Oedipus and Socrates: Poetry and Philosophy on the Quest for Self-Knowledge
25 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 11 Aug 2011
Date Written: 2011
This paper explores the ways in which ancient poetry and philosophy address the question of whether human reason can ground the good human life by considering the similarities and differences between Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Plato’s Apology of Socrates. Sophocles’ tragedy and Plato’s dialogue are compared because both dramatize a process of self-discovery on the part of the protagonist that is grounded in human reason. Moreover, both Oedipus and Socrates are recognized by their fellow citizens for their superior human wisdom, and both are presented in a skeptical attitude toward the gods in their search for self-knowledge. Yet, for Sophocles it appears that the rational search for truth should be limited by a pious respect for the gods. Plato, on the other hand, preserves Socrates’ belief that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being (Apology, 38a).1 I conclude by exploring four lines of inquiry into the causes of this divergence between poetry and philosophy concerning the life of rational examination: 1) Socrates’ order of knowledge from particular to universal in contrast to Oedipus, 2) Oedipus’ proneness to anger unlike Socrates, 3) Socrates’ private life in contrast to Oedipus’ public life and, 4) the differing status of the family.
Keywords: Socrates, Oedipus, Poetry, Philosophy, Reason
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