At Law and Liberty today, I have an essay on law in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice,” in which I expand on some themes that Marc and I discussed in our recent Legal Spirits episode. Specifically, I explore the play’s lessons about the limits of law in a pluralist society:
For the people of Shakespeare’s day, Bloom writes, Venice represented the hope that society could transcend religious and cultural differences through commerce—or, rather, through commercial law. Classical liberal thinkers would call later it the doux commerce thesis: allow people to trade freely with each other and they would ignore religious and other differences, which get in the way of profit, and live together peaceably. The give-and-take of the market would train people to cooperate with one another and forego proselytizing. All that was necessary was that the state enforce people’s contracts on equal terms, neutrally and fairly, without giving one group or another the upper hand. Everything else would follow.
Venice was less serene and indifferent to religion than portrayed. But, as a symbol, the city was important. And by drawing the conflict as starkly as he does, Shakespeare means to ask whether the Venetian system can work where intercommunal divisions concern bedrock beliefs and ways of life. His answer is not hopeful. The dispute between Antonio and Shylock over charging interest reflects a deeper conflict about ultimate values that commerce and commercial law cannot resolve. “The law of Venice can force” the two men “to a temporary truce,” Bloom writes, “but in any crucial instance the conflict will re-emerge, and each will try to destroy the spirit of the law; for each has a different way of life which, if it were universalized within the city, would destroy that of the other. They have no common ground.”
Where such common ground does not exist, the law cannot create it. Law, even a neutral law of contracts, inevitably requires judgment: Which agreements should be enforced, and which should not? And judgment inevitably depends on the values people bring to the law from the wider culture. Where people share values, law does a tolerably good job resolving their disputes. One party wins and the other loses, but both can accept the legitimacy of the system. Where moral divisions run deep and the stakes are high, this is not possible. Law alone cannot persuade people to accept decisions that violate their most basic sense of right and wrong.
Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, one of his “problem plays,” has long fascinated lawyers. Yet the legal arguments in the case are preposterous. In this episode, we discuss how Shakespeare uses an absurd legal dispute to illustrate deeper religious and political conflicts and speculate about the implications of the play for America today. Perhaps the reason Merchant so fascinates lawyers is that it demonstrates uncomfortable truths about the limits of law. Listen in!
This past winter, we noted a book on how the law figures in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Here is another book arguing that a classic of medieval literature can shed light on that era’s law, especially its canon law: Piers Plowman and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages, by UCLA English professor Arvind Thomas. The publisher is the University of Toronto Press. I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought of “Piers Plowman” as an early Protestant work. The publisher’s introduction suggests the poem was firmly situated in medieval Catholicism:
It is a medieval truism that the poet meddles with words, the lawyer with the world. But are the poet’s words and the lawyer’s world really so far apart? To what extent does the art of making poems share in the craft of making laws, and vice versa? Framed by such questions, Piers Plowman and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages examines the mutually productive interaction between literary and legal “makyngs” in England’s great Middle English poem by William Langland.
Focusing on Piers Plowman’s preoccupation with wrongdoing in the B and C versions, Arvind Thomas examines the versions’ representations of trials, confessions, restitutions, penalties, and pardons. Thomas explores how the “literary” informs and transforms the “legal” until they finally cannot be separated. Thomas shows how the poem’s narrative voice, metaphor, syntax and style not only reflect but also act upon properties of canon law, such as penitential procedures and authoritative maxims. Langland’s mobilization of juridical concepts, Thomas insists, not only engenders a poetics informed by canonist thought but also expresses an alternative vision of canon law from that proposed by medieval jurists and today’s medievalists.
