The following essay was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 273-80.
The fondness of Euripides for philosophical digressions has [often] been noticed as one of his characteristics. Like the other dramatists of the fifth century [B.C.] he regarded tragedy as an instrument of instruction, and the tragic poet as a teacher of wisdom to the common people. But while the lessons of the older poets had been enforced in the deep religious motive which ran through the whole play, Euripides ... adopts a different method. He lays far less emphasis on the general purport of his dramas, and conveys his teaching in the way of occasional maxims and discussions, with which the dialogue is profusely strewn. His works are a mine of gnomic reflection, almost every important question of political, moral, and social science being reviewed or debated in one place or another. Much of this moralizing is of the conventional type, and possesses no features of special interest. But it may be worthwhile to collect together ... some of his more characteristic ideas, in which his individual temperament is best displayed.
As far as political theories are concerned, he re-echoes the ordinary Athenian detestation of tyranny and oligarchy, and the Athenian enthusiasm for democratic institutions. Freedom is a "priceless name," and the man who enjoys it, though poor otherwise, has a "great possession." The advantages of democracy are eloquently described by Theseus as consisting in equal laws, free speech, protection from outrage, and the encouragement of talent. But the democracy favoured by Euripides is to be of a moderate type, in which neither rich nor poor have excessive influence. The rich are always "striving to increase their wealth"; the poor, "cheated by the tongues of bad leaders," are ever ready to attack the wealthy class, Moreover a humble labourer, however intelligent, has no leisure to devote to politics, and is easily led astray by the demagogues, whose plausibility and unscrupulous ambition are frequently denounced by Euripides. It is in the middle class that he places his trust, and especially in the class of farmers -- men who cultivate their own lands, and seldom visit the city and the marketplace, and who, "though not beautiful in shape," are "courageous, shrewd in argument, and honest and blameless in their lives."
Many passages in the writings of Euripides appear to refer to contemporary politics, and one or two of his plays are supposed to have been written with a political purpose. But the allusions are all so indefinite, after the manner of Greek tragedy, that no very certain conclusions can be deduced. The general result is to show that, though he occasionally displays a patriotic hatred of Sparta, his prevalent feeling throughout the Peloponnesian War was in favour of peace, and that he was never a blind adherent of the war party, as he is sometimes said to have been. The Heracleidae, which was composed about the time of the outbreak of the war, has been described by some critics as a political drama, written in favour of Pericles and his policy. In this play, no doubt the Athenians are represented as successfully resisting the unjust demands of a Peloponnesian state. But they enter on the war with reluctance, and their sentiments are all in favour of peace. Moreover the Cresphontes, which was produced at the same time, contains a chorus which is inspired by the most passionate desire for repose and tranquillity. It can hardly be contended, therefore, that in these two dramas Euripides appears as a fomenter of war. And at a late date his Erectheus, with its peaceful sentiments, is said by Plutarch to have contributed, in some degree, to the cessation of hostilities.
After the conclusion of the peace of Nicias in 421 [B.C.], politics at Athens took a fresh turn. The non-fulfilment of some of the conditions of the treaty had excited among the Athenians a deep distrust and hatred of Sparta. Alcibiades, for private reasons, fostered this spirit of indignation, advocated the renewal of the war, and as a part of his policy brought about the alliance between Athens and Argos. Euripides is often supposed to have supported his measures, but it is difficult to see on what evidence. It is true that in the Supplices, produced shortly before the treaty with Argos, the old legendary friendship between Athens and Argos is exhibited in glowing colours. But the play, in other respects, is full of violent denunciations of war. The unscrupulousness of those party leaders who foster strife for personal motives, in order to gain office and wealth; and the stupidity of the people, who vote for war in a moment of excitement, without regarding the consequences, are censured in the strongest language. Again, in the Andromache, exhibited a year or two afterwards, Euripides reflects the prevailing animosity against Sparta, by his odious delineation of the Spartan heroes of the drama, and by his long tirade against the Lacedaemonian character and institutions. But to suppose, on these grounds, that the play was a political manifesto, and that Euripides was used by Alcibiades as a tool for the promotion of his views, is to raise a very large super-structure on a very slender foundation. The notion that Euripides was an intimate associate of Alcibiades appears to be unsupported by any reliable evidence; nor can it be said that the Andromache, apart from the invective against Sparta, is a play of a political complexion.
