Thursday, September 24, 2015

[OE009] Handlug vs. Tat

Previous: [OE008] The Story: Oedipus

Handlug Vs. Tat

                While most are familiar with Freud’s take on the story, Freud is not the only game in town. Hegel uses the story of Oedipus to illustrate the difference between what he terms handlug and tat (if you thought I would pass up a chance to talk about Hegel, prepare to be disappointed).

                Handlug is the intended action while tat is the actual result. For example, let’s say that I pick up what I think is a delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich and take a bite, only to find a tarantula inside. My intended action is eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (handlug). However, my actual action is eating a peanut butter and jelly and tarantula sandwich (tat) because, unknown to me, a big hairy spider has crawled between the slices of bread. I intended to do one thing, but another thing actually happened.

                Oedipus’ handlugs are meant to escape his prophesied destiny: killing a belligerent old man as he flees his Corinthian “father,” saving a kingdom, and marrying a queen instead of his Corinthian “mother.” His tats fulfill the prophecy: killing his true father, marrying his true mother, and thus bringing down the curse of the gods on the kingdom of Thebes.

Escape the prophecy
Fulfilled the prophecy
Kill a belligerent old man
Killed his father
Save a kingdom
Cursed a kingdom
Marry a queen
Married his mother

                It bears pointing out that Oedipal morality is still binary – Oedipus is horrified at what he has done, as are the gods. Patricide and incest are evil, abominable things, things which cannot be forgiven by the excuse that Oedipus did not know what he was doing. The important point is not what Oedipus intended to do, but what he actually did.

                Hegel refers to this as “heroic morality,” wherein the moral actor takes responsibility for the results of action regardless of the intention behind them. It does not matter to my taste buds whether I intended to eat a peanut butter and jelly and tarantula sandwich or not. Whatever my intentions, the results are the same.

                This sort of thinking was popular among the Greeks, but we can also see traces of it in the Old Testament kosher laws. It does not matter whether or not I intended to touch a dead body (or to be born crippled, or to menstruate); I am rendered impure by actuality, not intent (In defense of old Yahweh, there is evidence this only applies to ritual impurity and not moral impurity - Jeremiah, for one, posits that it is possible to obey all of the ritual obligations and still be morally impure.)

                But there are also key differences between heroic morality and the Garden of Eden. Eve’s choices are explicitly labeled and lead to predictable results while Oedipus’ choices have their “labels” switched. Leaving Corinth seemed like the good choice that would lead him away from evil but ended up leading to his downfall. Yahweh's fruit quiz seems positively sporting in comparison.

                This same difference exists when we compare Pandora and Oedipus. Pandora acts consciously and in line with her desires – the gods may be setting her up, but she wants to open the jar. Oedipus, on the other hand, acts completely out of line with his desires. He is consciously striving to avoid evil, to the point of leaving behind the only home he has ever known.

                There are, of course, overlaps between Pandora and Oedipus. Oedipus exists in a world of fate, where he is destined to commit certain actions no matter how far he runs. We can still argue that Oedipus is being pushed, but Sophocles also uses the story to explore deeper moral dimensions. What is the difference between intended action and actual action? Are we responsible for who we are on the inside or what we do on the outside?

And this is the essential difference between Pandora and Oedipus. The story of Pandora is the story of an action. The story of Oedipus is a story about action.
Next: [OE010] The Game Mechanic: Your Precious Eyes


  1. The distinction between acts and intentions is one which conservatives see as a key difference between modern conservatives and modern liberals. Conservatives focus on acts, liberals on intentions. Making a deal that gives Iran billions of dollars and minimal inspection of its nuclear facilities is an act which is likely to harm America, not to mention our allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, so conservatives oppose it. Liberals think that trying to make peace and establish a dialog with a hostile regime are good intentions, so they favor the nuclear deal.

    1. Most conservatives would acknowledge that intent informs action, hence the distinction between murder and manslaughter. Or the "they started it" justification for discarding basic humanity when attacking SJWs.

      Heroic morality is something much, much older than modern conservatives. It was already starting to crack around the time of Sophocles.

      Modern conservatives put MORE emphasis on the morality of actions than modern liberals, but it's important to understand that Hegel is talking about something far older.