Monday, August 07, 2006

Observations on Oedipus

June 20

Overview of Oedipus:
To Laius, King of Thebes, an oracle foretold that the child born to him by his queen Jocasta would slay his father and wed his mother. So when in time a son was born the infant's feet were riveted together and he was left to die on Mount Cithaeron. But a shepherd found the babe and tended him, and delivered him to another shepherd who took him to his master, the King of Corinth. Polybus being childless adopted the boy, who grew up believing that he was indeed the King's son.

Afterwards doubting his parentage he inquired of the Delphic god and heard himself the word declared before to Laius. Wherefore he fled from what he deemed his father's house and in his flight he encountered and unwillingly slew his father Laius.

Arriving at Thebes he answered the riddle of the Sphinx and the grateful Thebans made their deliverer king. So he reigned in the room of Laius, and espoused the widowed queen. Children were born to them and Thebes prospered under his rule, but again a grievous plague fell upon the city.

Again the oracle [Tieresias] was consulted and it bade them purge themselves of blood-guiltiness. Oedipus denounces the crime of which he is unaware, and undertakes to track out the criminal. Step by step it is brought home to him that he is the man. The closing scene reveals Jocasta slain by her own hand and Oedipus blinded by his own act and praying for death or exile.

The story of Oedipus the King is, I think, the story of discoverying the Law of unintended consequences, resulting from acting on superficial conclusions, unsupported by deeper understanding.

Oedipus is a man who is unbalanced between mind and body. Neglectful of inconvenient facts which may impede his desires (Oedipus is nominally lame from the pins hammered into his ankles as a baby being exposed, one of the meanings of Oedipus is swollenfoot), prideful of his ability to perform intelectual tricks (the sphinx's riddle), and disdainful of any Deeper Truths which are not readily apparent to his eye.

He is new to the city of Thebes, and without regard to any deeper knowledge, sets out to cure all of it's troubles, simply by way of his glib mental tricks. As the apparent immediate prosperity due to his solution to the Sphinx's riddle begins to wear away, and a papered over evil begins to reassert itself, he again glibly declares that he himself, will solve all the problems once again, setting off another even more devastating round of unintended consequences.

The play is his discovery, and we the audience discover it too, that closer consideration slowly reveals deeper layers of truth. In the Play we discover ever more deeper Truths about Oedipus and his relation to his family, friends and body politic, of the unstoppable momentum of Underlying Principled Truths, and of mans inability and folly in trying to bury them with sophistry. Truths, which had he taken the care to move more slowly and inquiringly, reveal what happens to a man who tries to soar by way of mental gymnastics alone, separated from, and disregarding the wider truths of Nature, the earth and body politic about him. Taking each truth as if it were an isolated fact in a sophistic syllogism, which may be sound within its own internal logic chopping, and has the Hubris to deem that soundness as valid for ignoring all the outlying facts of reality:

All Grass is vegitation,
Some vegitation is Pink,
Grass is Pink.

Reality in this case is ignored, but still, and in spite of that ignorance, Grass persists in growing only in shades of Green. Yet the narrow form of the sylogism (even though the rules are not kept) are offered up as proof of validity, blatantly ignoring Aristotles rule that the sylogism must integrate with the facts of reality surrounding it, just as much as it must with the rules of the sylogism, and it's internal logic as well.

He is at root someone trying desperately to deny and ignore who he is, in order to avoid becoming what he fears - and the inevitable result of not facing or trying to understand your most dreaded fears, and instead Acting, based on only the most superficial of sophistic deductions - attempting to use unprincipled, pragmatic, sophistry to overide the course of Truth and Principle, results in bringing the dreaded fear into realization (the law of unintended consequences).

One of the key questions that Sophocles nearly begs you to ask of his play, is why did Oedipus not investigate the rumors of his 'fate' further? Because, as with most pretentious elites - then and now -, whose heads are stuffed with facts devoid of an integrating Education, he had gleaned a superficial level of understanding, and deeming that Sound, felt no need to look any further, to learn any more of the relevant facts or principles involved - just dove headlong after his immediate conclusion, and so immediately brought about the first of the fears he sought to avoid, killing his true father. Was the carriaged man who roughly shoved him aside a bad man, or a man having a bad day? Oedipus didn't even turn to look at the carriage he no doubt must have heard approaching him from behind, much less step aside for it to pass, and on being accosted as the carriage barrelled down upon him, he felt no need to question or consider - he only knew that in that moment he immediately felt offended and pained, surely they must be thugs and briggands - who else would wish him to step aside from the track he was walking on? and that was all the sufficient cause and knowledge he felt he needed to justify killing the men he had never met before.

Did he ever investigate the reason for his deformity? Did he ever ask of his 'parents' (whom here stand in for, and signify a somewhat deeper level of underlying truths and principles) the reason for the scars upon his ankles? Did he ever delve any deeper into the mystery of his 'Fate'? Had he been someone who had paid attention, and sought deeper wisdom, he would have discovered the truth - and in so doing, Possibly might have changed his stars, but Tieresias knew that the Gods & Fate knew their subject, knew that he would plunge in disregarding all custom, disdainful of any and all deeper meanings in favor of a glib solution, and so garaunteed -- his Tragic fate.

Oedipus and those like him, would say that his Fate was determined by the Gods, but the Gods only understand that their subjects who suffer from Hubris, will react based on the surface appearance of things; they will not delve deeper into Truths & Principles - the realm of the Gods, the Hubristic will instead attempt to set themselves up as Gods, daring to think that what is apparent to their eyes is all that needs to be known and is in their direct control. The Gods don't determine mens Fate, they just know the results that must follow from those who place appearances above, and in opposition to, the deeper truths of Life.

The scars upon his foot? psh-posh, they're just scars, signifying nothing, implying nothing, able to reveal no Truths of any importance whatsoever - facts are merely facts, and are integrated no further into life than that which their appearance seems to show. In the same fashion, Oedipus "answered" the riddle of the Sphinx:

"What goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening"

Oedipus' answer was,
"Man. As a child he crawls on all fours, as an adult he walks upright on two, and as an old man, he hobbles with a cane".
But as with his other solutions, it is a superficial answer, and entirely misses the deeper truth.

Had he given it a just a little further consideration, he might have noted that while,
- Babies do crawl on all fours, and in doing so they are 'in touch' with themselves they see and do what they do - if a lady is fat, they ask why, not realizing the question may be rude.
- As a fresh faced adult, they are are standing upright, their eyes looking up and away, less in touch with the earth, with reality, easily stepping into holes with their gaze raised high, or overlooks the dangers before them.
- As an old man, while he does walk with a cane, his eyes are cast lower, still seeing far, but also now taking in the ground upon which he carefully walks, and he walks with the aid of a wooden cane, signifying a support fashioned from nature, by his mind, to connect him more steadily with, and so better supported by, the earth - he is not just old, but Wise.
Oedipus, in solving the riddle of the Sphinx so swiftly and glibly and sweeping up all glory to himself as a result, unintentionaly gave the Sphinx the last laugh, as this man, this leader, armed with easy answers, rushes out to 'fix' a number of things with his solutions, and brings about a doom that will destroy himself, his family, and his community.

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