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The Invention of Freedom

by on April 29, 2016

It has long been the prerogative of the ‘young’ to consider that phrases such as “there has never been a time when freedom has been under greater threat” as something particularly apposite to the prevailing geopolitical climate. However, for those of us who annually accrue more grey hairs that new CDs (or, indeed, who think CDs can still be used in a contemporary analogy), we tend to be able to take a step back, pause, reflect, and realise that, as messed up as things may seem on any given day, history is one long litany of the trials and tribulations, of the ebbs and flows of the freedom of mankind.

Unfortunately, as self-satisfying as such reflections may be, they are, alas, wrong!

Not wrong in the sense that the young people are right. God forbid, no! Wrong in the sense that history is not an ever-oscillating shuffle-board of liberty; indeed, we can almost identify a moment at which (in the Classical, European tradition) ‘freedom’ was created!

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The distinction between ‘free’ and ‘enslaved’ is as old as any record we have (be it European, Egyptian, Hebrew, Mesopotamian or Chinese), and the desire to be free/exempt from the demands of a centralised/unrepresentative government is similarly ancient, however, and despite the fanciful feats of Moses, the concept of political freedom in terms of a personal liberty under a law recognised by the state, took some time to develop.

N.B. Though women had differing roles and levels of importance in the various societies of antiquity, it is fair to say, broadly speaking, that they were not politically enfranchised – though they may have enjoyed some protection under the law, their freedom was usually dependent on that of their husband/father. Thus, for the purposes of this article, it shall be assumed we are talking about free, adult males unless specifically stated otherwise.

Unsurprisingly, Near Eastern areas with systems of absolute monarchy, especially ones which claimed their power was divinely derived, did not create optimum conditions in which to germinate new and radical ideas about personal liberty.

Conversely, the environment of the Greek city-states (poleis), though far from being a free-for-all, utopian love-in, was more conducive to such progressive thought. Indeed, the high ideals of Athens’ Golden Age (the fifth century BC), was very likely influenced by her political system rather than, as some contest, what produced it.

Though the key factor was not merely, or at least not necessarily, democracy (an Athenian experiment often derided by other poleis), but living in a small-ish, locally governed community which didn’t take its authority from any supernatural source and, crucially, which had a vested interest in ensuring the well-being of the wider society.

The Language of Freedom

The practical evolution of Greek freedom runs in parallel to its evolution in the Greek language. Whilst words like eleutheros and liber appear in the most ancient sources, it is not until the Greeks began to fear for their liberty vis-à-vis Persia (particularly with the war of 480/479BC) that the abstract noun eleutheria came into the vocabulary.

This was a clear signal that the Greeks had managed to identify a freedom that was not bound simply by this or that right in front of the courts, or by the right to vote in the assembly, own property, move freely etc. but an inalienable right to be free from foreign tyranny. Indeed, eleutheria seemed, initially at least, to be intrinsically tied to the idea of being a tyrant-free zone.

The fifth century BC was a particularly interesting period in this respect, as the Athenians took it upon themselves to become the champion of Greek freedom against the barbarian oppressors, forming the Delian League in 478BC. The irony being that Athens, after forming this coalition of Greek states, soon started to play

“…history is not an ever-oscillating shuffle-board of liberty; indeed, we can almost identify a moment at which (in the Classical, European tradition) ‘freedom’ was created! “

fast and loose with the freedoms of the very countrymen whom they had vowed to protect. Indeed, this was a key propaganda tool used by fellow-Greeks, Sparta, during the Peloponnesian War (431-404BC), who railed against the polis tyrannos of Athens – only, all too predictably, to themselves become oppressive to the Greek states which fell under their ‘protection’.

As the years passed, the Athenians began to blur the lines between demokratia and eleutheria and, by the end of the fifth century BC, if freedom wasn’t quite synonymous with democracy, it was, for most, incompatible with other forms of rule such as oligarchy.

An end in itself

by on March 14, 2016

That knowledge was intrinsically desirable was something of a given in the minds of the classical thinkers. Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, scolds his fellow Athenians who turn their back on knowledge…

Are you not ashamed that you spend your time acquiring as much money as possible and similarly with reputation and honor, and yet care so little for truth, wisdom and the perfection of your soul?

–Socrates (Plato’s The Apology)

 

Aristotle, similarly, holds the position that knowledge was desirable in and of itself, and refers to wisdom as “our finest element” within his Ethics

We must not listen to those who advise us to ‘think human thoughts since we are human or mortal thoughts since we are mortal’ but must put on immortality as much as possible and strain every nerve to live according to our finest element (wisdom), for while it is small in bulk, its power and honour surpasses all else.

– Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Book X)

 

Cicero, the famous Roman orator, held up reason as the cornerstone of all virtuous laws…

For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions. Whoever neglects this law, whether written or unwritten, is necessarily unjust and wicked.

–Cicero (De Legibus, Book I )

 

That the ancients held wisdom in such high regard is made all the more significant by the fact that their institutions of higher learning were dramatically different from our modern schools.

