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 23rd January 1980 continues Foucault’s discussion of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King. During this lecture to word Sophocles uses for king becomes significant, he is Oedipus tyrannos rather than Oedipus basileus. Basileus is the Greek king who has his position according to law, while the tyrannos rose to power in a less regular way, with the title sometimes preserved for the son of such a person, even though that is inheritance of monarchical power in the normal way. Over time trannos acquires the sense of evil abuser of power we are used to now. The differences in the two senses is evident in Sophocles’ own time, since he does not use the word in an obviously negative way, though Plato and then Aristotle did in the same era. Foucault’s suggestion is that bot views are at play in the tragedy in question.
We could also add that Sophocles must have been thinking of political events, institutions and personalities in the Athens of his time. No doubt there are many possible suggestions of how to read Oedipus the King on these lines, but one with which I am familiar is that the most famous leader of Athenian democracy, Pericles is represented by Oedipus. Pericles led Athens into the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, and took Athenian citizens from outside the city behind the city walls during the war. This had some military advantages, but led to a plague in which Pericles himself died. For aristocratic republicans of antiquity, in a tradition that goes right up to the late eighteenth centıry and the generation of the American Founding Fathers, democracy leads to tyranny as the people tend to flock behind a strong man careless of established rights and law. There is a strong element of that in Plato’s discuss,on of political theory, though he also seems to have had considerable respect for Pericles as an individual. Foucault himself notes that tyrants played a role in the founding of Greek democracies.
Returning to Foucault’s analysis of Oediopus, he contrasts Creon and Oedipus as representatives of different versions of kingly power. Creon is the legitimate heir to the throne of his father Laius but is usurped by Oedipus on the basis that Oedipus defeated the Sphinx threatening Thebes. So Oedipus is a tyrant in the positive sense. He is the tyrant and Creon is the man who should have been king. Foucault likes the speech Creon gives when Oedipus accuses him of seeking to overthrow him by encouraging the story that Oedipus killed Laius. What Oedipus and Creon do not know at the beginning of the play is that Oedipus did kill Laius, and even worse is the son of Laius and Jocasta, so that his marriage to Jocasta is a polluting event against divine law. Creon’s defence is that he has the same status as Oedipus without the worrying responsibilities. Foucault regards this as a Sophistical speech in which what he says resembles the truth, but is not the truth. Foucault further suggests that Creon lacks the capacity for self government if he lacks the responsibility for the techne or art of government that Oedipus has. So Creon is a less formed self-limiting and regulating character than Oedipus.
Foucault reefers to the play as a movement between two kinds of truth represented by Oedipus, two of the claims to truth which are always at issue in justifying political power. The first kind of truth is in Oedipus’ defeat of the Sphinx by solving the riddle of the Sphinx. The defeat of the riddler monster is a matter of rhetorical truth rather than absolute truth. It is a trick of discourse, not a revelation of real truth. In that case, Oedipus’ rise to power refers to the role of rhetoric in political power as a negative aspect. Absolute truth becomes an issue when Oedipus finally finds that the claim of Tiresias that he polluted Thebes is correct and in a very horrifying way. The tyrant falls at the point at which absolute truth appears, tyranny is in some way the denial of truth. Oedipus is not a wicked tyrant simply receiving justified punishment though. He is a victim of the role of tyrant which he assumed on bringing a genuine benefit to the city. It is that role of benefactor which makes Oedipus’ sacrifice for the sake of the city necessary, in order to free it from all pollution.
What is the truth of the tyrant? Foucault brings in hieratic truth, the truth of gods and prophets linked to old forms of kingship before the notion of a tyrant appears. That is the Greek world as represented in Homer and Hesiod. That is the truth of what is proclaimed as truth. The proclamation itself establishes the truth of the statement, and the truth comes form a divine place beyond the speaker. This like the way that the Homeric poet claims to speak on behalf of Memory in a divine sense, not on behalf of individual experience and creativity. Oedipus starts from that position, which is the position of the prophet Tiresias. The other kind of truth is the truth of subjective experience and witnessing where ‘I” speak on behalf of ‘myself’, not divine-kingly authority. Foucault connects that with the ‘first historian’, Herodotus who was a contemporary of Sophocles. Herodotus does not write of divinely revealed truths but on behalf of eye witness reports (even if many are famously unreliable). Oedipus stands between the two kinds of truth, ending with the second kind, just as he stands between two versions of political power. The difficulty of reconciling opposing forces, the death of the individual in that conflict is what gives us tragedy.