Βοᾷ διοίγειν κλῇθρα καὶ δηλοῦν τινα
τοῖς πᾶσι Καδμείοισι τὸν πατροκτόνον,
τὸν μητρὸς, αὐδῶν ἀνόσι’ οὐδὲ ῥητά μοι,
ὡς ἐκ χθονὸς ῥίψων ἑαυτόν, οὐδ’ ἔτι
μενῶν δόμοις ἀραῖος ὡς ἠράσατο.
He howls for someone to open the bolts and show the
patricide to all citizens of Thebes, to show the matricide
— shouting words as unholy as they are unspeakable for
me. He’ll hurl himself from the land, no longer intending
to stay at home, accursed as he had cursed.
Sophocles Oedipus Rex 1287-1293
[This somewhat revised essay was first written in the early nineties.] The exact nature of personal responsibility is a sometimes slippery slope down which anyone of us could someday all too easily go zipping: To what extent are we accountable, on a personal level, for the actions done by our hands, abetted by our behaviors, condoned by our attitudes? Different societies differ at different times in how they assign blame, and individuals living in them surely absorb the reigning biases as proximate scripts for their private and public attributions of culpability in the case of even the most heinous deeds.
Recent trials (e.g., the Casey Anthony case) with outcomes that have dumbfounded some judicial experts — not to mention people who were not at the trial and/or who are without specialized legal knowledge — have brought the question to the forefront of public consciousness.
The thread holding together this new fabric of endless excuses seems to be a psychologized torquing of what used to be woven into a religious context: “The devil made me do it!” The tacit assumption, then, was that nobody could, or should, be blamed for things done under diabolically evil influences. Today it seems instead that no human being should be expected to shoulder responsibility for fuzzily defined “pressures” external to the criminal agent.
In the 1989 trial of the Menendez brothers, the attorneys argued that the boys had killed their father because he had allegedly abused them sexually for many years, and their mother because her parents (then dead) had supposedly abused her. It does rather problematize the entire question of guilt and accountability, and it takes little imagination to extrapolate from this cascading generational argument about the sins of the parents to the sins of the grandparents to the sins of the grandparents’ parents and so on and so forth — and soon enough we’re right back to the original sin in that blighted garden of Eden with the cunning serpent, and once more a religious explanation for rotten and brutish behavior: “It really was that wretched snake who made me do it!”
Wait long enough and it’s not just double-breasted blazers that come back into fashion.
I live in America and I accept that part of my tacit contract with the society in which I live is to accept its judicial ways, even if I do not always understand them and indeed with increasing frequency feel that at times they fly furiously and infuriatingly in the face of plain and simple common sense — and I do believe that there is such a thing.
The ancient Greeks had a rather different take on this business. It’s not that they did not recognize that people do indeed do strange and bizarre things for which they have little rational explanation. In the Iliad, for example, Agamemnon admits he was out of his mind to behave as he did towards Achilles, and later he is hard put to explain just why he did so (Iliad 9.136 [cf. 119]: ἀασάμην οὐδ’ αὐτὸς ἀναίνομαι aasamēn, oud ‘ autos anainomai “I must have been crazy, and I myself don’t deny it”). What he does not go on to say, however, is that “that bitch of a wife of mine back in Argos made me do it and that’s why I can’t be held accountable” — but quite the opposite: “and that’s why I want to make good my actions and pay him back countless ransom” (120).
But it is Oedipus the king who, in my view, most magnificently owns up, through his blindingly clear insight, to the highly personal – endogenous, if you will — nature of human responsibility. One may well imagine how his story would have played out in a modem family court: physically abused (the pierced feet) and abandoned (to the elements and wild animals on Mount Kithaeron) by his biological parents, lied to by his foster parents (they never told him he wasn’t theirs), forced to kill his real father (“he should have got out of my way”), sexually molested by a narcissistically manipulative mother (who actually ensnared him into marrying her), brother to his own children (dysfunctional sibling rivalry), and on and on and on.
Next the voluntary commitment for counseling (“I’m sick and I need help!”) and then the psychotropic analgesics and then the extended therapy that would have gone on forever!
But no! No talk here of an exonerating past, of extenuating circumstances, of external compulsion — just “I did it, and I am responsible.” We may find this touching, even naïve — and it probably is, in the accommodating context of today’s universe of fuzzy and nebulous legalisms, the inventive proliferation of acronymic syndromes/disorders in medicine, and a mechanistic cultural/social neuroscience correcting Freud about the true nature of human nature.
Am I being unfair?
I am not advocating a return to those “good old days,” but at the same time I cannot help being struck by the difference in outlooks on this matter of responsibility.