Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Plato Is for the Birds

The other day I read a C. S. Lewis essay on reading old books. I’ll have to say more about that essay in another post. But for today I just need to point out that Lewis says anyone wanting to learn some philosophy can do no better than going straight to Plato. Anybody who thinks with all humility that he has to start with a modern “explanation” will find himself in a muddle, while Plato himself is often very easy to understand. And as I read that part of the essay, I couldn’t help thinking about the first year we home-schooled our kids, when I had my seventh-grade son read Plato’s Theaetetus. He understood it pretty well and enjoyed it.

Today I finished reading Theaetetus for the second-and-a-halfth time, and I also understood it pretty well and enjoyed it. The main subject of this dialog is knowledge, and it ends inconclusively since all of Socrates’ reasoning ends up in circles; he was, after all, trying to know what knowledge was. But it’s clear that people know things, so it seems there should be some explanation for it somewhere. And Socrates makes progress, if only in eliminating some wrong definitions.

Socrates and Theaetetus basically try out three successive definitions of knowledge, each better than the last. They spend the most time on the first: that knowledge is perception. Socrates examines and refutes the relativism involved in that definition, and we find out in this section a lot about some of Socrates’ predecessors in philosophy, notably Heracleitus and Protagoras. The final condemnation of this theory points out that we know some things that we don’t perceive with the senses, for instance, that the furry face we see and the meowing we hear come from the same object.

While the perception theory takes up the bulk of the dialog, I found the other two attempts to define knowledge to contain even more interesting material. The second proposed definition – that knowledge is right opinion – causes problems right away when Socrates points out the difficulty in explaining how a person can have a wrong opinion. One can’t have an opinion about something he doesn’t know, and if he knows it, how can he be wrong about it?

In seeking a way out of this thicket, he tries out two models of the mind. The first compares the mind to wax. Things we experience, he says, make impressions in the wax. When we come across them again, we compare the perception with the impression, and if it fits, we recognize the thing and say we know it. It seems like a good analogy at first: some people have more wax than others; some have wax that is too hard (they gain knowledge only with great difficulty) or too soft (impressions are quickly made, but these people easily forget), and so on. But it still doesn’t explain how mistakes can happen. So he tries a new, delightful theory. We must make a distinction, he says, between possessing knowledge and having it in hand. The mind is more like an aviary full of bird cages. Any pieces of knowledge we possess are like birds in these cages. But to use the knowledge, to have it in hand, we have to catch the right bird. Sometimes, though, we catch the wrong bird.

Now as I went through this passage this time it occurred to me that Socrates’ brilliant image of the birds could clear up one of Plato’s most persistent mistakes. (I just realized that I’m crediting everything good to Socrates and everything bad to Plato.) I’ve commented several times in these posts about the problem with Plato’s view of knowledge that comes up in virtually every dialog – every dialog, that is, except the one about knowledge! Plato has Socrates say over and over that people always act for good. Long ago I realized that Plato knows that people do evil things; what he means by saying they always act for good is that they always believe that their goal in an action is good for themselves. A murderer thinks he’s getting rid of a problem and doesn’t understand the deeper, evil consequences of his action.

No, that’s not what bothers me about the statement. Plato consistently talks as if people who do know the truly right thing to do will always do it just because they know it. And that is clearly false. We all sometimes do things we know are wrong: we lust, we lie, we eat too much, we drink too much, we stay up too late (maybe writing blog posts). But if Plato – or Socrates – or Plato’s Socrates – had listened to himself here, he could have corrected himself. Our knowledge of right and wrong is like birds in a cage: we possess the knowledge, but it flits about and isn’t always present to us and in our grasp. Having read Theaetetus, I know that Plato possessed the knowledge that people really do sometimes do what they know is wrong. But I guess every time he wrote about it, he reached in his cage and caught the wrong bird.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Stray Thoughts about The Song of Roland

In writing up my thoughts about my reading here every few days, I usually try to package what I have to say in some (at least partially) unifying conceit. But I just don’t have a thread to tie together my thoughts about The Song of Roland. It’s an ironic problem considering that this book-length poem pursues such a unified narrative: the story of just one battle between Charlemagne and the Muslims of Spain.

