BMCR 2020.03.11

Tragedy, ritual, and money in ancient Greece: selected essays

Richard Seaford, Tragedy, ritual, and money in ancient Greece: selected essays. . Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xii, 486 p.. ISBN 9781107171718 $140.00.

[Titles listed below.]

This selection of 21 important essays produced by Richard Seaford over 40 years could be read as a chapter in the history of classical scholarship. The reception of continental thought in Anglophone classical studies during the 1960s and 70s had few students whose work, like Seaford’s, was able to overcome the reactions to theory that emerged as a kind of orthodoxy in the decades since the end of the Soviet Union. The systematic reception of contemporary French thought in classical studies took place in earnest more than half a century ago in many leading transatlantic universities, generating the momentum necessary to convince a reluctant field of the powerful contribution theoretical and critical approaches could make to the interpretation of hallowed texts. These self-reflexive and historicist approaches (largely French, especially from the so-called ‘Paris School’) refocused scholarly attention away from identity to radical difference by interrogating the assumption that Greek literature was produced according to universal (i.e. our) ‘literary’ criteria. Yet, just as quickly, after the apparent discrediting of critical theory in the post-Marxist landscape after 1991, the exponents of these critical-theoretical approaches to classical texts began falling back to intellectual ghettos, their work increasingly patronized as ‘dated Parisian’ or worse, greeted with triumphal incomprehension by those rushing to embrace a return to identity with the Ancients. A theoretical turn (which recognized the work of pioneers such as Francis Cornford, E.R. Dodds and Moses Finley), asserting the essential strangeness of the Greeks, especially in the thought that guided their literature and cultural life, was thereby countered by a concerted effort to reclaim the ancients for an exceptional present. Do the artefacts of a Greek past supply the uncomplicated and recognizable antecedents of our ‘western’ present or do they offer a radically different standpoint from which we can observe our own historical-situatedness? The question of how we ought to approach that specific past, to which Seaford’s collection of essays makes a vital contribution, surely remains one of the most important in classical studies today.

At this juncture, therefore, the appearance of some of the key opera minora of one who recognized early the hermeneutic value of these continental approaches is timely and welcome. Combining a meticulous philology with a sensitive receptivity to the explanatory power of anthropology, Richard Seaford has sought to articulate and locate precisely where the difference of the Greeks lies, especially in the forms of their thought and society. His body of work is grounded in a strong historicism and use of comparative method: human subjectivity and practice do not precipitate out of some universal nature but rather human ‘being’ arises within specific social relations under unique material conditions at precise historical moments. Seaford’s books and essays have sought explanations of Greek culture and literature by treating them above all as fragments of historically-situated relationships and by studiously eschewing any attempt to realign those traces with a modern sensibility apt to mistake its own historical conditions for human nature in general. Money and the Early Greek Mind (Cambridge 2004) is a good example, and one which looms large in the background of the volume under review: the money form in Greece (coined bullion) is at once an economic and a cultural phenomenon, imagined as much as real. The story that both this collection and that book tells is not the neo-classical account of the failure of the ancient world to liberate economic forces, but one about how historical conditions made some forms of thought possible (such as early philosophy) and how the contradictions they threw up were articulated within historically situated institutions (such as Dionysian drama). This is not a question of how well the Greeks responded to a reified ‘economy’ or what in their Weltanschauung prevented them from grasping it rationally ‘like we do’, but rather of how past modes and ethics of exchange cannot be understood outside the larger cultural structures of their expression and articulation. The ‘problem’ of value catalyzed by their money form and expressed in Greek literature is simply not comparable to the analyses thrown up by our ‘modern’ economics; Aristotle’s economy, in other words, is not ours. It is therefore precisely in the face of our inability to find satisfactory explanations for contemporary (climatic, financial, political) crises that the timeliness of this volume presents itself, in what it offers to a (re)emerging demand for what we might call a ‘critical antiquity’—approaches to the Greeks that elicit a social formation that puts our historical conjuncture into relief, perhaps radically so, by posing for us other models, for better or worse, of human acting, speaking and living.

The volume contains 21 essays divided across 8 parts. All (but one: ch. 19) have been published before; where relevant, a postscript has been appended directing the reader to scholarly developments since original publication date. The whole is preceded by an overview of the main concerns of Seaford’s work in an evocative foreword from the editor Robert Bostock. The volume concludes with a list of Seaford’s publications to date (excluding reviews) and an up-to-date bibliography. Anticipating the usefulness of the collection, the editor has also produced an index locorum to the volume which expands its scholarly value well beyond simply reprinting its essays. Robert Bostock is to be commended for his diligent editorial judgment and the collection has been elegantly produced. One hopes that any further volumes of Seaford’s work will fall under his stewardship.

In a short review it is not possible to do more than trace the main lines of this dense collection; many of these essays are well known and have long been available. The editor has nevertheless organized the parts carefully with something more than the date of publication as a principle, arranging the selection according to a retrospectively emerging coherence of theme: tragedy, ritual and money. Part I (‘Tragedy: General’) groups six important studies outlining the historical relation between the form and content of Attic tragedy, which Seaford locates in the consciousness of the democratic city (contrasted with Homeric society, e.g. ch. 1) and is strongly determined by the problem of money (ch. 4), the tyrant (ch. 5) and the tension between polis and household. The shadow of the god Dionysos and his rituals, the democracy’s symbolic mode of sociality, is tragedy’s hard medicine for maintaining a political community against excess (chs. 2 and 3). These essays should be read alongside Seaford’s controversial introduction to, and commentary on, Euripides’ Bacchae (1996). Part II (‘Performance and the Mysteries’) and Part V (‘New Testament’) extend these insights and contain six essays that emphasize the importance of the initiatory poetics of mystery cult to an understanding of tropes recurring in Greek literature as diverse as Attic drama (e.g. ch. 7, 8, and 10), Pre-Socratic texts (ch. 9) and Acts of the Apostles (chs. 15 and 16). Two pieces from the mid-1980s (chs. 11 and 12) comprise Part III (‘Tragedy and Death Ritual’). Both illustrate a central theme of Seaford’s work: accessing tragedy’s meanings requires that we grasp how the tragic ritual is itself a self-reflexive commentary on ritual, constructed from the organizing rites of Athenian life. The transformation of archaic pre-political social institutions in the context of the democratic city continues as another persistent theme in Part IV (‘Tragedy and Marriage’), which offers two seminal studies for thinking historically about the meanings of such institutions as they are articulated within Greek literature.

