My Top 5 Journal of Hellenic Studies Articles – Part III
Douglas Cairns concludes his exploration of his favourite articles from the Journal of Hellenic Studies archive. You can access these articles for free by following the links below, or you can read his previous post.
Greek values in general form the subject of Sir Kenneth Dover’s 1983 article ‘The Portrayal of Moral Evaluation in Greek Poetry’. This came out at the right time for me, just as I was beginning my PhD and beginning to grapple with current approaches to Greek popular ethics, especially A. W. H. Adkins’s 1960 monograph, Merit and Responsibility. Adkins’s approach had been criticized (notably by A. A. Long in JHS 1970), but remained very influential. The vigour of his ideas is attested by an exchange between Adkins, Hugh Lloyd-Jones, and Michael Gagarin in Classical Philology 1987 – four years after Dover’s article appeared – in which it is Adkins, on the whole, who gets the best of the argument. That, however, is an argument that is conducted largely on Adkins’s terms.
Dover’s piece prefigures the final demolition of Adkins’s arguments (in works such as Bernard Williams’s 1993 Shame and Necessity) by undermining the foundations on which Adkins’s approach is based. He does, indeed, begin by taking Adkins on own terms, pointing out instances in which Adkins fails to account for the full range of the ancient evidence; but by p. 40 he has moved onto new ground, insisting on close attention to the contexts in which ethical language is used, to the social relations that exist between interlocutors, to the presentation of character, and especially to speakers’ intentions (to the perlocutionary as well as the illocutionary force of their words) and to the rhetorical function of the utterance in its overall context (see esp. pp. 43-4). All of this, Dover urges, is to be interpreted in the light of our own experience of social relations. Words need such contexts: ‘Neither Greek nor English is a game played under rules which define certain words as trumps.’ The clash between the aischron and the dikaion in the Electra-plays (pp. 41-3) is not about ‘trumping’ but about the traditional problem of interfamilial retaliation. With due regard for the polyphony of epic and tragedy, Dover highlights the wide range of ways in which ethical issues are raised: characters’ pronouncements are not necessarily to be generalized; there is no simple choice between ‘authoritative’ and ‘non-standard’ evaluations. ‘Enquiry into the values apparently underlying favourable and unfavourable responses to events which have a moral aspect is a much larger task than scrutiny of passages which contain a common evaluative word’ (p. 44). ‘The determinants of the moral values of an individual or society are remarkably heterogeneous’ (p. 46).
In the important business of contrasting ancient and modern values, Dover insists on the need to compare like with like (p. 46): ordinary language with ordinary language, focusing on ‘thick’, socially embedded values. The entire article is a good illustration of how scholars used to be able to make important points of principle, theory, and method in ordinary, jargon-free language. Though there is much in Dover’s approach that could be extended and corroborated with reference to other disciplines, this by no means entails that his approach is unsophisticated (see e.g. p. 46 on forms of what one might now call cognitive bias).
I received my PhD at a graduation ceremony in December 1987. That year’s JHS has articles by Ernst Badian on the Peace of Callias, Robert Connor on the political manipulation of civic ceremonials in archaic Greece (especially Herodotus’ account of Pisistratus’ return), Simon Goldhill on the Great Dionysia, Robin Osborne on the Parthenon frieze, and Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood on erotic pursuits: another rich crop of classic articles that remain at the forefront of scholarly debate. But my favourite among them is Richard Seaford’s ‘The Tragic Wedding’. This is both an outstanding example of the upsurge in interest at that time in the sociology and ideology of gender in the literature and thought of ancient Greek societies (a tendency that received substantial impetus from ‘Law, Custom and Myth: the Social Position of Women in Classical Athens’, another of John’s Gould’s major contributions, published in 1980’s centenary issue of JHS) and one of a series of seminal articles of the same period – including major JHS articles such as ‘The Eleventh Ode of Bacchylides: Hera, Artemis, and the absence of Dionysos’ (vol. 108 (1988), 118-36) and ‘The Imprisonment of Women in Greek Tragedy’ (vol. 110 (1990), 76-90) – that established Seaford’s reputation as one of the most interesting and original Hellenists of the past thirty years.
‘The Tragic Wedding’ is a rich and detailed article, packed with ideas and evidence – its footnotes repay repeated reading for contributions to a wide range of issues. Its importance, however, lies in its ambitious attempt to uncover fundamental forms of Greek life, society, and thought via tragedy’s refractions of the rituals of ancient marriage and the myths that represent them. Tragedy, Seaford argues, magnifies the negative tendencies of marriage ritual (e.g. the bride’s lamentation at the loss of her previous status), highlighting the interpenetration of marriage and funeral rites and presenting marriage as death and the bride as animal to be tamed or sacrificed or as a tender plant hitherto sheltered from the elements. Ritual reflections of the death of the bride as a precondition of her rebirth as a wife and mother and ritual performances of the bride’s reluctance to betray her natal family are transformed into actual death and manifestations of the bride’s antipathy to marriage or the bridegroom. In pursuing these ideas, especially through an extensive and detailed discussion of Aeschylus’ Supplices (and its trilogy), Seaford demonstrates how tragedy’s exploration of various ways in which marriage can go wrong (in failing to effect the successful transition of the bride from one household to another) draws constantly on the detail and imagery of ritual.
We hope you have enjoyed these article recommendations from Douglas Cairns. You can read all of the articles mentioned in these posts for free, or catch-up with all three blog posts.