Studies on ancient Greek literature and mythologies indicate that the Greeks were deeply searching for knowledge. Characters often worked hard to gain knowledge, especially divine and mythical revelations. Although most cases involve terrifying truth, society often believed that truth is a critical virtue.
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In his play “Oedipus the King,” Sophocles examines Oedipus the King as he pursues self-knowledge that eventually changes him from a prideful king to a humbled, fearful and condemned the individual. An analysis of this journey contradicts the 5th-century belief that man is the measure of all things in several ways.
At the beginning of the play, Oedipus is presented as a valiant and confident individual, often as a hero. For instance, he resolves the riddle of the Sphinx. He is aware that his background is not Thebes and is likely to face the threat of the Sphinx. However, he heroically chooses to answer the riddle, which he did before running from the Sphinx tyrannical rule.
However, he changes from a hero to a person in self-denial, especially when he learns of the story behind the death of Laius. He becomes more of a tyrant than a real hero. When Queen Jocasta narrates the story of her husband’s death, Oedipus suspects that he killed his father. Although he does not want to admit the truth or disclose it to any person, it haunts him.
He becomes paranoiac. Oedipus says, “…my mind wandered, and my thoughts raced to and fro…” However, he thinks that other individuals are to blame for the plaque that has befallen the city due to his actions. For instance, he blames Tiresias for the king’s murder and Creon for treason. He does not want to accept that he is guilty.
Finally, Oedipus the King accepts the truth and changes from a man in self-denial to a humbled character. He condemns himself for killing his father and sleeping with Jocasta. He decides to destroy his sight because it did not help him see the truth “…What good did my eyes do to me? I saw nothing that could bring me happiness…”
The idea the Man is the measure of everything originated from the philosopher Protagoras in the 5th century. In Plato’s analysis, the maxim is used to mean that man is the source of knowledge. This means that gods do not provide man with knowledge of the things in his nature; neither do they hold the reality of nature. The maxim means that things that are related to or used by man can be measured based on human aspects.
This means that Protagoras did not mean that man is the measure of things that do not originate from the mind, such as the movement of stars, growth of plants and animals and earthquakes. According to Plato, Protagoras’ view of humanity and nature of reality is that anything that appears true to an individual is true or real to that person.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Plato also says that Protagoras emphasized on the fact that all views should be treated with respect as truth. Nevertheless, it is clear that not all views have the same gravity. In other words, some views have a higher degree of truth than others.
Applying Protagoras view in the case of Oedipus, the king shows that Oedipus embodies critical anxiety that was common at the time. Oedipus had the suspicion that his intelligence, like that of other humans, was the appropriate divine privileges.
Some writers have argued that the intellectual progress that Oedipus undergoes as he pursues self-knowledge is an example of symbolic history that was common in the writings of the 5th-century rationalism. Thus, it is relatively correct to consider Oedipus the King as an example of the ancient Greek individuals regarded as paradigmatic heroes possessing unnatural humanistic self-knowledge.
Therefore, it is worth noting that Oedipus provides a good example of the ancient Greeks who toiled to reveal the mythical and divine truth. To philosophers like Protagoras, this truth is measurable based on the human mind because it originates from there. However, Oedipus’ self-knowledge does not originate from his mind. Instead, it originates from the gods, yet he uses it to determine his fate.
Also, it is clear that Protagoras’ maxim of ‘man is the measure of all things’ is contradicting with Sophocles’ play because Oedipus gains supernatural knowledge that completely changes him.
On the other hand, Protagoras thinks that the knowledge originated from the human mind rather than from gods. Also, the knowledge is Oedipus own view and should be held as such, but should not be considered as the ultimate truth as long as there are other views worth respect.