Saturday, June 19, 2010

Sound and Sound Judgment

Ashok Karra finds a conflict between civic and private virtue in the Seven Against Thebes. The Theban king Eteocles, he says, displays his civic prudence and "effectiveness in the public realm" in assigning the champion face each of the seven attackers led by his brother Polyneices. He rebuffs the attack through sound generalship, and thus also rebukes the fear of the women who were overwhelmed by the sound of the enemy's approach. The question, Ashok says, is not whether Eteocles as agent of the city has some right and mandate to pit himself against his brother; the question is "to what degree Eteocles’ effectiveness in the public realm threatens the very existence of the private."

His point, I take it, is that the threat to the city's existence justifies the city in sending Eteocles to face Polyneices, even if it does not justify Eteocles in fighting and killing his brother. But is not the destruction of family at the highest level of the city itself a more mortal threat to the city?

Eteocles chastises the women for taking the enemy approach too much to heart:
Chorus: The snorting of horses! There, I hear it.
Eteocles: Do not listen; do not hear too much.
If the assignments of the champions to the seven gates of the city proves Eteocles' prudence, then his prudence consists in not hearing too much, in refusing to take in the terrible flood of merely sensory presentation of danger:
No equipment of a man will make me tremble
Devices on a shield deal no one wounds.
The plumes and bells bite not without the spear.
The correlations which Ashok astutely observes between the emblems of the Theban defenders and those of the attackers work out Eteocles' philosophical policy of pitting being against seeming (Amphiaraus, the only attacker who is "best not at seeming to be such / but being so," is interesting as the exception). Something has purged Eteocles of pity and fear. It has made him a dangerous man. Inasmuch as the sound of jangling war-gear and beating hooves has lost its hold over him, he has become insensible as well to the threat of mutual fratricide, a greater danger to the city than even extinction. If the women hear too much, Eteocles does not hear enough. "Do you hear me or not?" he asks the women. "Or are you deaf?" But he has shut his own ears to the voice of pity, speaking poetically in the bells and plumes of the enemy outside the gates.