Words and Wonder

Love, law, and god may manifest themselves diversely in space and time; but the necessity of verbally posing such problems as “She loves me – she loves me not?” or of articulating a proof/disproof for divine existence/absence suggests, as literary types and continental philosophers cannot resist reminding us, that love and all other holy elements of life shine into us through the unwieldy and unpredictable medium of language. That the Texas Penal Code manifests itself as a mass of verbiage hints that the same textual conduit mediates even evil. Yet if language is the reality of thought, language also fails to provide us with access to the same. Language serves as the most powerful tool for representing the talking featherless biped’s inner experience, but the talking bipeds can never be certain what language has done with the experience. Misunderstanding’s possibility means language can from time act independently (without permission), without of course escaping its symbiotic dependence on human biology. Accordingly, a central theme of 20th century Continental philosophy was attending to (obsessing over?) language in order to understand it shapes itself, and its speakers (on whom it nevertheless depends) within the curl of this vicious cycle. To escape the historical conditioning of the 20th century (or perhaps only to reinforce a certain Kultur-specific notion of what the conditioning might be), scholars who had cut their teeth on the German philological tradition turned to the alter-language the had been trained to respect, if not revere: 5th century B.C.E. Greek. However, warned off the Socratic tradition by Nietzsche,[1] particularly the works of Sophocles and Euripides, one of the most prominent (and controversial) figures of the 20th century German-Greek nexus, Martin Heidegger, engaged not only with Plato and Aristotle but also the pre-Socratics (Anaximander, Heraclitus) and particularly the ancient tragedians analyzed by Nietzsche as symptomatic of the Socratic turn: Sophocles and Euripides. Here I want to briefly examine the result of this multi-millennial cross-pollination: a view of language as revealing a being both beautiful and horrible—an apt, unwitting commentary on Heidegger’s own language, a beautiful language of death, a glimpse of human creative potential which—as the archives reveal Heidegger’s endorsement of anti-Semitic language for the sake of his strange philosopher-king-of-the-Reich-fantasy—we  now know to have been subordinated to the potential for creativity not in poetry but in killing.

 In order to connect the Greek past to his preferred German poets (Hölderlin, Trakl, Rilke), Heidegger located Sophocles’ insight into language in the great ode that begins πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει,[2] “Many are the X, but the most X is the human being,”[3] where X is the noun form Greek adjective δεινός – a word capable of an enormous spectrum of meanings: “fearful, terrible, frightful, formidable, dangerous, extraordinary, mighty, powerful, clever, shocking, strange, wonderful, marvelous.”[4] The mere fact that the word’s definition takes up a good chunk of the dictionary (not to mention the extent of the word’s connotative range from the brilliant to the horrific) hints that δεινός holds some linguistic mystery; the following lines confirm the hypothesis.  Here, said Heidegger, “one finds one’s way into the word, language.”[5] The language-specific lines to which the German philosopher refers read:

καὶ φθέγμα καὶ ἀνεμόεν φρόνημα καὶ ἀστυνόμους

ὀργὰς ἐδιδάξατο καὶ δυσαύλων

And voice and wind-swift thought and strategies for protecting the city he has learned; [also] how to handle both well-watered meadows and inhospitable terrain…[6]

Just as the human δεινός embodies both positive and negative outcomes, the use of human speech both justifies and confounds “thoughts and strategies.” What do humans do with this shocking gift, the capacity to express thought through the windy vocal cords or pressed in symbolic onto papyrus with a reed? In what follows, I will analyze the insights of Greek tragedy into language understood as the being-vehicle for the human experiences of emotion, nature, ethics, and wisdom – all of which, for humans, must be subsumed within the category of misunderstanding.

Concepts and Clarifications

              No less a philosopher than Martin Heidegger criticized the “vehicle” metaphor for language, writing “as soon as we regard language merely as a vehicle,” the dictionary that carries the authorized “interpretation” replaces the live language.[7] If I meant vehicle is the simplistic sense of “dictionary” or “technique” then Heidegger’s critique would hold. However, I wish to deny Heidegger’s prescriptivist semantics and instead argue for a descriptive understanding of what languages is and does. Words define themselves via manifestation in the lives of humans. The reverse is also true: the lives of humans are defined by words. Analytic philosopher Gottlob Frege divided conceptual meaning in terms of sense (how the “constituent” words relate to each other) versus reference (how a word relates to “objects” in the world out there).[8] However, the ancient philosopher Heraclitus drew no such distinction: his paradoxical words, or “logoi,” were “designed to be experienced, not just understood.”[9] In other words, word and experience are the same – more expansively, word (logos) and the human experience of nature (physis) are inextricable. To explore words implies a journey into human nature.

With this in mind, the meaning I wish to give vehicle comports with a different metaphor of Heidegger’s: the river Ister.[10] Heidegger had borrowed the symbol from Hölderlin’s poetry, in which the Danau (Ister) travels far in time and space to ancient Greece, providing an Other that enabled German philosophy’s self-rediscovery.[11] What else travels in time and space to confront the Other that resides in each human, alienated (that is, distanced, “foreigned”) from ourselves as we know ourselves to be? Language does. Unlike a river, however, language requires no actual travel. Instead, inner exploration via language resembles G.K. Chesterton’s fable of the English sailor who, after getting hopelessly lost, landed his yacht on a wild coast.  The land turned out to be Brighton beach, and the would-be explorer experienced the excitement of discovering his own homeland. “This at least seems to be to be the main problem for philosophers,” Chesterton writes. “How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?”[12] The wildest frontiers lie within the human mind, and (without a mental yacht) language furnishes the only vehicle for exploring the inner recesses of our being. At the same time, just as Chesterton’s sailor lost control of his boat, the human has no control over the language vehicle. Admitting the out-of-control nature of the runaway train we call language is necessary if we are to explore places in our innermost being (psyche) where we would never otherwise think to look.

Languages as Forced Vehicle of Being

Language provides the only adequate “being-vehicle” because any experience appears susceptible to multiple interpretations. Two young people fall in love. What framework adequately interprets the experience? The chemist and biologist each have something to say, as does one partner’s grandmother about the family’s history of failed relationships. Which perspective holds validity? For our purposes, it does not matter, because chemist, biologist, and grandmother have no choice but to express their interpretations via language. No one knows this better than the lovers themselves, as they exchange love letters (or text messages). The method to be pursued in the following page is an exploration of human experience as mediated via the language of the Greek tragedies. Sophocles and Euripides, after all, stand for real people with real human experiences, people whose plays delved into the human experience in front of an audience of more real people. In other words, human experience lives in the dead letter, and the letter can serve as the vehicle into the common souls of Greeks and everyone else.

Language as Vehicle for Communicating Thought

The Greek tragedians’ understanding of language as being-vehicle makes possible this essay, because language is the sina qua non of thought. In Euripides’ The Suppliants, Theseus explores the powerful capacities of language as humanity’s only vehicle for interchange of knowledge, opinion, and decision regarding good and evil:

ἄλλοισι δὴ ‘πόνησ᾽ ἁμιλληθεὶς λόγῳ

τοιῷδ᾽. ἔλεξε γάρ τις ὡς τὰ χείρονα

πλείω βροτοῖσίν ἐστι τῶν ἀμεινόνων:

ἐγὼ δὲ τούτοις ἀντίαν γνώμην ἔχω,

πλείω τὰ χρηστὰ τῶν κακῶν εἶναι βροτοῖς:

εἰ μὴ γὰρ ἦν τόδ᾽, οὐκ ἂν ἦμεν ἐν φάει.

