Oedipus as the Modern Man

Two graduates from my high school have expressed the goal of becoming prime ministers of Canada. In order to be the best prime ministers they can be, they’re attending university to gain the knowledge and experience that will eventually help them to govern the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if those two did end up being prime ministers one day. What sets them apart, perhaps more than their determination and drive, is their curiosity: they’re curious about the problems that Canada faces, what causes them, and how to solve them. This curiosity is what audiences through time would’ve recognized not only in their political leaders but also in leaders of many intellectual fields. Curiosity is what ancient Greek audiences would’ve recognized in their own leaders – leaders like Oedipus. Like my fellow graduates, Oedipus is curious about why things are the way they are and what they could be. What sets him apart, however, is that he becomes an obsessive problem solver. Oedipus takes an excellent quality to have as a leader – curiosity – and takes it one step too far.

The play opens with a problem being presented to Oedipus. From the very beginning, we see that Oedipus takes his role far beyond that of a king: encouraged by his desperate subjects, he elevates himself almost to the level of a god. He wants to know the cause of the plague; from there, he can find a solution. As the answers he seeks seem to be further obscured by his own questions, Oedipus does not see this as a hint from fate or the gods to stop pursuing the truth; instead, he pursues knowledge with even more determination than before. Normally, in other situations, this would’ve been the appropriate course of action. In the crises that plague our world, we expect our leaders to get to the root of whatever problem we’re facing. We live in a time that upholds science as the highest authority – there are not gods or fate when in the modern world. If we cannot find an answer, we find another approach. To thrive in this world, curiosity is one of the best traits that one can possess. It’s a world that Oedipus, had he not been at the mercy of the gods or fate, would have loved.

But one cannot know everything, nor can one control every variable in a situation no matter how much information there may be. And that’s where the play’s staying power comes from. Even now, in an age where science reigns supreme and the only things that are real are the ones that are visible, there’s so much we don’t know yet and much more that we may never know. Oedipus is a lot like who we are as a culture today: we have this insatiable desire to know everything that we can, to use what we know to have as much control over our lives as possible. We hate not knowing how exactly to eliminate poverty, we hate not knowing why loved ones get cancer. It’s unacceptable to simply not know. We have to know, even if it harms us.

Oedipus had to know. Even if the knowledge destroyed him.

I don’t know if my two fellow graduates will ever become prime ministers of Canada. Maybe they’ll discover a different passion while they’re in university. Maybe they’ll drop out of school altogether to join a circus or something. What do I know?

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