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Mutability Justifies Equanimity

The Conservative Temper in Greek Tragedy

ISSUE:  Winter 1973

In March of 1970 Senator Roman Hruska, Republican of Nebraska, supported the nomination of Judge Carswell to the Supreme Court by commenting: “Even if he were mediocre, there are lots of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters, and Cardozos and stuff like that there.” To some critics of the present administration this unfortunately­worded statement epitomizes a wholly negative attitude that they associate with conservative politics generally. And, indeed, we should criticize Senator Hruska if he were urging the President to seek out weak or unresponsive leadership. On the other hand, we should applaud the Senator if he meant to insist that individuals of average intellect can possess moral authority, and if he refuses to allow only persons of extraordinary mental ability to determine his society’s ethical systems.

This second interpretation needs to be considered seriously as the intent of notable conservatives like President Nixon, former Attorney General Mitchell, and, most prominently, Vice President Agnew. In fact, I suggest the possibility that, far from being negative in their political stance, they may be speaking for a positive way of living that was declared many centuries ago in the Western literary tradition to be entirely honorable and efficacious. It seems unlikely that Mr. Agnew and his colleagues are much concerned with literary antecedents. Nonetheless, if they were to survey one of the earliest expressions of the conservative mentality they might well claim for their orientation a venerable, articulate predecessor. I suggest that American conservatism may reiterate an ethical position defended by almost every chorus in Greek tragedy. Greek drama here is clearly relevant to our time: the Athenian theater defined a style of conduct that, whatever its ultimate limitations, enables untalented (“mediocre”) persons to deal with a frightening world.

For many people in our society there seems to be very little connection among contemporary drama, public affairs, and philosophy. But for the Athenian in the fifth century B.C. the theater was not divorced from moral philosophy or from politics and practical affairs. All these concerns came together during annual outdoor drama festivals that most citizens attended enthusiastically. Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides were celebrated not merely as accomplished poets, musicians, and stage producers, but also as responsible spokesmen occupied with the profound ethical problems confronting their new democracy. They were political writers in the broad sense that they dramatized the crucial and perplexing dealings men have had habitually with their gods, with their society, and with their kin.

On this subject—the total politics of getting along in the world—the tragedians were considered experts (Plato, of course, later disagreed strenuously). Yet, and this makes Athenian drama especially interesting to us, the tragedies did not volunteer solutions to specific issues of the day. They did project, mainly through the narrative medium of myths ancient even at that time, two fundamental approaches that individuals then (as now) could take to the solution of their particular dilemmas. These two approaches can be labeled the heroic, typically adopted by aristocratic, self-assertive, dynamic leaders, and the choric, typically adopted by characters who are weak, undistinguished, humble, or fallen in status. The heroic temperament in Greek tragedy, particularly in Sophocles, has received much worthwhile scholarly attention lately; but, since an energetic debate among the great nineteenth-century German philologists, the chorus has seldom been seen as an entity that, various as it may be in composition and in dramatic function, repeats in the extant plays a single, consistent, and distinctive attitude toward conduct.

In order to synthesize this recurrent attitude, however, one must consider besides the chorus several categories of characters closely associated with the chorus in formulating the standpoint—minor figures, mostly commoners, who assume subordinate rôles in the action; authoritative wisdom-­figures (gods, kings, leaders, and seers) when they assume counseling rôles; and aristocratic figures whose age, sex, or helplessness relegates them to an ineffectual position. These characters, together with the chorus, often display a common orientation that, needless to say, will be modified somewhat by each playwright’s intellectual emphases and by the dramatic situation. Moreover, complications are introduced by several characters who evidence both the choric and heroic standpoints. Still, a remarkably coherent outlook does emerge that serves as an ethical counterpoint to the heroic temper.

The controlling metaphysical impetus behind this outlook is the concept of flux. Choruses and choric individuals in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are intimidated by the instability of existence: their first certainty is their complete uncertainty, their pathetic susceptibility to change for the worse. They realize that while they may conceive causal probabilities and logical expectations, fortune’s incomprehensible shifts can invalidate every hope and every accomplishment at any moment. Their defensive response to this predicament is to establish personal equilibrium in two ways—first, through self-control (moderation in speech and deed) together with ready adjustment to adverse circumstance; and secondly, through commitment to divine providence. In both respects, the choric personality shows his conservative nature: he seeks to preserve life, health, property, and above all, the traditional ethical and religious values that protect persons of limited talent from life’s disasters. Some non­choric figures, too, announce faith in balanced judgment and in divine justice, but the actions of heroic antagonists usually demonstrate a radically antithetic value. In contrast to the heroic individual, whose aggressive confidence in his worth sometimes knows no bounds, the choric individual places his trust in temperance and in reverence. He admires the uncompromising drive for magnificent achievement and recognition; however, awed by his own helplessness before fortune’s instability, he opts for long life rather than glorious reputation. For the choric temperament, mutability necessitates equanimity.