Stray thought no. 1: Terms for historical trends can be misleading when taken too far, none more than the term Renaissance. Every time I ask a college class what the Renaissance is, several people always pipe up with the word rebirth. But I’d say only one young American in a hundred know what was reborn after the Middle Ages. I know, though, that Petrarch and his artistic heirs meant a rebirth of ancient ideals of letters and art. So I have a silly, unthinking tendency to suppose that no ancient ideal was left unrevived (wow, that’s a weird word). But Renaissance authors didn’t sem to show much interest at all in Aristotle’s unities, for instance. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with scene changes, sudden jumps of a year or more, and wild juxtapositions of the tragic and the comic. And I don’t think Spenser could have told a single story straight trough from beginning to end in The Faerie Queene if he had wanted to. His characters wander through the pages as much as they wander through the woods, and story gives way to story as seemingly randomly as squirrels scampering from tree to tree. It’s more often the medieval poem that faithfully follows a coherent, logical order, so I shouldn’t have been so surprised that this song of great deeds told only one story instead of stringing together tales from throughout the fantastical life of Roland.

Stray thought no. 2: I didn’t care for the Song’s French jingoism. It gives credit to Roland for winning Constantinople, England, and Ireland for Charlemagne, lands never a part of the Frankish Empire. The Franks’ domain was large enough as it was; why not give credit to Roland for capturing Saxony and Lombardy and the land around the Danube? Neither did I care for the poem’s depiction of Muslims as worshiping Mahomet, a disrespectful mistake that would have been corrected with the tiniest amount of first-hand knowledge. I know: I’m being awfully hard on an anonymous eleventh-century poet (or group of poets).

Stray thought no. 3: It must have been easy in medieval times to believe that enemies from distant lands were all ugly or that they had ridges protruding from their spines. Armies coming face-to-face with such enemies usually learn how wrong the rumors have been. But the author(s) of The Song of Roland, writing at least two-hundred years after the war, had no such reality check. So when the various forces from Africa and Asia arrive in the poem, and they really do have ridges on their backs and other deformities. Tolkien, who I’m sure read The Song of Roland many times, did the same thing, but he got to call his hideous baddies “orcs” and other nonhuman names.

Stray thought no. 4: I don’t want to finish the post sounding as if I didn’t enjoy reading this epic tale. I enjoyed every line of language, for instance. My translation was by Montcrieff, who also produced the most popular translation of Proust. His skills in interpreting French from a century ago could hardly have helped in translating French from a millennium ago, and yet he performed masterly work in both instances. From what I’ve read about the original, Montcrieff preserved its meter, its assonant rhyme scheme, and its sometimes jarring, laundry-list approach to narrative. And then he gave it all a distinctly medieval ring by preserving old terms of armory (hauberks and sarks, for example) and the antique penchant for changing the ending of personal names as meter, rhyme, or whim dictate. The Emperor of France was called variously Carle, Carlun, Charle, Charles, and Charlemagne. The main hero’s name sometimes appeared as Rollant, sometimes as Rolanz. Interestingly, I’m not sure that what seems to us the standard form, the “Roland” of the title, ever appears.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


I believe in learning styles. I really do. I can’t make sense of most of what I hear people saying about them, but I do believe in learning styles. Any responsible teacher has to. When you see some students drawing charts and other students counting things out on their fingers and yet others writing word patterns to help themselves get through tests, you know that different people get at information and skills in different ways. So, yeah, I believe in learning styles. Of course I do.

