Euripides and the Philosophy Of His Time

[Part 1]

John Dillon 

Trinity College,


?O power, who mount the world, wheel where the world rides

O mystery of man?s knowledge, whosoe?er you be,

Zeus named, Nature? necessity or mind of man,

I call upon you; for you walk the path none hears

Yet bring all human action back to right at last.?

                         (trans. R. Lattimore, slightly altered).

Thus does Euripides make the anguished queen-mother Hecuba, in the Trojan Women (884-8), address the supreme principle of the universe. Menelaus, who is present, is suitably baffled:

?What can this mean? How strange a way to call on gods!?

The man, we might say, is justified in his astonishment. What degree of mental anguish makes Hecuba call upon Zeus thus? Dramatically, I think, it is extremely effective a mixture of scepticism, born of despair, as to the existence of any personal deity, combined with an obstinate hope that something or somebody up there might be listening, and be moved to relieve her misery. Of course, nothing does.

But my concerns on the present occasion are not so much literary as philosophical.  To achieve this effect, in this passage as in so many others, Euripides draws on his knowledge of, and, no doubt, adherence to, contemporary philosophical theories, and it is his relation to these that is the subject of the present discourse.

In later antiquity, from early Hellenistic times on, Euripides was widely acknowledged as a mouthpiece of philosophical doctrines, both ethical and ?physical?. Indeed, the Church Father Clement of Alexandria, in a memorable phrase, termed him ?the philosopher of the stage?.[1] Nor did Clement invent the phrase. The architect Vitruvius uses it before him (scaenicus philosophus, De Arch. VIII Praef. 1), attributing it to ?the Athenians?, and Athenaeus (Deipn. IV 158E) and Sextus Empiricus (AM I 288) echo it Sextus, indeed, using it in connection with the very quotation from the Trojan Women with which I began. The habit of quoting Euripides to make a philosophical or sophistic point began already in his own lifetime, as we can see from various remarks of Aristophanes a nice example being the agon of the Frogs, where Euripides himself boasts of how he educated the Athenian public (971-5):

?I taught them all these knowing ways

By chopping logic in my plays,

And making all my speakers try

To reason out the how and why.? (tr. B.B. Rogers)

Plato also makes use of him as a source, though generally disapprovingly,[2] and by the later  fourth century we find him frequently in the mouths of orators.[3] In the early Hellenistic era, the philosopher Chrysippus was notoriously fond of quoting Euripides. Diogenes Laertius (VII 180) tells us that in one of his treatises he copied out nearly the whole of Euripides? Medea doubtless something of an exaggeration though to precisely what use he put it is not revealed. Presumably he tried to use Medea as an illustration of Stoic doctrine on the unitary nature of the soul, as an example of the struggle between the reason and the passions, on the head of Medea?s famous soliliquy (1040-1080, esp. 1078-9), but that hardly explains what he did with the rest of the play. At any rate, I shall be returning to this topic presently.

In later times, Euripides is frequently on the lips of such authors as Cicero, Philo of Alexandria, Plutarch, and the Christian Clement of Alexandria (though Cicero, for patriotic reasons, likes, whenever possible, to quote a Roman version of the same thought in such an authority as Ennius or Accius), and the enormous hoard of quotations from him on nearly every subject in the Anthology of John Stobaeus is eloquent testimony to his enduring popularity as a source of well-turned wisdom.


However, Euripides? posthumous reputation as a philosopher, interesting though that topic is, is not my theme on the present occasion. What I want to examine, rather, is what his actual relationship may have been with the contemporary philosophical and sophistic movements, and what use he made of them in his plays.

