Generalization last time that Greeks most important of ancient peoples in terms of contributions to subsequent civilization. Last time, some important areas of Greek achievement--history, art, political science, athletics, poetry. Today, three areas in which the Greeks made perhaps even more important contributions.
Greeks first true dramatists. First actor and playwright known to history: Thespis. But Greeks not only first playwrights, also best. Ask any drama teacher to name four greatest tragic playwrights: 3/4 Greeks! Ask same drama teacher to name greatest comic playwrights--probably top of list two Greeks Aristophanes and Menander.
Now some say, "I read this stuff--not so great!" I'll admit
that, on first reading, rather difficult stuff, lucky if you can figure
out the plot. But if you stick with the plays long enough, you see
why they are something special.
The Greeks themselves believed there was something extraordinary going on in these plays. They called them "theopneutos," god-breathed, insisting that there was something of the divine voice to be heard if listened. And I'm inclined to agree.
One begins to here that divine voice in the first of the great Greek playwrights, Aeschylus. Aristotle tells us that is was Aeschylus who first introduced the use of the second actor to the theater--and this alone would be an important contribution: dramatic possibilities increase tremendously. But more important, Aescylus introduces to the stage an exploration of some of the great issues of life. As in almost all great theater, the plays of Aeschylus center around some conflict, but there's something a bit unusual in the conflicts Aescylus depicts. Most of the time on stage, we see a conflict between right and wrong. In Aeschylus' case, the conflict is between right and right. (Right and Right??!!) Right and right often do come into conflict. We all have many duties--duties to gods, duties to state, to our families, to those we love. Usually, it's pretty easy to tell what one's duty is. Where we get into difficulties is when the duties conflict--and that's where we need help--maybe even divine guidance. This is where the Greek playwrights help--by depicting the conflict of right and right on the stage, we get some idea how we might handle such conflicts in our own life.
Perhaps best example, Sophocles' Antigone. Many would agree with Aristotle in calling Sophocles the greatest of all playwrights. Certainly his contributions to theatrical form are important: introducing the third actor, limiting the role of the chorus. But even more important, Sophocles' handling of great human themes, as in play Antigone. In Antigone, we see right from the beginning a conflict of right vs. right. Antigone's brothers have killed each other. The one, Eteocles, has been a hero--dying in defense of Thebes. The other is a traitor, the leader of an enemy army who had almost succeeded in capturing the city. The king, Creon, has ordered that Polynices not be buried. Antigone has a choice: obey the law, or give her brother the burial that custom and duty to one's relatives require. Not an easy choice. Both are right, and Sophocles does not present this as a no-brainer. Notice that Ismene, who is every bit as brave as Antigone and loves her family just as much, chooses to follow Creon's decree. Nevertheless, one tends to think that, all things considered, Antigone's action is probably the best course. Far more difficult in Creon's choice. Creon has made a law. His soon-to-be daughter-in-law breaks the law. What should he do? Quite clearly, it's important that he enforce the law. He argues that law can't work if you play favorites and let your relatives and in-laws break the law. (I used to ask, how would it be if Governor Mikelson's son got away with breaking law, but that's not funny anymore.)
Yet we soon see that Creon's decision is a bad one. Yes, the law is important, but family is also important. Love is also important. And in addition, the gods are important. Creon has some excuse for refusing to bend to the stubborn Antigone. He has far less excuse for his insensitive treatment of his son. He has no excuse at all for rejecting the message of Tiresias.
But notice: Creon is not a bad man. He realizes his mistake, and changes his mind: too late! And the result: the death of Antigone, the death of Haemon, the death of Creon's wife--and misery for Creon himself. And you see then the message of the play. Don't be too hasty--don't be too stubborn--recognize the claims of young love--and be quick to heed what the prophets tell you, or you'll be sorry for it.
And speaking of unheeded prophets, we come now to Euripides, my favorite of the three great greek playwrights. Euripides reminds me of the old testament prophets, particularly the prophet Jeremiah, a man who sees clearly the problems of society, and who, because of his splendid images and incredible command of language makes people see and understand what they don't want to see and understand--the evil of their own conduct.
In no play is this more clear than in the Trojan Women. Euripides' chooses for his subject an episode in the Trojan war--but his choice is rather an odd one. Not a great battle scene, or a great argument omong men, but an episode that at first wouldn't seem particularly good theater, the women of Troy waiting to see what would become of them now that the long war is over.
It's a miserable scene. The women expect nothing good, but what actually happens is worse than they anticipate. The young girl Polyxena is butchered as a sacrifice over the tomb of Achilles--and Polyxena is maybe the luckier than those who survive. Hecuba, once the proud queen of Troy, has to watch all the horrible things happening to her children, and will spend her last days as a miserable slave. Andromache, once the happy wife of the greatest of Trojan heroes, has to go through the pain of having her son thrown to his death. Not only that, she has to become the concubine of the son of the man who killed her beloved husband and is partly responsible for the death of her son.
Unbroken misery for these women--but so what? Why is Euripides showing this scene, an event from a war that had taken place 800 years before his own time? The answer is, that's not what he's doing. You remember prophet Nathan? (Tell story). This is what Euripides is doing. He shows them this pitiful picture, forcing the Athenians to understand how horrible such treatment of people is, making them realize that whoever acts this way deserves to die--and then turning the finger on them--YOU ARE THE MEN. How so? Euripides produced this play during the middle of the Pelop. War, just at the time when the Athenians had voted to kill all the men of Melos and sell all the women and children into slavery. Euripides incredibly clever at forcing them to see the horror of the thing they had done.
Did it do any good? Perhaps not. I suspect that of all the characters in the play, the one Euripides identifies with the most is Cassandra. Cassandra given gift of prophecy by Apollo. When she refused his advances, he didn't take away gift, made it so no one would believe her. Incredibly frustrating! Frustration Euripides himself must have felt. Frustration of everyone that loves truth--and yet, for Euripides, there may be some consolation. James Russell Lowell "Once to Every Man and Nation." "Though the cause of evil prosper, yet tis truth alone is strong. Though its portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong. Yet that scafold sways the future and behind the dim unknown, standeth god within the shadow keeping watch above his own."
Perhaps Euripides, despite his tears and his frustration, had the same confidence in the eventual victory of truth. Nevertheless, truth often enough goes to the scaffold, as we see in the case of a man who was perhaps an even greater prophet than Euripides--Socrates. Oracle at Delphi "wise is Sophocles, wise is Euripides, wisest of all Socrates."
To understand Socrates, important to undertand area that is the greatest of all of Greeks contributions, philosophy.