Plato’s Academy, often considered the first “university” of the Western world, was more of a meeting of the minds, a place for ancient thinkers to gather, rather than a structured institution with a codified curriculum. The Elatic, Milesian, Epicurean, and Stoic schools of philosophy followed a similar tradition of passing on their teachings through informal gatherings that attracted hungry minds from across the ancient world.

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Aristotle’s Lyceum, notably, begins to come closer to our modern university system. Aristotle held regular classes and even kept lecture notes. But here, again, the goal was acquiring knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Securing a B.S. or gaining marketable skills for the workplace was not a consideration for the earliest students of the classical age.

The universities have failed you

Flash forward a few thousand years. A modern student might be forced to admit that attending university is a reaction to societal or parental expectations. “Getting an education” has become the primary goal. Learning to learn might be a happy correlation, but it is no longer the principal aim that it once was.

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New Yorker Cartoon Poster Print by Ariel Molvig at the Condé Nast Collection

Such a state of affairs is, in your editor’s humble opinion, a true shame and one of the ultimate failings of the modern education system. The reason is that I still hold the opinion, originally put forth by the ancients, that a virtuous life is intimately connected to wisdom and understanding.

The idea that a “good life” could only be truly found through a cultivation of wisdom was the belief of the ancient philosophers. The philosopher, the lover of wisdom, was therefore a seeker of what Plato referred to as “The Good” or Aristotle’s eudemonia, “ultimate human flourishing.”

Or as Socrates put it…

There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.

–Socrates (quoted in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers)

 

But here, again, we see that the idea that virtue is in anyway related to knowledge, has become absent in the university. This idea is best expressed By Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, philosophy professors from the University of North Texas, who wrote in the New York Times just last January…

“The scientist’s privileged role was to provide the morally neutral knowledge needed to achieve our goals, whether good or evil. This put an end to any notion that there was something uplifting about knowledge. The purification made it no longer sensible to speak of nature, including human nature, in terms of purposes and functions.”

When Philosophy Lost Its Way (New York Times, January 11th, 2016)

 

Ignorance is optional

A sad state of affairs to say the least!

Our students are racking up mountains of debt, devoting their lives to pursuing an “education” and we have no guarantee that they are learning a thing or becoming better people in the process.

What to do?

Joel Bowman, fortunately, has an answer for us.

Thankfully, we live in an age where ignorance is largely optional. And true learning needn’t beggar you.

If you wish to gain extensive access to coursework from top universities and not pay a cent, there’s a way to do just that. M.I.T. famously offers over 650 online courses…for free.

So whether you wish to enlighten yourself in the field of biology, or nuclear engineering or architecture or linguistics, there’s a way to do just that…

Similarly, there are thousands of brain-busting, mind-bending books and courses on offer at sites like Open Culture, Khan Academy, and Project Gutenberg.

 

Thanks Joel, couldn’t agree more. Although, I would add the caveat that if ignorance is optional, then so is baseness. I think our ancient friends would agree.

So do yourself a favor, dear reader, never let your education get in the way of learning. The classics are a great place to start. Or, you could keep reading Classical Wisdom Weekly.

Ostracism in the Ancient World

by on March 11, 2016

By Van Bryan

In The Politics, Aristotle tells us that ostracism was originally instituted as a means to allow the common people to check the power of the political players who had grown too powerful too fast and were abusing their position.
It was a way to give claws to the hare when he was going up against a lion.

…democratic states have instituted ostracism; equality is above all things their aim, and therefore they ostracise and banish from the city for a time those who seem to predominate too much through their wealth, or the number of their friends, or through any other political influence.

–Aristotle (The Politics, Book III)

 

The procedure was rather simple. Plutarch tells us, in his Life of Aristides, that an ostracism vote was held once a year. The citizens were given the opportunity to write the name of any political figure on a shard of pottery. Should any one name get 6000 votes, then that man was banished from Athens for ten years.

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An ostracism vote with “Aristides” written on it

It is worth noting, however, that after the ten years, the man was welcomed back with open arms and all of his citizenship rights were renewed. Also, during the ten years, a man could still profit from whatever properties he owned back in Athens.

Now the sentence of ostracism was not a chastisement of base practices, nay, it was speciously called a humbling and docking of oppressive prestige and power; but it was really a merciful exorcism of the spirit of jealous hate, which thus vented its malignant desire to injure, not in some irreparable evil, but in a mere change of residence for ten years.

–Plutarch (Life of Aristides)

 

This is why we can’t have nice things

While ostracism was intended as a check on the power of the political elite, Aristotle seems to suggest that it was used as a tool of retribution, a means for jealous men to do away with their political rivals. Aristotle writes that ostracism “has not been fairly applied in states; for, instead of looking to the public good, they have used ostracism for factious purposes.”

