The Epic of Gilgamesh, Dante's Inferno and Sophocles Oedipus the King are all classic and foundational Western texts which depict, en passant, the importance of humankind's demand to know, to explore and penetrate the unknown, to arrive at ultimate truths about existence and its mysteries, and to find meaning or value therein. I hope to demonstrate with reference to specific episodes -- that of Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh, of the episode of Ulysses in Dante's Inferno, and in the great address to the protagonist hymned by the chorus of Sophocles' tragedy of Oedipus -- this complicated depiction of human intellectual overreach.
Dante provides us with the basic topos of this kind of overreach as a sort of failed heroism, or heroism that breaks forth the bounds of Aristotelian temperance (or sophrosyne) and becomes, paradoxically, a vice. (The Aristotelian definition of sin is central to Dante, since his theology is derived from the Roman Catholic Aristotelianism of Thomas Aquinas.) Dante uses the earlier epic hero of Homer's Odyssey, given his Latinized name of Ulysses here, to depict a post-Homeric account of Ulysses' demise during one final voyage westward through the "pillars of Hercules" (or present-day strait of Gibraltar, separating the Mediterranean sea from the Atlantic Ocean proper). Ulysses musters a crew by appealing
"Shipmates," I said, "who through a hundred thousand perils have reached the West, do not deny to the brief remaining watch our senses stand experience of the world beyond the sun.
Greeks! You were not born to live like brutes
But to press on toward manhood and recognition!" (Ciardi 222)
This otherwise admirable quest for "experience" seems allegorically like a metaphor for the never-ending intellectual inquiry which can -- in the context of a religion with an established dogma, such that Dante illustrates with his allegory, actually come to seem no heroic virtue at all, but a form of hubris. Yet if the struggle is against death itself -- as Dante seems to imply -- why should it not be troped as heroic? If we turn back from Dante's epic Commedia all the way to the Epic of Gilgamesh, we can find a similar linkage of death with intellectual quest for understanding. In his famous lament of Tablet IX, Gilgamesh laments not the death of heroism, like Dante's Ulysses, but actual death: after Enkidu's death, Gilgamesh seemingly becomes aware of his own mortality, lamenting:
I am going to die! -- am I not like Enkidu?!
Deep sadness penetrates my core,
I fear death, and now roam the wilderness
I will set out to the region of Utnapishtim, son of Ubartutu, and will go with utmost dispatch! (Kovacs, Tablet IX)
In a subsequent tablet which Kovacs omits as being from a later textual tradition, Gilgamesh will indeed seek out the legendary Utnapishtim, a sort of analogue to the Biblical Noah with the added magical element that Utnapishtim has learned how to cheat death entirely, and has become immortal. Yet he offers no satisfactions to the hero, who will travel onward from this encounter, with differing explanations as to why he had not obtained immortality. But the passion of the lament for Enkidu in Tablet IX perhaps makes it clear that Gilgamesh would sooner be reunited by death with his beloved friend than spend a life living in the strange eternity of Utnapishtim.
Gilgamesh represents an archetypal human plight to this degree: he is unable to avoid death. But the heroic march of generations is hymned by the chorus in Sophocles' Oedipus the King, in the direct address of the Chorus to the protagonist, which Robert Fagles translates thus:
…is there a man more agonized?
More wed to pain and frenzy? Not a man on earth,
The joy of your life ground down to nothing
O Oedipus, name for the ages
One and the same wide harbor served you
Son and father both
Son and father come to rest in the same bridal chamber.
How, how could the furrows your father plowed
Bear you, your agony, harrowing on In silence O. so long?
But now for all your power
Time, all-seeing Time has dragged you to the light,
Judged your marriage monstrous from the start
The son and the father tangling, both one
O child of Laius, would to god
I'd never seen you, never!
Now I weep like a man who wails the dead
And the dirge comes pouring forth with all my heart!
I tell you the truth, you gave me life
My breath leapt up in you
And now you bring down night upon my eyes (Fagles 234)
The most remarkable thing is that, even as the chorus describes the elision of identity between Oedipus and Laius (as father and son copulating with the same woman) the imagery also elides the identity of Oedipus with that of the chorus: in the last lines quoted, the chorus first credits Oedipus with their own existence ("you gave me life") then immediately accuses Oedipus as "bring[ing] down night upon my eyes," which seems to indicate that the blinding of Oedipus is itself become a more general metaphor. If we view the story of Oedipus as a tale of a man who has seen and done too much, then it is clear that his reward is not perfect knowledge but perfect blindness. It is worth noting that this heroic vision of human endeavor finds culmination here as the chorus -- somehwat perversely, it would seem, given the circumstances, but Sophocles has his reasons here -- has just proclaimed Oedipus as a practical divinity:
You outranged all men!
Bending your bow to the breaking-point
You captured priceless glory, O dear god,
And the Sphinx came crashing down… (Fagles 233)
Of course by this point in the drama the chorus can overpraise Oedipus, whose tragic fall from grace has already occurred. But it is worth noting that the plot itself -- the detective-story element, in which Oedipus wishes to find out who is causing the plague upon Thebes, and does so -- is what actually singles out Oedipus for such high praise. It is not the desire to know and to understand that is problematic for Sophocles, but the potential to have it taken too far. To a certain degree, the precise nature of Oedipus' transgression -- which confuses human origins with human means of procreation, and thus introduces a temporal elision which would threaten to elide human identity entirely if contemplated too deeply -- is illustrative of what Sophocles sees as the greater issue, which is an inquiry into subjects that are commonly considered 'taboo' for presumably good reasons.
But we do not even have to consider the relation of the taboo to the unknown or the unspoken in order to understand the way that all these texts stress the importance of humankind's desire to know, to explore the unknown, and to arrive at ultimate truths about existence and its mysteries, and indeed its meaning or lack thereof within human endeavor. We might instead recollect the exhortation given to Dante by his old schoolmaster: