The Greek Tragedians: Nemesis
of the religions of mankind insist on the importance of distinguishing between the mythical and the truly religious elements in belief. In all stages of culture, among the lowest and most backward peoples as among the most advanced, the two elements are found to co-exist. They are of very different value. In the mythical element the absurd and the immoral abound. The religious element, on the other hand, is a comparatively pure and rational sentiment, everywhere essentially the same; faith in a Power working for righteousness, and more or less benign in its dealings with the children of men.1
In no case is it more necessary to bear this distinction in mind than in dealing with the religion of Greece. The mythology of that religion earned for itself a bad reputation by those grotesque and licentious features on which the early Christian Fathers were wont to dilate in an apologetic interest. The tendency of apologists generally has been to think of these features of ancient Pagan religions too exclusively, in forming an estimate of their worth. Hence the fact complained of by Professor Max Müller, that while we have endless books on the mythology of the Greeks and Romans, we have comparatively few on their religion, that is, their belief in a wise, powerful Eternal Ruler of the world.2
Since that distinguished scholar made his complaint, thoughtful students of Greek literature have become more alive to the fact that such a belief in a Divine Moral Order had a large place in the minds of the wisest Greek thinkers, and really constituted their proper religious creed. The modern spirit inclines to give that belief the position of prominence in its estimate of Hellenic religion, and to regard the mythology as a thing which grew out of a primitive nature-worship, for which the Greeks of a later age were not responsible, and towards which they assumed varying attitudes of reverent receptivity respectful tolerance, or sceptical contempt.
Mythology and religion, in the sense explained, are intimately combined in Greek Tragedy. The myths and legendary tales of the heroic age are the warp, and the ethical and religious sentiments of the poet are the woof, of the immortal dramas of Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The warp is essentially the same in all three, yet the colour varies more or less in each of them. The individuality of each of the great dramatists comes out in his manner of reproducing the tradition, as also in the attitude he assumes towards the whole stock of myths and legends handed down from antiquity. For Æschylus they are truth to be accepted with reverent faith; for Sophocles they are fiction to be received and used with artistic decorum; for Euripides they are ridiculous tales to be regarded with sceptical scorn and handled with critical freedom. The woof varies as well as the warp. When we compare the three tragedians with each other, we can trace a certain advance in their respective conceptions of the moral order of the world. This was to be expected in the case of men possessing exceptionally high intellectual and moral endowments. None of them was likely to be a simple echo of his predecessor. Every one of them, Æschylus not excepted, was likely to have some new thought to utter on the high themes which occupied their minds in common. Development in all respects, indeed, may be looked for; in dramatic art, in the personal attitude towards mythology, and in the individual views concerning the providential order.
Progression has been recognised in the two first of these three departments. As to the artistic side I cannot go into details, but must content myself with a brief general indication, based on the instructive statement of Mr. Symonds in his Studies of the Greek Poets
. Mr. Symonds says: The law of inevitable progression in art from the severe and animated embodiment of an idea to the conscious elaboration of merely æsthetic motives and brilliant episodes, has hitherto been neglected by the critics and historians of poetry. They do not observe that the first impulse in a people towards creativeness is some deep and serious emotion, some fixed point of religious enthusiasm or national pride. To give adequate form to this taxes the energies of the first generation of artists, and raises their poetic faculty, by the admixture of prophetic inspiration, to the highest pitch. After the original passion for the ideas to be embodied in art has somewhat subsided, but before the glow and fire of enthusiasm have faded out, there comes a second period, when art is studied more for art's sake, but when the generative potency of the early poets is by no means exhausted. The author goes on to indicate how, during these two stages, the mine of available ideas is worked out, and the national taste educated, so that for the third generation of artists the alternatives left are either to reproduce their modelsa task impossible for geniusor to seek novelty at the risk of impairing the strength or the beauty which has become stereotyped. Less deeply interested in the great ideas by which they have been educated, and of which they are in no sense the creators, incapable of competing on the old ground with their elders, they are obliged to go afield for striking situations, to force sentiment and pathos, to subordinate the harmony of the whole to the melody of the parts, to sink the prophet in the poet, the hierophant in the charmer. Æschylus represents the first stage in this progression, Sophocles the second, Euripides the third. Mr. Symonds compares the three poets to the three styles of Gothic architecture, Æschylus representing the rugged Norman, Sophocles the refined pointed style, Euripides the florid flamboyant manner. Æschylus, he says, aimed at durability of structure, at singleness and grandeur of effect. Sophocles added the utmost elegance and finish. Euripides neglected force of construction and unity of design for ornament and brilliancy of effect.3
The advance in the second respect, i.e.
in the attitude assumed towards the legends which formed the stock-in-trade of dramatic art, from the reverence of Æschylus through the artistic reserve of Sophocles to the outspoken rationalism of Euripides, has been duly recognised by such recent writers as Verrall and Haigh.4
But the third aspect of the onward movementfor our purpose the most important of allthat exhibited in the respective conceptions of the three great tragedians on the subject of the moral order and relative phenomena, has not received as yet, at least so far as I know, the full acknowledgment and distinct formulation to which it is entitled. That development here also can be verified, seems to me beyond doubt. It is just such a progression as might have been expected. When stated, the law of advance is so simple and natural as to appear self-evident, and scarcely in need of verification.
