The following essay was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 261-73.
When Euripides wrote for the stage, the time had passed away in which it was possible for an Athenian of education to place any credence in those antique legends which formed the subject of the tragic drama. But they still retained their hold over the minds of the common people, and their performance in the theatre continued to be looked upon as a sort of religious celebration. Under these circumstances the duty of the tragic poet, who regarded his vocation in a serious light, was one of some difficulty. It was possible for him to follow the example of Sophocles, and preserve an outward acquiescence in the traditional beliefs, while modifying their incongruities and heightening their impressiveness. Euripides, however, was not content to pursue such a course. He was unable to conceal his contempt for the monstrosity of some of the ancient myths on which the national religion was founded, and in several passages of his tragedies he subjects them to the severest criticism. He allows his characters, in these places, to express without reserve their indignation at the lust and treachery of the legendary deities. "Is it just," exclaims Ion, "that the gods who lay down laws for mankind should themselves act lawlessly?... If Apollo, and Poseidon, and Zeus, the lord of heaven, were to pay penalty for the wives they have ravished, soon would their temples be emptied of all treasure." No less bitter is the complaint of Amphitryon against Zeus, for his seduction of Alcmene, and his desertion of Hercules. "Even I," he says, "though but a mortal, surpass thee in virtue. I have not betrayed the sons of Hercules. As for thee, thou knewest how to steal in secret to the bed of another's wife, but to save thy friends thou knowest not. A feeble god, or a treacherous, art thou."
Sometimes the opinion is boldly advanced that these stories about the deities are mere inventions, and that mankind have attributed to the divine beings their own vices and passions. "Never will I believe," says Hercules, "that the gods pursue unlawful loves, or that they throw their kindred into bonds, or that one is master of the other. God, if he be a true god, has need of nothing. These are but the pitiful fables of poets." In the same way it is occasionally hinted that prodigies such as the birth of Helen from a swan's egg, and the sun's deviation from his course in horror at the crime of Atreus, are poetical fancies. Many, also, of the religious customs and superstitions of the time, which were inconsistent with reason or common sense, such as the abuse of the privilege of asylum, and the belief in pollution by contact with murderers, are fearlessly criticized.
But it is against oracles and divinations, and the whole tribe of seers and soothsayers, that the attacks of Euripides are more especially directed. For this animosity there was a political motive. Delphi, throughout the Peloponnesian War, had taken the side of Sparta with open partiality. Moreover, during the debates on the Sicialian expedition, oracles and prophecies had been lavishly employed in favour of the enterprise. Hence its disastrous termination excited, among the Athenians, a strong popular feeling against the whole system of divination. At such a time it was possible for a poet to attack the system without fear of opposition of prosecution; and Euripides, in many plays, has given expression to the prevailing sentiment. The Delphic oracle, in particular, is frequently exhibited in an unfavourable light. Apollo, the god of Delphi, is represented in the Ion as a seducer of women, who endeavours to conceal his misdeeds by means of a fraudulent response, and who, after his plot has been discovered, is ashamed to appear in person, and sends Athene to take his place. The vengeance which he exacts from Neoptolemus, when engaged in the very act of restitution, is described as the conduct of a base character who "remembers old grudges." His incitement of Orestes to the murder of his mother is denounced, in many tragedies, as wicked and immoral. But the most deliberate and bitter of all the invectives against the art of divination is contained in the Helena, a play which was produced shortly after the Sicilian expedition, when popular indignation was at its height. "False and worthless," it is there said, "are the utterances of soothsayers, nor is wisdom to be found in flames of fire, or in the voices of the feathered tribe. 'Tis folly to hope that birds can bring benefit to mortal men.... Let us rather, at our sacrifices, beseech the gods to send us blessings, and let us pay no heed to oracles.... Wisdom and prudence are the wisest soothsayers."
