BMCR 1994.06.05

1994.06.05, Strauss, Fathers and Sons

, Fathers and sons in Athens : ideology and society in the era of the Peloponnesian War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. xv, 283 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780691033846. $35.00.

A recent program in institutional self-assessment led by a prominent American foundation asks educators to begin by responding to a set of questions: “What kind of people do we want our children and grandchildren to be? What kind of society do we want them to live in? How can we best shape our institution to nurture those kinds of people and that kind of society?” That we are asked to consider the future of society as the future of our children and grandchildren is hardly remarkable, least of all at a time when the weapon of “family values” is brandished equally on both sides of the culture wars. The questions, however little they tell us about the realities of family life, are useful to the social historian for their ideological significance. They are an index of how Americans tend to personalize social issues and to conceive of the common good as coextensive with the good of their families. And they clearly encourage the reader to reflect on social issues with something of the urgency that attaches to family matters.

It is, I think, in the same sense that Barry Strauss describes Fathers and Sons in Athens as a study not so much in the family as in familialism—that is, in the way in which the idea of the family is related to Athenian politics and ideology as a set of symbols and meanings. The book is in general a description of how the family functions as rhetoric in Greek society from the mid-fifth to mid-fourth century and how changes in that rhetoric reflect changes in the life of the polis. And it is in particular an attempt to show the way in which Athens employed the rhetoric of father-son conflict to articulate its experience of the political and cultural turmoil of the late fifth century, as the city reeled under the vicissitudes of the war and the teachings of the sophists. In this sense, the book is a study in social history less as practice than as discourse, and the author is careful to caution against the temptation to translate this discourse directly into history: an increase in dramatic references to father-beating ( Birds, Clouds) is to be read as evidence not of actual domestic violence but of ideological conflict. (Ironically, Strauss suggests that references to intergenerational conflict are testimony to the stability of the traditional Athenian family: only a culture in which father-son relationships were secure could appreciate the metaphor of filial rebellion.) Although the book draws heavily on the realia of father-son relations and can be read profitably by those interested in the “facts” of family life, Strauss approaches these more as a symbolic anthropologist. And while some of the materials he studies are also covered in works by Lacey ( The Family in Ancient Greece), Garland ( The Greek Way of Life) and Golden ( Children and Childhood in Athens), they come to seem as fresh and exciting as the methodology he applies to them.

It may seem only natural that a patriarchal order which places a premium on male-male relationships should express itself in the language of fathers and sons. Yet in order to read the language of the family as political discourse, Strauss must undo a long line of thinking that dichotomizes and polarizes Athenian life—public and private, polis and oikos, homo politicus and homo economicus. Like a number of recent feminist critics, Strauss stresses the mutually reinforcing character of these categories. The family provides a particularly potent metaphor to the extent that Athenian politics are already heavily familialized: consider the use of familial vocabulary to describe the patris and its social organization ( phratriai, phylai, etc.); the importance of legitimacy of birth to citizenship, or of a father’s reputation to his son’s political prospects; and the relevance of one’s family life to his qualifications for public office ( dokimasia). In the end, Strauss sees the relationship of city and family as “less antithetical than mutually interdependent,” and finds in Aristotle’s Politics a middle ground which appreciates the crucial role of the oikos in socializing members of the polis.

Strauss’ study works first synchronically and then diachronically. The opening chapters identify key terms, sketch out the nature of paternity and sonship in Greek culture, and identify the salient characteristics of father-son relationships. What does it mean to be, or say, father or son? More than we might assume, shows Strauss, who rejects the absentee father for one who is deeply involved in the upbringing of his sons, and who appreciates the affective and even sentimental aspects of fatherhood that are typically denied or ignored. In this portion of the book, one may properly ask to what extent we can free any particular piece of evidence from its specific historical context in order to generalize about such relationships? Why, for instance, should references to the dynastic struggles of the gods be evidence of intergenerational conflict in the late fifth century but not when they are described by Hesiod? But Strauss selects his evidence broadly and extensively enough from both history and literature to establish the features he characterizes as normative. Especially useful in the third chapter is a life-course sketch of the many important points of contact—ritual, educational, vocational—between father and son.

As a study of the tensions within the Greek family, Fathers and Sons provides the cultural equivalent of Tolstoy’s maxim that “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Intergenerational conflict may well be universal, Strauss admits, but he focuses on its unique cultural dynamics in Greece, with useful distinctions from its more severe Roman counterpart. Instead of employing an either/or harmonious/difficult model, he sees father-son solidarity (“major key”) and father-son conflict (“minor key”) as necessary counterpoint to each other, and emphasizes the paradoxes inherent in the structure of these relations. Sons come into their majority at age eighteen, but politico-jural independence does not necessarily bring with it economic independence. Those whose fathers have died (Strauss engages in some interesting demographic speculation here) will take their patrimony at that time, but others must wait for the death or (perhaps) the retirement of their fathers—in short, a situation ripe for tension. Especially important is Strauss’ explication of the crucial relationship between the role of the father and the nature and needs of democracy as a constitution in which the citizen body has ownership and control of itself. The father’s task is to produce sons who are dutiful and obedient and submissive to his authority; but he must also produce men who will be capable, assertive, competitive citizens: “The kyrios helped to make a new kyrios who would one day share in the status of the Athenian demos as kyrios of the polis.”

