Tragedy and Enlightenment
Feb 10, Here Oedipus meets the priest of Zeus, the representative of his . 16 Thebes; it was also at a place where three roads met that Laius was killed. generally accepted at the time Sophocles was composing this work. Oedipus the Kingby SophoclesTHE LITERARY WORK A play set in Thebes during the victory (at Salamis), and soon afterward he began composing original poems and songs. . “strangers, thieves, at a place where three roads meet” . I RECENTLY saw a film of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus contai some fine performances and far as the phrase 'a place where three roads meet'. Then he start.
For the very impasse of the debate indicates that the unsettling dangers of disruption, contest, contingency, and resistance that disturb our lives can no more be displaced or avoided than the comfortable seductions of order, truth, reason, and democratic progress that make such disturbances both necessary and meaningful.
Whereas critical theory succumbs too readily to the easy nostalgia of settlement and permanence while remaining fearfully impervious to the liberating aspects of disturbancegenealogy celebrates the dangerous freedom of contingency and contest, while dismissing the force and appeal of order, center, and stability.
I would like to think there are choices here, but I am not willing to concede that they are the ones offered by Habermas and Foucault. In a debate that has been constructed far too narrowly, its terms overly polarized, their responses constitute subtle evasions of the difficult task of negotiating the perplexing terrain of the postmodernity these theorists have themselves so painstakingly charted. As a preliminary indication of my own direction of travel across that terrain, I would like to pose these dilemmas differently, perceptibly altering the frame of reference.
Can we remain committed to the principles of the Enlightenment, yet resist its regressive tendencies toward domination? Is it possible to pursue the truth yet relentlessly politicize the conditions of its production? Can we satisfy our profound need to make sense of the world through the construction of theoretical wholes and still disturb such orderly representations so as to resist the seductive tyranny of globalizing discourse?
These questions, while acknowledging the force of the dilemma, open up more room for thought, more opportunity for recombining old patterns in new ways. To think these oppositions in tension is the central object of this study, which does not rest content with either regulative reason codified as disciplinary norm or the endless subversion of all normative codes.
But where shall we turn for help in negotiating the ironic reversals of the Enlightenment, the politicization of knowledge, the seductions and dangers of foundational theory, the dilemmas of democracy? Whether we want to reconstruct an effectively functioning democratic politics or disrupt newly intensified forms of discipline, the classical past offers an alternative way of thinking about our present predicament that a thoroughgoing modern or postmodern perspective lacks.
If, as Habermas has argued, economic and bureaucratic forms of rationality are systematically eroding and replacing the communicative structures of public speech and action upon which democratic politics largely dependthen the concern of Greek tragedy and philosophical dialogue with moral communication and debate—the deliberative aspects of the classical polis—can stand as a valuable resource for contemporary democratic theory and practice, even as they warn us of the potentially normalizing effects of democratic consensus.
Greek tragedy and philosophical dialogue contribute most toward theorizing the present when their disturbing content is wrenched out of its original context and appropriated to disrupt the established norms and forms of democratically constituted selves and societies, even as they provide a democratic identity and practice against which to struggle.
In a series of staged encounters with four classical texts, I intervene in the current controversy over the character, legacy, and fate of the Enlightenment. Those encounters consider 1 the meaning of enlightenment, 2 the relationship between truth and power, 3 the nature and status of theoretical discourse, and 4 the dilemmas of democratic culture and practice.
Yet these issues, and the political struggles that surround them, are neither unique nor confined solely to the present. Indeed, there is an instructive analogy here: Philosopher and Sophist, reason and rhetoric, the will to truth and the will to power, the search for ultimate foundations and the repudiation of such searches—these are a few of the recurring themes that inhabit the landscapes of enlightenment both ancient and modern.
Chapter 3 elaborates a politics of truth as articulated in the Gorgias. This book also aims to challenge the privileging of the modern or postmodern present over the premodern past, and so to disrupt the myth of history as progress, a goal it shares with Greek tragedy.
