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That Sophocles raises questions about fate, free will, moral responsibility and justice in his play Oedipus The King, was evident from the first time I read the play. However, underlying all these themes lies a more pressing issue, that of self-knowledge. Sophocles presents Oedipus as the paradigm of the self-destructing, self-searching hero — a hero at a crossroad. Tormented by the facticity of life and his own free will, Oedipus, perhaps unknowingly, sets out on an existential quest towards self-discovery. In this article, I explore Sophocles’ treatment of the notion of self-knowledge, highlighting how the basic outline of the play parallels the emblematic stages towards authenticity as laid out by existential philosophy.

 

To understand the connection between the existential conception of authenticity and Sophocles’ adaptation of the myth of Oedipus, it is worth examining the multiplicity of issues that arise in conjunction with the notion of self-knowledge. First of all, to assume that there is a prototype of a ‘self’ that is authentic as opposed to an inauthentic self, rises question about determinism and free will. In fact, the very notion of self-knowledge implies the predetermined existence of a ‘self’ that lies  beyond one’s knowledge and that one is propelled to seek and discover. If so, then who and what determines the nature of  this ‘self’? Perhaps one way to tackle this questions is to look at the issue of choice and responsibility. On the one hand, being oneself is inescapable since whenever one makes a choice or act, it is oneself who is doing these things. On the other hand, we are sometimes inclined to say some things, undertake some actions and make decisions due to factors that lie beyond us. Here, the issue is no longer of metaphysical nature, but rather about morality and responsibility.  All the actions taken by Laius, Jocasta and Oedipus were prompted by forces and ‘facts’ that lie beyond their control, however, it is their way of handling these external inputs that led to the inexorable outcomes presented in the play. It is precisely because Laius and Jocasta chose to expose their infant son that he  grew up ignorant of who he is and therefore kills Laius and marries Jocasta without knowing what he is doing. Similarly with Oedipus, when he chooses to run away from Corinth when the oracle of Delphi tells him that he would kill his father and marry his mother. One can justify these decisions made by the characters of the play. However, looking at how the play unfolds and in the grand scheme of things, it is worthwhile to assume that Sophocles was making an important proclamation here; it is the very fact that one tries to avoid confronting the bleak reality they are thrown in that one ends up living it. Echoing this idea is Sartre’s conceptualization of the human condition. For Sartre, the human condition is inherently tragic and paradoxical and it is knowledge which makes it so[1]. Sartre believed that existence manifests itself in the choice of actions, anxiety/despair and freedom of the will. Thus, the responsibility of building one’s future is in one’s hands. However, the future is uncertain and and so one has no escape from the tragedy and despair of our radical freedom. To deny this freedom is an act of “ bad faith”, and it is only by owning up to our responsibility that we define ourselves. According to Sartre:

“Existentialism does not aim at plunging us into despair: its final goal is to prepare us through anguish, abandonment and despair for a genuine life, and it is basically concerned with the human condition as a complete form of choice.[2]

 

The fundamental issue ,therefore, is to seek authentic being. We can see how this idea plays out in Sophocles’ play. The progression of the events in the play sets out a paradigmatic path to self-knowledge. Oedipus is shown to go from a state of ignorance, to a state of bad faith, and then eventually, to a cathartic realization of the his authentic self.

By presenting Oedipus as a man of extraordinary talent and high moral standing, renowned in the eyes of others for his mental capacities and moral achievement, Sophocles provides an insight into Oedipus’s own perception of himself. In other words, Oedipus’s virtuous self-image is emphasized. Naturally, Oedipus holds on to that image and maintains an unwavering confidence in his intellectual superiority and righteous character. Here, Sophocles incorporates the element of hubris in Oedipus’s character to showcase the dangers of adhering to an inauthentic self-image. As Robert Cohen points out, there is a duality in Oedipus’s self-identity; an inner identity that he is yet to be completely aware of, and an external self that is ascribed to him by society. Oedipus is in a state of in-authenticity because his inner and external selves are in-congruent. Arguably, Oedipus is not completely unaware of this incongruity. When Creon recounts the details of Laius’s murder Oedipus changes the plural into singular—indirectly implicating himself in the murder well before he has the confrontation with Tiresias. However, until this point of the play, Oedipus’s alliance with the gods and determination to seek “even a slim beginning” in this grave investigation is established.

However, as the events in the play escalate, Oedipus’s self-possessed knowledge is challenged by the authoritative figure of Tiresias, Apollo’s prophet and Thebe’s acclaimed clairvoyant. Although Oedipus shows a great determination to extricate the truth from hesitant Tiresias, he is quick to reject  the claim made against him by Tiresias without seeking any further clarification. In his rage, Oedipus berates Tiresias for his blindness and goes further to accuse the prophet of committing the murder himself, and conspiring with Creon to overthrow Oedipus. In this section of the play, we see Oedipus in a state of bad faith. He refuses to take into account Teiresias claims and does not leave any room for doubt. He is blinded by his anger and negates his own freedom and responsibility of seeking clarifications and ,instead, throws blame on others.

It is after this grave confrontation with Tiresias and Creon that Oedipus’s false self-image begins to dwindle. The truth lays its heavy burden on Oedipus soul, crushing all the long-held illusions that made up his life  heretofore. By consciously choosing to abandon that state of bad faith and by daring to confront the bleak reality that lies ahead, despite all the discouragement he received from Jocasta, Tiresias and Laius’s shepherd, Oedipus reaches his true moral stature. He sets himself apart from the crowd (the chorus) and contrasts their proclamation: “count no mortal happy till he has passed the final limit of his life secure from pain” (1530). Oedipus becomes the existential hero, he leads an authentic life, and in there, he finds happiness.

[1] Authenticity (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/authenticity/#SarDeBea.

 

[2] The Limits of Authenticity | Issue 92 | Philosophy Now. https://philosophynow.org/issues/92/The_Limits_of_Authenticity.

 

 

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