Oedipus Asleep

Sophocles’ (495-406 BCE) classic tragedy, Oedipus Rex, is more profound than most of us know. That is because the artist, whatever his medium, is often a prophet and his work sometimes is a profound revelation that even he is unaware of. This play illustrates our point in that it is contained in a worldview that is not sufficiently profound to reveal the play’s deeper archetypal meaning although we Westerners have long thought that we did understand its deeper meaning. In other words, our conditioning, our beliefs, attitudes and values, prevent our “seeing” many of the universal principles being expressed by Sophocles. And since that universal human conditioning was virtually identical 2,500 years ago, Sophocles himself did not realize many of the insightful revelations of his own play.

Notice, we said universal, not Western human conditioning, hence Oedipus Rex is as relevant to people in the East as in the West, and equally valuable to the “modern” as to the “ancient.”  But the principles of reality, the answers to the most penetrating questions that humans are capable of asking, remain hidden awaiting a new worldview to emerge. And that new narrative, that new mythology, is slowly emerging in human consciousness. It is time to revisit Oedipus Rex.

The play begins with Oedipus, the king of Thebes, who can save his city from a genocidal plague by discovering the identity of a murderer who has angered the gods. Alas, he does not know that he is that murderer. He causes more damage than necessary in his “rush to judgment” and reveals as much about foreign policies of modern nations as he does about human character in ancient Greece.

Regrettably, the self-imposed limits of traditional criticism and interpretation hide a more profound understanding of Oedipus Rex just as the old worldview obscures the deepest understanding of the human experience in general. How do we arrive at that deeper understanding of Sophocles’ masterpiece? We must ask thought-provoking questions, suspend our convergent thinking and open up to the possibility of a divergent reality, a new personal identity, and indeed, a new purpose for our lives. Can a tragedy written so long ago reveal that much about 21st century humanity?  Let’s see!

Where am I? In search of a new reality

This happens to be the question that Sophocles is asking in Oedipus Rex. He would probably have phrased his question something like this: Why do our lives unfold as they do? Therefore, it is not that Sophocles didn’t have a deeper purpose in mind, it’s just that humanity has not been able to respond to that question as fully as we are capable of. It is easy for many people seeing Oedipus Rex to identify with Oedipus and feel that his is a timeless portrayal of the human dilemma.

There seems to be, even if we can’t quite put our finger on it, a similarity between the causes of his suffering and our own. Will we in our confidence in “scientific materialism” or “fundamentalist religion,” etc., turn out like Oedipus who trusted the gods to deliver justice, both personal and communal? A “no” answer here will reveal that we are either disingenuous or unconscious and we can afford to be neither so now is the time to “get real.”

It’s time now for a paradigm shift. What if our definition of reality is fundamentally wrong? Let us state our thesis in more than one way since it asks for a suspension of disbelief on the part of most readers. Nothing is what it seems. What our senses deliver to us as reality is an illusion. Humanity is, by and large, unconscious and enthralled by cultural conditioning which has produced self-destructive behavior. The universe in which we all live operates according to laws of which we are only dimly aware. The dominant worldview which prevails in most of the modern world is very much at odds with reality just as it was in the ancient world.

                  Old Worldview (P-B)
    New Worldview (P-A)
Our experience is determined by “outside” forces.
We create our own experience.
The Universe is hostile or indifferent to humans.
The Universe is friendly to humans.

If we create our own reality (and we do) it is imperative that we have a deeper understanding of why we behave the way we do to better support the new human narrative. In other words we need to have a more accurate understanding of our identity.

Who am I? In search of a new identity

It is more than a coincidence that we have a modern Oedipus to add relevance to our analysis of those human beings who find themselves in positions of leadership, whether of an ancient Greek city-state or a modern 21st century nation. The Greeks believed that their leaders, by virtue of their being favored or not favored by the gods, could be responsible for favorable or unfavorable treatment of the city as a whole.

