Seven Against Thebes (4)


Antiope, Queen of Thebes, with her twins Amphion and Zethus
1535-45, Vincent Sellaer (1500-1589), The Louvre
(Thanks to Brian)


All the members of the Theban plot were educated men. They knew not only the myth of Dirce and Antiope, but also the famous play by Euripides concerning the fates of the two women. This play, entitled Antiope, was first staged in Athens about thirty years earlier, around the year 410 B.C. It immediately gained great admiration and henceforth it belonged to the best-read. It did not come down to our times in its entirety, but we know its plot quite well since various ancient authors took great pleasure in quoting from it; and besides, more recently a few fragments had been discovered among the papyri of Egypt.

To what did this play owe its tremendous success? Clearly, not the plot alone, since the ancient reader, perfectly familiar with the myth, knew in advance the course events would take. Rather, people praised the way the action was developed, and, above all its main intellectual motif, threading, as it was, through all the scenes: it was the great quarrel between Amphion and Zethus – a quarrel between the man of thought and the man of action concerning their ideas as to what was in life most valuable, and as to the most worthy, most appropriate attitude to life a worthy man should choose. Of course, putting in the mouths of his heroes long speeches concerning these things, Euripides was touching upon subjects which appealed not to the mythical times, but the times in which he himself lived. In Athens of his day one often heard arguments between those who recommended the life of intellectual speculation and artistic production and those who claimed that for the state and the society the only thing that mattered was practical works – that is, mainly – political and military action.

Here is the accusation which, in the play, Zethus lays before his brother:

“You take great care of immaterial things, but you ignore those things which should be the main object of all our efforts. Nature had given you man’s muscles, but you ignore them most unworthily. In this you act like a woman. Would you know how to carry a shield? Or how to throw a spear at its target? If a great danger threatens you and your beloved ones, you will find yourself lacking in courage and in the strength of your shoulder! Do not praise here all those skills which in the end only lead to this that a capable and brave person becomes weak and worthless. A man who takes pleasure only in singing, and who makes composing pretty verses his main object, will be of no use to his family and his state! I hate people who show no energy in their action and who are only wise in words. Hear out my good counsel, brother: cast away your useless lyre! Take a spear into your hand! If you wish to be known as a wise man, you must know how to drive the plough, how to drive the chariot, and how to win in combat. Leave these smart games to others, games which will never fill your barn, or the treasure house of our state!”

But Amphion answered him:

“You accuse me of weakness. You are mistaken because a nimble mind has a greater strength than the most muscular arm. It is the mind of man which rules cities; and that enriches its houses. And once war begins, it is the mind which brings victory. Thousands of powerful arms will not achieve that which one capable and cunning head will do. The crowd’s greatest misfortune is its stupidity. Look at athletes who only care for their bodies: how incapable they are of resisting true misfortune, how useless they are to the society! They are no more than slaves of a particular diet and a particular exercise regime! And the rich man, who rejects everything which might make his life more pleasant, does not deserve, in my opinion, to be considered fortunate; he is no more than a janitor, a mere guardian of his temporal goods. But such is the fate of the mortals: Neithher good fortune, nor bad, rule them entirely, but they mutually and restlessly yield to each other. And since happiness is so temporary, why should I not enjoy its gifts while pain still spares me? I like singing, and I like philosophizing, but the sort which does not touch upon the touchy business of politics. What sort of madness is this, to concern oneself, without any obvious need to, with this wild confusion of dark intrigue and dirty self-interest while one can live in peace and sweet pleasure? He who appreciates peace is a good friend, a worthy citizen; one can always rely on him. Do not praise a life full of adventure! I loathe as much a thoughtless guide as I do a leader of a state who is all too willing to tempt unknowable fate!”

The brothers exchanged such arguments, and the chorus, which listened in, dared side neither with Amphion nor with Zethus. It only went so far as to say that every topic, as long as smart and well-spoken men seize upon it, can be presented in two opposite but equally interesting ways. The poet himself, on the other hand, following the myth, gave the final victory to Amphion because the sound of his lyre moved even the stones in the end.

As we already said, it was not really the argument of Amphion and Zethus, but, through their mouths, of two young men living in the fifth century, in any of the cities of Greece: in Athens, Thebes, or Corinth. This argument about attitudes to life was in fact fought within the educational systems of the moment which had, as its object, to nurture both the student’s physical and mental capabilities. The palestra and the gymnasion were places for physical exercise, while the teachers of music and grammar inculcated the abilities of playing musical instruments, singing, and the knowledge of poetry and rhetoric. But this balance between the two goals of education remained only an unattained ideal. For most, physical abilities and the simple art of reading, writing and arithmetic were enough, and only as far as these last were needed for everyday life. These not-so-bright physical types looked with disdain upon their physically unfit colleagues, who, with the enthusiasm of fools, committed all their time to matters completely useless: they got excited by novelties of poetry, disputed various absurd ideas of philosophers, quite seriously debated the influence of music upon the intellect, and, instead of training upon the sands of the gymnasion, drew upon it weird geometrical figures!

And so, the myth of Antiope served Euripides only as a background, or perhaps we should say, a pretext, to show matters which in fact touched upon his own times. He was one of the first to touch this subject, a subject which in the subsequent centuries, philosophers, writers and poets would often take up: the conflict between two life ideals, the great quarrel between, as the Greeks said it, bios theoreticos and bios practicos.

When we read the charge and the defense today, twenty five centuries later, the arguments of both sides appear to us superficial and naïve. But we should take a gracious bow before this very beautiful scene of Antiope: it is the first clearly stated program of intellectual rebellion against the earthly, practical, narrow-minded horizons. It is from that moment on that the sacred worship of theory, though sometimes suppressed and sometimes ridiculed, begins to spread on our continent. We owe to her the glory and the tragedy of science of modern times.

One must observe here, by the way, with shame and sadness, that Zethus, the sworn enemy of bios theoreticos, would find numerous followers even today… But perhaps the future does not belong to them?


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