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Sarah Eliya V.

Yu

Professor Martin

ENLIT 12

3/20/2019

Oedipus the Truth-Seeker

Today we live in a post-truth world, one in which people are more likely to make

decisions based on emotions and beliefs, rather than facts and evidence. A parent is more

likely to decide against vaccinating their child because of a Facebook post claiming vaccines

can cause autism. An American is more likely to believe that climate change is a hoax

because the president they voted for says so. A young Filipino born in the 21​st century is more

likely to believe that Ferdinand Marcos was a hero, because his body lies in Libingan ng mga

Bayani, and his children are seated in powerful government positions. An elderly lady is

more likely to vote for Bong Revilla as senator, because he is “good-looking.” Although

online information is at our fingertips, we are more disempowered than ever by the mere fact

that we do not investigate it. How then do navigate through a time so fraught with

falsehoods? In this essay, I will argue that Oedipus of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is in fact the

kind of truth-seeker we can aspire to emulate in this post-truth era. From this point onward,

the version of ​Oedipus Rex that will be referenced in this essay is the 2004 ​Oedipus the King

translation by Ian Johnston.

Oedipus Rex begins by introducing a plague that ravages Thebes, and how the people

depend on Oedipus as king to cleanse his land of it. Oedipus is informed by Creon, his

brother-in-law, that an oracle claims that only atonement for the murder of Thebes’ previous

king, Laius, can remove the plague. However, Oedipus does not know who the murderer of

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Laius is, and consults a prophet, servants, messengers, his wife, and even a shepherd to

discover the truth. In Oedipus’ conversation with Teiresias the prophet, Oedipus is told that

the murderer he is searching for is in fact, himself. In Oedipus’ disbelief and denial, he

continues to investigate what is now not only the cause of the plague, but his own personal

history and origins as well.

Truth is a central theme of the play. The entire plot revolves around it: the conflict is

presented as a need to discover the truth of Laius’ murder (lines 125 to 127); the rising action

is Oedipus’ relentless investigation throughout the majority of the play; the climax is the

revelation by the shepherd that Oedipus is indeed the son of Jocasta and Laius (lines 1400 to

1410); and the denouement and resolution are Oedipus’ symbolic action (one which holds

more meaning than the bare action itself) of physically blinding himself once he had become

metaphorically unblind to the truth (lines 1513 to 1515). Within these general elements of the

plot, there are several scenes which highlight and use truth, or the pursuit thereof, to drive it.

The first key scene that illustrates Oedipus’ character as a truth-seeker is his

encounter with Teiresias. When Teiresias first arrives, he refuses to reveal to Oedipus what

he knows, yet hints that it is a morbid truth: “I will not reveal the troubling things inside me,

which I can call your grief as well” (lines 391 to 393). However, once Teiresias tells his

prophecy, Oedipus refuses to believe this (lines 422 to 423). There is then a juxtaposition of

Teiresias, the blind seer, to Oedipus, a seeing man in denial.

Although one might call Oedipus a fool for not believing Teiresias, it is also to his

credit that he does not take the prophet for granted, and instead investigates the divine

prophecy until it is factually proven through testimonies of primary sources. After Teiresias,

Oedipus interrogates Creon on whether it was his intention for the seer to accuse Oedipus

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(lines 670 to 671), and on what Creon knows about Laius’ death (lines 673 to 685).

Afterward, Oedipus learns from Jocasta about the circumstances of hers and Laius’ child, as

well as further details of Laius’ death (lines 852 to 870). And although Oedipus says he is

shaken, he does not disregard these details, and continues questioning Jocasta because he

knows she is a reliable source. Here he takes on a journalistic dialogue: “Where is this place?

Where did it happen? (line 880)”, and “Tell me this—Laius, how tall is he? How old a man?

(line 889 to 890),” along with a few other lines. Oedipus again takes on this mode of

questioning when presented with the messenger, who reveals that he received an infant

Oedipus from a shepherd. From line 1220 to 1245, he scrutinizes the circumstances of that

event, including his suffering as an infant, and where the possible origin of the shepherd. As

the play approaches its climax, the shepherd is brought before Oedipus. It is clear from lines

1370 to 1388 that the servant understands the weight of his truth by refusing to tell it.

