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Epicurus: The Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life

by May 14, 2013

Early philosophy in ancient Greece sought to explain the nature of the universe. For instance, there was Thales of Miletus, who held the rather bold belief that the entire universe is made of water in one form or the other. This dramatic delve into the study of metaphysics was very popular with early philosophers and was inevitably built upon and reproduced in various forms.

Ancient SamosBy the time Epicurus was born in 341 BCE on the Aegean island of Samos, popular philosophy was shifting emphasis from metaphysics (determining the nature of the universe) to personal ethics. It was a change that was prompted by Socrates some hundred years beforehand. Socrates, through his teachings and lectures, forced individuals to examine basic human values and ethics.

And because of this, people began asking themselves some very profound and fundamental questions. What does it mean to be moral? What is the true nature of human ethics? How should one live their life?

Epicurus sought to answer these questions. His teachings would gain attention for their dramatic departure from commonly held religious beliefs. He was determined to help others comprehend the true purpose of life and come closer to understanding the nature of death.

EMPIRICAL WISDOM AND THE TRUE NATURE OF THE GODS

Epicurus was taught philosophy as a boy by a disciple of Plato on the island of Samos. As a man, he diligently studied the teachings of the atomist philosophers Democritus and Leucippus. Epicurus would eventually adopt the view that the entire universe is composed only of atoms and empty space, which is a line of thought that we are more accustomed to.

Epicurus BustEpicurus believed that the universe was logical and behaved with predictable tendencies. Because of this, he was a strong proponent of finding true knowledge through observable, objectively verifiable phenomenon. In this regard his thinking was very similar to the modern scientific method. His beliefs ran counter to the commonly held idea that knowledge can be found through mythology and religion.

This stance was not one that was accepted by much of ancient Greece. It would appear that Epicurus was denying the existence of the gods in favor for a reliance on scientific thought. And indeed, Epicurus is said to have stated, “It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to attain by himself”.

Needless to say, this made him rather unpopular.

Keeping in line with his belief that the gods did not determine the course of one’s life, he was also a strong proponent of the idea of free will. To Epicurus, each human was the captain of his or her own ship. You may choose to be virtuous or you may choose to be evil. It is your decision.

But if we are the author of our own stories, then that might seem to put a lot of pressure on an individual. If I am the sole force determining the course of my life, then how should I best lead my life?! Epicurus had an answer for this as well.

HOW TO LEAD YOUR LIFE

What is the goal of life? To Epicurus the goal of living was to find happiness through friendship, living humbly and avoiding pain and anxiety. He believed very strongly that by living peacefully and avoiding fear and pain, we could live fully. To Epicurus, living a virtuous life and a peaceful life were one in the same. This is seen when he states…

Epicurus qupte“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely, honorably, and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely, honorably and justly without living pleasantly.”

A common, and incorrect, assumption of Epicurus was that he promoted finding happiness through material wealth and superficial excess.

Epicurus preached quite the opposite. He believed that the rich man was not the man who has the most, but rather the man who needs the least. He advised us, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you have now was once among the things you only hoped for.”

According to Epicurus, we should all seek a life of knowledge and temperance, surrounded by friends and free from fear and pain. And to Epicurus, there was one obstacle that plagued the hearts of men; it was this one thing that kept us from living a happy and fulfilled life.

DEATH IS NOTHING TO US

Epicurus believed that finding a life of peaceful contentment devoid of pain or fear should be the goal of every life. Epicurus believed that the one thing that was holding people back from truly accomplishing this feat was the fear of death.

The inhabitants of ancient Greece lived in constant fear of the wrath of the Gods. They viewed their mortal life as a temporary condition. Their sins and wrongdoings would be judged harshly by temperamental, vengeful gods. The expectation of pain and torment for eternity at the hands of Thanatos, the terrifying personification of death, was commonplace in ancient Greece.

Epicurus believed that the main obstacle to a fulfilled life was the irrational fear of incurring the wrath of the gods and suffering for eternity in the lair of Hades. We are so preoccupied with fearing death that we refuse to acknowledge life.

Epicurus sought to remedy this. And he did so by explaining the nature of death.

