Inscribed into the pronaos of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is the command: gnothi seauton, know thyself! This aphorism, along with prophecies from the same Delphic oracle, is a dominant theme in Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Tyrannos. Yet, is the Delphic imperative more than just a command? Might it not be a description of human nature? In Oedipus Tyrannos Sophocles demonstrates that this aphorism is more than just an interesting suggestion. It is a deeply rooted desire within human nature. However, this desire is held in contrast with an equally seeded desire of self-love. The results of this contradiction is a cataclysm between desire and reality. Sophocles, however, does not leave us with the clash, but provides the means by which it must be resolved.
Oedipus is presented as a wise and clever man. The first indication of this is his rescuing the city of Thebes from the persecution of the Sphinx. The Sphinx had terrorized the countryside of Thebes by interrogating any traveler she came upon by asking them a riddle. If the traveler failed to answer correctly, she would devour them. Hardly an ideal situation for a city. It was Oedipus who, while fleeing from his adopted home of Corinth, encountered the Sphinx and correctly answered her riddle. This great creature who had killed countless travelers was now defeated by the wisdom of Oedipus. In despair, the Sphinx killed herself and thus the city of Thebes was released. Having recently lost their own king, Laius, Thebes installs Oedipus as their ruler because of his great wisdom.
At the opening of Oedipus Tyrannos, Thebes again is suffering greatly. Now, a plague has descended on the city. The people come to the doors of the palace to seek their salvation once again in Oedipus. Oedipus, showing his great wisdom, comes himself to the altars the people have erected: “The whole city is filled with wailing, lamentations, and prayers to Apollo. Incense fills the air. I have not sent to inquire but have come myself to hear from you directly, I, Oedipus, whom all call famous” (60). The priest representing the people confirms that they have come to Oedipus because of his great knowledge. “We do not come to this altar as suppliants to a god but to you as the first man of the city, wise in the ways of the world and even conversant with higher powers…It was by your own wit and strength, god-given, that you then set our lives aright” (61).
While Oedipus is presented as a man full of knowledge and wisdom, he lacks a surprising amount of self-knowledge. In direct violation of the Delphic imperative to “know thyself,” the one subject that Oedipus seems least knowledgeable of is himself, both intrinsically and extrinsically. Intrinsically, Oedipus is blind to his own arrogance and hubris. When he learns that the city is under a plague because Laius’ (the city’s former king) killer has never been brought to justice, Oedipus makes sweeping pronouncements about vengeance without knowing any further details about the situation. “In the god’s service do I fight and also on behalf of the man who died. As for the killer, whoever he is, whether he acted alone or with others, I pray that he suffer a life of pain as miserable as he is” (71).
Extrinsically, Oedipus is utterly oblivious to the fact that he is the one he is looking for! For it was he who killed Laius. Not only that, but Oedipus is also unaware that Laius was his father and that his wife Jocasta (the former wife of Laius) is his mother! Oedipus, though wise, is blinded to his true state. When the priest Tiresias confronts Oedipus with this truth, Oedipus’ intrinsic blindness rages again and invents conspiracies to escape it: “I am infuriated enough to say what I begin to suspect—that you [Tiresias] yourself took some part in the killing, inciting, or planning” (76).
In spite of himself, Oedipus does still want to know the truth. He sends for more reports and interrogates others to discover if what Tiresias says is true. He might do this for purely selfish reasons, he wants to clear his own name, or he wants to save the city again and be the hero. It may, however, go deeper than that. “All men, by nature, desire to know,” says Aristotle. Within each of us is the deep-seeded desire to know the truth. If fact, it may be that what Oedipus most fears is that Tiresias is right: “I have a terrible feeling that the blind prophet may not have been so blind” (97). Yet the knowledge of the matter is worth the struggle for truth.
The issue is further complicated, that while Oedipus desires to know the truth, there is another part of him that does not like the truth that may come to be known. This is precisely because the truth would overturn Oedipus’ deluded view of himself. Perhaps he is not so wise. Worse yet, perhaps he has committed patricide and incest and become an abomination to gods and men. Tiresias says it best when he tells Oedipus, “The trouble is in yourself” (79). It is your hubris, it is your arrogance, it is your attempt to thwart the gods that has brought you here. Who would want to hear such things?
The trouble Oedipus is in is nothing more than that which we all face. For we all desire knowledge, including self-knowledge, but we do not love the truth. So we are stuck in a state of utter contradiction. We both do and do not want “to know.” Blaise Pascal summarizes our predicament quite succinctly:
The nature of self-love and of this human self is to love only self and consider only self. But what is it to do? It cannot prevent the object of its love from being full of faults and wretchedness: it wants to be great and sees that it is small; it wants to be happy and sees that it is wretched; it wants to be perfect and sees that it is full of imperfections; it wants to be the object of men’s love and esteem and sees that its faults deserve only their dislike and contempt. The predicament in which it thus finds itself arouses in it the most unjust and criminal passion that could possibly be imagined, for it conceives a deadly hatred for the truth which rebukes it and convinces it of its faults. It would like to do away with this truth, and not being able to destroy it as such, it destroys it, as best it can, in the consciousness of itself and others; that is, it takes every care to hide its faults both from itself and others, and cannot bear to have them pointed out or noticed. (Pensées, 978, emphasis added)
What we see in Oedipus Tyrannos are the inevitable consequences of this clash of desires. With self-knowledge comes humility and wisdom. Oedipus, forced to confront his own hubris, blinds himself so that his physical condition matches his spiritual condition. For truth is truth whether we like it or not. We either accept this self-knowledge or blind ourselves to reality.
The solution to all this comes from the priest Tiresias, the one who in the end was shown to be the one who truly sees: “What I dare is simply to love the truth” (78). We either “love the truth” or blind ourselves. It is we who do the blinding, no one does it to us. We are the masters of self-deception. Yet we cannot escape the desire for knowledge. We either become lovers of the truth, or blind ourselves to reality. Oedipus Tyrannos, therefore, is an example of what the Delphic Oracle commands: “know thyself!” Yet this self-knowledge, uncoupled with a love for truth, leads to misery and destruction, both from without and from within.
Note: the page references contained herein refer to the translation by David R. Slavitt, which while excellent does not contain line number references which is the typical way of citing Sophocles.