Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity p.116

Long ago there was a man of great intellect and great courage. He was a remarkable man, a giant, able to answer questions that no other human being could answer, willing boldly to face any challenge or problem. He was a confident man, a masterful man. He saved his city from disaster and ruled it as a father rules his children, revered by all. But something was wrong in his city. A plague had fallen on generation; infertility afflicted plants, animal and humans. The man promised to uncover the cause of the plague and cure the infertility. Resolutely, confidently, he put his sharp mind to work to solve the problem, to bring the dark things to light. No reticence, no secrets, a full public inquiry. He raged against the representatives of caution, moderation, prudence and piety, who urged him to curtail his inquiry; he accused them of trying to usurp his rightfully earned power, to replace human and masterful control with submissive reverence. The story ends in tragedy: He solves the problem, but in making visible and public the dark and intimate details of his origins, he ruins his life and that of his family. In the end, too late, he learns about the price of presumption, of overconfidence, of the overweening desire to master and control one’s fate. In symbolic rejection of his desire to look into everything, he punishes his eyes with self-inflicted blindness.

Sophocles seems to suggest that a man is always in principle – albeit unwittingly – a patricide, a regicide, and a practitioner of incest. These are the crimes of the tyrant, that misguided and vain seeker of self-sufficiency and full autonomy, who loathes being reminded of his dependence and neediness, who crushes all opposition to the assertion of his will, and whose incest is symbolic of his desire to be the godlike source of his own being. His character is his destiny.   

We men of modern science may have something to learn from our philosophical forebear Oedipus. It appears that Oedipus, being the kind of man an Oedipus is (the chorus calls him a paradigm of man), had no choice but to learn through suffering. Is it really true that we, too, have no other choice?

 

Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p.116

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