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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Back to Teaching -- Euripides, Protagoras, Plato

The second week of my summer intensives begins. Today we are taking up mater dolorosa, queen of sorrows, Euripides' "Hecuba." Staging three agon, or argumentative struggles between the former Queen, now enslaved and cast out of her country, mourning the slaughter of her many children, and three supremely powerful men who betrayed her, Agamemnon, Odysseus, and King Polymestor (with whom her youngest son was taken for safekeeping but murdered for his money). One way to read the play is as a spectacle of conspicuous sorrows, in which we observe Hecuba take blow after blow (the ghost of her son Polydorus reveals to the audience in advance all the indignities to follow, so that we are not surprised but rather witness her surprise over and over), a kind of pornography of misfortune, a reductio ad absurdum of catharsis spectatorship that seems to reveal the Aristotelian purgation of antisocial emotion as an obscene reveling in antisociality. Another way to read the play is as Hecuba's redemption from Point Zero through her deployment of rhetoric, consummated in her declaration as a defeated foreigner, a woman, a slave that the victorious Greek sovereign Odysseus is more slave (to vanity, to gain) than she, and wins the chance to accuse and convict and revenge herself on one of her betrayers -- at the final cost of becoming him. Then we turn to the sophist Protagoras, reading both surviving fragments of his work and then the Platonic dialogue bearing his name. We will consider the image of both sides that theirs is a position of modesty (the philosopher relinquishing desire to logic, the sophist relinquishing certainty to finitude) and the charge from each that their opponent is fatally immodest (the philosopher disruptively cocksure, the sophist anthropocentrically relativist). As we see, logoi dissoi (the sophistical postulate that there are at least two sides to every question, as well as the sophistical discipline of being able forcefully to argue from the multiple even contradictory vantages -- a premise and technique associated with none other than Protagoras) is especially evocative applied to the notion of logoi dissoi. Naturally enough, we will take up the role of paradox in wit, whether that of the sophists or of the supremely sophistical anti-sophist Socrates (Oscar Wilde is sure to come up at some point). An observation about the threatening attractiveness of teenagers just beginning to shave to dirty old goat-faced philosophers turns out to be anything but a side-issue.

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