Here are some things I don’t believe. I don’t believe there are only seven. I don’t believe that each person has only one. (We each have most of them, and we’re each better at some than others.) I don’t believe it’s ultimately the teacher’s responsibility to address all the learning styles with each lesson. And I don’t believe that recent studies of learning styles prove that the lecture should disappear from the planet. If anything, I’d say that awareness of learning styles actually supports the tried-and-true lecture format. If I say something, write the key words on the board, and draw a chart, and the students take notes on it all and then read and study their notes, they use their eyes, ears, voice, and hands while employing verbal, visual, auditory, and kinetic learning styles. If the lesson includes a rational train of thought, they engage in logical learning. If they get together with a study group, they’re involved in social learning.

If I turn this formula around and think of myself as a student, it becomes clear that, if I want to learn and retain anything from all these wonderful books I read, I need to take notes and then review my notes. Well, of course, I do just that. I’m up to sixty-one pages of single-spaced notes on Aquinas, forty-five on Plato, and so on. And I try to write at least a paragraph on everything I read and then review it all at least once at the end of each year.

But last week, during two longish car trips, I read to my wife, and now I can’t remember much of what I read. We were in the car, so I couldn’t – or at least didn’t – take notes. We made it through about fifteen of the essays and addresses in C. S. Lewis’s God in the Dock, and I spent several hours in constant amazement. But right now, I only clearly remember two things. I also thought of what seemed like a really good idea for a blog post (one not entitled “Mistakes”), but even though I’ve reexamined the essays – twice – I can’t find the passage I wanted to write about. And now I don’t even quite remember what the passage said, despite the impact it had on me at the time. I only know that it went along so well with the Plato I’ve been reading, I felt sure that Lewis must in fact have had the Gorgias in mind as he wrote.

I’ve just moved past another big mistake. When I first set up my ten-year plan, I had James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom split over two years. But then I remembered one more Civil War book I wanted to read, so I fit last year’s Forged in Battle into year 6, and collapsed McPherson into a single assignment. I figured that since it was a great book I remembered loving, its 860 pages would fly by. The problem is, I don’t necessarily want pages to fly by in a detail-rich book that I love. So I generally spent two or three hours a day on the book across three or four weeks in order to finish it. It was a mistake, a flaw in The Plan, and one that I got away with only because of a long winter break. But considering that it took me seven years to come across my first scheduling mistake, I guess I should say I’m doing pretty well. I surprised myself by finishing the first ten-year plan in just eleven years (while raising two kids), and it’s looking more and more as though I’ll get this one in right on schedule.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

What If . . . ?

Marco Polo says that the Khan sent him back to Europe with a message for the Pope: Send me one hundred teachers of Christianity, and I will spread them throughout my Empire and teach my princes the ways of Christ. He goes on to report that the Pope denied the request, claiming that the appropriate clerics were all too busy. If true, the astonishing story quickly raises the speculation: What would the world be like today if Christian teachers had gone to eastern Asia in the thirteenth century, sponsored by the ruler of the largest empire in history? Would China have a Christian history? If so, would it have participated in the Crusades? Would it have had a Reformation? With religious ties between East and West, would increased trade have brought increased wealth to both cultures and more rapid development of science, technology, art, and finance? With more communication between the two areas, would European history have seen a greater, earlier presence of Buddhism and Confucianism?

I love “What if?” moments of history like these. The American Civil War seems unusually full of the moments, and McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom has reminded me of many. Of course we can ponder general questions such as “What if the Confederacy had won?” or “What if the war had concluded with slavery still in place?” But the knife edges of more specific moments intrigue me much more. What if the Union success early in the day at the first battle of Manassas had continued through the afternoon and resulted in quick Northern victory? What if Joe Johnston had not been wounded at Seven Pines and Lee put in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia? As they actually played out, both events lent strength to the Confederacy but ironically, by prolonging the war, brought about its utter subjugation. A faster victory by the Union would have ended with the South making some concessions while maintaining slavery, at least for a while longer.

