In fallibilism, the ancient greeks on 24/06/2011 at 9:28 am

At the start of Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus is now old, blind, led around by a child. He cannot act out into the world, at least not in the way he once acted.

The young Oedipus once impressed his will on to the world. Who I am depends on creating myself through action. He understood himself as product of exertions, as acting out into world, creating a new self that will not kill his father and sleep with his mother. Not anymore.

Now, Oedipus has come to deliver a gift, meaning he has some power. Yet, Oedipus is not the source of this power, but the conduit. (Is this an early distinction between the products of the mind and the mind-proper? Possibly.)

Artists often claim that the art comes from something outside the artist, or that it is given to them. They feel funny about charging money for something that isn’t theirs. They’ve got a case of the mimesis, divine madness. They pass it on. Is the same true (in a sense) of scientists? And what does it say that Plato considered mimesis to be an improper path to certain-knowledge? Surely, their theories are not their gray matter, not the electrical firing or chemical reactions within the brain, but out there somewhere, an objective property of the world, coming in and understood by the scientist. (Trepanning?)

But back to Oedipus: he strikes a bargain with the Athenians. If they give protection, he will give them his body to be buried at the grove of Eumenides. This is some sort of gift. What of it?

Let’s go back for a moment. When the young Oedipus met Tiresias, Tiresias explained that all human life is a gift from the gods, not as a product of imposing our will on the world. (And incidentally, that the gods are far too distant to be of importance in our daily lives. And yet, they are like the Lovecraftian Old Ones: incapable of being understood. Their ways are not our own. A way of describing/anthropomorphizing Nature?) It’s not possible to think of life as fair or unfair. What we deserve isn’t part of the process. The Rolling Stones said, “You can’t always get what you want.” Rarely do we get anything. As compensation, though, we are not alone: we are connected to everyone else in our ignorance and weakness. It’s a level playing-field when everyone is equal in their infinite ignorance.

As an aside, Sophocles plays with our assumptions about the relationship between sight and knowledge. In Greek, the verb is the same: oida. This is an intuitive understanding of knowledge. We see the truth before us. “Ah, I see what you mean”. It makes no sense to say “Ah, I hear what you mean.” But now there is Tiresias, the exact opposite of the young Oedipus who sees things, acts on things, imposes on others. Tiresias is a conduit to the gods, a frail blind man jockeyed around by a young child. (Science?) Note: at end of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus blinds himself. Obvious parallel. He cannot stand to see what he has done or who he has become, but at the moment of blinding he becomes Tiresias, the bearer of a gift. He’s moved away from imposing his will. Now it’s a matter of giving, rather than taking.

Giving implies bonding, implies making a distinction between oneself and the gift. It’s no market economy. For something to remain a gift, it must always move, and with each giving something is added, as opposed to the increase taken away as profit.

So what of Oedipus’s gift? What is this ‘gift’ in general? By dying in Colonus, Oedipus is passing on a gift from the gods. In order to participate in this trade, the Athenians must be willing to trust Oedipus that somewhere along the line it will circle back. Rather than selling the product, we trade gifts, and by giving it away, we get to keep it. What am I talking about? Knowledge. If we understand learning as a gift to be traded rather than a commodity to be sold, life is seen as something far from an imposing of will; life is now a process of change.

Like the riddle to the sphinx, we start off as a babe on all fours — like a dog; then become an adult on two legs seeking to impose our will on others; then we age, losing our sight, our ability to get what we want.

When giving it away, we don’t expect something immediately in return. So the scientist does not impose his will, but passes on a gift from the gods, something external to them. Scientists are at heart old when giving their gifts to others, and yet they are so young (most philosophers, scientists and mathematicians broke out in their 20’s and 30’s)! Should we be more like Tiresias?

So what I am getting at?

(1) Impose your will (Is it your will, or a gift from the gods?) on the world, then (2) give it away to others.


(1′) Make a conjecture, then (2′) pass it on to others freely. Make it public.

They’re not yours anymore, your theories. They never were yours to begin with, so stop trying to defend them so much. They’re not your children; they were meant to be given away.


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