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Greek Tragedy: Medea of Euripides

This week in my Great Books project I read Euripides’ Medea.  As a child I read (and reread) several books about Greek mythology.  Even then I remember being disturbed by the story of Medea: the Colchian princess who falls in love with Jason and gives up everything to help him the Argonauts on their quest, only to be discarded by him as soon as they get back to Greece.  Now, reading Euripides’ treatment of the story, I have more context from Ancient Greek culture, not to mention my own adult love life, to apply to it.  The story still disturbs me.

As a play, Medea is rarely a crowd pleaser.  In its debut year it only took third place in the annual drama competition, losing out to SophoclesPhiloctetes and a play by Aeschylus.  I suspect the reason audiences have trouble with Medea is that Euripides did entirely too good a job capturing his themes:  betrayal, a painful break-up, madness, and vengeance that hurts the avenger as badly as their victim.  Great art is often disturbing on some level.  To the citizens of Athens, however, Medea would have been like one of those modern movies that are you think are brilliant but you never want to see again because they freak you out.

As it happens, the centuries immediately after the Golden Age were kinder to Euripides than they were to his rivals.  The reason that more of Euripides’ plays have been preserved than those of Aeschylus and Sophocles put together, and in better copies, is that learned Hellenes of the Seleucid era held them in high esteem and made them required reading in their schools.

The Golden Fleece, Herbert James Draper [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

The Golden Fleece, Herbert James Draper [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

In Medea, Euripides takes a myth which was already ancient and casts it as a story which is as unfortunate as it is timeless:  an ambitious man sets aside the lover of his youth and mother of his children for a younger, better connected woman who is a better fit for his new career and lifestyle.  Jason isn’t a particularly evil or vindictive man.  He is happy to support Medea and her children, he just wants her out of Corinth before she embarrasses him with his new wife and father-in-law.  He tries to keep things amicable.  In his mind, he owes Medea nothing more than this.  He has already brought her to “civilized” Greece and made her famous, they have had some good times, and now she should be mature enough to step aside and let him live his life.

Have you ever been dumped by someone who liked you, but decided that you just didn’t fit into their career plans?  I have, and it hurts.  Anyone who remembers the pain of still being in love with someone who has fallen out of love with them can relate to Medea.  Even more, in a way, is the reminder of people I have broken up with who were truly in love with me, but with whom I saw no future.

Then Medea goes completely insane, murdering the other woman and her own children.  As atrocious as these acts are, they are also a bitter story of how strong the emotions of one-sided love can sometimes be–strong enough to push someone over the edge into madness.

Medea Abou to Kill her Children, Eugène Delacroix [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

Medea About to Kill her Children, Eugène Delacroix [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

In our own culture, possibly in our own families, we have seen plenty of examples of ugly divorces in which a successful man leaves his “starter wife” for a new “trophy wife”, deciding that the alimony payments are worth it.  It would have been the same, if not worse, in Periclean Greece.  Foreign born women like Medea were not even legally allowed to marry Greek citizens, and so would have had none of the divorce rights of Greek women.  Even native women could be easily divorced by their husbands and had no claims to custody of their children or to property beyond their original dowry.  Concubinage was also common, and could hardly have been a comfortable situation for either the wife–replaced in bed by a younger woman–or the concubine who, in the words of Will Durant, “when her charms wear off, will become in effect a household slave, and that only the offspring of the first wife are accounted legitimate.”

We know that could and did attend the Athenian theater.  There must have been some rather tense households in Athens the night after Medea played.

Beyond this deeply personal and individual pathos, Medea symbolizes and older and larger conflict in Greek civilization.  The original societies of the Mediterranean, such as the Minoan Crete or Pelasgian Hellas, had been matriarchal.  Their religion had been much simpler and more shamanic, focusing on appeasing local fertility goddesses and earth spirits.  Many centuries before Euripides they had been conquered by the Dorians, a patriarchal Aryan people who worshiped the sky gods.  While is was dominated, the older culture was never completely destroyed.  Medea, a powerful barbarian shaman, symbolizes the old culture.  Jason, a “civilized” Greek aristocrat, is the new.  They are able to work together to achieve a common goal, but conflict is inevitable when the new culture turns on the old.

Medea is one of Euripides’ earlier plays.  I go now to read Hippolytus and Bacchae, from his middle and late periods, respectively.  I am curious to see how his style changed and whether he kept his disturbing artistic edge, or blunted it in an effort to win more popularity.

Six Major Social Trends for the Rest of the 21st Century

Tonight I think I will depart from my usual blogging style.  It’s a beautiful spring evening, and I’m in the mood to ponder big ideas.  I thought it would be fun to list a few of my personal predictions for major social trends that will happen over the course of the 21st century.  These are ideas that I’ve had kicking around my subconscious for a few years.  Ideas are all they are; in most cases I have done little or no research or theoretical work on them.  Actually, the only qualifications I have as a “futurist” are the thirty years I’ve spent reading and writing everything I could find and the years I was in college learning how to be a professional analyst and forecaster–which is less impressive than it sounds, since the educational system in this country rarely encourages students to think more than five years out.  In 85 years or so I’ll probably be dust, but maybe someone will dig up a copy of this post on whatever passes for an Internet by then and have a good laugh over how many of these came true.

All of these predictions apply only to Western Civilization, and then only if Western Civ. continues to be allowed to chart its own destiny, rather than being conquered or assimilated by some other culture.

