Saturday, February 4, 2012

I Survived The Peloponnesian War

Thucydides (460 BC – 395 BC) was a Greek historian whose greatest work, The History of the Peloponnesian War, described the conflict between Athens and Sparta to the year 411 BC.

The History of the Peloponnesian War is more than just a record of military buildup and engagement. The Perisan War (499 BC – 449 BC), recounted by Herodotus, ushered in the brief full flowering of culture and society in Athens. That golden period ended with the prolonged Peloponnesian War, and Sparta’s eventual supremacy over Athens.

The most obvious and interesting device employed by Thucydides is the inclusion of long formal speeches, literary reconstructions of pivotal events in the war. In point-counterpoint format, opposing sides made their cases, which were often decided by a popular vote among those who had heard the orations. Democracy, in all its fallibility, set the course of history in regards to mutual defense pacts and similar decisions facing the competing parties of the Hellenic realm.

Pericles' Funeral Oration

The best known of these speeches is the funeral oration of Pericles. It was customary for an Athenian leader to deliver such an address at ceremonies held for the war dead. Some scholars call this oration, as presented by Thucydides, a eulogy for Athens as well.

Pericles celebrated the great achievements of Athens, and set the context for the empire that Athens had built (and would soon lose). Some words from Perciles, via Thucydides:

"That part of our history which tells of the military achievements which gave us our several possessions, or of the ready valor with which either we or our fathers stemmed the tide of Hellenic or foreign aggression, is a theme too familiar to my hearers for me to dwell upon, and I shall therefore pass it by. [Instead, Perciles would focus on] the road by which we reached our position, the form of government under which our greatness grew, and the national habits out of which it sprang.”

Pericles was among the early to so clearly articulate the ideal of “equal justice under law” – a phrase now displayed over the entrance to the US Supreme Court.

"If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences...if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes..."

"We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality..."

"...advancement in public life falls to reputations for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit...our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger."

"In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas; while I doubt if the world can produce a man, who where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility as the Athenian."

"...for the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her...none of these men allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger. No, holding that vengeance upon their enemies was more to be desired than any personal blessings, and reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk... Thus, choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonor..."

"Therefore, having judged that to be happy means to be free, and to be free means to be brave, do not shy away from the risks of war.”

Civil War historian Garry Wills has noted parallels between the funeral oration of Perciles, and the Gettysburg Address of Abraham Lincoln:

Lincoln's speech, like Pericles', begins with an acknowledgment of revered predecessors: "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent..."; Lincoln, like Pericles, then praises the uniqueness of the State's commitment to democracy: "..a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal...government of the people, by the people, and for the people..."; Lincoln, like Pericles, addresses the difficulties faced by a speaker on such an occasion, "...we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground"; Lincoln, like Pericles, exhorts the survivors to emulate the deeds of the dead, "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the great task remaining before us"; and finally, Lincoln, like Pericles, contrasts the efficacy of words and deeds, "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract...The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." It is uncertain to what degree Lincoln was directly influenced by Pericles' Funeral Oration. Wills never claims that Lincoln drew on it as a source, though Edward Everett, who delivered a lengthy oration at the same ceremony at Gettysburg, began by describing the "Athenian example".

Now that I have started reading Plato, and The Republic in particular, I see how Thucydides is a good lead-in to Plato's portrayals of Socrates engaged in dialogues on the challenges and ingredients of successful self-governance.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Golden Age of Athens

I have been making slow progress, but progress nonetheless. My recent readings have spanned a most interesting century of ancient Greece, from the Herodotus history of the Persian Wars (499 BC – 449 BC) to the Thucydides classic, History of the Peloponnesian War, which recounted the long conflict among the Hellenic city-states from 424 BC – 411 BC.

Much of what we idealize about the Greek love of knowledge and freedom dates from the flowering of Athens during the years between those wars. At the time, their leader Pericles said that Athenians were “lovers of beauty without having lost the taste for simplicity, and lovers of wisdom without loss of manly vigor.”

In The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton credits two writers with giving us the best insight into this period:

For the Athenians of the great age, we turn not to Thucydides, the historian, interested in Athens rather than her citizens, but to two writers unlike in every respect but one, their power to understand and depict the men they lived with: to Aristophanes, who made fun of them and scolded them and abused them and held them up for themselves to see in every play he wrote, and to Plato, who for all that his business lay with lofty speculations on the nature of the ideal, was a student and lover of human nature too, and has left us in the personages of his dialogues characters so admirably drawn, they still live in his pages… This society he introduces us to is eminently civilized, of men delighting to use their minds, loving beauty and elegance…ever ready for a talk on no matter however abstract and abstruse a subject.