And there might be some truth to that. Some rather impressive figures from classical Athens fell victim to ostracism. Among them was Themistocles, the general most credited with saving Athens from the Persian army of Xerxes in 480 BC, and Thucydides, the author of the celebrated History of the Peloponnesian War.

“You embezzled public money? Embroiled in another sex scandal?

Well, see ya in a decade…”

So just like most political tools intended for the public good, ostracism might have been hijacked and manipulated by self-serving politicians.

You see, this is why we can’t have nice things.

Even with that possibility, I’m still rather fond of the idea of bringing back ostracism in 21st century politics. At the very least it might give the crooks and the phonies something to sweat about.

The next time a congressman is caught with his trousers around his ankles, or a senator’s account balance seems to be a bit more flushed then it should be, we wouldn’t have to worry about them finding their way to that revolving door.

Instead, we pack their bags for them and hand them a one-way ticket out of town. We don’t care where you go, but you can’t stay here.

But now here’s the real question. Who would take them?

The Lefties and the Oligarchs

by on March 1, 2016

Are there warring factions in any political society? We wonder.

Is that where all our problems stem from?

This particular election cycle has dredged up one narrative that has caught my attention. A particular senator believes the system is rigged, no surprise there, and that the wealthy elites are dooming the majority of Americans to a life of poverty and hopelessness. There is a two-tiered society where the wealthy have more than they need, and the many barely have enough to get by.

Hmmmmm…Now where have I heard this number?

The lefties and the oligarchs

The idea that the few, wealthy oligarchs are constantly at odds with the disadvantaged masses is nothing new. In fact, if we were to read Aristotle’s The Politics, we might see that it’s been going on for millennia.

Besides, civil conflict and struggle arise between the common people and the prosperous. The result is that the side that happens to beat the opposition does not establish a system that all can share in fairly, but grabs the top place in a political system as a prize of victory. –Aristotle (The Politics, Book IV, Chapter 11)

 

It’s worth noting that the Aristotle, like all of us, was a product of his time. His understanding of a political society, as a result, is slightly skewed from our own.

For starters, there were not countries as we understand them today. Rather there were insulated city-states (polis) that acted as autonomous nations, independent of any larger governing body.

politics
The Politics, by Aristotle
Classical Wisdom Weekly edition

Additionally, Aristotle constructed his idea on political justice with the assumption that there were those in a society who were, inherently, unequal (women and slaves).

For these reasons we must approach The Politics cautiously, humbly. Not all of Aristotle’s ideas will gel with our own modern sensibilities, but there is enough meat there that we would be foolish to abandon our pursuits all together.

So, where were we?

Aristotle portrayed the never-ending battle between the haves and have-nots in terms of oligarchs vs. democrats (those who would benefit from a direct democracy).

You can imagine the oligarchs and democrats in terms of classical society, farmers and laborers vs. well-educated aristocrats. However, we could just as easily recast this fight in the 21st century. Picture young lefties fresh out of their liberal arts college picketing outside some prestigious Wall Street hedge fund where the traders wear Brooks Brothers suits and winter in the Hamptons.

Like I’ve said before, history can sometimes be so unoriginal.

All disagreements stem from inequality…

The combatants, Aristotle says, disagree on the true meaning of justice. All political conflict, he writes, springs from competing definitions of equality and all the bickering that follows is essentially a philosophical disagreement that plays out in the forms of campaign promises and, in the words of our CEO, “political claptrap”.

For everywhere conflicts arise because of inequality, whenever unequals do not receive their proportionate amounts. –Aristotle (The Politics, Book V, Chapter 1)

 

The disadvantaged masses believe justice to be numerical equality. The oligarchs see equality in terms of proportions; those who contribute more deserve to have more.

The consequence of such an altercation is that each party will vie for political control. The masses, should they achieve success, will be

“You can imagine the oligarchs and democrats in terms of classical society, farmers and laborers vs. well-educated aristocrats. However, we could just as easily recast this fight in the 21st century. “

swept in to office and proceed with a massive redistribution of wealth. The oligarchs, should they have control, will tighten the purse strings; make sure they hold on to as much as they can.

Aristotle, to his credit, does not seem to have a dog in this fight. He does his part as a, mostly, impartial observer. He comes to the conclusion that both sides have their merits.

But here’s the kicker- they’re both wrong.

What’s good for me is good for you… well, at least it’s good for me.

The problem stems from the confusion that what appears just to us, represents, unequivocally, true Justice. What seems good to us must therefore be Good.

What’s good for me is good for you, and even if it’s not good for you, at least it’s good for me.

Redistributing wealth might seem like justice to the poor, but this leads to conflict between the citizens. True justice, since it is a virtue, would never lead to such strife. The only justification then seems to be that such actions appeared to be just to those in power.

aristotle
Aristotle, author of The Politics

But let’s be clear, Aristotle isn’t painting the oligarchs as the poor rich kid on the playground who is bullied because his parents can afford expensive cars and designer shoes.

Should the oligarchs hold control, Aristotle says, they will “confiscate and plunder the possession of the masses.” The justification, again, is that this appears just to those in power.