General George B. McClellan single-handedly provides a long litany of “What If?” moments. Southern General John Magruder performed theatrical tricks at Yorktown to make his force look much larger than it was: parading soldiers in circles through the woods, having stentorian officers shout orders at nonexistent troops, and so on. What if McClellan hadn’t fallen for it? McClellan refused to bring his 20,000 Union soldiers to participate at Second Manassas, telling his wife that he wanted his supposed countryman and colleague Gen. John Pope to fail so that Lincoln would have to sack him and ask McClellan to return to the highest command. What if McClellan had reasoned alternatively that his last-minute arrival on Pope’s flank would turn the tide of the battle and make him an instant hero? His own conciliatory politics could well have won over the Northern populace and brought about peace negotiations with the Confederacy in 1862. What if, on the other hand, Lincoln had not done exactly what the megalomaniacal general had foreseen and had instead dismissed him for insubordination to the Commander-in-Chief and disloyalty? The Union Army of the Potomac may well have thrown down their weapons in protest at the humiliation of their favorite leader. Finally, what if McClellan, given Lee’s battle plans in one of the greatest intelligence gains in all of American history, hadn’t dawdled four more days to plan his “devastating” attack across Antietam Creek? Taking immediate advantage of the information, he could have swallowed Lee’s Army piece by piece while they were still scattered along the highway leading into Maryland.

In July of 2002, I visited the Tower of London. The summer crowds filled the fortress to capacity, especially the building holding the crown jewels. Visitors to that display were shunted along past the amazing treasures on a moving platform. Only given a few precious seconds to view the coronation crowns, the two young girls in front of me placed their hands on the glass cases as they rode by, coming as close as possible to grasping history literally. I think we enjoy “What If?” moments because we, like those little girls, want a precise grasp on the story. We want to identify the nail that lost the kingdom, the butterfly wing that created the storm. It all comes down to Longstreet’s delayed attack at Gettysburg. Got it. It all comes down to Lincoln putting Grant in charge of the whole show. Got it. It all comes down to Joshua Chamberlain’s bayonet charge on Little Round Top. Got it.

That last idea is the one I’m really almost enticed to believe. It seems I could hold the entire military narrative of the American Civil War in my hand and view it at a single glance if it were true that Chamberlain’s bold move determined U. S. victory twenty-one months later. But then I know that the unpredictable contingencies of human action form the glass barrier that keeps me from grabbing that historical crown.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Flattery Will Get You . . . A Delicious Meal

Mortimer Adler says that in writing the Great Books, the Great Writers carried on the Great Conversation. I’m definitely in the middle of that conversation now. A year ago, I read Aristotle’s Topics and Sophistical Refutations, and in them, learned from The Philosopher many ways of winning an argument, not all of them above board. This January, I’m reading Plato’s diatribe on underhanded rhetorical devices, his Gorgias. Where Aristotle assumes that a speaker wants to win over a jury or an audience, Plato’s Socrates only wants the truth:
And what is my sort? you will ask. I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and very willing to refute any one else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute; for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two, just as the gain is greater of being cured of a very great evil than of curing another.
If we’re ill, says Socrates, we run to the doctor for a bodily cure, even though it may be painful or distasteful. If we are ignorant or harbor lies, we should run to philosophy for the cure of the mind. If we are guilty of vice, we should run to the judge and ask for punishment, so that our soul is cured.
I would rather that my lyre should be inharmonious, and that there should be no music in the chorus which I provided; aye, or that the whole world should be at odds with me, and oppose me, rather than that I myself should be at odds with myself, and contradict myself.
Following a standard formula, Socrates classes goods into these three categories, in order of increasing importance: external goods, goods of the body, and goods of the soul. The art for securing the first class is the art of money-making. The other two categories each have just two corresponding arts each: gymnastic and medicine improve the body, and legislation and justice benefit the soul. Corresponding to these last four are four deceitful practices that Socrates will not grace with the title of “art.” He calls them instead “flatteries” or “experiences.” The flattery of cookery corresponds to medicine: effective medicine often tastes bad, while good cookery makes us want to eat its product for its taste, whether or not the food is healthy. The flattery of fashion-and-cosmetics substitutes for gymnastic, making us look younger and more attractive without our actually being so. To legislature, Socrates poses sophistry, and to justice, rhetoric. And when I think of a slick lawyer making an argument to a jury, using more manipulative techniques than valid arguments, I can see why Socrates critiques rhetoric so harshly.