Former President of the United States, George W. Bush, can be our Oedipus to illustrate how little has changed when humanity fails to create a new narrative for itself. A powerful leader can create a lot of suffering for himself and for others if he fails to grasp the nature of reality before making decisions.

Despite the urging of his brother-in-law, Creon, Oedipus makes a hasty and emotional decision at the beginning of the play. This failure to be patient and “get all the facts” before making his decision proves disastrous for Oedipus and his family and painful for the citizens of Thebes where he is the king.

President Bush (W) is like a reincarnated Oedipus.  He exemplifies hubris and impetuosity while stumbling into a self-made trap in Iraq where extrication becomes very problematic.

W in 2003 following the attack on the World Trade Center also acted like Oedipus without sufficient deliberation. Not waiting for “reality” to reveal itself, a “false reality” was fabricated to justify the American attack on Iraq.

A 2005 poster sells a production of ‘Rex’ at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre with the tag line: “A powerful leader fails to see that he is the cause of his country’s distress.”[i]  The consequences of W’s ill-considered decision, as in Oedipus Rex, have been unnecessary suffering for the President, his family and the American citizenry as well as many citizens of other nations.

Back to the play, we find that Oedipus is unmindful of how the laws of the universe work and finds that he is confused and afoul of reality itself. He is a thoroughly timeless character—archetypal and recurring generation after generation—recurring that is, until humanity changes the basic narrative of its self-created story. Whether as an “ancient” or a “modern” we have always had an Oedipus struggling to wake-up across the unchanging landscape of human history and they alas fail as they find themselves as asleep in Tel Aviv as in Thebes—as clueless in Cleveland as in Corinth. Humanity continues to learn that a new narrative is needed to change the trajectory of human evolution. We are not the objects of a capricious fate or predestination or even karma. We create our own reality—not the gods. But we must do so with patience and compassion—we cannot allow our fears and emotional reactions to govern that creation.

The Greeks of 2,500 years ago projected their own limited awareness onto the gods. We do the same today projecting our own ignorance, each of us, upon what we conceive of as our God, and we live accordingly in the nightmare that is reflected back to us. Likewise, modern thinkers have projected onto Oedipus their own visions and conceptualizations. “Hegel, the German philosopher, saw the Oedipus myth as part of the evolution of human consciousness. He saw in Oedipus, the beginning of man’s moral and intellectual awareness.”[ii]

In truth, the evolution of human consciousness began with human self-awareness much earlier than the Oedipus myth. Human consciousness indeed evolves very slowly. A “revolution” in human consciousness is possible to speed up the process but must be chosen consciously by a critical mass of humanity. We can ill-afford to wait for this glacial movement of human awareness because time is running out as it did for Oedipus. A disaster, a self-blinding, awaits us all because we are ill-prepared to look upon the destruction unfolding in the modern world. But we cannot avoid reality by blinding ourselves or refusing to “see.”

Theatre critic Charles Segal believed that “Oedipus’ and man’s fundamental nature is always to be a riddle to himself and never to be reducible to a single, sure meaning.”[iii]  Perhaps, but we think we understand more deeply than what the critics perceive. Those seeking the meaning of the play Oedipus Rex often site the problem of Oedipus’ arrogance or the cruelty of the meddling gods.  “As the critic George Steiner put it, tragedy offers the “recognition that there are in the world mysteries of injustice, disasters in excess of guilt, and realities which do constant violence to our moral expectations.  The tragic personage is broken by forces which can neither be fully understood nor overcome by rational prudence.”[iv]

Sigmund Freud also projected onto the Oedipus myth seeing the message of the oracle about his parents as the repressed wished of Oedipus’ unconscious. In his Interpretation of Dreams, Freud writes: “It is the fate of us all, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so.”[v]  This is, of course, the Oedipus complex wherein each person can mature emotionally only by coming to terms with this repressed infantile hatred and desire through psychoanalysis—what Freud called “skillful prolonged inquiry.” A much more effective and less lengthy way to deal with the Oedipus complex is by an “insight” into the nature of this reality and transcending its unconscious ramifications. The Point of Power Practice addresses our complexes more directly and effectively than years of “talk therapy.”

