|Marble capital and finial|
in the form of a sphinx, 530 BCE.
By Metropolitan Museum of Art -
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0
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At a crossroads a human being who flatters himself rational meets a monster liable to speak or act in unaccountable ways. We are tempted to identify with the egocentric human but that would be doom and folly as well: that is the archetypal misstep, in every life and every generation. In the contest between yourself and the world, side with the world, said the human sphinx of Prague.
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"I can answer any riddle," boasted Oedipus.
"What is man such that he should be subject to the authority of mystery?"
"I did not make myself. So I do not know."
"Then how do you know you are omniscient? What have you declared other than your own egomania?"
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"How can I tell whether I am asking myself the right questions?" petitioned Oedipus.
"Do you know from where questions arise, or why one is necessitated rather than another? How do questions ripen, and why? What makes the questionable questionable?"
"Because man has forgotten to think about it, or to think it worth knowing. But why does he forget and neglect?"
"Every man is obliged by life to be what he is least competent to be, the judge in his own case. His corruption only cheats himself. The issue is not intellectual but characteral."
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"Why do sphinxes haunt the travelers' lanes?" pled Oedipus.
"There are mysteries also in the settlements and cities but there men sleep too deeply in the beds of language and custom. It is only in transit from one outpost of artificiality to another that the lonely wayfarer discovers how much of the world he did not know. When the great world is distracting him with its details and novelties, then he is most susceptible to those missteps that lead inadvertently but ineluctably into the mysterious. He awakens briefly and becomes fit for an illusion-killing question."
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"What must I do to be happy?" implored Oedipus.
"Put your affairs in the hands of a god."
"And? What is the catch?"
"No god would have them. Gods have responsibilities of their own, for which they wish there were higher gods to help them. Even for gods, to live is to endure strife and distress: humans mistake the gods' bonus of wisdom for happiness."
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"Why should I disturb myself over what is not known or knowable? Why should I care about limitations on my knowledge or understanding that are not my fault?" complained Oedipus.
"But they are your fault. Every child begins shaping his own mentality long before he comprehends the issues and implications of thinking or believing one way rather than another. No human knows what life may ultimately require him to be competent or resourceful for. All preparation for an unpredictable life may be delusory or irrelevant. What is most decisive is the elusive self-formation humans carry out long before they are fully conscious and perspicuous, the darkling first steps by which the character of the soul announces itself. Humans inherit themselves from their own more obscure selves. … How much of human finitude can even be put into words, much less explained?"
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"Why do sphinxes harass humans?" challenged Oedipus.
"Not all humans, only those pregnant with a sense of their own incongruity or anomalous significance, whose minds are ripe with mindeating questions. A sphinx must be there as a midwife to steer the little head through, to turn it just so in birthing."
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"Why do the gods send such a messenger as a sphinx?" shivered Oedipus.
"To remind men of how much in human life cannot be averted — because it is perennial, eternal, oceanic, fated. In awe, eerily, human will discovers the laws it is subject to. Immolated, incandescent, one life may prove a torch to illumine others' lives."
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"Is there a correct mentality for living?" sought Oedipus.
"'Correct' is not the correct category. There are many ways to be intelligent or wise but many, many more to be wrongheaded or deluded. Not the authority of the gods but life itself punishes man's delusions; and not the rules of a particular form of society but history itself will draw the penalties for self-indulgence."
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"Won't humans outgrow folly naturally, just in the process of living and being abused?" speculated Oedipus.
"Wisdom is too difficult, says every fool. How much harm can a little pleasant folly do? — as if any fool knew the measure of his own benightedness. I will make my mistakes and then repent on my deathbed, resolving my life on a chord of wisdom, thinks the fool — ingeniously strategizing a way to avoid suffering for wisdom. Instead he suffers relentlessly for folly, in ways he is too shallow and obtuse to sense. All lifelong he confirms habits that inure a fool to his folly, cleverly rationalizing away what should be educational, coddling his own feelings gingerly, caressing the tender delusions of his narcotic ego. Does he think to have it both ways, to indulge the godling Ego and then when it no longer matters make a deathbed conversion to principles? In extremis, as Death is about to take his pulse, is that the only time he makes himself deal with ultimate, last matters? For all of life is rife with finalities. Does the fool suppose a deadline will acutely improve his deficient thinking? A slack, improvident, wastrel life is killing itself every passing moment — paying for what is specious with what is truly precious, selling itself into slavery on the installment-plan. Wisdom is arduous but folly is murderous, killing the very meaning of being alive. A fool lives to drift and be gulled."
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"Why do you kill those who misanswer your questions?" pressed Oedipus.
"To make wisdom matter as much to imbeciles as it does to the wise. Every lapse in sagacity is lethal, and a pattern of negligence is fatal, an index to structural and ultimate character. To lack wisdom is to suffer a life of self-immiseration and self-ruin, one illusion failing after another, seriatim. To kill an idiot is to enact a mercy — for which he would thank you were he not an idiot."
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"Is the truth always and necessarily otherwise than how we conceive it?" resented Oedipus.
"It is not only otherwise but otherwise in such a way as to make humans misconceive it the way that they do. The truth is complex and deep enough to explain delusion and falsehood: falsity is one way truth may work on the mind; but falsity is also a necessary precondition without which truth is not possible."
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"Why must there be mystery, a surplus beyond the reach of our minds? Why can't everything reveal itself and shine forth for us? Why must the world be shifting and deceptive, deep and surprising, rife with anomalies? Why not an obvious world that gives itself utterly to us?" demanded Oedipus.
"You seem not to know where the world leaves off and your own responsibilities begin. A mind simple enough to be wholly obvious to itself would not be able to think, and a world simple enough to be just a flux of seeming would not be complex enough to produce thinkers. Mystery is a boundless ocean and so is man's shameless lust for simplicity and obviousness: there is mystery to teach at least a few humans that the world does not revolve around the interests and preconceptions of idiots. You live in a world intriguing enough to induce your mind to grow; a wise creature, realizing what is good for it, would be grateful for that subtlety."
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"Were you waiting here for me? How did you know the turning I would choose?" beseeched Oedipus.
"You carried me along with you, blind wretch. You breathed me, thought me when you did not think, saw me when you did not see. You incurred me as your own inverse; I am your liability and live implicit in every strategy you wedded yourself to."
for Lee E.
— Kenneth Smith, "Parable 95: Oedipus and the Sphinx." In Otherwise: 100 Parables, Paradigms, & Paradoxes on the Reality Alongside of Us. Dallas: Memnon Press, 1997.