Obstinacy without Wisdom: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King Essay Sample
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Great rulers throughout history have common attributes; intellect, foresight, wisdom, and strength, to name just a few. Oedipus, “greatest in all men’s eyes…noblest of men” was called upon by the citizens of Thebes to rescue them, as he did in the past (Sophocles, p. 111-112):
A blight is on the fruitful plants of the earth,
A blight is on the cattle in the fields,
A blight is on our women that no children
are borne to them; a God that carries fire,
a deadly pestilence is on our town… (p. 112)
Oedipus, like other great leaders, is empathetic and open to the plight of his people: “I know you are all sick, yet there is not one of you, sick though you are, that is as sick as I myself… My spirit groans for city and myself and you at once” (p. 113). His actions had precedence; he had saved the city when: “…the Sphinx came on him and all of us saw his wisdom and in that test he saved the city” (p.132). But wisdom is often fleeting, and it can be lost in emotion. Without wisdom, aggressive determination and action is un-tempered and reckless. As Creon warns Oedipus, “(i)f you think obstinacy without wisdom a valuable possession, you are wrong” (p.133).
Oedipus cannot be blamed for what he does not know, unless his stubbornness and ego keeps him from the truth. He has always believed his parents were Polybus and Merope, even when his legitimacy was questioned. (p. 145) yet “the story crept about widely” and Oedipus sought to learn the truth from an oracle; while he did not learn of his true parentage, he was told of “desperate horrors” that would occur: killing his father and sleeping with his mother. (p. 145). He took what he considered to be the best action to prevent the “horrors” from occurring, and fled, seemingly to never give it another thought. This can be considered a “wise” choice; yet while hearing the words of the oracle, he did not pay enough attention to what was not said. He was not given any indication Polybus and Merope were indeed his parents.
He cannot undo what has been done; fate had conspired against him and his mother and wife, Jocasta. She had received the same horrific prophecy, and had taken pains to have her son killed. Fate intervened, and Oedipus was saved, to be raised by his surrogate parents. When Oedipus fatefully killed King Laius, it was of no apparent significance to him; obviously he had made no inquiries of Jocasta before he made her his wife. When the messages come to him from many sources, he is staggered that it could have been him. Yet stubbornly he refuses to believe it possible, preferring to believe one of the “messengers”, his brother-in-law/uncle Creon is conspiring to remove him from his throne. (p. 138- 141)
Jocasta convinces him her brother has no such intentions; she also recounts the prophecy she had received, and how none of it could have happened as they had hobbled and cast aside the infant son. Thus, both Jocasta and Oedipus maintained “so clean in this case were the oracles, so clear and false” (p.142) Oe
dipus is further buoyed by the news of Polybus’ death from old age—proof to him that the oracles
Finally the one witness to the salvation of the cast-aside infant Oedipus provides the indisputable proof necessary; Jocasta kills herself, and Oedipus, in a fury, blinds himself with her jewelry. As Oedipus said earlier, “O God, I think I have called curses on myself in ignorance” (143). The blind prophet Teiresias states the telling role of “wisdom”: “how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that’s wise” (p. 123). Oedipus’ failure to search for greater knowledge of his paternity, his failure to fully reflect on the murder of Laius and his marriage to Jocasta in light of the oracle’s dark message brought blight unto the land—arguably preventable.
Obstinacy—blindness to reason or wisdom when a choice is to be made—has haunted leaders since the era of Oedipus. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have witnessed numerous examples, and three of the most glaring have been during war.
Adolph Hitler is rightfully considered mad, evil incarnate, the architect of the horrors of The Holocaust. To the Allies great advantage, it was his obstinacy in micro-managing the war that helped hasten his demise. He chose to micro-manage the war; the World War I Corporal, without any expertise in tactical, much less strategic war planning, refused to take the counsel of what could be considered some of the finest military tacticians and strategists in the German military, if not in the world. He ignored their counsel repeatedly and decisive battles were lost.
America is no stranger to the same wartime foibles: both Lyndon Johnson and his defense secretary Robert McNamara, as well as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, were often photographed peering intently at maps of Vietnam, picking targets and designing strategies. The wise input of the military leadership was secondary to the “wisdom” of the politicians, if it was acknowledged at all. In the current administration, the debate continues on whether the Bush Administration was so adamant on destroying Saddam Hussein that they ignored or distorted military and intelligence information as a pretext for the invasion of Iraq. The debate specifically centers on whether Administration officials, particularly Vice President Richard Cheney, refused to acknowledge intelligence reports that were “against” their position.
Obstinacy is not necessarily a failing found in leadership; it is typical human condition that, as Sophocles points out, can pay dividends when accompanied by wisdom. It is difficult to imagine a more obstinate leader than Martin Luther King, Jr., in the sense of his relentless, unwavering, and non-violent quest for civil rights. His wisdom was accompanied, if not based on his unshakeable beliefs in the Constitution and scripture. He led the campaign despite widespread bigotry and hatred. He could be viewed as “swimming upstream” against the obstacles of beatings, imprisonment, J. Edgar Hoover, and white (and some black) politicians and leaders urging him to “take it easy” or “take your time”. In his heart he knew the time for his actions and leadership could not be post-poned, he knew the marches must continue. Some may consider his obstinacy to have resulted in his death; those who do have no idea as to the wisdom of his actions.
The crises of this century will also require obstinacy with wisdom. It is a rare day when a variety of environmental catastrophes are not in the news. Global warming cannot be dismissed; scientific evidence is quietly apolitical. Large “dead” areas of the oceans are documented with irrefutable proof. The catastrophic drop in the level of the Dead Sea indicates it may disappear within the century, and do so without regard to Arab-Israeli hostilities or which adjoining country was “at fault”. There will be a point when leadership will emerge with the determination and tenacity to attack these issues full-force, armed with good judgment and intelligence.
Internally, the United States is faced with the reality of terrorism, poverty, illiteracy, and soaring crime rates. Each issue must be faced with persistence and insight, but it is foolhardy to expect this from governmental leadership alone. Each citizen must identify those issues capable of being addressed on an individual basis as well; Sophocles was speaking to a very wide audience, not just rulers and kings.
He has provided an excellent example for the individual; living in blissful ignorance is a recipe for disaster when the individual refuses to question whether the depths contain meaning the surface shields. Daily actions, in domestic life, in the workplace, or in leisure time require decisions. Decisions made without benefit of intelligence are akin to games of chance. Decisions and pigheadedness in ignorance of facts is dangerous.
Every individual has the opportunity to consult with “oracles” of sort. Never has knowledge been more available to the individual than today’s “Age of the Internet”. Failure to take advantage of information is unwise; to repeat and paraphrase Sophocles, wisdom is wasted on those too wise to accept it.
Sophocles. (427BC?) Oedipus the King. Greek Tragedies. Greene, David, and Latimore,
Richmond, editors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
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