First of all, let us consider what were the latest trends in philosophy in the later fifth century -- we do not have to go back over the whole extent of Presocratic philosophy to answer this question. The names of primary relevance to Euripides are three: Anaxagoras, Archelaus, and Diogenes of Apollonia of at least the first two of whom he is repeatedly stated in the biographical tradition to have been a pupil or ?hearer?.[4] Between them they represent the sort of philosophical Gemeingut which would be in the head of any Athenian intellectual of ?advanced? views during the period of the Peloponnesian War, and which is broadly satirized by Aristophanes in the Clouds of 423 B.C.[5] Of such an Athenian intellectual elite Euripides is very much a part, and is indeed its most eloquent surviving spokesman. Other figures were, above all, the great statesman Pericles, under whose patronage Anaxagoras flourished in Athens for almost forty years (before being driven out in around 431 as a result of that same patronage), the historian Thucydides, Socrates (who, although he ended by rejecting all the basic suppositions of the movement, was indisputably a part of it), and such rich and influential figures as Callias, son of Hipponicus (the great patron of sophists), Critias, son of Callaeschrus, Antiphon of Rhamnus, and Alcibiades.

Let us first remind ourselves of some of the basic doctrines of Anaxagoras and his followers, and of the contemporary sophists (whom I will also for this purpose count as philosophers), such as Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, and Prodicus, and then see, by selected examples, what use Euripides made of them.

Anaxagoras? chief contribution was to postulate Nous, Mind, as the efficient cause of the creation of the cosmos. ?All things were together, infinite (or indefinite) in both multitude and smallness?, is the famous beginning of his book (Fr. 1 D-K), and then a little later (Fr. 12 D-K) we learn that Mind, which is also infinite, being the only thing that is unmixed with anything else, is the cause of the separating out of all things, by means of instituting a circular motion:

?It is the finest and purest of all things, and has all judgement of everything and greatest power; and everything that has life, both greater and smaller, all these Mind controls; and it controlled the whole revolution (perchôręsis), to make it revolve at the beginning.?

The fearful problems surrounding the precise nature of the primordial mixture fortunately need not concern us, since they do not seem to have much concerned Euripides. It was the notion of the universe being set in motion by Mind that attracted him as it initially attracted Socrates, by Plato?s account (Phd. 96A), until he concluded that Anaxagoras seemed to have envisaged no further role for Nous after its initial setting of the ball rolling (or rather, of the swirl swirling).

Anaxagoras does not seem to have specified what this Nous was made of (except to specify that it does not have a portion of everything else), and scholars dispute as to whether or not he viewed it as non-material. Since he sets it off from everything that might be described as material, it seems to me that he at least comes close to to such a conception. If so, then his follower, the Athenian Archelaus (the first Athenian philosopher, by the way) retreats somewhat from this position, as he declares the ruling Mind to be Air (Fr. 4 D-K) though no doubt the purest part of air, commonly termed aithęr thus repeating, in a somewhat different mode, the ?correction? of Anaximander made a century earlier by Anaximenes. Archelaus also denied that Mind was utterly unmixed with everything else, but declared that it also contained mixture. He thus resolves an ambiguity in Anaxagoras? thought in the direction of thorough-going materialism.

Diogenes of Apollonia, who was more or less contemporary with Archelaus, and was certainly influential from the 440?s to the 420?s, developed the concept of Air as the intelligent motive force in the world, out of which all other things come (Fr. 5 D-K):

?And I hold that that which has intelligence is what men call air. All men are guided by it, and it masters all things. I hold that this same thing is God, and that it reaches everything and disposes all things and is in everything.?

Like Archelaus, he obviously felt that an entity which was totally other than the rest of things could have no effect on them, in direct opposition to Anaxagoras? argument that if Mind were of a common nature with the conglomeration of everything else, it could not logically be the moving force behind everything. We can leave the merits of their respective positions aside, however, as Euripides has plainly opted for that of Archelaus and Diogenes.