….

πρῶτον μὲν ἐνθεὶς σύνεσιν, εἶτα δ᾽ ἄγγελον

γλῶσσαν λόγων δούς, ὥστε γιγνώσκειν ὄπα[13]

 Already I have gotten into conflict of word

 [Over] such; for some have said that the worse

 Overflows with mortals more than the better

  But I against these, I have other knowledge;

 That which is good-given overflows more than that which is of the evil with mortals 

 For if this were not so, we could not be enlightened [literally, “in light].

 [Theseus praises the gods for giving]:

 … 

First, in the people reason, then also sending

 Language of reasonings [or, words] as a gift, in order to understand voice.[14]

Theseus’ speech unveils the astonishment of the obvious in the realm of language. So many of humanity’s most important the arguments – the meaning of the good, the existence of god(s), the purpose of life – continue in perpetuity. Language never seems to these settle questions in ways acceptable to other mortals. Yet despite this drawback, says Sophocles, language remains something enlightening given to us to use. Once we put it to use, it reveals itself as uncontrollable as it is enlightening. To understand speech is to know being not only as we experience it, mutely, but also as we know it second-hand through words communicated to us. Indeed, even our own brain speaks to us through language, as anyone who as has ever been surprised “talking to” oneself has discovered. The task set for us in the remainder of this paper is to explore language as the being-vehicle of emotion, nature, ethics, wisdom, violence, and necessity. What can be learned of these universal human phenomena when viewed through the lens of Greek tragedy?

Language and Emotion

As I attempt to ride language to an understanding of the human experience, I come now to a form of being often treated as ancillary to philosophy: emotion. Academic inertia starts with knowing, being, or ethics; yet everyone knows that reflection on these topics comes only after a process of maturation. The more primal human experience – from the first cry to death agony – appears as emotion, a name given to internal feeling. Emotion is often experienced as if it were non-linguistic; the phrase “beyond words” accompanies both tears and joy. Yet “beyond words” required words to express this feeling. Furthermore, as the reader of Greek tragedy soon becomes aware, the things that provide joy or anger to protagonists cannot be separated from the culture – mediated through language – of the polis. As philosopher Nancy Frankenberry has put it, “The range of felt qualities in the lives of individuals is about up with the level and type of culture, which in turn is inseparable from the distinctions and uses marked by the languages people speak.”[15] Cultural reality unfolds in language as a series of reasons to be joyful, sorrowful, outraged, sympathetic, empathetic, or (especially) loving. Emotions’ effects find bodily expression – face, sweat glands, and all – but only language allows the individual to explore emotions’ causes. Tragedy, as a highly specialized use of language, allows for more careful emotional investigation. Frankenberry explains: “In achieving…a more sophisticated vocabulary of the emotions, we acquire, also, a more sophisticated emotional life, not just an expanded power of description.”[16] To this Friedrich Hölderlin adds the insight that the vocabulary of Greek tragedy seems particularly adept at depicting emotion; in his epigram, “Sophokles,” Hölderlin penned the lines

Viele versuchten umsonst das Freudigste freudig zu sagen

Hier spricht endlich es mir, hier in der Trauer sich aus.

“Many have tried, but in vain, with joy to express the most joyful;

Here at last, in grave sadness, wholly I find it expressed.”[17]

Sophocles (and Euripides) succeeded in expressing joy and sadness because they understood that one of the salient aspects of language is its irrationality – precisely not the discovery we were expecting from the nation that invented the syllogism and from whose language we derive the word logic. The tragedians based this claim on the fact that human emotions exist in tension between absurdity, which cannot be taken seriously by a rational being, and pain, which demands the highest respect but transcends rational response. The heart of the problem of language and emotion occurs when the human mask, or persona (the Latin name for the mask worn by actors in a Greek drama) breaks under pressure, revealing the person within. Sometimes the discovered persona comports with logic: Euripides’ Hippolytus revolves around machinations logically dependent on secrets kept by Phaedra and the protagonist. Such secrecy becomes possible only because Hippolytus keeps such tight, rational rein on his passions while dialoguing sophistically with Theseus. Such formal dialogue disappears beneath a wave of screams in Sophocles’ Oedipus, Ajax, and Antigone. Characters shout, curse, and wail. The ferocity of emotion – and the close connection of emotion with language – finds expression in inarticulate cries. Tragic protagonists scream ὤμοι, οἴμοι, φεῦ φεῦ, αἰαῖ αἰαῖ, and in so doing point to the limits of the human control over language. Language provides the only concrete route of expression, but some elements of the human experience resist linguistic formulation. Friedrich Nietzsche noticed the thin veneer separating language from the underlying emotions in Sophocles: “the language of Sophoclean heroes surprises us with its Apolline precision and lucidity, so that we immediately imagine we can see into the innermost core of their being, somewhat astonished that the way to that core is such a short one.”[18] This precision depends on the tragedians’ refusal to impose a logical replacement for the screams and crying.

The short distance between core and surface stems not from artistic failing but from Sophocles’ characteristic move: stripping away at the character through language exposes the failure of the protagonist to use language to understand his or her self.  This point must be understood in terms of language: to think “I am a great king, a warrior, a seer, a wise individual” requires words. The inherent unreliability of language implies the concurrent unreliability of our self-constructed identity – an emotionally devastating discovery. True to Sophocles’ technique of getting to the core of the human self, when Ajax (in the eponymous play) goes insane the madness affects him precisely at the points of his pride as a warrior. He who has struck down hundreds of human enemies instead attacks animals. The previously confident, laconic alpha-male turns to prolix, emotional language.

Sophocles uses Odysseus as a foil to Ajax’ straightforward reliance on a strong right arm and commanding speech. In the opening scene of Ajax, Odysseus use language to court the favor of the goddess Athena.[19] Ajax, who in the Iliad angered Athena by refusing her aid, in Sophocles’ version takes Athena’s favor almost as a given. His request for her favor is almost a command – an indiscretion proving his carelessness with language. Not until suffering insanity does Ajax move beyond stunted monosyllables. His wife Tecmessa reports on Ajax’s language after his breakdown. He sits in his tent, “evil words abusing [κακὰ δεννάζων ῥήμαθ᾽], which a demon / And no one of men had taught him.”[20] As Tecmessa watches her husband uttering gibberish among the slaughtered livestock that litter his dwelling, Tecmessa bases her diagnosis that Ajax intends to do something evil on his words: “And plainly he plans to do something terrible. Somehow his words and his laments say as much”[21] [τοιαῦτα γάρ πως καὶ λέγει κὠδύρεται].[22] Tecmessa’s fear reflect reality, not cowardice. She shows herself unafraid of death when she inserts herself into her husband’s prayer for a swift demise[23] but does fear Ajax’s speech [φωνεῖν].[24] Unlike Ajax, Tecmessa knows language is not to be trifled with.

