Euripides and the Philosophy Of His Time

[Part 2]

John Dillon 

Trinity College,


This will do, I think, as a sample of Euripides? use of contemporary ethical theories to serve his purposes as a critic of Athenian society, as well as a dramatist. I would end, though, with one topic of particular interest, since it has been widely believed, and with some plausibility, to be Euripides? side of an on-going argument with Socrates, and this brings up the question of the relation between these two gadflies of the Athenian public, whom Nietzsche lumped together as the twin destroyers of the Spirit of Tragedy, but whose relationship, if it existed, Plato firmly suppresses in his dialogues. He does not mind presenting Socrates consorting with Aristophanes at a party of the avant-garde playwright Agathon, but Socrates is not allowed by Plato to get anywhere near Euripides. Nevertheless, their names were commonly linked by the poets of Old Comedy. I quote Diogenes Laertius, in his Life of Socrates (II 18):

?It was thought that he helped Euripides to compose his plays; hence Mnesilochus writes:[22] This new play of Euripides is called The Phrygians (Phryges); And Socrates provides the firewood (phrygana) for it. And again he refers to: Euripideses riveted together by Socrateses ? and Aristophanes in The Clouds:[23] ?Tis he composes for Euripides/ those plays so talkative and witty.??

Whatever the justification for these allusions, the connection seems to have been something that the comedians could play upon. The particular issue to be discussed here is that of the possibility of clearly knowing the better course of action, and yet doing the worse. Socrates, as we know, maintained that this was not possible. It is, indeed, one of the best known Socratic principles that ?no one does wrong willingly? (oudeis hekôn hamartanei). In a very special sense of the verb ?know?, this proposition may be defensible,[24]  but otherwise it is simply an affront to common sense. Euripides brings up the issue on a number of occasions, but to maintain that he is conducting a public argument with Socrates, one must assume that Socrates was already advancing this doctrine in the 430?s, since the most famous challenge to it occurs in the Medea, produced in 431. There is no insuperable problem about that, however, and Euripides does sound a little as if he is arguing a case. At ll. 1078-80, at the end of her famous soliloquy about killing her children, Medea says:

?I understand what evil I am about to do,

but my passion is stronger than my counsel,

that passion which is the cause of greatest evils for men.?

Passion is thymos, and the bouleumata, the counsels, are plainly the activity of the rational part of the soul. ?Understand? is manthanô, and Socrates? position would be that Medea?s passion has in fact clouded her understanding, so that she does not know, in the strongest sense, the evil of what she is about to do; it appears to her as a good. Socrates would therefore deny that Medea understands.[25]

A few years later, in the Hippolytus of 428, Euripides allows Phaedra to say (380-3):

?We know, we recognise the right, but do it not,

some of us from idleness, others through choosing

some pleasure rather than the good.?

Here the verbs epistametha and gignôskomen are used, in what seems a direct challenge to a doctrine such as that of Socrates. Again, in the Chrysippus mentioned earlier, Laius comes out with the lines (Fr. 837 N2 ):

?I have missed nothing of this advice you give,

but Nature forces aside my understanding.?

We do not know to whom he is speaking (perhaps the Chorus?), or what the advice was though we can guess that it was ?Lay off the boy!?. The Chrysippus was produced along with the Phoenissae, as we learn in the hypothesis to that dialogue. The information giving the date is unfortunately lost, but the Phoenissae is generally agreed to be a late play, so we can see a continuing interest shown by Euripides in this problem, which is, after all, of the very stuff of tragedy, even as Socrates? doctrine is destructive of tragic tension.


This has of necessity been a rather cursory survey of a topic on which a book could be written. Indeed, a stout book was written on it, just over a century ago, by the German scholar Wilhelm Nestle, Euripides, Der Dichter der griechischer Aufklärung (Stuttgart, 1901), from which I have derived much enlightenment. There is room, however, I feel, for a new study of the subject. Euripides needs sympathetic treatment, in which his many facets are given proper attention. All too easily we assume, because of his concern with contemporary moral and political issues, that he is a writer of realistic drama in the modern sense, and then we are disappointed on occasion by disjointed plots, imperfectly developed characters, and long, frigid, sophistical debates, when characters should be getting on with the business of beating each other over the head. But Euripides is not in pursuit of dramatic realism, or the delineation of character in the modern sense; he is in pursuit of ideas. And Greek drama is not really about characters; it about actions, as Aristotle tells us in the Poetics. Euripides is indeed, as Nestle calls him, the poet of the Greek Enlightenment; or, as later Greeks called him, ?the philosopher of the stage?. One could compare him, in that respect, with Lessing, or with Ibsen, or with Shaw. He is interested in ideas, and in the dramatic working out of those ideas, and unless one is prepared to take an interest in the interplay of ideas, one is not going to get full value from him.

[1]  OJ ejpi; th`ß skhnh`ß filovsofoß, Strom. V 688.

[2]  E.g. his use of Hippolytus? notorious remark at Hipp. 612, ?It is my tongue that is sworn; my mind is unsworn? (hJ glw`ss j ojmwmoc j, hJ de; frh;n ajnwvmotoß), in the mouth of Socrates at Symp. 199A and at Tht. 154D.

[3]  Aeschines, for instance, in his speech Against Timarchus (§151), quoting from the Stheneboea (Fr. 672 N1 ) and from the Phoenix (Fr. 812 N1 ), refers to him as ?that most sophos of poets?; and Lycurgus, in his speech Against Leocrates (§98), preserves a long passage from the lost play Erechtheus (Fr. 362 N1).