That strategy is as evident in the form or architecture of the book—in its structural articulation—as in its overt argumentative moves. I therefore order the chapters in a chiasmus AB:: This structured destructuring of the conventional progression performs a reversal by privileging tragedy over philosophy. The tragedy and philosophical dialogue of classical Athens are read as expressions of the most recent political concerns, while the lineaments of the postmodern present are discerned in the contours of the most archaic past.
The ancient thus appears meaningful in light of the present, while the most modern is associated with past antiquity. Such a juxtaposition disturbs both the conventional supersession of tragedy by philosophy and those comfortable teleologies that culminate in the present, thus interrupting the flow of progress by means of a device supplied by tragedy itself.
The chiasmus is the structure of recognition and reversal so integral, if we are to believe Aristotle, to the power of tragedy. That structure and its sensibility inform my own attempt to read the present in terms supplied by the past, while still maintaining contemporary political and theoretical concerns.
The sophisticated literary structures of tragedy and dialogue, the way the formal elements of composition can be made to yield a critical reflection on history as progress—provide one reason for turning to these specific texts. But this book is not primarily about the literary achievements of the ancients, even if it does seek to wring out meaning precisely where dramatic structure and substantive argument intersect in complex articulation.
To reiterate, my readings are intended to contribute to the contemporary struggle over the meaning of terms central to our theoretical and political discourse, terms that were as contested in fifth-century Athens as they are now. Sophocles asks us to reflect on the nature and certainty of our knowledge, on what we know, how we know it, and what such knowledge is worth. The play presents Oedipus as supremely confident, a man of native intelligence, skill, and wit willing to abandon all inherited custom, tradition, and limits in his single-minded search for the truth.
The playwright thus reveals the double nature of enlightenment—its triumphant ability to disclose and command the secrets of nature while simultaneously subjugating the subject it meant to empower. No lucky child of chance, Oedipus proves the slayer of his father and husband of his mother, the unhappy son of Laius and Jocasta, his all-too-human parents.
Lurking just below the smooth contours of surface calm and light lie the rupture, turbulence, and violence upon which his identity rests. Sophocles certainly celebrates the accomplishments of enlightened reason—the ordered art of his text participates in that process—but he also issues a warning to the modern reader, whose privileged historical position and tested critical methods promise to reveal the ultimate meaning of the play in all its transparency.
Like Oedipus, we too are constituted by forces beyond our control, even as we try to shape the forces that constitute us.
I therefore look to Sophocles for help in elaborating an epistemology of disruption, a post-Enlightenment sensibility that will reinstate a secular appreciation of the ambiguities, contradictions, and mysteries of a world that enlightenment, both ancient and modern, seems bent on suppressing. Oedipus Tyrannos also concerns the relationship of truth to power.
Does all knowledge, it asks, ultimately refer back to man himself, to his subjective purposes and plans, no matter how petty or how noble? Is Oedipus truly a self-taught, self-created man, the child of chance, able to confer meaning and produce truth at will? The chorus would rather Oedipus prove murderer of his father and husband to his mother than the oracle false. There is an objective order to the world, Sophocles suggests, although knowledge of that order comes only after long and intense suffering, only in the end, and only to blind men exiled from family, wealth, and power.
Truth there is, but it proves of no help in the affairs of men.
Sophocles thus anticipates Socrates by teaching through the play what Oedipus learns so painfully in it. In the Apology, Socrates gives an account of his philosophical way of life and its role in Athens.
Is there such a truth, Socrates asks, or is all knowledge created, produced, and shaped in and through the workings of power and interest, as his sophistic opponents claim? Like Sophocles, Socrates also believes in an objective order of knowledge, but it is one that we as mortals can never fully grasp.
