BMCR 1999.01.17

Motivation und Schmähung: Feigheit in der Ilias und in der griechischen Tragödie

, Motivation und Schmähung : Feigheit in der Ilias und in der griechischen Tragödie. Drama. Beiheft ; 7. Stuttgart: M & P, 1997. 398 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 9783476451897. DM 55,-/oeS 402,-/sFr 50,-.

Even today, every schoolchild knows that one way to get someone else to do what you want is to call them “chicken” for not doing it. In her slightly rewritten Hamburg dissertation (which bears the marks of its origins in the form of scrupulously numbered section headings), Jessica Wissmann (henceforth W.) explores the ways in which this same taunt of cowardice functions as a motivating force in the Iliad and selected elegies and tragedies. The narrow focus allows W. to cover a wide range of material; in fact, the title is somewhat misleading, as her extensive discussion of tragedy occupies more than two-thirds of the book.

In Chapter 1, the brief introduction, W. sets out the parameters of her study. She will not examine the meaning of the various words for “cowardly” and “cowardice” in terms of the kinds of behavior or thought patterns to which they are applied; rather she will study how these words, by expressing a judgment from a particular speaker’s point of view, become an instrument of manipulative speech. By limiting herself to epic, elegy, and tragedy, W. will use these genres’ stylized conception of heroism to illuminate its underlying structures. Nor will her study be primarily lexical, as some Greek words which may denote “cowardice” are multivalent: clearly δειλία, ἀνανδρία, κάκη and the corresponding adjectives δειλός and ἄνανδρος have this meaning, but what about κακός, for instance? Since it can, but certainly does not always, mean “cowardly,” W. will give close attention to context for clues to the specific meaning.

Chapter 2 deals with the Iliad. W. makes the important observation that the terms under study (like many evaluative terms) appear only within direct speeches in the poem, never in the narrator’s own voice. Accordingly, after a survey of the particular terms appearing in the Iliad, she subdivides her discussion according to speech function: abuse (of a fighter on one’s own side or of an opponent); exhortation (either simply motivational or also rebuking); and commentary on one’s own behavior (in the context of a dialogue or soliloquy). In the first category, that of abuse speeches, W. notices that abuse of someone on the same side serves to (re)assert authority over the one abused, and perhaps to avoid a physical confrontation: the only instances of this are between Achilles and Agamemnon on the Greek side, and between Priam and his sons on the Trojan side. Abuse of one’s opponent in battle, precisely because cowardice is such a strongly motivational rebuke, can be risky: the opponent might well be inspired to greater feats of valor than before. In the second category, exhortation, the charge of cowardice can play an important part; by labeling someone’s current behavior as cowardly, the speaker causes (or attempts to cause) the addressee to change his behavior in order to prove himself brave. Lastly, in the third category of commentary on one’s own behavior, the same forces are at play; a hero explains or justifies his own behavior to someone else by saying that to do otherwise would be cowardly; or, in soliloquy, he uses the idea of cowardly behavior to motivate himself to do otherwise. This chapter further develops the idea of cowardice as a socially constructed idea: not only do these terms have no fixed concrete meaning, but they also are used only from one person’s perspective. In other words, in order for there to be talk of cowardice, there must be someone judging: what W. calls the “beurteilende Instanz.” In a soliloquy, then, the speaker serves as his own judge.

Chapter 3 explores the role of cowardice in selected elegies of Callinus and Tyrtaeus (Callinus Fr. 1 West, Tyrtaeus 10, Frr. 11, 12 West), poems which have the form and content of battle exhortation and thus may be compared to similar exhortation in Homer. Callinus, however, does not use any term for “cowardice” as he urges the noi to take part in battle, since he seeks to downplay the risk of death. According to him, the men will be mourned if they die and honored if they survive — which is more likely. To mention cowardice and the need for courage would undermine his point by making the risk seem greater. Tyrtaeus, on the other hand, does use the language of cowardice, but rarely; his emphasis is different from Callinus’, in that he presents death not as an unlikely outcome, but actually as a desirable one. Tyrtaeus encourages the men to fight until death by presenting death in a positive light and old age as both aesthetically and morally negative. Thus death is not something to be feared, and courage is not necessary when preparing for battle.