Aristophanes and Plato are a distinct contrast from the historians, just as Thucydides and Herodotus are very different from each other. Thucydides focused more intently on the military and political history of Athens, not reflecting as much of a wide-ranging curiosity as Herodotus. But Thucydides’ account reads much more like a modern work, less fragmentary and more organized in its approach.

I’ll admit growing war-weary with Thucydides, and balanced my reading of his military history with one more play by Aristophanes, The Congresswomen. Edith Hamilton says of the playwright:

To read Aristophanes is in some sort like reading an Athenian comic paper. All the life of Athens is there: the politics of the day and the politicians; the war party and the anti-war party; pacifism, votes for women, free trade, fiscal reform, complaining taxpayers, educational theories, the current religious and and literary talk – everything, in short, that interested the average citizen. All was food for his mockery.

There is something very modern about the comic sensibility of Aristophanes, but he was no high-brow. The Congresswomen features fart jokes and other scatological humor. That and its no-so-subtle sexual innuendoes might give the play an R rating, and if I were to imagine actors to appear in a movie version, Roseanne Barr and Adam Sandler would not be out-of-place.

The “golden age” of Athens did not last for long. Thanks to the Peloponnesian War, reported in detail by Thucydides, Sparta overcame Athens and destroyed much of what made it a beacon of ancient civilization. In the newly repressive Athenian climate, a philosopher like Socrates would be put to death for nothing more or less than a propensity to ask too many questions.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sex and Power in Lysistrata

Ancient Athens' great comic playwright, Aristophanes (446 B.C. - 386 B. C.), staged Lysistrata (literally "Army-disbander") in 411 B.C. The comic play recounts one woman's campaign to end the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) Aristophanes has been called the "Father of Comedy;" Lysistrata's mix of rowdy comedy and social commentary is, in many ways, as nuanced, sophisticated and "modern" as anything you'll see today. His comedy, profoundly confronting social taboos of the day, set a standard that continues to the present.

A woman of Athens, Lysistrata, rallies with Lampito of Sparta to persuade Greek women to withhold sex from their husbands until the Peloponnesan War is ended. To accomplish this, they must overcome the reluctance of the women, who are attached to their hedonistic pleasure in sex, and they must endure the skepticism and hostility of the old men (who appear as a chorus).

Lysistrata opens the play musing on the tepid reponse to her call for a political rally. She confides in her friend Calonice, "I'm so annoyed at us women. For among me we have a reputation for sly trickery-"

"And rightly, too." replies Calonice.

With her noble ambitions, Lysistrata and her earthy companion continue their dialogue, with Calonice injecting sexual innuendo into almost every retort.

Lysistrata had already recruited the older women to occupy the Acropolis (which housed the treasury being used to finance the war) and she finally convinces her friends to forego their own sexual pleasures, having them swear an oath over a bowl of wine.

In the next scene, the men too old to go to war confront the occupiers of the Acropolis, finding that they have met their match and then some. Lysistrata holds the line on suspending sexual relations and taking control of the city's treasury to bring the war to an end. Eventually, the male "victims" of the scheme begin to appear on stage, in varying stages of distress over the withholding of sex. In response, Lysistrata finds various ways to inflame their lust, only compounding the "agony" that they are suffering.

In short order, the frustrated warriors of Athens and Sparta reach a truce, and Lysistrata launches a Dionysian celebration of song and dance to mark the end of the war and the renewal of congress between men and women.

Aristophanes, Lysistrata, translated by Charles T. Murphy


Saturday, January 7, 2012

War, War and More War

I do not understand why it is that man loves war so much. I used to imagine a world at peace. But war seems to be innate, deeply ingrained, inescapable, inevitable, unending. Does war fester deep inside the heart of even the most placid of pacifists? One of my own earliest memories was of receiving for Christmas the plastic toy soldiers that I had coveted.

If war is a part of being human (or is it a part of being inhuman?) then it is doubly a part of being American. The older I get, the more disgusting and disingenuous I find the conceit that America is at the pinnacle of peace-loving nations and that anyone foreign is, by comparison, a bloodthirsty barbarian. In my lifetime, has there been any other country in the world that invaded so many homelands with so much devastating force? The American history that we celebrate, that stirs our sense of patriotism, is one of violence, destruction, genocide, conquest, and empire building. Maybe all those things aren’t mutually exclusive with compassion, sacrifice, and honor. Certainly, valor and bravery can be exhibited outside of war. I’m just not sure how strongly we believe that.

