Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

EURIPIDES: The Trojan Women

In Homer’s Iliad we hear that “It is honorable for a man to die fighting in defense of his country.” He was speaking about Hector. In Euripdes’ play The Trojan Women we hear that “Whoever is wise should fly from making war.” In Homer’s case Hector wasn’t the aggressor and was fighting to defend his family and his home. That’s different from waging an unnecessary war. Here’s the question we’re left to ponder: is there any war that’s ever worth the cost it takes in human lives? Euripides play seems to say no, it’s not worth it. Not even close. Aristotle would agree, up to a point. In his Nicomachean Ethics (Bk 10) Aristotle says that “we work so that we may rest; we make war so that we may be at peace (but) no one chooses war, nor prepares for war, for war’s sake.” This sounds odd – make war so you can be at peace. In a perfect world making war to have peace would be an oxymoron. In the real world it makes sense. Aristotle believes only bloodthirsty madmen make war for its own sake. But the Trojans weren’t fighting in order to kill Greeks. They were fighting to prevent their homeland from being captured. The Trojans lost. Euripides continues the story where The Iliad left off.

It’s not a pretty story. As the title implies, this is the story of the Trojan War as told through the eyes of the women on the losing side. There’s no glory in this version of war. They’re left without husbands, without fathers, without sons, without homes. All that’s left is for them to continue life as slaves or concubines of the conquering Greeks. This is indeed an unhappy prospect for the Trojan women. For Hecuba it means becoming the slave of the man she most despises – Odysseus. Here’s how she responds to her fate: “God help me! I have fallen as a slave to a treacherous foe I hate, a monster of lawlessness.” She was once the queen of Troy. Now she’ll spend the rest of her life as a slave in the house of Odysseus at Ithaca.

For Andromache it means handing over her young toddler son, Astyanax, to be thrown from the towers of Troy. Andromache is the wife of Hector, the bravest of the Trojan soldiers. There’s no way the Greeks will allow Astyanax to live and grow up to avenge Hector’s death. So they dash him to pieces on the rocks beneath the tower. The Greeks see this as a practical way to insure their future safety. Hecuba doesn’t see it that way. Astyanax is her grandson. Here’s what she thinks about the whole matter: “O you Greeks! You have more reason to brag about your power than your wisdom! Why have you in stark terror of this child been guilty of such a hideous murder? that our city is taken and every Trojan killed you still fear a tender baby such as this?” And who was it that recommended that Astyanax be killed? Odysseus.

What can the Trojan women do under such bleak conditions? Not much. They can endure. They can go on living. But they may never again be happy for the rest of their lives. There’s no one they can turn to. The Greek herald Talthybius states it to them in blunt terms: “Nowhere hast thou any help; consider this thou must: thy husband and thy city are no more. So thou art in our power.” In this play Euripides shows us how terrible war can be. But maybe that’s the main reason why Aristotle said men go to war – to prevent what happened to the Trojan women. Nobody in their right mind would choose to go to war. However, the alternative may be even worse. That’s the human condition and it hasn’t changed much since Homer’s time. There will always be men like Euripides who point out the horrors of war. And there will always be men like Aristotle who reply: what else can we do? As long as other men mean us harm we have to defend ourselves. As Hecuba says in the play: “This is necessity’s grim law.”


Post a Comment

<< Home