Oedipus the King and Maslow's Pyramid
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People have long considered general theories of motivation, and the question regarding the specific motives that direct and energize our human behavior has undergone tremendous speculation. To this day the question still stands: what is it that humans seek most in life? In an effort to answer this question, Abraham Maslow proposed what he called the hierarchy of needs. Maslow theorizes that human beings are motivated to fulfill this hierarchy, which consists of needs ranging from those that are basic for survival up to those that promote growth and self-enhancement (Kassin 300).
At the base of the hierarchy are the physiological needs of human beings. This level consists of a human's need for food, water, oxygen, sleep, and sex. Homeless people are at this level of the hierarchy because their concern is in obtaining those things necessary for survival. Once an individual has met these needs, they begin to seek steady work, financial security, stability at home, and a predictable environment. This level consists of overachievers and workaholics. People such as this are so concerned with their income that they do not feel that the amount of time they work is sufficient enough. If an individual meets all of these needs, then that person has obtained their general need for safety. Once human beings have obtained safety, they strive to fulfill their social needs. At this level humans concern themselves with affiliation, belongingness and love, affection, close relationships, family ties, and group membership. This is a particularly crucial level because if these needs are not met, then humans feel an overwhelming sense of loneliness and alienation. All the needs for love having been met, an individual seeks social status, respect, recognition, achievement, and power. All of these needs combine to fulfill an individual's need for esteem, and failing to satisfy this need, an individual endures a sense of inferiority and a lack of importance. All human beings are placed at one of these four levels, striving to satisfy the needs at that level. If there comes a time in which an individual has obtained all of the needs on the hierarchy, that person becomes ready, willing, and able to strive for self-actualization. According to Maslow, self-actualization is a distinctly human need to fulfill one's potential. As Maslow himself states, "A musician must make music, and artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is ultimately to be at peace with himself.
What a man can be, he must be" (Kassin 301).
Maslow took the needs of his proposed hierarchy and arranged them in the form of a pyramid. By presenting them in this fashion Maslow claimed that the needs at the base take priority over those at the top. As a result, the higher needs become a concern to us only after the more basic needs are satisfied. Research generally confirms this prediction that motives lower in the pyramid take precedence, though there are occasional and rare exceptions. It has also been shown through research that not every individual climbs Maslow's hierarchy in the same prescribed order. "Some people seek love and romance before fulfilling their esteem motives, but others who are more achievement-oriented may try to establish a career before a family" (Goebel and Brown). In this regard, culture can also shape our motivational priorities. Maslow's theory may not accurately describe the motivational path all people take, but his distinctions and the notion that the various needs form a hierarchy provide a convenient framework for the study of motivation (Kassin 301). Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs is easily applicable to the characters in Sophocles' play Oedipus Tyrannus. Some characters within this play are at the base of the pyramid striving to obtain their physiological needs, while others have progressed further in life and are seeking to satisfy their social needs, and one character can be considered to have reached his self-actualization.
At the base of the pyramid, and seemingly content to remain there, is Jocasta, the queen of Thebes and the wife of Oedipus. According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it is at this level that an individual is concerned with satisfying physiological needs, which consist of food, water, oxygen, sleep, and sex. It is evident through Jocasta's actions that her needs do not exceed this level in the hierarchy. An oracle prophesizes to Jocasta that her unborn son would grow to kill his father. In fear of the fulfillment of the prophecy, Jocasta orders her son to have his ankles pierced with rivets, and taken to the hills of Cithaeron to die. "To - kill! [. . .] Because she was terrified of some dreadful prophecy" (Sophocles 27). After many years pass Laius, the King of Thebes and husband of Jocasta, is killed on his journey home from Corinth. Oddly, Jocasta does not mourn her husband's death and is quick to remarry Oedipus after his arrival to Thebes. These examples alone provide proof of Jocasta's ignorance and self-concern. Throughout Jocasta's life she does what suits her best at the moment, and never concerns herself with the future or aspects of her life aside from her immediate necessities.