Shifting from the emotion of sorrow to that of relief, one of the clearest examples involves language. Not only can humans be mastered by their own language, but they can also be confounded by foreign speech.  When travelling in a land dominated by a language one does not know, finding someone with whom one can communicate sparks relief. Philoctetes vocalizes this emotional reaction:

φίλτατον φώνημα: φεῦ τὸ καὶ λαβεῖν

πρόσφθεγμα τοιοῦδ᾽ ἀνδρὸς ἐν χρόνῳ μακρῷ.[25]

Oh most friendly sounds! And wow! to receive

A salutation from such a man after such a long time![26]

The word for “sound” in Philoctetes’ exclamation is phonema [φώνημα], from whence modern linguists derive the word phoneme, referring to the smallest “chunk” of meaningful sound.[27] Notwithstanding the modern prediction for text, the spoken word is the basis of language in any society, but especially in the ancient world in which spoken rather than written communication dominated. Ultimately, sound links the human to physis – something Sophocles’ original auditors, who heard his fictionalized language-theories on the stage, were well-equipped to appreciate.

Language and the Nature-Principle Represented by the Gods

Moving to another aspect of being for which language serves as vehicle of understanding, we come to nature. By nature, I mean the environment which surrounds humans and in which humans participate as inextricable yet alienated entities. Inextricable, because humans cannot go outside our cosmos; alienated, because humans find themselves separate from, and therefore forced to attempt an understanding of, all that surrounds them. The attempt at understanding necessarily requires language. Take the word flower, for instance. Contra Plato’s eidos concept, according to which there is “a family or kind that unites a collection of things each of which is the same as such-and-such,” [28] there is available to us no pre-linguistic “same” that controls or pre-determines our use of the word “flower.” Flower means whatever humans call “flower”; that is as far as human language will take us into the reason behind the nature of things. Thus humans shape their world by labelling it. This power of labelling goes to humans’ heads, leading us to the mistaken idea that humans control language. Yet “how is humanity ever supposed to have invented that which persuades it in its sway, due to which humanity itself can be as humanity in the first place?” asked Heidegger. “We completely forget the fact that this ode speaks of the violent (deinon), of the uncanny [unheimlich], if we believe that the poet here is having humanity invented such things as building and language.”[29]

To explore this “uncanny” I go where Heidegger does not – to the Greek tragedians’ concept of the gods. True, for Sophocles as quoted in Heidegger’s favorite ode in Antigone,[30] the human is indeed the uncanniest of all beings, but in Greek tragedy the gods serve as staged projections of that uncanniness. Tragedy is at its most intense in the depiction of the gods, who represent principles of reality – from the harvest to the hunter, from the sea to the mountain, from virginity to childbirth – on which humans depend. It is worth keeping in mind that at the most intense fictional depiction of reality – Dionysian tragedy – the priest of Dionysius had a place of honor, and the terrible flesh-ripping sacrifices to the roaring god formed a part of celebration as much as the terrible tragedies enacted on the stage.[31] Whether skeptical Euripides believed in Dionysius or not, he certainly knew that power of the uncontrollable forces celebrated by the wild bacchants in the name of the god. Gods, like language, set the conditions for being. Yet humans do not always feel at home under these conditions, and the unease shows in tragic language. If the ancient Greeks had known what the laws of nature were, they would not have needed to name gods to represent the invisible. If we were at home with other humans, we would not use labels to “other” them. If we moderns knew what the essence of matter is, we would not need to give atoms, electrons, protons, and quarks so many labels. The act of naming is also an act of “othering.” My parents name me, thus distinguishing my identity from theirs despite the shared genetics. To label animals “dogs” and “cats” is to say they are not “human.” To call a human homo sapiens gives a name to a valiant but ultimately doomed attempt to view ourselves from a so-called objective, third-party perspective that is simply unavailable to us. The use of language to name means the admittance that we are divided from the reality we call our home. “The extent to which humanity is not at home in its own essence,” says Heidegger, “is betrayed by the opinion human beings cherish of themselves as those who have invented and who could have invented language and understanding, building and poetry.”[32]

The problem extends even deeper than the admittedly artificial realms of architecture and poetry. Not even plain language can accurately depict or encapsulate the nature and significance of reality. In the Bacchae, supposedly wise Cadmus promises to use his “words” to show blind Tiresias what is happening during the Bacchic celebration,[33] but when both old men subsequently make fools of themselves, the audience realizes that Cadmus’ initial language failed into include the full import of the happenings. Despite his cautions, Cadmus’ son will be dead and his wife heartbroken before the sun sets. Cadmus and Tiresias’ failure to use wise words to stop tragedy flows from the fact that language (logos) is not a tool separate from reality that could be used to control the uncontrollable aspects nature (represented by the god Dionysius). Returning to Heidegger, we find a tentative explanation. “Being, phusis, is, as sway, originary gatheredness: logos. Being is fittingness that enjoins: dikē.”[34] Here Heidegger asserts that language (logos) “is” – that is, equals, means, cannot be separated from, natural reality (physis).

Heidegger’s difficult prose finds anthropomorphized illustration in the form of the Greek gods as depicted in tragedy. In the words of Heidegger’s idol Holderlin: “Near is / And difficult to grasp, the God”;[35] in Greek tragedy, the gods seem much nearer than in Christian theology. Prior to Plato’s division between mind and matter, pre-Socratic thought acknowledged no logos-nature gap.[36] For Sophocles he gods reify physis. If logos and physis are one, then logos in its manifestation as language might be calibrated to better express physis. If the gods’ play the role of physis anthropomorphized, then failure to perform the calibration deserves the now-forgotten label sacrilege. This chain of reasoning shines light on the tragic protagonists’ extreme care with language in the presence of the gods. Indeed, in Hippolytus the goddess Artemis herself faults Theseus for misuse of language when she rebukes the Athenian king’s careless acceptance of “false writing” [ψευδeȋς γραφάς][37] and reckless use of divine curse words. Likewise, in the Bacchae the chorus commends Teresias for his linguistic caution: “Old man, you do not shame Phoebus with your words; by giving tīmē [honor] to Dionysus, a great god, you are” prudent “[sōphrōn].“[38]

Just as the universe resists adequate description, the gods likewise themselves present themselves in ambiguous language. An example presents itself in Euripides’ Ion, where the opening scenes revolve around the place where gods (physis) and humans share logos: the shrine at Delphi. As Creusa and the tutor attempt to decipher the oracle, the they run into a linguistic roadblock. 

Κρέουσα :πῶς φῄς; ἄφατον ἄφατον ἀναύδητον / λόγον ἐμοὶ θροεῖς.

Πρεσβύτης: κἄμοιγε. πῶς δ᾽ ὁ χρησμὸς ἐκπεραίνεται, / σαφέστερόν μοι φράζε, χὥστις ἔσθ᾽ ὁ παῖς.

 Creusa: What are you saying? Your words are stunning to me, unutterable!

