Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, February 01, 2014

EURIPIDES: Medea and Our Inner Nature

In last week’s reading the German philosopher Schopenhauer said that our inner nature is indestructible. A thoughtful reader would take time to ponder that term “inner nature” and ask if we really have one. The ancient Greek playwright Euripides pondered this question too. But he seems to have thought about human nature in a totally different context from Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer wants to know what is it about us that will continue to exist after we die. Euripides wants to know what is it that drives us while we’re still living in this world.
Medea is one of the most memorable characters in Greek literature. She’s a barbarian (non-Greek) by birth but has come to Greece with Jason of the Argonauts fame. She helped him escape with the Golden Fleece and saved his life. But in the process she brought death and grief to her own family. Now she’s been betrayed by Jason, who wants to marry a Greek princess. Medea has borne Jason two sons. As the play begins, their nurse gives some clues about Medea’s inner nature: “It's obvious the cloud of bitter grief rising inside her is only just the start. As her temper grows even more intense, it will soon catch fire. She's a passionate soul, hard to restrain. What will she do next…?” Is this intense passion for revenge the real Medea (her “inner nature”); or has Medea been driven out of her normal nature by an unfaithful husband who broke his vows to her in order to climb the exclusive Greek social ladder of the ruling class?
The nurse has seen this ruling class up close and she wants no part of it. In her opinion “It's better to get used to living life as an equal common person. Anyway, I don't want a grand life for myself; just to grow old with some security. They say a moderate life's the best of all, a far better choice for mortal men. Going for too much brings no benefits.” All she asks for is a nice quiet life with a good pension plan and a peaceful old age. Does this express her real inner nature? And a related question: is the inner nature of the middle class different from the ruling class?
In the nurse’s view, being king would be hard work. And King Kreon does have many worries. Right now he’s worried about Medea. He wants her gone and tells her to clear out immediately. Why? He gets straight to the point and tells her: “I'm afraid of you. I won't conceal the truth. There's a good chance you might well instigate some fatal harm against my daughter. Many things lead me to this conclusion: you're a clever woman, very experienced in evil ways; you're grieving the loss of your husband's bed; and from reports I hear you're making threats to take revenge on Jason, on his bride, and on her father. Before that happens, I'm taking some precautions.” Does Kreon have the inner nature of a king? He can see that Medea poses a threat to his kingdom, his daughter, and himself. Is this his inner nature talking? Being king is hard.
Finally, there’s Jason. He tries to reason with Medea and claims it’s her own fault: “Right now is not the first time I've observed how a harsh temper makes all things worse; impossibly so. It's happened often. You could've stayed here in this land and house, if only you'd agreed to the arrangements, showed some patience with those in command. Now you're exiled for your stupid chatter.” Jason tells Medea that her big mouth gets her into trouble. This is a bad thing to say to a proud “barbarian” princess who also knows witchcraft. Jason’s rational inner nature only adds fuel to the fire of Medea’s irrational inner nature. Jason tries to use reason against Medea’s instinctive fury. But hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Schopenhauer defined our inner nature via reason and showed why we shouldn’t fear death. Well, he was wrong, says Euripides. Reason was never Medea’s true inner nature and is not what really drives us, deep down.


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