Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, July 31, 2009

PHILOSOPHY IN ACTION: Euripides and the Case of Iphigeneia

Reading a Greek tragedy is kind of like reading a fairy tale. It all seems so long ago and far away. We tend to divorce what’s taking place on the stage from what happens in real life. The characters are all larger-than-life figures and we ask “What’s all that got to do with me”? Well, as it turns out, plenty. Early in the play Agamemnon sends an old man with a message to his wife that there’s danger afoot, don’t come. Menelaos intercepts the old man and takes away the message. Here’s how the play puts it:

OLD MAN: You had no right to open the letter I was carrying.
MENELAOS: And you had no right to carry a letter that would harm the Greek cause.

This is an ancient Greek version of the modern-day American Patriot Act. The technology is different but the issue is the same: does the government have a right to intercept private messages if it believes those messages are harmful to American citizens? AGAMEMNON speaks for those who believe it’s more important to protect our privacy: you broke the seal. So you know what you have no business knowing. MENELAOS speaks for those who think safety is more important than privacy: Do you see this letter? It was meant to betray all of us. In those brief sentences Euripides summarizes the two positions in our contemporary dialogue regarding civil rights versus national security.

But the play doesn’t just highlight hot contemporary political issues. It also deals with a timeless question: should young people sacrifice their lives for the good of their country? Let’s turn to two very different philosophers for guidance: John Dewey and Plato. Dewey claims that an action becomes a virtue when it is turned to account in supporting or extending the fabric of social values; and it turns, if not to vice at least to delinquency, when not thus utilized. In other words, a “virtue” is given social value by promoting the common good. Question: does the death of Iphigeneia “extend the fabric” of Greek social values and promote the common good? The Greek army seems to have this ideal as a social value: if you steal our women we will come and punish you. Whatever it takes, whatever it costs us, we will get revenge. What does it mean to “extend the fabric” of social values in this case? Is it to reinforce those values? Or change them into something new? Dewey goes on to say that a virtue is an instinctive capacity and tendency to communicate emotions and ideas directed so as to maintain social peace and prosperity; and Iphigeneia certainly wants to maintain Greek social peace and prosperity. Is the good of the community worth more than the good of the individual citizen?

Plato gives an answer to that question in The Crito: The just lies here: never to give way, never to desert, never to leave your post, but in war or court of law or any other place, to do what City and Country command; that, or persuade it of what is by nature just. So it seems Plato has an answer to our question. The community is worth more than the individual. But Plato also says Put not life nor children nor anything else ahead of what is just, so that when you come to the Place of the dead you may have all this to say in your defense to those who rule there. That’s what makes this case such a thorny issue. We have a conflict between duty and justice. Is it “just” for an innocent young girl to die so grown men can sail off and plunder some foreign country? In contemporary terms: should our children go off to fight and possibly die in some foreign land for the greater good of America? This isn’t textbook philosophy; this is philosophy in action.


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