Tutor: And to me. How does the oracle work out? Show me most clearly who the boy is.[39]

When the response to a god’s utterance is a plea to make confusing words clear, language has overwhelmed its users. Running through tragedy is the question whether language corresponds to any reality beyond language. The problem most acute at Delphi. Any human utterance may be a lie, or may simply be mistaken, but the oracle at Delphi presumably speaks truth. Unfortunately, no one can give a certain interpretation to the divine language.  In the words of Heraclitus’ paradox, “The Lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign.”[40]

God-language’s unintelligibility appears again in Oedipus Tyrannos, where the hero’s attempt to parse Apollo’s oracle becomes so confusing that prophecy leads to murder and incest. As Bushnell points out, “In Greek tragedy…[o]racular polysemy” has the effect of confounding human interpretation because “the oracle’s words do not correspond directly to the ‘truth’ or ‘facts’ of the case, the multiplicity of meanings will always allow for the oracle to be ‘right.’”[41] Even more troubling, manipulation of polysemic prophetic words cannot be limited to the exotic space of tragedy; it was common enough in Greek politics and warfare.[42] The tragedies remind us that any rhetoricians’ temporary successes in manipulating language are isolated affairs. Demosthenes is dead. We all die misunderstood by and misunderstanding the world we have attempted to interpret through language.

The ambiguity of language at the Delphic oracle can stand for the inherent ambiguity of all language, even the most carefully crafted: literature. The Greek tragedians themselves were at the mercy of indeterminate language. For Jean-Pierre Vernant, the tragedians projected their own linguistic confusion onto their characters.

Words, ideas, [and] thought patterns are used by the poets completely differently than in a court or among orators. Out of their technical context, [words] change their functions somewhat. Under the tragedians’ pens, [words] become mixed and in opposition to each other, the elements of a general confrontation of values, a raising of the question of all norms, in view of an inquiry that has nothing to do with law and which impresses on the man himself what is this being that tragedy terms deinós, incomprehensible and confusing, at the same time agent and acted upon, guilty and innocent, clear-sighted and blind, mastering all of nature by his industrious spirit and incapable of governing himself.[43]

In other words, words make sense only in fixed, artificial settings such law courts and teleprompters. Left to the poets – the people who seek to transcribe the reality of life – language becomes as confusing as the oracle at Delphi. For Jean-Pierre Vernant, the multiple meanings of words in Greek tragedy signify the multiple universes of competing individual consciousness. Within one mind, some unified theory of word meaning may have been attempted, but this construct necessarily collapses when faced with a competing framework.[44] To expect the individual to know that this collapse has occurred, however, is to expect too much. As Vernant explains, “all the Greek tragedies have recourse to ambiguity as a mode of expression and as a mode of thought.”[45] This ambiguity exists not only within the plot structure as an external imposition, but as an internal property of language,[46] because ambiguity inheres within the human perception of reality itself.  

Language and the Ought (Ethics)

Language serves as the being-vehicle of yet another of the fundamental human experiences: the curious collection of human compulsions known as ethics, the name given the sensation described in the words ought, should, and must. During the conversation between Hippolytus and his attendant in Euripides’s drama, the slave brings up a key word, νόμος, in the question οἶσθ᾽ οὖν βροτοῖσιν ὃς καθέστηκεν νόμος;? [“Do you know then the nomos for mortals?”].[47] The attendant then presents a case for what his prince ought to do. He does this despite the gap in rank. What gives the attendant the right to question his prince’s use of language? The language of ought means that anyone – regardless of status – can demand that another human submit to some sort of ought – a demand inevitably encoded in language. The attendant shows his awareness of language by refusing to call Hippocrates δέσποτα, a term applicable to gods or royalty; suggesting that no human has the right to a title meant for those representatives of unalienated physis. Yet the servant escapes causing grief by giving Hippolytus an aristocratic title, ἂναξ (a title that Theseus will strip Hippolytus of when the son of Poseidon disowns his illegitimate son).[48]

If, as Heidegger claimed, language fits gathered experienced reality, then for individual Greek beings (read: characters in Greek tragedy) there is a direction more fitting for Greek beings to direct their gathering of experienced reality via language. No one human being can gather all of reality (via language or otherwise). If dikē commonly translated “justice,” takes on the Heraclitus-Heidegger definition of “that which is fitting” within a complexity of strife, then some ethical language that fits what has been gathered by the Greek language community. This recognition entails both an acknowledgement of pluralism (Greek thought is fitting for Greeks, but not for Babylonians or Egyptians) and a principle of exclusion. Among the collective of Greeks linguistically-gathered definition of the fitting exists as a zeitgeist; any individual Greek will find him or herself judged by the collective accordingly. In this way, an idea of ought emerges via conflict in Greek tragedy as individual characters accuse each other of violating what ought to be. Haemon and Creon, Theseus and Hippolytus, Odysseus and Neoptolemus all present different interpretations — gatherings — to present a vision of dike consonant with their words and actions. The problem has now become apparent: no two actors in Greek tragedy ever seem to be able to agree on the definition of dikē. Disconcertingly, the uncertainty extends even to the descriptors of our systems of ethics or “values.” Thus, language of the Greek tragedians puts morality in flux. As Jean-Pierre Vernant puts it,

From this point of view, divine dikē itself can appear opaque and incomprehensible. For humans, dikē carries an irrational element of brute power. Likewise, one sees in The Suppliants the idea of krátos [power] oscillate between two contradictory constructs; on the one hand, it designates legitimate authority, a judicially founded stranglehold; on the other hand, a brutal force that appears as violence maximally opposed to law and justice. By the same token, in the Antigone the word nómos can be invoked with exactly inverse values by the different protagonists. What tragedy shows is one dikē fighting against another dike, a law that is not at all fixed, that and is transformed into its opposite.[49]

When a character such as Antigone commits herself to die for one aspect of an inherently unstable concept, the only possible outcome is tragedy. The problem is that language implies action. Actions may not speak louder than words, but words provide the framework for thought, and thought leads to action. Action, in turn, forces decision. Decision, as Fabienne Darge noted in commentary on Jean-Pierre Vernant’s theory of tragedy, often implies disaster.[50]

What is more, the dilemma extends beyond acts; the difficulty of deciding stems from language itself. Euripides explored this in Hippolytus in the character Phaedra, whose tragic dilemma involves language. “If what is timely [καιρός] [in a given situation] were clear,” says Phaedra, “there would be not be two having [the same] letters [γράμματα]”[51] Phaedra’s reference to the uncertain nature of letters (i.e., words) shows language’s confusing traits.         

So, one can conclude one form of “fittingness” is the ought; in other words, some modes of being fit in a way that leads to claims of obligation on those who shared the same gathered logos. The plot of Euripides’ Hippolytus hinges on the question of whether Hippolytus’ logoi befitted the nature-principles represented by Artemis and Aphrodite. The conversation between Hippolytus and the servant shows the protagonist’s deviation from orthodox Greek attitudes on calibrating logos to the expectations of that portion of physis represented in the goddess Aphrodite:

Servant: οἶσθ᾽ οὖν βροτοῖσιν ὃς καθέστηκεν νόμος;

Servant: ἦ κἀν θεοῖσι ταὐτὸν ἐλπίζεις τόδε;

Hippolytus: εἴπερ γε θνητοὶ θεῶν νόμοισι χρώμεθα.

Servant: πῶς οὖν σὺ σεμνὴν δαίμον᾽ οὐ προσεννέπεις;

Hippolytus: πρόσωθεν αὐτὴν ἁγνὸς ὢν ἀσπάζομαι.

Servant: σεμνή γε μέντοι κἀπίσημος ἐν βροτοῖς.

Hippolytus: οὐδείς μ᾽ ἀρέσκει νυκτὶ θαυμαστὸς θεῶν.

