Oedipus and Socrates on the Quest for Self-knowledge
Both Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Plato’s Apology explore the limits of human wisdom. Socrates spends times trying to understand the nature of wisdom and whether the people who claim to possess it actually do. This investigation stems from the oracle, who proclaimed that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens. Through this quest, Socrates develops a negative reputation, and this is what leads to his eventual death sentence. Oedipus, on the other hand, is revered by the Thebans. In an attempt to save Thebes from the pollution they are facing, he seeks the truth about the darkness that plagues the city. Yet in his pursuit, Oedipus reveals his identity as the killer of the late King Laius and his involvement in the incestuous relationship with his mother. Through questioning and eventual downfall, both Socrates and Oedipus ultimately adhere to their fate, both coming to the conclusion that human knowledge is futile. Socrates accepts this notion, going gracefully to his death, as he is content in the fact that his soul has been well taken care of. Oedipus, however, ends in ruin, as the knowledge he acquires proves detrimental to his existence.
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates speaks in court about his experience with the Oracle of Delphi. Chaerephon, Socrates’ friend, ventures to the oracle to ask if any man was wiser than Socrates, to which the oracle replied that “no one was wiser”. With this in mind, Socrates begins his journey to find someone to hopefully challenge the oracle’s initial declaration. He goes about this using a technique called elenchus, which is an intense questioning. After interrogating the “public man”. Socrates determines that neither he [the public man] nor Socrates himself were wise, since “he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know”. Socrates goes into this encounter believing that those were deemed wise through the lens of society, such as politicians, craftsmen, or poets, will surely be able to prove the oracle wrong. By refuting the notion that these men are enlightened, Socrates displays his understanding of the limitations of human wisdom and seems to be countering the oracle. However, in another sense, Socrates is proving the oracle to be correct. While everyone around him is falsely assuming their own knowledge as being something of higher power, Socrates seems to be the only one who was mindful of the ignorance that all humans possess. Despite the fact that he concludes that he knows nothing, he is not denying the possession of the wisdom, instead he is denying value. “Finally I went to the craftsmen, for I was conscious of knowing practically nothing, and I knew that I would find that they had knowledge of many fine things. In this I was not mistaken” Socrates admits here that humans do hold surface level wisdom, such as craftsmanship or poetry, but he goes on to say that they believe this wisdom translates to “other important pursuits”. This comes as the error in their judgement, as real human wisdom, according to Socrates, includes the fact that they hold ignorance in more divine matters.
Hybris, being an exaggerated sense of self-pride, is evident among those who Socrates questions, the most prominent being Meletus, Socrates’ prosecutor in court. While cross-examining Meletus, Socrates says to the jury, “The man appears to me, men of Athens, highly insolent and uncontrolled. He seems to have made this deposition out of insolence, violence, and youthful zeal”. Hybris often acts as a catalyst for a character’s downfall. Socrates is catching Meletus in a contradiction, as he claims, quite confidently, that Socrates actively does not believe in the gods. Meletus exhibits hybris as he “deals frivolously with serious matters”. Socrates appears incredulous at the remarks of Meletus, as he is providing statements for which he cannot prove. Being a young and unexperienced prosecutor, it is obvious that Meletus is attempting to gain a reputation through this trial and will do so by whatever means necessary. Socrates, a seventy-year-old man, is just in believing that he possesses more wisdom than Meletus, just purely through life experience. He uses this as fuel in the elenchus, as he points out to Meletus that not even he could believe his own accusations against Socrates.
The Greek definition of hybris details a man going against the words of the gods out of pride. Oedipus particularly embodies this trait as, throughout the play, he continuously defies the words of the gods. After being cast away by his birth parents, Oedipus is rescued and raised by the king and queen of Corinth. During this time, he receives the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, causing him to leave his “home” in hopes to avoid this fate. The fact that Oedipus, a mortal, believes that he can avoid a fate predestined to him by the gods goes to show that he possesses an arrogance that exemplifies hybris. He believes that he has escaped this path and marries the queen of Thebes after his defeat of the Sphinx. A pollution overtakes Thebes, caused by a murder that “blew the plague breath on our city”. Oedipus takes it upon himself to find the murderer of the prior king, Laius, as that is what is causing the city of Thebes to suffer. It is now revealed by the prophet Teiresias that Oedipus is the murderer of the late king. “You are the killer. You bring the pollution upon Thebes”. Oedipus exhibits hybris again after being given this information, as he is vehemently denying the accusation. He is quick to accuse someone else of putting Teiresias up to this, saying ‘you didn’t find this accusation through your art”. Teiresias, as a prophet, is someone who speaks on the behalf of the gods. This instant rebuttal to Teiresias’ claim is an indirect denial of the word of the gods on the part of Oedipus. This can be attributed to Oedipus’ initial dislike of Teiresias, as he is not acting as a subject typically acts towards their king. “You are the king. But I have the right to speak my mind freely. In this too I am king”. Teiresias is subverting the power of Oedipus as a king, which provides a basis for Oedipus’ dislike. He challenges Oedipus’ status, claiming that he is blind to the truth and has no other choice but to listen to him. It is at this point where Oedipus once again exhibits hybris. He is too proud as king to listen to a subject, even though the words spoken are words from the gods.
In the Apology the consequences incurred upon Socrates not cause him suffering, as he believes that his soul has been taken care of. “A good man cannot be harmed in either life or death”. Human wisdom defines death as a permanent cessation of the mind and body. Socrates, however, does not adhere to human knowledge, as he knows that is does not mean much. He speaks only for himself and for the gods, and because of this he does not fear death in the way of humans. “To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know”. Socrates explains that to fear death implies that a human knows what is to happen once they die. This sort of wisdom is one that comes only from the gods, so a human possessing the fear of death is claiming they possess divine wisdom. Since Socrates is aware that he doesn’t know what happens after death, he simply cannot fear it. He is conscious of this break in his knowledge, and that is why he is able to go forth in his death with no qualms towards the results of his trial. This pursuit of knowledge that Socrates set forth on has not affected his well being in the long run, as he has approached knowledge in a virtuous way, acknowledging that the wisdom that he does possess means little.
Oedipus, on the other hand, is harmed greatly by the knowledge he seeks out, both physically and spiritually. His approach to wisdom is arrogant, and this ultimately results in his downfall. In his role as king, Oedipus falsely assumes a divine position. “I hear your prayer. Listen to me and I will teach you how to heal”. He is responding to the chorus who is expressing their worry about the pollution that is plaguing Thebes. They pray to the gods that they will find a way out of the darkness, and Oedipus claims that he is the one who can help them. This begins his quest for the true source of the horrors in his city, and his arrogance leads him to encounter the information that destroys his honor and reputation.
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