In the passage of the Trojan Women with which I began, he appears to entertain the possibility, derived from the Atomist philosophy of Leucippus and Democritus, that God might be merely ?the necessity of Nature? (ajnavgkh fuvsewß), but it is plain from other passages that that is not his most favoured view. Hecuba?s second alternative, ?the mind of mortals? (nou`ß brotw`n), better accords with other passages from his works. We must, of course, always remember that Euripides is a playwright, not a philosopher, and, though he he does seem to allow his personal beliefs on occasion to colour his language, he is also mindful always of the dramatic situation. Hecuba, as I have suggested above, is being thoroughly despairing in her appeal to a higher authority, and ?mind of mortals? seems to mean no more that ?that element in men in general which guides them?, leaving it vague as to whether there is any single Nous over and above the multiplicity of human noes.

Now we have seen that Anaxagoras and his followers believed that Nous was immanent in all intelligent beings, but it was also transcendent, and an entity on its own, and so Euripides treats it elsewhere. In a fragment of his lost play Antiope,[6] someone is made to say the following:

?You see this infinite aether there on high,

Hemming the earth about in soft embrace?

This you may deem Zeus, this take as God.?

This utterance, a succinct poetic statement of the doctrine of Archelaus and Diogenes, comes down to us, as is all too frequent in the case of fragments, without a context, but I think that we may be able to give it one, and one that will point up very well how dangerous it is to take passages of a dramatist out of context. Somebody here is contemptuously dismissing the mythical, anthropomorphic conception of Zeus in favour of a rationalistic one. Now Antiope herself in the play has suffered the indignity of being raped by an all-too-anthropomorphic Zeus, who was definitely not ?infinite aether?, and that is the root of her troubles. Her father Nykteus, king of Thebes, didn?t believe her, which meant that she had to flee to Sikyon to escape his rage. He is now dead, having pined away from grief at her disgrace, but not before bequeathing his kingdom to his brother Lykos, whom he urges to take revenge on his delinquent daughter, and upon King Epopeus of Sikyon, who had taken her in. This Lykos does, slaying the unfortunate Epopeus and bringing Antiope back captive to Thebes, to be tormented by his nasty wife Dirkę.

One possibility, then, is that it is her wicked uncle Lykos who makes this contemptuous speech, perhaps in answer to her pathetic attempt at self-exculpation. He would a good candidate, certainly, for an atheistical utterance. But on the other hand and this is perhaps more probable there is the possibility that these words are uttered by one of Antiope?s twin sons by Zeus, Amphion and Zethos, when she presents herself before them in their humble steading on Mt. Kithairon, having escaped temporarily from the clutches of the awful Dirkę. They had been given away as babies to a shepherd, it should be said, and so do not recognize her. Before recognition is effected, it is plain from other evidence that they do not believe her story about a divine rape. We know, for instance, that Amphion says to her (Fr. 209 N2 ):

?For I do not think that Zeus, woman,

imitating the form and actions of a malefactor,

would come to your bed in human form.?

Now Amphion is a good guy, in Euripides? book. He is the twin who plays the lyre, as thus counts as an intellectual, as opposed to Zethos, who attends to the practical concerns of farming. Amphion is made by Euripides to speak up for the life of the intellect, in a famous agôn between the brothers as to the respective merits of the practical and the theoretical life, of which we can derive some idea of the content largely because Plato used it in the Gorgias (484E 486C) as a model for Callicles? exhortation to Socrates. So if Amphion is allowed to say this, in the course of an initial rejection of his mother?s story, that puts a different complexion on things. Amphion, we may assume, is on the one hand expressing Euripides? own views, but on the other hand, we know that he is actually the son of Zeus, who did in fact come to his mother?s bed in a disgraceful manner. So these high-flown philosophical sentiments would be admirably undercut, in a characteristically Euripidean manner, to the discredit of Zeus.[7]

I dwell on this at such length, despite the uncertainties that surround the fragment, just to emphasize that all Euripidean fragments must be reckoned to have a context which colours them, and that we sell the man short as a poet if we disregard these contexts, as did the worthy anthologists of later antiquity in their search for uplifting gnômai.The New Comedy playwright Menander (himself, of course, much influenced by Euripides) lends himself to similar pillaging.