I am sick of war, and I am tired of reading about war. I am glad that I skipped Homer’s Iliad until a later time. Herodotus wrote of the Persian Wars that were recent history to him, dragging along for half a century. If you call it a human enterprise, King Xerxes of Persia accomplished one of the greatest human enterprises ever seen by assembling millions of soldiers for the campaign against Greece.

Herodotus gives us an mind-numbing account of the names and places along the way, the burning of Athens, the death of one leader after another, the stubborn resistance of the warriors of Sparta, and everywhere, slaughter. The land itself was a victim, since there was hardly enough food for the millions of invaders. They peeled the bark from the trees just to have something to eat.

Eventually, Xerxes retreated along the path of invasion, and you’re left with the question, “why?” What did any of it come to, except to satisfy a deep longing for war itself. The problem is, the deep longing for war is never satisfied.

In reading the passages from Herodotus where Xerxes was consulting his top advisers over whether or not to launch the war, I could not help but picture the George W. Bush White House. Herodotus recreated the dialogue between Xerxes, Mardonius, and Artabanus as they deliberated over a course of action that was already inevitable, and it might as well have been a transcipt of the conversations between Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell:

Now in all this God guides us; and we, obeying his guidance, prosper greatly….

From the day on which I mounted the throne, I have not ceased to consider by what means I may rival those who have preceded me in this post of honour, and increase the power of Persia as much as any of them. And truly I have pondered upon this, until at last I have found out a way whereby we may at once win glory, and likewise get possession of a land which is as large and as rich as our own nay, which is even more varied in the fruits it bears- while at the same time we obtain satisfaction and revenge.

For these reasons, therefore, I am bent upon this war; and I see likewise therewith united no few advantages. Once let us subdue this people, and those neighbours of theirs who hold the land of Pelops the Phrygian, and we shall extend the Persian territory as far as God's heaven reaches. The sun will then shine on no land beyond our borders…

The nations whereof I have spoken, once swept away, there is no city, no country left in all the world, which will venture so much as to withstand us in arms. By this course then we shall bring all mankind under our yoke, alike those who are guilty and those who are innocent of doing us wrong….

So said Xerxes, and so it goes.

And today, the neo-cons in Washington are craving an opportunity to launch war against…the “Persians.”

For some, there is no learning from history.

As it turns out I was not alone in perceiving George Bush as an uncanny reiteration of Xerxes. Eleven years ago (November 26, 2002) a Canadian journalist wrote a commentary for the Toronto Sun:

Emperor Xerxes and George w. Bush: Imperial Deja Vu
by Eric Margolis

President George Bush delivered a philippic last week at the NATO summit in Prague, comparing Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler and calling on America's allies to join his crusade against Iraq.

Who says history doesn't repeat itself?

Flashback to 480 BCE. Ultimatum from Persia to Athens: `Emperor Xerxes orders you to surrender your weapons and become an ally.' Message from Xerxes to his satraps - subordinate rulers within the mighty Persian Empire: `I intend to...march against Greece, and thereby gain vengeance on the Athenians who have wronged Persia and dared to injure me and my father!'

Ten years earlier, Xerxes' father, Darius, had attacked Athens but failed to crush the defiant little state. Now Xerxes was summoning his satraps to finish the job, warning that Athens was a threat to the entire civilized world. Contingents (modern terminology: coalition) from Parthia, Egypt, Media, Pontus, Scythia, Phoenicia, Assyria, and a score of other satrap kingdoms rallied under Xerxes' banner.
Flash forward 2482 years to Prague. `He's the guy who tried to kill my dad!' says Bush Jr. of Saddam, echoing Xerxes' filial anger. Bush's cartoon characterization of Saddam Hussein as a second Hitler plays well in unworldly Peoria and the US Bible Belt, but it produced derision or dismay among sophisticated continental Europeans, many of whom regard the saber-rattling, imperial-minded Bush Administration as more alarming than Iraq or Osama bin Laden.

Undaunted by such concerns, President Bush forged ahead with plans, first presented last September, to press NATO to deploy a 20,000-man rapid reaction force composed of European, Turkish, and Canadian troops whose prime mission would be to attack `rogue states,' Islamic militants, and any other violators of the `Pax Americana.'

In keeping with the Bush Administration's ever closer identification with the ethos and methods of the former British Empire, Europeans, Canadians, Turks, and, most lately, Australians, are to become the `sepoys'- native infantry - of America's new imperial forces, providing a diplomatic fig leaf and cannon fodder for aggressive missions. Washington is demanding its subordinate `allies' contribute troops whenever it so orders, just like Darius, Xerxes, and every feudal system and empire in history.

