Euripides & the Gods

by Mary Lefkowitz,
Oxford University Press, 2016

Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods
everything that is a shame and a reproach among men,
stealing and committing adultery and deceiving each other.

Xenophanes of Colophon, quoted by Sextus Empiricus, Adversus Mathematicos, ix, 193, The Presocratic Philosophers, G.S. Kirk & J.E. Raven, Cambridge, 1964, p.168


They vainly purify themselves of blood-guilt [, "stained, defiled, tainted of guilt"] by defling themselves with blood, as though one who had stepped into mud were to wash with mud; he would seem to be mad, if any of men noticed him doing this. Further, they pray to these statues [], as if one were to carry on a conversation with houses, not recognizing the true nature of gods or heroes.

Heraclitus of Ephesus, quoted by Aristocritus, Theosophia 68, The Presocratic Philosophers, G.S. Kirk & J.E. Raven, Cambridge, 1964, p.211



.

The lord whose oracle is in Delphi
neither speaks nor conceals but gives a sign.

Heraclitus of Ephesus, quoted by Plutarch, De Pythiae oraculis 21, 404 E, The Presocratic Philosophers, G.S. Kirk & J.E. Raven, Cambridge, 1964, p.211

Mary Lefkowitz's treatment of the nature of the Greek gods in Euripides overlaps two essays featured at the Proceedings of the Friesian School. First, and most directly relevant, is the essay, "The gods of Euripides"; next is the reivew of the article, "The Impiety of Socrates," by M.F. Burnyeat. The points of agreement and disagreement, similarity and difference, between these treatments will be of interest here.

Lefkowitz's thesis is that way the gods are presented in the plays of Euripides is consistent, not only with their evident character in Greek mythology and established religion, but also with the plays of the other great tragedians, Aeschylus and Sophocles. Indeed, it is also true that gods appear in the plays of Euripides more frequently than in those of Aeschylus and Sophocles. This argument seems to me to be true.

On the other hand, Euripides acquired the reputation of a skeptic or even an atheist concerning the gods, both among ancient commentators and with modern scholars. This bias calls for some explanation, but I think that is easily supplied. The critiques of Xenophanes, Heraclitus, and Socrates (two of whom are represented in the epigraphs above), which held that the nature of the gods was misrepresented by the poets (including here the tragedians) ended up being associated with Euripides precisely because he portrayed the gods engaging in the kinds of behaviors that the philosophers were actually criticizing. It seems to have been a short step to infer that Euripides was portraying the gods as he did, not because he believed they were that way, but just to illustrate the misrepresentations that the philosophers rejected. There is no contemporary evidence for such a view of Euripides, or any internal evidence from the plays themselves, unless one decides to believe that portraying the gods in a traditional way discredits itself in a self-evident way and that the accounts in the plays are meant ironically. Modern writers, who often see everything ironically, or cynically, are comfortable with such intepretations. Such scholars may even dismiss the supernatural actions referred to in the plays, like the Labors of Heracles, as hallucinations.

Lefktowiz does an excellent job of disposing of this unwarranted reputation of Euripides and of the tendentious misreadings of the plays. While she can do this with close readings of the plays and an evaluation of ancient sources, the most important thing is simply to present a credible picture of the gods as Euripides and other Greeks, all the way back to Homer, actually saw them. That is what Lefkowitz does. What Lefkowtiz does not do, which would round out the treatment, is to critique the critics. Thus, what we now call theodicy, the "justice of God," is the goal of everyone from the Greek philosophers, to Christian apologists, to modern intepretations. Socrates tells us that the god he invokes, Apollo of Delphi, would never let anything truly bad happen to him, or to any good men. This is what we might like, that the gods, or God, actually protect us from evils. Religion develops precisely by transforming the gods, and then a One God, into beings or a being that would be like this. The flaw in such an evolution, however, is that the manfest behavior, ultimately of a loving and caring God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is that people do not get protected from evils. Bad things happen to good people. And while Socrates decides that his execution by Athens is a good thing, his argument will seem less persuasive to others. Indeed, that his execution is some sort of good thing is barely credible when it all seems so civilized, with Socrates sitting around chatting with his friends, and then calmly draining the hemlock, to die quietly, painlessly, and with noble dignity. Other kinds of executions, for instance to be dismembered and sliced up alive in China, would not look so decent. While Socrates becomes complacent about death, he never considered, as C.S. Lewis called it, the "Problem of Pain." This did not intrude itself into his situation, yet it is what most people worry about in both natural and unnatural deaths. The wicked aim for it in others. Few regimes have ever treated condemned prisoners as humanely and even apologetically as Athens apparently treated Socrates.