This is by no means the only mention in Euripides of Air or Aether as God. In an unplaced fragment (869 N2 ), for instance, a chorus (for the fragment is in choral metre) says to a maiden:

?But Aether gave you birth, my girl,

who is called by mortals Zeus.?

There is not  much that we can make of this, unfortunately, as we have no clue as to the context. The only attested daughter of Zeus who comes to mind is Helen of Troy, and these lines do not occur in the surviving play that Euripides wrote about her. I can think of no other instance of Euripides composing a play about a daughter of Zeus, or even any other record of Zeus producing  a daughter from a mortal maiden always, I think, a son. This maiden may not even be mortal, I suppose, but that does not get us much further.

More interesting, because we at least know the play from which it comes, is an anapaestic passage from the Chrysippus (Fr. 836 N2 ):

?Mighty Earth and Aether divine,[8]

the one, progenitor of men and gods,

the other, who receives the moist, downfalling drops

and brings to birth mortals, their sustenance,

and the tribes of beasts;

whence not unjustly she is known

as Mother of All.

What springs from earth

to earth returns;

but what derives from aetherial seed

goes back once again to the heavenly pole.

Nothing dies of what has come to be,

but divided out, one from another,

reveals merely a different shape.?

This is a good account of Anaxagorean or Diogenean cosmogony. ?What sprigns from earth? is simply the inanimate matter of living bodies; what returns to its kindred heaven is the life-principle, or soul. For Diogenes, Simplicius tells us,[9] ?the seed of animals also is composed of pneuma, and mental activities take place when the air with the blood pervades the whole body through the veins.? As to its context, it could be a farewell utterance by the chorus, in the anapaestic exodos one gets so often in Euripides, but it does not come across as quite vacuous and platitudinous enough for that. I must say that it sounds to me much more like an entering monody by a chief actor (like that of Ion at Ion ll. 72-122, for example, or that of Hecuba at Trojan Women, ll. 98-121, of those of the Nurse and Phaedra at Hippolytus, ll. 176-266). In the Chrysippus, the chief actor was Laius, king of Thebes, who had the dubious distinction of being the inventor of pederasty, through falling madly in love with Chrysippus, the beautiful young son of Pelops, king of Argos, when he came on a visit to Pelops. This leads to his kidnapping of Chrysippus, with tragic consequences for all concerned. That Euripides used Laius, like Medea and Phaedra, to express the struggle between  knowing what we should not do and nevertheless doing it, we know from another fragment (837-8 N2 ), to which I shall return later. It would be quite in order for him, I think, in lyric anapaests to try to excuse his being overmastered by lust, by saluting the two partners in the primordial love-match, Earth and Aether.

Once again, however, we have no evidence on this point. Pelops could perfectly well have uttered the lines, for example, in a quite different context. But we shuld bear in mind, as always, that these lines must have had a dramatic context, and, if uttered by Laius, they are uttered by a character with whom we are not meant to sympathize.

Let us turn from this, however, to an Anaxagorean sentiment uttered in a context that we do know, and uttered by someone of whom we are meant to approve (though Aristophanes, perhaps, did not, cf. Thesm. 547), Melanippe the Wise or as we might more aptly, perhaps, term her, ?Melanippe the Blue-Stocking?. We learn from the later critic Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Rhet. 9, 11) that it was generally accepted that Euripides had made Melanippe a mouthpiece for his own views, and he has certainly created in her  a fascinating character, who must have been profoundly disturbing to a contemporary Athenian male audience. Melanippe was the daughter of Aeolus by Hippe, the daughter of the Centaur Chiron, whom Aeolus had waylaid on Mt. Pelion. Hippe had inherited much of her father?s wisdom, which she in turn passed on to her daughter, who in consequence emerges as the archetypal blue-stocking, replete with the latest philosophical theories of Anaxagoras and his followers, as well as sophistic theories about the equal intellectual capabilities of women and men (cf. Fr. 487 N2 ). This did not save her, however, from being raped by a thoroughly anthropomorphic Poseidon, and in due course producing twins.[10] These twins, in fear of her father?s wrath, she exposed, it seems, in the cow-byre. Here they were suckled by a cow, and guarded by the bull, but, when found thus by some cowherds, they were thought to be monstrous births (terata) from the cow, and were brought to King Aeolus by the shepherds, to ask him what to do with them. He proposes to immolate them, as such, and hands them over to Melanippe to prepare them for sacrifice.

