for Aristotle therefore dictates the limitation placed on exchange itself. I then turn to Sophocles’ two Oedipus plays. In contradistinction to Aristotle, I argue that Oedipus in Oedipus Turannos can be seen as a victim of just the form of thinking that Aristotle exemplifies. Then through a close reading of Sophocles’ second Oedipus play, Oedipus at Colonus, I argue that gift giving—excluded by Aristotle because its justice could not be easily calculated in the city’s courts—emerges as a powerful resource for the disenfranchised to facilitate their movement across boundaries of exclusion precisely because of the difficulty of calculating its justice. I argue that this dimension of the drama accounts for Oedipus’ drastic transformation from monstrosity to prized member of the Athenian polis. I then conclude by considering how far gift giving elucidates the challenges and possibilities for the continual negotiation of justice in collectivities in our contemporary context of failing states and mass migrations.


Tristan Bradshaw (Presenter), Northwestern University
I am a PhD Candidate in Political Theory at Northwestern University in Evanston/Chicago, IL. I work between ancient Greek political thought and contemporary critical theory. My dissertation addresses the economization of politics in modernity and seeks to develop an alternative conception of need and utility that is affirmative of democratic politics. To do so I engage with Sophocles, Aristotle, Spinoza and Marx.