From Prodicus to Euripides

From Prodicus to Euripides

I briefly mentioned an advance copy of an article I was going to read from my professor, Dr. Michael Kleine, regarding the problem of creating a kinder, gentler modern rhetoric. I’ve been digesting it for a few days, it’s called “The Heuristic Potential of Rhetoric Reclaimed: Toward Imagining a Techne of Dialogical Arrangement.” The article is actually easy to state in plain language: Dr. Kleine has suggested that what we know about conversational discourse analysis (he is a linguist) can be applied to the problem of rhetorical invention to provide a new mode of rhetoric.

He’s actually promoting a schizophrenic sort of writing, a writing that emulates the model of conversational “turns” where points of view are interrogated and defended in two voices. Not in the agonistic sense of classical rhetoric, where a stronger position is defended against a weaker one, but in a space which emulates the conversational “floor” where positions are treated on an equal basis. At first, it seemed like it was delusional: how can one speaker be both advocate and challenger? Then, I discovered an example in Prodicus.

In “Heracles on the Crossroad” Prodicus (in a secondhand account) describes how Heracles meets Virtue and Vice. The oration began with a sensual description of these two women, but narration ceases as the conversation between the two possibilities begins. The core of the “pitch” on both sides is pleasure— pleasure now from Vice, or pleasure in the future, from the Gods, by Virtue. At no point does the orator seem to favor one over the other, and the actual decision made by Heracles is only implied. The rhetor doesn’t judge, or point, or direct the argument at all. The argument is purely supplied through conversation.

I remember how much I hated Plato when I first read him. Aristotle too. The reason why was that their motives and steering of the “dialogues” was just so blatant. This is not the case with Prodicus, his approach seems nearly identical to the techne suggested by Dr. Kleine. Trying to figure out the 5th century B.C. is pretty tough, and the perspectives of the Sophists or Plato and Aristotle are not the only ones available. The dramatists, like Aristophanes and Euripides put in their two cents too.

I decided to read Hippolytus again. I first found this play, oddly enough, through a Thin White Rope song, “Some Velvet Morning.” It’s a cover of a Lee Hazlewood song, and it’s just haunting.

Some velvet morning when I’m straight
I’m gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you about Phaedra
And how she gave me life
And how she made it end
Some velvet morning when I’m straight

There’s a video, with Lee and Nancy Sinatra riding horses on a beach, which makes little sense until you figure out who Phaedra is.

Short synopsis: Hippolytus, a chaste young man and bastard son of Phaedra, is hopelessly in love with Artemus (the goddess). Aphrodite gets pissed off, because he isn’t paying her tribute since he won’t fall in love with a human. She forces Phaedra to fall in love with him (in the non-socially acceptable way). Phaedra goes mad, holding back those forbidden feelings. She eventually breaks down and confesses to her nurse, and the nurse professes an oddly familiar point of view:

The life of man entire is misery:
he finds no resting place, no haven from calamity.
But something other dearer still than life
the darkness hides and mist encompasses;
we are proved luckless lovers of this thing
that glitters in the underworld: no man
can tell us of the stuff of it, expounding
what is, and what is not: we know nothing of it.
Idly, we drift, on idle stories carried.

How postmodern is that? Not bad for 428 BC. The nurse will have little to do with words as a solution: “Your words are wounds. Where will your tale conclude?” Euripides’ argument, conveyed by the nurse, is much the same as Shelley’s. Love is the ruling force of all:

The chaste, they love not vice of their own will,
but yet they love it. Cypris [Aphrodite], you are no god.
You are something stronger than a God if that can be,
You have ruined her and me and all this house.

And through Phaedra, Euripides indicts those who would practice rhetoric:

This is the deadly thing which devastates
well-ordered cities and the homes of men—
that’s it, the art of oversubtle words.
It’s not the words ringing delight in the ear
that one should speak, but those that have the power
to save their hearer’s honorable name.

Oddly enough, Hippolytus has a teacher (perhaps a Sophist?). Since words won’t do the job, the nurse decides to tell Hippolytus the problem thinking he might be able to physically, ahem, take care of the craving. Big mistake. When the nurse begs him to be silent and not tell anyone, he responds: “Why not? A pleasant tale makes pleasanter telling when there are many listeners.”

These words doom everything. Phaedra hangs herself, and leaves a note claiming that Hippolytus raped her. Theseus, Phaedra’s husband, banishes him. Theseus’s father was Poseidon, and he utters a curse on Hippolytus which daddy takes care of. As Hippolytus rides away on the beach, a huge bull comes out of the ocean and wrecks his chariot, mortally wounding him (this explains the video!). Artemus appears in the end to tell Theseus the truth, and the last discussion is on the futility of teaching as Hippolytus is dying:


What fools men are! You work and work for nothing,
you teach ten thousand tasks to one another,
invent, discover everything. One thing only
you do not know: one thing you never hunt for—
a way to teach fools wisdom.


Clever indeed
would be the teacher able to compel
the stupid to be wise! This is no time
for such fine logic chopping. I am afraid
your tongue runs wild through sorrow


If there were some token now, some mark to make the division
clear between friend and friend, the true and false!
All men should have two voices, one the just voice,
and one as chance would have it. In this way
the treacherous scheming voice would be confuted
by the just, and we should never be deceived.

While still implied to be agonistic, this contains Dr. Kleine’s argument in a nutshell. I wasn’t expecting to find it offered in 428 BC. But, then, you never know. Some good ideas just don’t want to quit. I wonder if he knows about this? I suppose I’ll have to mention it to him next Tuesday.