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Great Books Project: End of Part I

I am now about six months into my Great Books project and this seems like a good time to stop and take stock.  I have now read and blogged about works written up to the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE) in the Hellenistic tradition and up to the establishment of the Second Temple (516 BCE) in the Hebrew tradition.  Up to this point, the two have had almost no first-hand intellectual contact.  Soon, though, they will begin influencing each other to an increasing degree, beginning with Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire and continuing until Paul and other evangelists permanently fuse them together to create the new tradition of Christianity.

I have come to think of the death of Socrates in 399 BCE as the end of Part I of the Great Books.  Socrates wrote no books himself, yet he brought together all previous Hellenic philosophy and all future Western philosophy owes something to the work of his disciple Plato, who is the next author whom I plan to cover.

Before I go on, I thought it would be useful to present a timeline of the lives of the Hellenistic authors in this first section.  I also included Plato and Xenophon because, though I think of them as belonging to the next period, their lives overlapped with the others.

Great Books Authors Timeline: Ancient Greece (Click to Enlarge)

Great Books authors timeline: Ancient Greece (click to enlarge)

I think the most striking thing about this timeline is that, other than Homer who really belongs to an earlier age, all of these men lived within such a short span of time.  Only 139 years separate Aeschylus‘ birth and Aristophanes‘ death.

I also recently drew this diagram to express how the different strands of Western thought are related in the ancient world.  It is over-simplistic and not particularly scientific, but I find it’s helpful to think about how the ideas relate to each other.

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome (click to enlarge)

Finally, now that we have reached the end of Part I, I need to mention that I will be posting more erratically for the next several weeks.  Other literary commitments, including finishing my own book and doing editing work for clients, will take most of my time.  I also don’t want to rush the Plato section, since his work is so important.  I will try to post at least two or three times per month over the summer, however.

Frogs of Aristophanes

The main protagonist in The Frogs is Dionysus, but Aristophanes shows us an altogether different side of the god than Euripides did in The Bacchae.  Euripides’ Dionysus is cryptic, subtle, rather scary, and tremendously powerful.  Aristophanes’ Dionysus, from the time he appears on stage in a ridiculous costume, is a bit of a buffoon.  On  one level this is simple caricature for comic effect; Aristophanes was fond of singling out and lampooning his audience members, and the god whose stature observed every performance had finally received his turn.  We need to keep in mind, however, that Dionysus, as the god of the theater, was actually Aristophanes’ patron deity.  Dionysus was god of comedy as well as tragedy, and Aristophanes’ portrayal actually captured one of the God’s aspects.  Drinking, sex, and humor were all part of the god’s ethos.  Even the costume, which combines a woman’s robes, a tragic actor’s shoes, and Heracles’ lion skin is appropriate for a god who was normally portrayed androgynously and was known for trickery and disguise.

Modern ceramic Bacchus (Dionysus) mask [photo by Spencer Means via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Modern ceramic Bacchus (Dionysus) mask [photo by Spencer Means via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Dionysus’ mission is to descend into Hades to retrieve Euripides, as Athens no longer has any good tragic poets.  Presumably this task has fallen to him as god of theater.  We are also reminded of tradition of Orpheus in Hades, and the close association between the cults of Dionysus and Orpheus.

In many ways, The Frogs is Aristophanes’ eulogy for Euripides, who had died several months earlier.  Euripides was one of the favored targets for the comedian’s humor.  The Frogs is his way of showing that he actually had great respect for Euripides’ work.  After all, he didn’t write a play about Dionysus going after Sophocles, who had died a year earlier.

After various comic hijinks, Dionysus and his slave Xanthias arrive at Hades’ palace. There, they find that a contest is about to take place between Aeschylus and Euripides to determine which will be allowed to dine at Hades’ table.  Hades allows Dionysus to judge the contest.  Furthermore, he offers to let Dionysus take home the poet of his choice.  In the ensuing throw-down it becomes clear that, while Aeschylus is by far the better poet, Euripides is wittier and more accessible.  Aeschylus presents larger-than-life heroic characters, while Euripides presents relatable characters with real flaws and quirks.

In the end, somewhat surprisingly, Dionysus chooses to take Aeschylus.  Athens was losing the Peloponnesian War. The final defeat was a year or so off, but few citizens questioned that it was coming soon.  The people didn’t need wit, satire, and realism.  They needed beauty and elevation.  They needed to be reminded of the days when heroes walked and Athens was still great.  Aeschylus, not Euripides, was the man for the job.