I don’t remember too much from my high-school Chaucer, but I have always remembered, perhaps because of my eventual career choices, that a lawyer was among the pilgrims. Chaucer’s lawyer has gravitas–at least he throws around “wise words”–and lots of clients, though, the narrator tells us in a famous aside, he’s not really as busy as he seems to be, an observation one could make about lots of lawyers (and law professors!) today as well. But I hadn’t understood that law plays an important role in the The Canterbury Tales. A new book from Notre Dame Press, God’s Patients: Chaucer, Agency, and the Nature of Laws, by John Bugbee (University of Virginia) explores the legal themes in Chaucer’s work. Here’s the publisher’s description:
God’s Patients approaches some of Chaucer’s most challenging poems with two philosophical questions in mind: How does action relate to passion, to being-acted-on? And what does it mean to submit one’s will to a law? Building on the work of Jill Mann and Mark Miller, who have pointed out the subtlety of Chaucer’s approach to such fundamentals of ethics, John Bugbee seeks the source of the subtlety and argues that much of it is ready to hand in a tradition of religious (and what we would today call “mystical”) writing that shaped the poet’s thought. Bugbee considers the Clerk’s, Man of Law’s, Knight’s, Franklin’s, Physician’s, and Second Nun’s Tales in juxtaposition with an excellent informant on a major stream of medieval religious culture, Bernard of Clairvaux, whose works lay out ethical ideas closely matching those detectable beneath the surface of the poems. While some of the positions that emerge—most spectacularly the notion that the highest states of human being are ones in which activity and passivity cannot be disentangled—are anathema to much modern ethical thought, God’s Patients provides evidence that they were relatively common in the Middle Ages. The book offers striking new readings of Chaucer’s poems; it proposes a nuanced hermeneutical approach that should prove fruitful in reading a number of other high- and late-medieval works; and, by showing how assumptions about its two fundamental questions have shifted since Chaucer’s time, it provides a powerful new way of thinking about the transition between the Middle Ages and modernity.
I have always been puzzled by the way some of my Catholic colleagues in the academy strive to prove that William Shakespeare was a secret Catholic. All sorts of coded messages in his sonnets and plays are adduced; all manner of shadowy associates and networks offered by way of proof. I’m no Shakespeare scholar, but to me the evidence seems pretty shallow. Not that I think Shakespeare was a committed Protestant–and let me add, I have no particular church in this fight. It’s just that all these secret messages and clandestine networks can’t overcome, for me, the indifference about religion that I see in his plays. Shakespeare seems detached about pretty much everything, including religion. (I know, I know, that’s just how a secret Catholic would present himself in Elizabethan and Jacobean England). Shakespeare seems to understand Christianity in broad, cultural terms and to take from it only one thing: the virtue of forgiveness. More than that, it seems to me, it isn’t really possible to say.
These matters are perhaps discussed in a new collection from Cambridge, Shakespeare and Early Modern Religion. The editors are David Lowenstein (University of Wisconsin, Madison) and Michael Whitmore (Folger Shakespeare Library). The publisher’s description follows:
Written by an international team of literary scholars and historians, this collaborative volume illuminates the diversity of early modern religious beliefs and practices in Shakespeare’s England, and considers how religious culture is imaginatively reanimated in Shakespeare’s plays. Fourteen new essays explore the creative ways Shakespeare engaged with the multifaceted dimensions of Protestantism, Catholicism, non-Christian religions including Judaism and Islam, and secular perspectives, considering plays such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King John, King Lear, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Winter’s Tale. The collection is of great interest to readers of Shakespeare studies, early modern literature, religious studies, and early modern history.
Offers interdisciplinary perspectives on Shakespeare and early modern religion from both literary scholars and historians, appealing to a broad range of readers.
Illuminates the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays represent a wide variety of religious beliefs and practices, also revealing a dynamic interaction between religious and secular issues in the plays
Connects religious issues in Shakespeare’s plays with political and national ones, illuminating religious belief, politics and national identity in early modern England.