The law in question is as follows:
Æschylus, coming first, believes firmly in the unimpeachable retributive justice of Providence. His doctrine is kindred to that of Eliphaz in Job: Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished being innocent? or where were the righteous cut off?5
Sophocles, coming next, while not questioning the general truth of the Æschylean doctrine of Nemesis, sees clearly and states frankly that there are exceptions both ways; bad men prospering, good men suffering grievous misfortune. Antigone, dipus, Philoctetes are some of the conspicuous examples of afflicted innocence. Such facts the poet, while constrained to acknowledge their existence, does not profess to understand; he simply reckons them among the mysteries of human life. Euripides goes one step further; the suffering of innocence is for him as well as for Sophocles a fact, but not altogether a mysterious one: he perceives a ray of light amid the darkness. He knows and notes that there is not merely such a thing as innocence involuntarily suffering unmerited evil, but also such a thing as innocence voluntarily enduring evil, at the prompting of love and in devotion to a good cause. Such self-sacrifice did not appear to him, I think, a violation of the moral order, but rather the manifestation of that order under a new form. This law of progress in the reading of moral phenomena, kept well in view, will help us to appreciate better the distinctive lessons to be learnt from the Greek Tragedians concerning the providential order of the world.
A few general statements of fact may here be premised.
The story of the rise, progress, and uses of the Greek Tragic Drama cannot here be told. Suffice it to say that the drama served the same purpose for the Greeks that the sermon does for a Christian community. It did this and more. The statement of Professor Blackie is not far from the truth, that the lyrical tragedy of the Greeks presents, in a combination elsewhere unexampled, the best elements of our serious drama, our opera, our oratorio, our public worship, and our festal recreations.6
The drama was for the Greek the chief medium of ethical and religious instruction. The three most celebrated dramatic preachers were those already named: Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Æschylus was born 525 B.C.
, Sophocles about 497 B.C.
, and Euripides 480 B.C.
Æschylus took part in the war against the Persians and made the defeat of the mighty foe by his countrymen the subject of one of his tragedies. He and his brother-poets wrote many tragic dramas, only a few of which have been preserved; of Æschylus seven, of Sophocles seven, and of Euripides eighteen. Their themes were taken for the most part from the traditional tales of the gds and the legendary history of the heroic age of Greece. Homer was their Bible. Æschylus is reported to have said that his tragedies were only slices cut from the great banquet of Homeric dainties. The siege of Troy with relative incidents supplied abundant topics for the dramatic preacher who, with the true preacher's instinct, was ever careful to point the moral lesson suggested by his story. Among the legends which offered ample opportunity for moralising were those relating to the fortunes of Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek host against Troy, and of his family. The main events are: the sacrifice of the daughter of Agamemnon, Iphigenia, at Aulis, to obtain a fair wind to carry the fleet to Troy; the murder of Agamemnon on his return home from the ten years' siege, by his own wife, Clytemnestra; and the murder of her in turn by her son Orestes. Æschylus and Euripides both handle these themes with great power, though with characteristic differences in the mode of treatment. Three of the extant plays of Æschylus are devoted to them: the Agamemnon
, the Libation-Bearers
, and the Eumenides
the Furies who haunted Orestes when he had killed his mother. The first and the last of the three show the genius of the poet at its best. With them is worthy to be associated the Prometheus Bound
, whose theme is unique, and whose story, as we shall see, presents a curious problem with reference to the doctrine of Æschylus concerning the moral order, which I now proceed to illustrate.
The message of Æschylus, broadly stated, is that the gods render to every man according to his works, that men reap in lot what they sow in conduct. In teaching this doctrine he was by no means merely echoing traditional opinion. The older view was that quaintly expressed by Herodotus, that Deity is envious;7
that is to say, that the gods inflict misery on men not only because they do wrong, but also because they are more prosperous than befits the human state. In a passage in the Agamemnon
Æschylus refers to this ancient belief as still current, intimates his inability to acquiesce in it, and, though conscious of standing alone,8
boldly declares his conviction that
Whoso is just, though his wealth like a river
Flow down, shall be scathless: his house shall rejoice
In an offspring of beauty for ever.9
Thus, while, by comparison with Sophocles and still more with Euripides, representing an antiquated theory, Æschylus was himself an innovator, inaugurating a new type of thought on the subject of the moral order. His contribution was an important step onwards in the evolution of providential theory. It aimed at the moralisation of belief concerning the divine dealings with men, by lifting these out of the low region of caprice or jealous passion into the serener atmosphere of fixed ethical principle. It was a doctrine worth preaching with all the enthusiasm that a new and [noble faith can inspire, and Æschylus lost no opportunity of illustrating and enforcing it.