The British, ever the moon to America's sun, and the seven, small former Soviet-ruled East European states just invited to join NATO, eagerly volunteered token troop contributions, but the rest of Europe was deeply troubled by the prospect of what the late West German defense minister Franz Josef Strauss aptly called `playing foot soldier to America's atomic knights.'

After half a century of being an obedient junior partner to the US (France excepted), a now united Europe is timidly asserting its independence, the most recent example being Germany's refusal to obey Bush's imperial command to join his anti-Iraq jihad.

The EU is struggling to form a 50,000-man European intervention force that America clearly sees as a rival to its own plan for a US-directed Euro `rogue state' swat team. Europe's reaction force is designed for peace-keeping; the Bush Administration wants its Euro-force to fight America's enemies.

The White House pushed hard for admission to NATO of militarily feeble Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia. This was primarily because the US needs their air bases as refueling and logistical waypoints on an air bridge that extends from North America to new, permanent US bases in the Mideast and Afghanistan, the 21st century version of the British Empire's old `imperial lifeline' that ran through Gibraltar and Suez to India and beyond.

These economically weak nations are quickly becoming US dependencies, replacing increasingly `undependable' European allies like France and Germany. Even so, few noticed that the admission of these four states, plus Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, would likely weaken instead of strengthening NATO by draining rather than adding to its military resources, and making its least capable members vulnerable to an inevitably resurgent Russia. As Frederick the Great observed, `He who defends everything, defends nothing.' No matter how gratifying it is to see these seven states - particularly the long-suffering Baltic peoples - back in the arms of Europe - NATO has effectively diluted its military power.

Equally interesting, was the dog that didn't bark: Russia. After Prague, Bush hurried off to see `my friend Vladimir Putin' to assure him that a western military alliance smack on Russia's western border and St Petersburg was no threat at all, but somehow a benefit.

The reason the Russian dog didn't bark was twofold: Russia's military remains weak and absorbed by the bloody war in Chechnya; Putin and his supporters are heavily dependent on discreet US funding to maintain their power and keep their cash-strapped government running. Putin needs Bush's support to prevent Chechen independence. In exchange, Bush has allowed Russia to re-occupy half of Afghanistan via its proxy Northern Alliance.

At their meeting, the two leaders also discussed plans for Iraq: Putin might not stand in the way of an American invasion in exchange for Russian oil firms retaining their large drilling concessions in northern Iraq, and an honorarium from Uncle Sam of at least US $12 billion.

Flashback 480 BC: Xerxes: `At last I have found a way whereby we may at once win glory: get possession of a rich land and obtain satisfaction and revenge.'
Epilogue: To everyone's surprise, the irksome Greeks (`Grecians' to George W. Bush) won. The irksome Iraqis are unlikely to be so lucky.

Yes, after surviving the Persian Wars with Herodotus, and after hearing the bellicose presidential aspirants beat the same old war drum day in and day out, I am tired of war. I intended to read Herodotus and Thucydides back-to-back, but I need a break before entering the Peloponnesian Wars preserved by our next Greek historian. So I’m going to jump ahead to Aristophanes for some comic relief. And under the circumstances, what better play to read than Lysistrata?

Well, so much for avoiding war, huh?

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Histories of Herodotus

With The Histories, Herodotus (ca. 484 – 425 B.C.) would eventually earn the title “The Father of History, but also “The Father of Lies,” thanks to investigative methods that were sometimes less than rigorous. He broke ground by travelling extensively around the Mediterranean, the Aegean and beyond to collect oral histories, facts and legends that make up The Histories.


Herodotus states that his purpose is to preserve “from decay the remembrance of what men have done” and to prevent “the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory.” Parts of the early chapters of his book are based on travels he made to places such as Egypt, while the greater part of the book concerns the Persian Wars, which started in 499 B.C. and lasted until 449 B.C.


Perhaps the most challenging aspect of reading Herodotus is to make sense of the many unfamiliar people and places that he mentions. The reader would do well to avoid getting bogged down in the details and just follow the advice of Clifton Fadiman: to “read for the stories, the digressions, the character descriptions, the fantastic oddments of information about the manners and customs of dozens of ancient peoples.”

