Christian Meier, The Political Art of Greek Tragedy.
Trans. by Andrew Webber. Johns Hopkins, 1993,
238 pp., index. ISBN 0-8018-4727-3.
Reviewed by Geoff Bakewell,
M.'s book is a lively, wide-ranging introduction to Greek tragedy as a political phenomenon. It takes as its primary audience intelligent, non-specialist readers, although the work will surely interest scholars as well. (The book has no footnotes, simply a three-page section with suggestions for further reading.)
As a title, 'The Political Art of Greek Tragedy' requires some elaboration. For while M. treats all three of these things-- politics, tragedy, and art--he does not do so in the most self- evident way. With regard to politics, he addresses himself to something much broader than particular politicians and their policies. For M., politics (ta politika) are 'the 'affairs of the citizen' . . . . what the French would call the 'espace civique.' (21) In contrast to his broad view of politics, M.'s approach to tragedy is more restricted here. He does not undertake to define the genre or survey its historical development, but rather examines specific works. The bulk of the book is devoted to Aeschylus. Sophocles comes in for more limited scrutiny, and Euripides receives only passing mention. Finally, M.'s analysis of tragedy's 'art' focuses on the broad intellectual contours of plays, not their staging, costuming, or music.
M.'s primary thesis is that tragedy was a necessary component of Athens' development during the fifth century. Of special interest to him is the period between the Persian War and the Peloponnesian War. This era was characterized by Athens' acquisition and maintenance of an empire. This empire in turn brought all sorts of practical demands and pressures, many of which were at odds with the more traditional, aristocratic world- view inherited from the archaic period. In sorting through these conflicts, Athens was unable to rely on the guidance of either a priestly caste or a monarchy. For beginning with Cleisthenes, Athens had developed from tyranny through isonomia into democracy. The city thus lacked important sources of moral advice common to other states, and had only itself to rely on. Under these circumstances the citizens turned to tragedy for assistance. Tragedy became an essential part of the 'mental infrastructure' (3) enabling Athens to bridge the gap between its past and its new status. M.'s term of choice for this mental infrastructure is borrowed from Max Weber: nomological knowledge. According to M., nomological knowledge is 'the general, overarching and normative knowledge to which we relate all our thinking, actions and experience, and in which these must all be incorporated if things are to seem 'right'. . . . It contains, in various degrees of development, a world-view, notions of God, the cosmos and nature, manifold ideas of regulation and chance, of what is acceptable or unacceptable, true or false, tried and tested or dubious.' (35) Tragedy helped the Athenians to transform their nomological knowledge; it produced an ongoing accommodation between beliefs inherited from the world of their ancestors and the daily demands of the world they lived in.
According to M., tragedy was admirably suited to the transformation of nomological knowledge. Ancient tales freighted with notions about the gods and suffering, justice and piety comprised the main source of tragic material. The mythic setting of these stories afforded spectators the distance necessary for a more detached perspective on fundamental moral issues. In short, myth enabled tragedy to be broadly political without being overtly so. Moreover, tragedy took place in a most reassuring context. For the plays formed part of the City Dionysia, a full- scale civic celebration of Athens' power and success. Placed amid the parade of the annual tribute and the arming of the war orphans, tragedy's promptings to somber reflection and self- examination became less threatening. Yet another valuable aspect of tragedy lay in its performance before the city as a whole. As such, tragedy represented an amalgam of high and popular culture, involving both upper and lower classes. When the ten judges, selected by lot, one per tribe, voted to award prizes to the competitors, they demonstrated the open, democratic functioning of the political community. And finally, within its religious framework, tragedy acted as a regular propitiation of the divine, a recurrent thanksgiving for Athenian successes to date. For all of these reasons tragedy served to 'refresh, regenerate and further develop the ethical basis' (43) of the politics which undergirded Athens' empire abroad and democracy at home.
M.'s book consists of seven chapters. In 'Why the Citizens of Athens Needed Tragedy,' M. introduces his thesis. In 'Athens' he sketches the city's political development from the archaic period to the start of the Peloponnesian War. 'The Significance of the Festivals in Athens' provides a short sociological and anthropological look at festivals in general and their place in fifth-century Athens. 'Tragedy and the Festival of Dionysus' rehearses the particulars of the City Dionysia and tragic competition. The fifth chapter, 'Aeschylus', is by far the longest of the book and constitutes the bulk of M.'s argument. He discusses in detail Persians, Suppliants, Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides, and Prometheus Bound (M. holds that the Prometheus is in fact by Aeschylus). In 'Sophocles', he analyzes Ajax and Antigone. Finally, 'The Political Foundations of Classicism' examines the development of the modern topos, 'classical' Greece.