Servant: τιμαῖσιν, ὦ παῖ, δαιμόνων χρῆσθαι χρεών.

Hippolytus: ἄλλοισιν ἄλλος θεῶν τε κἀνθρώπων μέλει.

Servant: εὐδαιμονοίης νοῦν ἔχων ὅσον σε δεῖ.[52]

Servant: Do you know then the rule for mortals?….And the same thing you expect with the gods?

Hippolytus: Yes, at least if we mortals are consulting the rules of the gods.

Servant? Why then do you not address the reverence-worthy daimon [i.e., Aphrodite]?

Hippolytus: From afar [I], the pure [or, chaste] one, greet her.

Servant: Yes, but at least she should be revered.

Hippolytus:  Never pleases me the gods marvelous [only] at night.

Servant: Oh child, to give honor belonging to the gods is regarded a thing of necessity.

Hippolytus: Of other gods, let other men take care.

Servant: To be prosperous [lit, well with the daimons] it is necessary for minds to be having a sufficiently high consideration of them.[53]

In Heidegger’s Heraclitean terms, the servant (perhaps better translated attendant) argues that physis and dikē are the same for gods and men, presumably because the gods or other divine beings (the attendant’s theoi and daimons), collectively act as the principles of physis. Therefore, the common physis of man and god demands equal care in the use of logos. This conclusion implicated the Greek tragedians in the theist’s perennial problem in the use of language: the gods (if they exist at all) remain remote from the human experience of physis, a situation which complicates communication. In Hippolytus, Artemis confirms the protagonist’s rejection of the nurse’s “words” [λόγοισιν][54] and his respect for oath-language, but the goddess’ words come too late. Abandoned by the gods, betrayed by language, the human inability to translate one’s problems into adequate language finds succinct expression in Hippolytus’s cry (in the Greek, a powerful rhyming of the melancholy /ω/ sound): “Oh wretched me, / since I know these things, but I don’t know how to reveal them!”[55] In fact, one of the most linguistically intriguing aspects of god-oriented language is a tendency to abandon normal “meaning” altogether. In the Bacchae, the revelers’s cries io, io, euoi euoi do not communicate information – nor are they “propositions,” analytic philosophy’s “building blocks” of “argument” analyzable in terms of truth value or validity. [56]

Even more than Hippolytus (where Theseus openly wonders whether divine curses work), Sophocles’ Electra demonstrates a cynical approach toward physis as represented by the gods, leading to a cynical manipulation of language about the divine. During their argument, Clytemnestra attempts to shame Electra: “Will you not even allow me to sacrifice without ill-omened utterance [βοῆς], now that I have permitted you to say [λέγειν] all you wished?”[57] Clytemnestra’s subsequent sacrifice includes an attempt to leverage language to influence the god” “Listen, Phoebus our protector, to my secret word [κεκρυμμένην μου βάξιν]. [58] Clytemnestra furthermore attempts to gain the god’s favor against a more mundane secret, yet still powerful, form of language: she fears lest the story (μῦθος)[59] be distorted by ματαίαν βάξιν (“idle sayings”) spread εἰς πᾶσαν πόλιν (“all through the city”).[60] Similar cynical attitudes appear in Bacchae, when Pentheus explicitly (Cadmus and Tiresias implicitly) show a disconnect between logos and a theological interpretation of physis. Yet another illustration of the breakage between word and reality emerges in repeated appeals to use language without reference to truth. Cadmus tells Pentheus, “lie for a good cause, / Say that he is Semele’s child.”[61] Yet the appeal behind Cadmus’ suggestion is purely pragmatic, not ontological. Cadmus knows this god-language contains no meaning.

Language and Wisdom

Another use of language as the being-vehicle emerges in the tragic use of logos to find resolutions for practical problems – a technique of language-based reasoning often termed wisdom. In Greek tragedy, tragic characters struggle to agree upon such solutions, so the question arises: can logos (reasoned argument expressed via language) decide the wisdom of a decision a priori? Put another way, the question becomes: is language an adequate vehicle for determining or communicating wisdom?

Euripides’ demonstration that language inevitably fails as a tool for wisdom or cleverness shows up in Hippolytus. In the opening scenes, Phaedra’s apparently wise decision to withhold destructive language almost killed her; when she further disguised the facts in the form of words scribbled on her suicide note, her language did kill Hippolytus. While Phaedra still drew breath, the wise old nurse attempted to forestall Phaedra’s fate, but the nurse’s words also backfired, causing precisely the outcome she wished to avoid. The nurse deplored the gulf between intention and result inherent in the use of a means – language — that perplexes human intelligence: “But if I had fared well, indeed I’d be held among the wise / For we get a reputation for intelligence in proportion to our fortune.”[62]  As the nurse understood all too well, the cleverness of any use of logos cannot be determined apartment from the unfolding of physis (in the form of future events) in time. Another tragedy that hinges on the broken connection between language and wisdom is Sophocles’ Philoctetes. While Neoptolemus and Odysseus argue over returning Philoctetes’ bow, they also argue over language and cleverness:

Ὀδυσσεύς: σὺ δ᾽ οὔτε φωνεῖς οὔτε δρασείεις σοφά.

Νεοπτόλεμος: ἀλλ᾽ εἰ δίκαια, τῶν σοφῶν κρείσσω τάδε.

Odysseus: “Clever as you are, what you are saying is not clever.

Neoptolemus: Neither your words nor your intentions are clever!”[63]

Neither words nor intentions suffice to arrive at solidified determinations via language. Tortured by indecision after bandying words with Neoptolemus and Odysseus, Philoctetes exclaims ἅλις γάρ μοι τεθρήνηται λὁγος (“For me, enough words have been spoken,” [64] Lloyd-Jones translates; but “word” here is the singular form, as befits a conceptual category). Logos (as word) and logos (as rationality) mean the same thing, for the Greeks – this identity crisis highlights the fact that language cannot carry logic past the point of decision. Wisdom, the art of deciding, can thus never depend on words to make final determinations.

The pairing of word and wisdom blazes out as a constant theme in the Bacchae. Pentheus protests the use of words to short-circuit wisdom: “Nor will I fight against the gods because I’ve been pressured / by your words.”[65] After all, words can signify stupidity as easily as cleverness. Tiresias explicitly makes the connection, at Pentheus’ expense: “For Pentheus is a fool and says foolish things.”[66]

              At the bloody climax of the Bacchae comes long after Pentheus has already been captured by language. The Stranger draws Pentheus in by using words to confuse rather than clarify. Confounded, Pentheus exclaims, “What a gymnast with words!”[67] Pentheus’ failure to understand logos incarnate in physis dooms him. As god,Dionysius stands for wild nature; as The Stranger, physis appears on stage as an actor with a supernatural ability to destroy others through language. Thus, while humans lack the ability to use language to grasp reality, language does have the performative ability to affect reality. Agave’s murderous breakdown occurred while Dionysius “was speaking these words.”[68] Similarly, in the Hippolytus, Theseus connects language with Dionysian power by linking “many letters” with “Bacchic raving” [βάκχευε πολλω̑ν γραμμάτων].[69] Theseus then advances the conspiracy theory that when devotees such as Hippolytus consorted with the virgin hunter, they were in fact hunting people down “with words” [λόγοισιν] – something that actually happens in the Bacchae.[70]  Nor have the gods reserved the reality-altering capabilities of language to themselves. In the Bacchae, the words that finally kill Pentheus come not from the god but from the human woman Agave.[71]

Language and Reality: Lying

When language turns to the exploration of the human self, at some point along the road it will intersect the human capacity for deception. Insofar as a lie depends on deliberate misrepresentations of reality, deception undermines the human ability to interact with physis. In Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Odysseus mounts a cynical defense of the lie in his attempt to convince Neoptolemus to attack Philoctetes with words rather than blades. Odysseus understands that the overt violence characteristic of Achilles, Hercules, and Hector has its limits. Language may succeed where weapons will fail. Odysseus counsels Neoptolemus: “He will never be persuaded, and you could not take him by force.”[72] Neoptolemus protests against the “shame  [αἰσχρὸν] required to tell a lie [τὸ ψευδῆ λέγειν], but Odysseus replies, “No, at least [not] if the lie brings salvation!”[73] Here, Odysseus draws a direct line from unfolding physis to logos – respect for language’s possibilities effects the real world in perceptible, even practical, ways.

