Sight Through Blindness: Reason and Irrationality in Oedipus

April 27, 2019 by Essay Writer

Until the very end of Oedipus the King, Oedipus retains his steadfast belief in the absolute efficacy of reason and logic, basing all decisions and actions solely on these golden principles. However, as the plot runs its course, the reader can observe that this obdurate mindset only goes so far. Rather than saving Oedipus, the principles deteriorate and eventually become useless in the face of the irrationality of life. From the beginning, Oedipus is portrayed as the epitome of a dutiful king, relying on logic for his decisions. For example, when the plague strikes the city, he says, “not one is as sick as I…my spirit groans for the city, for myself, for you” (5). Yet rather than simply despair, Oedipus employs reason tc to anticipate the people’s cry for relief: He has already sent Creon to the oracle of Delphi to ascertain the reason for the plague. At this point, Oedipus is very confident in his ability to help the people solve this problem, proudly reassuring them, “…I have come myself to hear you–I, Oedipus, who bear the famous name” (4). After all, he has already once vanquished another seemingly irresolvable problem, the Sphinx. Therefore, when Creon returns from the oracle, Oedipus immediately launches question after question at him, almost as if looking to deduce the answer to the problem on the spot. Hearing that the plague is cause by the unavenged murder of the former king Laios, Oedipus announces his desire to find the murderer, ironically reasoning that “by avenging the murdered king I protect myself” (9). He decides to summon the seer Teiresias to help identify the killer, yet when Teiresias shows reluctance in revealing his knowledge, Oedipus uses reason to try to convince him to speak. After further reluctance, Oedipus cruelly concludes that, “You planned it, you had it done, you all but killed him with your own hands: if you had eyes, I’d say the crime was yours and yours alone” (19). This reasoning finally provokes Teiresias to break his silence and incriminate none other than Oedipus himself as the killer of Laios. Here, we can clearly see Oedipus’ logic falter as he loses control over his anger, insulting Teiresias with “You sightless, witless, senseless, mad old man!” (20). This anger causes him to go as far as ridiculously accusing his own brother-in-law Creon of plotting to take the throne from him: “Creon desires in secret to destroy me!” (21). He accosts Creon. Yet despite his seeming irrationality, he once again uses reason and logic in a cross-examination of his brother-in-law in an attempt to incriminate him of treason and murder. Creon explains that he has no motivation to become king, rejoining, “But suppose that you are wrong,” to which Oedipus retorts, “Still I must rule” (33). Thus, Oedipus’ reason has abated into a selfish obstinacy, even against those closest to him. Later on, Oedipus becomes quite alarmed after hearing Jocasta recount that Laios had been killed at a crossroads, remembering that he himself had once killed some people at a crossroads. He exclaims, “Ah, what net has God been weaving for me?” (39). At this point, Oedipus’ faith in reason is nearly finished. He sees the possibility that he himself could be the murderer, and that he has therefore banished himself from Thebes. Moreover, Jocasta’s reminisces about having once heard a prophecy that her son would kill his father and marry his mother cause Oedipus to suddenly recall prophecies he had once heard about himself: that he was not his father’s son and that he “should lie with my own mother, breed children from whom all men would turn their eyes; and that I should be my father’s murderer” (42). A pellucid connection would have been easy to make between the prophecies. Desperate for an explanation other than the glaringly unacceptable one before him, Oedipus finds a minute detail from which he can use reason to prove that he did not kill his father (and therefore did not marry his mother). He notes that Jocasta said that many men had killed Laios, while he had killed alone. He finds out from Jocasta that there is a single witness, a shepherd, who can verify if Laios had in fact been killed by many men or only one. At this point, the audience still can admire Oedipus for using reason to think of consulting the shepherd. Yet we also realize that his reason has no further power to help him now. All depends on what the shepherd says. Oedipus and Jocasta are finally driven to madness by two factors. First, a messenger from Corinth comes to the royal palace to announce King Polybos’ death. He also tells Oedipus that he had been adopted. At this time, Jocasta makes a desperate plea for Oedipus to stop his investigation: “Have no more fear of sleeping with your mother: how many men, in dreams, have lain with their mothers! No reasonable man is troubled by such things” (51). She goes on with “for God’s love, let us have no more questioning! Is your life nothing to you? My own is pain enough for me to bear” (56). However, Oedipus, desperate for the last hope of cleansing his conscience, proceeds to cross-examine the shepherd in the same manner as had been done with Teiresias and Creon, threatening him with direct violence if he did not tell the truth. Having no other choice, the shepherd reveals that Oedipus is indeed Laios’s and Jocasta’s child. Both Jocasta and Oedipus react violently to this final truth. They simply can not accept that Oedipus is a patricidal, incestuous monster. Yet this is the undeniable truth, albeit irrational. Overwhelmed, Jocasta ends her own life. Oedipus, on the other hand, can be argued to experience some development: In the act of blinding himself, he implicitly gives up his former obsessive and adamant faith in observation and reasoning alone. As a result, he becomes much more open to the irrational and, perhaps, more balanced. Thus, though Oedipus is initially a man ruled by reason, logic, and deductive methods of problem-solving, he comes to learn that the irrational must be considered with equal weight. In ignoring the irrational, he had essentially been blinding himself to the truth. He comes to realize that all that reasoning was the sunlight of no light–it may have presented the façade of being right and comfortable for a time, but it certainly was not the truth. And as Creon wisely stated: “…time, and time alone, will show the just man…” (32). The truth may be hidden for days, months, even years. Yet, someday, it will emerge.

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