In Aeschylus the idea of mutability is regularly promulgated by the chorus. “Man’s fate that sets a true/course,” the chorus of elders declares in “Agamemnon,” “yet may strike upon/the blind and sudden reefs of disaster.” In Euripides’ works, choric individuals are as vocal as the choruses on this concept. An attendant in “The Heracleidae” sounds the keynote: “Don’t envy men/Because they seem to have a run of luck,/Since luck’s a nine days’ wonder. Wait their end.” Principal characters in Euripides are not commonly so pessimistic; for example, heroic Heracles (“Alcestis”) disdains “the whole parcel” of “solemn” types for whom “life is not really life but a catastrophe.” Yet several major figures, placed in uncomfortable situations, do become impressed with the inconstancy of fortune. Amphitryon (“Heracles”) and Agamemnon (“Iphigenia in Aulis”) echo the captive Hecuba’s comment (which sounds like a message from Ecclesiastes): “We are nothing; our ambition, greatness, pride,/all nothing” (“Hecuba”).

As in Euripides, several principal figures in Sophocles join minor characters and the choruses on the theme of flux. Philoctetes offers the notion as a helpless and pitiable (though not intimidated) castaway—”Look how men live always precariously/balanced between good and bad fortune”—while Odysseus in “Ajax” presents the notion as a mature counselor—”We are dim shapes, no more, and weightless shadow.” The same traditional wisdom is heard at the beginning of “The Women of Trachis” and at the conclusion of “Oedipus Rex.”

In defense against the ever-present challenge of flux, the choric mentality conceives regulative principles that make for stable, coherent behavior. To govern conduct it confides in the venerable moderation-in-all-things rule: if a long, peaceful life is preferable to momentary brilliance, then daring and impetuosity become evils to be avoided, while prudence and flexibility become prime virtues, along with patience to bear the hardships that will arise despite every precaution. Euripides is especially rich in comments on this principle. “The ways of life that are most fanatical,” the Nurse claims in “Hippolytus,” “trip us up more, they say, than bring us joy.” As the Nurse in ”Medea” insists, “Greatness brings no profit to people,” or as the helpless Iphigenia puts the point, “It is better that we live ever so/Miserably than die in glory” (“Iphigenia in Aulis”). Naturally, not every choric character in Euripides agrees with Iphigenia’s statement. Even so, most Euripidean figures too old, weak, or subservient to play a dominant rôle, and all the choruses, place a premium upon growing old gracefully or, short of that, simply growing old in any way possible.

“Patience,” “temperance,” and “discretion” are stressed also by Sophocles’ choric characters, despite forceful arguments to the contrary presented by Sophocles’ heroic characters. Occasionally a chorus or a minor figure will, as in Euripides, approve the death-before-disgrace viewpoint. Nevertheless, the prevailing choric opinion agrees with the standpoint adopted by Chrysothemis, Electra’s weak sister, who counsels “good sense,” “prudence,” and acquiescence to “those that have the strength” (“Electra”). Similarly, in Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound,” for example, Oceanos advises Prometheus to “Yield/to your misfortunes,” and the chorus of “Agamemnon” affirms that “the curse of great daring/shines clear.” The tragic spectacle, of course, attests to the sanctity of both the choric and heroic attitudes: “Humble men without their princes/Are a frail prop for a fortress,” the chorus of sailors declares in Sophocles’ “Ajax.” “They/Should be dependent upon the great,/And the great be upheld by lesser ones.” But the requisite balance of contradictory life styles is difficult to attain. Ajax finds it impossible, and after his suicide the chorus can only repeat to the remaining adversaries a hope shared by other choruses of Sophocles: “I wish you both might learn a moderate mind!”

