Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Iphigeneia at Aulis


Blogger SMJ said...

It is an axiom of Socratic teaching that virtue proceeds from knowledge. In order to do good, one must first learn the nature of goodness. Yet, this proposition, if true, is still inadequate to explain bad behavior; for mere knowledge of the good cannot ensure that virtue will follow, but says only that knowledge is necessary for good to occur. Thus, it is a mistake to assume that knowledge is a sufficient condition for morality. To believe otherwise is to ignore the long train of misery that man has inflicted upon himself, even when knowing that his deeds will have bad consequences.

In Homer's time, Greeks believed that knowledge of what gods desire was essential to avoid catastrophe. Hence, prophesies, sacrifices, and visits to oracles always preceded important decisions. For Agamemnon, the question "What is the good?" was synonymous with asking "What do the gods require from us?" He believed, as most Greeks did, that to oppose the will of the gods was to court disaster. And yet, at the same time, isn't a father's first duty to his children? To protect and nurture one's offspring is, for most species, a biological instinct. In the society of men, it is a kind of universal law. To go against this law violates a deeply ingrained belief in basic human dignity.

When Kalchas reveals that he must sacrifice Iphigeneia to placate Artemis, Agamemnon finds himself at the center of a moral dilemma— either murder his daughter and save Greek honor; or protect his daughter and defy a god's command. Euripides is asking whether, as Achilles puts it, there is any way to reconcile "what ought to be with what must be." What Achilles means is that when necessity speaks, human desires must yield. Since Iphigeneia cannot escape her fate, it is best for her to accept what must occur.

This idea of accepting one's fate is typical of Homeric Greek philosophy. Que será, será. It runs dramatically counter to the American psyche which applauds individual effort and the struggle to succeed in a hostile world. And yet, it finds an echo in early Hebraic scripture from Abraham's decision to obey God in all things, even when it requires the sacrifice of his son. This conflict between duty (or faith) and reason is not resolved by Euripides, and, in fact, can never be resolved because it brings into question the limits of human reason and human faith.

Another way of stating the issue is to ask whether good can ever come from evil. The fact that Iphigeneia changes her mind at the end of the play and willingly goes through with the sacrifice does not relieve Agamemnon's guilt. At best, he has traded his daughter's life for the privilege of Greeks going to war. But what glory is now possible for Greeks when they must sacrifice their own children to salvage a war? Can virtue be achieved through shedding innocent blood ?

In our own time, debates over crime and punishment turn on the issue of "extenuating circumstances." Often, we hear pleas for mercy hinging upon the argument that if only we "knew" better we might have made different choices, and thus avoided the harm we caused. Is this really so? Doesn't this argument reduce moral deliberations to a mode of information processing? As Kant has demonstrated, a good action first requires a good will (conscience). There needs to be a predisposition to do the right thing. In point of fact, having complete knowledge of our situation is never an option. Every true definition of human fallibility includes the idea of incomplete knowledge, both of ourselves and the world we live in. But incomplete knowledge does not obviate the need for moral clarity. For virtue to survive, clear boundaries between right and wrong must exist and be cherished by all men who live honorable lives.

I think Euripides is asking a deep moral question about the meaning of justice and virtue. From where does justice come? Zeus? Artemis? Humanity? If God demands that we murder our child, is that justice? If that is God's command, are we being more unjust if we refuse God, or if we obey him? For most Greeks in 400 B.C., the choice of disobeying the gods was not a real option. But who really speaks for God? Today, if a priest told a parishioner to go home and sacrifice his daughter he would either be institutionalized for insanity or imprisoned for accessory to murder. Is this because we live in a Godless society, or do other avenues to virtue exist? Human sacrifice today is culturally out of season. But the conflict between faith and reason has not yet been resolved. And in that conflict lies the ambiguity and mystery of our moral life on earth.

2/03/2005 1:56 PM  

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