In his role as pathological liar, Odysseus ironically emerges as the only character who grasps the ability of language to dominate others. The wily hero of the Odyssey instinctively knew what Martin Heidegger meant by “Man behaves as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact it remains the master of man.”[74] Others in Philoctetes may attempt to imitate Odysseus’s understanding, but inevitably they find themselves too mastered by words to stave off suffering. For example, once Neoptolemus has tricked Philoctetes into boarding, the Argives give chase. Hearing of the pursuit from a merchant, Neoptolemus asks ὡς ἐκ βίας μ᾽ ἄξοντες λόγοις πάλιν; (“In order to return me by force or word?”).[75] Having yielded to the language wielded by Odysseus, Neoptolemus has good reasons for respecting the word just as much as sword. Philoctetes likewise expresses indignation at Odysseus’ “soft words” ( λόγοισι μαλθακοῖς) being put to such hard use. Yet Philoctetes still fails to appreciate the extent to which he is mastered by language, and consequently takes no offence at Neoptolemus’ wish to take the coveted bow because he perceives the younger man’s language as ὅσιά τε φωνεῖς ἔστι τ᾽ . Literally, the Greek here means “hallowed are your vocalizations”; while Lloyd-Jones’ “your words are innocent” fits the plot better, the sacral connotation of  ὅσιά (“hallowed”) helps emphasize the weight given language by Sophocles.

As Philoctetes progresses, the eponymous character gains a greater appreciation for the hidden power of language. Having fallen for Neoptolemus’ initial misrepresentations, Philoctetes becomes skeptical of the young man’s eventual repentance, and he frames that skepticism on language: φίλτατ᾽ εἰπών, εἰ λέγεις ἐτήτυμα;[76] “O speaker of welcome words — if your words are true!”[77] Here, the translator Lloyd-Jones appears to have picked up on the controlling theme of language, for inserts the implied “words” where the Greek has only the related verb for “speak” (λέγειν). Just as Tecmessa was more frightened by insane Ajax words than his bizarre actions, Philoctetes says much the same to Neoptolemus: οὔκουν ἐν οἷς γε δρᾷς: ἐν οἷς δ᾽ αὐδᾷς ὀκνῶ (“not your doings, but your utterances make me hesitate”).[78] Neoptolemus responds: …δεύτερον ληφθῶ κακός, / κρύπτων θ᾽ μὴ δεῖ καὶ λέγων αἴσχιστ᾽ ἐπῶν;[79] (“…Am I to be doubly convicted as a villain, by wrongful silence and by shameful speech?”)[80]

Along with outright lying, one of the complications of the human attempt to explore being via language arises from the tendency to impute accidental misstatements to malice rather than misunderstanding. Whenever words diverge from either vision or action, characters championing opposite definitions tend to see disconnect between language and justice. As Sophocles’ Electra tells Clytemnestra, δεινὸν εὖ λέγουσαν ἐξαμαρτάνειν (line 1039, “It is terrible for one who speaks so well to make such a mistake”[81]logos should befit physis.

Conclusion: Language and Necessity

Language is the human being’s vehicle, and here the vehicle metaphor is instructive: horses served Hippolytus’s chariot, but they also killed him. While people can ameliorate linguistic risks through caution, in the end vehicular accidents sometimes just happen. Linguistic accidents happen because they form part of the context of physis-logos which unfolds outside human control. One might label this unaccountable feature of the being-vehicle necessity.

Perhaps the clearest depiction of inherent linguistic necessity in Greek tragedy appears in the connection between names and events. Humans may defy the destiny language has prepared for them, but because languages was instilled in humanity by the fates, and then twisted by the gods, the attempt is futile. Walter Benjamin grasped the character’s dilemma as he or she struggles to resist the doom that names the individual: “The necessity which appears to be built into the framework is neither a causal nor a magical necessity. It is the unarticulated necessity of defiance, in which the self brings for its utterances.”[82] Pentheus, Oedipus, Ajax, Hippolytus all have some framework of suffering encoded in their very names. Each follows Benjamin’s formula of defiance yielding to necessity. Pentheus’ namerecalls the Greek for “pain”;[83] Oedipus describes the deformed foot that holds the secret to its bearers’ identity.[84] Hippolytus, a horse loose, predicted demise under pounding hooves and tangled reins.[85] Ajax (better transliterated Aias, from Greek Αἴας) sounds remarkably like the grief-stricken cry aiai.[86] In contrast to the humans’ doom, Dionysius, as representative of a happier ideal of physis not self-alienated, carried a name designating his self-inherent powers, at least according to Plato: διδούς [giver] οἶνος [of wine].[87] Humans, on the other hand, remain dependent (and in tragedy, doomed) by the extrinsic power of language.  

Another way language can take on an independent, deterministic, necessary form occurs when words take permanent form in writing. In the Hippolytus, Theseus enunciates a careful analysis of the power language acquires once cemented in writing as he apprehensively approaches the tablet hanging from Phaedra’s body. [88] He speculates what this “new sign” [σημ̑ηναι νέον] might mean. The lexical ancestor of “semantic,” the Greek word for “sign” implied word long before its borrowing by academic semioticists. Amid Theseus’s references to written language – “epistled” [επιστολάς], “tablet” ([δέλτος], and “wrote” [έ̓γραψεν]”[89] – the concept of λέξαι is especially significant.[90] The root word is λέξις, from which we derive lexical and lexicon, or a collection of language. Theseus participates in Euripides’ contention that language may have independent force via his multiples uses of the verb θέλειν [“to will, wish, or intend”] to describe what the tablet will do, thus attributing the anthropomorphic characteristic of will to a set of letters. The Chorus responds to Theseus’ analysis in a single line, with λόγον in emphatic final position: “Ai, Ai, of evil the leader you reveal [to be a] word.”[91]              

Language appears at its most overwhelming in the form of opposites. Posing a problem in the language of opposites forces us to examine the inner contradictions of our being. Sophocles’ Ajax is full of such contractions – healthy and sick, sane and insane, masculine and feminine, coward and hero. Ajax, a man of action lacking the ability to frame his situation productively with language, runs afoul of every opposite. His failure to find the words to admit his sickness without falling to a binary between honor and shame compounds his insanity. Later in the same play, Agamemnon and Odysseus illuminate the point as they argue over whether to bury Ajax’s corpse.[92] Alone of all the characters in the play, Odysseus is at home with competing opposites: the ability to see both friend and enemy in the same man frees Odysseus from a limited view of Ajax. Agamemnon, on the other hand, insists on a rigid definition of friend and enemy that leaves no room for verbal maneuver. 

