Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"The History" [Book I: Clio]: The Lydian Empire and Cyrus the Great

The first book of The History, "Clio" (named after the Muse of History) is mainly concerned with the rise and fall of the Lydian Empire and the rise of the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great, with numerous rabbit trails on related subjects.

I really enjoyed Herodotus and I think he is my second favourite Great Books writer after Plato. History is one of my favourite subjects as it is and Herodotus' writing style only made it more enjoyable. Although I've greatly enjoyed the Great Books so far, I often feel the need to push myself forward in my reading, but that wasn't the case with Herodotus. I was never bored while reading "Clio" and everything Herodotus wrote about was relevant and interesting. I've also heard that Herodotus is quite historically accurate. I felt like Herodotus was more objective than Gibbon. Herodotus' love of and bias towards Greece was apparent, but Herodotus made no effort to hide it and didn't let it control his writing. Gibbon on the other hand almost seemed to be writing with an agenda (e.g. discrediting Judeo-Christian religion). I would describe Herodotus as skeptical, but not cynical, whereas I thought Gibbon was heading towards cynicism.

I found Herodotus' descriptions of different nations' customs very interesting, especially Persia. I've heard of the Persian practice of having a drunken debate followed by a sober debate before, but I still think it's brilliant. I don't think passion should be ignored, but I do think it should be controlled by reason.

I find the Ancient Persian religion endlessly fascinating. It seems to have connections with the Judeo-Christian tradition: they had no images of gods, they didn't believe the gods had the same nature as men (as the Greeks did), the Magi that visited Christ were thought to be the Persian priests described in Herodotus, and Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion that is thought by some to have influenced post-Exilic Judaism, was also founded in Persia. I believe that the divine light shines the brightest in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but I'm not against the idea of the divine light shining in other traditions albeit not as brightly or clearly. The Persians also worshipped the four elements (or personifications of them): water, earth, fire, and air. Unlike the Jews, but like the Christians, the Persians had no temples.

There were a couple of references to other books I've read in the Great Books series. Helen's abduction by Paris is described at the beginning of the book, Lycurgus, the law-giver of Sparta is mentioned, and the bones of Orestes son of Agamemnon are mentioned.

Unlike most modern historians, Herodotus seemed to have arranged his history into a narrative, with recurring themes and ideas. One of the main "themes" is the fickleness of fortune. Croesus, the King of Lydia, asks Solon, a Greek, who the happiest man on earth is. Croesus is expecting Solon to say that he, Croesus, is the happiest man, because of his wealth and power, but Solon names a few deceased Athenians as the happiest men on earth. Solon explains that a man shouldn't be called happy until he is dead, because his fortunes could change dramatically (this idea is similar to Aristotle's ideas in Book I of Ethics). Solon's words turn prophetic as Lydia is conquered by Cyrus and Croesus is on his way to execution. However, Cyrus spares Croesus because he is impressed by the wisdom he learned from Solon and Croesus becomes Cyrus's advisor. Solon's words once again become relevant when Cyrus the Great is killed by Tomyris, an enemy he underestimated, because of his overconfidence.

Monday, February 25, 2013

"Antigone": Rebel with a Cause

Of the past five plays I've read this month, Antigone was my favourite. It was the most thought-provoking and I thought it had the best characters.

Oedipus' sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, die on opposing sides in a struggle for the throne of Thebes. Creon, now King of Thebes, decrees that Eteocles will be honoured with a proper burial but that Polyneices will not be buried, but left to be carrion for animals. Creon will execute any who bury Polyneices. Antigone decides to bury her brother Polyneices, out of love and respect for her brother but also out of direct disobedience to her stepfather the king. Creon finds out that Antigone has buried Polyneices and Antigone does not deny that she has disobeyed the king by burying her brother out of reverence for the dead. Ismene, who earlier opted out of Antigones' plan out of fear of the king now wishes to be on trial with her sister. Antigone isn't keen on Ismene's support, because of her earlier cowardice. Antigone and Ismene are imprisoned. Creon's son and Antigone's lover, Haemon, the blind prophet from Oedipus the King, Tiresias, and finally the Chorus of Theban Elders try to defend Antigone. Eventually the Chorus persuades Creon to acquit Antigone of her "crimes"when it is discovered that Antigone has hanged herself and Haemon has stabbed himself at the sight of Antigone dead. Eurydice, Creon's wife and Haemon's mother, kills herself at the news. Creon is horrified, because he realizes that his decisions were the cause of Antigone's, Haemon's, and Eurydices' death.