Thus, if the example of the plays of Euripides was meant to discredit the tradtional Greek gods, we might say on reflection that the example of life, in the events of the world, can be used to discredit the sort of gods or God who are thought to be caring and protective of the good and the faithful. Indeed, we may expect that modern commentators who see Euripides as an atheist are attributing to him the inferences that they make themselves, which morally discredit uncaring gods and factually discredit caring gods or God. And since such people may be moral skeptics or relativists themselves, their use of the moral critique of the Greek gods may not be entirely honest.

Where I may need to revise my judgment on the gods in light of Lefkowitz's treatment is where I say of them that "our well being is not one of their goals." It looks like that is certainly true in the Heracles, Hippolytus, and the Bacchae. Pretty much all the humans die or are hurt at the end of those plays. However, Lefkowitz considers other plays, like the Ion and Iphigenia in Tauris (Lefkowitz calls it Iphigenia among the Taurians), where the gods intervene to arrange human affairs in ways that seem just and fitting. But even these exceptions may prove the rule. The arrangements effected by the gods often don't address the suffering that has previously been inflicted on people, and sometimes, as with Athena, they look forward to the future in ways that may be good in the future, as with Athens, but that may be small redress or consolation to those hearing it all in the present. Thus, the perspective of the gods may not take the human condition into account and can still seem distant and uncaring, even when things are otherwise being put right. And in this, we also get an interesting spectrum. Gods who were originally human, like Castor and Polydeuces (i.e. Pollux -- Gemini, the Twins), and those closely associated with humans, like Thetis (the mother of Achilles), display, as we might expect, a bit more sensitivity.

On the other hand, gods who were never human, like Apollo, Aphrodite, or Dionysius, can seem unrelievedly cruel. Indeed, the story of the Ion begins with a rape by Apollo, with many years of subsequent callous treatment, both of the mother, Creusa, and the resulting child, Ion, who is left at Delphi as a foundling, without any information about who he is (a son of Apollo and grandson of the King of Athens). Apollo himself never puts in an appearance in the play, explicitly because he does not want to be reproached for his behavior. His mitigating actions and explanations are represented and effected by Hermes and Athena. It hardly seems possible that such a god could feel guilty about his actions, but at the very least he must understand something of how they will look to humans. To see Apollo as an outright rapist puts into a different light the urgency of the desire of Daphne to flee from him. In the same way, Aphrodite in the Hippolytus is so intent on revenge against Hippolytus simply for neglecting her worship that she is perfectly happy to destroy the life of Phaedra, who has offended her not at all, just to make the woman an instrument of the goddess's vengeance. Unlike Apollo, Aphrodite appears in person to direct her revenge in the play. Even more so with Dionysius in the Bacchae, who directly participates in the events, with his divinity hidden from those he is manipulating. But Dionysius, like Aphrodite, is angry only because of neglect and opposition for his cult. It would be impossible for Socrates to believe in gods so mean, petty, and vindictive -- the sort of people who went after Joe the Plumber.

That the seductions and rapes of Apollo and Zeus were accepted with complacency by the Greeks fits in with my own view that the Greek gods were accepted as possessing all the virtues and faults of the powerful humans with whom we are otherwise familiar. Thus, the history of Bill Clinton of philandering (and lying about it), sexual harrassment, sexual assault, and credible accusations of rape are brushed off and ignored by the political supporters of both Clintons (i.e. Bill and Hillary), despite the cause célèbre of sexual harrassment law in Feminism and the recent principle, voiced by Hillary Clinton herself, that "victims" of sexual assault must be believed, whether their accusations are credible, or even coherent, or not. Clinton was put on the spot at a campaign rally in 2016 when a woman asked her if we should believe Juanita Broddrick, who had accused Bill Clinton of rape. We therefore discover that political self-righteousness may be something only used against political enemies. But this also suggests that the sort of people who have no problem with Bill Clinton, despite knowing all about him, helps explain the acceptability among the Greeks of gods like Apollo. The powerful are just like that, and we can only put up with it. The Greek gods reflect what the world is like, while a loving and caring God perhaps does not.

