“It is better to win without earning a bad reputation
Than to overturn justice with envy and force.
Mortals may find victory sweet at first,
But it grows dry over time
And pulls down insults on our homes.
That’s why I praise and I honor a life
Which has no power at home or in the state
Outside the realm of justice.”
This week we turn to Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, a story of the sacrifice of a daughter so armies can go to war to fight for the return of Helen. Euripides asks us to consider what is like to be Agamemnon. What pressures eventuate in the sacrifice of his daughter? This play questions of who is in charge in a crisis and ends with a dim view of the Achaean army, which is compared to a mob screaming for the sacrifice of Iphigenia and threatening to stone Achilles if he gets in the way. Irrational mobs? Agitation to sacrifice one to preserve freedom of action for the many? There’s nothing here to resonate with current events at all.
“People have different natures;
They have different ways. But acting rightly
Always stands out.
The preparation of education
points the way to virtue.
For it is a mark of wisdom to feel shame
and it brings the transformative grace
of seeing through its judgment
what is right; it is reputation that grants
an ageless glory to your life.”
With the US presidential primary right around the corner, it might do some good to start up a debate about poverty–which will likely be mentioned far more here than by the candidates….
“I both know and have experienced the hard way
that all people are the friends of men who have.
No one slinks about where there is no food,
But they go where there is wealth and a gathering.
To be ‘well-born’ is also the property of the rich;
But the poor man does well if he dies.”
Euripides, obviously, might disagree with Tibullus (1.1-6):
“Let someone else pile up gleaming gold
And hold as many lots of well-plowed land,
Let constant labor frighten him when an enemy’s near
As war’s clarion blasts send his sleep to flight.
But may my poverty guide me through a settled life
as long as my hearth shines with a tireless light.”
Divitias alius fulvo sibi congerat auro
Et teneat culti iugera multa soli,
Quem labor adsiduus vicino terreat hoste,
Martia cui somnos classica pulsa fugent:
Me mea paupertas vita traducat inerti, 5
Dum meus adsiduo luceat igne focus.
Although, in a different fragment, Euripides notes the corrupting force of wealth:
Euripides, fr. 54 (Alexander): On the Educational Merits of Poverty?
“Wealth and too much luxury
Are the wrong lessons for manly men.
Poverty is wretched but at least it raises up
Children better at working and getting things done.”
At the beginning of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis we find Agamemnon awake in turmoil, much the same way as he begins book 10 of the Iliad. An old attendant tries to calm him down. Then he asks for a story.
Agamemnon: “This is it, the noble risk,
And its ambition
It is sweet, but it causes pain when it is closer.
Sometimes divine decrees, incomplete, will
Upturn our life, and then the many implacable beliefs
Of human beings will shatter it.”
Old Man: “I do not like these thoughts from a leader
Atreus did not bear you for only life’s good,
But you must feel joy and grief: For you are a mortal.
Even if you do not want it, these things
Are still willed by the gods.
But you kindled the light of the lamp
And wrote on that tablet which you
Worry in your hand and you pour out
The same words again and then
You seal them only to wipe off the seal
And throw the pine frame to the ground
As you shed flowing tears. You seem at a loss-
You seem like someone who has gone mad.
What pains you? What’s new, king?
Come, share your tale with me.”