July 13, 2019

1. Jaeger on Ancient Greece

A. Aeschylus

In American history, the period of the Revolution and the Founding occupies a special place. The double challenge of war and nation-building seemed to call forth the best efforts of the people. Likewise, the age of Aeschylus (c. 490 BC) occupies a special place in Greek history. During this period,

Aeschylus fought against the Persian army at Marathon, and against the Persian navy at Salamis. Aeschylus embodies his age, it’s difficult to imagine him at another time. He represents the heroic effort required to meet the Persian challenge. And he represents the new, democratic Athenian polis, inspired by Solon’s conception of justice. Jaeger:

The state was not a chance detail in the background of [Aeschylus’] dramas: it was the spiritual stage on which they were played. Aristotle truly says that the characters of early tragedy spoke politically, not rhetorically. Even in his last words, the superb close of The Eumenides, with its solemn prayer for the prosperity of the Athenian nation and its reaffirmation of belief in the divine government of the world, Aeschylus revealed the essentially political character of his poetry. That was the basis of its educational force, a force at once moral, religious, and purely human; for morality, religion, and all human life were now aspects of the all-embracing life of the polis.

In Aeschylus’ Eumenides, the city-state with its written laws protects individual freedom from the ancient power of the clan and clan justice. Later dramatists felt that the state itself could threaten individual freedom. In Sophocles’ Antigone, “the state itself appears as a tyrannic power”2 (King Creon forbids Antigone to bury her dead brother Polynices).

Tragedy flourished as long as the Athenian polis flourished, it declined when the polis declined. “The undisputed supremacy of Attic tragedy, which lasted for a hundred years, coincided chronologically and spiritually with the rise, greatness, and decline of the secular power of Athens.” Tragedy gave Athens “strength and cohesion during its rise and glorified it at the zenith of its power.” The Greeks felt that “the tragic poet was responsible for the spirit of the state.”3

The heroic effort of Aeschylus’ generation illustrates Montesquieu’s theory that “ancient democracy in its true and original form was based on virtue.”4 The corollary of this is that democracy declines when morality declines; Jaeger speaks of, “the intellectual and moral degeneration which Thucydides correctly asserted to have been the ruin of Athens.”5

It wasn’t only the battles of Marathon and Salamis that required heroic effort. The Athenians were also faced with “rebuilding the city, constructing the long walls to the harbor, establishing the Delian League, and finishing the war on the Asiatic coast.”6

Tragedy was based on myth; Jaeger calls it a “rebirth of myth.”7 But it wasn’t just a re-telling of stories that everyone knew. The old myths had been partly forgotten; “traditional heroes [were] often known only by name and by the bare outlines of their deeds.”8 The playwright viewed the old myth through the lens of contemporary ideas, he used myth as “the vehicle for an idea.”

In Prometheus Bound, Zeus is a modern tyrant.... Prometheus is equipped with the newest geographical knowledge of strange distant countries. In Aeschylus’ time such knowledge was still rare and mysterious, and stirred the eager imagination of the audience... The hero’s long lists of countries, rivers, and nations are not merely poetic decorations — they demonstrate the omniscience of the wise Titan.9

Tragedy often depicted the history of a family over multiple generations, hence tragedies weren’t single plays, but rather trilogies. Prometheus Bound, for example, was originally the first play in a trilogy, but the other two plays in the trilogy have been lost.

Unlike most tragedies, Prometheus Bound emphasizes free will rather than fate. Prometheus says, “By free will, yes, by free will I sinned, I will not deny it: by helping mankind I made my own agony.” Jaeger says that “Prometheus Bound is the tragedy of genius.... the agony of all spiritual pioneers.” Aeschylus wasn’t simply re-telling an old myth, he was using an old myth as the vehicle for his own idea; “the hero was created by Aeschylus’ imagination.”10

Hesiod had taken a different view of Prometheus; “Hesiod knew Prometheus only as the Evil One, who was punished by Zeus for stealing fire from heaven.” For Aeschylus, Prometheus represents progress — he explores the world, he harnesses the forces of nature, he’s the benefactor of man.11

Occasionally Greek tragedy dealt not with old myths but with contemporary events. Aeschylus wrote a tragedy called The Persians, which described the hubris that led the Persians to invade Greece. Another playwright wrote a tragedy about the Persian capture of Miletus, and moved the Athenian audience to tears. “The writer of tragedies was an important political figure.”12 Tragedy moved the audience not only by words, but also by music and dance.

