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KingOedipus Hubris and his Eventual Fall through the Prism of Socrates’Wisdom

Oedipus,the King of Thebes, appeared to be a valiant and courageous heroamong his subjects. Despite not being a Theban hero, Oedipus decidesto solve the Sphinx’s riddles despite the riddle carrying a threatof death to any individual who would fail to answer it correctly. Indoing so, Oedipus demonstrates tremendous courage andself-confidence, and his success in solving the riddle frees the cityof Thebes from the evil and unbearable reign of the Sphinx. Oedipusbravery and intelligence made him famous all over and the people ofThebes hold him in high regard as they believe that he is a specialgift and a blessing to them having released them from the Sphinx’srule. However, King Oedipus later transforms into a condemned andfearful man, and eventually meets a tragic end. The purpose of thispaper is to apply the wisdom of Socrates to analyze King Oedipushubris and his eventual downfall.

Socrates,a Greek philosopher, understood true wisdom and believed in its powerto lead people in making the right decisions to avoid terribleconsequences. He believed that wisdom was simply the act ofunderstanding that you know very little and therefore depending onfacts and self-examination to make proper decisions. Any individualwho thinks of himself as wise will never find wisdom. Peterson (29)stated that after a careful examination of his contemporaries,Socrates decides that he indeed has the very small wisdom thatentails not believing himself wise. In addition, Benson (17) pointedout the seven characteristics of a wise person as detailed bySocrates in his description of his distinctive method in the Apology.The eight characteristics are the ability to effectively interpretother people’s statements, pointing the ignorance of those who arenot wise, conducting self-evaluations, examining other people’slives, attaining moral knowledge, learning from the wise, and testingthe wisdom of those reputed to be wise. Several of thesecharacteristics will be applied to King Oedipus’ situation.

Fora protagonist in the mold of King Oedipus to fall like he did, atragic flaw in his character must have played a significant role. Hisexcessive pride played a critical role in eroding his image as arespectable and intelligent king. This was the tragic flaw in hischaracter and it ultimately led to his terrible downfall anddisgrace. As a brave champion who delivered Thebes from a terriblereign and afterwards ruled the city so wisely, King Oedipus was fullof belief in his strengths and wisdom. He had great self-belief inhis abilities that he ignored the damaging evidences that surroundedhim, but instead took matter upon himself when the city was facedwith a plague. His pride was so much so that he believed he willsolve the puzzle and capture and banish the perpetrator despitehaving been faced with a plague whose cause was totally unknown. Evenafter the Oracle announced that the plague was a result of religiouspollution, Oedipus asked the people to focus on finding the cureinstead of praying (Burian and Allan 354). Such pride does not fitwith Socrates understanding of a wise man. In Socrates’ world, wisepeople are those who conduct self-evaluation and learn from the wise.However, in this case, King Oedipus did not examine himself and,therefore, he failed to recognize his limitations and understand thatthe universe is composed of many complex situations that are beyondhim. As a result, he failed to exercise caution and appreciate thesimple fact that he actually knows very little. If he had practicedself-examination, he would have exercised caution and perhaps evenalluded his downfall. However, his lack of wisdom results in poordecisions that ultimately end in tragedy.

Inaddition to his excessive pride, another factor that demonstratedKing Oedipus’ lack of wisdom and contributed to his eventualdownfall was his inability to keep his anger in check. Even though hehad tried hard to avoid the dreadful prophecy from being fulfilled,Oedipus inardvertently sets into motion the activities that led tothe fulfillment of the prophecy by failing to control his anger. Theoracle that he will murder his father, sleep with his mother, andbring a curse upon his descendants (Gaillard 154). he flees fromMerope and Polybus whom he believed to be his true parents. Hebelieves that he has outwitted the Gods since he has fled from hishomeland and he will no longer be able to get in contact with hisparents. He is so full of personal hubris that he actually believesthat by feeing from Corinth (his homeland), he has escaped his fate.However, as it so happened, he walked directly into his fate bytrying to escape. He killed his father unnecessarily and fulfilledhis prophecy when he let his anger get the better of him. If hehadn’t acted so rashly when his father pushed him off the road, hewouldn’t have killed him and ended up marrying the queen who washis father’s wife. In addition, Socrates understood that angerblinds people from making the right decisions hence he stated thatthe wise should examine other people’s actions and re-evaluatethemselves before making decisions. More composure on the part ofKing Hubris would have been wiser and might have saved him from theimpeding tragedy.

Also,his ignorance and hubris demonstrate his lack of wisdom andcontributes to his ultimate failures. After cutting the city ofThebes from the bloody tribute of the Sphinx’s rule, King Oedipusgrew in hubris and became ignorant of the fact that his abilities andsuccesses are not of his own making but because the gods willed itso. This is against Socrates understanding of wisdom which is to theeffect that a wise person recognizes that he knows very little and,therefore, seeks to learn from those who are wise while at the sametime exercise personal restraint. The Thebans idealized him and thisonly served to further increase his ignorance and over-confidence. Heconsidered himself a god of sorts and thus he treated the gods withspite and contempt and often assumed the power and authority thatusually belonged to them. For example, during the plague, when theChorus implored the gods to deliver them from the terrible plague,Oedipus tells them “you pray to the gods, let me grant yourprayers.” (Sophocles 75). Such is an utterance of a person who isso full of hubris and ignorance that he fails to recognize the simplefact that the gods are beings to be respected and not made fun of.The people always turned to the gods during such hardships timesbecause they believed that the gods had the power to make everythingright. However, King Oedipus, due to ignorance, hubris, and lack ofwisdom, fails to recognize the fact that he knows very little andshould trust the system. Maybe the gods would have saved him from theterrible tragedy that was his downfall had he exhibited respect andhumbled himself before them

Inconclusion, although the downfall of King Oedipus seems to be aconsequence of destiny since the ill act of murdering his father andhaving sexual relations with his mother were foretold at birth, thispaper has shown that his hubris and lack of wisdom were the majorfactors that led to his ultimate tragedy. Although Oedipus wasinitially recognized by his subjects as an intelligent and brave man,his failure to learn the basics of true wisdom meant that he will bethe architect of his own downfall. He was overly proud, failed topreserve personal restraint when angry, and was ignorant andover-confident. All these factors prevented him from exercisingcaution, understanding his limitations, and learning from others andfrom situations. Thus, he made a series of terrible mistakes thatresulted in his downfall. From the perspective of Socrates’ wisdom,King Oedipus was unwise since he failed to examine his life and didnot understand that true wisdom stems from the recognition that youdon’t know everything.


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Peterson,Sandra. Socratesand Philosophy in the Dialogues of Plato.Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print.

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