is the only piece among the remains of the ancient drama which draws its material from the history instead of the mythology of Greece. Æschylus may have been tempted to make it an exception because of the splendid opportunity it afforded of illustrating his doctrine of retribution. This drama is a sermon on the ruin that overtakes pride, as exemplified in the disastrous failure of the ambitious attempt of the Persian despot to subdue Greece. The mood of the preacher is that of a Hebrew prophet announcing the doom of Babylon or Tyre, or of Carlyle when he wrote The French Revolution
. To him, as to the old Hebrew prophets, history is a revelation of the will of providence; and the ruin of armies, and the overthrow of nations, are but examples of the handiwork of God.10
The gist of the whole dramatic spectacle is given in these few lines:
For wanton pride from blossom grows to fruit,
The full corn in the ear, of utter woe,
And reaps a tear-fraught harvest;
or still more tersely in the brief sentence:
Zeus is the avenger of o'er-lofty thoughts,
A terrible controller.11
The sway of the principle of Nemesis in individual experience is pithily proclaimed by Æschylus in these sentences:
Whatsoever evil men do, not less shall they suffer.12
Doubt it not, the evil-doer must suffer.13
Justice from her watchful station
With a sure-winged visitation
Swoops, and some in blazing noon
She for doom doth mark,
Some in lingering eve, and some
These oracles show the punitive aspect of the moral order, which is the thing chiefly insisted on by the poet. But he is not unmindful of the action of Providence in rewarding the good, however humble their station: witness this cheering reflection:
Justice shineth bright,
In dwellings that are dark and dim with smoke,
And honours life law-ruled.15
To call in question or deny the doctrine set forth in these and similar utterances Æschylus accounts an impiety. Hear his emphatic protest in the Agamemnon:
One there was who said,
The gods deign not to care for mortal men
By whom the grace of things inviolable
Is trampled under foot.
No fear of God had he.16
The devout poet not only believes in the punishment of sin, but that the penalty may come in a later generation:
I tell the ancient tale
Of sin that brought swift doom.
Till the third age it waits.17
Laius sins, dipus his son sins and suffers, Eteocles and Polyneikes his grandsons fall by each other's hands.
He believes that there is heredity of moral evil, sin propagating itself, and entailing a curse upon offspring:
But recklessness of old
Is wont to breed another recklessness,
Sporting its youth in human miseries,
Or now, or then, whene'er the fixed hour comes.18
But he also believes that there is mercy as well as severity in the visitations of divine justice. Suffering is disciplinary as well as punitive, when rightly taken:
For Jove doth teach men wisdom, sternly wins
To virtue by the tutoring of their sins.
Yea! drops of torturing recollection chill
The sleeper's heart; 'gainst man's rebellious will
Jove works the wise remorse:
Dread Powers! on awful seats enthroned, compel
Our hearts with gracious force.19
Wholesome doctrine all this; but are there no exceptions, no cases of good men suffering and bad men thriving? What Æschylus may have taught on this question in his many lost tragedies we cannot guess, but his extant plays contain one instance of a good man or demigod suffering, without, as we should judge, any sufficient reason. I refer to the Titan Prometheus, chained to a rock for thousands of years because he had been a benefactor to men. What view Æschylus took of the remarkable legend: whether he regarded Prometheus as a real offender suffering just punishment, or as an exception to his own rule, we have not the means of deciding, as the Prometheus Bound
is the second of three connected dramas on the same theme, and is the only part of the trilogy that has been preserved. Guesses have been made at the nature of the solution which would be given in the concluding part, the Prometheus Unbound
. Mr. Symonds holds that Æschylus regarded the hero as a real transgressor, that the vilification of Jove as a despot in the Prometheus Bound
is to be understood in a dramatic sense, and that in the concluding play the Titan was shown to be really and gravely in the wrong; guilty of obstinacy eminently tragic, as displaying at once culpable aberration and at the same time the aberration of a sublime character.20
This is a legitimate supposition, but not the only one possible. Is it not conceivable that in the final piece the poet represented Jove as adopting an apologetic rather than a self-justifying tone, as in reference to the destroying flood we find the sacred writer putting into Jehovah's mouth the words, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake,21
and admitting that he had treated the Titan with undue severity? Or, granting that to the end the poet held the hero to be guilty, and tried to show how, does it follow that, in the words of Mr. Symonds, if we possessed the trilogy entire we should see that Prometheus had been really and grandly guilty?22
Might we not rather have seen the poet trying hard to prove that, and failing? What if it was a case not capable of solution on the principle of just retribution? a case, like that of Job, of too deep import for the Eliphaz theory to cope with, and coming under some other, deeper law?