Oedipus sees this yet presses on, even threatening to torture the elderly servant. And once the

servant answers every one of Oedipus’ questions, Oedipus says: “Ah, so it all came true. It’s

so clear now (line 1418).” Only at this point does Oedipus accept the truth, having thoroughly

examined it through witness after witness and allowing the evidence to speak for itself.

Oedipus treats the death of Laius as a journalist might treat an event. From Kovach

and Rosentiel’s ​The Elements of Journalism,​ Oedipus displays several qualities of good

journalism: loyalty to its citizens, discipline in verifying information from multiple witnesses,

and dedication to uncovering the truth. To exemplify, Oedipus begins his investigation as an

obligation and service to his Theban citizens so their land might be cleansed of the plague.

Oedipus actively follows his leads from source to source and summons witnesses who were

reportedly involved in the events during his infancy. ​In the scene of the climax, Oedipus even

allows the messenger and the servant to check each others’ accounts (lines 74 to 76). And ​in

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this process, he collates the evidence into a truer version of his past, which he knows he must

accept regardless of how terrible it is.

Furthermore, in his refusal to take Teiresias’ proclamation at face value, Oedipus

treats the truth as dynamic rather than static; something unsure and discoverable rather than

something absolute; a truth meant to guide his decision, which is how Kovach and Rosentiel

express truth to be in a journalistic sense. These are seen in lines 1150 to 1156, when he

expresses to Jocasta that he was “misguided by my fears”, the fears presented by Apollo’s

prophet. This expresses Oedipus’ openness to the possibility of a godly prophet being wrong,

despite the merit and reputation a prophet holds in the setting of the play. Although this may

be Oedipus’ hubris, and his motive to doubt the prophecy is personal and therefore changes

the conflict of the plot from man versus nature to man versus himself, Oedipus nevertheless

compels himself to fact-check a truth he is faced with in order to resolve his internal conflict.

The Theban plague may be seen as a metaphor for today. We are currently wracked

with a plague of ignorance caused by the obscuring of truth that could be addressed if only

each and every one of us dared to fact check whatever social media might tell us. A parent

frightened by an anti-vaccine Facebook post has only to look up overwhelming amount of

scientific journals that support the safety of vaccines. A Trump supporter has only to allow

himself a bit of skepticism of his president to look up why floods and forest fires have been

occurring more and more often. A child in a family of Marcos apologists has only to turn to

one of their elderly teachers to hear of the sort of torture the military administered under the

Marcos regime. And, the voting population of the Philippines must learn to look past mere

appearances and aesthetic appeal when it is time to vote for government officials.

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Living in the post-truth world demands the responsibility of being truth-seekers just as

Oedipus was. We must emulate his persistence to discover the truth, and continually search

for it as he did, even when Jocasta warned him against it (lines 1276 to 1284). Although we

have journalists today to report to us truths of our society, it is a dangerous time for them.

Truth has many enemies today--fascist governments, money-makers with their own agenda,

and online trolls looking to benefit their leader. Oedipus himself has many obstacles in his

search for truth, yet he ensures that he himself is not one of them. Though it is his own doing

that he does not believe the prophecies at first, it was still his persistence which led him to

uncover the truth on his own terms. In the same manner, it is our own duty to ensure that we

are not our own enemy in our pursuit of truth, and to use the information at our fingertips to

reveal truths by which we can live.

Word count: 1490 words

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Works Cited

“The Elements of Journalism.” ​American Press Institute,​ American Press Institute, 9 Oct.

2013, www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/what-is-journalism/ele

ments-journalism/.

Rappler. “#PHVote: Why These Women Will Vote for Bong Revilla

Pic.twitter.com/0575xN6PcZ.” ​Twitter,​ Twitter, 12 Feb. 2019,

twitter.com/rapplerdotcom/status/1095323206490046466?lang=en.

Sophocles, and Ian Johnston. ​Oedipus the King, C.420 BC​. Prideaux Street Publications,

2004.

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