We can approximate that order, but as partial beings confined to particular places, times, and physical bodies, we shall never entirely be able to apprehend it. Such a limitation does not, however, deter the philosopher from his quest for knowledge of the good. Even in the face of death, Socrates remains committed to the belief that an objective order of knowledge exists, free of the constraints of power and interest. He further believes that such knowledge ought to guide the political affairs of the city.
Socratic philosophy also suggests that such foundational knowledge is intersubjective in an important sense, achieved neither in the mantic inspiration of prophetic divination nor in the privacy of theoretical contemplation, but rather in the give-and-take of moral communication and debate.
This communicative aspect of truth does not, however, obviate the problem of power. A series of questions arises regarding the aims of Socrates: Does Socrates in fact care only for the good, or is he, as Callicles thought and Nietzsche firmly believed, concealing his will to power behind a rather thin metaphysical veil born of weakness and its accompanying ressentiment of the strong? The Gorgias shows us the stakes involved in the struggle over who will set the terms of discourse, a struggle that suggests that the norms of society are decided politically as much as they are derived theoretically.
I argue that the dialogue resists both these alternatives, adopting an ironic stance toward the politics of truth that both projects Socratic dialogue as the ultimate arbiter of politics and contests that projection through the agonistic struggle between Socrates and Callicles—an agon that leads not to annihilation but to the perpetual activity of contests.
In chapter 3, I thus turn to the Gorgias for help in negotiating the unstable terrain that lies between dialogue and domination, consensus and contest, philosophical discourse and rhetorical performance, polarities that structure much of the opposition between critical theory and genealogy.
I argue that the Gorgias provides us with an alternative route through that terrain, as it tirelessly searches for the truth, all the while pointing out that even the most philosophical of questions are bound to struggles for position, that philosophy indeed presupposes a politics, and that these terms—philosophy and politics, dialectic and rhetoric, prosaic truth and poetic power—remain essentially contested in the agonistic economy of the dialogue.
The Gorgias renders problematic its own and our tendency to eliminate the agon, to settle once and for all the meanings of such contested terms as virtue,justice,goodness and political health. I thus look to the dialogue to provide a post-philosophical sensibility that reinscribes a genealogical disturbance of all philosophical foundations within the humanist goal of securing such foundations as one of the preconditions for politics.
On the face of it though, Plato seems to reject such ambiguities and tensions. The philosopher of the ideal city controls the world, as well as the men and women in it, through reason alone. The Republic argues that a polis and a life can be properly ordered by knowledge of the Good so as to avoid the tragic failures of human progress adumbrated by Sophocles and suffered by his Oedipus. The Republic seems to banish, not only tragedy and the tragic poets, but the very conflicts born of intense human commitment to irreconcilable values.
Plato so constructs a theory of the good and a hierarchy of life plans that the tragic choice of an Agamemnon would not arise as a possibility. Alongside the tragic view of human life, tragedies contain the origin of the denial of that view.
Second, although the Republic contains a strong impulse to deny the tragic view and impose its own totalizing vision on the world, it reveals to us the seductive dangers involved in reducing the complexity and indeterminacy of human life. Such grandiose schemes to assert mastery over nature, men and women, and ourselves display the fundamental ambiguity that attends even our best efforts to order and circumscribe our lives.
The Republic, on this reading, subtly refuses the opposition between a critical theory intent on securing its own normative foundations and a genealogical anti-theory bent on disrupting all totalizing forms of discourse. Such a democratic politics would seek, like the Oresteia itself, to problematize the sedimentations and accretions of cultural practices and norms that constitute the self and order, even as it provides democratic norms and identities against which to struggle.
The norms of language and the norms of sexuality, democratic politics and the politics of difference—these are the themes that govern my appropriation of Aeschylus for a contemporary politics capable of radically democratizing difference. The Oresteia also broaches the themes of communication and contest, consensus and coercion, debate and domination, already raised in the Gorgias.