I think the Gorgias one of the best of the Platonic dialogs, and I love reading it. But as pure and as noble as Plato’s Socrates seems, he makes mistakes. For one thing, he always simplifies a bit too much. Only two arts for the good of the soul? And of course he commits the error that he commits in every dialog: stating that a person who has learned the good will always do it.
Socrates: He who has learned what is just is just?
Gorgias: To be sure.
In Gorgias, Plato comes his closest to getting it right, I think. He has Socrates teach that people who do evil want what’s good and so don’t actually do what they want to do. But still he ascribes the problem all to ignorance. Aristotle is so much better on this issue, saying that the person who knows good and doesn’t do it is ignoring or forgetting some essential ethical premise.

Despite little problems, Socrates inspires me with his relentless (and often annoying) pursuit of the truth. And his search in this dialog leads him through careful explanations of several noble doctrines. To suffer injustice is better than to do injustice, he says. The unjust man who seeks correction, though, is less miserable than the one who gets away with it – not happier, since neither is happy, just less miserable. Best of all, of course, is never to act unjustly. But then few of us can attest to that from experience. Most of us need Socrates’ advice: run to the judge!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Beauty of Guilt

One night about twenty years ago, an amazing moment on the television drama ER stunned me. Absolutely stunned me. Nurse Hathaway says to Carter, “You should stop feeling so guilty all the time.” To which he replies, “Maybe it’s because I am guilty.” I really didn’t know the general culture understood the difference between guilt as a feeling and guilt as a moral state. Nine times out of ten, when you hear the word “guilt” in conversation, people use it to mean only the feeling. For example, I’d had almost the same conversation in reverse not too long before seeing the ER episode. A student who invited me to her Buddhist chanting session told me she had left the Catholic Church because there was “too much guilt.” “Well,” I asked, “were you guilty?” She said she didn’t know what I meant. She met my explanation with a blank stare and didn’t invite me to chant again.

I’m a long-time fan of the feeling of guilt. It’s like pain: a sign that something is wrong and needs fixing. Sure, it feels bad at the time, but as a warning system, it’s very effective. Our culture, though, has doubts about morals and, as a consequence, about the state of guilt, so naturally it has difficulty seeing the benefits of the guilty feeling. But I think that Aeschylus understood the importance of the feeling of guilt, and I believe that his Oresteia provides us with an origin myth for the feeling. Others may find a different message in the plays (OK, will find a different message), but I’m sticking with my theory.

The Oresteia, the only dramatic trilogy to survive intact from the golden age of Greek drama (when trilogies were the norm), has, you guessed it, three parts: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides (or The Furies). In my view, the first one has a few great moments, and the second simply must be got through; but the finale really stands out as a great ancient treasure. The first play, Agamemnon, seems unfocused. As it begins, the king and general who gives his name to the play, the brother of Menelaus (whose wife’s abduction starts the Trojan War), returns home after ten years. His wife, the unmellifluously named Clytemnestra, is happy to see him at first. But then her complaints about him start. First she notes with displeasure that her husband has brought home a princess as a slave prize. Only after thinking about what Aggie may have done with that princess does she start to remind herself that the father of her children sacrificed one of them in order to get the gods to grant favorable winds on the journey out. Then Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon (or there wouldn’t be much of a play), only to reveal that she has been having an affair with Aegisthus. Then Aegisthus steps on stage to announce that he planned the murder from the beginning to avenge Agamemnon’s earlier murder of his (Aegisthus’) brothers. Not exactly Aristotelian unity here. (But Cassandra’s scene where she foresees the deaths and regrets her “gift” of sight is fantastic!) In The Libation Bearers, Orestes adds to the string of vendettas: coming home from exile, he kills his mother, Clytemnestra, in vengeance for his father’s death. Apart from a terrific motif of a viper drinking both milk and blood from a human breast, that’s about it.

