The Delphic Oracle’s motto of “Know Thyself” applies to many stories from Ancient Greece. The characters of Oedipus, Socrates, and Achilles can all be examined from the point of view of the extent to which they knew themselves and the extent to which knowing or not knowing themselves led them to their respective troubles. By examining whether or not these characters knew themselves, we can discover greater meaning in each of the works that we find these characters in.
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Oedipus the King by Sophocles
Oedipus, from the play Oedipus the King by Sophocles, perhaps had the cruelest fate of the three characters through his quest to know himself. His method of finding out about himself was through asking people the truth behind the stories which revolved around him. Firstly, his quest for knowledge begins because the prophet Tiresias comes out and tells him what he has done: “Revealed at last, brother and father both/ to the children he embraces, to his mother/ son and husband both–he sowed the loins/ his father sowed, he spilled his father’s blood” (520-524). Not realizing that the people he called his parents were not his birth parents, Oedipus thought that there was no way that this could be true.
However, instead of just writing the prophet off as a confused old man, Oedipus is determined to discover whether or not there is the truth behind these words. He pursued the truth even when those close to him, such as his wife/mother Jocasta, attempted to dissuade him: “No skill in the world,/ nothing human can penetrate the future” (781-782).
By the end of the play, after questioning the shepherd who had been present for the murder of Oedipus’s father, he accepts who he is and what he has done: “I stand revealed at last–/ cursed in my birth, cursed in marriage,/ cursed in the lives I cut down with these hands” (1308-1310). Oedipus, who was fated to do the terrible actions that he eventually committed in his attempts to not do so, could have simply ignored any amount of evidence that indicated him in the fulfillment of the prophecy.
However, he actively chose not to do so because he needed to know himself. It was important to know himself because he had to know whether or not he had fulfilled the terrible prophecy. The price that Oedipus pays for self-knowledge is steep as he loses everything and further punishes himself by blinding himself for having been so metaphorically blind to the truth before the actions of the play. Oedipus knows himself the best because he is aware of all of the terrible things he has done, and because he actively sought the truth when he could have ignored it.
The Apology by Plato
Socrates, though an actual person, was used as a character by Plato in The Apology. The trial and execution of Socrates are one of the best-known trials of all time, and Plato attempted to capture this in his work. Socrates, on trial for corruption and impiety, refuses to admit any wrongdoing and justifies his actions. To Socrates, it was worth being executed for his beliefs because not knowing oneself was not a life at all: “The unexamined life is not worth living” (38a).
Socrates’ method for gaining self-knowledge was through philosophical inquiry. He questioned the common, accepted knowledge of his day, and he questioned what he knew himself: “For I, men of Athens, have acquired this name through nothing but a certain kind of wisdom” (20d). In discussing his views of his wisdom, he stated that he was only more knowledgeable than other people because he was aware of his ignorance. The sacrifice he made for his self-knowledge was his own life, and in his view, this was the only possible outcome of his trial since he would rather not be alive than have to renounce his beliefs.
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The Iliad by Homer
Out of the three, Achilles, Homer’s hero in The Iliad, is the character lacking most in self-knowledge. He is prideful and easily takes offense. His pride is so great that he decides to not fight because of a perceived insult by Agamemnon. This refusal to fight is eventually responsible for Patroclus’s death, who is Achilles’s best friend. He begins to fight again after this event, but he does not seem to have made any self-knowledge and simply blames his enemies instead of considering how he could have prevented his friend’s death by being less prideful: “Before your funeral pyre I’ll cut the throats/ of twelve resplendent children of the Trojans–/ that is my murdering fury at your death” (18.393-395).
The only point at which Achilles makes any reasonable decision is when he grants Priam the time for his son Hector’s funeral: “As you command, old Priam,/ the thing is done. I shall suspend the war/ for those eleven-day that you require” (24.800-803). However, it is difficult to say for certain whether this was Achilles gaining self-knowledge and showing sympathy. In the end, he doesn’t make any sacrifices for his self-knowledge, but rather he ends up dying because he gains no self-knowledge and stays in Troy for the opportunity of gaining glory, a fate told to him by his mother.
It is difficult to determine which knew himself better, Oedipus or Socrates because they both knew themselves rather well. However, to make a differentiation between the two, we can say that Oedipus knew himself better because of the amount of self-discovery that happened in the actual play and because Socrates, though he hadn’t done anything wrong, brought about his demise that he could have avoided.
There were other options that Socrates could have taken which wouldn’t have ended with his death that didn’t require him to lead an unexamined life. Oedipus had performed terrible deeds, and Socrates hadn’t, so Socrates wasn’t deserving of his punishment. If Socrates had known himself better, he could have realized that there was absolutely no reason for him to be executed for his beliefs, and he could have found yet another option as opposed to either living an unexamined life or being executed. Oedipus did deserve his punishment, and this is the main difference between the two as far as a judgment call in regards to which of the two knew himself better. Achilles doesn’t compare the two as he never learned any lessons and died without knowing himself.
Homer, The Iliad, New York, Penguin Classics, 1998.
Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates, Indianapolis, IN, Hackett Publishing, 2001.
Sophocles. Sophocles I: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone. Chicago, University of Chicago, 1991.