Reverence

One starstruck commentator on Euripides’ Hippolytus describes the following passage as “one of the most exquisite in all Greek poetry”. Hippolytus has plucked a garland from Artemis’s sacred grove, with which he crowns her statue (73 ff):

σοὶ τόνδε πλεκτὸν στέφανον ἐξ ἀκηράτου
λειμῶνος, ὦ δέσποινα, κοσμήσας φέρω,
ἔνθ᾽ οὔτε ποιμὴν ἀξιοῖ φέρβειν βοτὰ
οὔτ᾽ ἦλθέ πω σίδηρος, ἀλλ᾽ ἀκήρατον
μέλισσα λειμῶν᾽ ἠρινὴ διέρχεται,
Αἰδὼς δὲ ποταμίαισι κηπεύει δρόσοις,
ὅσοις διδακτὸν μηδὲν ἀλλ᾽ ἐν τῇ φύσει
τὸ σωφρονεῖν εἴληχεν ἐς τὰ πάντ᾽ ἀεί,
τούτοις δρέπεσθαι, τοῖς κακοῖσι δ᾽ οὐ θέμις.
ἀλλ᾽, ὦ φίλη δέσποινα, χρυσέας κόμης
ἀνάδημα δέξαι χειρὸς εὐσεβοῦς ἄπο.
μόνῳ γάρ ἐστι τοῦτ᾽ ἐμοὶ γέρας βροτῶν:
σοὶ καὶ ξύνειμι καὶ λόγοις ἀμείβομαι,
κλύων μὲν αὐδῆς, ὄμμα δ᾽ οὐχ ὁρῶν τὸ σόν.
τέλος δὲ κάμψαιμ᾽ ὥσπερ ἠρξάμην βίου.

For you, lady, I bring this plaited garland I have made, gathered from an inviolate meadow, a place where the shepherd does not dare to pasture his flocks, where the iron scythe has never come: no, it is inviolate, and the bee makes its way through it in the spring-time. Shamefast Awe tends this garden with streams of river-water, for those to pluck who have acquired nothing by teaching but rather in whose very nature chastity [I prefer: temperance] in all things has ever won its place: the base may not pluck. But, dear lady, take this coronal for your golden hair from a worshipful hand. For I alone of mortals have this privilege: I spend my days with you and speak with you, I hear your voice but never see your face. May I end my life just as I have begun it!

Translation by David Kovacs, from Perseus

Only the pure [by nature, not instruction] may pluck; all others refrain, from the feeling of Αἰδώς. As a result, the meadow luxuriates, as it were tended by the personified “reverence” that holds off the sharp iron, and waters the verdant green. It is according to W. S. Barrett’s commentary that which “prevents a man from breaking the taboo — αἰδώς, the feeling of ‘not quite liking’ which inhibits his natural self-assertion or self-seeking in face of the requirements of morality and the like …”

So much by way of introduction to a passage from the speech later in the play in which Phaedra, who has fallen in love with her stepson Hippolytus, explains the principles that underpin her decision to commit suicide. I will pick out a few lines that have puzzled the heads of commentators, not to join their conversation, though inevitably I take a certain view of the question, if only as with the duck-rabbit, which one cannot see both ways simultaneously; but rather, to unpick the notion of moral responsibility that has αἰδώς at its heart, and the cognate verb αἰδοῦμαι. Phaedra says she came to what is her settled view by mulling it over νυκτὸς ἐν μακρῷ χρόνῳ, while lying awake at night. She doesn’t think men come to ruin and evil through natural moral infirmity (κατὰ γνώμης φύσιν / πράσσειν κάκιονa); rather, she believes most of us understand and recognise what is right, but sometimes still don’t do it (in contrast to Plato’s view that no one intentionally errs) whether out of indolence, or putting pleasure before virtue. Life holds many pleasures, and (384 ff)

μακραί τε λέσχαι καὶ σχολή, τερπνὸν κακόν,
αἰδώς τε. δισσαὶ δ᾽ εἰσίν, ἡ μὲν οὐ κακή,
ἡ δ᾽ ἄχθος οἴκων. εἰ δ᾽ ὁ καιρὸς ἦν σαφής,
οὐκ ἂν δύ᾽ ἤστην ταὔτ᾽ ἔχοντε γράμματα.