The theme of tragedy was suffering. The hero of Greek tragedy doesn’t act, he suffers. And the central message of Aeschylus is that through suffering comes wisdom.13

When Jung was visited by a patient who was suffering, he sometimes felt that he shouldn’t do anything to relieve that suffering, he should let the patient suffer, the patient needed to suffer — suffering as therapy. Likewise, Jaeger sees the suffering in tragedy as therapeutic, educational. When my daughter tells me about her sufferings, I say “Life is hard, you need to learn to suffer.” Perhaps this is the most important kind of learning — learning to suffer.

Does the tragic hero deserve to suffer for his ancestors’ sins? In the play Seven Against Thebes, Aeschylus depicts Eteocles as a heroic figure who suffers for the sins of his father, Oedipus. Eteocles is doomed, but he resolves “to save his city from defeat and slavery.” Through his suffering and his sacrifice, he reaches the highest areté, and earns the thanks of the citizens. Thus, the suffering of the protagonist is not only the road to the highest wisdom, it’s also the road to the highest heroism.

Eteocles is doomed by his father’s sins, not by his own character. Greek tragedy emphasizes fate rather than character; “what we call character is not an essential element in Aeschylean tragedy.”14 Orestes is controlled by fate, not character. Orestes is forced to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, to avenge his father, Agamemnon, whom Clytemnestra had murdered. “The guilt of Orestes is not founded on his character.”15

Tragedy dealt with the “rise and fall of human destiny, with its sudden reversals and its final catastrophe.” Success leads to hubris, hubris leads to ruin, Fortune’s wheel is always turning. The Persian king has vast wealth and a vast empire, but he wants more, he wants Greece, and the invasion of Greece ends in defeat. “The daemonic danger lurks in greed, which is never satisfied, but always wants twice what it already has.”16

A tragedy was rehearsed for a year, with both performers and author striving to win the competition at the Festival of Dionysus. “It is no exaggeration to say that the tragic festival was the climax of the city’s life.”17 With its lofty ideas and lofty language, tragedy carried the spectator far above daily life. Greek writers of comedy achieved comic effects by bringing the lofty language of tragedy into “the situations of daily life.”18

According to Jaeger, tragedy shows that Greek culture was an organic whole, and therefore we should approach it as a whole, we should take an inter-disciplinary approach, as Jaeger himself does in Paideia. For the Greeks of Aeschylus’ time,

art, religion, and philosophy still form an indissoluble unity. It is that unity which makes it such a happy experience to study the ways in which the epoch expressed itself, and which renders that study far preferable to any history of philosophy, religion, or literature alone.19

B. Sophocles

Sophocles was born one generation after Aeschylus. While Aeschylus experienced the Persian Wars, Sophocles experienced the Peloponnesian War. Though Sophocles wrote about 120 plays and Aeschylus about 80, only 7 plays by Sophocles survive, and only 7 by Aeschylus (about 18 plays by Euripides survive). Jaeger describes the relationship between Sophocles and Aeschylus thus: “The best successor of a great man is he who, having creative powers of his own, goes his own way unperturbed by previous greatness.”20

If Aeschylus has the tension and excitement of a soldier going into battle, Sophocles has balance and tranquility. As Jaeger puts it, Sophocles has abandoned “the exaggerated violence of emotion and expression that characterized Aeschylus.” Sophocles has “found the final peace and final harmony” with himself.21

The Greeks admired the orderly harmony (cosmos) of the universe, of the human body, and of the well-governed society. In the time of Sophocles, the Greeks discussed the orderly harmony of the soul, the soul structure, the soul cosmos. One of Sophocles’ contemporaries, the sophist Protagoras, said that “the soul can be educated into true eurhythmia and euharmostia.”22 The sculptors and painters of Sophocles’ time looked for the soul, and tried to depict the eurhythmia of the soul.