In these and similar passages Euripides makes no secret of the sentiments with which he regarded the grosser superstitions of the time. Still, in spite of his occasional frankness, it is easy to exaggerate the extent and purport of his criticisms. To represent him, after the fashion of many scholars, as an uncompromising opponent of the national religion, and as a satirist who was perpetually throwing contempt on the materials with which he had to work, is hardly justified by the facts of the case. The passages in which he attacks the credibility of the legends are not so numerous as if often supposed. In fact, the tendency of the majority of his plays is to inculcate respect and reverence for the established forms of belief. The Hippolytus and the Bacchae are well-known examples, which it is sufficient merely to mention, and which were composed with the express purpose of exemplifying the disastrous results of intellectual pride, and contempt for the ordinary convictions of mankind. Other dramas, less commonly read, tend in the same direction. Throughout the Heracleidae the prosperity of Athens is described as the result of her piety and veneration for the gods. Demophon, her ruler, is guided in all his actions by a scrupulous regard for religious observance, whence his confident expectation of victory. Theseus in the Supplices exhibits the same characteristics; and in various other plays this reverence for things divine is emphatically represented as the sole source of happiness. Moreover, even in those tragedies where the gods are most severely assailed, their conduct is generally vindicated in the end. Creusa, in the Ion, admits at last the justice of Apollo, and his "temple-gates and shrines once more seem beautiful to her." The Orestes and the Iphigenia in Tauris conclude with a similar justification of Apollo's wisdom. In many plays, also, where the legend would seem to invite censure, Euripides is unwilling to take advantage of the opportunity. Thus in the Phoenissae and the Iphigenia at Aulis not a word is uttered in condemnation of the divine ordinance which demanded a human sacrifice as the price of victory.
On the whole, then, it seems doubtful whether Euripides can justly be described as an enemy of the national religion; nor does he appear to have been so regarded by the majority of his countrymen. No doubt the freedom of his utterances may have occasionally given offense, and one or two traditions have been preserved concerning the indignation with which certain passages in his dramas were received. But the charges brought against him were directed, in almost every case, against the ethical, and not the theological, teaching of his plays, and were easily refuted by Euripides. Apart from the partial and biassed attacks of Aristophanes, there is only one recorded instance in which religious skepticism was made the subject of complaint. And that popular outcry against him on this occasion was due rather to temporary causes, than to any permanent feeling of mistrust, at any rate in the case of the mass of the citizens, seems to be proved by the fact of his continued popularity, and by the honours which were bestowed upon him, both before and after his death. Indeed, if his attitude towards the established creed had been of that uniformly hostile character which is often ascribed him, and if the constant object of his plays had been, in the language of Aristophanes, to persuade the people that "there are no gods," it is certain that he would never have been permitted to exhibit continuously at a religious festival like the Dionysia. No doubt the Athenians allowed considerable latitude for their dramatists in the treatment and interpretation of the sacred legends. But their tolerance would hardly have gone so far as to allow the production of plays written for the express purpose of undermining the whole structure. Nor had Euripides any such desire. His views are probably expressed in that passage of the Electra, in which, after the truth of one of the fables has been called in question, it is added that "such tales of fear are salutary to mortals in upholding the worship of the gods." He was conscious of the value of the established religion, but desired, like Pindar before him, and Plato after him, to purify it of its grosser elements; and it is not so much against the existence of the gods, as against the cruelty and immorality which were popularly ascribed to them, that his attacks are mainly directed. Whether his policy was a wise one, and whether this satirical analysis of the more flagrant absurdities of the mythology would not tend rather to encourage skepticism than to purify belief, is another question which it is unnecessary to discuss.
Beneath the mythical framework in which his tragedies are enclosed, Euripides allows us not infrequent glimpses into his own personal feelings and speculations concerning the nature of the universe and of human destiny. His mind was essentially of a religious and meditative cast. His wistful yearning after truth is beautifully expressed in one of his choruses in which he beseeches Zeus, "the ruler of all things," to "send light to the souls of men, to those who would fain be forewarned whence sorrow springs, and where evil has its root, that they may know what deity to implore, and so obtain rest from their troubles." But his convictions on these great subjects are less fixed and abiding than those of Sophocles, and less intimately connected with the purpose of his tragedies. The dominant tone is one of doubt and uncertainty. He follows first one guide, then another. His receptive mind welcomes with delight such doctrines as by their beauty appeal most powerfully to the imagination. But he adheres to no single system, and his speculations are those of a poet rather than of a scientific thinker. Yet some account of his changeful opinions, though hardly necessary to the due appreciation of his tragedies, will be of interest as a picture, not only of his own mind, but of the spirit and tendency of the age in which he lived.
As to the existence of some great primal cause, which men call God, he appears to feel no doubt. "Who," he asks, "on beholding all these works can fail to perceive the presence of the Almighty, or to thrust far away the crooked wiles of those philosophers whose baneful tongue discourses at random about invisible things?" But as to the nature and attributes of this first cause all is darkness. Sometimes, with Anaxagoras, he believes it to be Mind, "the self-begotten," that "embraces universal nature," and inhibits the soul of each individual man. Sometimes it is Air, "stretching boundlessly on high, and enfolding the earth in its pliant arms." Sometimes, again, in default of more certain knowledge, he calls it Necessity.
