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 Euripides: Hippolytos
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40 Posts

Posted - 17 Oct 2004 :  20:05:30  

Hello: Recently I re-read Euripides play Hippolytos which I think represents some unusual qualities in terms of the development of the main character, Hippolytos of whom the play is named.

When Euripides wrote Hippolytos in 428 (perhaps not the first version) the character of Hippolytos, whose name means one who binds and loosens horses, which is an activity only equaled by his other devotion of hunting wild animals, whom his father Theseus accuses contemptuously by stating that he practices vegetarianism by refusing to eat the meat he snares.

His fathers charge is not wholly convincing, yet it outlines a deep seated frustration by him to understand the character of his son and, how a son with Hippolytos unusual qualities could be accommodated within the wider polis which all Athenian sons were meant to participate in, once they reached or acquired the state of manhood.

Euripides tells us that Hippolytos was an illegitimate child who was sent from his father’s house in Athens to be raised by his paternal great-grandfather in Troezen. This early experience of transplantation from the polis of Athens in many ways represents, despite his many Athenian characteristics (including a wide social circle of friends) his status as one who was nevertheless the illegitimate and motherless child of an unnatural woman i.e. an Amazon, to the Athenian polis.

In this context it becomes more understandable why Hippolytos rejects the entry into the polis of Athenian society, which all sons of his rank were expected by their fathers or guardians to become actively involved in by way of a political career. It may be conceivable to explain Hippolytos rejection of the traditional masculine role in the Athenian polis as emanating from his own experience of exclusion, both from his actual father, Theseus the parent, and form those institutions that the democrat and citizen Theseus had sent him far away from as young boy.

Yet in Euripides play the modern categories which attempt to demarcate a persons character into a strictly public and private role or face seem futile in trying to describe a society that existed in a unity of purpose for each member, whose private capacity or incapacity was an addition or subtraction to the common good of the polis. Hippolytos rejection of a political career and Theseus’s frustrations at discerning the reasons for his son’s character, ultimately also make him to readily to believe in the false charge of rape that Phaidras brings against him. Hippolytos not only rejects Phaidra's advances but also entirely regrets the necessity of sex for procreation in which he proudly displays the value he has for his own chastity or "maiden soul".

Hippolytos who is neither decadent nor spoiled in his general conduct nevertheless displays many such virtues and activities, including also a love of books and hunting, that seem increasingly incompatible at a stage were he should be progressing beyond what Athenian society would probably consider as activities and virtues that belong more to stage of the ephebe.

Male chastity became a Christian virtue, but in the Athenian society of Euripides play such a "virtue" could only appear as a grave and peculiar transgression as it disbarred a man from adding to the public good through his inability to form an oikos that would automatically increase his public standing in Athenian society; by adding the gain of his private oikos to the whole community, were everyone benefited.

Perhaps its possible to see Hippolytos's rejection of public life in this light of one who refuses the adult world of both polis and oikos because he realises that there exists a direct relationship in which there is no division placed between the equally comparable importance of either form in Athenian society. The reason for his refusal to progress into manhood could possibly stem from his own early exile that accompanied a sense of injustice and hostility that he experienced towards his own obscure origins. Yet it is our modern theories that attempt to interpret Hippolytos as a character who is reducible to a few simple psychological parts, which I think fail to emphasis the social and religionus facets of Athenian society that actually informed the substance and mysterious contours of the character Euripide envisaged.

It is in terms these mysteries, rather than modern theories based on his supposedly ambivalent or "repressed" sexuality (that doesn't actually exist in Euripides character who could hardly be described as even being sexual in any sense yet, hence the absurdity of the rape charge) of Hippolytos which would prefer to explain his character solely by using the terms of a misplaced and misapplied modern theory, that often give crude answers because of its limited scope to examine the historical context of the drama itself.

Hippoytos aristocratic inclinations differ markedly from the democratic constitution of his father, Theseus, which may be seen or engendered in the light of his sons genuinely pious adherence to the rites he observed by his following of the Orphic sect, which his father expresses contempt for.

Hippolytos unusual chastity and purity of intention in matters concerning hunting, as well as his haughtiness in rejecting (the Goddess Aphrodite) the possibility of human-love in the form of marriage is connected pivotally with a form of mysticism that Euripides informs into the make up of the character, Hippolytos. The quarrel between father and son may indeed more fully resonate around this abundantly misplaced spiritual adherence that informs most of Hippolytos reactions to his father, and his "democratic society” which also includes some of his more negative traits i.e. narcissism, haughtiness, and ultimate disrespect towards his father.

