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The Execution of Knowledge in Genesis and Oedipus

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The differing treatments of knowledge in the early stages of the Book of Genesis and in the tragedy Oedipus Rex reveal a fundamental difference in the representative traditions of Hebraism and Hellenism. Hebraic obedience to divine authority is the ‘true and righteous human way’ (Kass 68) while autonomous knowledge pursued outside divine prohibition is ‘deeply questionable and the likely source of all… unhappiness’ (Kass 64). In contrast, Oedipus’ pursuit of knowledge results in the tragic realization of his origins and self-punishment. However, Oedipus exhibits greatness ‘in virtue of his inner strength: strength to pursue the truth at whatever the personal cost, and strength to accept and endure it when found’ (Dodds 28), thus exemplifying the Hellenistic ardor for knowledge. In this paper, I will argue that while knowledge is indeed dangerous and may be harmful to the truth seeker himself, the pursuit of knowledge is justified if we can fully embrace the consequences of the knowledge. ‘Hellenism may thus actually serve the needs of Hebraism’ (Arnold 158) with regard to the virtue of the knowledge pursued, in so far that as is combined with Hebraic discretion and good judgement.

In Genesis 2, Hebraic obedience to divine authority is emphasized through the explicit commandment not to eat from the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ (2:9), and the downfall of man upon transgression of the commandment clearly illustrates the dangers of disobedience to divine authority. However, I will also argue that the story of the Fall of Man does not oppose the pursuit of knowledge in itself, only that it underscores the fallibility of autonomous human reasoning against divine commandment.

The Hebraic God does not prohibit human reasoning and knowledge, unless it seeks to exist independently of divine authority. In Genesis 2, man is said to be made in the image of God, which means that he possesses the ability to exercise speech and reason, freedom in doing and making, powers of contemplation, judgment and care (Kass 38). However, it is in man’s development of practical reasoning through naming, language, rationalization and questioning that he misuses his faculties of reasoning and transgresses, resulting in this ‘radical self-consciousness’ (Kass 89) that is the consequence of autonomous knowledge. This ‘radical self-consciousness’ is the full development of the awareness in differences between binary opposites, an awareness that is finally illuminated after man’s transgression, causing his own separation and fall. As Leon Kass explains, the naming of animals is an exercise of man’s first use of reasoning, ‘for the ability to name rests on the rational capacity for recognizing otherness and sameness’ (74). While this act in itself does not give rise to prohibited knowledge, it awakens consciousness in man, as man is given the ability to project independent and subjective knowledge unto the objective reality that he encounters, ultimately giving rise to the ability to gain autonomous knowledge.

Language is the subsequent demonstration of man’s reasoning, and it is misused as a tool for distorting and misrepresenting divine commandments. The serpent manipulates language to the effect of inducing the woman to question God’s divine prohibition, posing a question that alludes to undermining the authority of divine commandment: ‘Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’ (3:1) It is clear that the serpent has no intention of clarifying the commandment, but rather in provoking outrage and incredulity towards the need to obey. Language is thus used as a tool of provoking self-awareness and questioning objective statements or commandments. The serpent also uses language to superficially distort the meaning of God’s commandments. In saying that ‘You will not surely die’ (3:4), the serpent is ‘both right and wrong’ (Buber 44), as the first humans merely comprehend the knowledge of death to come. Furthermore, the serpent introduces the notion that God’s motive for prohibition is largely selfish, as eating from the tree would cause the man and woman to ‘be like God, knowing good and evil’ (3:5). In a single sentence, he undermines God’s authority and promotes autonomy. Encouraged by the serpent’s call for rebellion, the woman sees the tree for what it is ‘apart from the prohibition’ (White 135). As a result, she begins to view the tree with subjective independent desire as White explains, through ‘non-verbal perceptual experience, simple awareness of possibility and the force of desire’ (135). The strength of this desire that is born from newfound consciousness thus culminates in her independent judgment that the tree was ‘good for food… a delight to the eyes… desired to make one wise’ (3:6). Within the same sentence, the transgression of her eating the fruit and offering it to her husband occurs, indicating quick successive action.

The act of choosing freely for oneself is thus portrayed as the cause of the Fall of Man: ‘Any free choice implies reaching for and acting on our own knowledge of good or bad’ (Kass 65), and this ultimately points to the fallibility of human reasoning and the importance of divine obedience. Naming and the development of language amount to a misuse and disabuse of practical reasoning against better judgment. The serpent facilitates the development of a consciousness that appeals to an independent and subjective interpretation of the tree beyond divine prohibition, leading up to the transgression and fall of Man.

Beyond pointing to the fallibility of human reasoning, the story of Genesis 3 underscores the material consequences of transgression against divine obedience, which was that ‘Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked’ (3:7). This discovery of nakedness is only possible through the ‘knowledge of oppositeness’ (Buber 46), as they come to the realization of the ‘ill or evil’ in the state of unclothedness. Nakedness which was meant to be their natural state of perfection, is now a perceived defect and imperfection, ‘a badness of our own nature… the mind’s first judgmental and shame-inducing discovery’ (Kass 67). As a result, this ‘radical self-consciousness’ is produced in us, and then induces a constant state of anxiety and imperfectability. This realization of deficiency in relation to divinity is aptly summed up by Hugh C. White as an eternal struggle defined by ‘narcissistic conflict with their opposites… a humbling inferiority that they will desire but never attain.. superiority’ (White 137). Thus, the story of the Fall of Man negatively presents the pursuit of autonomous knowledge and its fruits, that such parts of life will only give rise to inner conflict and dissatisfaction.