A powerful king and fierce warrior, he is slain naked in the bath by a treacherous woman—a shameful death in the eyes of the Argive elders. It is not only this queen with a man-counseling heart who transgresses the boundaries of speech. Everyone in the trilogy manipulates language in a way favorable to his, her, or their interests: Agamemnon claims justice for his sacrifice of Iphigeneia, Apollo defending Orestes likewise justifies the murder of Clytemnestra, while the Furies assert the justice of their prosecution of Orestes for his act of matricide.
At stake in the Oresteia, then, is the meaning of justice itself, and the trilogy dramatizes the difficulties involved in reaching an agreement on the meaning of a word to which so many forces and interests lay claim. When Athena finally establishes the law court, she also founds a discursive order and space for the city and fixes the meaning of justice within it.
That order defines which principles and which interests have the greatest voice, and which are relegated to relative silence. This movement of progress occurs within the medium of a dramatic structure that reconciles conflicting forces and competing claims: The trilogy thus traces the emergence of the democratic polis back to the foundation of a civic discourse rooted in rationally achieved consensus and dramatized in the trial scene of the Eumenides.
Successful communication replaces the deceitful manipulation of language as the new world of the democratic polis triumphs over the troubled order of the dynastic past.Oedipus Rex Summary (Oedipus the King Story)
The rational and creative principle of free consensus replaces what is local, natural, traditional, affective, and inherited. In the language of critical theory, the Oresteia attains its just and legitimate order, not through normatively ascribed agreement, but through communicatively achieved understanding.
Yet the conclusion of the Oresteia is far more ambiguous than this rationalist interpretation of the play allows. The trilogy certainly legitimates a democratic civic discourse and establishes a center that values what is new, democratic, rational, and masculine over what is traditional, filial, affective, and feminine.
The ambiguous establishment of the Areopagus by Athena complicates any easy attempt to read the Oresteia as a celebration of progress, successful communication, and democratic inclusion. The figure of Athena undermines the equation between masculine reason, democratic discourse, and the ultimate celebratory meaning of the drama through her own ambivalent status. This trilogy, already so full of transgressions and manipulations, ends not only with the achievement of clear and transparent communication, nor merely with the restoration of conflicting forces to their proper places.
Consensus of a kind is achieved, but by a manipulative rhetoric, which the trilogy seeks to overcome, and through a sexually ambivalent figure who transgresses the very norms of gender she seeks to establish. Suddenly Oedipus remembered that fatal encounter on the road and knew that he had met and killed his real father, Laius.
At the same time, Jocasta realized that the scars on Oedipus's feet marked him as the baby whose feet Laius had pinned together so long ago. Faced with the fact that she had married her own son and the murderer of Laius, she hanged herself.
Oedipus seized a pin from her dress and blinded himself with it. Some accounts say that Oedipus was banished at once from Thebes, while others relate that he lived a miserable existence there, despised by all, until his children grew up.
After years of lonely wandering, he arrived in Athens, where he found refuge in a grove of trees called Colonus. By this time, warring factions in Thebes wanted him to return to that city, believing that his body would bring it luck.
Oedipus, however, died at Colonus, and the presence of his grave there was said to bring good fortune to Athens. Oedipus in Context The tale of Oedipus reflects and reinforces ancient Greek traditions and values in more than one way.
First, the myth emphasizes the importance of following traditions related to family members. The idea of killing a relative was shocking to ancient Greeks and was considered so serious that it was beyond the scope of punishment by human laws. Similarly, marrying one's own parent went against the most basic marriage traditions in Greek culture and most other cultures. By showing how these unspeakable acts led to a tragic end for Oedipus, the myth reinforced these traditions among the ancient Greeks who knew the tale.
The myth also reflects cultural beliefs about destiny, or the idea that future events in a person's life are already determined and cannot be changed. For the ancient Greeks, who consulted with messengers of the gods regularly, this was a widely accepted notion.