With a good deal of Euripides under our belts, we might consider how the gods look in Sophocles. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus, the King of Thebes, is perplexed that plagues and misfortunes are occurring in Thebes. Something is wrong. So Oedipus does what any sensible Greek ruler would do, as Agamemnon does at the beginning of the Iliad, he consults a Seer, Tiresias, to find out what is wrong and what must be done about it. He is warned not to pursue his inquiry. However, what is he supposed to do? In ancient ideas of kingship, a ruler is responsible for natural evils as much as political or economic ones. If he does nothing, this is actually a breach of his duty. So he continues, and he finds out that he has killed his father, married his mother, and produced several children who are also his brothers and sisters. This is the sources of the evils, since patricide and incest are major breaches of religion; and the pollution, the , miasma, has poisoned the city. For his own blindness, Oedipus puts out his eyes and leaves Thebes in shame. However, how can he have acted differently? Indeed, his own parents were warned about him at birth. Lefkowitz cites a couple of cases, including the birth of the Trojan Paris, where parents are warned about their children. They should have killed them. However, this is just not done in Greek religion (which Lefkowitz fails to mention). Unwanted infants, including Oedipus and Paris, are exposed, not killed, with the thought that, should the gods want them rescued, they will be rescued -- as both Oedipus and Paris are. So, in the end, Oedipus is in the grip of events not just allowed but willed by the gods. Paris himself sets in motion the epic Fall of Troy, which we know, for all his second thoughts, is the Will of Zeus -- although it is still unclear what good, or even what "rational purpose" (in the Sophistry of our Constitutional Jurisprudence), this ever accomplished. But those are the gods in Sophocles -- gods who never appear in the play but are clearly behind the events that we see. Oedipus is guilty of , "hubris," of not obeying the gods through their Seer, but he is also in an impossible situation, with a conflict of duties, and not one of his own informed making. Just as in Euripides, where Heracles is comforted by his human father, Amphitryon, the only comfort that Oedipus will find is with his human friend, Theseus of Athens. In all this, there is little if any difference between the gods in Euripides and in Sophocles. In turn, they are not gods whose actions Xenophanes or Socrates would approve.

On the other hand, for all its own virtues, Lefkowitz' treatment is not without errors. These are not a problem for the argument of her book, but they are relevant to matters I have examined elsewhere in relation to the beliefs of Socrates. I wrote to her personally about two points:

  1. Lekowitz says that, against Socrates, "The charge of being an unbeliever (atheos) did not mean being an atheist in the modern sense of the word, that is, someone who does not believe in the existence of god(s)..." [p.27]. This is true in one respect but not in the main form of this assertion. The term could mean "abandoned by the gods" or not possessing a patron deity, but such a feature of the meaning is irrelevant in the case of Socrates, who is clearly being accused by Meletus of not believing in the gods. The word also already has the meaning, of unbelief or impiety, that is meant by Meletus, just as in "the modern sense of the word." There is also the circumstance that does not occur in the cited indictment of Socrates, or in anything that Meletus says to him. Socrates is accused of impiety by, , "not believing in the gods in whom the city believes" [24b]. The word is actually only used by Socrates himself [26c], to mean unbelief; and he then questions Meletus to clarify what he is accused of not believing. The possibility that he believes in other gods, besides those of the City (the thesis of M.F. Burnyeat), is rejected by Meletus, who clearly says that Socrates does not believe (, "you do not believe") in gods at all [26c]. So this whole aside from Lefkowitz is irrelevant as well as being a misdirection about what Socrates is accused of.

  2. Furthermore, Lefkowitz somewhat misrepresents the indictment against Socrates by quoting the charge that he believes, "in other new-fangled divinities" [p.28]. However, Socrates is charged with introducing , hetera de daimonia kaina, "other new spiritual..." [24b-c]. where the phrase has no noun in it -- and certainly no word that could be translated "fangled." Now, , in the neuter plural, can be used as a noun and mean "divinities," but not here. Socrates takes it to be only an adjective; and we know that because he questions Meletus to clarify the case, citing a string of similar adjectives and coupling all of them, including , with the implied noun, , "affairs." And he finally gets Meletus to admit that there cannot be without , "spirits" [27c].

Other points occurred to me, as follows, some of which I also mentioned in my letter. There does seem to be one place where Socrates uses the singular adjective, , "spiritual," as a noun, where he refers to "my customary prophetic of the spirit(ual)," [40a]. A problem here is that "prophetic" is an adjective without a noun also, and in the feminine, which implies a feminine noun. What could that be? Well, we have seen it already. Socrates hears a "voice," [31d], which happens to be feminine. This does leave used as a noun. But with all this going on, we might well ask, Does Socrates ever name the source of his voice with an actual noun? Does he, for instance, actually call it a , "spirit," rather than a , "spirit(ual)"? No, he never uses ; but, Yes, shortly after he references his "customary prophetic of the spirit(ual)," he does use a noun. The Loeb Classical Library translation has him say that his "divine sign" did not oppose him in his defense speech. This is not the best translation, and it conceals the interest of the phrase. Socrates refers to the voice as being , "the sign of the god" [40a]. Now, at long last, we get a noun; and it's , "the god." This reveals a lot. "The god" is Apollo of Delphi, and so Socrates believes that this god has been sending him guidance, not just from the Pythia's answer about his wisdom, but by his voice as well. Indeed, Socrates has previously also said that his guidance has come by "oracles and dreams and in every way in which any man was ever commanded by divine power [ ] to do anything whatsoever" [33c]. So this shouldn't be so surprising. Indeed, we otherwise hear nothing about these other "oracles and dreams."