The Eumenides, the culminating and best part of the set, opens in the temple of Apollo, where Orestes has fled for refuge. The hideous Furies, avenging spirits born of Night, lie scattered on the steps, asleep by the hand of the Pythian god. The scene of their waking is said to have been so horrifying as to have caused a miscarriage at the play’s premier 2500 years ago. And yet the Furies are the ones who talk sense most of the play. The gods, they say, have forgotten the ancient moral laws and only try to do whatever they can get away with. Might has trumped right. Sure the Furies want Orestes’ blood, but then, they are divine spirits judging man according to law. Athena holds a trial in which she gives Orestes his life: he’s only done what Apollo told him to, after all, and then atoned for it with animal sacrifices. But to keep the Furies from being . . . , well, furious, she gives them worshipers and a new power: the power of inner persuasion. Any human who does not heed their felt warning, they can punish with sorrow, personal disaster, or a sense of being lost. Those who do pay attention to the warning sign naturally end up happy because they deal with the problem and know to make amends. Granted the power to bestow a sense of guilt in the conscience, the play’s main characters go from being Furies to being Eumenides: Kind Ones. It does my heart good to find in Aeschylus someone else who understands the beauty of guilt.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Clearing the Fog of War

The first time I read Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the American Civil War, I was surprised and a little disappointed that he took three hundred pages, a third of the book, to get to any Civil War combat. This time through, though, I was ready and eager to brush up on the political movements and events of the twenty or thirty years before Fort Sumter. Far from disappointed this time, I’m amazed at McPherson’s accomplishment. I can’t do better than quote the words from The New York Times Book Review reprinted on the back cover of my copy: “It is the best one-volume treatment of its subject . . . . It is comprehensive yet succinct, scholarly without being pedantic, eloquent but unrhetorical. . . . Again and again, hopelessly knotty subjects . . . are painlessly made clear.”

One of these knotty subjects is capitalism. I know it helps to have read Marx, Adam Smith, and a college economics textbook between the first time through Battle Cry and now, but McPherson’s straightforward explanations helped clarify for me several things about American capital and industry in the 1830s. I don’t remember, for instance, having any clue as to why the Democrats of the early nineteenth century opposed a national bank, only that Jefferson stood against Hamilton’s original idea and that Jackson closed the Second Bank of the United States. But McPherson explains that Democrats from the tradition of those two Presidents saw the expansion of wealth and business created by a bank’s credit as inimical to liberty: businesses hire wage laborers, and wage laborers aren’t free. Jefferson wanted a nation of free people (well, men), by which he meant independent and self-sufficient landowners. With that explanation, the issue is much clearer to me now, but I still can’t completely see the sense in the Democrats’ argument. The Bank offered new ways for more American citizens to gain financial independence, and afforded opportunities to many wage laborers for advancement. And when I read about Southern Democrats in the 1840s and 1850s arguing that slaves are better off than wage laborers because their masters care for them, I lose all sympathy.

McPherson also presented an interesting picture of benefits women gained from the new capitalistic North. For many women, the man’s leaving the home to work elsewhere left her in charge in her own sphere and gave her new freedoms and options outside the home, as well. The number of women in the workforce rose dramatically in these decades (not necessarily a good thing for those who see wage-labor as drudgery worse than slavery) as did the numbers of girls in public education: by the time the Civil War began, as many girls attended school in the North as boys. These newly educated women also gained time, as evidenced by their rapidly growing interest and involvement in political and social movements.