The remainder of the book deals with tragedies, selected for frequent use of terms for cowardice and organized according to theme. Chapter 4, “Äussere und innere Konflikte,” deals with Sophocles’ Ajax and Euripides’ Medea and Hercules Furens. Using the same three categories of speech to organize the discussion, W. finds Ajax to represent the heroic norm from which the other two plays depart. Abuse speeches occur in all three plays: in Ajax, agonistic encounters between Teucer and Menelaus and Teucer and Agamemnon feature accusations of cowardice, used to counter physical threats and to lower the status of the addressee. For Medea, rebuking speech is her best option in dealing with Jason, since a woman cannot ordinarily pose a physical threat to a man. In HF, Lycus’ abuse of Heracles is addressed not to him, but to Amphitryon and Megara; the rebuke is meant to work indirectly, on them rather than on Heracles himself. Exhortation is found more rarely in these dramas. It occurs most prominently in HF, where Megara uses the idea of cowardice to persuade Amphitryon to accept death heroically, and Theseus uses the same argument in the opposite way, to persuade Heracles not to kill himself. The third category, commentary on one’s own behavior, occurs most frequently in these plays. Both Ajax and Medea fear loss of honor; Heracles fears this and more. Ajax and Heracles wish to prove their honor, while Medea thirsts for revenge. All three use the idea of cowardice to motivate themselves toward what they see as the proper course of action and to avoid the laughter of their enemies: Ajax must kill himself, Medea must kill her children, and Heracles realizes that the bravest course is actually to restrain himself from suicide. If Ajax presents the heroic norm of death before dishonor, Medea shows how a woman might apply this concept to herself, and HF provides a new definition of heroism, in which courage is defined as living with difficult emotions instead of escaping into death.

Chapter 5, “Das heroische Vakuum,” deals with Euripides’ Supplices and Electra, and the Electra of Sophocles. In these plays, women interfere in the actions of men and attempt to persuade them to particular courses of action. Does listening to a woman in itself make a man into a coward? Does the “masculinization” of a woman necessarily lead to the “feminization” of a man? The answers differ from play to play. Again, the discussion is organized by speech category. Rebuking speeches are prominent in both Electra s, directed against Aegisthus both present and absent, and even over his corpse. The grounds for rebuke are that he stayed home from the war and that he takes orders from Clytemnestra — so in his case, listening to a woman has proved dishonorable. He is presented as a negative example for Orestes. Exhortation is prominent in all three plays, and in each case a woman exhorts a man. Euripides’ Electra bases her appeal on the idea that one’s outer reputation (for valor, in this case) does not always guarantee corresponding inner virtue, claiming that for Orestes not to kill Clytemnestra would be cowardly. The parallelism between Electra’s own advice to Orestes and Clytemnestra’s manipulation of Aegisthus is deliberately left unspoken in the play. In the Supplices, Aethra speaks persuasively to Theseus, but subtly, so as not to reflect on his status. In particular, she is careful to present others, not herself, as the persons judging (in whose view he would be cowardly were he not to take her advice). Sophocles’ Electra takes the most active role, not only exhorting Orestes but even luring Aegisthus to his death. Again the similarities between the Electra-Orestes relationship and that of Clytemnestra to Aegisthus go unremarked in the play. Aegisthus serves as a foil here not only for Orestes but also for Electra, who becomes a substitute for her father and brother in their absence, thus filling the “heroic vacuum” of the chapter title. Electra is presented as “masculinized” particularly in her conversation with Chrysothemis, which is both an exhortation and a commentary on her own actions; twice she uses the word δειλία to refer to her own behavior. Only rarely in tragedy does a woman call herself cowardly or use this term, and only here does a woman use this term against herself. Sophocles’ Electra is unique in tragedy, as her position (the only true representative of a family, in the absence of male relatives) is unique. When Orestes returns and assumes the role of hero, Electra retreats into the traditionally feminine behaviors of helping the hero and giving way to emotional outbursts.

