Oedipus the King- Bliss in Ignorance
One of the most memorable and meaningful Socratic quotes applies well when in context of Sophocles Theban Trilogy. The unexamined life is not worth living, proclaims Socrates. He could have meant many different things by this statement, and in relation to the play, Oedipus, the meaning is found to be even more complex.
Indeed, the situation of Oedipus, king of Thebes, the truth of this statement is in question. Would Oedipus have been better off if he was blind to the knowledge of his natural parents and the fate, which was foretold to someday befall him? It is true that his life would have been a far better and easier path if he had never known about his true origins. His life in Corinth would have been long and prosperous, and Thebes would have lived on under the rule of King Laius. In fact, everyone would have been better off in the end if Oedipus had not ventured out beyond the walls of Corinth. So is it worth living an examined life? (Friedlander)
Socrates had made this statement long after the creation of the Theban Trilogy. In the context of his own time, this was meant to imply that life must be examined and reflected upon, known and discovered by each individual philosopher to better enrich life for all. Yet, in terms of Oedipus Rex, this was meant in a vastly different way.
The unexamined life was one that was in the dark, unknown as to what fate lay beyond every turn and irony of living. Oedipus, up to the point in which he heard the comment in the tavern in Corinth, lived an unexamined life. To Socrates, he was an unfulfilled man, one who deserved to know more, one who was not complete. However, in a much less metaphysical sense, Oedipus life was complete, in that he had all that he needed and was living a happy and fruitful life. So what Socrates had meant, that the life which was not rich with self exploration and reflection was not worth living, was indeed different than its application in terms of Oedipus, who s life was unexamined, yet complete. (Norton 653-655)
The question arises, what would life have been like, if Oedipus had not discovered his true origins? If he had stayed in Corinth, would any of this have ever happened? We find that indeed, we would have no story, if not for that lone comment of a drunkard, which sparked the fire of rebellion in the young prince Oedipus. He ventured out to Delphi to find knowledge of his background, and to discover if it was indeed the truth, despite the fact that his adopted parents of Corinth had assured him that it was false. Oedipus leaves Corinth, fulfilling the Socratic idea of the unexamined life. However, we must evaluate the eventual consequences of his actions and the implications, which they possess. What becomes of his fateful journey out of Corinth leads to the downfall of an entire city and family line.(Rivendell) If he had not murdered his true father, King Laius, the Sphinx would have never descended upon Thebes, he would have never fulfilled the prophecy, and all would have lived on in a relative peace and tranquility.
This is where the idea of freewill versus predestination comes into the play. Many ancient people believed in predestination, the idea that if something was going to happen, it would, and nothing could stop it, because they might have been impressed by the fulfillment of prophecies. It also frees people from worry about making the right decisions. In the story of Oedipus, Sophocles goes out of his way to present Oedipus as an extremely capable, beloved chief executive leader. (Norton 657) It is often said the Oedipus was fated to doom, that he could have done nothing; to the contrary, Oedipus spent every moment of his life digging his own grave. His excessive pride and arrogance, as well as his notion that he could challenge a prophecy from the gods, was the shovel he dug with. All the important decisions he made in his lifetime, he made with this hubris. His judgements were all the foundation for his demise; he, not fate, constructed his path to doom. Conspicuously, Sophocles never suggests that Oedipus has brought his destiny in himself by any ungodly pride (hubris) or tragic flaw (hamartia).
Sophocles used the riddle of the sphinx to characterized Oedipus as a tragic man for he came about his tragic discovery not because of an evil act or an evil trait but because of the person he was. Oedipus traits, which gave him riches and power ultimately, led to his tragic ending. Also, the god Apollo did not predestine that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother by the oracle, he only stated what he knew was inevitable because of who Oedipus was.(Norton 686-687)
Once examining these aspects of the relationship between Oedipus Rex and the idea that The unexamined life is not worth living , we can come to a final examination of its implications. The question was addressed, that of the value of the examined life, can be answered. Indeed, if Oedipus had not ventured beyond the protective walls of his adopted home, would anything such as what occurred in the play ever have transpired? If Oedipus had not pursued those answers to the mysteries that plagued him, despite the pleading warnings of I casta, in fact his life would have been contented and happy. Instead, he follows the Socratic method of exploration and discovery, and proceeds down the path of pain and distraught. (Rivendell)
Was, after it was over, all worth it? We find that no, it was not. Being content and suited with what he knew of himself would have saved Oedipus and his children/siblings much agony. However, in the typical Greek tragedy, we must see his fall from grace through, which is indeed what happens.
In the bliss of ignorance, much pain and difficulty is averted. For what worries does the ignorant man have? In the case of Oedipus, ignorance would have suited him fine. The Socratic quote, the unexamined life is not worth living certainly does not hold true in the case of Oedipus Rex.
While it may hold importance and a substantial meaning for our own lives, in the case of Oedipus Rex, he would have been better off without it. Indeed, for while the unexamined life is poor in a metaphysical sense, Oedipus would have truly been fine without it. For the unexamined life is a simple one and he would have lived a long and happy life, never discovering the true nature of his birth, nor even caring. In renouncing his reign over Thebes, rejection the power and wealth, he gained something infinitely more valuable yet infinitely less tangible: wisdom. He gained insight into himself, something he had lacked for all his life. Hubris killed Oedipus the King, and humility created the new Oedipus.
Friedlander, Ed. Enjoying Oedipus the King , by Sophocles. http://www.pathguy.com (Nov. 1999).
Oedipus. Encarta 1996 CD-ROM. Redmond: Microsoft, 1996.
Rivendell. Rivendell s Greek Drama Page. http://www.watson.org/rivendell (Nov. 1999).
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Mack et al. 6th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992. 652-701.