This puts Melanippe in an interesting situation. In her effort to save her children, she makes a long speech to her father, in which she presents various rationalistic arguments as to why they could not be monsters. In the course of this comes the famous utterance possibly at the beginning of it, if we may judge from Plato?s use of it in the Symposium (177A):

?Not mine the tale I heard it from my mother

that once heaven and earth showed one same form,

but when they then were parted from each other,

gave birth to all and brought them to the light,

trees, birds, beasts and what the brine produces,

and the race of mortals.? (Fr. 488 N2 )

How exactly this suited her argument we do not know, but it is a good account of Anaxagoras? doctrine of cosmogony, though with a suitable mythological, ?Hesiodic? colouring to it.

Her reported argument against the possibility, or at least the portentous significance, of accidents of nature may well involve a reminiscence of a famous story about Anaxagoras, told by Plutarch, in his Life of Pericles (ch. 6). A countryman once brought to Pericles the head of a ram which had a single horn growing from the middle of its forehead. The soothsayer Lampon accepted this as an omen, and interpreted this as meaning that, of the two rivals at that time for supreme power in Athens, Pericles and Thucydides, son of Melesias, that one would prevail to whom the head had been brought. Anaxagoras, however, had the skull split open, and in a brief anatomical lecture explained the natural reasons for the anomaly. The people, says Plutarch, were full of admiration for his knowledge, but transferred their admiration to Lampon when, a short time afterwards (in about 443 B.C.), Thucydides was ostracized, and Pericles took over the sole political control of Athens.

Similarly, in Melanippe?s case, the fact (or at least the dramatic fact) is actually more more remarkable than the notion of the children?s being the offspring of a cow; they are the offspring of a mortal maiden and a god. Alas, Melanippe?s rationalistic arguments fail, and she has finally to admit that the children are her own; whereat, in the original myth (as relayed to us by Hyginus, Fab. 186), her father, in a rage, blinds her and locks her up in a dungeon. In Euripides? version, though, it seems, our heroine is saved by the intervention of her mother Hippe.

This play incurs the disapproval of Aristotle (Poetics ch. 15, 1454 a 31), as an example of unsuitable language being put into the mouth of a character in this case avant-garde philosophy into the mouth of a supposedly well brought-up young lady. It is also Melanippe who, as the introduction to a typically Euripidean genealogical prologue, speaks the shocking opening lines of the play:[11]

?Zeus, whoever Zeus may be for I know of him only by report   engendered Hellen?

 - that is to say, the father of Aeolus, and Melanippe?s grandfather. By this opening line there actually hangs a tale, though it is hard to know quite what to make of it. It is told by Plutarch, in the Erotikos (756BC):[12]

?You have no doubt heard what an uproar burst upon Euripides when he began his Melanippe with this verse: ?Zeus, whoever Zeus may be for I know him only by report?? Well, he got another chorus[13] (for he had confidence in the play, it seems, since he had composed it in an elevated and elaborate style), and changed the verse to the present text: ?Zeus, as the voice of truth declares,???

