We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. ~Isaiah 64:8

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Euripides: The Bacchae, thoughts and quotes

A small group of ladies met months ago to begin reading through classics of Western literature.  We started at the very beginning with The Illiad and have continued on, though our number is only 3 now, reading through The Orestia (Aeschylus), Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Collnus (Sophocles), and now Euripides' The Bacchae.  It has been a great adventure!  And I'm continually astounded by how real and current the issues are....ok, not the gouging out your eyes, but the centrality of pride as the tragic flaw.

This will not be an academic analysis...it is just one woman's notes and thoughts on an Ancient and Classic play.  I'm determined to prove to myself, and to my children, that "classic" does not mean inaccessible, and that learning doesn't stop just because you are no longer in school!

Some of our St David of Wales Feast day flowers.

So, we are learning together as we read (and our fearless "leader", though she wouldn't call herself that, I bet, re-reads).

By the end of our meeting last Friday, I came away fairly certain that what Euripides presents us with is an appeal to divinity.  He seems to ponder, "There must be something out there," as he shows us the hubris and folly of humans who believe in no divine thing, but he doesn't seem to know what it might be.  On the other hand we are presented with barbarism that can have no source in divinity, which should be above human passions and prides.  It seems he is almost saying, "There must be some god, but these crazy Greek gods aren't it!"

Euripides begins by exploring the concept of wisdom greater than human logic and a power greater than human strength.

line 200:
We do not trifle with divinity,
No, we are the heirs of customs and traditions 
hallowed by age and handed down to us 
by our fathers.  No quibbling logic can topple them,
whatever subtleties this clever age invents.

line 309:
Mark my words,
Pentheus.  Do not be so certain that power
is what matters in the life of men; do not mistake 
for wisdom the fantasies of your sick mind.

line 505:
You do not know
the limits of your strength.  You do not know
what you do.  You do know know who you are.

One of our cats, my particular buddy, has found a cubby hole hideout on my desk.  This is why I cannot stay organized!

There are themes of knowing oneself - that self-deception is the greatest deception and the greatest foolishness.  And here Pentheus (the young ruler, who distrusts anything that isn't logical) is told by a disguised Dionysus that he doesn't know what he's doing...we know, because of foreshadowing, that he is going to have a tragic end.

line 636:
.... A man, a man, and nothing more,
yet he presumed to wage a war with a god.

line 641:
Wise men know constraint: our passions are controlled.

Pentheus is warned time and again not to try to war against the god, Dionysus.  That it will be his end, but in his great pride he cannot see his foolishness.

It is hard to have much pity for him at this point...he truly is prideful beyond belief!  But then Dionysus brings him down by his (Pentheus') own mother's hand - and we are stirred to pity for the disaster he's been lured into even if by his own pride.

It is too late for Pentheus and his entire family, they are all destroyed in the end, but the Chorus reminds us that it is not too late for the reader:

line 1000:
Against the unassailable he runs, with rage
obsessed.  Headlong he runs to death.
For death the gods exact, curbing by that bit
the mouths of men.  They humble us with death
that we remember what we are who are not god,
but men.  We run to death.  Wherefore, I say,
accept, accept:
humility is wise, humility is blest.

and at 1151:
Humility, a sense of reverence before the sons of heaven - 
of all the prizes that a mortal man might win,
these, I say, are wisest; these are best.

A typical school day.  This is about half of our school room. 

Euripides questions the Olympian gods' motives and actions directly:
line 1348:
Gods should be exempt from human passions.

But we have seen the very opposite of this from the god Dionysus, whose passions have driven him to brutality.

Both central characters: Dionysus and Pentheus are completely inflexible.  But we can expect a man, especially a young man, to be flawed by pride...but not a god.  Surely, Euripides wasn't suggesting that these pitiless gods were worth our devotion.  Rather, he is presenting us with a quandary he was trying to solve: we must have belief in something beyond ourselves; otherwise, we become entirely at the mercy of own "sick minds".  Clearly, however, these gods are not it.

(the lines refer to the translation by W. Arrowsmith, U. Chicago press)


wayside wanderer said...

Wow, that is quite the endeavor. That is great and especially that you know others interested in doing the same. That kitty is cute!

Kerry said...

That kitty is cute! She's our oldest (7 years) and is my best buddy. :)

Not an endeavor at all. The books, so far, have been completely accessible and fascinating!

Set in the Cleft said...

Hi Kerry, I'm new to your blog. How did your group determine the list of literature you would cover. I know several moms who might be quite interested in such a venture. I love how you said that you never stop learning :)

Kerry said...

Set in the Cleft - We are using the book "Invitation to the Classics". We are not necessarily going to read every book listed. For example,we skipped the Odyssey and Herodotus. Although, we all agreed we might go back to Herodotus at some point.

We all have a copy of the book and can read the synopsis beforehand. This helps with some with just understanding the story. There is also great background information in this book! We generally use the discussion questions as a springboard for our own discussion...sometimes, though, we get WAY off topic. But, since it is a small group and our friendship is equally as important as our reading, we don't mind the rabbit trails. :)

I like being able to read the discussion questions before we meet, so I can think about them a little. I'm a slow-thinker, so it helps me contribute to the discussion.

Let me know if you decide to start a classics reading group!

Set in the Cleft said...

Well, you make it sound appealing! I am a CC Essentials tutor and my very best friend is a Challenge tutor.

Kerry said...

The friend who got this started (and is our defacto leader), has homeschooled her 3 boys who are all now grown. She insists the BEST way to encourage your children to love learning and the classics, is to develop a love for them yourself. Her boys were all boy and had no interest, despite her best efforts, in classics while they were in her home. Now all three VERY interested! They all agree it was the example she set by reading and studying them herself.

That is encouraging, isn't it?

What level Challenge does your friend tutor?