Oedipus: Sophic versus Mantic

In a recent post I explained the connections between cosmology and eschatology. These connections have been severed in modern thinking, but always lurk in the background as a person’s cosmology is more than a scientific and mathematical model of the universe, but is rather the operating frame of a person’s worldview. I briefly compared a believing Christian and atheist’s worldview to make my point.

The comparison between the believing Christian and the secular scientist, while modified, turns out to be the central theme of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. I have already pointed out the inherent contrast between Oedipus the tyrant and the Oedipus of the old sacral order. Yet the real contrast rests between Oedipus the Sophic (from sophoi, meaning wisdom, and specifically knowledge gained from logic, reasoning, and observation–i.e. our skeptical scientist) and Tiresias the Mantic (the Greek mantic meaning prophetic, oracular, revelatory–i.e. our faithful believer). The tension between these two attitudes was fully alive in fifth century Athens.

The  Sophists were  a group of intellectuals that were deconstructing the old religious traditions, not so much in order to find some new, greater truth, but for money. Protagoras concluded that he was wasting his time trying to sound the secrets of the universe in a short lifetime, burned his books in the marketplace, and turned to teaching rhetoric, achieving the immortal fame of being the first man to make a hundred minas at the trade” (Nibley, Ancient 246-247). The first named Sophist appears to be Protagoras who lived in Athens in the early fifth century BCE and who is the very man who coined the phrase “man is the measure of all things.” His works were agnostic and by the end of his life he was exiled from Athens for his impiety.

No matter, the Sophist school was by then thriving and roving scholars for hire were roaming about the countryside selling knowledge of any sort, but especially the skill of rhetoric. Intellectualism was in the air as a cadre of philosophers sought to describe the world based off reason and observation as opposed to religion and myth. This all sounds very modern to us, and in fact the Sophists thought themselves very modern. However, when we read Sophic thought we find ourselves planted in what appears to us as a great deal of metaphysical gibberish, with the universe being created by the four central elements of fire, air, water, earth, and with Mind and Spirit lurking behind the scenes as primal causes. The intellectual and cosmological schemes of the Sophists were highly metaphysical, but rooted in academic and rhetorical training, as opposed to the oracular priesthood.

When Oedipus sends for Tiresias to help in finding the murder of Laius, Oedipus voices a wonderful dialogue which itself is conflicted between sophic and mantic thinking: “O Tiresias, master of all the mysteries of our life,” Oedipus begins, “all you teach and all you dare not tell, signs in the heavens, sings that walk the earth! Blind as you are, you can feel all the more what sickness haunts our city. You, my lord, are the one shield, the one savior we can find” (OK 340-346).

Oedipus concedes that within the mantic mainframe is a power which transcends human awareness. Oedipus is seeking for a revelation. Unfortunately, Oedipus seeks a different sort of knowledge than the kind Tiresias provides. Like so many moderns, Oedipus seeks a shortcut; what he really wants is a quick answer to a very complex mathematical puzzle. He knows that he must collect data, interview suspects and witnesses, compile clues, and using reason and wits alone solve the puzzle. But all this is laborious and time consuming and our tragic hero is very impatient. So, much like Faust, who has solved all riddles using the sophic method and finding it insufficient and laborious, Oedipus tries to cheat on his own methodology by applying to the mantic ways. “Rescue yourself, your city, rescue me–rescue everything infected by the dead. We are in your hands. For a man to help others with all his gifts and native strength: that is the noblest work” (OK 355-358).

How ironic that Oedipus addresses the final frontier of sophic knowledge beyond which he cannot pass and therefore must resentfully rely on the mantic for salvation. “Rescue everything infected by the dead,” he pleads, for death is the greatest riddle, who, for the sophic, even with “all his gifts and native strength,” has absolutely no solution. Oedipus does not see the paradox, but Sophocles does. He makes Tiresias a revelator of a different sort of knowledge.

Strictly speaking, Tiresias is not interested in the complex mathematical puzzles of the sophist, with its hyper-fixation on meaningless knowledge. Our old prophet not only knows that Oedipus murdered Laius, but that this answer belongs to the wrong question. Ten thousand times has he seen the end of the sophic way, he foresees the fate of Oedipus as he foresees the fate of Faust–the fate of the Age of Reason disconnected from the divine spirit and the “mysteries of our life”–plague upon civilization is always the final result. “How terrible–to see the truth when the truth is only pain to him who sees!” is his only response (OK 359-360). The Greek word phronein Fagles translates as “to see,” punning on Oedipus’s future blindness. The word itself however means to know, to understand, to be wise, and thus the LOEB edition translates this phrase as “how dreadful it is to know when the knowledge does not benefit the knower!” (LOEB 355). While another scholar translates it as “Being smart can only be disastrous to a man who doesn’t know where his cleverness is taking him!” (Nibley, Ancient 345).

Here is the great theme of the play; the theme in which the play is transfixed. From beginning to end in Oedipus the King Sophocles uses Oedipus as a theatrical mask representing an intellectual movement that sought to separate cosmology from eschatology in order to finally come to some sort of precise science and reason. “Let’s have done with it!” seems to be the exasperation of the sophist who cannot figure out any of the mysteries which religion was supposed to address and in which the sophist no longer has time for. Let us live our lives with the things we can touch, smell, and hear; but more importantly, spend our money on. In this sense, Oedipus the King is a very modern play.

This entry was posted in History.

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