There is a law, known to us, under which the Titan's experience might with some measure of reason be classified, the law, viz. according to which the world's greatest benefactors are the greatest sufferers. Prometheus, as exhibited by Æschylus, is a signal benefactor. He is what writers on primitive religions call a culture-hero, one whose vocation is to teach ignorant untutored races the rudiments of civilisation. He taught rude primitive men the use of firestole fire from heaven for their benefit; taught them to speak and to think; instructed them in house-building and ship-building, in medicine, divination, and smelting ore, in the art of using the stars for fixing the order of the seasons: in short, enabled them to pass from the brutish ignorance of the Stone Age, as it is now called, when
no craft they knew
With woven brick or jointed beam to pile
The sunward porch; but in the dark earth burrowed
And housed, like tiny ants, in sunless caves,23
to the intelligence and culture of civilised humanity. The same hero who has been such a benefactor to men had previously done signal service to Zeus, helping him in his war against Kronos and the Titans, and securing for him his celestial throne. Here surely was one who had deserved well at the hands of both gods and men! Yet what is his fate? To be chained for long ages to a rock in a Scythian wilderness. The attempt to show that such signal service followed by such barbarous treatment illustrates the justice which makes conduct and lot correspond, must be desperate. One would rather say that such an experience belonged to a morally chaotic age when Zeus had not begun to be just, when in the exercise of a newly-attained sovereignty he could not afford to be either just or generous, but had to be guided in his action by selfish policy rather than by equity, treating as enemies those who had been his greatest friends. The radical defect of the legend from a moral point of view is that the reign of Zeus, the fountain of Justice, has a beginning, involving as a necessary consequence that justice has a beginning also. The divine monarch is thereby subjected to the exigencies of an Eastern despot, whose first use of power is to destroy his rivals, and also those to whom he has been much indebted. How one who was so earnest in proclaiming the reality of a just moral order as Æschylus could be attracted by so uncouth and grim a story, it is as difficult to understand as it is to conjecture how he treated it. Was his motive to meet an objection to his favourite theory, to answer an imaginary opponent asking: On your view, what do you make of the Prometheus legend? And was his answer, in effect, this: That is an old-time story; all that happened before the moral order was settled; no such thing could happen now? How the legend itself arose is another puzzling question. Was it a survival from savage times, modified and transformed in the long course of tradition?24
Or had it for its fact-basis the observation that benefactors of men often have a hard lot?
, not less than the Prometheus Bound
, possesses a peculiar interest in connection with the Æschylean doctrine of Nemesis. If the latter be an instance of apparently flagrant injustice belonging to a rude age before the moral order was settled, to be explained away or apologised for, the former supplies an instance illustrating the difficulty of applying the principle of retributive justice when right seems to be on both sides. Orestes slays his mother, Clytemnestra, for murdering his father, her husband, Agamemnon. He acts on the counsels of the Delphic oracle, and the Erinnyes pursue him for the deed. Divine beings take opposite sides; Apollo advising the action, the Furies driving to madness the actor. Which of these is in the right? Is Orestes a hero or is he a criminal? or is he both in one? How is the principle of retributive justice to be applied? Must the scales be evenly balanced, inclining to neither side? So it would appear, from the issue of the trial of Orestes before the Areopagus in Athens, which is that the votes for acquittal and for condemnation are equal, Athene giving her casting vote in favour of the accused. The equality in the vote is significant. It is a virtual confession that there are cases in which the theory of retributive justice breaks down; when it is impossible to say how on that theory a man is to be treated; when he cannot be treated either as a well-doer or as an evildoer without overlooking an essential element in the case; and when the only possible course is a compromise in which the accused gets the benefit of the doubt. The compromise is suggested by Athene, the goddess of wisdom
, who votes for Orestes and strives to appease and soothe his relentless pursuers. They, however, are characteristically reluctant to be appeased, a point of instructive import in connection with the theory of Nemesis. The Erinnyes of Æschylus are a marvellous creation. They are more than a powerful artistic representation of a legendary group of avenging deities. They possess psychological significance as symbols of the punitive action of conscience. In this point of view certain features in the dramatic presentation are noteworthy. The Furies pursue Orestes, the slayer of his mother, not Clytemnestra, the murderess of his father; he being noble-minded, she thoroughly bad.25
They are unwilling to yield to the counsels of wisdom, repeating their wild song of relentless pursuit before yielding to the persuasions of Athene. They do at last submit. But, though constrained to surrender their victim, they are treated with great respect as a power making for righteousness justly inspiring wholesome dread. All this is a parable embodying weighty spiritual truth. The nobler the nature, the more it is liable to become the prey of an evil conscience for acts which, justifiable under a certain aspect, do violence to tender natural affection. A mother may deserve to die, but it is not for a son to be the executioner; and if he be a man of fine nature, he cannot play that part with impunity. Maddening remorse will be the penalty. And that remorse will not be easily exorcised by wise reflection on the ill desert of the dead and the irrevocableness of the deed. It will keep saying, You killed your mother
. But remorse, though obstinate, need not be unconquerable. The greatest offender may take comfort in the thought that his sin is not unpardonable, and the time comes to many who have been in a hell of torment when they are able to grasp this consoling truth. But though now at rest, they never regret the misery they have passed through. They look back on it with satisfaction as an expiation for their sin. Remorse is the penalty for wrong done to the best feelings of our nature. It is penalty enough. No need for added pains to punish the man who has suffered mental agony through conflict between feelings, both in their own place good, the sense of justice and the affection of love. That agony satisfies the moral order. It is also justified by the moral order. For Orestes is indeed an offender. He should have consulted his conscience, not the Delphic oracle. No need for any other oracle than conscience to tell him that his mother must suffer for her crime by other hands than his.