The abundance of such stories in Greek myth—as opposed to stories where characters successfully defy the gods and change their destinies—indicates that the ideas of freedom and free will were much more limited in scope than they are in modern society.
Stories like the myth of Oedipus would instead encourage citizens to accept their destiny, whatever it may be. Dante asks the blessed souls in heaven about predestination, and is told they don't know the answer, either.
Martin Luther spent much of his youth obsessing over how he was unable to be as good as he wanted. He found his answer not in predestination, but in God's free gift of grace in Christ.
For him, this was a comfort and assurance.
Oedipus the King
Then you will know you are predestined for salvation. Other preachers like Jonathan "Spiders" Edwards and the Wesleys taught that Christ had died for everybody and that everybody had a free choice. Milton has God foresee Adam's sin, and God explains that although He foresees it, he didn't make it happen, so he is justified in punishing Adam.
Racine's "Phaedra" marked a return to themes of Greek tragedy and people being the victims of cruel destiny. Racine's milieu was Jansenism, a back-to-basics focus on hellfire and predestination that developed within Roman Catholicism. Boswell, who wrote the biography of Samuel Johnson, obsessed about predestination and became profoundly depressed thinking he could end up damned eternally.
He's not the only person who's had this experience. In the US, the "Free Will Baptist" denomination emphasized evangelization and need to work hard to bring others to Christ, against those who thought that God's predestination made this unnecessary.
The theme of predestination continues in secular literature. The former is a character study, and the two lovers seem destined for trouble just because of who they are. Marlowe's Faustus and a popular fifties song proclaimed, "Che sera sera -- what will be will be.
Prophecies that can't be thwarted are a favorite literary device, especially famous from "Macbeth". Ideas about predestination are parodied in "Tristram Shandy" -- the baby is predestined to have a small nose and an ugly name despite the conscious efforts of the parents to avoid these supposed disasters.
Today, fulfilled prophecies are a staple of fiction. Although the vast majority of psychic predictions in the real world are failures, they come true as plot devices on the Silver Screen. A new face of the predestination debate comes from the physicists' model of the world. At least in Newtonian physics, if you know everything about a closed system at one moment of time, you can predict everything that will happen in the future.
If our world is really like this, then physical laws predetermine what will happen in our brains, and what we will think and do. The laws of physics ultimately even determine our decisions about which side to take in a college bull session about "predestination versus free will. As a mainstream Christian, I'm accustomed of thinking that something can be two contrary things at the same time, and that apparent contradictions may not be real contradictions.
The Good Lord feeds the birds, but I know how birds really get their food. I give thanks to the Good Lord for the birth of a child, but nobody requests equal time for "stork science". I know how I get sick and how I recover, and thank the Good Lord for my recovery. The bread and wine are Christ's body and blood -- I don't know how.
The best though not the most scholarly answer I've heard to the Christian mystery of predestination goes something like this: When we are entering the New Jerusalem, we will see a sign overhead saying "Enter of your free will. The folk tale of Oedipus has a popular theme -- predestination. Oedipus -- the legend, from Wikipedia. Tells about modern versions, including some modern ribaldry. Sophocles Sophocles wrote "Oedipus the King" for the annual festival where playwrights competed for prizes.
It was a major civic occasion, with attendance expected. Sophocles the writer is phenomenally good, especially considering his era. His writing is tight, with each phrase contributing to the whole. He is full of succinct observations on life.
And despite the limits of the form, he often manages to make his characters seem like real individuals. The title of our play is often given in its Latin translation "Oedipus Rex", rather than in its original Greek "Oedipus Tyranneus"since the Greek term for king is the English "tyrant" which means a monarch who rules without the consent of the people.
As the play opens, the priest of Zeus and a bunch of non-speaking characters old people, children appear before King Oedipus with tree-branches wrapped with wool. It was evidently the custom to do this in front of a god's altar when you wanted something urgently. Oedipus greets them as a caring, compassionate leader.