What conclusion exists to be drawn from this short foray to language? What began with ambiguity (we do not know what words can do) ended in necessity (words have inescapable power over us). Both power and ambiguity must remain key components of any theory of language. For a tragic summation of this concept, I turn to Sophocles’ Philoctetes, in which Odysseus gives perhaps the most astute analysis of language in Greek tragedy.

“Son of a noble father,” Odysseus tells Neoptolemus, “I too when I was young had a tongue that was inactive but an arm that was active; but when I came to put it to the proof I see that it is the tongue, not actions, that rules all things for mortals.”[93]

Odysseus words reflect a worldview in which physis and logos are two sides of the same coin. The framework of language used to interpret reality holds sway over action itself. The notion of hypocrisy latent in “actions speak louder than words” holds true within a framework, but the value of the action may be overturned by a switch in verbal paradigms. Examples proliferate throughout history. The medieval Crusader marched under the linguistic banner Deus vult; at a certain point, what had been a point of pride for a Knight Templar became a source of embarrassment when Christendom developed a different verbal framework that gave different values to the variables “violence” and “other.”  The same holds for the issues of race, gender, and identity that occupy twenty-first century scholars – each critical name bears within it a linguistically determined doom similar to that which murdered Hippolytus or ruined Oedipus. An awareness that each judgment of mine depends on the values bequeathed me by language provides the humility to navigate language like Odysseus – less ruthlessly, it is to be hoped, but with the awareness that leads to prudent use of word and argument (logos) to interpret my environment (physis).  

From this question of the tongue’ activity-inactivity, and the death that words can deal, we can perhaps derive from Heidegger’s obsession with logos a lesson he drew without understanding (or without wanting to understand): language is the house of being, but it is a house that those who dwell therein have the responsibility to maintain. A welcome mat is laid out or snatched away in word before deed; the fire at which alter-beings can rest is lit in language.

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson. The Death of Hippolytus. Birmingham Museums Trust. http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-death-of-hippolytus-34552

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[1] Chiefly the Nietzsche of Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872)

[2] Sophocles, Antigone, in Sophocles Vol 1: Oedipus the king. Oedipus at Colonus. Antigone, with English translation by F. Storr, Loeb classical library, 20, in Perseus digital edition (New York. Macmillan Company, 1912), line 334.

[3] My [abridged, with X taking place of variants of δεινός] translation.

[4] Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002), δεινός.

[5] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, Translated by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 182.

[6] Sophocles, Antigone lines 355-356, my translation.

[7] Martin Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister,” translated by William McNeill and Julia Davis (Bloomington,

IN: Indiana University Press, 1996), 62.

[8] Michael Dummet, Frege: Philosophy of Language (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1981), 152.

[9] Daniel W. Graham, “Heraclitus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/heraclitus/&gt;., n.p.

[10] see Martin Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister.”

[11] Friedrich Hölderlin, Selected Poems and Fragments, translated by Michael Hamburger (New York: Penguin, 1998), 252-256.

[12] Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: John Lane, 1908) 14-15.

[13] Euripides, The Suppliants, in Euripidis Fabulae, volume 2, edited by Gilbert Murray, in Perseus digital edition (Oxford. Clarendon Press, 1913), lines 195-204.

[14] My translation.

[15] Nancy Frankenberry, Religion and Radical Empiricism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987), 144.

[16] Ibid., 144.

[17] Hölderlin, 18-19.

[18] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music. Translated by Shaun Whiteside and Michael Tanner (London: Penguin UK, 2003), 46.

[19] Iliad, line 777, quoted in Robin Mitchell-Boyask. “Heroic Pharmacology: Sophocles and the Metaphors of Greek Medical Thought,” pp. 316-330 in Kirk Ormand, ed. A Companion to Sophocles (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

[20] Sophocles, The Ajax of Sophocles, edited with introduction and notes by Sir Richard Jebb (Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1893), Greek text from lines 243-244, my translation.

[21] Sophocles, The Ajax of Sophocles, edited with introduction and notes by Sir Richard Jebb (Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1893), lines 326-327.

[22] Ibid., lines 326-327.

[23] Ibid., lines 392-393.

[24] Ibid., line 411.

[25] Sophocles, Philoctetes, in Sophocles II: Antigone, The Women of Trachis, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus, edited and translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), lines 234-235.

[26] My translation.

[27] Compare Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002), 345, with Dominique Sportische, An Introduction to Syntactic Analysis and Theory (Malden, MA: Wiley, 2014), 61.

[28] Stanley Rosen, Plato’s Republic: A Study (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 216.

[29] Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, 167.

[30] Heidegger expounds at length on the first choral ode of Antigone in both Introduction to Metaphysics and Hölderlin’s Hymn Der Ister.

[31] Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal Naquet, Mythe et tragédie en Grèce ancienne. Volume 2 (Paris : Éditions La

Découverte, 2011), 18.

[32] Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, 167.

[33] Euripides, Bacchae, in Stephen Esposito (editor), Medea, Hippolytus, Heracles, Bacchae, translations by A.J. Podlecki, Michael R. Halleran, and Stephen Esposito (Newburyport, MA: Focus Classical Library, 2004), , line 211, Esposito translation.

[34] Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, 171.

[35] Hölderlin, 231.

[36] Professor Charles Bambach, class lecture, University of Texas at Dallas (Richardson, TX: Fall 2017).

[37] Euripides, Hippolytus, in Greek text of David Kovacs (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, forthcoming, but available in digital form on Perseus), line 1289.

[38] Euripides, Bacchae, lines 326-327, Translated by T. A. Buckley, revised by Alex Sens, further Revised by Gregory Nagy. Center for Hellenic Studies – Harvard University. https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/5303, I have taken the liberty of modifying the translation of sophron from “balanced” to “prudent.”

[39] Euripides, Ion, Greek text from Euripidis Fabulae, volume 2, edited by Gilbert Murray (Oxford: Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1913), lines 783-786, my English translation.

[40] Heraclitus, B 39, in Graham, n.p.

[41] Rebecca Bushnell, Prophesying Tragedy: Sign and Voice in Sophocles’ Theban Plays. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 16-25.

[42] Ibid., 25.

[43]Jean-Pierre Vernant, Mythe et tragédie en Grèce ancienne, Volume I (Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 1986), 24, my translation. The French original: « Les mots, les notions, les schèmes de pensée sont utilisés par les poètes toute autrement qu’au tribunal ou chez les orateurs. Hors de leur contexte technique, ils changent en quelque sorte de fonction. Sous la plume des Tragiques, ils sont devenus, mêlés et opposés à d’autres, les éléments d’une confrontation générale des valeurs, d’une mise en question de toutes les normes, en vue d’une enquête qui n’a plus rien à voir avec le droit et que porte sur l’homme lui-même quel est cet être que la tragédie qualifie de deinós, monstre incompréhensible et déroutant, à la fois agent et agi, coupable et innocent, lucide et aveugle, maîtrisant toute la nature par son esprit industrieux et incapable de se gouverner  lui-même? » (Vernant, Vol. 1, 24).