What follows is a very brief summary of M.'s political interpretations of the plays in question. He holds that the Persians stemmed from Athens' need to repeat and internalize the tremendous events of 480. Here Aeschylus extended 'the model of justice upheld by the isonomic polis into the arena of world events.' (74) Xerxes' hubris represents an offense against the world-order, is punished, and so is parallel to the machinery of justice in the polis. In the Suppliants, Aeschylus wrestles with the problem of political decision-making. Pelasgus' difficulties in deciding whether to accept the Danaids at Argos demonstrates that the decision is too great for any one person, and can only be made by those who will be affected by it. The play poses the question 'Who is the city?', and answers that it is the sum of its citizens. In the Oresteia Aeschylus uses the story of the house of Atreus as a 'mythical image of the lengthy historical developments leading to the foundation of the polis.' (121) In Agamemnon, revenge and counter-revenge lead to the establishment of tyranny; the Libation Bearers depicts the act of political liberation and an ensuing period of fierce partisanship; the Eumenides heralds the establishment of the polis and its institutions of justice. In the Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus gives Zeus a history. The ruler of heaven must learn that his power is useless without Prometheus' knowledge, and that his reign can only be sustained by moderation, reconciliation, and justice. In Ajax, Sophocles has Odysseus recognize how weak the individual is, and that everything, including friendship and hostility, is subject to change. The ability to forgive and to adapt becomes paramount, and is revealed as one of the foundations of polis life. In Antigone Sophocles demonstrates that the city needs people like Antigone. They contribute an element of unorthodox thought to polis life, and prompt important communal reflection. The play depicts both the liberation of the individual within the community and the corresponding civic benefits.
M.'s approach is interesting and provocative. He assumes that coherent nomological knowledge is a precondition for collective achievement. While this assumption is certainly defensible, whether it is true is unclear. By citing a few parallel achievements by other cultures and demonstrating their reliance on comparable nomological knowledge, M. could have strengthened his case considerably. For M. himself has already rejected the possible objection that the Athenians were unique in this regard: 'the Athenians of the fifth century produced something so extraordinary, not because they were Greeks, not because they were encouraged by the spell of a set of humanistic (or 'Classical') ideals, but simply because they were human beings, albeit caught up in a fundamentally exceptional situation.' (43). What of other human beings who have likewise been caught up in exceptional situations? In any case, the reader should be aware that the nomological knowledge M. attributes to Athens relies heavily on Books I and II of Thucydides. Those who regard the speeches of the Corinthians and Pericles with skepticism will likely look askance at the 'rational' world-view ascribed to Athens by Meier.
A second difficulty concerns the lower chronological bound of Meier's inquiry. What about the later plays of Sophocles and Euripides? Surely the Peloponnesian War produced tremendous changes in nomological knowledge at Athens. Do these later plays not have the same ability to transform nomological knowledge as their predecessors? If not, why not? After all, tragic competitions continued throughout the course of the war. Did tragedy as a genre change during this period? And what replaced tragedy as a transformer of nomological knowledge thereafter?
A few minor criticisms remain. At times, M. paints with a very broad brush. For instance, his claims about the archaic nomological knowledge against which the Athenians struggled seem too unitary and simplistic. Likewise, his assertion that Agamemnon and Libation Bearers represent the prehistory of the polis requires further elaboration. While M. analyzes innumerable passages in this book, he treats very few at great length. More detailed philological analysis would be a welcome complement to the overall contours and problems he captures so well. Finally, the reader is struck again and again by the speculative nature of M.'s arguments. Each page contains several words which soften and undercut his assertions: perhaps, possibly, might, may have, could have, must have, and so on.
As an interesting and thoughtful introduction to the politics of Attic tragedy, The Political Art of Greek Tragedy is highly recommended.
Geoff Bakewell received his Ph.D. from Brown University in 1994, and is Assistant Professor of Classics at Creighton University.