We are coming to the end of Euripides’ great drama. The final scenes naturally divide into two parts. First, the chorus of the sons of the fallen Argive warriors enters, bearing the urns in which their fathers’ ashes are gathered. They engage in a colloquy with their grandmothers. The episode ends with a brief exchange between the two kings, Theseus and Adrastus, in which they exchange farewells. Second and unexpectedly, the goddess Athena appears on stage. She peremptorily issues two sets of instructions: first, to Theseus, to forbid the Argives to return with the remnants of their dead warriors until they swear to accept certain terms to the advantage of Athens, in accordance with ceremonies she prescribes; and then, to the Argive sons, to enjoin them to renew the war with Thebes once they come of fighting age. Theseus pledges to obey the goddess; the Argive women’s chorus also agrees and departs; and so the play ends.
Cycles of peace and war
The drama has come full cycle. It began with the prayers of Aethra in the sacred precincts of the goddess Demeter at Eleusis – a divinity associated with peace, abundance, agriculture and civilization; a mother who mourned the disappearance of her daughter Kore; and a foundress of Athens. It ends with the appearance of another goddess, Athena, who is associated with war: “she is a warmonger from the moment she is born shaking her armour and making her war cry.” Susan Deacy, Athena (2008). In one of the Homeric Hymns to Athena (ll.2-3), it is said that Athena, together with the war god Ares, “makes her business the works of war, the sack of cities and the shouting and the battle.” She is often depicted with a helmet, shield and spear, is childless and a virgin, and was not born of a mother, but of Zeus. (In Aeschylus’ Eumenides, in casting her vote to acquit the matricidal Orestes, she says, “No mother gave me birth,/I honour the male, in all things but marriage./Yes, with all my heart I am my Father’s child.”) (Robert Fagles trans.) Like Demeter, Athena is associated with agriculture, civilization and the founding of Athens; but she gave the Athenians the olive tree, not grain. Demeter’s shrine at Eleusis is suffused with panhellenic ideals; Athena is the patroness of a particular Greek city, Athens. (The forces that Theseus deploys against Thebes in the panhellenic cause are nonetheless called “the army of Pallas [Athena].)” The play opens with Aethra praying that Demeter grant “prosperity” or “good fortune” (“eudaimonein”) to Theseus and Athens; it ends with Theseus asking Athena to deal with the city so that it may live “in safety” or “securely” (“asphalos”). (Notice that Theseus’ more modest request is suited to harsh, wartime conditions.) The world of human action shown in the play occupies the space between the opposing poles of these two goddesses.
During the course of the drama, we have moved from the aftermath of war to a peace that is preparatory to war; then to war; and finally to a peace that is again the aftermath of war and again a preparation for war’s renewal. As if to mark the stages of this pattern, it appears that the same actor would have played, successively, Aethra, Evadne, and Athena.
War, it seems, is a recurring and inescapable part of the cycle of human existence, and peace a mere respite from it: there is a season to harvest the wheat crop, but there is also season for reaping human bodies. The Argive messenger has described Theseus in battle as brandishing his mace so that “necks, helmets, heads/ [were] mowed down or lopped.” Now the buried bodies of the Argive warriors have been sown and will yield a crop of avenging warrior sons.
Even if the gods are just (as part of the Argive women’s Chorus problematically assumes, while it anxiously awaits news of the fate of Athens’ forces at Thebes), “[y]et justice calls to justice, blood to blood.” The pattern of violence and counter-violence is never-ending; war has the repetitive character of a blood feud.
The war cycle and revenge
The war cycle feeds on revenge. The Greeks never underestimated the power of that motive. Greek historians frequently cited the desire for revenge as a cause of interstate war, and vengeance wars do indeed seem to have been a feature of Greek foreign affairs. See J.E. Lendon, Homeric vengeance and the outbreak of Greek wars, in Hans van Wees (ed.), War and Violence in Ancient Greece (2000). The revenge motive also operated on the individual level as well.
