“How terrible it is to seek knowledge, when it brings nothing good to the one who is seeking it.”
These words are spoken by Teiresias, the blind seeer in Sophocles’ play “King Oedipus”, when Oedipus has pressed him hard to tell the truth about his past. Teiresias starts off with a warning: knowledge will not always make you a happier man. In fact, what Teiresias knows about Oedipus turns out to be downright catastrophic.
Without knowing, he has murdered his father and married his mother. The key point is: he has done so without knowing. As Teiresias spells out the as yet unknown facts to Oedipus, his past is overturned. What seemed like good ideas at the time, now appear to be major errors.
Why is this knowledge so tragic? Oedipus’ past acts in themselves do not change, but the context to his past behaviour is suddenly completely different. The traveler who hindered him on the crossroads is no longer a stranger, but the man who begot him. The queen of the city that he traveled to is no longer a widow, but the woman who gave birth to him.
What changes is the moral perspective. The wisdom of Teiresias is that action, any action, derives its meaning from the context. Killing an arrogant stranger is acceptable in certain circumstances. Killing your father is never acceptable. Marrying a widowed queen is a very good idea in certain circumstances. Marrying your mother is never a good idea.
Morality derives from our judgement of the circumstances. Actions by themselves, without context, cannot be judged in any moral perspective. As the very word suggests, perspective assumes a certain breadth and depth of our field of vision. The wider the context we take into consideration, the more perspective we can have, the better our judgement.
Wysiayk – what you see is all you know. The less context you see, the less you know, and the less morality you have. The way you describe your situation cuts out your acceptable (or maybe even: possible) courses of action for you. And so it matters to look around you and make sure you have seen all the clues, before being happy with your view of the world. Tragedy lurks in the unnoticed context, in novel facts that overturn your definitions.
The other thing Teiresias tells us is this: we must not expect to always be happy with broadening and widening our views. Learning the wider context of our actions may show that we have made errors, grave errors indeed.
Oedipus’ mother kills herself upon hearing the facts spelled out by Teiresias. Oedipus himself cuts out his own eyes . He doesn’t want to see the facts of the world anymore.
Oedipus is a warning to us. Unlike Oedipus, we should not turn a blind eye upon the context of our actions. We should be grown-up, face the facts, re-assess our actions, and henceforth be wiser. Not necessarily happier, but wiser nonetheless.