Yesterday I read about the question of the status of the Southern states: did they constitute a sovereign nation or merely a rebelling section of the United States? I only remember pondering what the answer to that question meant internally, but McPherson explains clearly and briefly what difference it made externally. Under international law, “belligerent powers” (I must admit I still don’t understand the distinction between that and a nation) had more rights than rebels, including the right to obtain loans and purchase weapons. In one of the coincidences that constantly attend my reading, in a section about the impact of the Union’s sea blockade of Southern ports on the status of the South (by keeping foreign ships out, it implied the independence of the Confederacy), McPherson mentioned the precedents set by Great Britain fifty years earlier in its wars with Napoleon, including details I read about just last month in The War for All the Oceans.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Troy

When I first learned about ancient Greek drama in college, Euripides moved me the most of the three great playwrights. His characters seemed like emotional, familiar people; the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, by contrast, came across dry and formal. But when I started reading more fifteen or twenty years ago, Euripides struck me as histrionic and only full of shocking moments (such as a mother killing her children to spite her husband or a man being dragged to death behind two horses). Sophocles, on the other hand, started appealing to me more with the social and ethical dilemmas his characters faced.

Euripides has recovered some of his value for me lately, though. For one thing, I can always count on him to explain the background of his story at the beginning of the drama, and I enjoy hearing straightforward accounts of these myths. At the beginning of Helen, for example (which I finished reading for the first time yesterday), the woman with the face that launched a thousand ships tells about her birth from Leda and the swan, and about her twin brothers (who, she says, have already become the twin stars of Gemini). Later the warrior Teucer shows up, and he tells Helen about his brother Ajax and his dispute over the fallen Achilles’ armor and weapons.

In this version of the story, Euripides explores the ramifications of a theory that Herodotus proposes in his Histories: that what Paris took to Troy was not actually Helen but a look-alike phantom created by Hera. Hermes, in the mean time, spirited the real Helen off to Egypt. Where Homer makes Helen a willing party to her adultery and shows her a rather cold companion of Menelaus after he has recovered her, the Helen of this play stays true to her husband and regrets having been stolen away from him. Since the thing about Helen essential for the overall myth is that her extraordinarily beautiful face causes a ten-year war, it seems she can become anything in the hands of an imaginative writer. She can be an adulteress or a victim, a ghost or a shrew. What if Helen made her own bargain with Aphrodite before the judgment of Paris? Maybe she wanted to get away from Menelaus to begin with. Or maybe she wasn’t even all that pretty and made some foolish childhood promises to the Goddess of Love in return for improved looks. Or what if Athena, also offended by Paris spurning her, tricked both Aphrodite and Hera and switched the phantom Helen and the real McCoy mistress?

Euripides’ Helen presents some dramatic problems. It doesn’t have an ending for one thing. Menelaus finds his lost wife in Egypt after ten years of war in Troy and seven more years of wandering, but they still can’t get home because he has run out of money, and the king of Egypt hates all Greeks and will just kill the two of them if he finds out who his visitors are. The play ends with Helen going in to the palace with the intention of clasping the king’s knees and asking for mercy. The chorus sings a few lines after she goes in, but we don’t learn the result of her suit.

So if Helen and Menelaus have a happy reunion halfway through the play, and the conflict of the second half doesn’t come to a resolution, where’s the drama? I found it in Euripides himself.  As much as he obviously loves the stories of the gods, he entertains grave doubts about their truth. He has Helen doubting (rather reasonably!) that she could have hatched from one of two eggs born at the same time by a human woman pregnant by two mates at once, one being a god in the guise of a swan. And a messenger tells Menelaus that if the all oracles truly told the Greeks to fight a devastating ten-year war over an empty phantom, then he can never again trust any prophecy. But Helen and the Egyptian princess Theonoe talk of virtue and a life of honor, as if goodness has some actual basis in existence. Poor Euripides sees a crazy world of undeniable good and undeniable evil; I think he wants to be pious but can’t credit the petty gods of his ancestors for the anything but the evil. He doesn’t know where to turn for the answer, and sadly, like Helen going into the palace, he leaves us speculating on the outcome.