Indeed, one aspect of human unconsciousness is that myths and other contents of the unconscious mind operate beyond the awareness of the individual conscious mind. Charles Segal credits Sophocles with creating the “tragic hero” in Western literature. This hero embodies a strong personality and unusual integrity with which he meets a special destiny with courage, clarity and decisiveness. All of this leads to self-knowledge only after a painful struggle. We recognize the description here of the classic “hero’s journey.” Indeed this is the universal struggle of all of humanity and not just the experience of a few “special” human beings. “Oedipus thinks he has gained the knowledge that a man does not have to submit to fate; that thought is abhorrent to him and, possibly to the play’s modern audience. But even with all his excellence and past success, Oedipus doesn’t know enough about what ‘fate is really like to recognize what it has in store for him.’ And when he finally discovers the truth about himself, which he set in motion, it will be he who determines his own punishment.”[vi]

“Then is Oedipus a ‘tragic hero’? The re-examination of his personality might help. First, Oedipus chooses to defy fate [reality] by making his own decisions his own way and living with the consequences. Secondly, he is a man committed totally to his own freedom to be what he thinks he must be, to live up to his standards of heroic greatness.”[vii]  This all sounds to us like the thought and behavior of the ego (the false self).

“The force of the play comes from the connection between Oedipus’ suffering and his own freely chosen actions.”[viii]  This is the dilemma of an unconscious person, a definition of all of humanity, and our failure to wake up to the reality of how the universe works. “The human being who sets himself up to live life only on his own terms, is going to come to a self-destructive end. There is no happy ending because the tragic hero rarely displays intellectual or emotional flexibility [or consciousness].”[ix]

Hence, the tragic flaw of both Oedipus and George W. Bush. We create our own reality—but unconsciously. “Sophocles shows how men run to their fate by their own free will. Oedipus is warned by Apollo of his doom and he fulfills it, but all his acts are his own and not of the gods.”[x]

We are all doing the best we can, and no one is evil.  There is a tragic flaw but it is not the tragic flaw as Aristotle understood it. “In his Poetics, Aristotle writes of the good man [any man] ‘whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.’ He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous—a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes or other illustrious men of such families. In the last century, some scholars have come to doubt this theory of ‘the tragic flaw.’ Sophocles went out of his way to present Oedipus as an extremely capable, beloved administrator. ‘The playwright never suggests that Oedipus has brought his destiny on himself by any ‘ungodly pride’ [hubris] or ‘tragic flaw’ [hamartia].’ Other scholars, including Bernard Knox, write that not one trait of Oedipus is designated as a tragic flaw, but the actions that produce Oedipus’ catastrophe stem from all sides of his character, of the total man. And the total man, as Aristotle wrote, is more good than bad.”[xi]  The “total man” or True self is, in fact, perfect when understood in the context of P-A.

Illusion and the Illusiveness of Truth

Charles Segal comments on the confrontation between Tiresias and Oedipus where both men lose their tempers and their shouting just goes past each other. “Rather than providing a basis for a tragic flaw, this scene is the play’s most dramatic enactment to this point of the tragedy of knowledge: truth is trapped in illusion and in the disturbances of language and emotion. The difference is in their beliefs [a worldview barrier]: Tiresias looks toward the gods whom he serves, the king toward reason and the human motives that he can understand.”[xii]  Language and emotion can be formidable barriers to Self-realization.

Neither the gods (religion) nor reason (intellect) can free humans from suffering or indeed help them understand why they suffer. Nothing less than a new worldview can help awaken humanity whose suffering has not changed since the time of Sophocles.

“In Daniels and Scully’s opinion, Oedipus has a mistaken pride in his investigative skills, loves the limelight, and has a huge ego that thirsts for acclaim [the false self again]. In addition, he is extremely defensive when he perceives a threat to himself or to his reputation. In summary: ‘Oedipus is an unintelligent macho posturer.’”[xiii]  Let’s update our unfolding new worldview.

