An epiphany can be described as a moment of self-realization or discovery that enlightens or reveals the person’s character. The term is rooted in the Greek word epiphania, which translates to manifestation. As used in modern fiction, philosophy and psychology, an epiphany is the manifestation of self-truths.
Some compare an epiphany to the Gestalt, the “Aha” moment when things about one’s self become clear. In Gestalt therapy, and in other forms of psychotherapy, it is hoped that clients will experience not one moment of self-realization, but many. The manifestation of self-truth can inspire change and solve problems.
Often in philosophy, an epiphany is described as not just a self-realization, but enlightenment about a mental tangle that relates to people in general. Philosophers may get rare flashes of insight that seem to give them moments of deeper understanding, they feel, into very complex problems. Such a rush of understanding may provoke great joy, but then may later be dismissed as too simple.
Many authors, but most particularly James Joyce, used the concept to great effect. In Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, every short story revolves around the central character experiencing an epiphany of sorts.
Joyce certainly didn’t mean that an epiphany was necessarily a positive moment. It was a clarifying moment, however, when both the character and the reader arrived at a conclusion about the deep-seated faults of the character. Joyce was clearly not the first writer to use the concept. These revelations are essential to the Classical Greek dramatists. Oedipus’ discovery of his inability to escape fate is essentially an epiphany.
As such, a self-truth can imply a very painful and unhappy moment. It may not provide a solution, but may instead result in more complexity. Oedipus’ epiphany of being blind to fate results in his madness and blinding himself. His mother/wife’s response is even more in excess — she hangs herself.
In psychology, training counselors are taught that it is important not to get ahead of the client. Arriving at a realization must be gradual and a safely guided process. Self-inquiry and revealing self-truth can be psychically painful, and in unstable patients, may result in self-injury.
Just as in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, some people cannot stand the light and may face the truth or the deception in their lives with great fear and trembling. They may want to quickly return to the cave. For others, as Plato describes, facing the light opens up amazing possibilities. They gaze at the sun and welcome an epiphany with joyous awe and wonder.