[4]  E.g. Vitruvius, loc. cit. (p. 1); Schol. Pindar, Ol. 1. 91; Suidas s.v. Archelaos.

[5]  All the nonsense about mingling one?s mind with the purest air, as Socrates is seen to be doing when we first meet him suspended in his basket (ll. 223 ff.), is a satire on the doctrines of Diogenes of Apollonia. The Atomists, Leucippus and Democritus, do not seem to have had the same general influence on non-philosophical circles at Athens, though Diogenes of Apollonia, at last, was himself influenced by Leucippus.

[6]  Fr. 935 N2 . Nauck lists this among the fragmenta incerta, but it is argued for persuasively as emanting from the Antiope by Schneidewin, on the basis of an entry in Probus? commentary on Vergil?s Eclogues, ad 6. 31, p. 21, 6, where Probus seems about to quote this passage, where there is a lacuna in his text (consentit in numero Euripides, sed species discriminat. Terram enim et aerem inducit principia rerum esse in Antiopa?). Probus actually quotes the passage somewhat earlier, at p. 11, 8, so he is certainly acquainted with it. The fragment is also quoted by such authors as Cicero (ND II 65), Plutarch (Mor. 601A, 780D, 919B), Lucian (Iov. Trag. 41), Clement (Protr. P. 21), and Stobaeus (Ecl. I 2, 2), though always without precise attribuion.

[7]  A similar situation, we may recall, occurs in the Ion, where young Ion, who is in fact the son of Kreousa by the god Apollo, but a very upright young man, is outraged at the suggestion that anything of the sort should have taken place, when his mother tries to explain the situation  to him.

[8]  It is not clear to me, in fact, whether this is a salutation or a statement, since it eventually goes on in the third person. If the latter, then we should translate: ?Earth is mightiest, and so is divine Aether.? I translate Dio;ß here as if it were the adjective di`oß, which is metrically inadmissible, but ?Aether of Zeus? seems rather fatuous, in view of the fact the Aether is here portrayed as supplanting Zeus. However, Euripides may here be using the genitive Dio;ß to suggest a vague correspondence between Aether and Zeus.

[9]  In Phys. p. 153, 13ff. Diels = Fr. 6 D-K.

[10]  The theme of an honest and intelligent maiden being raped by a god, and undergoing prolonged sufferings as result, is one which plainly attracted Euripides, for his own ironic purposes: Antiope, and Ion?s mother Creusa, are cases in point.

[11]  Most conveniently available in the Loeb volume Select Papyri III, ed. D.L. Page, p. 118.

[12]  I borrow the Loeb translation of W.C. Helmbold, with minor variations.,

[13]  That is, he was given another chance to present the play. This is unusual, but not unparalleled; it also seems to have happened in the case of the Hippolytus, which proved too shocking in its first form, and which Euripides redrafted successfully (we have the second version).

[14]  In the Pirithous, after all, it occurs, not as the first line, but as the fourth, and Aristophanes seems to be parodying first lines, unless he indicates otherwise.

[15]  And parodied, indeed, early in the fourth century, by the playwright  of Middle Comedy, Anaxandrides (quoted by Aristotle, EN VII 11, 1152a23): ?The city willed it,which cares naught for laws.?

[16]  Protagoras, for instance, certainly did set up a nomos-physis distinction, but argued for the superiority of nomos.

[17]  A described by Homer in Book X of the Odyssey (1-70. It may be noted that Homer reports without comment that Aeolus ?gave his daughters to his sons to wife.?

[18]  Fr. 19 Nauck2. This line is parodied by Aristophanes in the Frogs (1475), and later authorities present both Antisthenes and Plato as reacting indignantly against it (e.g. Plut.Mor. 33C).

[19]  Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, II 16.

[20]  Flor. ch. 86, 2 (V 702, 10 703, 5 Hense) = Fr. 53 N2.

[21]  And cf. also the remarks of the sophist Antiphon, in his treatise On Truth, especially Fr. A though Antiphon does not there address the question of the naturalness of slavery; merely the distinction between Greek and barbarian.

[22]  This is a typical Diogenes Laertius mare?s nest. There is no such playwright as Mnesilochus, and Euripides wrote no play entitled The Phrygians. There is a playwright of Middle Comedy called Mnesimachus, who wins victories in the 360?s, and some editors propose to substitute his name, but the solution may lie in another direction. Mnesilochus is, of course, the name of Euripides? kinsman on his wife?s side, so riotously pilloried by Aristophanes in the Thesmophoriazusae. Possibly what we have is a quotation from a comedy in which Mnesilochus is made to utter these lines. This would explain why no such play as The Phrygians exists. It was invented for the word-play between Phryges and phrygana.

[23]  Another problem: this quotation is not to be found in the version of The Clouds that we have, so Meineke suggested substituting Telecleides, another playwright of Old Comedy, since he is mentioned in an apparently parallel passage in a work on comedy; but it is possible also that the quotation comes from the first version of The Clouds, which we do not have.

[24]  That is to say, in the sense in accordance with which no one can be said to act knowingly against their own best (long-term) interests, those interests consisting always in doing right.

[25]  This passage, and that from the Chrysippus quoted below, became proof-texts among later philosophers, both Platonist and Stoic, on the topics of free will and the unitary or non-unitary nature of the soul. I have discussed this more fully in an article, ?Medea among the Philosophers? , in Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy and Art, edd. James J. Clauss & Sarah Iles Johnson, Princeton, 1997, pp. 211-18.

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