In passing from Æschylus to Sophocles we become conscious of a considerable change in the moral atmosphere. He is less of a theologian, more of an artist, than his predecessor. The human interest of his story counts for more with him than problems in ethics and religion. He does not deny the Æschylean theory of retribution: on the contrary, he accepts and re-echoes it, but only half-heartedly, with less depth of conviction and fainter emphasis of utterance. He sees that there are many exceptions to the theory, many instances in which no intelligible moral law can be detected; human experiences in which a reign of chance rather than of moral order seems to prevail. Life appears to him a mystery too deep and complex to be explained by any cut-and-dried theory such as that which insists on a uniform correspondence between conduct and lot.
Such being the attitude of Sophocles, we do not expect to find in his dramas either such splendid exemplifications, or such memorable statements, of the law of Nemesis, as we meet with in the pages of Æschylus. Yet sufficient, if not signal, homage is done to the law by occasional sayings such as the few samples which follow.
dipus at Colonus thus addresses his friends:
If thou honourest the gods, show thy reverence by thine acts; and remember that their eyes are over all men, regarding both the evil and the good.26
Creon in Antigone asks:
Dost thou see the gods honouring evil men?27
The swift punishment of wrong is proclaimed in the same drama in these terms:
Lo, they come, the gods' swift-footed ministers of ill,
And in an instant lay the wicked low.28
Slow punishment is hinted at in these words from dipus Colonëus:
The gods see well, though slowly, when one turns from their worship to the madness of impiety.29
Sometimes the expression of this faith is coloured by a tinge of doubt. Thus Philoctetes, maddened by a sense of wrong, exclaims:
Perdition seize you all!
And it shall seize you, seeing ye have wronged
Him who stands here, if yet the gods regard
Or right or truth. And full assured am I
Two different, if not incompatible, points of view are combined in these words spoken by Athene to Ulysses:
All human things
A day lays low, a day lifts up again.
Yet still the gods love those of temperate mind,
The sombre sentiment expressed in the first sentence of this extract recurs with significant frequency in the pages of Sophocles. The fleeting, unstable nature of human fortune, irrespective of character, is a trite theme with him. Thus in dipus Tyrannus the chorus sing:
Ah, race of mortal men,
How as a thing of nought
I count ye, though ye live;
For who is there of men
That more of blessing knows,
Than just a little while
In a vain show to stand,
And, having stood, to fall?32
In a fragment preserved from an unknown drama the changefulness of life is likened to the phases of the moon:
Human fortunes, good and ill,
Never stand a moment still;
To a wheel divine they're bound,
Turning ever round and round;
The moon of our prosperity
Wanes and waxes in the sky;
Plays her fickle and constant game,
Aye a-changing, aye the same:
See! her crescent of pale light
Gathers beauty night by night;
Till, when sphered in perfect grace,
Gradual she dims her face;
Lies anon on heaven's blue floor
A silver bow, and nothing more.33
The phases of the moon, however brief their period, still run through a regular course. The misery of human life, as depicted by Sophocles, includes subjection to the caprice of chance not less than to periodic change. The Messenger in Antigone thus delivers his opinion:
I know no life of mortal man which I
Would either praise or blame. It is but chance
That raiseth up, and chance that bringeth low,
The man who lives in good or evil plight,
And none foretells a man's appointed lot.34
In a fragment from a lost drama, one of the dramatis personæ sums up his philosophy of life in these pithy terms:
Say not thou of weal or woe:
'Tis big, or little, or not at all:
For mortal blessings come and go,
As flit sun-shadows athwart a wall.35
This is dismal enough: human experience without any traceable order or law, given up to the dominion of hazard, so that anything may happen to any man at any moment. But there is something more dismal still: human experience subject to an evil order, reversing the awards of the moral order, and assigning prosperity and adversity with sinister indifference to desert. That our poet was keenly alive to the existence of phenomena of this sort appears from another fragment out of the same drama from which our last quotation is taken. I give it in the version supplied by Mr. Symonds:
'Tis terrible that impious men, the sons
Of sinners, even such should thrive and prosper,
While men by virtue moulded, sprung from sires
Complete in goodness, should be born to suffer.