To Epicurus, the entire world was constructed entirely of atoms and empty space. Epicurus reasoned that the human soul could not be constructed of empty space. The consciousness (the soul) interacted very closely, very dynamically with the body. This would mean that the soul was made of atoms, presumably dispersed throughout the body. However these atoms would be fragile. Epicurus taught that at the time of our death, the soul would evaporate entirely.

Death marks the end of consciousness and sensation. This would mean that we would be unable to feel any emotional or physical pain. If we are no longer capable of feeling fear or pain when we decease, then it is foolish to be preoccupied with the notion of death. Epicurus believed that this fear was an obstacle to true happiness in this lifetime. If we could accept death, not ignore it or mystify it, but truly accept it as the end of being, then we could find happiness in this life.

As Epicurus said himself,
Epicurus quote death“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.”

Epicurus was viewed as dismissive of religion and therefore disliked by much of Greece. He did however gain a small but very loyal following. He founded a school of philosophy in Athens named “The Garden”, after a garden he enjoyed as a child on the island of Samos.

A stone’s throw from Plato’s Academy, The Garden was one of the first philosophical establishments that welcomed both women and slaves.

Epicureanism, the name for the teachings of Epicurus, would be revisited by contemporary ethical philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. The teachings of Epicurus can be heard resounding from the United States’ Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Epicurus lived his life free from a fear of death. He tried to teach others to pursue similar goals. He was a man who knew that he was the master of his own life, the sole captain of his ship. He inspired others to pursue scientific knowledge and to live freely.

True to his teachings, Epicurus described the last day of his life in 270 BCE as ‘a truly happy day.’

 

—-

“Epicurus: The Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life” was written by Van Bryan

Thales of Miletus and the Birth of Western Philosophy

by May 2, 2013

Living sometime between the 8th and 6th century BCE, Thales of Miletus is often considered one of the very first of the Greek philosophers. It was Thales who initially attempted to decipher the world without reference to mythology, and he was impressively influential in this respect. Indeed, almost every pre-Socratic philosopher followed his thinking as they tried to unravel the universe. For this, many say ‘Greek philosophy begins with Thales’.

Around this time period, the people of the ancient Greek peninsulas began to settle into established city-states. They developed a structured system of counting, as well as created an alphabet. But it was Thales who revolutionized a way of reasoning and endeavored to explain the world around him.

Until this time, Greek men and women lived by the whim of the gods. All natural phenomenon such as rain, thunder and even earthquakes were believed to be the result of temperamental and powerful deities. Thales, however, being the bold individual that he was, concluded that the universe was logical, rational… and even predictable.

Solar Eclipse

Solar Eclipse

While the rest of Greece prayed to the gods for healthy crops and peaceful seas, Thales diligently studied geometry and astronomy. Subsequently, through the power of his own observations, he accurately predicted a total solar eclipse in 585 BCE.

As you can imagine, this foresight meant he was considered something of a demi-god or sorcerer. Never before had a man been capable of predicting the erratic nature of the universe! For Thales, however, the solar eclipse only cemented his belief that the universe behaved with predictable tendencies.

Thales’ conviction in order and reason had additional benefits, something that separated him from the rest.

You see, one of the most common criticisms of philosophers was that they provided no influence or solutions to everyday problems. It was said that these thinkers kicked up dust and then complained that they could not see. Indeed, it was noted that Thales, while walking one night with his head turned up to the stars, fell face-first into a ditch.

Aside from being embarrassing, this would appear to be evidence that philosophy distracts us from our earthly condition and that it holds no sway in practical matters. And yet, Thales is still a shining example of a man who used philosophy as a means to arrive at a very practical and profitable end.

Olive mill

An olive mill and an olive press dating from Roman times in Capernaum, Israel.

For instance, Thales deduced that good crops were due to favorable weather conditions, and not the result of the gods. Thales used this knowledge to predict a high yield of olives one harvest year. He bought out a large number of olive presses at a low price early in the season. Several months’ later farmers indeed were met with a bountiful supply of olives. Thales, being the owner of a majority of olive presses, was able to rent and sell the equipment at a considerable mark up. The man made a substantial profit and proved that philosophy, in fact, could lead to success in business.