In Chapter 6, “Vom aktiven zum passiven Heroismus,” W. treats Aeschylus’ Septem, Euripides’ Alcestis, and then, as a group, Euripides’ “Opfertragödien” ( Heraclidae, Hecuba, Phoenissae, Iphigenia Aulidensis and the fragmentary Erechtheus). In each of these plays, a character “sacrifices” his or her own life, whether actively or passively; the question for W. is how decisive for each sacrificial figure the thought of (avoiding) cowardice proves to be. The first two plays present the sacrificial figures in traditional roles: Eteocles makes his decision in the context of war, using the idea of cowardice to motivate both his soldiers and himself, while Alcestis makes her decision in the context of the house and does not mention cowardice at all. In the latter play, only men talk about cowardice: Admetus and Pheres use the term against each other in mutual self-justification (at this point it is too late, in terms of the play’s action, for an accusation of cowardice to have a motivational function, since Alcestis’ decision is already made); Admetus also mentions cowardice in contemplating his future life and the loss of reputation he will suffer. The “Opfertragödien” are more complex, depicting mostly female victims, mostly in the masculine context of war; the heroism of the main characters is more often passive (submitting to a sacrificial death) than active (meeting death in battle or by suicide). Rebukes directed toward both allies and opponents feature terms for cowardice; with opponents, the speaker attempts to prevent the sacrifice, while with allies both speaker and addressee become foils for the main character (Eteocles and Polynices in the Phoenissae or Menelaus and Agamemnon in IA, like Admetus and Pheres in Alcestis). Exhortation is problematic in these plays. Most often it occurs when the sacrificial figures present their own behavior as paradigmatic, naming avoidance of the reproach of cowardice as a primary motivation for their decision — but none of the other characters follows their heroic examples. Commentary on one’s own behavior, following the pattern set elsewhere, is presented in these plays in dialogue or at least as the result of past dialogue. The sacrificial figure defends his or her decision against someone trying to dissuade them, almost never using the idea of cowardice in response to the dialogue partner, but rather introducing it into the first speech of the conversation (the speech which announces the decision to die). From this W. concludes that the avoidance of cowardice is in fact a primary motivation for these characters — that the term is not used merely as a tactic to create or bolster motivation.

Chapter 7, “Der feige Barbar,” deals very briefly with Aeschylus’ Persae and Euripides’ Orestes. W. notes that the relationship between Greek and barbarian is often described in terms of the relationship between masculine and feminine; her question here is whether barbarians in tragedy are represented as “feminine” also in relation to cowardice. The short answer is no. In the Persae, the Persians are presented as extreme in both directions — both effeminate/cowardly and overbold when roused. Xerxes reacts to an accusation of cowardice just as a Greek would: by trying to demonstrate the opposite. In Orestes, the masculine/feminine and Greek/barbarian polarities dissolve. Yes, the Phrygian is presented as cowardly. But Electra, a woman, is the one who exhorts Orestes and Pylades not to be like him. Menelaus is presented as a coward because he fought against the cowardly Trojans; his victory is undermined by the quality of his opponents. Orestes too appears cowardly, not only because of his cowardly opponents but also because he, like the Phrygian, pleads for his life. Both Orestes and Menelaus are presented as Greeks with barbarian traits; Orestes becomes more like than unlike his supposed foils, Menelaus and the Phrygian. W. notes, however, that these polarities are dissolved not by raising the status of women or barbarians, but by lowering that of men and Greeks.

In chapter 8, W. concludes her discussion with a typology of the female figures encountered in this study, classifying them into three categories. The first type of woman tries to restrain a man from war (Andromache and Hecuba in the Iliad, Tecmessa in Ajax, the chorus in the Septem). The context is military, and the women do not speak of cowardice themselves; rather, the men call the women’s arguments cowardly as a way of refuting or ignoring them. The second type of woman exhorts a man to action (Helen and the wife of Meleager in the Iliad, Megara in HF, Aethra in the Supplices, Euripides’ Electra). These women use the reproach of cowardice as a way of motivating the men, sometimes more directly and sometimes less. The third type of woman occurs only in tragedy, and motivates herself toward action (Medea, Sophocles’ Electra, and the sacrificial figures Macaria, Polyxena, and Iphigenia). These women use the reproach of cowardice against (the feminine side of) themselves, or against female opponents (a mother or sister). Alcestis does not fall neatly into any of these categories; she is not called cowardly, nor does she use the term herself to exhort anyone, but Admetus and Pheres use it against each other. In conclusion, W. remarks that the concept of cowardice remains amorphous, perhaps precisely because it serves as a rhetorical instrument. Rather than denoting a specific behavior or disposition, it proves to be adaptable to varying circumstances. W. ends with the enticing suggestion that cowardice may not be the only evaluative term to which this observation applies. The Greek heroes perhaps did not have a systematic code of behavior to follow; their primary concern may instead have been situational — to desire positive epithets and to fear negative ones.

Some concluding remarks of my own are in order. The typeface is readable, the binding seems durable, and typographical errors are few and far between. The Greek typeface is generally pleasing but its spacing is erratic, so that sometimes it is difficult to tell where one word ends and the next begins. The bibliography is comprehensive and up-to-date, containing works in English, French, and Italian as well as German. W. provides an index locorum but not a general index. As should be clear from the summary, W. does not attempt to give a complete reading of any individual poem or play; nevertheless, any scholar working with either Homer or tragedy will find valuable insights here.