Redmer Yska talks to Stuart Lawrence, the author of Moral Awareness in Greek Tragedy.
Nowadays the term ‘Greek tragedy’ tends to be applied, when not to the Euro crisis, to the public unravelling of a luminous career. We heard it again recently when the suitably Greek-sounding CIA boss David Petraeus fell on his sword after an extramarital affair.
Technically, of course, it describes a particular genre of fevered drama written and performed in Athens 2500 years ago. The works of playwrights Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus typically chart the fall of a noble hero through fate, pride and the will of the gods (or a combustible mix of all three).
The tragedies themselves still get dusted off, even if commercial imperatives meant that a recent production of Oedipus, renamed Oedipussy, was billed as “Sophocles meets James Bond”. Yet to acknowledge that the ancient Olympics showcased drama as well as sweaty athletics, the Oedipus Saga of five tragedies was performed this year in London.
Stuart Lawrence, senior lecturer in classical studies at the Palmerston campus, says to enter the world of Greek tragedy is to strip away the protective coverings of modern life and confront the human condition in the raw. He still recalls reading the plays in the original Greek during his final year at college in Tasmania in the mid-1960s.
“I was fascinated with their dramatisation of human beings on the edge, as it were, involved in worst-case scenarios (such as Oedipus’ discovery that he has killed his father and married his mother), and how the characters react and understand their relationship with the world and, in the terms of their culture, the gods who have inflicted such sufferings on them.”
Half a century on, Lawrence’s continuing fascination with Greek tragedy is evidenced in his new book, Moral Awareness in Greek Tragedy. Starting with a definition of morality itself and exploring trends in moral philosophy, Lawrence probes characters’ recognition of moral issues and crises, their ability to reflect on them, and their consciousness of doing so. He is particularly interested in exploring the problem of autonomy and personal responsibility within a world view that sees humankind as subject to the caprices of the gods.
The book, published by Oxford University Press, then moves on to a detailed analysis of 14 individual plays, including such landmark works as Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes, Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus and Euripides’ Medea.
Why did you write the book?
“I’m interested in how people see their worlds and how this understanding relates to their psychologies. One of the most illuminating ways people that interact with their worlds is through engaging in moral deliberation. Does a particular moral decision emerge from an immediate intuition or from a process of deliberation? If from the latter, what are the constituent elements of such a process? In a work of literature the process may be laid out for us to examine. Here there are additional challenges. Greek tragedy is the product of an alien culture, but, not only that, it dramatises an artificial world that contains elements derived not only from the contemporary world of its ancient audience, but also from an imaginary world of myth.”
Is Greek tragedy still relevant in the 21st century?
“Absolutely. It presents human beings in extreme situations confronting their destinies. Reading or, better, seeing a Greek tragedy should be an emotionally cathartic experience. We are forced to face the full intellectual and emotional implications of the terrifying scenarios. One of the characteristics of our age is to hide from unpleasant and messy matters like death (people don’t die any more, they ‘pass away’). Greek tragedy will have none of that. Perhaps we’d do better to face these things, at least vicariously through literature.”
Which of the tragedies you discuss is your favourite?
“I have a particular fondness for Seven Against Thebes. Oedipus cursed his two sons, saying they would kill each other fighting over the throne of Thebes. One son, Polyneices, is about to attack the city with a foreign army. The other, Eteocles, the King of Thebes, must defend it. Thebes has seven gates, and Polyneices has arranged that a formidable warrior shall attack each gate. Eteocles picks suitable opponents and includes himself. When the name of the seventh is announced, it is his brother. Eteocles realises the gods have cornered him. They have been working mysteriously through all his ‘free’ decisions and now have confronted him with their purpose to destroy him and his brother. He becomes fatalistic, and rightly so as there is no escape from the divine will. I can imagine no more vividly conceived encounter of a man with his irrational and amoral (immoral?) destiny, with the dreadful realisation that this is the end and all that is to be done is to meet it bravely.”
Do we need a new way to read Greek tragedy?
“It is fascinating to apply a modern scheme to a fictional world in which human psychology is rather differently conceived. Walter Glannon, a contemporary moral philosopher, for example, raises the vexed question of the autonomy of the deliberative process, but Greek tragedy often represents the gods as directly inspiring thoughts and feelings in the characters. That might seem to rule out autonomy, but sometimes these interventions are entirely in harmony with the natural psychology of the character.”
Is the 21st century an amoral age?
“People often say that the world has become a nastier place, but that seems unlikely, and I suspect that our standards have risen. In certain societies, at least, there is strong and institutionalised opposition to slavery, racism or irrational discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation, and that surely is moral progress.”
Are we still grappling with the same universal questions?
“Every age has to do that. It is part of being human. We are overwhelmingly defined by our mortality, and associated with that there is our radical vulnerability in the world, although modern technology manages to conceal that from us for a lot of the time. (The Greeks, on the other hand, lived precariously in a subsistence economy.) True, we don’t have to decide, like Orestes, whether to kill our mothers in order to avenge our fathers, or whether to make human sacrifices of our daughters in order to prosecute the Trojan War, but we can still face difficult dilemmas, and the way we choose to resolve them provides much insight into our characters. So you have to see in Greek tragedy the universals that underlie the particular preoccupations of a given society.”