1.  The End of Binary Gender

Few myths have dogged out society as persistently and perniciously as binary gender, the idea that people are either “men” or “women” and everything else is an aberration.  I firmly believe that gender is a complicated construct and that, in fact, it is unlikely that any two people are the same gender.  There are already many signs that our society is preparing to embrace a much wider interpretation of gender.  In another couple of generations, the gender of of another person will cease to matter unless someone is trying to decide whether to mate with them, and possibly not even then.

Once this happens, it will have two subsidiary effects, which are also already beginning to show themselves.

a.  The Redefinition of Marriage

As soon as society finally accepts that there are more than two genders, they will need to throw away the notion that marriage is between a “man” and a “woman”.  This will open the door for dozens, or hundreds of different forms of marriage and domestic partnership, with different combinations and numbers of partners, limited only by the participants ability to draft a valid contract.

b.  The End of Male Chauvinism and Privilege

Once we realize that “male” refers to a biological state, and it becomes increasingly easy to change that state, the old notions of male superiority will finally die.  This doesn’t mean that some genders will not enjoy a competitive advantage in certain times and places, however.  For instance, in Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men, she actually argues that people with more feminine traits are now enjoying a relative advantage in modern workplaces.

2.  The Decline of the Middle Class

The bourgeoisie grew from being a tiny and relatively uninfluential segment of the population in the middle ages to being the dominant class in Western Civ. in the 20th century.  While most bourgeoisie believe that his represents some sort of divinely ordained natural state, the fact was that the new economies of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution required a large middle class to function.  That is no longer the case.  Now their numbers and political influence are steadily declining.  Expect most of them to be reabsorbed into the proletariat and the aristocracy/oligarchy by the end of the century.  This trend also has subsidiary effects,

a.  Temporary Ascendancy of the Intelligentsia

I use the word Intelligentsia in the same sense as historian Arnold Toynbee used it in his Study of Civilization:  a member of a different civilization that learns enough of the technology and external culture traits of the dominant civilization to function in it at some level, yet is never entirely a part of it.  As Western Civ.’s native middle class dwindles, we increasingly import professional and technical workers from other civilizations to make up for temporary shortages.  At the moment, the presence of large numbers of intelligentsia in our civilization make the middle class seem more robust than it is.  However, since very few will ever be assimilated and become full members of our culture, they don’t count.  Eventually we won’t need nearly as many of them and we will stop importing them.

b.  No Change or a Positive Change for the Intellectual/Creative Class

We will still be needed to educate and advise the aristocracy and to create culture for the whole society, so our relative numbers will stay about the same.  Once we again rely on the aristocracy for patronage, our job stability and renumeration may actually improve.  Of course, all the pseudo-intellectuals and poseur artists are actually members of the bourgeoisie in disguise, and will find they have no such protection.

3.  Decline of Democracy

Democracy has had its longest and most successful run so far, but it is on its way out, at least in the “one citizen, one vote” sense we know it in the United States.  As the middle class disappears the aristocracy will again find ways to disenfranchise the proletariat (assuming the proles are interested in voting at all).  This sounds like a bad thing, and it could be–particularly if it allows our culture to swing back towards facism.  On the other hand, it could allow people who actually know enough to make decisions start undoing some of the damage caused over the last hundred years by demagoguery and populism.  Whether it’s ultimately good or bad, though, this change is going to happen.  Democracy is just one of many possible political systems, and nothing stays the same forever.

4.  Reevaluation of Education

Our current educational focus has long been on educating the middle class.  Once most of them are gone, the educational system will once again split into a system of education for the aristocracy and a system of training for the proletariat.  This is already happening; just compare the programs at Harvard with those at University of Phoenix.

5.  Abandonment of Money

Money, in the sense we usually think of it, mostly matters to the middle class.  The proletariat never has much of it, whereas the aristocracy handles it only in an abstract sense.  The basic functions of money–a medium of exchange, a store of value, and unit of account–will be increasingly served by other media.  For instance, computers of the future will be able to immediately compare the relative values of labor and commodities and allow frictionless barter, removing the need to translate everything into currency as a unit of exchange.  Material goods in general will become far less important as most possessions become virtual and cheap 3D printers and similar technology allow anyone to manufacture anything for which they have a computer model, then recycle the material when they are done with it.  Energy and intellectual property will become the only stores of value that matter.  Energy will probably become the unit of account, because anything can be expressed in terms of energy.  Naturally, we will need to revise our entire concept of intellectual property.

6.  Changing Perceptions of Space and Distance

As telepresence becomes “as good as being there” and most property is either virtual or manufacturable on demand, there will be less and less reason to travel.  Few people, even the very rich, will have any incentive to ever go more than a couple kilometers from their homes.  The physical world will become much smaller, while the virtual world becomes much bigger.

What form these homes take depends on our ability to control overpopulation.  With a reasonable population density everyone, even the poorest of the proletariat, will be able to live in idyllic villages.  A more likely scenario is for most people to live in massive arcologies or other high density mega cities, where technology races constantly to ensure the survival of people for the minimum possible resource cost.

The Two “Wild Cards”

Looking at the list I just typed, I actually feel like my predictions are all throughly plausible.  There are two factors so powerful that no one can account for their effects, though.  The first, which will almost certainly be negative, is climate change.  If the changing climate damages our biosphere too badly, it is possible that we will see a significant portion of our population killed off, while the remainder have to abandon all technology and culture that doesn’t directly contribute to survival.  If that happens, the survivors could become the futuristic equivalent of Greenland Inuits or Saharan nomads.  In that case, all bets are off.  The other factor, which will probably be positive, is space travel.  We are entering an age when commercial space travel will become viable.  Potentially, the ability to harvest energy and materials from the rest of the solar system, combined with the new cultures that will develop among space travelers, will change our society in was that no one could predict.