While Thales had many intellectual successes, he also had a few ideas, while influential, that were eventually dismissed.

It had occurred to Thales that the state of the universe was due to natural causes. Consequently, he set about to try to understand the world… but first, he needed an original principle from which to work.

Thus the question he posed was this: ‘what is the basic material of the cosmos?’ He believed there must be a common denominator of sorts that could accurately compose all of matter. Surely there was some first substance from which came all other materials.

And to Thales, that substance was water.

This idea, that the entire universe is composed of one fundamental element, is known as “Monoism”. It is a branch of metaphysics that was very popular in ancient Greece, and indeed, many of Thales’ followers would build on his idea that the universe is composed of one essential substance.

It is not hard to imagine why Thales drew the conclusion that everything was made of water. He believed that the fundamental material of the universe would have to be something from which all life could be formed. It would be a material necessary for sustaining life. Additionally, it would have to be a substance that was capable of motion and change. Water satisfied all of these criteria.

Living in the Greek peninsulas, the world very much appeared to come from water. Men traveled upon boats in the rivers and the oceans, and in fact all land ended at water. Much of the food in ancient Greece was fished from the sea. The livelihood of the farmers was determined by the rainfall of that season. Water was life, and to Thales, it was also the universe.

But it is not because of his assertion that everything was made of water, that we remember Thales. His claim might seem far-fetched by the standards of modern science, but for the time period, it was a dramatic leap forward in the arena of critical thinking and scientific study.

Of course we can’t be sure, but this initial step of challenging institutionalised ideas might have helped to blaze the way for the next controversial thinkers. By seeking rational explanations for observable phenomena, he laid the foundation for future philosophical and scientific thinking. For this reason, Thales of Miletus was one of the first pair of shoulders on which a long line of philosophers would stand…

“Thales of Miletus and the Birth of Western Philosophy” was written by Van Bryan

Diogenes of Sinope and the Modern Cynics

by April 24, 2013

Diogenes of Sinope is often considered one of the more eccentric, or at the very least untraditional, of the ancient Greek philosophers. He is credited as being one of the founders of cynicism and practiced these ideals through the eccentricities that filled his life.

Diogenes of Sinope

Diogenes of Sinope

It was his belief that all artificial growths of society, such as status and wealth, were unimportant, and could, in fact, be damaging to men’s souls. Diogenes held open contempt for abstract ideals such as reputation, property rights, or patriotism to any city-state.

He is often credited with the first use of the word “cosmopolitan” when he stated: “I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites).”

While living in Athens, it is said that he resided in a large ceramic jar on the outskirts of the marketplace. He made a career out of begging and lying about; all while surviving on a steady diet of discarded onions. During the day, he wandered the streets with a lantern because he was “looking for an honest man”.

Diogenes was constantly dirty, disheveled, and often smelled of filth. He urinated and defecated in public, and it was not uncommon for him to literally spit in the faces of those who disagreed with him. For this reason, Diogenes was sometimes referred to as “Diogenes the dog”.

Rather than being offended, Diogenes reveled in the idea of being more like a dog. A dog, he believed, was more in touch with nature and therefore more closely in tune with true happiness. The dog does not care for social status or material possessions; the dog does not make himself a slave to the superficial desires that so plague the hearts of men. The dog lives life in the present and does not concern itself with abstract notions that might damage the soul.

Diogenes and Dogs

Diogenes and Dogs

The philosopher believed very firmly that man is not above nature. We are inescapably a part of it, and the further we retreat from this truth, hiding behind our lavish houses and material treasures, the further we withdraw from true virtue.

Whatever lessons you wish to learn about cynicism from Diogenes, you will have to do so indirectly. Although it is claimed he authored several books, letters and tragedies; none of them have survived.

So, it is left to us to learn through the anecdotes of his life.

Fortunately, there seem to be no shortage of interesting stories regarding Diogenes of Sinope. One rather intriguing tale that demonstrates Diogenes’ particular brand of philosophy regards an altercation with Plato and a disagreement on the definition of “man”.