The scenario presented by Plutarch is by no means an impossible one, though it is slightly troublesome that the second version of the opening line also seems to have been used at the beginning of another play, the Pirithous. But on the other hand, the surviving papyrus version of the prologue contains the revised opening line, and Aristophanes? satirical use of it in the Frogs (1244) probably refers to the opening of this play;[14] so we may accept Plutarch?s story, I think. At all events, we can see Euripides, in this fascinating and provocative play, stretching the permissible limits of the genre for his own characteristic purposes even if he then had to back off somewhat.


But it is time, I think, that we turned to another aspect of Euripides? relationship with contemporary philosophy. Parallel to the enquiry into first principles and the origins of the world, there had been going on, since the middle of the century at least,  a searching critique of established moral and social values, led by a series of thinkers, such as Protagoras of Abdera, Gorgias of Leontini, Prodicus of Ceos, and Hippias of Elis, whom we are accustomed to term ?sophists?, but who are in reality just as much philosophers as the physicists dealt with up to now. The main issues debated in these circles at this time were the following: (1) The antithesis between nomos (custom, or law) and physis (nature); (2) arising from this, the idea of a ?social contract? as the basis of organised society; (3) the idea of equality, or conversely, the unnaturalness of inequality, between men and women, Greeks and barbarians, and even free men and slaves; and (4), arising out of all these speculations, the notion of the relativity of all values.To all of these ideas Euripides gives an airing at some point or another in his plays. Let us take a few examples. First of all,

?Nature willed it, which cares naught for laws.? (Fr. 912 N2 )

is a phrase, unfortunately from an unknown play and so without any context, which was much quoted in later antiquity.[15] Presumably it was uttered by a bad guy, but possibly by someone struggling with his (or her) conscience, like Laios or Medea. In any case, it demonstrates Euripides? acquaintance with, and creative use of, this basic antithesis of sophistic thought.

Fully in context, though, we have an interesting speech by Eteokles in the Phoenissae (449-510), justifying his refusal to share power with his brother Polyneikes in very much the same terms as Thucydides makes the Athenians use in the Melian Dialogue, in Book V of his Histories (84-111), or as the sophist Antiphon employs in his treatise On Truth, or as Callicles comes out with in Plato?s Gorgias, or Thrasymachus in Book I of the Republic:

?If all men agreed on what is wise or just,

there?d be no argument, no strife. But now

nothing is like or equal, except in name.

The fact is something else again. Mother,

I?ll tell you plainly without pretence, I?d run

to the rising of the sun, I?d go beneath

the earth, if I could have absolute power,

the greatest god of all. Power is good,

Mother. I will not give it up. I want it

for myself. It would be cowardice

to lose the great good thing and settle for

the less.? (tr. Burian and Swann).

Various key ideas are aired in this passage. In the first line, the verb ephy (here translated simply ?is?), contains the concept of physis: if the nature of goodness and wisdom were the same for all that is, if all men?s interests naturally coincided then there would be no cause for strife. But, goes on the unspoken corollary, according to nature each man?s good is at variance with that of every other man, and that is why systems of laws have been created, by combinations of small and weak men, to restrain each other, and above all to restrain the strong. This is very much Callicles? argument, at Gorgias 483Aff. It is the argument of the ?Might is Right? school of thought, represented, among the Sophists, not by any of the major figures that I have mentioned above,[16] but rather by such men as Antiphon and Plato?s own cousin Critias, both of Athens. Eteokles sees himself as the same sort of Übermensch as Callicles would like to be, and plainly Euripides is not holding him up for our admiration. He is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and he comes to a bad end, as we know. Note how the ultimate type of ?overreaching? (pleonexia), tyrannis (here translated ?absolute power?) is denominated to khręston, ?good?, while justice is termed anandria, ?cowardice?.

A different attitude to Nature and Law is aired by that rather ambiguous source, the chorus of the Bacchae. Part of the curious reversal of values which Euripides puts into the mouth of the chorus of bacchants in that play is the claim that they represent piety, and even law and order, by reason of their service of Dionysus, while Pentheus, who is trying to maintain some degree of conventional order in the state, is a lawless oppressor, and a monster of impiety. As part of their encomium of law and order, in the course of their fourth ode (890-6), they sing the following:

?For there is no better thing

than to know and practice the laws.