Over the last 15 years Seaford has turned to the historically situated and culturally specific formation of the psychologically interior self and human subject in early Greek thought, especially in Pre-Socratic philosophy. In thinking about the relation between thought and society Seaford shows himself more aligned to Marx (new economic forms found new forms of thought) than Weber (new ethical pathways legitimate hitherto marginal modes of economic exchange and permit them to expand). Part VI (‘The Inner Self’) contains two pieces on this theme, one of which is a brilliant account of how novel behaviours enabled by the advent of money prompted radically new ways of imagining the relation of the individual to the world and to community (ch. 17 “Monetisation and the Genesis of the Western Subject”). This is extended into Part VII (‘India and Greece’) with a previously unpublished essay, ‘Why did the Greeks not have Karma?’ (ch. 19), a comparative study of the social and historical conditions that explain the divergent development of metaphysics in two ancient societies that both experienced monetization (early India and early Greece).

The final part (VIII ‘Money and Modernity’) consists of two timely comparative studies. Ch. 20 subtly draws out how both Aeschylus and Wagner, each occupying quite fundamentally different moments, nevertheless deployed their myth-making medium to articulate and resist the corrosive power of money as it manifested itself in their worlds. The study concludes that in spite of their great contextual differences “what mattered for them both was (among much else) the hope inherent in the spectacular musical dramatization of communal myth by which monetized individualism is permanently transcended” (431). As Seaford notes, however, this solution is always ambivalent—in the case of Wagner the communal myth had already begun to associate money with race and would underwrite a hellish ‘transcendence’ in the mid-20th century.The final chapter is an op-ed from 2009 published in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis and entitled ‘World without Limits’ (ch. 21). Seaford brings Greek thought’s deep awareness of the social and symbolic threat posed by excess of any kind to bear against capital’s drive to abolish limits of every kind. The essay does not moralize or romanticize, rather it makes the case for taking the Greek world as a standpoint of critique: “We cannot use the systematic Greek respect for limit to subvert the systematic unlimitedness of our own self-destructive culture. But the Greek culture of the limit provides a place that allows us to see the oddness, the historical contingency of the lethally limiting unlimitedness in our own economy, social practices and theory” (439, emphasis added).

This collection of essays is significant and deserves a wide reception for at least three reasons. Firstly, it carefully showcases an approach that closely reads Greek literary and cultural meanings within socially and historically specific tropical zones of institutional practice, ethical pathways and ritual forms via rigorous scholarly exposition and comparative self-reflexivity. Secondly, the collection offers a point of entry to the recurring themes of Seaford’s larger body of work—ritual, tragedy, Dionysos, money, human self and subject—and his insistence on the interconnected dependence of all forms of Greek thought. The glue of this structure in the thought-world of the city—democratic Athens especially—was ritual practice. For Seaford, before our sequestrated domains of literature, religion and economy, there were the ritually interlaced modes of performance, exchange between gods and men, and the social exchanges of the community of human beings. Here, as is often the case, the pathfinding studies remain the most lucid and instructive primers of the approach. Thirdly, as suggested above, this collection is threaded with a Nietzschean call to self-interrogation at a critical juncture: what is it in us that desires to know the Greeks? Seaford’s essays weave a Dionysiac response through careful and scrupulous adherence to traditions of scholarly exposition and offer a vital model for a ‘critical classical studies’ which defamiliarizes the familiar, liberates the past from the present and perhaps emancipates the present from itself.


Table of Contents [with original date of publication]


1. ‘Homeric and Tragic Sacrifice’ [1989]
2. ‘Dionysos as Destroyer of the Household: Homer, Tragedy and the Polis’ [1993]
3. ‘Dionysos, Money and Drama’ [2003]
4. ‘Tragic Money’ [1998]
5. ‘Tragic Tyranny’ [2003]
6. ‘Aeschylus and the Unity of Opposites’ [2003]
7. ‘The ‘Hyporchema’ of Pratinas’ [1977]
8. ‘The Politics of the Mystic Chorus’ [2013]
9. ‘Immortality, Salvation and the Elements’ [1986]
10. ‘Sophocles and the Mysteries’ [1994]
11. ‘The Last Bath of Agamemnon’ [1984]
12. ‘The Destruction of Limits in Sophocles’ Electra’ [1985]
13. ‘The Tragic Wedding’ [1987]
14. ‘The Structural Problems of Marriage in Euripides’ [1990]
15. ‘1 Corinthians 13.12: ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ [1984]
16. ‘Thunder, Lightning and Earthquake in the Bacchae and the Acts of the Apostles’ [1997]
17. ‘Monetisation and the Genesis of the Western Subject’ [2012]
18. ‘The Fluttering Soul’ [2009]
19. ‘Why Did the Greeks Not Have Karma?’ [previously unpublished]
20. ‘Form and Money in Wagner’s Ring and Aeschylean Tragedy’ [2017]
21. ‘World Without Limits’ [2009]