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The Limits of Political Rationalism: Enlightenment and Religion in Oedipus the Tyrant


Peter J. Ahrensdorf is professor of political science, Davidson College, Davidson, NC 28035–6901 (


When Nietzsche launched the postmodern attack on the Western tradition of rationalism founded by Socrates, he invoked the purported antirationalism of Sophocles’Oedipus the Tyrant. Through his account of Oedipus, Sophocles does indicate why a pure political rationalism, that is, an attempt to govern political society in the light of reason alone, must ultimately fail and why tradition, convention, and piety are therefore necessary to political life. For convention makes what is by nature manifold seem simple and clear and what is by nature indifferent to human hopes seem supportive of them. But Sophocles’ play does not celebrate convention, for it is Oedipus’ unreasonable, conventional hopes that lead him to harm those dearest to him and himself so needlessly and cruelly. However mindful Sophocles may be of the limits of political rationalism, he clearly affirms the superior wisdom and humanity of the individual life guided by reason.