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Monday, October 06, 2014

SOPHOCLES: Oedipus the King (Preachers and Kings)

For many readers Ecclesiastes seems full of contradictions. In one place it says “all is vanity.” That makes life sound hopeless. In another place it says “there is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour.” That makes life sound pleasant. Well, which is it? Is life one long trial to be endured or is it a joyful experience to be relished? Ecclesiastes seems to be saying: both; life is really just one darn thing after another. So enjoy it while you can. This sounds like a contradiction. In the world of Ecclesiastes wisdom is the ability to reconcile contradictions. And there are many in life. The first step is to accept reality as it really is, not as we wish it would be. Ecclesiastes puts it this way: “if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.” Can’t argue with that. In every life there’s a big tree lying smack in the middle of the road. We can’t go around it. We can’t wish it away. The tree of reality is there whether we like it or not. The only question is: how do we respond to life’s inconvenient trees? The Preacher in Ecclesiastes doesn’t try to persuade us they aren’t really there, they are. But he advises the wise thing to do is to learn to live with them and get on with life.
This sounds like good advice; but what if the problem is so deep and so severe that we can’t just accept it and get on with life? Consider the life of Oedipus. Life has been good to him. Oedipus is a king. He has a lovely wife and wonderful children. People respect him. As he himself says, “I Oedipus whom all men call the Great.” But as the great Oedipus journeys through life he comes across a big tree lying smack in the middle of the road. He can’t go around it. He can’t wish it away. He has to deal with it. Oedipus is forced to choose. He can either continue on with his happy life; in which case he’ll never know the truth. Or he can find out the truth; in which case he’ll never be happy again. Well, which is it? Would Oedipus rather have his happiness or know the truth? What would the Preacher advise Oedipus in this situation?
The truth is Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother just as prophets long ago had predicted. Oedipus tried hard to prevent this prophecy from coming true. In the end all his efforts only helped fulfill it. He does end up killing his father and marrying his mother. His wife/mother Jocasta warned him: “Best to live lightly as one can, unthinkingly… I beg you, do not hunt this out, I beg you…” But Oedipus doesn’t listen to her. He hunts out the truth anyway. Once he finds out what he’s done the question is how to respond. Reality has come crashing down on his life like a big tree crashing down on a house. His life is in ruins. What should he do? Get on with life as the Preacher recommends? After all, this was the will of the gods. There was nothing you (Oedipus) could do about it. The best course now is to go on about your daily business; eating, drinking and doing your work. You’ll never be happy in the same way you were before. But maybe there’s some divine purpose behind all this horror.
Oedipus doesn’t care about any divine purpose. He doesn’t consult priests or prophets. Oedipus is a great king. So he takes matters into his own hands and does what he thinks is best; he blinds himself. From now on Oedipus says, “darkness is my world.” The Chorus could have been speaking for the Preacher when they respond, “I cannot say your remedy was good; you would be better dead than blind and living.” But Oedipus doesn’t agree. He says “What I have done here (by blinding myself) was best done; don’t tell me otherwise, do not give me further counsel.” Jocasta’s counsel was the same as the Preacher’s: “Best to live lightly as one can, unthinkingly.” Is living lightly the best counsel? Preachers and kings don’t always agree.


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