When you get right down to it, Artie seems to be saying that both parties are aiming in the right direction, but neither one have hit the mark.

The fight for the soul of political justice

In order to really grasp why any of this matters, we must first understand what Aristotle believed to be the goal and ultimate end of a political society.

The Aristotelian state was the vehicle through which a citizen would achieve a self-sufficient

“When you get right down to it, Artie seems to be saying that both parties are aiming in the right direction, but neither one have hit the mark.”

life that was “happy and fine”. The currency in such a state was justice, true justice, which would lead to the larger goal- a happy and virtuous life for the citizens.

The conflict between the oligarchs and the democrats, therefore, is significant because they are both fighting for the soul of political justice, an integral part of achieving the ultimate function of the political state.

The political good is justice, and justice is the common benefit. Everyone thinks justice is some sort of equality, and hence to some extent they all agree with the philosophical discussion in which we have determined these ethical questions. They say that what is just is relative to the people involved and that it must be equality for equals. –Aristotle (The Politics, Book III, Chapter 11)

 

So the battle rages on, each party pursuing their own idea of justice while never really coming across true justice.

You may be wondering, what’s a philosopher to do? Pick a side and batten down the hatches? Abandon all hope and go along with the claptrap?

Maybe…

Maybe not…

Long Live Latin

by on January 12, 2016

By Ben Potter

If you’ve ever taken even an hour of Latin class, then—more likely than not—the words of the title will have been the first that you learned in this ancient tongue.

This conjugation of the verb ‘to love’ (i.e. I love, you love, he/she/it loves…) is indelibly inked on the minds of schoolchildren the world over; though many may rather forget that they’d ever learnt it—because there’s no sugar-coating the fact that the study of Latin, despite how fascinating and rewarding it can doubtless be, is not for everyone.

Latin

Latin’s complexity undoubtedly plays a part in this; it is by no means the easiest language for a native English speaker to get their head around, in part due to the fact that, as seen above, a word’s suffix can drastically alter its meaning. That Latin’s nouns have seven cases, three genders, two numbers, five declensions, and its verbs have six tenses, four moods, two voices, and four conjugations (each with six different endings) only gives a taste of why it is not the most easily mastered of dialects.

This above passage cannot help but bring to mind the centurion character from Monty Python’s Life of Brian forcing the hapless protagonist to write Romani ite domum (“Romans go home!”) a hundred times as punishment for incorrectly daubing Romanus eunt domus (“people called Romanus they go the house”) on the side of Pontius Pilate’s palace.

The Most Logical Language?

 

Life of Brian
From Monty Python’s Life of Brian

However, despite this apparent disconnect from our own language, Latin is infinitely more logical, consistent and well-organised than English. Much like a jigsaw or a cryptic crossword clue, once the constituent pieces are in their correct places everything becomes a lot clearer.

Complexity aside, many turn away from Latin due to the fact that it’s a ‘dead language’ (i.e. one which has no living native speakers).

N.B. A word of caution here – unless you take a particular glee in raising the blood pressure of linguists, it might be best not to refer to Latin as ‘dead’, but instead state that it has suffered a type of pseudoextinction.

“Much like a jigsaw or a cryptic crossword clue, once the constituent pieces are in their correct places everything becomes a lot clearer. “

In other words, it has evolved and survived in the form of the Romance languages (e.g. Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Romanian) even if it is no longer anyone’s native tongue. Of course, for all intents and purposes Latin is distinctly dodo-esque… but linguists can be such a prickly bunch!

Is Latin really “dead”?

What is striking about a language which has about it, at the very least, an aura of mortality is that it is actually in remarkably fine fettle! Don’t believe me? Check down the side of the sofa or under the fridge – there’s probably a bit of Latin hiding there.

“Many turn away from Latin due to the fact that it’s a ‘dead language’ (i.e. one which has no living native speakers). “

E pluribus unum (out of many, one) can be found on the reverse of U.S. pennies and both annuit coeptis (he favours our undertakings) and novus ordo seclorum (new order of the ages) encircle the creepy pyramid on the back of the U.S. dollar bill.

The above mottos are but the tip of the iceberg; it is not difficult to call to mind bits of Latin officially used for states, universities, sports teams, social clubs and even some countries: Switzerland uses ‘CH’ for its ISO code in reference to its Latin name, Confoederatio Helvetica.

Latin

Though these official renderings may seem like no more than ornamental pomposity, Latin pervades a lot deeper and more significantly than mere slogans.

First and foremost there is Latin’s most obvious legacy, its alphabet. Prone as we are to egocentrism, we often consider it remarkable that the vast majority of the world’s countries (including much of South East Asia and most of Africa) have adopted ‘our’ alphabet—so much so that we neglect to remind ourselves that said script isn’t ‘ours’ at all and, in fact, we are merely another in the long list of countries who have been linguistically colonised in this way – as such we have no greater claim to the ABC’s than late-comers like Turkey or Vietnam.