Nay, but the gods do ill in dealing thus
With mortals! It were well that pious men
Should take some signal guerdon at their hands;
But evil-doers, on their heads should fall
Conspicuous punishment for deeds ill-done.
Then should no wicked man fare well and flourish.36
These sentiments concerning the changefulness and chancefulness and moral confusion of life make, on the whole, a depressing impression. They are pessimistic in tone, though it is not to be supposed that the poet had any intention to teach a full-blown pessimistic theory. He took life as he found it; and he found it dark enough, so dark that in gloomy moments a thoughtful man might be tempted to doubt whether it were worth living. A reflection of this despairing mood may be found in these lines from a choral ode in dipus at Colonus:
Happiest beyond compare
Never to taste of life;
Happiest in order next,
Being born, with quickest speed
Thither again to turn
And in this from The Maidens of Trachis:
On two short days, or more, our hopes are vain;
The morrow is as nought, till one shall show
The present day in fair prosperity.38
Yet we must never forget that the man who made his dramatic characters utter such sombre sentiments, also put into the mouth of Antigone that grand declaration concerning the eternal unwritten laws of God that know no change, and are not of to-day nor yesterday, and that must be obeyed in preference to the temporary commandments of men.39
One who believes in these eternal laws of duty, as expressing the inmost mind of deity, and that reckons compliance with them at all hazards the supreme obligation, cannot with propriety be classed with pessimists, though that Antigone should suffer for her loyalty to these sovereign behests may appear to him a great mystery. If he does not understand Antigone's fate, he at least sees in it a moral sublimity which redeems life from worthlessness and vulgarity. Nay, the nobleness of her self sacrifice seems to bring him to the threshold of a great discovery: that such a life cannot be wasted, but must possess redemptive value. What but this is the meaning of these words spoken to Antigone by her father dipus: One soul acting in the strength of love, is better than a thousand to atone.40
A single utterance like this may not justify the conclusion that the poet had fully grasped the principle of vicarious atonement, but it does show that the idea was beginning to dawn on his mind.
It is now, happily, quite unnecessary to waste time in defending Euripides
against the prejudiced criticism of scholars who, taking Sophocles as the model, see in him nothing but artistic blemishes, or the still more prejudiced diatribes of religious philosophers who, biassed by pet theories, see in him nothing but an impious scoffer. We can afford to smile at the oracular verdict pronounced upon him by Bunsen, that his theory of the universe is that of Candide
, and that the religion of Æschylus and Sophocles was as repugnant to him as that of the Psalms and Prophets was to Voltaire.41
The man whose dramatic productions have been a delight to poets like Milton, Goethe, and Browning, can dispense with the patronage of learned critics; and as for his religious and ethical bent, it is sufficiently guaranteed by the fact of his belonging to the Socratic circle. It will be well to come to the study of his sentiments on the topics which concern us with this fact in our minds, and to remember that when a play of Euripides was to be put upon the stage Socrates was ever likely to be one of the spectators. Euripides was doubtless a sceptic in reference to the mythology of Greece, but that in no way impugns the sincerity and depth of his ethical and religious convictions. He believed in God if not in the gods, he reverenced moral law, and he had no doubt as to the reality of a moral order, though it may be that he did not rest his faith therein on the same religious foundation as Æschylus. It may be well to offer a few vouchers of this last statement before going on to notice the more distinctive contribution of this great Master of song to the doctrine of Providence.
The Hercules Furens
contains an explicit testimony to the Power-not-ourselves making for righteousness. Just before, it is true, the chorus have made a rather profane and senseless complaint that the gods have not given to the good, as the unmistakable stamp of their worth, the privilege of being a second time young, so that they might be as easily recognised as the stars at sea by sailors.42
But for this inconsiderate outburst the poet makes ample amends by putting into the mouths of the chorus this distinct confession of faith in the moral order:
The gods from on high regard the wicked and the good.
Wealth and prosperity try the hearts of men, and lead them on to the ways of unrighteousness;
For he that is prosperous saith within himself: surely the evil days will never come:
Therefore driveth he furiously in the race; and heedeth not the limits of the course;
And he striketh his wheel against a stone of stumbling; and dasheth in pieces the chariot of his prosperity.43
This also from Ion has the ring of conviction in it. It is the last word in a drama replete with beautiful wise thought:
Let the man who worships the divine beings be of good cheer, when his house is visited with misfortune. For in the end the worthy obtain their deserts and the wicked, as is meet, shall not prosper.44
Artemis in Hippolytus
declares that the gods have no pleasure in the death of the righteous, but they destroy the wicked with their children and homes.45
Euripides is familiar with such great truths of the moral order as these: that confession takes a burden off the heart,46
and that in all human thought and action God co-operates.47
But it is specially to be noted that he has some insight into the method of inwardness, a glimpse, that is to say, of the truth that the rewards and punishments of human conduct are to be sought not merely or chiefly in the sphere of outward life, but in the state of the heart. He understands, at least dimly, that to be spiritually-minded is life and peace. Witness this hymn of Hippolytus to Artemis:
For thee this woven garland from a mead
Unsullied have I twined, O Queen, and bring.