Initially, Oedipus Rex is the traditional embodiment of the Hellenistic thirst for knowledge; however, through the tragic turn of events, Sophocles offers a ‘critique of impure reason’ (Lear 194), a superficial ‘knowingness’ (196) that comes from Oedipus’ lack of awareness of the terrible knowledge that he is seeking. I will thus argue that the tragic realization of identity adds a caveat to the valorized Hellenistic pursuit of knowledge, that the discovered truths do not necessarily lead to the best consequences. Nonetheless, a man’s strength lies in the endurance of such terrible truths.

The initial ‘knowingness’ of Oedipus is a commitment to the pursuit of a superficial kind of knowledge, the kind of knowledge that already conforms to Oedipus’ own truths and beliefs. The very name ‘Oedipus,’ translated as ‘know foot,’ is an example of man’s triumph of intelligence against the monstrosity of the Sphinx (Segal 41). It is a mark of pride that the protagonist is able to solve the riddle, ‘the flight of [his] own intelligence that hit the mark’ (453). Yet the double meanings of his name as ‘swell foot’ (oidein, pous) and ‘know where’ (oida pou) invokes the greater mystery of his own identity and origins (Segal 141), knowledge that has eluded him till now. Thus, his claim to knowledge and intelligence is limited at this point precisely because he is lacking in personal knowledge.

This self-serving pursuit of knowledge plays out in the quest to find the king’s murderer. When the prophet Tiresias does not speak, Oedipus retaliates with immediate anger and comes to the rash conclusion that Tiresias is in conspiracy with Creon to blame Oedipus for the murder. Ironically, he refutes and taunts Tiresias’ claim to know the truth on the basis of his physical blindness, ‘You’ve lost your power, stone-blind, stone-deaf—senses, eyes blind as stone!’ (422-2) Furthermore, he continues to dismiss Creon’s attempts to explain the falsity of his conspiracy delusion, in his response ‘but I’ll be slow to learn—from you. I find you a menace’ (611-12). His sheer determination to attain the truth thus obscures and hinders his finding of the truth, so that any challenge or obstacle to his quest (such as Tiresias) is immediately ignored and thrown aside.

Upon realization of the truth, Oedipus perceives his metaphorical blindness to his own personal knowledge. In his act of self-blinding, he renounces his reliance on intelligence and reasoning, which once hindered him from ‘seeing’ the truth. His self-blinding, prophesied by blind Tiresias, ‘with darkness on your eyes, that now have such straight vision’ (454), indicates an attempt to exchange his physical sight for his metaphorical blindness. The act of self-blinding can be seen as a symbolic negation of his pride and arrogance in his ‘knowingness,’ a negation of oida, the very quality of ‘knowing,’ which also comes from the root word of ‘I have seen’ (Segal 42). Thus, we may understand that Oedipus renounces the superficial knowledge seeking that he had previously relied on.

Yet the play also affirms the greatness of Oedipus as he displays consistent persistence in uncovering the truth, and a respectable fortitude in enduring and accepting the terrible truth. He assumes full responsibility for the transgression that he has committed, and imposes impartial punishment on himself, ‘Take me away, far, far from Thebes’ (1477), as well as ownership of his destiny in saying ‘It’s mine alone, my destiny – I am Oedipus!’ (1446) Although his fate seems to demand great pity from the audience, Oedipus emerges heroic; his acceptance and embrace of his demise is at once humanistic and noble, since he has faced the consequences of uncovering a painful truth. Consequently, Oedipus Rex can be seen as largely Hebraic in its conception that human reasoning is ultimately fallible, condemning hubristic overconfidence in human ‘knowingness,’ while favoring humble religious submission (Lear 198). At the same time, it draws upon elements of Hellenism as it lauds those who seek knowledge with the ability to fully endure and accept the consequences of such a pursuit.

The Fall of Man similarly follows the vein of Hebraic cautiousness with regard to the pursuit of autonomous knowledge. The fallibility of human reasoning, as demonstrated in the abuse of language leading to transgression and the resulting ‘radical self-consciousness,’ is the cause of inherent dissatisfaction and anxiety in man. Thus, while it does not condemn knowledge and reasoning, this narrative presents autonomous knowledge outside divine probation as problematic and unnatural within the divine order.

While both Genesis and Oedipus Rex indicate the fallibility of human reasoning, the Oedipus conception of truth is optimistic in that it presents a solution to the problematic dilemma of human suffering as a result of autonomous knowledge. Under these ideas, human grace and dignity can be achieved through the stoic acceptance of the consequences. In such an understanding, a Hellenistic acceptance of the consequences of autonomous knowledge can serve as a realistic fallback in failing to abide with Hebraic obedience and judgement.

Works Cited

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2001. Print.

Arnold, Matthew. “Hebraism and Hellenism” in Culture and Anarchy, ed. by William S. Knickerbocker. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1925. 128-143. Print.

Kass, Leon. The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Print.

White, Hugh C. Narration and Discourse in the Book of Genesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Print.

Buber, Martin. “The Tree of Knowledge: Genesis 3” in Genesis ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 43-8. Print.

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