Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.07

Franziska Egli, Euripides im Kontext zeitgenössischer intellektueller Strömungen: Analyse der Funktion philosophischer Themen in den Tragödien und Fragmenten. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 189.   München and Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2003.  Pp. 334.  ISBN 3-598-77801-5.  €86.00.  

Reviewed by John Given, East Carolina University (
Word count: 1991 words

Egli's study, a publication of her 2002 dissertation from the University of Zurich, argues that it is best to analyze intellectual themes in Euripides as the influence of contemporary philosophical "currents" rather than to pursue the traditional search for the influence of individual philosophers and sophists. To this end, Egli catalogs hundreds of passages from the Euripidean corpus, including the fragments, according to the intellectual trends underlying them. She also offers longer interpretations of three entire plays, Electra, Heracles and Orestes. Although the abandonment of the search for individual philosophers' influence is to be applauded, Egli's continuing emphasis on discovering Euripides' influences consistently detracts from the many insightful interpretations that are present.

In a brief introduction (15-35), Egli distinguishes her work from predecessors such as Nestle (1901 and 1902), Verrall (1895) and Dodds (1929),1 who represent the tradition of personal influence. She also introduces a theoretical framework of intertextuality, drawn primarily from the works of Genette and Helbig.2 The intertextual models serve as a method for recognizing and interpreting the relationship between a text and a "Prätext," keeping in mind always that the various Prätexte for Euripides are not particular texts but "Äusserungen, Ideen und Gedanken, die wir nur aus Fragmenten und anderen Texten rekonstruieren können" (25). In order to move beyond mere recognition of intertextual phenomena, Egli mentions Kristevan and Barthesian "codes" in which authors' texts and readers are located, and especially uses Helbig's notion of "Codewechsel" to interpret the ways in which a Euripidean text may reinvent the Prätext(e) with which it engages.

There follows the extensive catalog of Euripidean passages (37-216). The catalog is subdivided into seven sections: astronomical matters (especially those associated with Anaxagoras), questions about aither (Diogenes of Apollonia), divine matters I (Xenophanes), divine matters II (the sophists, especially Prodicus), ethics (Protagoras and Socrates), rhetoric (the sophists), and further sophistic themes (theories of cultural development, the nomos-phusis antithesis, and the onoma-pragma antithesis). Each section contains a brief review of the philosophical background and its main representative, followed by Euripidean passages in which the ideas show their influence, usually organized by subtopics. For example, the section on ethics treats the subtopics: the Socratic paradox that no one does wrong willingly, the sophistic question whether virtue is teachable, and Protagorean ethical relativism. Having delineated her catalog headings, Egli places each Euripidean passage in its appropriate place, usually discussing one or two passages in some detail and referencing other, similar texts. As a means of identifying similarities of theme between Euripidean passages and testimonia for the many philosophers and of describing the complex intellectual trends of the fifth century, Egli's catalog succeeds admirably. But it generally does not reach the level of Egli's stated goal: "Diesen Hintergrund an den einzelnen Stellen aufzuzeigen, einzuschätzen und in einen grösseren Rahmen zu stellen ist Ziel dieser Arbeit" (18).

The catalog amply demonstrates the impressive breadth of Egli's research.3 Although she associates each intellectual current with a primary representative from the philosophical world, she does not hesitate to bring in relevant citations from other writers where appropriate. There thus emerges a complex web of influences that Euripides could draw on. To take only one example: in attempting to explain Euripides' allusions to the sun's reversal of course, always associated with some aspect of the tale of the House of Atreus, Egli unpacks the difficult testimonia regarding Presocratic speculation on astronomical phenomena (53-69). She discusses in close detail Anaxagoras, Diogenes, Archelaus and Oinopides and their various theories about the elliptical course of the sun. There emerges no clearly direct intertextual reference to any philosopher in any of the Euripidean passages (El. 727-744, Or. 1001-1012, etc.). Nonetheless, the attention to intellectual "currents" rather than the requirement for the nomination of a particular philosopher enables Egli to recognize the broad contexts within which Euripides' characters offer their versions of the phenomenon. She carefully avoids a reductive interpretation that might identify all the Euripidean allusions with a single philosopher's theory.

When Egli discusses the dramatic function of a passage (which does not happen as often as one might wish), the interpretation often provides good insight into the way Euripides manipulated intellectual themes for his own purposes. For instance, in discussing sophistic theories of cultural evolution, Egli turns to Pho. 528-547, Jocasta's speech of "optimistic rationalism."4 Euripides takes the sophistic trope of cultural development and revises the contents of the form in order to fit his own mythical context and intellectual agenda. He replaces the traditional gods, used for example in Protagoras's myth as reported by Plato, with abstractions (e.g., isotes) borrowed from Presocratic theories of measure and balance. The combined intellectual discourses, Egli argues, grants Jocasta's speech additional weight (198-202). Egli is at her best in analyzing the ways in which Euripides manipulates and synthesizes diverse intellectual currents.