The dialogue in this play was excellent. The debates between Creon and Antigone and her defenders was the highlight of the play. The Iliad got me thinking about war as a necessary evil and now Antigone has gotten me thinking about disobedience as a necessary evil. Obedience seems to me to be a good thing in itself, if for no other reason than that it preserves order, but obeying a wrong or immoral order also seems very foolish to me. It wasn't Antigones' disobedience that makes her sympathetic; it is her obedience to a higher law (reverence for the dead) that makes her a martyr. Antigone seemed to view disobeying her king as the lesser of two evils.

Creon reminded me of Agamemnon a little, because of how he can't take any disobedient act against himself and seems characterized by pride. I did find Creon a lot more sympathetic though, especially because he saw the error of his ways by the end of the play.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

"Oedipus the King": Non-Linear Storytelling

Oedipus the King drops the reader (or viewer) into the middle of a story, giving background information as it is required. I liked this structure, because it reminded me of the non-linear structure of many of Christopher Nolan's films. In chronological order, this is the summary of the events of Oedipus the King and the events preceding it:

Laius, King of Thebes, receives an oracle that he will one day be killed by his son. Once Laius has a son, he orders the child to be taken to a mountain to die, however a shepherd rescues the young Oedipus, and brings him to King Polybus of Corinth. Polybus raises Oedipus and when Oedipus is older he hears a rumour that Polybus isn't his real father. Oedipus consults an oracle on this matter, but the oracle only tells him that he will one day kill his father and go to bed with his mother. Understandably, Oedipus flees his home, so that the oracles prophecy won't come to pass. While traveling Oedipus meets a man on the road, has a quarrel with him, and kills him. Later, Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx ala Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, thus freeing Thebes from the Sphinx. In reward the Thebans make Oedipus their king, as their former king has recently died, and marries the former king's widow, Jocasta.

That is the background information that is revealed over the course of the play. The play begins with Oedipus as the King of Thebes, having to deal with a plague in the land. Oedipus sends his brother-in-law Creon to inquire the cause of the plague at Delphi. Creon returns and tells Oedipus that the plague has been caused by an act of impiety in the land: the unsolved murder of King Laius. Oedipus commits himself to finding the murderer and consults a prophet, Tiresias. Tiresias reluctantly tells Oedipus that he, Oedipus, is the murderer of Laius. Oedipus refuses to believe Creon, but is startled when he learns that Laius was killed while on the road because he remembers killing an unknown man on a road. Oedipus tells his wife, Jocasta, about his suspicions. A messenger from Corinth arrives declaring that the king of Corinth, Polybus, has died and Oedipus is relieved because that means the prophecy didn't come true, as he wasn't the cause of his father's death. Oedipus then questions the messenger, who had witnessed the death of Laius, and he reveals that he brought Oedipus as an infant to Polybus, and Oedipus realizes that Polybus wasn't his real father. Oedipus harshly demands the messenger to give him more information and the messenger tells Oedipus that the baby, Oedipus as an infant, was Laius' son. Everything falls into place and Oedipus realizes the truth: he is the son of Laius and Jocasta, meaning that he has killed his father and gone to bed with his mother, fulfilling the old prophecy. In horror Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus curses himself and gouges his eyes out. Oedipus leaves his daughters, Antigone and Ismene, in the charge of Creon and tells them that no man will ever want to marry them because of who their unwittingly incestuous father and mother were.

I knew the basic story about Oedipus (i.e. I knew that he unknowingly killed his father and slept with his mother, and gouged out his eyes in shame) before I read Oedipus the King, but knowing the ending didn't take away from my enjoyment of the play. In fact, my foreknowledge made the plays events more ominous.

I'm sure I'll refer back to this play if/when I get to Freud's "Oedipal Complex" on the reading list.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Achilles vs. Agamemnon

When reading about Achilles and Agamemnon in The Iliad, and to a lesser extent, in Aeschylus' play in which Agamemnon is the title character, I noticed how well the characters contrast each other.

Both characters are consumed by pride. Both Achilles and Agamemnon can't take any other mortal giving them orders or exerting power over them. However, this common core of pride is where the similarities end.