Candaules Shews His Wife to Gyges, 1820, by William Etty (1787 - 1849)

One of the first stories is about Candaules, king of Lydia, and his bodyguard, Gygas. The king is inordinately boastful of his wife’s beauty and forces the reluctant bodyguard to hide in the royal boudoir to get a good look at the queen, naked. The queen recognizes Candaules’ trick, but she does not confront him at the time. Later, though, she calls for Gyges and presents an ultimatum: to make amends for the disgrace she has suffered. Gygas can either commit suicide or murder the king and claim the queen and the throne for his own. Gygas choses the latter. The deceased king has earned a place in psychology, though. Candaulism is a sexual practice (some might say “disorder”) in which a man exposes his female partner, or images of her, to other people for their voyeuristic pleasure. Reportedly, the FBI agent turned spy for the Soviets, Robert Hanssen, engaged in candaulism, sharing explicit photos of his wife without her knowledge.

Herodotus tells another memorable story. The poet Arion has just won a prestigious music competition in Sicily and is sailing back home across the Mediterranean. His shipmates conspire to steal his winnings from the contest, and insist that he can either commit suicide, in which case his body will be given a proper burial upon landing, or he will be thrown overboard. Arion asks for permission to sing one last song. During his song of praise to Apollo, dolphins gathered around the ship, and when Arion jumped into the water, one of the dolphins carried him to safety at the sanctuary of Poseidon.

Arion on a Sea Horse, 1855, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 - 1905)

One especially fascinating section of The Histories is based on a trip that Herodotus makes to Egypt, where he examines the pyramids and offers detailed explanations of why and how the manmade wonders were constructed.

Most of the book, though, explains the progress of the Persian Wars.

Conflict had been brewing between the Persians and the Greeks for at least a half century before the outbreak of what we call the Persian Wars. Cyrus the Great had conquered Ionia (in Asia Minor) in 547 B.C., and Persian tyrants had exerted control from that time, until larger parts of Hellenic Asia Minor rebelled against the Persians starting around 499 B.C.

In 493 B.C., the Persian king Darius the Great launched an assault on Greece as retribution for the burning of Sardis, the Persian regional capital in Asia Minor. Later, Xerxes, the son of Darius escalated the conflict to a much higher level, assembling an enormous force to march from Persia, through Asia Minor, across the Hellespont and on to the cities of Greece.

Herodotus estimates that Xerxes sent two-and-a-half million fighters and that many more support personnel. Despite outnumbering the Greeks and scoring many victories, the Persians couldn’t match the fighting spirit of their opponents, nor their skills in naval warfare, and were eventually forced into retreat.

As far as we know, the approach taken by Herodotus in reporting events was unprecedented. He tried to present the story from various perspectives, comparing and contrasting the many accounts he had heard. His narrative of the war features a great deal of "invented dialogue" not unlike a technique employed by many history writers today. Whatever liberties he took with the facts, Herodotus did set a standard for investigating and explaining the history and culture of the world.

Long stretches of the book are a hard slog but, overall, Herodotus emerges as someone I would like to meet, a man whose curiosity and point-of-view provides a book still worth reading after 2500 years.

Herodotus, The Histories, in The Portable Greek Historians, edited by M. I. Finley.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Passages from the Tragedies

Cry aloud without fear the victory of Zeus,
You will not have failed the truth:
Zeus, who guided men to think,
Who has laid it down that wisdom
Comes alone through suffering.
Still there drips in sleep against the heart
Grief of memory; against
Our pleasure we are temperate.
From the gods who sit in grandeur
Grace comes somehow violent.

-from Agamemnon, by Aeschylus

The god of war, money changer of dead bodies,
Held the balance of his spear in the fighting,
And from the corpse-fires at Ilium
Sent to their dearest the dust
Heavy and bitter with tears shed
Packing smooth the urns with
Ashes that once were men.
They praise them through their tears, how this man
Knew well the craft of battle, how another
Went down splendid in the slaughter:
And all for some strange woman.
Thus they mutter in secrecy,
And the slow anger creeps below their grief
At Atreus’ sons and their quarrels.
There by the walls of Ilium
The young men in their beauty keep
Graves deep in the alien soil
They hated and they conquered.