In the course of a lengthy catalog, one will of course find many opportunities both to agree and to disagree with the author's interpretations. Egli's is no exception, and so I shall forego any detailed review of individual discussions. Let one convincing and one unconvincing example suffice. In the section on Diogenes' aither, Egli points to Hecuba's prayer at Tro. 884-888, which names Zeus as the "support of the earth" (γῆς ὄχημα). Egli convincingly argues (82-94) that this is a reference to aither, and that the passage mediates between a traditional prayer form (as at Aesch. Ag. 160) and a modern philosophical intertext, in order to distinguish Hecuba's from Helen's more traditional theology without portraying Hecuba as a blasphemer. She notes that, while Diogenes wrote about the upper air, we cannot identify an influence with certainty, and that it is likely that Euripides has combined intellectual currents to produce "etwas Neues, Einzigartiges" (94). In contrast, the discussion of the closing lines of Medea's monologue (1079-1081) is unconvincing. Egli, following predecessors such as Snell, argues that Medea's famous lines are to be connected with the Socratic paradox. That remains an attractive supposition, but in interpreting the intellectual byplay, Egli falls back on the discredited explanation of a divide between reason and passion in Medea's mind.5 A relationship between Medea's dilemma and Socratic ethics seems reasonable, but one longs for a more sophisticated understanding of both sides of the intertextual relationship.

The catalog-form greatly restricts, or at least points out the weaknesses of, Egli's approach. By cataloging which influence appears in each Euripidean passage (the word "Einfluss" appears throughout the book), Egli maintains the traditional but problematic divide between the poet and the proper intellectuals. As she states in her introduction, "Euripides ist kein Philosoph, sondern ein Dichter" (18). As much recent scholarship has demonstrated, however, there existed no strict divide in classical Athens. Philosophers were poets and poets philosophers. For example, as Ford has recently argued, Xenophanes is best understood not as a predecessor to Plato's quarrel between philosophy and poetry, but in the context of the symposium.6 Thomas's recent work on Herodotus has shown that writers of prose and poetry alike existed in an intellectual milieu where all contributed to intellectual debates.7 This is not to deny the differences of genre or performance situation; certainly, such contextual concerns always impact interpretation. But Egli's division between poetry and philosophy reflects our reception of the fifth century via Plato more than the actual intellectual conditions. The catalog-form compels Egli to fossilize the division between poetry and philosophy, since it always envisions a one-way path of influence rather than the culture-wide interactive milieu envisioned by Thomas.

Egli does in fact cite Thomas, a citation which provides a good insight into her methods. In discussing scientific theories concerning the sun's absorption of the earth's moisture (69-71), Egli finds a parallel between Euripides fr. 779 (from Phaethon) and passages from, among others, Herodotus and the Hippocratic Regimen. Thomas also cited the latter two passages together. "Hypothetisch nimmt sie [Thomas] an, dass in medizinischen Diskussionen Libyen als Studienfall für ein extremes Klima diente" (71). This is certainly true, but Thomas goes further: Herodotus's "section on Libya should be seen as a contribution to the discussions on nature by contemporaries interested in nature and the nature of man."8 The point is that there are contemporary controversies to which Herodotus is contributing; he is not merely influenced by discussions among philosophers. We can surely say that Euripides is also contributing to the same controversy. Egli uses the coincidence of theme, though, not to build on Thomas's insight, but only to state that Euripides' allusion seems "auf einem ähnlichen intellektuellen Hintergrund entstanden zu sein" (71).

The third section of the book (217-272) comprises the studies of individual plays. These studies pay more attention to interpretation of plays rather than cataloging of discrete passages. The greater attention to the dramatic function of intellectual themes enables this section to emerge as more satisfactory than the previous section of the book.

The discussion of Electra proceeds by theme (219-234). Egli begins by discussing solar imagery, especially in the first two stasima, which connects to Presocratic astronomical theories discussed in the prior section. She argues that the first stasimon uses the solar imagery to create a heroic ideal against which Orestes can be measured. It proves to be ambivalent imagery, however, since Orestes cannot meet the ideal.9 The second stasimon contains the trope of solar reversal, which Egli connects both to Clytemnestra's past crime and Orestes' and Electra's future crime, and so further denigrates the allegedly heroic characters. The connection with Presocratic speculation indicates that nature itself is revolted by the crimes. Secondly, she discusses the theme of nobility, εὐγένεια. Here, she generally follows Goldhill's recognition that Orestes' use of sophistic rhetoric to evaluate the Farmer's nobility is an ironic comment on his later role as murderer.10 Finally, she considers the related theme of athletic competition, which she describes as a Euripidean adaptation of the sophistic criticism of physical prowess at the expense of intellectual pursuit.