(N.B. We have a similar collective blind spot for numbers, being as they are, in fact, Arabic.)

However, we have taken more from Latin than merely its text. You’ve probably not even consciously noted that this article has been liberally strewn with abbreviations such as ‘e.g.’, ‘N.B.’, ‘i.e.’ etc.

(Oh, and now ‘etc’!)

The fact that countless others effortlessly spring to mind (AD, A.M., cf., et al., ff., per cent, Ph.D., P.M., P.S., re, s.o.s., sic., vs.) shows that Latin is clearly a pervasive force within contemporary society… Q.E.D.!

We could, but shall not, make an ad infinitum list of ‘English’ phrases borrowed from Latin; to do so would be to stress the point ad nauseam.

The Institution That Kept Latin Alive

Probably the greatest, if slightly inadvertent, champion of the Latin language, following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, is the institution that was, in many ways, the heir to that institution, the Catholic Church.


The opening lines of Genesis in Latin

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the Church’s insistence that Latin was the only suitable vehicle for transmitting the ancient and sacred words of a Nazarene Jew to the masses of Europe. Furthermore, not only did the Latin mass endure until the 1960’s, but Latin is even to this day the official language of the Holy See – meaning it is the official language of a nation state, albeit a rather small and select one.

Charmingly, Vatican City has the world’s only Latin ATM machine, but surprisingly is not the only country with Latin radio stations (Germany and Finland being two notable examples).

The topic of Latin is so vast that there is no time in these pages to talk either about the nuts and bolts of the language itself (its phonology, lexicon, morphology, syntax etc), or about its history and evolution from Old Latin (that of the ancient Roman Empire), to Classical Latin

“Latin is even to this day the official language of the Holy See – meaning it is the official language of a nation state, albeit a rather small and select one. “

(an artificially rarefied version of the language designed to distinguish itself from the speech of hoi polloi i.e. Vulgar Latin), to the corruptions of Medieval Latin, to the corrections of Renaissance Latin, through Early Modern Latin, and finally Modern Latin. Not to mention the numerous ways different people and nationalities pronounce Latin words today.

Obviously all of the above is only a brief précis of what is a topic huge in both importance and size, though this alone may be reason enough qualify it for further investigation.


A rare copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the original Latin

Regarding the study of this paradoxically obsolete and relevant language, many people may offer you convincing arguments that you should, or indeed convince you that you want to (or indeed, do not want to) learn Latin. As we can all recall from our schooldays, desire is the key to learning, and with languages, the desire to learning ratio is, if anything, intensified.

Should you decide that these ancient, though far from outmoded words are not ones you desire touching your lips, then it would be fruitless to convince you otherwise. However, I would insert two caveats to the above absolution: 1. even the slightest inkling, the most miniscule curiosity, is worth pursuing – it could turn an ignored itch into something quite beautiful, and 2. Latin is one of those things that, even when not actively engaged with, still bears fruit worthy of awareness (or perhaps the converse is true – it is pitiful to be wholly ignorant of that fruit).

On the other hand, if you are already full of vim and vigour and are itching to make these ancient words become newly learned, then I’ve only one thing to say to you, which is, rather predictably, carpe diem.

Such a flat and trite ending has me doffing my cap while shuffling my feet in the acknowledgment that the words of another, the popular classicist Mary Beard, give a far more poignant and no-nonsense justification for the merits of Latin. So it is with her winged words that I shall leave you:

You do NOT learn Latin because it helps you understand the spells in Harry Potter… because it helps you learn other languages… because it hones your critical and logical thinking… you learn Latin because of what was written in it – and because of the direct access that Latin gives you to a literary tradition that lies at the very heart (not just at the root) of Western culture. –Mary Beard

The Battle of Love and Law

by on December 29, 2015

 

By Nicole Saldarriaga

There’s a reason Euripides is often called the “people’s poet.” Though his plays were not the most popular in their own time, after his death they were soon recognized for their incredible attention to character.

Euripides
Euripides, the People’s Poet

Euripides was able to take people on the outskirts of society—slaves, women, illegitimate children—and give them complicated psychologies and desires in a way that no tragedian was ever able to do before. One of his most famous plays, the Hippolytus, is a great example of this—by telling a story that seems fairly uncomplicated on the surface, Euripides is able to give us a glimpse into the complicated psyche of an illegitimate man who desperately craves legitimacy, and ultimately show us the intricate relationship between love and law.

Hippolytus begins with the appearance of the goddess Aphrodite on the stage. She introduces the audience to the major conflict of the play: Hippolytus, the illegitimate son of Athens’ King Theseus, has severely insulted Aphrodite by rejecting her and erotic love altogether in favor of a chaste life as a devotee of Artemis. As punishment, Aphrodite causes Theseus’ wife, Phaedra, to be overcome by a desire for her stepson—so that, once Phaedra’s unlawful attraction is revealed, Theseus will kill Hippolytus.

