What Do We Know?

In Oedipus Rex, the doomed king of Thebes questions the blind prophet, Tiresias, seeking the truth about the death of Laios, the previous king of the city. When Tiresias doesn’t want to tell what he knows, Oedipus concludes that Tiresias had something to do with the murder of Laios. He then concludes that Tiresias must have been an accomplice to Kreon, who he decides is the real murderer.

Though Oedipus comes across as paranoid in the scene, his reasons for coming to the conclusions that he reaches are at least understandable. He knows that many people pursue power by evil means (like killing a king; like withholding information about the killing in order to protect the killer). He knows that people who already have power (like Kreon) usually desire more power. The problem is that he lacks a crucial piece of information. So, like a math student who gets just one digit wrong in a lengthy equation, Oedipus uses basically sound reasoning and still reaches the wrong conclusion.

The chorus, concerned about the alarming accusations that Oedipus has begun to fling at his brother-in-law (and uncle, though Oedipus does not know this yet), tells him that he shouldn’t accuse a faithful friend of treachery because of “baseless rumor.” Oedipus has to solve the greatest riddle of his life (the mystery of king Laios’ death, and ultimately the mystery of his own identity), and the chorus is admonishing him to trust his friends. Naturally, the riddle-solver loses his patience with the chorus. He can’t just rely on trust. He must know. He must have proof. He needs the facts. Only then can he know the truth, and not to know the truth is fatal.

But there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in our philosophy, Hamlet tells us. Aeschylus warns us that we must suffer into knowledge. Socrates says that he is wise only because he knows that he knows nothing. The Delphic oracle admonishes us to know ourselves. Descartes tells us that we can know nothing except ourselves. And some modern thinkers deny that we can even know that much.

What do we know?

Like Oedipus, we have to make judgments based on what we know. Some of these judgments concern small things; others are important both to our own lives and to our society. As Americans come nearer to the depressing prospect of voting in the coming election, we’ll be bombarded with competing truth claims from hundreds, thousands of sources. We live in the age of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, clickbait articles and internet memes that promise to BLOW SO-AND-SO’s ARGUMENT OUT OF THE WATER!, headline-browsing, ratings-chasing, alternative journalism, blogging (yes, I’m including myself in that), “fact checkers,” the Washington Post’s Pinocchio rating system, and the Truth-O-Meter. In a time like this one, everybody has become an expert epistemologist. Everybody knows, and the rest of us need only listen. Everybody has access to the facts. All we need to do is see them, hear them.

Like the truth-seekers of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, we all gaze into the palantir of electronic media and the multiplicity of voices that it has given rise to. But like the seeing stones of Middle Earth, our sources of knowledge are unreliable and deceptive: they often give us just enough information to draw the wrong conclusions.

What do we know?

Seeing is believing. Notice that nobody says that seeing is knowing. The saying almost seems to be an admission that our senses can be deceived, that seeing does not necessarily mean knowing. When I step outside at night, my senses tell me that the earth is the still point around which circles the vast universe. Othello sees his handkerchief in Cassio’s hand. Claudio sees (or rather, thinks that he sees) Hero with another man. When Oedipus looks at Polybos and Merope, he sees his parents. When he looks at Iokaste, he sees his wife. When he embraces his children, he doesn’t know the touch of his brothers and sisters.

When you think about it, it’s alarming how easily our senses are deceived. They can sometimes be so unreliable that it’s easy to sympathize with the postmodern view that truth is entirely subjective, dependent only upon one’s own point of view.

But no, that won’t do. We can’t quite shake the conviction that we know something, and if the world ever truly wakes up to the logical consequences of saying that truth is relative . . . well, that’s a frightening prospect.

What do we know?

The chorus in Sophocles’ plays is often obtuse, but sometimes it makes profound observations. Unlike Oedipus, the chorus seems to believe in a source of knowledge besides the senses. Trust, the choragos admonishes Oedipus. Trust. Have faith. There is no absolute proof that Kreon isn’t treacherous, but that doesn’t mean that Oedipus can’t know that he’s a faithful friend. It’s a hard sell in the modern world, but it isn’t an easy sell for Oedipus, either. He learns, far too late, that our senses aren’t enough.