While reading secondary texts about Sophocles’ Theban Plays, I found an interesting note about lines 1153-4 of Oedipus Rex. The note is relevant not just for analyzing the play itself but also for contemporary political discussions.

Oedipus is trying to uncover the truth about his identity and his past. At this stage of the play, Oedipus suspects that his identity connects with King Laius. As part of his investigation, Oedipus sends for a herdsman known to have been in Laius’ service. When the herdsman arrives, Oedipus starts questioning him about a child given to him by Laius to abandon in the mountains. The herdsman initially refuses to speak, but Oedipus threatens him with pain:

If you’ll not talk to gratify me, you will talk with pain to urge you. (Oedipus Rex, line 1153)

The herdsman is not a slave, but the use of pain to get the truth was a familiar practice to Athenians. Athenian law not only permitted the use of torture, but required it for slaves giving evidence in court (Sophocles & Segal, 1994, p. 195). The Romans had a similar idea. In Greek and Roman political thought, it was often thought that slaves are truthful if and only if they are subjected to torture.

What reason lies underneath this belief? Slaves had drastically different incentive structures because of their material conditions. Slaves, it was thought, would only testify to those things they believed would please their master. Slaves, being subject to punishment, had the incentive to lie, and the Greeks and Romans used torture to overcome this incentive. While their solution is detestable, the Greeks and Romans highlighted a vital problem: material conditions influence an individual’s willingness to tell the truth.

For example, a Marxist might say that what the bourgeoisie say depends on what their master (the market) wants. Someone may be less likely to speak the truth if they believe that doing so could result in a loss of income, resources, social status, etc.

According to Lenin, politics is concerned with the question of “who, whom?” (Trotsky, 1925; Bell, 1958; Suvin, 2006). Following the formula, we can always break down abstract political statements into statements about specific people doing specific things to specific others (Geuss, 2008, pp. 23-4). The discussion above, however, suggests that Lenin’s formula is incomplete. We must ask an additional question.

This other question is: “for whom?” When thinking about politics, we must consider agency, power, interests, and the relations between these. Who benefits from telling the truth? Who benefits from lying? How do material conditions influence whether telling the truth is in this person’s/group’s interest? These are the questions we must always keep in mind.


Bell, D. (1958). Ten Theories in Search of Reality: The Prediction of Soviet Behavior in the Social Sciences. World Politics, 10(3), 327–365. https://doi.org/10.2307/2009491

Geuss, R. (2008). Philosophy and real politics. Princeton University Press. https://books.google.ge/books?id=_lNcnK1XvB0C

Sophocles, & Segal, C. (1994). The Theban Plays: Introduction by Charles Segal (J. P. Hogan, Ed.; D. Grene, Trans.). Everyman’s Library.

Suvin, D. (2006). Terms of power, today: An essay in political epistemology. Critical Quarterly, 48(3), 38–62. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8705.2006.00720.x

Trotsky, L. (1925). Towards Capitalism or Towards Socialism? The Labour Monthly. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1925/11/towards.htm

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