There never shepherd dares to feed his flock,
Nor steel of sickle came: only the bee
Roveth the springtide mead undesecrate:
And Reverence watereth it with river-dews.
They which have heritage of self-control
In all things, not taught, but the pure in heart
These there may gather flowers, but none impure.
Now Queen, dear Queen, receive this anadem,
From reverent hand to deck thy golden hair;
For to me sole of men this grace is given
That I be with thee, converse hold with thee,
Hearing thy voice, yet seeing not thy face.
And may I end life's race as I began.48
That the penalty of wrongdoing is also to be sought within seems to be hinted at in this fragment from a lost drama:
Think you that sins leap up-to heaven aloft
On wings, and then that on Jove's red-leaved tablets
Some one doth write them, and Jove looks at them
In judging mortals? Not the whole broad heaven,
If Jove should write our sins, would be enough,
Nor he suffice to punish them. But Justice
Is here, is somewhere near us.49
These extracts seem to bring us within measurable distance of New Testament ethics. But we get nearer still to Christian thought along a different path. The light of that day whose dim dawn we descried in Sophocles shines on the pages of Euripides. He sees the glory and the power of self-sacrifice. He understands that the good man's life is not self-centred, but rather is a fountain of benefit to all around. In the Children of Hercules, which contains one of the most signal examples of sacrifice, he opens with this sentiment put into the mouth of Iolaus, the nephew of Hercules: This has long been my opinion: the just man lives for his neighbours, but the man whose mind is bent on gain is useless to the city, hard to conciliate, good only to himself.
The novelty of this point of viewliving for others the mark of goodnessmay be seen by comparing the behaviour of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, when she is being sacrificed at Aulis, as described by Æschylus, with the account given of the same scene by Euripides. In the Agamemnon
of the earlier poet the sacrificed maiden is simply a reluctant victim, casting at those who offered her to the gods a piteous, piercing glance, and unable, though wishing, to speak.50
In the Iphigenia in Aulis
of Euripides, on the other hand, the daughter of King Agamemnon, after a struggle with natural feeling, rises at length to the heroic mood of self-devotion, and seeks to reconcile her outraged mother to the inevitable by such arguments as these: Greece looks to me; on me depends the prosperous voyage of the fleet to Troy and the destruction of that city; I shall have the happy renown of having saved my country; I may not be too attached to life, for as a common boon to the Greeks, not for yourself only, you bore me.51
The opportunity it affords him of exemplifying this mood is the chief, if not sole, source of the poet's interest in the whole story. He has no faith in the oracles of soothsayers which pronounced the sacrifice necessary, no faith in the gods who demanded it, no faith in its efficacy, no faith even in its reality; for in his presentation of the legend the victim is rescued and appears afterwards as a priestess in Tauris
. But he has faith in self-sacrifice as the highest virtue, and he loses no opportunity of eulogising it, as in the instances of Menkeus in the Phnissæ
, who, in accordance with the prophecy of Tiresias, kills himself to save Thebes,52
and of Polyxena in Hecuba
The most pathetic instances, however, are those of Macaria
. In the case of Macaria, the daughter of Hercules, the element of voluntariness is very conspicuous. The oracle demands that some one shall die, but does not indicate the particular victim. Theseus, though willing now, as at all times, to defend the cause of the innocent, refuses to give any of his family as a sacrifice for the Heraclidæ. In this crisis Macaria comes to the rescue and offers herself. Iolaus, guardian of the children of Hercules, approves her spirit, but to soften the rigour of a hard fate proposes that the victim should be determined by lot. To which Macaria replies in these remarkable terms: I will not die by lot, for there is no merit in that. Do not speak of it, old man. But if ye choose to take me, ready as I am, I willingly give my life for these, but not under compulsion.54
The most signal example of self-sacrificing love is supplied in the beautiful tale of Alcestis related in the tragedy of the same name. Admetus, king of Pheræ, in Thessaly, is sick and about to die. Apollo, who had formerly served the king as a herdsman, in reward for past kindness asks and obtains from the Fates a respite for Admetus, on condition that he find some one willing to die for him. The king asks all his friends in turn to do him this service, but in vain. At last his wife, Alcestis, hearing how matters stand, offers to grant the boon all others had refused. She sickens and dies accordingly. Hercules arrives shortly after, and, on learning what has happened, goes to the tomb of the deceased, brings her back to life and restores her to her husband.
