The Philosophy of Euripides' Electraand the Physical Environment
The relationship between humans and the physical environment was a major issue in fifth-century Athens. Empedocles, Herodotus, and Hippocrates all show broad interests in natural history and the role of humans and other species. Views of the impact of human activity vary. Sophocles, in his "Ode to Man" in Antigone (332-383), emphasizes human mastery over the sea, earth, and other species. (Hughes 1975) A passage in Plato's Critias (111b-d), however, speaks of hillsides eroded from the cutting of timber (Hughes 1975, Goldin 1997).
The fifth-century debate about νόμος and φύσις plays into this broader discussion, although, admittedly, for the ancient Greeks φύσις does not refer to "nature" in the sense of the "wild" environment. (Cf. the Latin natura and the history of the English word "nature" [Parry 1957].) Φύσις does, however, apply to the whole continuum between the natural world and the essence of an individual or group, as well as to any relevant species (LSJ I-VI).
Euripides, as part of his reflections on fifth-century philosophy, uses φύσις in both the sense of the physical environment and in the nature of human beings, individually and collectively. In fr. 910ΝΚ the knowledge of ἀθανάτου... φύσεως κόσμον ἀγήρων) is connected with that of history, rather than the hostility of citizens or unjust deeds. In Electra, the unnamed peasant, to whom Electra has been married off, has been born (362 ἔφυν) poor (πένης), but he refuses to display ill-bred conduct (363 ἦθος δυσγενές). This is consistent with his earlier description (37-8) of his lineage (γένος) as illustrious (λαμπροί), although poor in possessions; indeed, he believes that the latter destroy nobility (ηὑγένεια ἀπόλλυται). Earlier, he warns others that they are using base measures (52 πονηροῖς κανόσιν) of judging prudence (53 τὸ σῶφρον) if they consider him a fool (50 μῶρον) by leaving his marriage unconsummated. His generosity earns the praise of Orestes, who observes (368) the confusion in the natures of mortals (ἔχουσι γὰρ ταραγμὸν αἱ φύσεις βροτῶν).
The worlds of the citizen-farmer and the aristocratic elite in Euripides' Electra (Konstan 1994) not only show an important side of the φύσις/νομος debate but represent opposing visions of humanity. Nevertheless, while the peasant's behavior is vastly more ethical than that of Electra, Aegisthus, and Clytemnestra, his world is that of theater. Electra is his wife (35 δάμαρτα) only in name. The peasant thus represents an intellectual and philosophical ideal (cf. Harder 1995). The same is true of Orestes' old tutor, exiled to the country with his flocks.
In Euripides' Electra the peasant's "nature" plants him firmly on the side of "culture," in the sense of law or custom deriving from the best of the human condition; this is consistent with the viewpoint of Protagoras (Dillon 2004). In fact, agriculture, whether herding animals or using a plough, is not part of untrammeled "nature," but forms part of a range of human behavior, with the depredations of an urban elite at the other end. Even elements of the purely natural world, such as the locus amoenus depicted in "the aulos-loving dolphin (435 ὁ φίλαυλος δελφίς) and "the sacred woodland slopes of sheer Ossa" (445 ἐρυμνᾶς Ὄσσας ἱερὰς νάπας) (Cropp 1998), are viewed through the lens of human activity, whether actual or historical. (Cf. Solon's metaphorical depiction in fr. 12 West of the undisturbed sea as "most just" [Long 2005]). Such deeds can be upright, as with the peasant and tutor, whose viewpoints prefigure those of the shepherds of bucolic and pastoral poetry (cf. Garrard 2004). However, violence is close to the surface; Aegisthus and Clytemnestra are killed, respectively, in a watered orchard while sacrificing to the nymphs (776-786) and at Electra's rustic home (1060ff.). Settings from nature are thus connected to the present life of the characters and not to nature as an object of contemplation in its own right (cf. Parry 1957).
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