The priest explains really for the audience's benefit that Thebes is suffering from a plague.
ESSAY ON OEDIPUS'S SYMBOL OF THE CROSSROAD
Plants, animals, and people are all dying. The people know Oedipus is not a god, but they believe that some god inspired him to solve the riddle of the sphinx and save the town. And since Oedipus has been king, he has done a splendid job. So now people look to him to find a cure for the plague.
Oedipus explains really for the audience's benefit that he has sent Creon Jocasta's brother to the oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi to get an answer. He's late returning, but as soon as he gets back, Oedipus promises to do whatever the oracle says. Just then, Creon arrives.
Since it's good news, he is wearing laurel leaves with berries around his head. Creon says, "All's well that ends well. Apollo said that the killer of Laius must be found and banished, and the plague will end.
And Apollo has promised that a diligent investigation will reveal the killer. Oedipus asks to review the facts. All that is known is that Laius left for Delphi and never returned.
Don't ask what Oedipus did with the bodies of Laius and his crew. There was no immediate investigation, because of the sphinx problem. One of Laius's men escaped, and walked back to Thebes. Don't ask what Oedipus did with Laius's horses and chariot. By the time he got back, Oedipus was being hailed as king. The witness said Laius was killed by a gang of robbers. We can already figure out why the witness lied. And we'll learn later that he asked immediately to be transferred away from Thebes, and has been gone ever since.
Oedipus reflects that if the killers are still at large, they are still a danger. He decides to issue a policy statement to help find the killer. The chorus, in a song, calls on the various gods including Triple Artemis, in her aspects as huntress, moon-goddess, and goddess of dark sorceryto save them from the plague and from the evil god Ares, who is ordinarily the god of war but is here the god of general mass death.
Oedipus issues a policy statement, that whoever comes forward with information about the murder of Laius will be rewarded, and that if the killer himself confesses, he will not be punished beyond having to leave the city permanently. On the other hand, if anyone conceals the killer, Oedipus says he will be cursed. Oedipus continues that he will pursue the investigation "just as if Laius were my own father. The Chorus says that Apollo ought to come right out and say who the murderer is.
The Chorus's job is to say what ordinary people think. Oedipus says, "Nobody can make the gods do what they don't want to. Especially, they hope he can find the missing witness to the killing. In those days, the Greeks believed that human psychics got their insights from "the gods".
Oedipus asks his help finding the killers, ending up by saying, "The greatest thing you can do with your life is to use all your special talents to help others unselfishly. Milne would say later, and perhaps Oedipus too, "When ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise. Teiresias says, "Your words are wide of the mark hamartia ".
Our expression in English is "You're missing the point".
The symbol of Triple crossroad in Oedipus Rex from LitCharts | The creators of SparkNotes
Originally an archery target was a point. We'll hear about hamartia again. Teiresias continues to stonewall, and Oedipus gets very angry. Finally Teiresias gives in, says Oedipus is the killer, and adds that he is "living in shame with his closest relative. Teiresias says, "You'll see soon. Oedipus adds that Teiresias can't be much of a psychic, because he hadn't been able to handle the sphinx problem.
The Chorus tells both men to cool down. Teiresias leaves, predicting disaster. Soon Oedipus will learn the truth and be a blind exile, leaning on his staff. The Chorus sings about the oracle at Delphi, which was supposedly the center of the world.
Especially, they cannot believe Oedipus is a killer.
Creon comes in, incensed that Oedipus would accuse him of trying to smear him. The Chorus says Oedipus is simply angry. Creon says he must be nuts. The Chorus says that to the king's faults and misbehavior, they are blind.
Oedipus comes in and accuses Creon directly of planning a coup, using a smear by a crooked psychic as an excuse. They exchange angry words. Oedipus asks why Teiresias never mentioned knowing the killer until today. Creon can't explain this.