τὰ χρήστ’ ἐπιστάμεσθα καὶ γιγνώσκομεν,
οὐκ ἐκπονοῦμεν δ’, οἱ μὲν ἀργίας ὕπο,
οἱ δ’ ἡδονὴν προθέντες ἀντὶ τοῦ καλοῦ
What’s best for us we know and recognize,
but we don’t do it, some of us from laziness,
others because we prefer some other pleasure
to what’s good.
Euripides Hippolytus 380-384
Have you been in love lately and wondered what’s going wrong?
The Hippolytus, performed in Athens in 428 BCE, explores the pathological poles of erotic obsession and sexual phobias, which are as timeless today as some 2,500 years ago. The play is a terrifying study of star-crossed love that we might all profit from rereading once in a while in order to remind ourselves how not to behave. In a Roman version, Ovid’s Medea, plunging into a catastrophic affair with the feckless Jason announces that video meliora proboque, | deteriora sequor (Metamorphoses 7.20-21: “I see the better course and approve of it, | but I pursue the worse one”).
In Latin, in Greek … in English: same old same old!
We have in Euripides’ play more than a hint or two of themes familiar from our contemporary lexicon of family dysfunction, such as incest, false accusation resulting in alienation of affection among family members, father-son conflict, sexuality dangerously expressed, sexuality dangerously repressed. But the Hippolytus should not be mistaken for a kind of Krafft-Ebing sociological tract on the psychopathology of sex in antiquity.
In the verses above, Phaedra, the young woman secretly burning for her husband’s son, gives pained voice to both the towering power of passion when not reined in and the utter helplessness of reason when confronted with this elemental force of our human nature. Her intellect understands what she is doing, she herself recognizes a debacle in the making, and yet she sees herself as impotent victim incapable of rational action. She is in love … in love with her destructive love! As her nurse has just said (359-60), οἱ σώφρονες γάρ, οὐχ ἑκόντες ἀλλ’ ὅμως, / κακῶν ἐρῶσι (“clever people are in love with bad choices, not willingly, but in love nonetheless!”). Does this sound like self-help gurus on this week’s best-seller lists offering us allegedly novel revelations about men and women in love who need to be humiliated, hurt, frustrated, belittled, manipulated, destroyed, whatever?
From their earliest literature (Homer’s Iliad) the ancient Greeks recognized passionate love – ἔρως erōs – as very much a two-edged sword. Just think of the consequences that the (reciprocated) passion of Paris for Helen had among the Greeks, not to mention the wretched Trojans. A common metaphor in ancient literature for ἔρως was fire (just like in country-western songs!), a suitably compendious emblem for an ambivalent phenomenon that, controlled, can drive useful and productive technologies, but, its own master, will destroy cities. Much of ancient Greek literature – its poetry, its history, its philosophy – acknowledges unashamedly the feral imperatives of naked human passion and probes ameliorating conduits for channeling its ubiquitous potential to effect colossal personal and public disasters.
Euripides does not put forth utilitarian bromides in this play as if to suggest that there are facile answers to complex problems. There aren’t, he joins other ancients in assuring us moderns. What he does is spin out with a certain mesmerizing inevitability the horrific consequences of human choices about sexuality that have been foolishly made.
As for me, it’s not how I want holy Aphrodite to visit me!
Read the beautiful poetry of this beautiful play, and at least think about what not to be or do – for when that day comes!