“Oedipus Rex” and the Mighty Darkness of Knowledge

The conviction that knowledge can simply overcome ignorance has persisted since the end of the Greco-Roman world. While most intellectual historians would say that the natural efficacy of knowledge has been affirmed since the Enlightenment, I see this conviction developing at the end of classical world. Although the early Christians respected a form of religious knowledge very different from the science of the Enlightenment philosopher, they nonetheless placed a similar inherent value on proper religious conviction as such. Doctrine, in and of itself, became a point of personal morality and salvation. The New Testament reads, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50); the Council of Nicaea promotes a cognitive formula for perfect conviction, to be spread across the world in the seamless triumph of Christian truth.

This basic structure of thought persists into our modern scientific world, which continues to place inherent moral value on the mere fact of social and scientific awareness. In the modern model of social psychology, the public consists of people who would eliminate any evil if only they could be made aware. Thus the basic logic of the social media “share” is no different from that of the early evangelist, who believed the salvation of the world might be attained if only the people knew about the Gospels. The journalist adopts the same conceit, casting themselves as the messenger of information vitally necessary to the fate of the civilized world. 

Of course, the journalist’s audience typically has neither the means nor the intention of changing the persistent social problems the journalist describes. If the public were meaningfully engaged in the struggles they see in the media, the journalist would become quite superfluous and unnecessary. Paul Krugman would lose his audience of relatively affluent capitalist professionals, just as Sean Hannity would lose his audience of Medicare recipients.

In both cases, the journalist serves to create a form of effortless public moral identification, as each side believes that its superior awareness of the public good somehow grants them a moral authority the other side lacks (what has recently been termed “virtue signaling”). Just as the Christian gains heaven by assenting to the creed, the modern participant in digi-democracy only needs to follow the right feeds. The role of the follower is not to do any thinking, but, to use the common idiom, simply “spread the message” and “get the word out”.

In a self-reinforcing feedback loop, the evangelist and the journalist attribute limitations in their ever-popularizing worldview to the need for yet further marketing of their viewpoint among those not yet enlightened. When the conquistador met the Native American, it did not make him realize the contingency and provincialism of his own Christian views, but rather convinced him of the need for more missions and conversions.

Likewise, when the political zealot encounters somebody of differing opinion, they are convinced only of the need to turn up the volume on their own viewpoint. The idea that the perspective of the cause may turn out to be radically insufficient and even tragically harmful never even crosses the mind of the modern promoter, whose entire existence is based on the tedious maintenance of rhetorical distinctions. 

Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex offers us a fundamentally different model of knowledge, one that does not idly praise reason, but tests it until it breaks so that we may learn its true strength. Oedipus seems to be a forerunner of an Enlightenment figure, a proud and successful rationalist, a devotee of Apollo who solves the riddle of the monstrous Sphinx.

Oedipus and the Sphinx Walters
Oedipus and the Sphinx, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres 1807

 

 

When he receives a horrible prophecy that he will commit incest and parricide, Oedipus leaves Corinth and travels to Thebes, hoping to avoid his fate through sheer geographic distance. He is unaware that Thebes is his true hometown, as his parents, King Laius and Queen Jocasta, heard the same prophecy and had him exposed outside of the city, where he was later rescued. During this homecoming, Oedipus unknowingly kills his father Laius in a traffic dispute. He then solves the riddle of the Sphinx and frees travelers to Thebes from his harassment, and so is rewarded with the marriage of Jocasta and admittance into the royal family.  

After he comes to realize that he has fulfilled the very fate he avoided, Oedipus pokes out his eyes, repudiating the god Apollo and the light of intellectual clarity in a symbolic self-mutilation. 

OEDIPUS:

It was Apollo, friends, it was Apollo. He brought on these troubles— ]
the awful things I suffer. But the hand which stabbed out my eyes was mine alone.

In my wretched life, why should I have eyes when nothing I could see would bring me joy?

Oedipus Rex, Johnston translation, 1582ff

For Sophocles, the formula of the last few millennia, the formula that knowledge of God or physics or technology leads directly to heaven or utopia or prosperity is little more than expression of fatal naivety. Knowledge was not a tool for spiritual or social betterment — it was a journey through horrible possibilities, terrible imaginations, and unspeakable realities. In a paradox parallel to the paradox of tragedy, the Greeks held wisdom in such reverence for this reason, for the awesome destructiveness that results whenever we attempt to split the (philologically) atomic, indivisible whole of nature into a limited human understanding. The true seeker of knowledge appreciates it not as a sweet elixir, but as a bitter root which grants no solutions without a view of new problems, as a poison which can eliminate the patient just as soon as it may cure them of equally fatal illusions.

The myth also affirms the value of the “quest” itself in the proverbial “quest for knowledge”. While Oedipus Rex essentially addresses themes of free will, determinism, and the value of knowledge, none of these themes have any meaning outside of the protagonist’s visceral personal experience. Between solving the riddle of the Sphinx and relieving himself of the burden of vision, Oedipus has directly tested the potentials and boundaries of knowledge which philosophers normally only theorize.

Stated otherwise, this perspective affirms that the content of knowledge itself is not nearly so meaningful as the process through which it is attained, as the intimate, dynamic, and endlessly frustrating relationship between the subjective intelligence and the world it inhabits. This relationship is, of course, essentially denied by the evangelist, who sees the public mind as an open hole waiting to be filled with the correct content.

Most of us acknowledge that meaning is always lost in translation, but the striking individual presence of a character like Oedipus should remind us that meaning can be lost whenever we attempt to diffuse knowledge. The unique personal experience Sophocles has defined for his character creates a worldview unable to be articulated outside of a direct retelling of the Oedipus myth.

Some measure of knowledge is likewise withheld from us in the personal subjectivity of all great minds. We may train a high school student to repeat Newton’s laws in a way that might fool a Turing Test into thinking that the student authored the Principia, but nobody seriously imagines that the high school student understands Newton’s laws in the full depth of their original expression. The original author of knowledge retains for him or herself something of the intellectual process which will never reach the final manuscript.

Likewise, the moral value of free speech may be affirmed by everybody in modern society, but it surely means more when it is articulated by a dissident in a totalitarian regime, who has directly experienced and combated what others regard as an abstract evil. 

For, as it turns out, knowledge can be cheapened in the same way as any other good in a world of mass production and reproduction. It becomes a product to be advertised, displayed, and sold, detached from the rigors of deep disturbance, fundamental challenge, and personal endeavor. And when we promote automatic mass awareness as the means for promoting even the most worthy doctrines, we are leading our fellow human beings into a new kind of Oedipus tragedy — the tragedy of never testing the limits of knowledge and feeling their mighty burn, like children who have grown up with flamethrowers but never touched fire. 

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