BMCR 1999.01.18

Euripides and the Sophists

, Euripides and the Sophists : some dramatic treatments of philosophical ideas. London: Duckworth, 1998. 128 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780715628164 £12.95.

The disparate intellectuals known today as the Sophists were the most trendy and sexy public figures in the age of publicité that is the classical polis. The power and threat and excitement of what they offered is reflected throughout the literate productions of the era. Euripides was the most provocative contemporary writer for the Athenian institution which had the biggest audience and most self-aware sense of performance. It would be hard to write an account of Euripides (or Socrates or Thucydides or …) that didn’t treat his deep involvement with the intellectual life of the community in which he wrote. Since Nietzsche’s passionate engagement with this issue, the questions surrounding the danger and the commitments of this problematic have produced some of the most heated and telling debates on the politics of knowledge and the politics of theatre, both for the classical and the modern period.

And still can. When the Gulf War started, the BBC replaced its scheduled programme with a hurriedly prepared but wonderfully executed semi-dramatized reading of extracts from Thucydides: his commentary on power, the motives of war, and his brilliantly cynical account of human nature and despair in war, provided a more telling commentary than hours of modern media mavens. Fiona Shaw tells how, when she acted in the extraordinary performance of Sophocles’ Electra directed by Deborah Warner in Derry in Northern Ireland, the audience refused to leave after each performance, but insisted on staying to talk through — or often violently debate — the issues of Sophocles’ most searching and upsetting treatment of the violence of revenge. (‘When was this written?’, asked one child. ‘Two thousand four hundred years ago’, said another, from the programme. ‘It’s taken a long time to get to Derry, then’ …) Nelson Mandela tells of the importance to him of his reading of Sophocles’ Antigone in prison; one could list the famous productions of tragedy where its very status has enabled the censor to be beaten and a new political phoenix to arise, from Anouilh’s war-time Antigone to the Bacchae in sixties Tokyo. The interplay of sophistic thought and the artistic productions of the classical era speak powerfully to contemporary debates about the media, the role of education, citizenship, and the use of power.

I am not convinced, then, that the undergraduate or general reader is best served by avoiding all the danger, thrill, and disagreement that mark the contentious politics of expression of the sophistic period. Not only is it missing an opportunity for Classics to assert the continuing importance of its study in the contemporary world, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to avoid everything which makes this a contentious and self-implicating field (in the ancient and modern world) is not good history. There is more than one way in which a complicity with ‘the dumbing down of education’ can be enacted.

Conacher is a scholar who has worked on Greek tragedy for many years with distinction and a distinctive voice. This most recent, very slender volume seems to me to be somewhat misguided, however. It aims in the briefest of scope to introduce the topic of ‘Euripides and the Sophists’ to a general audience, but tries to do so without mentioning what makes either sophistic thought (as we might as well call it), or Euripidean tragedy, exciting, disturbing and powerful — either for ancient or for modern audiences. This results in an extremely anodyne, even bland picture, with nothing to surprise the scholar or advanced student, but nothing to convince the initiand that the field is worth studying.

There are five chapters, with an introduction and rather perfunctory conclusion. Each of the chapters is focused on a particular area of sophistic argument, and on a selection of Euripidean works. The chapters deal — in turn — with: the teachability of virtue (with special reference to Hippolytus); the relativity of values (focused on Alcestis and Helen); the power and abuses of rhetoric (especially on Troades and Hecuba); reality and sense perception ( Helen, again); and nomos ( Bacchae, and, much more briefly, Supplices and Heraclidae). In each case, a brief version of the general issue is provided from the fragments of particular sophists, and then the way in which this issue is reflected in Euripides is discussed by brief readings of plays, or, in most cases, highly selective quotations or even fragments, of plays.

Conacher is very concerned to underline that in this approach he is treating Euripides ‘not as a philosophical or political thinker’, but as a ‘creative dramatist’. This rather tired credo (recognisable from much criticism of, say, the Kitto school, or, in starkest form from the dismissive Page for whom Aeschylus is ‘not a thinker’) does not bear much scrutiny, especially if one thinks of the socio-political context of Athenian theatre or the sense of the word sophos or the role of the poet in education. It becomes especially hard to understand when we are also told that the ‘creative dramatist’ is to be explored through ‘some of his dramatic and original treatment of various philosophical teachings and ideas’, or, for a specific example, when we are told that the Helen is ‘a brilliant parody of Sophistic teaching … particularly, perhaps, of the Sophists’ insistence on the primacy of individual sense perceptions as criteria of truth, or ‘reality’, and on the use of names ( onomata) and, indeed, on the dependability (or otherwise) of speech ( logos) in the expression of that reality’. It is not easy to see why that rather good summary of one important strand of the Helen doesn’t qualify Euripides as a ‘philosophical thinker’: the description could well be applied to various parts of Platonic dialogue, at least.

The topics and plays are well-chosen: but the importance of each is scarcely limned. The readings of each play are very brief, and while they often show the benefits of Conacher’s long experience in their judgement and precision, they are usually too brief to be fully convincing to a scholarly audience, who will appreciate too pointedly much of what has been left out. It is good to see Alcestis, Heraclidae, and Supplices finding a place, however, since they rarely appear in introductory volumes, and the range of Euripidean writing is truncated as a result. More worrying is the drastic limitations of the general framing of the approach. Why the ‘teachability of virtue’ is such a hot topic in the shifting politics of education is never raised: the execution of Socrates is not part of this debate, for Conacher; nor is it discussed why the focus on ‘rhetoric’ goes to the heart of the institutions of the democratic polis and the citizen’s pursuit of power and status within them; nor why nomos might have a specific political and social import in the fifth-century city. The words ‘Homer’ and ‘Democracy’ do not appear in the book, which testifies to the limitations of frame. Thucydides’ extraordinary dissection of how ‘relativity of values’ becomes a driving force in war could have brought home the relevence of the sophistic debate and Euripides’ public exploration of it. This is, in short, ‘sophists and drama’ without politics (contextualization, relevence, history, point …). The book as a whole, for all Conacher’s well-known qualities, cannot rise above these limitations.