Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, August 07, 2012

EURIPIDES: Iphigenia at Aulis

Western literature begins with a war story.  Homer’s Iliad tells how the Greeks and Trojans fight over Helen and her “beautiful face that launched a thousand ships.”  What were those ships doing before they sailed to Troy?  They sat stranded in the Greek port of Aulis waiting for the wind to blow.  We sense what sort of writer Euripides is when he says: Something goes wrong between a man and the gods and his whole life is overturned.  In this case it’s Agamemnon, the Greek commander, whose life is overturned.  He’s been chosen to lead the war expedition against Troy.  But the gods intervened.  Those ships won’t go anywhere unless the wind blows and fills their sails.  And that’s not going to happen unless the gods are satisfied.  What do they want?  Agamemnon speaks bluntly: There is only one hope of our going, according to Kalchas the prophet.  Iphigenia, my daughter, must be sacrificed to Artemis, the deity of this place.  The gods don’t command that Iphigenia be sacrificed.  They only say that IF the Greeks want to sail to Troy they must sacrifice Iphigenia first.  The choice is left up to them.  This creates the moral dilemma for the Greek army: should an innocent Greek girl die so we can plunder the Trojans?  Helen is just an excuse; what the Greeks really want is the riches of Troy.  How far will men go in order to get rich?  Euripides is pessimistic about mankind; nothing restrains their quest for money and power.  Ambitious people will even sacrifice their own sons and daughters on the altar of war; and for what?  This is Euripides’ question.  It’s not that Agamemnon isn’t a good father; he is.  He truly loves Iphigenia; but he loves political power too.  This is what makes him suffer.  Agamemnon can’t have both; so which is he willing to give up?  He’s a king but he’s also a man.  One of his advisers plainly tells him: Atreus did not sire you, Agamemnon, into a world of pure happiness.  You must expect to suffer as well as rejoice, since you’re a man.  And the gods will see to that, whether you like it or not…  Life is hard and no one, rich or poor, gets through life without suffering.  Still, we avoid it as much as we can.  At first Agamemnon chooses power.  Then he changes his mind: What I have done is wrong, and I want to undo it.  How does Agamemnon (or any of us) know what’s right and wrong?  He (and we) struggle with conflicting values but at every step I’ve tried to see the right way to act.  The rest of the Greeks almost unanimously think it’s alright to sacrifice Iphigenia.  In fact, they practically demand it.  So Agamemnon doesn’t have much choice.  Even if he wants to change his mind, the army won’t let him.  They would most likely kill him, then sacrifice Iphigenia, and maybe even kill the rest of his family too.  So Agamemnon blames the gods: Almighty gods, how helpless you have made me now!  There is nothing I can do.  But Socrates might say: oh yes, there IS something you can do.  Resist mob mentality.  Refuse to cooperate with injustice.  Fight against it.  They may kill you but they can’t rob you of that noble part which practices moderation, courage, justice and wisdom.  But Agamemnon is not Socrates.  It’s takes a young, innocent girl named Iphigenia to teach the Greeks what nobility means.  Iphigenia accepts her fate because it’s best for Greece.  She dies so other Greeks can stay free.  This is noble.  Besides, she says I am going from this world to another destiny, another home.  Where is she going?  It’s comforting to think that she’s going to a place where bad people are punished and good people are rewarded.  A messenger says: It is plain that your daughter has been taken up to heaven… No living man can tell what the gods will do, but they save those whom they love…the girl is alive in heaven with the gods.  But is that true?  Iphigenia’s mother asks How can I be sure, how can I know that this is not all a lie, made up to silence my bitter grieving?  The truth is: we can’t know.  We’re human beings, not gods.  Human beings suffer.  The wisdom Euripides passed on to the ancient Greeks was one simple truth: we all must suffer; and for what?  For all of our modern science and technology have we moved one inch closer (in 2500 years) to answering that question? 


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