While Aeschylus is concerned with destiny and the justice of the universe, Sophocles is concerned with life and character. Sophocles was contemporary with Pericles. At that time, philosophy was taking up the problem of education, paideia, character-formation. “In [Sophocles’] work the fully awakened sense of culture is made manifest for the first time.... It assumes the existence of a society whose highest ideal is culture, the formation of perfect human character.”23

The culture of this period wasn’t bookish or pedantic, it dealt with life itself. “Proud of the manners of their new society, they coined for them the word asteios, urbane or polite.”24 Aeschylus was a soldier, and on his tombstone was written, “He fought at Marathon.” Sophocles and Pericles came to maturity in the peaceful decades between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, they represent “the highest ideal of the kalos kagathos, the Athenian gentleman of the fifth century.” Sophocles

stands, so to say, on the narrow and precipitous peak of glory from which Athens was so soon to fall. His art shines clear and bright with the cloudless, windless serenity... of that incomparable noon which dawned on the morning of Salamis.25

According to Wikipedia, “Sophocles influenced the development of drama, most importantly by adding a third actor, thereby reducing the importance of the chorus.” This makes Sophocles’ plays more attractive to modern audiences; Jaeger speaks of, “the rigid undramatic effect of the choruses which dominate Aeschylus’ tragedies.”26

Jaeger says that Sophocles’ specialty is character-drawing. Aeschylus described the working of fate in the history of a family, and he needed the trilogy form. Since Sophocles focuses on individuals, he can write single dramas. “The spectator’s whole attention is focused not on the problem of destiny, but on the individual characters.... By her own nature Antigone is destined to suffer — we might almost say chosen to suffer.”27 Some of Sophocles’ most memorable characters are women; “Sophocles’ power of drawing strong noble human beings is seen at its highest in many of his tragic heroines — Antigone, Electra, Dejanira, Tecmessa, Jocasta.”28

Sophocles is best known for his plays about Oedipus and his daughter, Antigone. The last play that Sophocles wrote in his long life was Oedipus at Colonus, in which the aged Oedipus, bowed but unbroken, supported by Antigone, comes to Athens and dies. The heroes of Sophocles attain greatness in defeat and suffering.

© L. James Hammond 2019
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1. If we want to continue the American analogy, we could compare the Peloponnesian War with the American Civil War, with Sparta as the agrarian South, Athens as the industrial North. back
2. Book II, Ch. 1, footnote 59, p. 471. Jaeger says that Eumenides ends with “a miracle which brings about both the acquittal of the guilty Orestes and the abolition of the custom of revenge for blood (a horrible relic of the old supremacy of the family in law and custom) and sets up in its place the new constitutional state as universal arbiter of justice.” Aeschylus shows how morality and law are moving beyond the family (elsewhere I argued that Jesus preached a morality that went beyond the family). back
3. Ch. 1, p. 247. “The Athenians held [playwrights] to be their spiritual leaders, with a responsibility far greater and graver than the constitutional authority of successive political leaders.” (p. 247) When the state was declining, tragedy was also declining. “Tragedy furthered the intellectual and moral degeneration.”(p. 246) back
4. Ch. 1, p. 240. These are Jaeger’s words, not Montesquieu’s. back
5. Ch. 1, p. 246 back
6. Ch. 1, p. 241 back
7. Ch. 1, p. 245 back
8. Ch. 1, p. 252 back
9. Ch. 1, pp. 252, 253. Only a few myths could be made into tragedies. “There were only a few subjects in the huge realm of saga which attracted poets, and these few had been treated by almost every tragedian.” back
10. Ch. 1, p. 262 back
11. In an earlier issue, I discussed “hard primitivism” and “soft primitivism,” and I cited Hesiod as an example of “soft primitivism.” Hesiod believed that primitive man enjoyed an idyllic life, and civilization means degeneration. Aeschylus, on the other hand, influenced by “Ionian theories,” seems to represent “hard primitivism” — the belief that primitive life is hard, and civilization means progress. back
12. Ch. 1, p. 248 back
13. “The plot... remained first and foremost a description of human suffering.” (p. 251) “Greek tragedy always describes suffering rather than action.” (p. 262) “All [Aeschylus’] works are built upon that mighty spiritual unity of suffering and knowledge.” (p. 266) back
14. Ch. 1, p. 258 back
15. Ch. 1, p. 260 back
16. Ch. 1, p. 256. Jaeger speaks of, “Solon’s doctrine that even he who has most wealth always covets twice as much.” back
17. Ch. 1, p. 248 back
18. Ch. 1, p. 249 back
19. Notice that phrase “art, religion, and philosophy still form an indissoluble unity.” Several years before I wrote this essay, I made a series of videos. In the last video (the 11th), I quoted Goethe’s phrase “Live resolutely in the whole, the good, and the beautiful.” I said, “It’s not a religious ideal or a moral ideal or a cultural ideal, it’s all three together.” So the wholeness of Greek culture, as described by Jaeger, resembles the wholeness of Goethe’s humanism.