In this sense, the agonistic ethos is not a disruptive element in the culture of the oikos but is necessary to the production of citizens and the stability of the social order. These themes come to an exhilarating climax in the treatment of Theseus as a kind of foundation myth which embodies the various ambiguities in these relationships, with Theseus established as both dutiful son and rival to Aegeus, as protodemocrat, and significantly as deeply involved in ephebic ritual. Says Strauss: “Athens’ national hero was not merely a symbol of youth or assertiveness, but a symbol of the process whereby a boy became a man, a child became a citizen, and a dependent became kyrios.” One wonders about the relationship between this dynamic and the women of the oikos, and wishes that Strauss had attempted to analyze father-son tensions over and against those that apply to daughters and wives: to what extent does the father’s unyielding kurieia over wife and daughters allow him room to open up a more complex and ambivalent relationship with his sons?

As the opening chapters assemble a kind of basic vocabulary and grammar of familial rhetoric, the concluding ones study the larger syntactical structures which they generate. The real payoff comes in the way the language of father-son relations is shown to be a primary metaphor through which Athens constructed its experience of the political turmoil of the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath. The period from mid-century to the Sicilian Expedition is seen as a time of youthful and anti-traditional rebellion, the “hour of the son,” as the stern paternalism of Pericles yielded to the recklessness of the ephebe extraordinaire Alcibiades. The period from 413 or so to the end of the century is the “return of the father,” which witnessed a strict re-establishment of paternal authority and a reaffirmation of traditional political values. Strauss relies heavily on the concept of “social drama” developed by Victor Turner, who argued that in times of crisis behaviors are shaped by patterns embodied in a culture’s mythos. Turner’s four stages—Breach, Crisis, Redress, Reintegration—provide the template against which Strauss traces the changes in Athens. For Strauss, the myth of youthful rebellion is an “appropriate metaphor,” in that the period was not only one of rapid political and intellectual change but also of real youthful ascendancy, with the new prominence of the young in Athenian politics (Euripides’Suppliant Women is introduced to show the selfish ends to which the new youthful power was being put). Strauss tracks the rhetoric of father-son conflict in comedy ( Knights, Clouds, Wasps, Birds), again viewing familial discord in these texts as symbols of ideological conflict rather than actual domestic conflict—”a much better guide to Athenian fantasy … than to Athenian reality.” And he offers an extended reading of Euripides’Hippolytus, in which the Athenians watched the social drama of youthful rebellion played out to its tragic consequences: a young hero who rejects political life, conventional sexuality, and proper initiation into adulthood, and who provokes a severe reaction from his father. The expulsion of Hippolytus prefigures the real-life drama of Alcibiades a decade later, and Strauss offers a series of parallels between the play’s protagonist and Alcibiades, although aware of the problems, thematic and chronological, in doing so. If anything, too much weight is put on one particular tragedy, and one wishes the author had turned his attention to other tragedies from other periods—father-son conflict is a core theme in Euripides from Alcestis to Bacchae. Orestes, for instance, provides an excellent example of the “ephebe gone awry” who brings society to the brink of chaos, as well as a play in which Euripides characteristically sees through the conflict to reject the claims of both youth and maturity.

The disaster of Sicily and the expulsion of Alcibiades continue the process of ideological shift into a period of paternal redress and youthful submission to authority. The priority of age reestablished both literally (as in the appointment of the probouloi) and as rhetoric, a shift is captured most tellingly in the deployment of the concept of the patrios politeia to symbolize the restoration of paternal authority. Strauss traces the expression and its cognates through its frequent appearances in late fifth and early fourth century historical and legal texts. As with Alcibiades, this is a social drama that is played in the real-life trials at the turn of the century, and Strauss focuses on the textual accounts of the trial of Andocides (primarily On the Mysteries) and Socrates (primarily Plato’s Apology). Andocides’ defense is shown to be an effective piece of rhetoric which exploits the connections between pater and patrios politeia to transform the image of the defendant from lawless youth and insubordinate son to a defender of his father and of democracy. Socrates, as would-be corrupter of the youth and teacher of Alcibiades, is less successful, and the treatment here seems thinner. In particular, the argument that the Socrates in Plato’s account attempts to present himself as a “good family man” runs counter to the experience of most readers.

Studies on the life course in Greece and Rome have been a growth industry in recent years, with a steady stream of books and articles on childhood, initiation, marriage, and old age. Strauss’ book will take its place as a major contribution to this body of work, but with a difference: his willingness and ability to read the sources for their value as political discourse rather than as records of what “really happened” will make the book a model for its methodology as well as its argument. To those who would still argue that the condition of the sources makes genuine social history impossible until the fourth century, Strauss shows that it simply depends on what you do with them. He turns fifth century tragedy and comedy into social documents which are every bit as revealing as the evidence of the assembly and the law court. This work is exciting and important not only for its thesis but for the new and often exhilarating way in which we see language and history and texts combined and interpreted.