In contrast to Jocasta's fulfillment of her physiological needs, Oedipus strives to satisfy his esteem needs. Having reached this level of the hierarchy, Oedipus has managed to satisfy all the needs below it. Oedipus' physiological needs are met when the shepherd in the hills of Cithaeron gave him to Polybus and Merope to love and raise as a son of their own. "I found you - in the hills of Cithaeron…. You were a gift to him - from me…. He had been childless" (Sophocles 23). Oedipus' need for safety is satisfied when he vows to never return to Corinth. Having received rumor that he was not the son of the man that he considered his father for as long as he could remember, Oedipus goes to Apollo for an explanation. Again a prophecy follows: Oedipus will someday kill his father and then take his mother's hand in marriage. This prophesy caused Oedipus a tremendous amount of fear, and in order to alleviate this fear, he vows to never return to Corinth. "Once Loxian Apollo said that I would take my mother for my bride and murder my father with my own hands. This is the reason that I left Corinth long ago [. . .]. I did not want to kill my father" (Sophocles 23). Oedipus' social needs are met when he is crowned King of Thebes. At the time Oedipus arrives to Thebes the city is struck with a horrible plague. Oedipus is able to deliver the city from the plague through solving the riddle of the sphinx. "We deem you a mortal set apart to face life's common issues and the trials which the gods dispense to men. It was you who once before came to Thebes and freed us from the spell that hypnotized our lives" (Sophocles 3). The citizens of Thebes are so grateful for Oedipus' efforts that they choose to express their gratitude through crowning him their king. This is an honor for Oedipus that allows him to feel a tremendous amount of belonging and love.
By the conclusion of the play, Oedipus has reached the fourth level of the hierarchy. It was at this level that Oedipus is concerned with satisfying the needs of his social status, respect, recognition, achievement, and power. Oedipus' life revolves around the respect that he receives from the citizens of Thebes. The city has been struck by a second horrible plague, this one resulting from the murderer of Laius not having been identified and punished. Oedipus can not bear to see the citizens of his city suffer, so he committs himself to unfolding the unidentified murderer and assigning the appropriate punishment. "Each of you grieves for himself alone, while my heart must bear the strain of sorrow for all - myself and you and all our city's people" (Sophocles 4). When Oedipus realizes that it was he who had murdered Laius, he scratched out his eyes and ban himself from the city of Thebes. He does this because he has long received respect from the citizens of Thebes, and knowing that he was the one to cause their suffering, he does not feel that he is worthy of staying and ruling the city. When talking to Creon, Oedipus begins to shout, "Destroy the parricide! Destroy the unholy one! Destroy Oedipus!" (Sophocles 32)
Exceeding even Oedipus' level of hierarchy is Creon, who is able to strive for self-actualization. Creon is aware of his potential and works to fulfill it. This becomes evident when Oedipus accuses Creon of attempting to overthrow him as king. Although Oedipus' accusations are blunt and harsh, Creon calmly reasons with him. Creon explains to Oedipus that he rules on equal terms with him and Jocasta, and although he does not hold the title that Oedipus does, he has the same rights and freedom without the accompanying fear. "First ask yourself - would any man prefer a life of fear to one in which the self-same rank, the self-same rights are guaranteed untroubled peace" (Sophocles 14)? Creon's main argument is that he had no desire to be king when he can act as one without a throne and without the fear. Creon's ability to reason so rationally is proof that he is aware of his full potential and is not going to settle for less then it, nor is he going to strive for more then it.
Thusly, Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs can be applied to the characters within Sophocles' play Oedipus Tyrannus, just as it can be applied to any individual. Within the play the character's concerns range from physiological needs up to the need for esteem, while Creon has managed to even reach the level of self-actualization. Each character expresses their individual needs and concerns through their actions. Oedipus himself has worked his way high up on the hierarchy but is not able to strive for self-actualization because fate prevents him from obtaining complete respect.
Kassin, Saul. Psychology. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1998.
Sophocles. Oedipus Tyrannus. Norton Critical ed. Ed. Cyrus Hoy. New York: Norton, 1970.