Oedipus the King and Self-Knowledge

In all of the texts we’ve discussed so far, we’ve seen that knowledge often comes at a price. This is certainly also the case with Oedipus in Oedipus the King. Oedipus’ struggle to plumb the depths of his own history reveals for him a terrible secret, though ironically, it’s a “secret” he knew all along. The play is a meditation on a type of knowledge that we haven’t seen much of yet—self-knowledge—and this raises a number of questions.

How much do we really know about ourselves? How much do we want to know? Can we, like Oedipus, often be blind to our own inadequacies? These problems take on a contemporary flair if we consider the ways in which science and technology have made it possible to know things about ourselves that we could never know before. Genetic testing, for instance, can now give us insights into our susceptibilities to certain diseases. How should we react once or if we know our likelihood of dying from a particular malady? Can we change our lives to lower our risks, or is such behavior, like Oedipus’ attempts to change his fate, ultimately futile? If you could find out whether something terrible awaited you in the future, would you want to know?

Part of what Oedipus shows us is that this sense of control that we feel over our lives and ourselves is illusory, and this is a scary message indeed. Despite having the best of intentions, Oedipus could not escape his destiny.  This lesson applies to us too: even if we solve all of the riddles and get to the bottom of all of all of our questions, this does not necessarily grant us the power to change what it is that we actually find. And, what’s more, once we have made the discovery, we must still decide how to react …and live with the consequences.

Jocasta gives the following advice to Oedipus as he barrels down the pathway of discovering his true identity: “[it is] best to live lightly as one can, unthinkingly” (978). While this is certainly one way to react—to tamp down our thirst for knowledge entirely—to live a blissful life of ignorance—Oedipus himself also provides a model for how to seek out knowledge: once he finds the truth, he faces it and bears its consequences with a sense of dignity and personal responsibility.  Oedipus suffers dreadfully, but perhaps some amount of suffering is the price we must pay for knowing ourselves.


On a lighter note, do please enjoy this re-enactment of the Oedipus story with vegetables as actors: http://vimeo.com/19152100

3 thoughts on “Oedipus the King and Self-Knowledge”

  1. You raised a very good point about whether one would want to know our fates; I think, however, a more pressing question is, could you resist asking? After all, it might be possible to think a way out of our fate; Oedipus, for example, could have ensured that his wife was younger than he, and therefore avoided at least some small portion of his fate. I’m not saying it is his fault; I am simply wondering if it was possible to change one’s fate. Also, if we know how it will end, without exception, would we live our lives differently? For better, or for worse? How would Oedipus have lived if he never heard the prophesy? If he was so fated, he may ultimately have committed the same offense, just as we would follow our fates.

  2. I also enjoyed your point about whether we would want to know our fates or not if had the power to learn them. To answer your question I would not want to know my fate. One obviously hopes for the best in their future but there is no telling what will happen. One day you could win a million dollars in the lottery, the next day you could be diagnosed with brain cancer. Meaghan also raises a very good point, although I said that I would not want to know my fate, if someone told me they could tell me mine it would be very hard to say no. In the end I would agree the most with Jocasta’s advice to Oedipus, to live life “unthinkingly.”

  3. I like Meagan’s response also with “can we resist asking?”. I think that its very hard to turn down hearing information that seems to be so important. Life is about making mistakes and going through experiences in order to learn from them however there could be some instances that knowing the truth about yourself could be for the better. For example, if you are nervous to get tested for a certain disease and keep putting it off, that could put yourself at more risk. I think knowing your fate is important in this situation because you can get more help the earlier you find out. It’s important to “live lightly as one can, unthinkingly” (978) but its also important to be smart as well.

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