As we’ve said, Diogenes disapproved of abstract philosophy, and thus was a harsh critic of Socrates and Plato. At this particular time in Athens, Plato had given Socrates’ definition of a man as a “featherless biped”. This description was highly praised and admired by Athenian intellectuals and commoners alike.

The only person who wasn’t impressed, it would seem, was Diogenes. It is accounted that upon hearing it; Diogenes promptly plucked a chicken of its feathers, visited Plato at his academy, and then threw the featherless bird at the man’s head.

Diogenes declared, “Behold! I give you Socrates’ man!”

It has been told that Plato was so shocked by this “counter argument” that he immediately added to his definition “…with broad, flat fingernails”. The event stuck with Plato and he would later describe Diogenes as ‘Socrates gone mad’.

While Diogenes did not care for Plato or his fascination with intangible philosophy, it appears he held even more contempt for ideas like material wealth and power. And he was not afraid to defy anybody who represented these ideas, even if that person was the most powerful man in the world.

Alexander the Great standing in Diogenes' light

Diogenes and Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great met with Diogenes one morning in Corinth. The conqueror had heard stories of ‘Diogenes the dog’ and wished to meet the filthy philosopher. The legend goes like this: while Diogenes was bathing in the morning sunlight, Alexander appeared before him. The King of Macedonia asked Diogenes if there was anything he (a man who seemingly had everything) could do for him.

The philosopher responded, “Yes, stand out of my light”.

Alexander was said to have been so impressed with the remark that he then stated “If I were not Alexander, I would wish to be Diogenes”.

Now there are a few interpretations to this story. Maybe Diogenes was sun bathing and did not appreciate the unwarranted shadow that Alexander cast. Or perhaps it means that Alexander, the man who exemplified the ideas of status and material wealth, was standing in the way of Diogenes finding his truth, his light.

Despite the historical setting, the teachings of Diogenes have not been lost to the ages. While the man has long been dead and buried, his spirit is very much alive today.

It is not unreasonable to draw a parallel between the ideas of Diogenes and modern cynics today. Diogenes’ rejection of modern values and material wealth is not unlike the hippy revolution of the late 1960’s.

At the time the social experiment known as “The summer of love” rocked the social and political climate of the United States. It was fueled by a defiant generation that made it a mission to rebel against the conformist values of the Cold War era. And while these modern-day Diogenes’ took strides to find happiness in ‘free love’ and returning to nature, the rest of the world looked on in disbelief.

Charles Bukowski, a modern Diogenes

Charles Bukowski

The ideals of Diogenes can be found in modern writers who have fueled what is sometimes referred to as “The hipster movement”. One of these authors is Charles Bukowski; a man who lived his life trapped in back alleys and seedy bars. Through his writings he seamlessly sews the spirit of Diogenes within the pages of books about degenerates and losers who refuse to care about modern expectations and find their solace in a modern-day ceramic jar and a steady diet of whiskey.

Jack Kerouac and his hipster anthem On the Road could also be considered a modern take on the life of Diogenes. Kerouac writes of young people who sought a life of free exploration, unfettered by the modern aspirations of status and wealth. It is not hard to see the essence of Diogenes reborn when Kerouac states, “Man lowers his head and lunges into civilization, forgetting the days of his infancy when he sought truth in a snowflake or a stick. Man forgets the wisdom of the child”.

The children of Diogenes are the modern nomads and poetic beggars that wander Greenwich Village. They are the aging hippies found on the corner of Haight and Ashbury. They seem content enough to sit all day playing guitar and writing poetry on the terrible state of humanity.

And while some homeless individuals have found their status in life through unfortunate circumstances, there are others who live the way they do very purposefully. They sleep when they want, and eat when they can afford it. They are not concerned with living in an upscale area or finding a job with good benefits.

They wish only for their peace and ask that we stay out of their light.

 

“Diogenes of Sinope and the Modern Cynics” was written by Van Bryan

Herodotus: Father of History or Father of Lies?

by April 12, 2013

Insatiably curious, prone to whimsy, a talented writer, a slave to gossip, an innovator, a barbarian apologist, a cosmopolitan, a partisan egoist; Herodotus has been praised for and accused of much since the publication of his Histories.

He was both denigrated and venerated in his own time…and has remained so ever since.