At it happens, Lefkowitz graciously replied to my e-mail:

5/4/2016
Dear Mr.Ross,

Thank you very much for your very interesting message and your kind words about my Euripides book. The reason I said that Socrates was accused of being an atheist is that Plato represents Meletus as responding to Socrates by saying "I say the latter, that you totally do not believe in gods" (26c) ou nomizein theous is the equivalent of atheos. Following Burnyeat and many others I translate hetera daimonia kaina as "other new-fangled divinities" rather than as "spiritual matters," because I think the translation "spiritual" doesn't accurately represent fifth-century B.C. Greek notions of divinity. Socrates has a daimonion that tells him not to do things, but which he never sees but probably hears (since ancient people always read out loud). But just because he didn't see his daimonion doesn't mean that he believed it to be incorporeal. I think of the daimonion as being like the daimones that Hesiod describes in the Works and Days, 122-6, who cannot be insubstantial, like the shades of the dead, but are clothed in mist (eera hessomenoi, 125, i.e., invisible to mortals). Centuries later, the apostles at Emmaus thought that they saw a corporeal Jesus, and I've always thought Paul of Tarsus did so too, even though the people who were with him either couldn't see or couldn't hear what Paul saw and heard.

Best wishes,
Mary Lefkowitz

I wrote back to Lefkowitz, examining her reply. I will paraphrase and discuss that response, to which she has not replied, here.

The reason I said that Socrates was accused of being an atheist is that Plato represents Meletus as responding to Socrates by saying "I say the latter, that you totally do not believe in gods" (26c) ou nomizein theous is the equivalent of atheos.

However, this is not what she said in her book, which I quoted, or what I was writing about. Meletus does accuse Socrates of being an atheist, in the modern sense, but the thrust of Lefkowitz's actual comment is the opposite. My point about her passage was that she went out of the way to say that atheos in Greek does not always have the modern meaning of unbelief. I agree that is true; but it is not relevant in this case, because (1) Meletus actually doesn't use the word atheos for Socrates and because (2) he is explicitly accusing Socrates of not believing in the gods -- as she quotes in her reply but not in the book -- which is indeed the modern meaning of "atheist." So what she actually said, that "The charge of being an unbeliever (atheos) did not mean being an atheist in the modern sense of the word," conveys a false impression that (1) Socrates is explicitly accused of being an atheos and that (2) it adds to our understanding of the Apology that atheos did not necessarily mean unbelief -- someone forsaken by the gods, or by their gods, could be a atheos. So if Lefkowitz now wants to admit that Meletus does accuse Socrates of not believing in the gods, as he does, she steps on and confuses her own assertions.

If ou nomizein theous is the equivalent of atheos, and means not believing in the gods, it is contradicted by Lefkowitz's own asserton and discussion on page 27, unless she has a different interpretation of ou nomizein than "to not believe." Indeed, Lefkowitz continues with her point by saying more that I did not quote back to her:

The charge of being an unbeliver (atheos) did not mean being an atheist in the modern sense of the word, that, is someone who does not believe in the existence of god(s) or in the notion of divinity or divine causation. As the ancient Athenians appear to have understood it, being atheos meant that one believed in nontraditional or different gods that did not have established cults. These are the kind of charages that Plato has Socrates address in his Apology. [p.27]

The thesis of M.F. Burnyeat was that Socrates was only accused of this unbelief "in nontraditional or different gods that did not have established cults," and that Plato presents him as guilty of this charge. However, none of that is true. Socrates elicits from Meletus an accusation of unbelief in any gods, even as Socrates has previously mentioned that people do not think that philosophers or Sophists believe in the gods at all, and the whole subsequent argument revolves around that. Lefkowitz seems to now acknowledge this by quoting the explicit accusation of Meletus; but that is not in her a book or acknowledged in its discussion. Quite the contrary.

With Burnyeat in mind, we proceed to the next point:

Following Burnyeat and many others I translate hetera daimonia kaina as "other new-fangled divinities" rather than as "spiritual matters," because I think the translation "spiritual" doesn't accurately represent fifth-century B.C. Greek notions of divinity.