It is a light expense

to deem this to have strength,

whatever stems from divinity,

and that which over long years

has become customary

and is based on nature.?

This conjunction of to nomimon, ?what is customary?, with what is natural, to physei pephykos, in such a way as to suggest that the norms of society are based on nature, and arise from natural human tendencies, is a view of the Nomos-Physis relationship taught by the great sophist Protagoras. There are, after all, three attitudes that one can take to the antithesis between Nature and Convention: (1) Nature is good, and at odds with Convention (Callicles, Critias, and Euripides? Eteokles); (2) Nature is bad, ?red in tooth and claw?, and requires curbing and refining by Convention (this appears to have been the view of the Atomist philosopher Democritus, and probably of Xenophanes and Empedocles before him); or (3) Nature is good, and is the source of all valid conventions (Protagoras). Protagoras composed a treatise On the Original State of Things (peri tęs en arkhęi katastaseôs, DL IX 55), and it is probable that Plato is basing himself on it for his portrayal of Protagoras? views in the Protagoras (320Cff.). Although Protagoras there expounds his doctrine with the aid of a myth, the philosophical position he holds comes through clearly enough, and that is that civic virtues (aretai) are innate in man, and laws and communities based on them will naturally tend to arise, unless interfered with.

Euripides also, in fact, gives an airing to the second position set out above, viz. that Nature is bad, and requires correction, in a passage put into the very suitable mouth of the Athenian national hero Theseus, in the Suppliants (196-213):

??. It has been said that evils

predominate over goods for mortals;

but I, in opposition to such theorists,

claim that mortals have more goods than evils;

for otherwise we would have not have seen the light at all.

But I commend the god who brought our life to order

out of a confused and beastlike state,

implanting in us first intelligence, and then

giving us a tongue to be the messenger of speech,

that words might be distinguished, and crops

to feed us, and for the crops rain from heaven??

and so on, for a long list of civilized improvements, very like that presented to us as his own achievement by Prometheus in the (probably pseudo-) Aeschylean Prometheus Bound (436-506). It behooves a man of exemplary piety like Theseus to speak of ?some god? as bestowing all this on men, but if we substitute for this ?wise men?, or something such, we get very much the theory of which we find the most elaborate expression at the beginning of Diodorus of Sicily?s Library of History (I 8). This probably goes back, as an immediate source, to the fourth-century B.C. historian Ephorus, but ultimately to fifth-century philosophizing, either by Protagoras (in his work On the Original State of Things mentioned above), or to Democritus, who was also interested in the origins of society. Note Theseus? characterization of the state of nature as ?confused? (pephyrmenos) and ?beastlike? (thęriôdęs), which sets this view apart from the third one listed above. Euripides is plainly, then, well acquainted with all aspects of the Nomos-Physis controversy, and able to put them all to good dramatic use on various occasions.

Particular aspects of the dispute about the relativity of values he also puts to good use on occasion. One particularly scandalous topic, which is the subject of his play Aeolus (adverted to with disgust by Strepsiades in Aristophanes? Clouds, l. 1371), was the story of the incestuous affair between Aeolus? youngest son Makareus and his sister Kanakę. Of course, since, as you will recall, there was no one else on Aeolus? island except his own family, consisting of six sons and six daughters,[17] it is hard to see what a lusty youth was to do, but it was the arguments which Euripides has Makareus use which shocked many of the audience. One notable line was:

What is base (aiskhron), if to the participants it seems not so??[18]

This, it seems, occurred in the course of a speech in which Makareus, without admitting his own interest, urges his father to allow his sons to marry his daughters, and no doubt he summoned the latest findings of comparative anthropology to his aid in this cause. His argument accords closely with what we are told of the doctrines of the contemporary Athenian philosopher Archelaus,[19] that he held that what is just and what is base (aiskhron) depends not upon nature but upon convention.