Aphrodite’s plan succeeds spectacularly: when Phaedra’s nurse, in an effort to save her mistress (who, rather than admit her shameful love, is attempting to kill herself by starvation) reveals Phaedra’s secret to Hippolytus, and the horrified Hippolytus angrily rejects it, Phaedra’s intense shame leads her to hang herself—but not before leaving a note for Theseus in which she claims to have been raped by Hippolytus.

The outraged Theseus uses one of three wishes given to him by Poseidon to curse his son, and as Hippolytus flees into exile, Poseidon sends an enormous bull thundering out of the sea, which startles Hippolytus’ horses; the man is thrown from his chariot, though he remains tangled in the reigns, and the horses drag him to his death against the rocks.

More Than Meets the Eye…

This brief summary only hints at the complexities hidden beneath the surface-story. To plumb these depths and reveal the underlying tension between eros (erotic love) and nomos (law or custom), we must take a closer look at Hippolytus and Phaedra.

When Hippolytus first appears, he is just returning from a hunt, and his first order of business is to give reverence to Artemis. “For you, dear Lady, I bring this garland, this lovely chain of flowers,” he proclaims as he stands before her statue and altar, “from a virgin meadow…virgin it is, and in summer the bees frequent it, while Purity waters it like a garden.”

Euripides wastes no time in showing the audience that Hippolytus not only esteems the goddess, but also the very concept of virginity—above all else. What seems like every time he is on stage, Hippolytus references his virginity and his commitment to chastity in some way—it is clear that he holds tightly to the ideal and to the holiness he hopes to gain from his chastity.

Hippolytus

Why is Hippolytus so determined to reject eros—an erotic longing which, according to Phaedra’s nurse, is willed by the gods and cannot be withstood without a certain amount of arrogant presumption?

“Euripides wastes no time in showing the audience that Hippolytus not only esteems the goddess, but also the very concept of virginity—above all else.”

Even his own attendants attempt to warn Hippolytus that his rejection of Aphrodite is disrespectful and dangerous, but Hippolytus is resolute, responding simply with a sardonic “I don’t like deities who are marvelous after dark.” The blatant cynicism of that statement is our first clue in understanding Hippolytus’ character: his rejection of eros is largely related to the deep seated feelings of hate and anger which he holds in his heart.

 

Hatred of Women?

It would be all too easy to simplify Hippolytus’ hatred by calling it a hatred of women—his most famous speech, after all, delivered after the nurse informs him of Phaedra’s amorous desires, begins “Zeus! Why did you let women settle in this world of light, a curse and a snare to men?” and ends with “Let people say I am always harping on the same theme. Still I shall never tire of hating women.” His hatred of women is very real—however, to claim that it is the only reason for his rejection of eros is to over-simplify a much more complex decision which very likely can be traced back to Hippolytus’ identity as Theseus’ son.

Desperate for Legitimacy

Hippolytus’ history is not complicated to understand (in fact, stories like his seem all too common in Ancient Greek history and mythology), although it’s likely to have had some complicated consequences on Hippolytus’ character.

Hippolytus’ mother, named Hippolyta, represents a dark side to Theseus’ history as a legendary hero and upright citizen: she is one of many women whom he kidnapped and later deserted. While Hippolyta’s ultimate fate is unclear, we do know that she bore Theseus a son, and that Hippolytus grew up defined by his status as a bastard child of the king. His behavior, particularly his vow of chastity and hatred of women, openly points toward his resentment of his illegitimacy.

Hippolytus
Hippolytus is dragged to his death

In striving always to be pious—a shining example of devotion to the gods—Hippolytus is showing an obsession with the law, with nomos. In rejecting eros—the erotic, the feminine, the familial—he is attempting to achieve a perfect lawfulness, uncomplicated by the powerful, natural force that often causes people (like Phaedra, like Hippolytus’ own father) to break the law and destabilize the city by undermining laws of inheritance and succession. He is, in essence, avoiding the force that leads to the birth of illegitimate children (who, it is important to note, are basically forced to live outside the law. Ancient Greece stripped illegitimate children of many if not most rights of citizenship).

Hippolytus’ desire to avoid that natural force of eros is perhaps most visible in his famous speech about women. He says to Zeus:

If you wished to propagate the human race you should have arranged it without women. Men might have deposited in your temples gold or iron or a weight of copper to purchase offspring, each to the value of the price he paid, and so lived in free houses, relieved of womankind..

Hippolytus dreams of a city in which love, marriage, and sex are unnecessary. Familial ties are based solely on an exchange of goods.

“Hippolytus is, in essence, avoiding the force that leads to the birth of illegitimate children.”

As classicist and philosopher Seth Benardete put it in his The Argument of the Action, “Hippolytus…judges nature in light of the law rather than law in light of nature. His scheme depends on keeping the law of private property: the abolition of nature is better than any cancellation of the law.” Hippolytus wants a world of perfect law without nature—nomos without eros. What he does not see, of course, is that this is an utterly impossible dream.