However, it is almost as difficult to understand his legacy as it is to chronicle his life. Because, for the latter, in the words of George Rawlinson: “the data are so few…that to compile them into a biography is like building a house of cards”.

mausoleum of Halicarnassus

mausoleum of Halicarnassus

It was circa 484BC that Herodotus was born into a sophisticated family in the Persian-loyal city-state of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey). However, from hereon in, there is little solid evidence of the precise movements of his extraordinary life.

We know he was exiled at least once. It is possible that, with his family, he fled to the island of Samos due to conflicts with the tyrant Lygdamis. Indeed, some fancifully think Herodotus may later have returned to lead an uprising against his oppressor.

It is likely that Herodotus experienced an unusually multicultural upbringing. Halicarnassus, originally a Greek colony, was also a key trading post with Egypt and would thus have been awash with a diversity of peoples.

Having grown up with a privileged background, a good education and a window to the outside world, it should not be surprising that Herodotus became the traveller and chronicler he did.

Visits to Egypt, Greece, Tyre, Babylon and Italy are reported with enough veracity to suggest that they really occurred – e.g. he considered Egypt an ‘opposite land’ as the Nile flooded in the summer.

bust of HerodotusAdditionally, the fact that his work was known in his lifetime and was thought (by Lucian) to have been performed at the Olympic Games, indicates his contemporaries did not doubt, as some later did, that these journeys really happened.

His fame seems to have been largely to his benefit, though not quite enough to win him a citizenship vote in Athens. However, even to be considered for this was a great honor in itself.

His literary clout was respected by the tragedian Sophocles; there are echoes of The Histories in Antigone. Herodotus also received the ultimate back-handed compliment of being important and well-known enough for comic playwright Aristophanes to lampoon him in The Acharnians.

The final resting place for a famous writer of no fixed abode is almost inevitably open to dispute. The main contenders are Thurii in Southern Italy, Thurium in Macedonia or, of course, Athens. However, the notion that he was buried alongside Thucydides is fantastic in the extreme.

So why does this debate about his reputation constantly flare up? How could he manage to be of differing credibility to men like Plutarch, Strabo, Aristotle and Cicero (not to mention a host of modern scholars)?

The Histories was never fully taken on face value and never will be, but as more and more evidence builds up to vindicate Herodotus (e.g. he described Gelonus, a gigantic Scythian city which was only discovered in 1975) it becomes harder to dismiss him entirely as a fantasist, a defamer, or a fraud.

In fact, there is no logical reason to presume he was anything other than what he claimed to be, a publisher of inquiries.

So, was he the father of history or the father of lies? Well, he could simultaneously be considered both and neither.

herodotus histories fragment

Herodotus histories fragment

Most problems with Herodotus arise when inspecting him from a ‘modern’ point of view. Modern in the sense that we view history as a series of hypotheses and probabilities which must be investigated, debated and, ideally, resolved. Herodotus is far detached from this, content merely to play the role of reporter. Consequently, we cast over him a patronizing and judgmental eye, an eye that isn’t compatible with his method.

Thucydides used a different ‘modern’ eye to belittle his contemporary.

Herodotus was interested in a range of human and natural characteristics as well as customs (together with their backgrounds). In contrast, Thucydides was primarily concerned with tangible facts that were directly relevant to him (i.e. politics and warfare). He considered his work historically definitive in a way Herodotus never did.

Indeed the very problem arises because of our obsession with viewing Herodotus as an historian, something he himself never claimed to be for the simple reason that the word didn’t exist! ‘History’ comes from the Latinized version of the Greek historia – ‘inquiry’.

As John P.A. Gould succinctly put it: “He nowhere claims to have been an eye witness or participant in any of the major events or battles that he describes”.

So, if not an historian, then what?

One could argue he was more of a travel writer, a chronicler of a general encyclopedia, or a journalist. Though actually calling him a novelist is perhaps a stretch too far.

Herodotus made it perfectly clear that he was not reporting truth or fact, but making a record of what others had told him: “I owe it to tell what is being told, but I by no means owe it to believe it”. [7.153-2]

If he were an historian, then he could only be said to have been a war, or anti-war historian. This is made clear from the preface to his work in which he states his wish to record how Greeks and non-Greeks came to strife. Thus, everything else (topography, local customs etc) becomes entertaining garnish.

