Dr Judy Weiss

16th November    

The fifth century before Christ was a tumultuous one for the Greek city-states. It saw triumphs: the defeat of the Persians; the rise of Athens, the inspiring influence of the war-leader Pericles. But it also saw plague, years of war, and some shameful behaviour by the Athenians: the destruction of Melos, the arrogant and doomed attack on Sicily… Finally, disaster: Athens is defeated by Sparta, the city’s Walls are pulled down, Socrates is put to death for his views.

            In this same fifth century an intellectual elite reflected upon what triumph and disaster might teach us. Some of their writings are still read and still performed. They are the three great tragic playwrights: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Through them we can see traditional beliefs about the powers supposedly governing their world – the gods. And we can also see the dramatists challenging such beliefs and offering new ideas of their own.

            Foremost amongst the questions they raise are these. Who or what controls the universe?  What are the sources of disaster, both for individuals and the people? Does man have any responsibility for it? Why is there so often a yawning gap between what we deserve and what happens to us? Whom should we blame?

            The simple answer often seems to be: blame the gods. But who, and what, are the gods? The answer is complicated by two kinds of god existing in parallel: the older, earth (or chthonic) powers, and the newer Olympian deities. The former seem particularly connected to fear, revenge and pollution; they have names like Erinys or Fury, daemon, alastor and kir. They can be used by the Olympian gods to enforce rough forms of justice, such as blood feuds.

            Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides seldom portray or refer to the gods as admirable or attractive figures. They set mortals impossible dilemmas; they tempt, deceive and punish them; indeed, this seems a religion built on punishment. As a Chorus says in one play, if the people cannot see arrogance and injustice punished, they cannot believe, they cannot be pious. On stage or off, these gods are angry, violent, vengeful and jealous, and their punishments are usually out of all proportion to a crime.

            If indeed there is a crime in our sense of the word. It is hard to see what Oedipus has done wrong. He has tried to avoid killing his father and marrying his mother; in his ignorance he has done both. Perhaps it is his very attempt to circumvent the oracle that predicted these acts. Or perhaps it is because the very nature of his character leads him to excel, to stand out above his fellow men, and “mountains attract thunderbolts” (a comment in another play, Ag). The gods are jealous of human excellence and of anything that surpasses allotted limits; the very qualities that make men great may be labeled hubris and put them in the firing line. Oedipus blames “some malignant god” (he uses the word daemon here) for what has happened to him.

            Better then to keep your head down and show fear and respect? Even that can be difficult. A remote ancestor may have done something wicked. Hereditary guilt can mean that the crime isn’t punished till generations later. The house of Atreus is a notorious example in Greek stories. Atreus quarrels with his brother and feeds him, unknowingly, his own children; but the pollution of this deed creates an alastor, an avenging, malicious spirit that lives in the house of Atreus, and affects its descendants. One of these is Agamemnon, whom the gods give the impossible choice to sacrifice his daughter or let the Greek ships rot, becalmed, and never sail to Troy. Agamemnon lets his daughter be sacrificed, and is then murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, for this deed. In turn their son, Orestes, feels compelled, by the “justice” of the blood feud, to murder his mother, and is pursued by the Furies.

            Inheritance can thus sit heavy on a character’s shoulders, and is often used to plead innocence, lack of culpability. Clytemnestra, when confronted by the horrified Chorus, attempts to avoid responsibility and cast the blame elsewhere. It wasn’t really her, she pleads. It was the alastor in the house, created by the original bloody deed, who “appearing in the shape of this man’s wife struck him down”. One of the satisfying things about the Greek tragedies is how they often undermine their characters’ attempts to avoid blame. The Chorus will have none of Clytemnestra’s excuses: maybe an alastor was involved but it was the queen’s hands that indubitably are stained with blood. After the fall of Troy Helen has a set-to with Hecuba, the queen and mother of Paris, about who is to blame. Helen has two arguments: first that Hecuba as Paris’ mother “mothered the beginning of this wickedness”. Second, Aphrodite is to blame for promising Helen to Paris. Blame someone else and blame a god too; none of this is my fault, “I was the bride of force.” Hecuba comes back with all guns blazing. Force? “Did anyone hear you cry for help?” No, it’s sheer lust for a handsome man, and there’s no god involved: “Aphrodite is nothing but human lust”. Finally a desperate Helen begs for mercy from her cuckolded husband Menelaus: “I am not guilty of the mind’ infection which the gods sent”.