To turn next to social and moral questions. In the spirit in which he approaches these matters Euripides, like his friend Socrates, is much in advance of the ordinary opinion of his age. Though at times a thorough Greek in his ideas and prejudices, he displays in general more sympathy and feeling for others than was common in the fifth century. His humane disposition is especially observable in his views about slaves. It is true that he regards them as a necessity, and the abolition of slavery is a notion that never occurs to him. Nor is he ignorant of their vices. But he wishes to improve their condition, and to raise the estimation in which they are held. He introduces, with a frequency which denotes deliberate purpose, examples of their devotion and fidelity; and draws pleasing pictures of friendly intercourse between master and servant. Creusa treats the old slave of the family as a sympathetic companion, and expresses her gratitude for his services in touching terms; and the slave of Admetus, bewailing the death of his mistress, exclaims that she was "a mother to the whole household."
In these sentiments he is at one with Socrates; but his views are not always of this liberal type. In his allusions to foreign nations, for example, he still shows the influence of national prejudice, and describes them as a race of slaves, guilty of the most atrocious vices, incapable of civilization, and fit only to be the subjects of the Greeks. In the same way, his notions on the question of revenge are widely opposed to those of Socrates. No trace is to be found in his writings of the Socratic doctrine that it is wrong to do evil to any man. On the contrary, he regards vengeance as "the fairest prize that the gods can bestow upon mankind." Nothing, in his eyes, is sweeter than "to see your enemy's happiness brought low," and no misfortune is more terrible than to "become a laughing-stock to your adversary."
The misogynism of Euripides has become a by-word, and not without some show of reason. Indeed, his plays are full of satirical reflections on the deceitfulness and immorality of women, and on their vanities, jealousies, and petty animosities. But in estimating the sincerity of these attacks considerable deductions have to be made. Many of them are due to dramatic necessity, and the circumstances of the play. Bellerophon, for instance, had received such treatment at the hands of Stheneboea, that it was only natural for him to exclaim that "the name of woman was the greatest reproach upon earth." Much, also, is to be ascribed to rhetorical exaggeration. Euripides, when once started on a given theme, was inclined to regard it as an opportunity for the display of his rhetorical powers, and to handle it with the reckless passion of an advocate. Thus the celebrated invective of Hippolytus against women, though partly justified by the facts of the situation, is pushed beyond the limits of reason and common sense by the fervour of the rhetorician. There is also the influence of literary tradition to be taken into account, and the example of professedly satirical writers such as Archilochus and Simonides. Hence on these various grounds we may perhaps hesitate to assume that Euripides was inspired by any special hostility against the female sex; and it is difficult to believe that a poet who created such characters as Alcestis and Iphigenia could have been a misogynist at heart.
This same rhetorical dexterity and love of advocacy, to which we have just referred, induce him at times to espouse the cause of women, and to place in their mouths an enumeration of their wrongs and hardships, which is curiously modern in its vein of sentiment. He makes them complain that they have no careers, and no opportunities of distinction, and that their happiness is centered in their husband. If he should turn out badly, they have no further resource; while the husband, when discontented with his wife, can betake himself to his outdoor occupations, or the society of his friends. They lament, too, the injury which has been done to their reputation, owing to the fact of literature being in the hands of men; and impugn the justice of Providence, in burdening them with the terrible ordeal of childbirth.
But this occasional advocacy of feminine discontent is only assumed for dramatic purposes, and the real views of Euripides concerning the position and functions of women are essentially Attic. He is convinced that their honour and happiness are best secured by seclusian and self-effacement. In many passages, and especially in his description of Andromache, he has given us his conception of a model wife. She is one who remains contentedly in the house, avoiding the gay conversation of other women, satisfied with her own society, and preserving before her husband a "silent tongue and quiet eye." She is careless of personal adornment when her husband is absent, and when he is present worships him with unreflecting reverence. "If he is ugly, she thinks him handsome; if he speaks, she finds wisdom in his words, even when there is none." She humours his frailties, treats his mistresses with kindness, offers her own breast to his bastard children, and by such "virtuous conduct" wins and retains his affection.
Euripides frequently expresses his opinions on the subject of education and the rearing of young; and the baneful effect of the great athletic festivals, in encouraging an exclusively athletic training, to the neglect of moral and practical qualities, is visited with strong condemnation. The athlete, "slave of his jaw, and governed by his belly," marches about in his youth "full of glory, the city's ornament"; but in old age he is like "a garment that has lost its nap." Moreover these athletic exercises are of no benefit to a country. "You cannot fight the enemy with quoits, or drive them out of the land with blows of the fist." Wherefore it is the wise and the good who should be crowned with garlands. These expressions of opinion, which are not peculiar to Euripides among the ancients, are all the more interesting on account of the tradition that he was himself brought up as an athlete.
Back to Euripides