Blogging on a very recently published volume of Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, Du gouvernement des vivants: Cours au Collège de France. 1979-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 2012).
The lecture of 16th January 1980 is on Sophocles’s tragedy Oedipus the King, which Foucault discusses in a few other places as well. What he refers to here is the place of knowledge of truth in power and the status of tragedy as a drama of truth. He refers this idea back to Plato, without going into Plato’s criticisms of tragedy.
Foucault discusses the different ways that truth appears in Oedipus as the play moves from the plague afflicting Thebes to Oedipus’ fall when the truth that his transgressions, killing his father and marrying his mother, though accidental, have polluted the city. The search for truth starts with the level of the divine, as Oedipus asks the seer Tiresias what the cause of the plague is. Tiresias is unwilling to give the truth, and Oedipus does not believe him when he does tell the truth. Tiresias is brother of Apollo, the god of light. Foucault emphasises the idea that the gods see all and that the divine illuminates the world. There is some phenomenological language here and in other parts of the lecture. Phenomenology is the philosophy of appearance, and the structure of appearance since the time of Edmund Husserl and some of his teachers. Foucault was familiar with Husserl’s philosophy and with that of Husserl’s student Heidegger. Though Foucault’s university teachers included the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, despite which Foucault’s tributes to Phenomenology tend to be indirect, through using some of its ideas, rather than explicitly building on it. When he comments on Phenomenology, he tends to refer to it as a kind of subjective humanism, in which the world is defined by the appearances in the consciousness of the subject. The idea of truth as something that appears while hiding itself, can be found in Heidegger, and is at play here, though again Foucault does not say so directly.
The divine truth of Apollo-Tiresias does not succeed in revealing truth to Oedipus and the community of Thebes. It is a truth which is proclaimed by the god or seer, as what ‘I’ say is true. That is what characterises that kind of truth and is what makes it inadequate. Foucault thinks of the plays as dealing with the role of oracles and divination in the society of his time. The whole of Greece shared the Oracle at Delphi, which claimed to communicate the thoughts of Apollo, and which provided a focus for Greek identity. Less famous oracles existed within the various states of Greece.
Another level of truth comes from the discourse between Oedipus and his wife/mother Jocasta. The marriage is the unşon of two families, though in this case it is unknowingly the union within the nuclear family. This has its own level of truth which fails, since Oedipus and Jocasta resist seeing where the evidence leads. As with Tiresias’ proclamation, the evidence is there of the transgression but Oedipus cannot recognise it. Creon, brother of both Jocasta and Oedipus, provides another related attitude to truth. Creon asserts that Oedipus’ accusation that Creon manipulated Tiresias to serve his own ambition of becoming king , is false. Foucault takes the simple denial as an aspect of aristocratic truth, which can be explicitly guaranteed through swearing an oath. The noble believes that his word is its own guarantee because of his elevated status and character, something he may emphasise through swearing an oath. Truth does not emerge in this way. Creon is correct in saying that he did not use Tiresias, but Sophocles’ later plays referring to the Oedipus story (Oedipus at Colonnus and Antigone) confirm tat Creon is a man of extreme ambition for power.
Truth emerges and is accepted by Oedipus when it comes from the common people, a slave and a shepherd who unknowingly reveal the story of Oedipus in childhood when interrogated by Oedipus. Their own relationship is characterised by friendship, implicitly linking it with antique republican thought in which friendship is tied up with citizenship, with common membership of a city. It could also be taken back to the friendship in Homer’s Iliad between Achilles and Patroclus, a friendship between nobles-heroes. We can see that as absorbed by the aspect of Athenian citizenship which comes from shared military service of the common people, and definitions of citizens as friends. Slaves are excluded from this though, so Sophocles’ suggestion that truth can come from a slave is particularly intriguing.
The play is concerned with different things which represent various aspects of truth inits appearances and concealment. The play as a whole brings together the parts of truth in Foucault’s analysis. In that case the play both shows democracy as the place where judicial truth can be fully at work, and suggests that we need to look at all forms of truth not just the democratic one, setting up a possible tension.