In his Symposium Plato alludes to this story as illustrating the doctrine that love is ever ready to do anything that may be required of it for the good of the object loved, even to die in its behalf (ὑπεραποθνήσκηιν). He could not have chosen a better example. Love was the sole motive of Alcestis. She does not nerve herself to the needful pitch of heroic fortitude by considerations of patriotism or posthumous fame. She makes no fuss about the matter, nor does the poet make it for her. She is not brought on the stage resolving to die, and telling what has helped her to adopt such a resolution. The curtain is lifted on a woman lying sick on a couch. She speaks but once, to bid farewell to her husband, and to utter her last wishes. Her praises are sung for her, not by her. An attendant relates with enthusiasm her behaviour on the morning of her last day, in terms of exquisite pathos. The choral odes referring to her noble action are singularly beautiful. One declares that Alcestis will be a theme of song to the poets of Greece in all after ages; another sings of the inevitable dominion of death, and then of the consolations of posthumous fame in these glowing terms:
Deem not she sleeps like those devoid of fame,
Unconscious in the lap of earth;
Such homage as the gods from mortals claim
Each traveller shall pay her matchless worth,
Digressing from his road; and these bold thoughts,
Expressed in no faint language, utter o'er her grave:
She died to save her Lord, and now
She dwells among the blest.
Hail, Sainted Matron! and this realm befriend. 55
The love of Alcestis is beautiful, but the occasion of her self-sacrifice does not command our respect. Indeed, none of the occasions of self-sacrifice in the dramas of Euripides do this. They are, in other instances, the result of superstition; in the one before us, of selfishness. Why could Admetus not die himself, after having lived sufficiently long? Probably Euripides had no more respect for the occasion than we have; no more respect, I may add, than he had for the legend that Alcestis was brought back to life by Hercules. There is probably truth in the view of Mr. Verrall that the poet did not believe that Alcestis was really dead.56
His point was that Alcestis was willing
to die. And as for the occasions of self-sacrifice, he took this one, and all the rest, as they were furnished to him by tradition. They were welcome as giving him the opportunity of preaching his favourite doctrine that the spirit of self-devotion is the soul of goodness.
This doctrine was an important contribution to ethics. How far Euripides was aware of the extent to which life afforded natural and most real opportunities for the display of the self-sacrificing temper of love we have no means of knowing. It may be assumed that it was a subject possessing keen interest to his mind, and that he was a close observer of all illustrative phenomena. It may also be assumed that in utilising the traditional data supplied by heroic legends he had something more important and specific in view than to illustrate the pluck, as it has been called (εὐψυχία), of Greek men and women.57
Not the physical virtue of pluck, though that element might have its place, but the high moral virtue of self-devotion, was his theme. And, seeing that virtue awakened in his soul such an ardent enthusiasm, he could not have found it hard to believe that a moral order which afforded large scope for its exercise was not an evil order but rather a beneficent one, which might have been appointed by a benignant deity. It has indeed been denied that Euripides had any such belief, while his merit in proclaiming the vicarious nature of love is fully acknowledged. Professor Watson remarks: It is only in Euripides that we find something like an anticipation of the Christian idea that self-realisation is attained through self-sacrifice. In Euripides, however, this result is reached by a surrender of his faith in divine justice. Man, he seems to say, is capable of heroic self-sacrifice, at the prompting of natural affection, but this is the law of human nature, not of the divine nature. Thus in him morality is divorced from religion, and therefore there is over all his work the sadness which inevitably follows from a sceptical distrust of the existence of any objective principle of goodness.58
I am not satisfied that this is a well-grounded judgment. The spirit of Euripides, I believe, was the spirit of Socrates, the martyr, and the devout believer in a beneficent deity. There may be sadness in his writings, but there is neither cynicism nor pessimism. An admirer of heroic love cannot be a pessimist. He sees in love's sacrifice not merely the darkest, but the brightest feature in the world's history. All that is needed to make him an optimist is that he have faith in a God in harmony with his own ethical creed: admiring self-sacrifice; yea, himself capable of it. That Euripides had fully found such a God I do not assert. That he was on the way to the discovery I cannot doubt. The idea of God as the absolutely good was familiar to the Socratic circle, as we learn from the Dialogues of Plato, and such a man as Euripides could neither be unacquainted with it nor fail to perceive its value. It is true that in his pages, as in those of his brother-dramatists, the dark shadow of a morally indifferent Fate (Moîpa) now and then makes its appearance, as in these lines:
A bow of steel is hard to bend,
And stern a proud man's will;
But Fate, that shapeth every end,
Is sterner, harder still;
E'en God within the indented groove
Of Fate's resolve Himself must move.59
This utterance points to a species of dualism, a conflict between a benignant Providence and a blind force which exercises sway over both gods and men. There is a dualism in Plato also. A certain intractableness in matter resists the will of the Good Spirit so that he cannot make the world perfect, but only as good as possible.60
But the thing to be thankful for in Plato is the clear perception that the will of God is absolutely good, if his power be limited. Euripides also, I think, had a glimpse of this truth.