In the Iliad, Homer has Achilles say that revenge is “much more sweet than liquid honey” (Book XVIII, l. 102). In his Rhetoric, Book II, c. 2, Aristotle cited this passage of Homer, saying “anger is always accompanied by a certain pleasure, due to the hope of revenge to come. For it is pleasant to think that one will obtain what one aims at; now, no one aims at what is obviously impossible of attainment by him, and the angry man aims at what is possible for himself. Wherefore it has been well said of anger, that ‘Far sweeter than dripping honey down the throat it spreads in men’s hearts.’” Odysseus’ son Telemachos, listening to the story of how Orestes avenged his father’s death, desires to act similarly: “what a stroke of revenge that was! All Achaeans/will spread Orestes’ fame across the world,/a song for those to come./If only the gods would arm me with such power/I’d take revenge.” Odyssey, Book III, ll. 230-35 (Robert Fagles trans.). In Sophocles’ Ajax, Athena invites Odysseus to gloat at the spectacle of his maddened foe Ajax, saying “Is not the sweetest mockery the mockery of enemies?” (Jebb Trans.). Herodotus speaks of one Hermotimus, castrated as a child by Panionius of Chios, who, after a successful career as a eunuch at the Persian court, re-encountered Panionius years later, persuaded him to bring his whole family to a feast, and there compelled Panionius to castrate all four of his sons there, after which he forced those sons to castrate their father. Thus, Herodotus says, Hermotinus managed to exact “the greatest revenge for an injustice.” Book VIII, cc. 105-06 (Strassler ed.).
Reflecting on his native Montenegro, the Yugoslav writer Milovan Djilas said:
Revenge is its greatest delight and glory. Is it possible that the human heart can find peace and pleasure only in returning evil for evil? . . . Revenge is an overpowering and consuming fire. It flares up and burns away every other thought and emotion. It alone remains, over and above everything else. . . . Vengeance is not hatred, but the wildest, sweetest kind of drunkenness, both for those who must wreak vengeance and for those who wish to be avenged.
Euripides implies that it lies beyond human power to end the war cycle. Here, there is to be no final resolution to the blood-letting, unlike the ending of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, where Athena appeases the avenging Furies, the helpers of justice, persuades them to reside in Athens, and institutes a court of law. (Other societies also managed to escape in a similar way from the retaliatory spiral of the feud to law, see Michelle Daniel, From Blood Feud to Jury System: The Metamorphosis of Cherokee Law from 1750 to 1840(1987)) Euripides’ implacable Athena permits no such escape route. The contrast with the Eumenides is clear: “for Euripides, unlike Aeschylus, there is no triumphant finale to this chain of fatalities; no development of justice; only a traumatic repetition of follies.” J.W. Fitton, The Suppliant Women and the Herakleidai of Euripides (1961).
Here, even when divine justice intervenes in human affairs, it is to order the war cycle to be resumed, not to bring it to a halt. “Peace is the moment when history catches its breath in order to hurl itself once more into war.” Janine Chanteur, From War to Peace (1992 (French ed. 1989)). The gods belie Theseus’ theological optimism: he tells us that divine power has separated mankind from “brutishness” (“theriodous”); but Athena promises the young Argives that they will become “lions’ whelps.” A conflict that began with Apollo’s prophesy about a lion and a boar will return with Athena’s prophesy to the lions’ cubs. Theseus seems to have misunderstood the gods’ intentions as much as Adrastus did: the gods speak as they must, but we hear what we will.
The Sons’ Chorus
The suicide of Evadne and the lament of Iphis are followed directly by a procession of the sons of the dead Argives, bearing their fathers’ ashes in urns. Their entrance may well have reminded Athenian audiences of the traditional ceremony in which the orphans of Athens’ own war dead were led into the orchestra before the performance of tragic plays in festival of the Great Dionysia. The Cambridge classicist Simon Goldhill explains this pre-play rite:
In Athens, if a boy’s father died fighting for the state, the boy was brought up at state expense, and at the end of this maintained childhood was presented with armour and weapons by the state, to take up his place in the state’s fighting forces. . . . These ‘ephebes’ or the class of ‘young males about to become proper men’, were paraded in the theatre in their military equipment. A herald announced the boy’s father’s name and made a moving speech which expressed in glowing terms how the fathers had done their duty, and how their boys, now to be men, would also fulfill their military obligations to the state. The boys then took a stirring oath of loyalty to the state. They promised by a long list of the gods of the state to stand by their comrades wherever they were placed in the line, and declared that they were prepared to fight and die for the city as their fathers had done before them. Then they took up their special seats, reserved for them.