            Euripides, even more than the other dramatists, raises the question: are the gods real, external forces or are they in the mind, representing our own passions?

If we resist the gods’ will, are we in fact resisting the forces that reside in human nature? When we make a disastrous act we may impute this to their influence, but others (such as the audience of the plays) can see that we do make a choice. When Phaedra falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus, she knows what is right and wrong. Aphrodite may appear at the start of the play telling us how she has influenced Phaedra, but Phaedra herself attempts to follow the course of virtue. She mentions “the madness sent from some God” and her “inherited curse” from her family, but she determines to die rather than confess her love. Finally she lets herself be deceived by her unscrupulous nurse. Hippolytus, meanwhile, is warned against preferring Artemis and chastity to Aphrodite, thus offending the latter, but he chooses to ignore the warning.

            The fifth-century dramatists thus constantly play with traditional ideas of divine influence, human responsibility and choice. They remind us that to say “I don’t know what possessed me” or “I am the victim of a predestined Fate” is an inadequate response: we are both victims and agents. Something of their arguments passes down the Christian centuries to philosophers like Boethius (6th century) who is likewise preoccupied with the question of whom to blame, other than himself, as he faces prison. Influenced by neo-Platonic ideas, Boethius learns that there is no stability in human affairs – a world of shadows, only likenesses of the real good. When he debates predestination with Lady Philosophy his conclusion can be summed up in a tag: Astra inclinant, non necessitant (the stars do influence us but we are not forced to submit to that influence).

            Fast forward eight hundred years:  a great English poet, Chaucer, fascinated by the pre-Christian past, decides to write about a pagan story set in Troy. He has already translated Boethius and absorbed his ideas. The plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides have for a very long time not been performed, but Chaucer is familiar with Greek legends from other sources, and decides to use the Trojan setting for a Classical tale seen from a medieval re-casting. This is the love affair between a Trojan prince, Troilus, and Criseyde, daughter of a Trojan prophet who deserts to the Greek camp. When Criseyde is forced to join her father, she has to leave her lover and is finally unfaithful to him with a persuasive Greek.

            Chaucer’s immediate source was Italian and misogynistic: women are fickle and can’t be trusted. The English poet was both more sympathetic to his heroine and much more concerned with what made her, and her lover, act. Christian views of pagans, ever since St Augustine, had portrayed them as fatalists, in thrall to useless idols whose power it was impossible to resist. Yet Chaucer’s view of his lovers is of good people struggling to do their best in adverse circumstances, dimly aware perhaps of the cosmic bond of love which controls the universe but unable, without the revelation of Christ, to see more. When things go wrong, they blame the gods, and they see themselves as unable to act. Though he and Criseyde are at every point in the poem shown as exercising the freedom to choose, they are unaware of it – and thus unable to break out of their miserable constraints.

            Chaucer did not alter what happened to his unhappy lovers, but he supplied a different ending, a coda to his poem that takes it into a new dimension. Turning to his audience, he addresses them, 14th century Christians with the benefit of the Christian revelation. His subject is love. Troilus’s love of Criseyde at least enabled him after his death to gain an otherworldly perspective on the mutability of human passion. But Chaucer’s audience (and us) is infinitely more fortunate: we know about the real thing. The real representative of love hangs on the cross, redeeming our souls out of love, and incapable of ever betraying us: “For he nyl falsen no wight, dar I seye” (for I assert that he will deceive nobody). Don’t blame this God; instead look at the “best,” of which earthly love is an unreliable shadow, the truth of Christ, that will not let us down.