Egli approaches Heracles from the perspective of the traditional question of the play's unity. She argues that the speeches in the first episode have varying levels of sophistic markings, which generally serve to problematize the traditional understanding of the gods and heroes. Heracles' entrance, unmarked by philosophical terminology, sets the world back in its traditional order and especially refutes the sophistic Lycus's views. After Heracles' massacre, the conversation with Theseus explores two modern accounts of the gods, more nuanced than Lycus's cynicism. Theseus utilizes the perspective of Protagorean agnosticism, while Heracles adopts Xenophanes' ethical reproaches against the divine. They find common ground in ethical anthropocentrism; the gods exist but stand beyond human concern. Euripides thus succeeds in finding a way to bring modern conceptions of the gods within the frame of mythological tragedy, to tell old stories with their valid truths in a modern, anthropocentric, intellectualized setting. The entire play works toward this negotiation. Disunity is thus an illusion created by attempts to read Heracles as a psychological character study.

With her study of Orestes, Egli returns to the very first theme that she introduced in her catalog, the story of Tantalus and his criminal descendants and how intellectualized mythology treats them. Due to Euripides' shifting of details, the juxtaposition of the Tantalids and heavenly phenomena produces an even starker evaluation of nature's condemnation than in Electra, although Egli admits that Euripides has altered the traditional identification of Tantalus and a star so much that he may have moved beyond contemporary intellectual currents. Egli's conclusion about the double function of the myth in the play may serve as a summary of the general function of intellectual currents in Euripides: The myth "dient als Hintergrund zur Beurteilung der Tat Orests und ... als Folie, denn dies musste dem Publikum auffallen: Die Menschen des zweiten Teils verhalten sich völlig unabhängig von den Lehren, die man daraus ziehen könnte" (272).

The book concludes with a thorough summary, bibliography and three indices (locorum, nominum, and verborum), which are well done. The appearance of the book, as one would expect from a BzA book, is excellent. I noted only a few errors.11


1.   W. Nestle, Euripides, der Dichter der griechischen Aufklärung, Stuttgart 1901; idem, Untersuchungen über die philosophischen Quellen des Euripides, Leipzig 1902; A. W. Verrall, Euripides the Rationalist, Cambridge 1895; E. R. Dodds, "Euripides the Irrationalist," CR 43 (1929), 97-104.
2.   G. Genette, Palimpsestes, Paris 1982 (German trans. 1993); J. Helbig, Intertextualität und Markierung: Untersuchung zur Systematik und Funktion der Signalisierung von Intertextualität, Heidelberg 1996.
3.   The catalog does appear to be exhaustive. I cannot think of any significant Euripidean passage that Egli neglects. One significant thinker does seem to have escaped Egli's sweep; it is strange that Gorgias receives so little attention. According to the index locorum, his Encomium of Helen warrants only one mention and his Palamedes only two.
4.   I borrow the term of D. J. Mastronarde, "The Optimistic Rationalist in Euripides: Theseus, Jocasta, Tiresias," in Greek Tragedy and its Legacy, ed. Martin Cropp et al. (Calgary 1986), pp. 201-11.
5.   Arguments against the reason-passion dichotomy appear in: K. Alt, "Medeas Entschluss zum Kindermord," Hyperboreus 4 (1998), 273; H. Foley, "Medea's Divided Self," CA 8 (1989), 73; G. Rickert, "Akrasia and Euripides' Medea," HSCP 91 (1987), 99-100.
6.   A. Ford, The Origins of Criticism: Literary Culture and Poetic Theory in Classical Greece (Princeton 2002), pp. 46-66.
7.   R. Thomas, Herodotus in Context: Ethnography, Science and the Art of Persuasion, Cambridge 2000.
8.   Ibid., p. 54.
9.   On p. 222, Egli misreads the vocative Τυνδαρί (El. 480) as a reference to Clytemnestra rather than Helen. If anything, the correct reading adds to the ambivalence that Egli finds in the ode.
10.   S. Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy (Cambridge 1986), p. 163.
11.   The Table of Contents is badly misprinted for section I.B.1. There is a missing close-quote on p. 247. "Beziehung" is misprinted as "Bziehung" on p. 266. And there are accent errors on p. 49 (τόν for τὸν) and p. 75 n. 2 (οὐν for οὖν).

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