… long chats and leisure, a pleasant evil — and αἰδώς, which has two kinds, one not bad, the other a weight [to crush] houses. If the καιρός were clear, there would not be two of them made up of the same letters. This is her view of the matter, she goes on to say, and there is no way I will change my mind.

Plutarch, discussing how emotion may go hand in hand with reason, or war with it, quoted the passage and remarked: ἆρ᾽οὐ δῆλός ἐστι συνῃσθημένος; ἐν ἑαυτῷ τοῦτο τὸ πάθος πολλάκις μὲν ἀκολουθοῦν τῷ λόγῳ καὶ συγκατακοσμούμενον, πολλάκις δὲ παρὰ τὸν λόγον ὄκνοις καὶ μελλήσεσι καιροὺς καὶ πράγματα λυμαινόμενον; [Euripides] had evidently observed this feeling in his own breast, often going the same way as reason and helping it to set things in order, but often going against reason and producing delays and hesitations that played havoc with his behaviour (De virtute morali 448f, Barrett’s translation)

The passage is an important one that lies at the heart of Phaedra’s understanding of her dilemma and her resolve to end it; the rest of her speech describes how she first tried to keep her love silent, then to master it by self-restraint, turning finally to the plan of suicide, to protect her good name and that of her children: she reviles adultery, which would be the shameful ruin of them all. But it has caused commentators to scratch their heads, and made me scratch mine too. The list of pleasures is rather narrow, even if it is to include virtue (τὸ καλόν); and what are the two senses of αἰδώς? One editor cuts several lines, another suggests there may be one or two missing.

αἰδώς both overlaps and contrasts with the normal Greek word for shame, αἰσχύνομαι, but as Barrett says in his commentary (p. 206f, on 244 of the play), it’s “properly an inhibitory emotion — not the retrospective shame of a guilty conscience, but the shame that restrains one and keeps one’s conscience clear”. It’s what leads the shepherd to respect the sanctuary and graze his flock elsewhere. A nice example from the play itself of the difference in usage is the moment Phaedra is induced to reveal her secret to the nurse, by the suppliant posture she adopts, clasping her mistress’s hand and knees: δώσω· σέβας γὰρ χειρὸς αἰδοῦμαι τὸ σόν (I relent, out of reverence for your hand, 335); contrast 244: αἰδούμεθα γὰρ τὰ λελεγμένα μοι (I wish I could take back what I said). The distinction is blurred, but can still be felt. One example that comes to mind is the reluctance many feel to leave food uneaten on their plate, with its origin a generation or two back in the time of rationing: it’s not (in my case) shame, but simply a sense of impropriety.

The good αἰδώς can be distinguished from the bad according to the καιρός. We may think of it as the right time or due season, but in the fifth century, the word had the broader sense of what is opportune or in keeping, hitting the mark rather than falling short. One thinks of Socrates’ δαίμων warning him at times against a certain course of action. It is, then, a salutary reticence. Its bad form is shying away from action that is necessary: dithering, lack of moral resolve, letting things slide, letting things go. Phaedra sees such a weakness in herself, and her solution is the most decisive action of all.

αἰδώς is not a virtue in much favour in our shrill twilight; all too easily dismissed as feeble, or enfeebling, scruple. Differently from this reading of Euripides (which is basically Barrett’s), I see in it the quiet potential to be our saving grace, where received opinion and specious strident voices carry the day.

One example of αἰδώς in the domain of classical scholarship is the reluctance to emend the textus receptus (notorious in the case of Housman). This passage reflects the tendency for difficulty in construing the words, and uncertainty as to what they should properly be, to coincide with beauty of language and literary or intellectual interest. Whatever is being said here is part hidden behind a gauzy veil, but it may even have been so when the poet first put stylus to scroll. The best we can do is read with the sensitivity, attention to detail and temperance we can muster, adducing textual and lexical parallels, recognising the fragility of the most judicious understanding at which we provisionally arrive.

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