[44] Vernant, Vol. I, 101- 102. Vernant’s argument is worth reading, so it has been placed in the Appendix at the end of this paper. It is also hoped that my translation of the critical passage were will serve the additional purpose of partially fulfilling the UT Dallas graduate language requirement. (See pages 22-23).

[45] Vernant, Vol. I, 101. My translation. French original : « Tous les tragiques grecs ont recours à l’ambiguïté comme moyen d’expression et comme mode de pensée. »

[46] Vernant, Vol. I, 101.

[47] Euripides, Hippolytus, my translation from the Greek text of David Kovacs (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, forthcoming, but available in digital form on Perseus), line 91.

[48] Cf. Ruth Scodel, “Wisdom from Slaves,” pp. 65-81 in Poulheria Kyriakou and Antonius Rengakos (eds.), Wisdom and Folly in Euripides (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2016), 72-73.

[49] Vernant, Vol. I, 15, My translation. French original : « De ce point de vue, la Dikē divine elle-même peut apparaître opaque et incompréhensible: elle comporte, pour les humains, un élément irrationnel de puissance brute. Aussi voit-on dans les Suppliantes la notion de krátos osciller entre deux acceptions contraires ; tantôt elle désigne l’autorité légitime, une mainmise juridiquement fondée, tantôt la force brutale dans son aspect de violence le plus opposé au droit et à la justice. De même, dans Antigone, le mot nómos peut être invoqué avec des valeurs exactement inverses par les différents protagonistes. Ce que montre la tragédie, c’est un dikē en lutte contre une autre dikē, un droit qui n’est pas fixé, qui se déplace et se transforme en son contraire. » (Vernant, Vol. 1, 15)

[50] Fabienne Darge, « Jean-Pierre Vernant, aux racines de l’homme tragique. »Le Monde. (10 January, 2007). Here I include both French original and my English translation of the relevant passage for the incidental institutional purpose of demonstrating scholarly use of French:

“The dilemma in which the character finds his [or her] self is the motor of tragic action. The tragedy presents the human in a situation of action, facing a decision in which everything is at risk. He is going to choose that which seems the best to him. However, in making the choice, he will in some sense destroy himself. For his act – his insignificant act – will take on a completely different meaning than that which he had imagined and is going to return on him like a kind of boomerang. This man, who believes himself to be doing good, is going to [end up] look[ing] like a monster or a criminal. It is an illusion to believe that the man is the master of his acts.”

[French original : « Le dilemme où se trouve un personnage est le moteur de l’action tragique. La tragédie présente l’homme en situation d’agir, face à une décision qui engage tout ; et il va choisir ce qui lui semble le meilleur. Or, en faisant ce choix, il va en quelque sorte se détruire lui-même. Car son acte – son petit acte – va prendre un sens tout différent de celui qu’il avait imaginé et il va revenir sur lui comme une sorte de boomerang. Cet homme, qui croyait bien faire, va apparaître comme un monstre ou un criminel. Il y a une illusion à croire que l’homme est maître de ses actes, nous dit la tragédie. »]

[51] Euripides, Hippolytus, Halleran translation, in Stephen Esposito (editor), Medea, Hippolytus, Heracles, Bacchae, translations by A.J. Podlecki, Michael R. Halleran, and Stephen Esposito (Newburyport, MA: Focus Classical Library, 2004), line 387.

[52] Euripides, Hippolytus, Kovacs text (Perseus), lines 88-105.

[53] Ibid., lines 88-105, my translation.

[54] Ibid., line 1308.

[55] Ibid., lines 1090-91.

[56] Alexander Miller, Philosophy of Language, 2nd edition (London: Routledge, 2007), 4.

[57] Sophocles, Electra, in Sophocles I: Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus, edited and translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), lines 630-631.

[58] Ibid., lines 637-638.

[59] Sophocles, Electra, line 639 (Lloyd-Jones Greek text), my translation.

[60] Ibid., line 642, my translation.

[61] Euripides, Bacchae, lines 334-335, Halleran translation, in Esposito (editor).

[62]Euripides, Hippolytus, lines 700-701, Halleran translation, in Esposito (editor).

[63] Sophocles, Philoctetes, in Sophocles II: Antigone, The Women of Trachis, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus, edited and translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), lines 1245-1246), 381.

[64] Ibid., line 1401, Lloyd-Jones translation, 399.

[65] Euripides, Bacchae, line 324-325, Esposito translation.

[66] Ibid., line 367, Esposito translation.

[67] Ibid., line 491, Esposito translation.

[68] Ibid., line 1082, Esposito translation.

[69] Euripides, Hippolytus, in Barrett, W.S., editor, Hippolytus: Introduction and commentary (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1964) [In Greek citations are from Barrett, I have replaced medial ϲ with σ.], line 954.

[70] Ibid., line 957.

[71] Euripides, Bacchae, lines 1106-1109, Esposito translation.

[72] Sophocles, Philoctetes, Greek text of Lloyd-Jones, line 103.

[73] My translation.

[74] Heidegger, Vorträge und Aufsätze (Pfullingen, Neske 1954), 146, quoted in Sebastian Alackapaly, Being and Meaning: Reality and Language in Bhartrhari and Heidegger (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2002), 202.

[75] My translation; Lloyd-Jones renders λόγοις as “argument.”

[76] Sophocles, Philoctetes, Greek text of Lloyd-Jones, line 1290.

[77] Ibid., 389.

[78] Sophocles, Philoctetes, line 907, Lloyd-Jones-translation.

[79] Sophocles, Ajax, lines 908-909, Lloyd-Jones translation.

[80] Sophocles, Ajax, Lloyd-Jones translation, 347.

[81] My translation.

[82] Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: NLB, 1977), quoted in Bushnell, 5.

[83] Esposito, 219 (see footnote 367).

[84] Drew Griffith, Theatre of Apollo: Divine Justice and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 1996),79.

[85] ίππος (hippos) means “horse.” Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002), 164.

[86] See Sophocles, Ajax, lines 430-431.

[87] Plato, Cratylus, 400-406, in Maria Serena Mirto, “Rightly Does Aphrodite’s Name Begin with aphrosune: Gods and Men between Wisdom and Folly,” pp. 45-63 in Poulheria Kyriakou and Antonius Rengakos (eds.), Wisdom and Folly in Euripides (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2016), 56.

[88] Hippolytus, lines 855-865, Esposito translation.

[89] Euripides, Hippolytus, lines 855-865, my translations.

[90] Ibid., line 865.

[91] Euripides, Hippolytus, line 881, my translation.

[92] Sophocles, Ajax, lines 1318-1373.

[93] Sophocles, Philoctetes, lines 96-99, translation by Lloyd-Jones.

Greek original (text is that of Lloyd-Jones):

ἐσθλοῦ πατρὸς παῖ, καὐτὸς ὢν νέος ποτὲ

γλῶσσαν μὲν ἀργόν, χεῖρα δ᾽ εἶχον ἐργάτιν:

νῦν δ᾽ εἰς ἔλεγχον ἐξιὼν ὁρῶ βροτοῖς

τὴν γλῶσσαν, οὐχὶ τἄργα, πάνθ᾽ ἡγουμένην.

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