But "Burnyeat and many others" are all wrong, not the least because the word , daimonia, as it is used by Socrates, must indeed be translated "spiritual matters" because there is no other way to translate it -- where "spiritual," whatever it means to us now, would mean "having to do with spirits" in fifth-century Greek. There is no good substitute; for it would be bizarre and ungrammatical to make it a noun in the phrase Socrates actually uses, to illustrate its meaning, , daimonia pragmata, "spiritual matters," where the adjective actually modifies the noun, pragmata, which is the point of the whole argument advanced by Socrates.

More importantly, there is the logic of the passage that follows in the Apology. If means "divinities," then it already means , "spirits," and the examination that Socrates makes of Meletus is unnecessary and pointless, since he forces Meletus to admit that implies . For the purpose of that examination is first to get Meletus to admit that Socrates believes in spirits, and then second that spirits are either "gods or children of the gods" [Apology 27c-d], which means that Socrates believes in gods, and so that Meletus's own indictment of Socrates, which uses , precludes an accusation of atheism (in the modern sense) or unbelief against him.

Lefkowitz continues:

Socrates has a daimonion that tells him not to do things, but which he never sees but probably hears (since ancient people always read out loud). But just because he didn't see his daimonion doesn't mean that he believed it to be incorporeal. I think of the daimonion as being like the daimones that Hesiod describes in the Works and Days, 122-6, who cannot be insubstantial, like the shades of the dead, but are clothed in mist (eera hessomenoi, 125, i.e., invisible to mortals). Centuries later, the apostles at Emmaus thought that they saw a corporeal Jesus, and I've always thought Paul of Tarsus did so too, even though the people who were with him either couldn't see or couldn't hear what Paul saw and heard.

Almost this whole passage seems to be irrelevant to the points about which I was writing. But some issues occur. Socrates does not call his sign a daimonion. He says it is , tou daimoniou, "of the sprit(ual)," which means that the sign itself is not the spirit(ual). Nor is it quite right to say that he "probably" hears the daimonion since he actually says that it is a "voice," -- although a curious feature of the voice is that he never quotes it and never acts like it gives him any positive information. It only stops him from doing what he is doing.

In her book, Lefkowitz says, "No one else could see or hear this 'divine spirit' (daimonion, Pl., Apol. 31d)" [p.74]. But this misrepresents the citation: 31d says , hoti moi theion ti kai daimonion gignetai, i.e. "that something divine and spiritual comes to me," which is exactly how the Loeb edition translates it. Two things about the text: (1) why would daimonion be used as a noun but not theion? Why not "spiritual divinity" instead? And (2) if daimonion is used as a noun, and theion as an adjective, then kai, "and," is unnecessary, since there is an attributive rather than a conjunctive relation between the words. My impression of Greek, as of English, is that "and" (kai or te kai, etc.) is used for two nouns or two adjectives, but not with a mixture. It's unnecessary.

So, as I have noted, there are two nouns that go with the :   "Voice," , and "god," . The voice is what the sign, , is. The god, , is where it comes from. Once it has become explicit that his sign is from the god, then Lefkowitz's reflection, "But just because he didn't see his daimonion doesn't mean that he believed it to be incorporeal," is rendered irrelevant. If the god is incorporeal, then the daimonion of Socrates is incorporeal -- although, of course we can wonder in what way the Greek gods had physical bodies or not. And the daimonion of Socrates is not going to be "like the daimones that Hesiod describes in the Works and Days," because it isn't merely a at all -- which, remember, is something Socrates never calls it. Meanwhile, the Apostles saw a physical Jesus because he had risen corporeally from the grave. Paul, perhaps not, since Jesus had meanwhile ascended to Heaven. I'm not sure this is helpful in relation to Socrates.

Mary Lefkowitz could have written the whole of Euripides & the Gods without stepping into these questions about Socrates, his beliefs, and the accusations against him. What is relevant about Socrates here would be his moral critique of the gods in Greek mythology, following Xenophanes and Heraclitus, so that he does not believe, as we see him admit in the Euthyphro, that the gods commit adultery or fight among themselves -- characteristics that Euripides, like Euthyphro himself, takes for granted. But she does step in it, and she gets tangled up in the problem of even translating correctly the accusations against Socrates in the Apology. Since I have previously become alerted to the importance of this, her treatment called for a response. She apparently accepts both the translation and the conclusions of M.F. Burnyeat, which I find entirely confused and unwarranted. This does not affect, positively or negatively, her argument about the gods in Euripides, but it is a flaw in the work.

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