The wrongly charged and, slightly ironical accusation of rape represents the antitheses of Hippolytos being, and so as they are evidently false, death still becomes the only symbol that can harmonise the moral and spiritual disequilibria that existed between father and son, obligation and the state, authority, freedom and the family that had emerged between the generations and, the wars Athens was engaging in during the conception of this play as written by Euripides.

If you have any other thoughts please add.




19 Posts

Posted - 18 Oct 2004 :  19:05:23  


Do you think we could say that Hippolytos represents a hero, a son of God, feeling a stranger in the life of Polis and being ‘betrayed’ by this life, betrayed by the very fact, first of all, that they could not understand him?

Since Polis was not ‘the State’, but the citizens, Polis as a larger family, distinct and connected, as you say, already in Homer, and in all cases starting from the ‘nuclear’ Union between two people - in Homer, e.g. Achilles and Patroclus, Achilles and Vrisiees , Helen and Hector, etc., - does, maybe, Hippolytos represents a shift to some degree, in the way of living with God and towards God, from love in all of love's forms, to a sort of ἀναχώρησις (anchoritic relationship) directly to God, the image of which was mirrored in customs like not eating meat, having sexual relationship, etc? I mean, this ‘rejection’ of Hippolytos, is a rejection of a relationship with God, or, maybe, a rejection of an adherence to certain (or any) ‘ascetical‘ customs? I don't know how familiar you are with Euripides and the whole life in his age, but from what you know, do you think it was an ‘offence’ to the Family and the Polis by an exceptional person, or was there a ‘trend’, let's say ‘mystical’, that had caused suspicions to the Polis, including, maybe, Plato? Because Plato builds upon Orphism in a way that we wouldn't say Orphism caused problems to Athens (on the contrary), which *may* mean that he also tried to teach those who participated in the Orphic ceremonies, the real or deeper meaning of what they did.

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40 Posts

Posted - 19 Oct 2004 :  22:49:29  


Hello Alkm:

Your observation about the Orphic tradition in the writings and, influence of Plato is a very interesting one. Is it possible that the charge of "corrupting the youth of Athens" that was brought against his friend and mentor, Socrates, within the same historical epoch of Euripides play, was related to the potentially dangerous influence that was perceived to exist in a philosophy which could of overturned the traditional Polis of Athenian society?.

Was the real threat or instability to Athenian society this “Orphic” content rather than the rational inquisitorial method that Socrates exemplified; was a form of philosophical mysticism which could prevent young men from forming an Oikos, become a danger to the continued security of the Polis which needed future generations of young men to defend the city in battles?.

The Orphic myths and rites, as clearly discernable in many of Plato’s works must of represented a considerably powerful source of worship in Athens- as potent as Christianity would become. What is interesting as a comparison is that Jesus’ radical doctrine also contains a divinely charged energy that states on occasion, that one must worship the divinity (the father) even more then all worldly possessions, including the human love of ones family and that of ones tribe or country which must be transgressed in order to love the divinity with all ones heart. This message is obviously one that if adhered to by many followers, would potentially rewrite the entire value system of what society should be. Christ’s death signifies this act in a pivot sense, but it also perhaps suggests that His Gospel as well as the Orphic mysteries of Plato’s Athens, should only be for the few rather than the many, despite the teaching of Christ, which maybe only shows the road to all people, but few might be desired to actually walk upon?


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19 Posts

Posted - 23 Oct 2004 :  14:59:16  


Socrates died voluntarily (he could have escaped) *for* the law of the city. By law he didn't understand, because they didn't have, a soulless and terrorist invention of a "State", but some of the reasons of the soul of all citizens, together deciding the character of their polis. Since we are today divided between every-x-years-voters and those who really have the power, it is difficult to understand Socrates.

Maybe we can try to imagine how it was, and understand how one can criticize and interpret, without denying or willing to deny the thoughts of the Polis. In my opinion, what Plato and Socrates did, was to go ahead of the Polis, in the very same path of the Polis, yet ahead enough to become invisible and even somehow frightening for the many. There is then the distinction between the many and the wise, but not as a radical one: the many can indeed change themselves, a visible proof of this ability being the very existence of their free Polis – and, almost paradoxically, not all will change...

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