Unit 11

   English 201: 
  Masterpieces of Western Literature
.Unit 11 Reading Course Reading Entry Page
Introduction Background .Explication Questions Review


You learned how the Greek/Western desire for reductionism (for definitively settling matters at any cost) can lead to tragedy.

You learned a little bit about the philosophical outlook called pragmatism, which recognizes that every truth claim has a specific context, addresses a specific community, & implies relevant tests.  What works scientifically cannot be adequately assessed by communities devoted to law or aesthetics or religion.  Each community is dedicated to values that define it: science to empirical truth, art to aesthetics, the law to justice, religion to the meaningfulness of our life experience.  Reductionism picks one community's view & insists that it alone is important.  Pragmatism recognizes that although we have one life, we have many identities grounded in several communities. Antigone would rather die than admit that life has many dimensions.  Medea simply murders those who threaten to open her world to new dimensions.

(Antigone) 788    [Haemon to Creon]  Now don't please,
                               be quite so single-minded, self-involved,
                               or assume the world is wrong & you are right.

Explicitly we learned about the clashes in values between male & female, between professional affiliations & family life, or between politics & family.

We learned that the Greeks did not simply tolerate diversity, they saw it as a virtue.  One of the attraction of living in a city instead of a village or police state is the diversity of opinion & outlook.  Thus Haemon tells his father:
824      It's no city at all, owned by one man alone.

Both plays illustrate Tiersias insight that the fundamental human problem is not that we make mistakes or even that we lose our temper (like AK), but that we remain dedicated to failed policies or practices out of pride:
1132 All men make mistakes, it is only human.
            But once the wrong is done, a man
            can turn his back on folly, misfortune too . . . .
            brands you for stupidity--pride is a crime.

Hopefully, we learned how subtle & alluring narcissism can be.  Many readers "fall for" Medea, uncritically accepting her rationalizations about how she should be forgiven for all the corpses she leaves, because she did out of love & desperation.

Aeschylus illustrated one sense of cultural pride in the Athenian invention of due process & trial by jury.  Euripides illustrates another sense of pride in appealing to rule by law in place of the kind of primitive & repellant violence illustrated by Medea.  Athens is
489    a society where force yields place to law
& people like Medea are considered barbaric.

We know that Aeschylus & Sophocles subscribed to the belief that suffering brings with it the compensation of wisdom.  We sometimes say that we are "sadder but wiser" for the experience.  Euripides is more cynical.  His character, Medea, fails to learn anything.  She is as barbaric & narcissistic at the end as she was in the beginning.  Three or four rounds of murder fail to change her in any way (her brother, Pelias, Creon & Glauce, her children).  Euripides' final image is terrifying: Medea is pulled into madness by dragons, still in command of logic &, above all, still convinced she is righteous.  This is the portrait of a Nazi, of madness that is distinctively Western: the moral madman who slaughters millions in the name of God or some synonym.

This is the end of unit 11 & the end of our study of ancient Greek literature & culture.  We have 3 units left in this course.  We will study Dante's late medieval outlook in The Inferno next time.  Following that our last two lessons will consider early Renaissance works by the Italian Boccaccio & the Spaniard Cervantes.  See you next week.