[Starting Points] Socrates and Oedipus: Parallel Lives

I teach a course on philosophy and literature called “’Know Thyself’: Knowledge and Self-Knowledge in Literature and Philosophy.” The course begins by contrasting Sophocles’ great tragedy Oedipus the King with Plato’s Apology. The figure of Socrates, who is the speaker in the Apology, has a number of striking parallels with Oedipus. (Note: Oedipus the King is also commonly translated as Oedipus Rex or left untranslated as Oedipus Tyrannus.)

In Plato’s Republic, which we look at next in the course, Socrates makes a notorious argument in favour of censorship. Socrates first argues that an ideal state would censor stories that promote vice and later argues for the outright banishment of tragedians and other poets. I’ll spell out the argument from the Republic in another blog post. This post discusses some of the parallels between Socrates and Oedipus, which clarify the tension between philosophy and tragedy.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Oedipus and the Oracle of Delphi

Sophocles’ tragedy is the most famous story of the mythic figure of Oedipus. The play begins in the midst of a plague afflicting Thebes, where Oedipus is king. It was common at that time to see a plague as a form of divine punishment. Oedipus sends his brother-in-law Creon to the temple of Apollo at Delphi to ask what Thebes has done to deserve this punishment. Creon returns with the news that Apollo is punishing Thebes because they haven’t avenged the murder of their former king Laius—and that the murderer lives among them.

The murderer, it turns out, is Oedipus. Oedipus himself doesn’t know he killed Laius—or that Laius is his father. The tragedy unfolds like a detective story, where Oedipus is both the sleuth and the criminal.

This peculiar tangle is due to another prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi. Many years earlier, the Oracle warned Laius that he would die at the hand of his own son. Anxious to avoid this fate, Laius has the infant Oedipus abandoned in the wilderness.

A shepherd rescues the infant and Oedipus grows up in Corinth as the adopted son of King Polybus and his wife Merope. Young Oedipus gets wind of another prophecy from Delphi, this one telling him he’s fated to kill his father and marry his mother. Anxious to avoid that fate, he leaves Corinth and ends up on the road to Thebes, where he has his fatal encounter with Laius.

Marble bust of Socrates (1st century). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Socrates and the Oracle of Delphi

The Oracle of Delphi also features in the story of Socrates. Plato’s Apology records the speech Socrates gives when he is on trial for his life, accused of teaching false gods and corrupting the youth of Athens. Far from apologizing for his actions, Socrates uses his speech to explain and defend his steadfast commitment to philosophy.

Socrates’ story begins when his friend Chaerephon visits the temple of Apollo at Delphi. The Oracle tells Chaerephon that Socrates is the wisest of all men. Socrates is astounded at this news.

Like Laius and Oedipus, Socrates tries to prove the Oracle wrong. He doesn’t think he’s especially wise and so he seeks out others with a reputation for wisdom, hoping to find evidence that others are wiser than he is. Instead, he discovers that all the people who claim to be wise are actually ignorant. When he interrogates them, he finds these supposedly wise people don’t really know what they’re talking about. Ultimately he concludes that he is wiser than other people simply because he recognizes his own ignorance.

Laius and Oedipus both take actions to avoid a prophsied outcome and those actions turn out to be instrumental in bringing the prophecy about. Likewise with Socrates. Socrates acquires his reputation for wisdom by interrogating and outwitting the supposedly wise.

The Downfall of Socrates and Oedipus

The Oracle of Delphi doesn’t resolve matters for the people who seek its answers. To this day, the adjective “Delphic” means “deliberately obscure or ambiguous.” The Oracle answers your questions all right, but it leaves you with the task of understanding those answers. An inscription in the forecourt of the temple of Apollo reads: “Know Thyself.” Both Socrates and Oedipus receive oracular answers that tell them who they are, and these obscure answers launch them on a quest of self-understanding.

That quest to understand the Oracle also brings about their downfall. In questioning the allegedly wise, Socrates exposes the ignorance of a lot of powerful people and makes quite a few enemies. When he comes to trial, the citizens of Athens are all too happy to vote for his execution.

Oedipus, meanwhile, uncovers the truth of the Oracle layer by painful layer. His birth parents are not the king and queen who raised him. The man he killed on the road was Laius. Laius is his father and his wife Jocasta is also his mother. Unable to bear these terrible truths, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus gouges out his eyes.

Philosophy vs. Tragedy

These parallels between Socrates and Oedipus allow the differences between them to stand out more clearly. The differences give us some idea of why Plato’s Republic imagines a utopia without tragedy.

Wickedness Due to Ignorance

Both Socrates and Oedipus end badly, but they don’t both end unhappily. Socrates insists that the Athenian jury is incapable of harming him, even if they put him to death. There’s no harm in dying, Socrates insists, but considerable harm in acting unjustly. He is content with his choices and if those choices result in his death, so be it. The only people who come out worse from the trial, according to Socrates, are those who vote to condemn him, since they condemn themselves to wickedness.

Wickedness, according to Socrates, is a result of ignorance. No one would knowingly do wrong and so, he reasons, any wrongdoing must be the result of not knowing what’s right. Conversely, then, wisdom makes a person safe from wickedness. The pursuit of truth, as Socrates sees it, is essentially an ethical undertaking and its reward is a kind of safety. If you only harm yourself by acting wickedly, and you only act wickedly out of ignorance, then becoming wise delivers you from harm.

Essential Vulnerability

For Oedipus, the pursuit of truth comes at a terrible cost. We conceal within ourselves depths and dark corners that we can’t bear to look upon. Oedipus is both heroic and tragic for wanting to bring these dark truths out into the light.

A central lesson of tragedy is our essential vulnerability. We can’t control our fate and attempts to do so bring about our downfall.

The philosophical ideal that Socrates advocates is strikingly anti-tragic. In contrast to the tragic lesson of our essential vulnerability, Socrates presents a model of placid security. The source of our suffering is our own ignorance, says Socrates, and that ignorance can be ameliorated.

Conflicting Visions

Oedipus and Socrates present us with two contrasting visions of the human predicament. Oedipus manifests a tragic vision in which the pursuit of truth leads to our downfall. Socrates presents a philosophical vision in which the pursuit of truth secures our happiness. These two visions are at odds with one another. Small wonder, then, that the ideal philosophical republic has no place for tragedy.

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