Where Achilles actually is great, Agamemnon thinks he is great and actually isn't. You can say what you want about Achilles' brutality, the guy is impressive. He's excellent at what he does. Agamemnon, on the other hand, thinks he's a great king, but he's really a pitiful character.

Agamemnon is obsessed with achieving the glory he lacks. He even sacrifices his own daughter to enable his fleets to sail to Troy. Why does he want to capture Troy? Because he will forever be remembered as Agamemnon, the King Who Sacked Troy.  Achilles already has glory and has become disillusioned by it. When Achilles refuses to fight the Trojan's because of Agamemnon's insult to him, Achilles justifies his staying out of the fighting because he just doesn't see the point of it any more. The brave and the coward both come to the same fate, so why should he be the Glorious Achilles? It won't save him from death - and will probably hasten death's approach.

Achilles also seems to be alienated from much of humanity or at least humanity's decorum. As a killing machine, Achilles doesn't easily mesh into the nuances of society, whereas Agamemnon, the "lord of men", is surrounded by the regulations and decorum that comes from a royal upbringing.

So, although, Achilles and Agamemnon are both characterized by pride, they wind up being very different characters.

Friday, February 8, 2013

"Eumenides": The Furies Revenge (Or Lack Thereof)

Eumenides, the final play of the "Orestia", begins with the Furies, Greek deities that bring vengeance on the wicked and impious, pursuing Orestes, the young prince of Argos who recently murdered his mother in retaliation for her murder of her husband and Oreste's father, Agamemnon. Orestes tries to find refuge in a temple of Apollo, but the Furies do not relent. Apollo casts a sleeping spell on the Furies and sends Orestes to Athens under protection of Hermes. Clytemnestra's ghost appears and she urges the Furies to resume their pursuit of Orestes. The Furies do so and find Orestes in Athens in the Areopagus, the judicial centre of Athens. In the trial of Orestes, the Furies serve as the prosecuting attorneys for the dead Clytemnestra, Apollo serves as Orestes attorney, and Athena is the judge of the case. Eleven men of Athens vote over whether or not Orestes is innocent, and the result is a draw. Athena, the deciding vote, votes for Orestes acquital and Orestes is spared from judgement. The Furies are, characteristically, furious, but Athena, the goddess of wisdom, calms the Furies and persuades them away from persecuting Orestes.

And so the final play in the trilogy of tragedies ends with... a happy ending. I was really surprised by the ending. The final lines are: "Peace to thee and peace to thee / And peace for ever in Pallas' land! / Partnered with happy Destiny / All-seeing Zeus hath wrought to this end! / (Cry, cry aloud with jubilee!)". That's downright optimistic! I'm no expert in tragedies, but I thought one of the fundamental rules is that they have very sobering, tragic endings. I have to acknowledge that the ending only came after multiple bloody murders and great cost to Orestes character (i.e. the murder of his mother), but still.

Eumenides was by far my favourite play of the trilogy. I feel like the most happened in this play, it was the most dense. I found the court scene very interesting, and I liked Aeschlus' portrayal of Athena, my fvaourite character from Greek mythology. The impression I got from the words of the play (I would have loved to see a performance of it) was that Athena was a serene, fair, and wise judge. The ending seems to be a triumph of fairness over blind retribution and mercy over harshness.

Monday, February 4, 2013

"Choephoroe": Orestes' and Electra's Revenge

In the second play of the "Orestia", Choephoroe (aka The Libation Bearers), Clytemnestra's children Orestes and Electra plot and execute revenge on her for the murder of their father, Agamemnon. Clytemnestra's lover, and Agamemnon's cousin, Aegisthus is also on Oreste's and Electra's hitlist. Orestes disguises himself as a traveller declaring his own death and once he's inside the palace, murders Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Right before Orestes kills Clytemnestra, he is struck by an attack of conscience, but his desire for revenge and the assurance that the murder is in accordance with the will of Apollo wins out.

The ominous quality is continued in this play. Shortly before her murder, Clytemnestra dreams that she gave birth to a snake and tried to suckle it but the snake bit her and her blood and milk mixed - a foreshadowing of Clytemnestra's murderous son, Orestes.

I had roughly known the story of the "Orestia" up to this point, but I have no idea what happens in Eumenides. If the trend of the past two plays continue, Orestes and possibly Electra will be murdered in revenge for their murder of Clytemnestra, but with Aegisthus, the logical tool of vengeance, dead, I'm not sure who the next murderer will be. Or if there will be another one.