Monday, April 4, 2011

Spirited: Μήδεια and Rhetoric

By next week, Herodotus II and I will be half way through Μήδεια. Last night both of us were remarking how different the Μήδεια looks when read very slowly in Greek. One of the things that we noticed, which I certainly did not notice reading it in English, is Jason's rhetorical skill. The verbal duel that rages between Medea and Jason from 364-625 demonstrates not only Medea's intense persuasive power, but Jason's ability to employ the rhetorical tools of the sophists (obviously anachronistic).

Jason begins his second speech by reinforcing the necessity of winning the verbal battle almost instead of being correct in his actions: "δεῖ μ', ὡς ἔοικε, μὴ κακὸν φῦναι λέγειν" (It is necessary that I, as it seems, to prove myself to speak not badly [1])" (Μήδεια 522). Later, he refers to his argument with Medea as an "ἅμιλλαν...λογῶν (contest of words)" (Μήδεια 546), the same phrase Gorgias uses to describe the rhetorical battles of the sophists on various topics. These meta-phrases and Jason's rhetorical strategy of numbering causes and disproving Μήδεια point-by-point (also a tactic that Gorgias uses to demonstrate the innocence of Helen), and most particularly his argument that it was not Medea that helped him, but rather Aphrodite, who compelled her to help (one of Gorgias's arguments), shows that Jason is not taking the content of the argument seriously. This would not seem so striking-- after all the Athenians certainly liked rhetoric-- except that Medea is passionately arguing for her own life and those of her children. Going into exile meant not only leaving her homeland but that they would effectively be wandering as beggars ("πτωχοὺς ἀλᾶσθαι παῖδας ἥ τ'ἔσωσά σε" line 517), vulnerable to thieves and murderers and with not guarantee of safe passage or a place to go. This makes Jason seem more horrible than he already does and it actually sounds worse in the Greek than I remember in English.

One thing that Herodotus II pointed out is that although Jason seems awful, the rhetorical skills he displays also make him seem intelligent. He is not doing this because he is stupid; he is doing it because he has no conscience. This is fascinating because Jason was one of the men of the heroic age who traveled on the Argo. From what I remember of my tragedy class, Medea acts like a Sophoclean hero (as described by Bernard Knox). The Sophoclean hero, as Knox describes him [2] is a relic of the heroic ages who still obeys by the old codes and cannot function in a rapidly modernizing world where the values of honor and oaths no longer hold the same power. This certainly seems to be true of Medea. The odd thing is that Jason, the Argonaut, demonstrates none of these heroic tenancies; he is thoroughly a "modern man" placing the value of conspicuousness [3] (ἐπίσημος) rather than everlasting κλέος (glory won in the traditional heroic fashion).

Euripides: Medea (Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics) Encomium of Helen (BCP Greek Texts) (English and Greek Edition)
  1. In this translation, I take the neuter adjective to be functioning as an adverb. It could also function (as Mastronarde suggests) as an alternative phrasing for δεινὸς λέγειν (skilled at speaking) (Mastronarde258).
  2. I use the male pronoun even though Antigone also demonstrates the pattern of the Sophoclean hero. I remember this from reading Bernard Knox' article "The Ajax of Sophocles" (JSTOR) but I am sure it can also be found in The Heroic Temper.
  3. This is "notableness" but in the sense of something being remarkable in a worldly way. The word's primary meaning is the mark that is stamped on coinage.(see LSJ entry).


  1. Why do you translate "phunai" as "prove" and not "be such by nature as"?

    Then the passage would translate:

    "I ought not have a nature to say what is wicked."

    And those seem to me like words that a good man could utter. (On the other hand, if he had say "phanai", I would agree with you.)

  2. Thanks for the comment!

    I was actually just going off of Mastronarde's commentary on the passage he says " 522 μὴ κακὸν φῦναι λέγειν: φῦναι is a poetic synonym of γενέσθαι here 'prove myself, show mysel', is inf. with δεῖ; μὴ κακόν is littotes for ἀγαυόν, so this is an alternative phrasing of δεινὸς λἐγειν, 'skilled at peaking'" (Mastronarde 258) from the edition linked above.

    However, I think that even if φῦναι were to be translated as "be by nature" the passage would translate closer to "it is necessary, so it seems, that I do not by nature speak badly" or "it is necessary, so it seems, that I do not by nature speak not badly [i.e. well]." I don't think that there is any reason to believe that he's worried about speaking wickedly, given that the context of the passage is in the middle of a debate whee he is refuting Medea's arguments line by line in a formally rhetorical fashion. This is underlined by the fact that Jason specifically avoids answering Medea's comment about the way that Jason's actions clash with divine laws (lines 492-495) and his reference to Aphrodite is a rhetorical strategy to devalue Medea's help rather than a sincere appeal to any religious principle.

    One last thought on φύω is that in the Medea it often is just a synonym for "to be" rather than "to be by nature." I am not sure why. Herodotus II did a TLG search, but I haven't gotten to sort through it yet.

    I also think "ought" has too much a sense of moral obligation in English that does not is not necessarily imbued in the Greek δεῖ, and certainly not in this case, but I don't have any particular scholarship to back up that idea, it's just the general sense I get so I could be totally wrong.

    On the other hand, I certainly see the value in translating φῦναι in a more typical way, and I do not know on what grounds Mastronarde makes his claims. I think that the translation of φύω in the Medea is a particularly fascinating topic given the incredible frequency of the verb and maybe even a comparison to the translation of it in the Bacchae where, if memory serves, the volume is fairly similar. I would certainly be interested in more thoughts on it's translation.