A spectacular victory by the Greeks over an invading army of the Superpower of the day is recalled in Aeschylus’ Persians. All of this play’s action on stage is in the court of the Persian King. The magnitude of the victory is reflected in the fact that the despair thereafter among the mighty Persians extends to the dead.
Should the Athenian audience have seen in the Persians what was to be avoided in and for themselves? Alexander the Great can be seen as a Greek intensification of the more ambitious Persian potentates. Indeed, it can be wondered whether Alexander even provided a model of imperialism for the more ambitious Romans—and it can also be wondered, in turn, what imperial adventures (whether Alexander’s or the Romans’) did for both the integrity and the influence of Greek culture.
It can be wondered as well what the spread of Greek culture (especially through its language) did to the transformation of Judaism into what we know as Christianity. It can also be wondered what the effect of all this was on Judaism itself. In short, both the allure and the pitfalls of cosmopolitanism may be anticipated by the Persian experience in and with Greece, that experience recalled so dramatically by Aeschylus.
Two Greek poleis are particularly important in the plays we have from the three great tragedians. That is, stories about the Thebans and the Argives are particularly noteworthy. Thebes is associated from its very inception with quite ferocious actions and Argos with the celebrated leadership (“once upon a time”) of the Greek world.
Should the United States be likened to either of these communities? Ferocity may be seen in how the native tribes of North America were treated for centuries and in how nuclear weapons could be used by us in August 1945. Then, of course, there is the alternative model provided by a cultured Athens.
The Athens of the tragedians tended to be more conciliatory than their Thebes or their Argos. It was to Athens that both Oedipus (of Thebes) and Orestes (of Argos) could go for redemption. And it was in Athens, of course, that the tragedies could be developed that attempted to come to terms with a millennium of Greek experience.
We have been provided, for a decade now, numerous dramatizations of the September Eleventh assaults and American responses to them. Politicians have contributed to these efforts. One can be reminded here of the complaint made by Aeschylus in Aristophanes’ The Frogs, that Euripides had used his art to arouse and appeal to the baser elements in his community.
Can the same kind of complaint be made about how the September Eleventh challenge has generally been addressed among us? Has an unseemly fearfulness been promoted by such indulgences as the determined refrain, “If you see something, say something”? Is there here even a perverse longing for “something” to be seen, something that would legitimate the massive mobilization of resources that has been insisted on for a decade?
Related to this exploitation of fearfulness is the unleashing of violent responses against a despicable regime (that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq) that was never shown to have permitted, as another despicable regime (that of the Taliban in Afghanistan) evidently did permit, preparations for the September Eleventh assaults. The relative immunity of the United States in its campaigns against the targets settled upon is epitomized these days by our reliance upon air strikes by drones. The concerns that began to dominate public discourse in this country by the time the drones came to be employed significantly were not concerns about casualties (“ours” as well as “theirs”) but rather concerns about budgetary deficits for the United States.
How should the promotion of apprehensiveness (whether about casualties or about deficits) be regarded? Is the natural precariousness of human life thus recognized? But are there not better and worse ways of doing this?
An inevitable apprehensiveness is very much in evidence in the Greek tragedies. But it should be recalled how Aristotle understood (perhaps even chose to understand) what the tragedians (naturally?) did. They somehow or other came to promote a catharsis of pity and fear in the audience.
Such a catharsis is not a complete elimination of pity and fear. Although an excess of pity and fear is not healthy, their complete elimination would tend to subvert the truly human. That is, both a proper compassion and a necessary prudence would thereby be discouraged, if not even made impossible.
What should be made of the tragedians, as well as of those politicians who are inclined towards the tragic? Do they strive thereby for the meaningful? And is that more likely to seem to be offered by the warlike?
Compare Aristophanes, the greatest of the comic playwrights of antiquity. He, more than any of the prominent tragedians of his day, yearned for peace. This yearning did not keep him from being a patriotic Athenian.
The difference here between Aristophanes and the tragedians is dramatized by how Dionysus can be portrayed. The ferocious god of Euripides’ Bacchae cannot be readily recognized in the apprehensive Dionysus of Aristophanes’ The Frogs. A taming of the tragedians’ Heracles may also be seen in The Frogs.
We have become accustomed to hearing the terms “tragic” and “tragedy” misused. Calamities can thus be routinely characterized. But the tragic tends to be more meaningful than the calamitous.
Consider even the calamities for which human beings, and not nature, are responsible. For example, did the perpetrators of the September Eleventh atrocities know what they were doing? Did they, for example, anticipate what the long-term consequences of their assaults would be for their “people”?
The men who planned these atrocities at the highest level were anything but suicidal. Their canniness in concealing themselves for a decade thereafter should make observers wonder about what they truly thought of those who had been induced by then to sacrifice themselves for the Cause in September 2001. We can be reminded of the would-be leaders among us today who, in their youth, avoided combat duty in a war for which they were willing to have less privileged young men conscripted.
The role of chance in the “success” of the September Eleventh assaults was much greater than is generally recognized. It should have been apparent at once to the American public (or at least to its leaders) how much of a “fluke” this “success” was. We can be troubled, in turn, when we reflect upon how much our sometimes feverish responses have been determined by chance considerations.
In the properly-constructed tragedy, however, chance does not play a major role. Characters who speak of chance being at work among them may not understand what is happening. On the other hand, may we not wonder whether even the givers of oracles truly understand what was happening, and especially why?
Does the conquest of chance by the tragedian, especially when Fate is made much of, tend to promote piety? Still, it can be wondered whether it is not a matter of chance what form piety will take? Thus, for example, is it not a matter of chance who among us have been raised up to believe in predestination?
We return to Agamemnon for what his career can suggest about who or what is truly in charge of any life. We can be reminded here by the limits that even the heroic and the most “successful” face. After all, the conquering commander can be pitilessly slaughtered upon his return home.
Earlier, of course, his daughter had been butchered by her desperate father on an altar. And later, his wife is butchered by her son. In both instances, divinities are said to require these sacrifices.
We can be reminded by such stories of the limits to which the heroic must conform even when they seem most in control. Both Apollo and Athena must get “involved” before the problems confronted in Aeschylus’ Oresteia can seem to have a proper resolution, at least for the time being.
The Oedipus Tyrannos of Sophocles can remind us, in turn, of how difficult it may be to determine who does what and why. Thus it should be wondered, Who is really responsible for the killing of Laius? Of course, the playwright must respect, one way or another, the story he inherits and the expectations of the audience as to the awful guilt of Oedipus.
Even so, Sophocles does leave “technically” open, in the play, the question of what did happen at Laius’ fatal crossroads—and why. Does not the playwright even suggest thereby that it must remain a question about who is truly responsible for what in such matters? Thus, what “everyone” comes to believe by the end of this play (as to the killer of Laius) may not suffice for anyone who seeks a full understanding of “the situation.”
Similar challenges can confront an inquiry into how our decade-long September Eleventh campaign is to be thought about. Do we understand why the perpetrators of this atrocity acted as they did? And, perhaps even more important, do we understand why we have responded as we have not only abroad but, perhaps even more important, also at home?
Seminar on the Greek Playwrights
The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults
The University of Chicago
September 12, 2011