And it is precisely the garnish, the tall-tales, the meandering yarns, the detailed landscapes, the curious dress and peculiar fauna, that have brought him in for such weight of attack.

However, as one man travelling in an unknown world, desperate to learn and share all it had to teach him, he is no more worthy of censure then the authors of obsolete entries in the Lonely Planet.

Modern assumptions and misinterpretation wound Herodotus. It is not up to him to justify himself to us, but up to us to read him as he wrote, without certainty, without authority, but with keen interest, enthusiasm, a willingness to think and an thirst to learn.

And, naturally, a pinch of salty skepticism.

Interested in reading the Histories by Herodotus? You can access it here for Free:
http://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/herodotus-histories-book-i/

“Herodotus: Father of History or Father of Lies?” was written by Ben Potter

Euripides Greek Tragedy’s Unsung Hero

by March 20, 2013

Euripides Greek TragedyA lone figure, swaddled in rags sits secluded in a dank cave bent over his papyrus. The whittled reed in his hand dips rhythmically into the pot of octopus ink before adding a couple of urgent scratches to the thick page. His bushy, white beard is stained off-centre at the lower-lip, evidence of his habitual pen-chewing; but it is his mind, his mind that is stained far more indelibly. There are images of gods, war, warriors, adultery, incest, exile, blasphemy, damnation, infanticide, patricide, matricide, human-sacrifice, and worst of all, foreigners. These are the ideas, the dark and evil components of Greek tragedy, that this man, this Euripides believes are too… too… stock, too trite, too bedtime-story for the citizens of Athens. He knows that beauty is terror. “Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.” (Donna Tartt)

Well… No. I’m afraid not. At least, we’ve no reason to believe that the man who produced, directed and wrote The Bacchae, Hippolytus, Medea, and Electra really was the tortured recluse, the artistic oddball, the Salinger or Kubrick of his day. We like to think this because, instead of merely putting a new spin on traditional Greek myths, he always managed to find an even more shocking way to deliver a tried and trusted tale. He could make heroes devils and devils heroes and all without forcing the audience to break their mental stride.

Yes, he may well have lived in a cave on the island of Salamis, but what better place for a writer to escape the distracting hustle and bustle of Athenian city existence?

Likewise, late in life, Euripides left Athens for Macedon in self-imposed exile. Was he frustrated at a theatre-going public who didn’t appreciate him? Or was it, more likely, a lucrative retirement where his talents were rewarded not only with money, but also with praise and status?

After all it was these, praise and status, that seem to have alluded Euripides during his lifetime. Despite being considered by many today as the finest of the three great Athenian playwrights (besting Aeschylus for style and Sophocles for substance), he only won the first prize at the city’s premier dramatic contest, the Great Dionysia, four times during his lifetime and once posthumously.

You may be thinking ‘that’s not so bad – nobody ever won more than four Academy Awards for best director’, but if you compare his record to that of Aeschylus (13 wins) and Sophocles (20+), it seems a paltry return for a man of such insight, intensity and timeless genius.

Aristophanes - bust

Bust of Aristophanes

Don’t think however, that this modest return of gongs equated to a shortage of fame. A contemporary playwright, the comedian Aristophanes, made sure everyone in Athens, even those uninterested in tragedy, knew all about Euripides.

Aristophanes, along with other exponents of Old Comedy, used rumours about Euripides as material to create a comic alter-ego who was not merely joked about, but lampooned directly whilst appearing as a character in several plays.

Common jokes were:

  • That Euripides’ wife was having an affair with his lodger, who also happened to collaborate with Euripides in writing some of his plays.
  • That this cuckolding created in him such bitterness that many of his plays ended up propounding a theme of misogyny.
  • That he was an atheist and blasphemous towards the Greek gods.
  • That he was responsible for making tragedy less lofty e.g. whilst Aeschylus uses kings, gods and heroes as characters, Euripides uses beggars, cripples and the working-classes. And even when portraying kings they are clad in rags and slovenly.
  • That his mother sold cabbages in the agora – an early example of a “yo momma” joke i.e. “yo momma so poor, she sells cabbages in the agora”.
  • That he, like his contemporary Socrates, subverted the moral order of the day.