Jaeger praises several books about Greek tragedy:

  • “The origin of Greek tragedy [is] discussed with balanced judgement and great completeness by A. W. Pickard-Cambridge in Dithyramb, Tragedy, and Comedy
  • George Thomson’s “great edition” of the Oresteia (Thomson also wrote Aeschylus and Athens: A Study in the Social Origin of Drama, which probably has a Marxist bent)
  • Moira: Fate, Good, and Evil in Greek Thought, by W. C. Greene
  • H. D. F. Kitto’s Greek Tragedy, which deals with the aesthetic aspects of tragedy
  • J. T. Sheppard wrote Aeschylus and Sophocles, which discusses the impact of Sophocles’ characters “on the literatures of later centuries.”
  • J. A. Moore wrote Sophocles and Areté
20. Ch. 2, p. 269 back
21. Ch. 2, p. 276. “It is difficult to say how much of his eudaimonia sprang from the favored age in which he lived, how much from his happy nature, and how much again from his own deliberate art.”(p. 275) Sophocles is a champion of harmony and proportion. “It was not a new idea [Jaeger writes,] but the historical influence and the absolute significance of an idea do not depend on its novelty, but on the depth and power with which men understand it and live it. Sophocles’ tragedies are the climax of the development of the Greek idea that proportion is one of the highest values in human life.”(p. 277) I’ve often made this point about Thoreau: his ideas aren’t original, but he expresses them vividly and lives them sincerely. back
22. Ch. 2, p. 279. This is a quote from Jaeger, not Protagoras. back
23. Ch. 2, pp. 273, 274. “Such awareness of the ideal standards of character is peculiar to the period when the sophistic movement was beginning. The problem of the nature of human areté is now taken up with terrific intensity from the educational side. All the discussions of that age, and all the efforts of the sophists, were directed towards finding and producing man ‘as he ought to be’.... Sophocles, following the cultural trend of his age, turned to Man, and expressed his own moral standards in the characters he drew.”(p. 278) Sophocles said “his characters were ideals, not ordinary men like those of Euripides.”(p. 273) back
24. Ch. 2, p. 275. Later Aristotle “described and analyzed the ideal of free courteous social intercourse and cultivated behavior.” Jaeger speaks of, “the grace of refined Attic culture — which, be it noted, was vastly different from the pedantic conception of culture.”(p. 275) Jaeger says that Sophocles’ characters have “the miraculously natural poise and proportion which we feel and enjoy in the sculptured frieze of the Parthenon.”(p. 276) back
25. Ch. 2, p. 275 back
26. Ch. 2, p. 271. “Sophocles is the one Greek dramatist who keeps his place in the repertoire of the contemporary theater.”(p. 271) Jaeger says that Euripides discusses and dramatizes “large spiritual problems... up-to-date problems,” but these problems lose their urgency over time. back
27. Ch. 2, p. 281. “In Sophocles the ideal of justifying God’s ways to man which dominates religious thought from Solon to Theognis and Aeschylus falls into the background.”(p. 281) back
28. Ch. 2, p. 280 back