       Old Worldview
            New Worldview
Fear-driven human behavior.
Compassion-driven human behavior.
Human consciousness is a moral
or intellectual achievement.
Human consciousness will progress only in
the context of P-A.

Why am I here? In search of a new purpose in life

The principle of Oneness is foundational to the emerging new human narrative. The Greek chorus in Oedipus Rex, representing the whole community, reminds the audience that an individual has a responsibility to the community as a whole. When an individual, especially a leader of the community, begins to place his own false-self needs ahead of that community then the chorus must place the interest of the community as a whole ahead of loyalty to the leader. A failure to realize the interdependence, interrelatedness and interconnectedness of all of Creation and therefore, all of humanity, is responsible for virtually all of human suffering.

Again, America has its own tragic hero in the person of former President Bush (W). “In his essay on ‘Fate, Freedom and the Tragic Experience,’ theatre critic Ian Johnston, writing in 2000, says a ‘hero is likely to be someone who confronts fate in a very personal manner and whose reaction to that encounter serves to illuminate for us our own particular condition.’”[xiv]

“When Oedipus receives the oracle’s report, he says he will find Laius’ murderer [terrorists] and his words reassure the people. But Oedipus [W], in accepting this responsibility, will share the problem with no one else [other nations]. ‘As a measure of his own greatness, he will resolve Thebes’ distress and he will do it openly for all to see.’”[xv]  The long-standing debate that surrounds our hero Oedipus (W) is the question of whether his attributes are courage, self-confidence, wisdom, decisiveness, etc., or are they pride, selfishness, impatience and ambition, or in other words, the behavioral traits of the survival strategy of the false-self energy centers.

“At the heart of his greatness is Oedipus’ enormous self-confidence. We could criticize that as a flaw, but without this self-confidence, ‘this absolute trust in his own power to act decisively, publicly and quickly, Oedipus would be like the chorus, impotent in the face of crisis.”[xvi]

What we really have here is enormous fear prompting hasty action rather than the actions of a competent leader. Oedipus and W in fact lack the very attributes that a good leader in a crisis must have. Each is merely acting out the fears of the community rather than calmly seeking the deeper reality of what has happened. The result is to magnify and to exacerbate the problem escalating the level of fear as it continues to feed upon itself obscuring a rational solution. And finally the contrast between the unconscious and the conscious worldviews continues to deepen.

          Old Worldview
           New Worldview
Human behavior driven by fear.
Human behavior driven by compassion.
Human behavior guided by the false self.
Human behavior guided by intuition.
Human behavior motivated by greed.
Human behavior motivated by service
to the community as a whole.

Oedipus Rex ends with Oedipus’ city in the grip of a plague, he is blind, his wife/mother has committed suicide and he and his children are abandoned and homeless. A scene of desolation for the small world of a single Greek city-state. We need to remember that Sophocles had the power that all artists have. He was a prophet. We all ought to be very concerned with what he saw all those centuries ago—because nothing fundamental has changed in human behavior or how we define the nature of reality.

Oedipus Asleep

[i]     Moore, John. “‘Oedipus’ upholds a glorious, troubling tradition.” The Denver Post. February 10, 2005, page 10F.

[ii]     Inside/Out. Oedipus Rex. Denver Center Theatre Company, January 2005, page 7.

[iii]    Ibid.

[iv]    Szentgyorgyi, Tom. “Oedipus Rex: Posing Hard Questions with No Good Answers.” Applause. Denver Center Theatre Company, January 2005, page 8.

[v]     Inside/Out, op. cit., pages 7-8.

[vi]    Ibid., page 13.

[vii]   Ibid.

[viii]   Ibid.

[ix]    Ibid.

[x]     Ibid., page 14.

[xi]    Ibid., page 15.

[xii]   Ibid.

[xiii]   Ibid.

[xiv]   Ibid., page 12.

[xv]   Ibid.

[xvi]   Ibid.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.