-from Agamemnon, by Aeschylus

Numberless wonders
terrible wonders walk the world but none the match for man--
that great wonder crossing the heaving gray sea,
driven on by the blasts of winter
on through breakers crashing left and right,
holds his steady course
and the oldest of the gods he wears away--
the Earth, the immortal, the inexhaustible--
as his powers go back and forth, year in, year out
with the breed of stallions turning up the furrows.
And the blithe, lightheaded race of birds he snares,
the tribes of savage beasts, the life that swarms the depths--
with one fling of his nets ;
woven and coiled tight, he takes them all,
man the skilled, the brilliant!
He conquers all, taming with his techniques
the prey that roams the cliffs and wild lairs,
training the stallion, clamping the yoke across
his shaggy neck, and the tireless mountain bull.
And speech and thought, quick as the wind
and the mood and mind for law that rules the city--
all these he has taught himself
and shelter from the arrows of the frost
when there's rough lodging under the cold clear sky
I and the shafts of lashing rain--
ready, resourceful man!
Never without resources
never an impasse as he marches on the future--
only Death, from Death alone he will find no rescue
but from desperate plagues he has plotted his escapes
Man the master, ingenious past all measure
Past all dreams, the skills within his grasp—
He forges on, now to destruction
Now again to greatness. When he weaves in
The laws of the land, and the justice of the gods
That binds his oaths together
He and his city rise high—
But the city casts out
That man who weds himself to inhumanity
Thanks to reckless daring. Never share my hearth
Never think my thoughts, whoever does such things.

-from Antigone, by Sophocles

Blest, they are truly blest who all their lives
Have never tasted devastation. For others, once
The gods have rocked a house to its foundations
The ruin will never cease, cresting on and on
From one generation on throughout the race—
Like a great mounting tide
Driven on by savage northern gales,
Surging over the dead black depths
Roiling up from the bottom dark heaves of sand
And the headlands, taking the storm’s onslaught full-force,
Roar, and the low moaning
Echoes on and on…

-from Antigone, by Sophocles

Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy,
And reverence toward the gods must be safeguarded.
The mighty words of the proud are paid in full
With mighty blows of fate, and at long last
Those blows will teach us wisdom.

-from Antigone, by Sophocles

The proverb runs “There is one thing alone
That stands the brunt of life throughout its course,
A quiet conscience,”…a just a quiet conscience
Whoever can attain it.
Time holds a mirror, as for a young girl,
And sometimes as occasion falls, he shows is
The ugly rogues of the world. I would not wish
That I should be seen among them.

-from Hippolytus, by Euripides

Love distills desire upon the eyes,
Love brings bewitching grace into the heart
Of those he would destroy.
I pray that love may never come to me
With murderous intent,
In rhythms measureless and wild.
Not fire nor stars have stronger bolts
Than those of Aphrodite sent
By the hand of Eros, Zeus’s child.

-from Hippolytus, by Euripides

The care of God for us is a great thing,
If a man believe it at heart:
It plucks the burden of sorrow from him.
So I have a secret hope
Of someone, a God, who is wise and plans;
But my hopes grow dim when I see
The deeds of men and their destinies.

-from Hippolytus, by Euripides

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Reflections on the Tragedies

I am having difficulty finding the words to express what these readings have meant to me, so far. Even while trying to take the stories at mere face value, it is impossible to overlook how they contain multiple layers of meaning. I’ve tried to complete these readings with a minimum of introductions, saving the commentaries until after I finish each work. My own initial impressions, along with the critical essays, raise so many issues worthy of contemplation that I am tempted to spend weeks studying each of these classics. But in the interest of making it through the list of masterworks in a reasonable length of time, I know I must move along quickly.

A depiction of the theater in Athens

So far, I have read nothing that didn’t seem contemporary and relevant. Mortimer Adler suggests that we read these works and identify “What is the central question raised by the author?” In the three Greek tragedies I just read (by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides), the question seems to be “What is justice?” or “How can justice be achieved?”

One common thread in the three plays is that when inflexible laws leave no room for mercy or common sense, the result is something less than justice. The powerful figures who stubbornly hold fast to their principles, despite the protests of those around them, may be setting themselves up for the words of the biblical adage, “pride cometh before a fall.” Hubris - extreme arrogance, haughtiness and pride – is exhibited by many protagonists in the Greek dramas. Hubris, as it became defined in the law, was one of the most serious crimes in ancient Athens. Aristotle defined hubris as shaming the victim, not because anything happened to you or might happen to you, but merely for your own gratification.

When I was reading Antigone, where the ruler Creon comes onto stage stubbornly insisting that his course of action was the only correct one, I was reminded immediately of the unbending arrogance displayed by modern politicians like George Bush and Dick Cheney. Very little has changed.

I suppose it was when I was first introduced to Greek drama while in high school that I first heard the term “hubris,” and one other: “catharsis.” Catharsis is the purging of strong emotions that occurs both in the characters of the Greek tragedies and in the audience members watching the performances.

Aristotle first used the term “catharsis” in referring to the emotional impact of the dramas. In catharsis, “it is the human soul that is purged of its excessive passions.” In his Poetics, Aristotle proposed that the purpose of tragedy is to purge the audience of pity and terror. A fascinating discussion of this subject is found in the chapter “A Theory of Catharsis in Drama” in T.J. Scheff’s book, Catharsis in Healing, Ritual, and Drama.

It is reassuing to think that there might be a beneficial result from exposure to something as emotionally jarring and unpleasant as a Greek tragedy.

The introduction to the edition of Antigone that I read, includes references from George Steiner’s Antigones: How the Antigone Legend Has Endured in Western Literature, Art, and Thought. As much as any commentary I read, this passage suggests just how many levels of meaning can be explored through classical literature. Steiner states:

It has, I believe, been given to only one literary text (Antigone) to express all the principal constants of conflict in the condition of man. These constants are fivefold: the confrontation of men and of women; of age and of youth; of society and of the individual; of the living and the dead; of men and of god(s). The conflicts which come of these five orders of confrontation are not negotiable. Men and women, old and young, the individual and the community or state, the quick and the dead, mortals and immortals, define themselves in the conflictual process of defining each other. Self definition and the agonistic recognition of 'otherness' (of l'autre) across the threatened boundaries of self, are indissociable. The polarities of masculinity and of femininity, of ageing and of youth, of private autonomy and of social collectivity, of existence and morality, of the human and the divine, can be crystallized only in adversative terms (whatever the many shades of accommodation between them). To arrive at oneself-the primordial journey-is to come up, polemically, against 'the other'. The boundary-conditions of the human person are those set by gender, by age, by community, by the cut between life and death, and by the potentials of accepted or denied encounter between the existential and the transcendent….

Specifically, Steiner identifies the scene where Antigone confronts Creon as one in which "each of the five fundamental categories of man's definition and self-definition through conflict is realized, and...all five are at work in a single act of confrontation."

Steiner made another point that came as a surprise to me, and that is the long precedent for the high regard in which he held the play:

Between c.1790 and c.1905, it was widely held by European poets, philosophers, scholars that Sophocles' Antigone was not only the finest of Greek tragedies, but a work of art nearer to perfection than any other produced by the human spirit.

No wonder classics like Antigone are swept under the rug these days. To explore the issues brought up by Sophocles might be dangerous to the established order of our militaristic consumer culture.

Far be it for any prophet to interfere with profits.

Euripides' Hippolytus

Euripides (484-406 B.C.) won first prize at the Dionysian festival in Athens in 428 B.C. for his trilogy which included the tragedy of Hippolytus.

Hippolytus is unjustly accused of raping his stepmother and is subsequently condemned to death by his father Theseus, the king of Athens.

The Death of Hippolytus, 1860, Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912)

The play opens as Aprhodite, goddess of love, complains that Hippolytus (illegitimate son of Theseus by the Amazon Hippolyta) by swearing his chastity and by honoring Artemis, goddess of the hunt, rather than Aphrodite. To gain her revenge against Hippolytus, Aphrodite sets a plan in motion.

Phaedra, wife of Hippolytus, appears on stage with her nurse. Phaedra is in failing health, refusing to eat, and reluctantly confesses to the nurse that she is heartsick over falling in love with her stepson Hippolytus.

The nurse shares this news with the unsuspecting Hippolytus, who responds with outrage. Believing she is ruined by her secret coming to light, Phaedra hangs herself.

When Theseus returns and finds her body, he also finds a suicide note blaming her death on Hippolytus. Theseus calls on the god Poseidon to impose a curse upon Hippolytus. Subsequently, a messenger brings news of Hippolytus being seriously injured when a bull roared out of the sea and frightened his horses. Theseus continues to assert that Hippolytus is receiving only what id due him for his transgressions. Then, Artemis appears to explain that Hippolytus was innocent, that Phaedra lied, and that Aphrodite created the misunderstanding.

A dying Hippolytus is brought onstage to face his father, and even forgives him, just before breathing his last.

Euripides, Hippolytus, translated by David Grene

Sophocles' Antigone

Sophocles (496-406 B.C.) wrote Antigone no later than 442 B.C. It was the third in his series of Theban plays.

Antigone and Polyneices, 1865, Nikiforos Lytras (1832-1904)

Antigone’s determination to fulfill her familial duty to bury her brother, killed in war, puts her at odds with Creon, the ruler of Thebes.

The brothers Eteocles and Polyneices, fighting on opposite sides of a Theban civil war, both died in battle. Creon ordered that Eteocles be given a proper burial, while the body of Polyneices should be left in the field. The play opens as their sisters discuss what to do. Antigone vows to bury Polyneices even if it means her life, while Ismene pleads that she not to put herself in such jeopardy.

Subsequently, Creon seeks the support of the chorus of Theban Elders regarding the disposition of Polyneices' body, and the elders agree. A sentry then reports to Creon that the body had been buried. Creon orders the sentry to find the responsible party or face death himself. The sentry returns with Antigone, who does not deny the act, and who tries to convince the king that his edict was unjust. Creon orders her imprisoned.

Making his appearance next is Haemon, son of Creon and fiance to Antigone. At first, Haemon pledges submission to his father’s will, but cautiously attempts to convince his father to have mercy on Antigone, adding that most of the citizens of Thebes feel that Antigone is being punished unjustly. The confrontation escalates in bitterness until Haemon vows never to see Creon again, and exits.

Creon stubbornly clings to his original edict and orders that Antigone be buried alive in a cave.

The blind prophet Teiresias enters, warning Creon that Polyneices should be buried respectfully, or that Creon would lose a son as a consequence. The chorus echoes the message of the prophet, and Creon finally relents, ordering burial for Polyneices and freedom for Antigone. He exits to oversee those tasks.

A messenger then arrives, telling Creon’s wife, Eurydice, that her son Haemon has killed himself after discovering the body of Antigone, who had hung herself while trapped in the cave. Eurydice retires to the palace.

Creon returns to the stage carrying the body of Haemon. A messenger arrives to tell Creon that Eurydice has killed herself over the loss of Haemon, and cursed Creon with her dying breath. The play ends with Creon a broken man, realizing the folly of his excessive pride.

Sophocles, Antigone, translated by Robert Fagles.

Aeschylus' Oresteia

Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) was the first major tragedian of Greek drama. He was born near, and lived most of his life in and around, Athens. His trilogy Oresteia (including Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides) debuted at the Dionysian festival in Athens in 458 BC, winning first prize.

Oresteia revolves around the attempts to lift the curse plaguing the House of Atreus upon the return of Agememnon from the Trojan War.

Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon. On the left, Aegisthus urges her on, 1817, Baron Pierre-Narcisse GuĂ©rin (1774–1833)

The events of the play arise from the terrible history of the House of Atreus - in brief:

The sons of Pelops – Atreus and Thyestes – became bitter rivals for the throne of Mycenae. After much feuding, Atreus took his revenge by cooking the sons of Thyestes and feeding them to him. Thyestes was forced into exile for eating the flesh of a human. Brooding over his circumstances, Thyestes consulted the oracle who told him to have a child by his daughter. The son of this incestuous union was named Aegisthus, but he was abandoned by his mother out of shame. Eventually, Aegisthus did kill his uncle Atreus, but not before Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus.

Agamemnon married Clytemnestra, and Menelaus married her sister Helen, who would become known as Helen of Troy. Helen was taken from Menelaus by Paris of Troy during a visit. Menelaus’ determination to regain his wife initiated the Trojan War.

Because Agamemnon had offended the goddess Artemis by killing a sacred deer in a sacred grove, she stopped the winds so that Agamemnon’s fleet could not sail into war. To appease Artemis, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia.

Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon and mother of Iphigenia, was so outraged by the killing that she began an affair with Aegisthus while Agamemnon was away at war.

Agamemnon returned from the war along with his concubine, the prophetess Cassandra. Shortly after their arrival at the palace, Clytemnestra killed both Agamemnon and Cassandra. Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s son Orestes was sent into exile after the murders. Later, urged on by his sister Electra, Orestes avenged the death of their father by killing Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.

Orestes was consumed with the guilt of having carried out the required revenge by committing the unforgivable act of murdering his own mother.

This version of the curse on the House of Atreus forms the plotline for Aeschylus’ trilogy. In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra awaits the return of Agamemnon from the war and then stabs him to death.

In The Libation Bearers, Electra and Orestes come together and plots their revenege, culminating in Orestes’ murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.

In The Eumenides, Orestes is tormented by the Furies, deities that avenge patricide and matricide. Orestes sought refuge with the gods, first with Apollo and then with Hermes, but he was unable to escape the Furies.

Since the traditional “laws” that applied to the situation were in conflict (i.e, obligatory revenge versus prohibition on matricide) the goddess Athena proposed the formation of a jury to determine Orestes’ fate. Apollo served as attorney for Orestes and the Furies were advocates for Clytemnestra. After the trial, the jury’s votes were tied, resulting in an acquittal for Orestes. The Furies were dissatisfied with outcome and protested vehemently, prompting Athena to grant them a position of honor in Athens where they could continue (in a more seemly manner) to promote the cause of parental respect. With Athena’s introduction of the jury trial, a more humane way of dispensing justice (compared with the prior mechanisms of law) became available to the Greek people.

Aeschylus, Oresteia, translated by Richmond Lattimore