But while believing in the existence of some supreme being, he is doubtful how far this being interferes in the affairs of mankind. He has often "pondered in his heart whether it be Chance or God that regulates human fortune," but can find no clear or certain answer. It is true that in most of the passages where the question is referred to, the existence of an overruling Providence, that punishes the wicked and rewards the good, is strenuously asserted. But sentiments of this kind had come to be part of the conventional language of the tragic stage, and might be placed with dramatic propriety in the mouths of the characters, without implying any certain conviction on the part of Euripides. On the other hand, in one of the fragments of the Bellerophon, the notion of divine government is scornfully rejected; and the speaker points, in proof, to the prosperity of tyrants, and the oppression of the weak by the strong. But here again the passage is clearly inserted for dramatic reasons, and the general tendency of the play, as appears from other fragments, is to show that "the happiness of the wicked is unstable." The real sentiments of Euripides are seen rather in those expressions of doubt and perplexity to which he occasionally gives utterance. The prevalence of evil was a problem which appeared to him to be insoluble. His hopes as well as his difficulties are embodied in the chorus of the Hippolytus, where it is said that "the thought of God's Providence, as it enters the heart, mightily assuages sorrow; but when I think to understand it aright, I am left at fault, on beholding the fortunes and the deeds of mankind."
The influence of Anaxagoras on the mind of Euripides has already been noticed. It is seen still further in his love of physical science, in which he follows, to a large extent, the teachings of his master. He describes the world as originally in a state of chaos. Earth and Air were first evolved from the amorphous mass, and by their marriage begot all created things. Air is the "father of men and gods." Earth, "receiving in her womb the watery drops of rain, brings forth mortal men, brings forth herbage, and the tribes of wild beasts, whence with justice she is called the mother of all things." Nothing is destroyed; death is only a dissolution into primitive elements. "The earthy returns to earth, the ethereal is restored to the vault of heaven," and thus in course of time they both combine into new shapes and forms. All these theories are a reproduction of the teachings of Anaxagoras, and are expounded in verses of supreme beauty. But the atoms of Anaxagoras, infinite and homogeneous, which form the ultimate basis of matter, have no place in the descriptions of Euripides. On the other hand, he follows Empedocles in introducing Love as the great motive principle in creation. "It is Love which causes Earth to yearn for rain, when the parched ground, barren with drought, has need of moisture. It is Love which makes the sacred Heaven, swollen with rain, to sink into the lap of Earth. And when these twain are commingled, they beget and nourish all things." This brief account of the physical theories of Euripides illustrates the eclectic character of his speculations, and his predilection for everything which was grand, imaginative, and poetical.
As to the state beyond the grave, only vague surmises are to be found in Euripides. The body returns to earth, and the soul, "quenched like a falling star," vanishes into the air from whence it came. Whether it there retains individual consciousness is one of those mysteries which "darkness veils in impenetrable clouds. At times he seems inclined to hold, with Heracleitus, that the present life is really death, and that death is an awakening to a noble existence. The doctrine, also, of future rewards and punishments is asserted or suggested in one or two passages. But in other places a different opinion prevails. When a man dies, it is said, he "vanishes into nothing," and becomes "as though he had never been born;" and there is "no happiness" beyond the grave. The belief in the immortality of the soul is even described as a fear-inspiring creed; for "if sorrows await men after death, I know not where one should turn for refuge, since death is reckoned the mightiest healer of affliction."
Euripides, like Sophocles, is often supposed to have taken a pessimistic view of human destiny, and many passages may be collected from his writings to the effect that "life is but calamity," and that "it is better for a man never to have been born." Above all, there are the pathetic lines in which he says that "we should weep when a man is born into the world, because of the sorrows that await him; but when he dies and rests from his labours, we should bear him forth to burial with joy and gladness." Still, the significance of these utterances, taken from a long series of tragedies, should not be overrated. Much more important is the long speech in the Supplices, where the whole question is discussed, and where Euripides appears to be stating his deliberate opinion. He decides that on the whole the good outbalances the evil in human life. "Some men," he tells us, "assert that there is more of sorrow than of joy upon the earth. A diverse opinion is mine; for I hold that the good exceeds the evil. Were it not so, we had ceased to live."
Back to Euripides