Nature, represented in the family, also represents a kind of paradox: it is both a threat to the city, and an absolute necessity to the city. Though loyalty to your family can certainly undermine your adherence to the law (love and loyalty to one’s mother, for example, could lead one to break the law if it meant defending or avenging her), the city is also built upon its families, because families provide the city with citizens. It’s for this reason, more than anything else, that marriage laws were formed in Ancient Greece—adultery was considered unlawful, of course, and in a certain way, marriage was expected of every law-abiding citizen, so that the population wouldn’t die out and the city would be kept going. Eros may be a threat to nomos in some ways, but they are also inextricably linked.

Goddesses

The goddesses in the play themselves function as examples of that link. While it may seem that they are at odds with each other and not on the friendliest of terms (in fact, at the end of the play Artemis promises to punish one of Aphrodite’s followers as revenge for the death of Hippolytus), they are also connected.

Eros may be a threat to nomos in some ways, but they are also inextricably linked.”

Artemis is the goddess of virginity (and she becomes, for Hippolytus, a kind of representation of self-control and lawfulness), but she is also the goddess of the hunt, and the hunt is a perfect symbol for erotic desire—it is the chase, the constant longing to obtain the object of obsession (this is particularly interesting in regards to Hippolytus, who is an avid hunter. One has to wonder whether his love of the hunt is a kind of displacement of his repressed erotic feelings).

Aphrodite is the goddess of love, and is associated with a certain amount of eroticism, but she is also (some would say first and foremost) considered the goddess of lawful marriage, and in this way she is important to the health of the city. Thus, the goddess of nomos (for the purposes of this play) also holds within her character an aspect of eros, and the goddess of eros holds an aspect of nomos. Aphrodite and Artemis are, in some ways, indecipherable from each other.

With Aphrodite’s relationship to the law in mind, we can see the punishment of Hippolytus in an entirely new light. Hippolytus, by refusing eros, is refusing to get married, and is thus disrespecting not only nature, but also the laws of the city (in essence it is a vicious circle: the man who grew up outside the law, in a desperate attempt to live within that law, continues to alienate himself from it).

In this case, though it may seem over-harsh to modern readers, Hippolytus deserves his punishment—his punishment is in keeping with the law.

Phaedra, Hippolytus’ step-mother, also seems to be caught in the same vicious circle of lawfulness which ensnares Hippolytus. When we first see Phaedra, we see her in a state of near-madness and physical sickness. She is wasting away, weak, her body twisted; and we soon learn (after much prying on the part of the Nurse and Chorus) that her sickness is lovesickness—though it is not eros that has made her ill, but her resistance of eros. Phaedra tells us:

Once I saw how my trouble was developing, I knew there was no medicine with which I could combat it; there was no changing my mind. Now I will tell you the way I reasoned it out. When love had wounded me I looked about how I might best put up with it. I began with the resolve to keep quiet and hide my disease…next, I intended to overcome my folly by my self-control, and so endure it. And thirdly, when I could not master Cypris by these means I thought it the best plan…to die. As I would not wish my good deeds to pass unnoticed, so I did not want a crowd of witnesses to my sin…There you have my reason for killing myself: the desire to spare my husband and children that shame.

Phaedra becomes an interesting sort of parallel character to Hippolytus. She has also committed herself to a kind of chastity—though she feels eros in a way that Hippolytus might not, she refuses to act upon it for the sake of her reputation and good name. Rather than bring shame to herself and her family, she tries to kill herself by refusing to eat. This self-inflicted punishment is particularly interesting in that it implies a desire for control.

If death was Phaedra’s only goal she could have achieved it differently, with a faster method (as we will see her do later in the play), rather than draw out her suffering; but her refusal to eat demonstrates a determination to have absolute control over her body and her natural instincts, which include her amorous desires. Phaedra is, in her own way, obsessed with the law and its clear-cut demands. Adultery is not only unlawful, but also incredibly shameful, and so her eros must be rejected in favor of nomos, even if it means Phaedra’s death. In fact, Phaedra is so supportive of the law that her support turns into a hatred of women similar to that of her stepson. She says:

I realized full well that I was that object of universal detestation, a Woman. A foul curse on the woman who first committed adultery with strange men!…Those women who talk chastity, but secretly have their disreputable affairs, I hate. Sea-Goddess Cypris! How in the world can they look their husbands in the face, without quaking for fear lest the darkness, the partner in their crimes, some day take voice; or the walls of their chamber?

 

A World Without Eros

 

Phaedra, like Hippolytus, wants to live in a world in which eros does not interfere with the carrying out of nomos—and nomos, for her, is very linked with the idea of reputation and societal custom. Shame is Phaedra’s worst enemy—she cannot bear the thought of what people will say. Interestingly enough, one has to wonder whether Phaedra’s acute sense of shame and hatred of adultery is a result of her own family history.