It is worth remembering that Aristophanes, like all comedians, was more concerned with laughs than with truth. Indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine that Euripides was from anything other than a high-class family and enjoyed a fine education.

Whether or not his wife was playing away, we do not know for sure, but anybody who closely studies his plays would find it hard to conclude he was a misogynist. In fact, even more than his great rivals, Euripides treats his female characters with great sensitivity and sympathy, as well as portraying them as independent and intelligent.

Moreover, it is quite likely that Euripides would have actually been in the audience when some of these zingers landed, making the impact of the joke two-fold. First, as the audience appreciated what the actor said, then second, as the audience turned as one to the embarrassed, angry, or perhaps, laughing Euripides – much like President Obama’s roast of Donald Trump at the Whitehouse in 2011.

One area where Aristophanes did not poke fun at Euripides was that of peace and war. The 5th century BC was a time of relentless fighting for Athens and both men used their art as a medium to criticise either politicians or the very nature of war itself. Indeed, it’s possible one reason Euripides was not a man appreciated in his own time was because of his unwillingness to slap a ‘support our troops’ sticker on the front of his programmes.

Whilst accusations he was a pacifist were perhaps a little wide of the mark, both he, and Aristophanes, stood out as men who used their talents to campaign against the involvement of Athens in expensive, devastating and pointless military campaigns.

Much as Euripides’ attempts to win favour with the public were to no avail, his efforts to influence popular opinion on foreign policy matters were equally fruitless. Two years after his death, Athens fell to the Spartans.

The cradle of democracy never recovered its status as the leading light of Western civilization.

Euripides’ legacy is a theatrical, not a political one. He changed theatre from a vehicle for education and moralizing to one of doubt and introspection. Whilst it is his complexities, his ambiguities and his lack of conformity that brought him up against such resistance in his own time, it is perhaps those same qualities that keep him relevant and endear him to so many today.

“Euripides Greek Tragedy’s Unsung Hero” was written by Ben Potter

The Mysterious Mr. Homer

by February 27, 2013

No one knows exactly when the Greek poet Homer lived. Herodotus, the father of history, guessed around 850 BC. Other ancient sources proposed that he was conjuring up transcendent imagery as early as the 12th century BC. Modern researchers, however, appear to place Homer in the 7th or 8th centuries BC.

The dates, as you can see, vary wildly. All we do know is that his compositions are considered the oldest works of western literature and have had an enormous and incalculable influence throughout the history of the written word.

Bust of Homer

Homer as imagined in the Hellenistic period

But the “Homeric Question” goes deeper than just dates… Historians aren’t even sure he existed at all. His works may be the culmination of generations of storytelling, all grouped under a fictitious name and nothing else. Could one man have written both The Iliad and The Odyssey?

At the same time, the stylistic similarities between the two mammoth stories are overwhelming, suggesting that, yes, it was the result of single author. But to throw another wrench into the mix, most scholars agree that the books underwent a process of standardisation and refinement in the beginning of the 8th century BC. Any wonder then that the styles were so similar…

We also can’t be certain that Homer was even a man, presuming he or she once lived. Samuel Butler, an important 19th century translator, argued that based on literary observations, it was a young Sicilian woman who wrote The Odyssey… but interestingly enough, not The Iliad.

So what do we know about Homer? How are we to learn anything about this ancient poet, if he or she did indeed walk this earth? Where do the clues lie to this ancient puzzle?

The answer may be obvious: We have to look at the poetry itself and piece together what we can. Unfortunately most of us do not have the time, nor the ancient greek skills to delve into the mystery ourselves…

For this reason, Classical Wisdom Weekly spoke with Ancient Greek expert A.P. David for insights into who Homer was and how we can better understand the monumental works of The Iliad and The Odyssey. A scholar and a gentleman, A.P. David also presents some alternative views on the subject… ones that might make you question everything you thought you knew about the epic poet and his (or her) writings.

Click on the play button to watch the video: