I recently joined Online Great Books, “an online community developing classically educated men and women using the Great Books of Western Civilization.” Thus far, we have read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Aeschylus, Euripides, and we’re about to start Plato. Each month we have a virtual seminar to discuss ideas that we found interesting. In parallel, I’m also in a seminar to discuss creation stories; we have read the Enuma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Theogony by Hesiod.
I love it. I highly recommend joining if you are able. Or at least trying it out. I’m reading more and thinking critically. And I’m appreciative of the great things that persist.
In meditating on and discussing these works, certain ideas pop out to me. Some as “AH HA!” and some as “WTF!”.
Thus this is the first of a series of meditations on the ideas from great books that apply to life today, inspired mostly by the ideas of others in my seminars: #037 and #creation. Thanks team!
Euripides I: Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, and Hippolytus
Euripides is known as the last great tragedian. This is probably because he pushed the limit of storytelling. His characters acted rationally enough while pushing the limit of believability. I think he fills the role of the last tragedian because anyone trying to one-up Euripides would have had to jump over the line into ridiculousness.
What’s the edge of what humans can do? Race 26.2 miles: easy to believe. Race 3,100 miles: less easy to believe.
In Medea, Medea is a powerful, rash, and logical woman who has used selfish acts to get her way. She betrayed her family by killing her own brother to help Jason, her husband. Later, Jason betrays Medea and their marriage oath by taking a mistress. In response, Medea plots and then murders his mistress by tricking her to wear a fancy dress that burns into her flesh. Medea then kills their own children. And literally rides off with their bodies unburied into the sunset on a chariot while Jason looks on in horror.
The storytelling is masterful because even though Medea toils between feeling pity for her innocent children vs. anger in cold blood, she can understand both sides: mercy and revenge. However, she is consistent in her behavior and self-justification by always acting to fulfill revenge. But, even though she commits heinous acts, her anger is believable and justifiable. She follows her anger to the end but justifies her decisions every step of the way. Medea’s character straddles chaos justified into order.
What would Euripedes’ successor have to do to make the sequel to Medea? Tricking Jason into eating his parents? Maybe infanticide in revenge was the evilest but most plausible act by the Greeks. Anything beyond this would reach parody beyond believability.
Battles of rhetoric with witty insults from emotional confrontations are universally enjoyable for us to watch. Euripides includes two levels of battle. Phase one involves long paragraphs of one character going at the other. Then phase two is one-liners back and forth in quick succession. The play acted out seems like a real battle. Each shoots at one another with their slings and arrows from a distance. Then they get closer, fighting hand-to-hand, jabbing and countering.
In Alcestis, Admetus has a chance to save his life from his fated death. Death, personified, pursues him. A god saves him by telling Admetus that he can save his own life by picking a family member to die in his place.
This may seem like a strange thought experiment, but it’s applicable to today. Who decides who lives and dies if a COVID-19 outbreak hits an underprepared hospital without enough beds?
Admetus first asks his parents, who refuse. Then he asks his wife Alcestis, who accepts and dies in his place. Props to Alcestis for going the honorable route: I think this is why the play is called Alcestis, to honor her sacrifice.
Anyway, after Alcestis dies, Admetus confronts his father Pheres about why he wouldn’t sacrifice himself for his son. The following insult battles are compelling. Keep in mind, this was ancient Greece and not Shakespeare.
Part of Admetus’ soliloquy to his father as a “battle phase one”:
- “Go on, get you other children – you cannot do it too soon – who will look after your old age, and lay you out when you are dead, and see you buried properly. I will not do it. This hand will never bury you.”
Medea and Jason share some blows back-and-forth from their story as well as a “battle phase two”, after Jason confronts Medea about their kids.
- Jason: “O my poor children, what a vicious mother yours has proved to be.”
- Medea: “O my poor boys, what a sad end you’ve met, thanks to your father’s failing.”
- J: “It was not by my hand they died.”
- M: “It was, though, because of your own arrogance and your new-saddled marriage.”
- Stories throughout history still capture our interest by maintaining believability while pushing the limits of what’s possible. Anything outside of believability enters into comedy and parody.
- Intellect and wit can be used as an attack, similar to physicality and technology. Throughout history, we appreciate and enjoy fights, either with swords or words.