XXX
Hippolytus rejecting Phaedra, by Jozef Geinaert

Her mother, Queen Pasiphae, had an adulterous affair with a bull and gave birth to the legendary Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster. Perhaps the labyrinth that was this monster’s home was not built solely for the purpose of sacrificing Athenian youth, but also as a way for King Minos to inter the family shame.

It is partly for this reason, really—the obsession with nomos that both Phaedra and Hippolytus share—that Aphrodite’s plan works so brilliantly (or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say tragically). Phaedra’s fear of shame is what leads her to fabricate the lie that Hippolytus raped her, in order to hide the true reasons for her suicide and save face, and Hippolytus’ refusal to break an oath sworn before Zeus, even when his life is in danger, both ultimately lead to the success of the divine plan.

Whatever Happened to Theseus?

This brings us to a new question: what is Theseus’ role in this divine plan? He is central to the decisions of the other characters, and yet he is absent for the better part of the play. Theseus is a particularly interesting character in that for all intents and purposes, he seems to be a great bastion of nomos.

Despite being king of Athens, he does not consider himself exempt from the law. In fact, the only reason he and Phaedra are in Troezen (the setting of Hippolytus and Hippolytus’ home) is Theseus’ obsession with following the law, even when technically unnecessary. Theseus, in an effort to defend his throne, killed several of the Pallantides (Pallas’ sons)—this would have been considered a perfectly justified killing (especially as the Pallantides were attempting to attack Theseus first), but Theseus imposed upon himself a needless year-long exile in Troezen, simply for the sake of ritual tradition (and despite the danger involved in leaving his throne unattended—he did not kill all the Pallantides, after all).

By this example alone, Theseus seems as obsessed with the law as are his wife and stepson; and yet, there is a side to him that is not quite that committed. After all, Hippolytus himself is proof that Theseus has committed adultery and has had children out of wedlock (we must remember, too, that Hippolyta is not the only woman Theseus kidnapped—he has committed this crime more than once). Moreover, there is an implication in the play that Theseus is not adhering to the laws of legitimacy and succession. Phaedra’s nurse, while attempting to discover the source of Phaedra’s illness, says:

if you die you will betray your children and deprive them of their father’s house, as sure as the horse-loving Amazon queen bore a master for your own children, a bastard, but with no bastard heart.

According to Benardete, the Nurse’s argument does not make sense unless we assume that Theseus is considering Hippolytus as an heir. “Why should the illegitimate Hippolytus be favored over Phaedra’s legitimate children?” he says, “Her death cannot be the cause; rather, Theseus must already have decided to make Hippolytus his heir, and only if Phaedra stays alive could he possibly be dissuaded”.

If this is truly the case, it means that Theseus is openly defying the laws of marriage and legitimacy, and it would not be bold to assume that Aphrodite’s plan is meant to punish Theseus as much as it is meant to punish his son.  There is actually a small hint of this idea in Aphrodite’s opening speech. “Yes, she must die;” Aphrodite says of Phaedra, “I shall not let the thought of her suffering stop me from punishing my enemies to my heart’s content” (76 – emphasis mine). In many ways, Theseus has insulted the ideals of lawful marriage and family just as much as Hippolytus—Aphrodite could easily consider him an enemy.

One has to wonder whether Theseus’ disregard for these laws is actually due to a deep-seated mistrust of his own legitimacy. According to the legend of his birth, Theseus’ mother, Aethra, slept with both the king of Athens, Aegeus, and Poseidon in one night. Theseus is thus considered to have a dual-paternity (this is part of what gives him his heroic strength and bravery). However, if viewed from a different standpoint, Aethra’s night with two men would not lead to dual-insemination, but instead to an uncertainty about the true paternity of the child. There is no way of knowing for certain, then, whether Theseus has a right to the Athenian throne (This is also throws into question Theseus’s killing of the Pallantides. If he is not truly the heir of Aegeus, the deaths would not have been considered justified. Perhaps this explains his seemingly overzealous need to purify). This is further complicated by the fact that Aegeus and Aethra were not in a lawful marriage at the time of Theseus’ conception—so, even if Aegeus is truly Theseus’ father, the law should have prevented Theseus from ascending the throne. How much of himself does Theseus see in his son?

It is clear, then, that the Hippolytus is about much more than a woman who falls in love with her stepson and a father who makes a horrible mistake. That tragic surface-story hides a complex struggle between eros and nomos—two fundamentals that are often mistakenly believed to exist separately from each other. In fact, eros and nomos are inextricably linked—we see this in the similarities between the goddesses (a fact that Hippolytus tragically fails to recognize) and in the failure of each character’s attempt to reject the one in favor of the other.

The presumptuous rejection of eros leads to nothing but pain, and it seems like no coincidence that the play opens with an image of Phaedra’s wasted, writhing body and closes with an image of Hippolytus’s body reduced to bloody tatters. Their rejection of nature—their desperation to live in a state of perfect and impossible lawfulness—destroyed them both; and Theseus, who had no small role to play in the matter, is left to pick up the pieces.