Morality, Politics and Religion in Euripidean Tragedy

By: Jon Hesk

Last summer (2014), I was invited to give a lecture on Euripides to the Institute of Ideas’ summer ‘Academy’ at  Wyboston Lakes in Bedfordshire.  The Institute recorded the lecture and discussion and it is now available on Soundcloud (see link below and also see the handout and powerpoint that went with it).

In the lecture, I try to isolate the complexity of Greek tragedy’s engagement with moral questions.  The theme of the Academy was ‘morality’ and my case study was Euripides.  Euripides’ tragedies travel particularly well across and between cultures, spaces and time.  But they often do so at the price of over-simplification and wishful thinking on the part of thinkers, artists and scholars.  Of course, none of us can entirely escape a reading of Greek tragedy which is informed by our own position (historical, moral, cultural and ideological…).  But with a bit of effort, we can recover the ways in which Euripides’ dramas explore the nature and effects of vicious thinking and hollow public morality through the medium of myth and in relation to the peculiarities of late fifth-century Athenian society.  In the lecture, I argue that Euripides’ plays are not, as is sometimes thought, radical critiques of religious practice and belief.  Nor are they proto-feminist tracts.  Rather, they stage the difficulty of moral, social and political decision-making in a world where external forces are ineluctable (and yet often hard to detect), stakes are high (and yet not always easily perceived as such), and humans have the capacity to reason between courses of action (and yet find themselves in dilemmas fuelled by emotion and conflicting moral imperatives).  Euripides’ intellectual and aesthetic ‘edginess’ is real but its precise dimensions and modern relevance can only be found if we regard his plays as staging inquiries and debates within a religious and social framework which is conservative in certain respects. I also make a case for seeing Euripidean tragedy as ‘political’ in a certain, specific, sense.

At the end of the lecture, the audience asked me lots of excellent questions and you are likely to learn as much from that discussion as from the lecture itself!

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