The Frogs is a fantasy.  In real history, no tragic poet emerged who could match the talents of the “big three”.  While Greek tragedy continued to be performed for centuries, the art all but ceased to evolve after the passing of Sophocles and Euripides.  In late Hellenic times Euripides was easily the most popular playwright of the three, possibly because his language and themes seemed more “modern” to later readers.

Greek comedy remained viable for a longer time.  Aristophanes himself lived another twenty years, long enough to take part in the transition from old comedy to middle comedy and to see the new comedy on the horizon.  His son and others wrote in the new comedy, which stayed popular throughout the Macedonian period.

Greek Tragedy: Sophocles’ Women

One of the standard criticisms of the Great Books approach is that nearly all of the texts are written by “dead white guys” and therefore have less resonance with members of other groups.  This is especially true of women who, despite making up more than half of the population of Western Civilization, are noticeably absent from most Great Books reading lists.  I have already mentioned Y, the (probably) female editor of the first four books of the Torah.  The books of Ruth and Proverbs were also quite possibly written by women.  Overall, though, very few women prior to the nineteenth century had the sort of educational background to produce a Great Book.  Of these, even fewer had the wherewithal to get their work published.  Nor were the male scribes of of the middle ages as interested in copying and preserving the work of women.  The result is that the writings of the few women we know of who might be included–Sappho of Lesbos, for example, are either completely lost or exist only in a few fragments.

Sappho Plays Her Lyre, Jules Elie Delaunay [public domain via Wikimedia]

Sappho Plays Her Lyre, Jules Elie Delaunay [public domain via Wikimedia]

While regrettable, this situation would be less of a problem if the male authors of the Great Books had written more about women, their issues, and their experiences.  In general, though, they did not do a good job at this.  It has been observed by many people in modern times that, while most female fiction writers are adept at writing male characters, relatively few male writers can write believable female characters.  This seems to have also been true in the ancient world.  Our first two Greek authors, Homer and Aeschylus, betrayed a rather shallow understanding of women.  Their female characters exist as prizes to be fought over or are on stage only to react to the words and actions of the male characters.  Even Aeschylus’ Electra, one of the great tragic heroines of all time, is almost painfully under developed.  This treatment is interesting since we know that the women of ancient Greece were actually fairly outspoken and aggressive compared to their contemporaries in the ancient world.  It is hard to reconcile the scared and fawning female choruses of The Supplicant Maidens or Seven Against Thebes with the angry female lynch mobs who occasionally tore men limb-from-limb or stabbed them to death with their broach pins.  Homer’s Penelope, waiting patiently for Odysseus to return and rescue her bears little comparison to Queen Artemisia, the Greek commander of a Persian Trireme squadron, whom Herodotus describes as deliberately ramming an allied ship in the straits of Eripus, then receiving a commendation from Xerxes after convincing him it was actually an enemy vessel.

Sophocles is different from Homer and Aeschylus in that he did write strong female characters.  His Antigone, Electra, and Deianira are all different portraits of an ideal woman:  brave, principled, and loyal.  All are internally conflicted between their perceived duty and emotional needs.  His Tecmessa (Ajax’s concubine) is a much more vulnerable and submissive character, yet still completely believable, torn between her loyalty to Ajax and her awareness that if he dies or is disgraced there will be no protection for herself or her son from the other Greek soldiers.

There are still deficiencies in the way Sophocles dealt with women.  Not one of his plays actually passes the modern Bechdel Test, a measure of female inclusion in a script–although the some of Antigone-Ismene scenes come close.  Then again, relatively few modern screenplays pass the Bechdel Test.  Overall, however, his writing does a better job of representing women than most in the Great Books.

Allison Bechdel's test for female inclusion in a script

I am myself a white male.  As a writer in the 21st century, however, I can not get away with writing stories about white males for consumption for other white males.  Aside from the fact that I would be frightfully boring, , white males make up an ever smaller share of the market.  Besides, our pluralistic society demands a literature that conveys the experiences of many different genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds.  This begs the question, then, “Why am I spending all this time studying a canon of works that were written by white males?”  One answer would be that I am heir to, and continue to write in a particular literary tradition and it isn’t my fault that the authorship lacks diversity.  A better answer is that Western Civilization’s Great Books contain timeless and universal ideas.  My challenge as a writer is to adapt them from their original context and make them accessible to everyone.