Apart from incest, Makareus seems to have had views on other conventions of society. Another surviving passage runs as follows (Fr. 22  N2):

?By the Gods, don?t talk to me of good breeding!

Don?t flatter yourself, Father it?s all a matter of money.

For it goes round in cycles. One man has it at one point,

And another doesn?t. It is common property.

Whoever has lived with it longest in his house he is well-born!?

This is actually a theme on which Euripides touches fairly frequently. A famous instance occurs in Orestes? speech in the Electra, commenting on the good behaviour of his sister?s humble farmer husband (367-72):

?There is no accurate test of manly virtue.

For the natures of men exhibit confusion.

Even now I have seen the son of a noble father

Turn out quite worthless, and good children from bad stock,

Mental famine in the mind of a rich man,

And a lofty intelligence in a pauper?s body.?

This may seem pretty banal stuff, perhaps, especially in an advanced democracy like Athens, but it is part of the on-going debate on conventional versus natural values. This can be seen more clearly in a passage from another lost play, the Alexandros, about the the rise to fame and fortune of Paris, son of Priam, who, after being exposed to die and being rescued by humble folk, has grown up in obscurity as a shepherd on Mt. Ida, and is finally recognised and received back into the royal household (with disastrous results that are too well known to mention here!). The details of the plot are not clear to us, but it did give Euripides a forum for airing opposing views on slavery and humble birth generally. Someone expresses conventional views on the wretchednes of slavery, but the overall message is the unnaturalness of the slave state, and Paris/Alexandros is just the right figure to express this, being a king?s son in reality, and only a slave by accident. One piece of chorus, preserved by Stobaeus,[20] expresses the position well (the chorus we know to be composed of shepherds, companions of Paris):

?We would go too far if we set out to praise

noble birth among mortals.

For when we came into being, long ago,

the earth produced all with a similar appearance;

it was convention that made distinction between mortals.

There is no distinction there;

the well-born and the ill-born are one seed.?

The word I have translated ?convention? is actually dokęsis, ?opinion?, but this, I feel, is the sense of it. The use of the verb diakrinô, ?distinguish?, conveys a suggestion of the theories of cosmogony of Anaxagoras and Diogenes of Apollonia[21] but here, of course, the diakrisis is illusory.

These views, it must be said, are vigorously contested elsewhere in the play, and somebody warns Priam not to trust a slave, espcially one with thoughts above his station (Fr. 49 N2), but he was probably a bad guy, and his advice was not taken; overall, the message of the play is clear enough, though undercut in a manner characteristic of Euripides (Paris is, after all, a pretty comprehensive disaster). The Alexandros was produced along with the Trojan Women in 416 B.C., and Euripides only came second to a certain Xenocles, These two plays, together with the Palamedes, in which Euripides seems to have portrayed the fate of the intellectual (Palamedes) when faced with the machinations of a clever demagogue (Odysseus), were probably a little too much for the sensibilities of an Athenian audience.

Besides the issues of low birth and slavery, Euripides, as we know, portrayed sympathetically the lot of women for which reason, of course, Aristophanes, reflecting the views of the ordinary Athenian, characterizes him (in the Thesmophoriazusae) as a misogynist and slanderer of women, causing decent obedient Athenian wives to do away with themselves for shame (cf. Frogs, 1050-1). Medea is allowed a most effective speech on the miseries of women, which, despite her rather shaky hold on our sympathies, is plainly intended by Euripides to strike home (230-51). It is rather too long to quote in the present context, but it constitutes a pretty comprehensive and telling survey of the oppressions to which contemporary Athenian women were subject. The Medea, you will recall, did not win first prize either, when it was produced in 431. In fact, it came third.

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