Temperance, then, is the recurring guide for conduct. Ultimately, however, the choric individual requires the blessing of an absolute authority that rewards well-ordered behavior and punishes the intemperate. Although Aeschylus has often been called the most reverent tragedian, both Sophocles and Euripides have also written many pious speeches for subordinate characters who, aware of fortune’s changeability, indicate their commitment to the Olympian deities and to a supreme power beyond those deities working for justice in the world. One cannot disregard the spirited questioning by some of Euripides’ choric characters as to divine wisdom. There are, as has been observed often enough, downright heretical remarks; Polymestor in “Hecuba,” for instance, attributes mutability to the viciousness of the gods. Even in Euripides, however, characters are present to assert some form of absolute justice, whether or not derived from or executed by the Olympians. Hecuba articulates the concept consistently. Despite her disgust with the “reeling way” of “fortune’s course,” she preserves her faith in an undefinable “power” that “brings all human action back to right at last” (she manages, of course, to implement this force with a few well-placed dagger thrusts). The choric voice in Euripides, as well as in Aeschylus and Sophocles, announces a “principle of order” whose potency authorizes, rather than is authorized by, the traditional gods. It constantly exhorts its listeners to “Keep alive the light of justice” (“The Suppliant Women”).

It is not surprising that the choric type entrusts his hopes to a supernatural power guaranteeing justice, because he himself does not command the social resources adequate to ensure equality if he acts as an individual of secondary status or as a weak, enslaved, or self-effacing nobleman. Indeed, the most salient trait of the thirty-four tragic choruses (except the Furies in Aeschylus’ “Eumenides”), as well as most of the minor characters, is their dependence. Over half the choruses are composed of females whose subordinate social and dramatic status is often accentuated by their position as youthful maidens, servants, captives, refugees, or aliens. Elderly male citizens comprise the next most frequent chorus type: here a secondary rôle is signaled by age rather than by sex. Other choruses—sailors, huntsmen, and guards—and most minor figures, whether generic or named—commonly messengers, servants, slaves, heralds, and children—are still lower in public rank and in dramatic importance. Usually offered very little help by the heroic actors, these characters must look to that resource available to the non-heroic mentality—equanimity achieved through self-discipline and religious conviction. Along with several wise authority-figures and certain disadvantaged aristocrats, they seek a “way” to deal with the perpetual mutability so vividly exemplified by the disasters witnessed in the present action. Those disasters are almost always brought on by the egomania—the intransigence and rashness—of the chief antagonists. To that egomania the choric viewpoint stands opposed as a consistent ethical counterclaim.

One would not expect to find this viewpoint duplicated in every detail by recent political attitudes. Choric characters make relatively few speeches, surprisingly, on a favorite subject of conservative orators in the United States, devotion to country. Nor does the contemporary preoccupation with wealth receive an equivalent amount of attention in Athenian tragedy. Yet the plays do reflect the same general dilemma that faces men today and the same answer men today often propose. The dilemma arises from our awareness of the fragility of human achievement and even human existence: how does one maintain balance while being buffeted by the radical insecurities of social, professional, and family life? The answer: avoid extreme remedies and “fanatical” positions, rely on temperate action; work for steady endurance rather than temporary brilliance, for peace of mind rather than reputation; alleviate those ills that one can, but adjust to those beyond one’s control; and trust in the efficacy of an absolute force operating to secure justice in the world. This solution does not supply the specific details needed to cope with particular problems and disappointments. It does provide an ongoing rationale that makes possible an accommodation to what Nietzsche called “the pain of living.”

I believe that the modern conservative style may be a reincarnation of this defense mechanism articulated by the Athenian playwrights (and proposed by many other writers also, both before and since). The Greek chorus does not represent democratic man, or ideal man, or inconsequential man; the Greek chorus represents conservative man. As such, it invokes values that are obviously valid today. But two difficulties have been inherited with this gift donated by Greeks. First, how may the conservative mass live with and benefit from the exceptionally talented, self-assertive individual? Secondly, how may the conservative mass distinguish between authentic expressions of its orientation and bastardized versions peddled by dishonest or stupid politicians? Certainly no American party can claim to be without leaders who substitute opportunism for flexibility, miserliness for prudence, or mechanical conformism for ethical continuity and religious trust. It is unfortunate to see, in short, stability confused with inertia. Yet when persons of conservative temper judge these matters they may well be reassured, perhaps enlightened, by the clear choric voices that spoke at another decisive period in our civilization.


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