Love, Sex and Tragedy (2004). It would be easy for the Athenian ephebes, watching their “Argive” counterparts on the stage, to see this part of the play as specifically intended for them. (We should also remember that Euripides himself had become an ephebe in 466 and was given a spear and shield for the occasion.)
To this point, the sons’ chorus has been silent. Now they speak, exchanging words with the chorus of their grandmothers. The sons mourn their fathers, the women, their sons. Then the sons say:
Father, your son mourns for you;
Do you hear? Shall I one day,
Shield in hand, avenge your death? God grant it!
Justice for my father’s blood –
It will yet come, with the favour of God.
The women’s chorus responds — somewhat enigmatically, perhaps because the text may be uncertain. In Vellacott’s translation, the women say:
This wrong sleeps not yet.
Why must we always weep?
I have had enough of disasters and misery.
If this translation is correct, the women seem to be expressing dismay at their grandsons’ declared intention of seeking revenge. The women have had enough of war and killing: they have lost their sons, are wretched, and want no more deadly violence. Remember, however, that these same women (or some of them) have earlier said that “blood calls to blood.” Do they want the war cycle to be breached, or have they instigated its renewal themselves?
The sons are adamant:
The day will come when Asopus [a river near Thebes (RJD)] gleams in welcome
As I march bronze-clad at the head of a Danaid army
To avenge my father’s death.
It seems to me that I still see you, father. . .
Not for these young Argives are the sentiments that Rudyard Kipling expressed in his poem The Settler, written in 1903 to mark the end of the Boer War. Kipling’s “Settler” (both meanings must be intended) sought to bridge the divide between the victorious English and the defeated Dutch:
And when we bring old fights to mind,
We will not remember the sin –
If there be blood on his head of my kind,
Or blood on my head of his kin –
For the ungrazed upland, the untilled lea
Cry, and the fields forlorn:
“The dead must bury their dead, but ye –
Ye serve an host unborn.”
In Kipling, the future bids old enemies to bury the past; in Euripides, the future, in the person of the sons, resurrects the past. Herman Melville’s war poetry expresses the mood of these youngsters far better than Kipling’s: “All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys/The champions and enthusiasts of the state.” (The March into Virginia (1861)).
After the choruses, Theseus and Adrastus exchange parting words. Theseus tells the Argives to bear Athens’ gift of the dead bodies “always in thankful memory . . . repeat this story to your sons,/And they to theirs in turn. Teach them the honour due/To Athens; let them recall in perpetuity/Kindness received.” Adrastus replies graciously, “Our gratitude will not grow old.” Then, as suddenly as Evadne did and in the very same place, Athena appears above the shrine.
The judgments of Athena
The goddess Athena’s connections to war and strategy on the one hand, and to Athens on the other, were extremely strong. Joan Bretton Connelly writes that as her legends developed, Athena “becomes a fierce advocate for the land of Attica. She is a shrewd architect of military strategies designed to protect it and a warrior goddess prepared to defend it with all her might.” The Parthenon Enigma (2014). The first thing that worshippers who approached Athens’ Acropolis would see was the temple of Athena Nike [“Victory”]:
Construction of this lovely Ionic temple was begun in the mid-420s, around the time The Suppliants was produced.
When worshippers then entered the sacred space on the Acropolis, they would discover “the astonishing excess of military booty, trophies, and treasures that would dazzle [them] once inside, culminating in a treasure trove of dedications within the Parthenon itself.” (Connelly). And within the Parthenon, the great sculptor Pheidias’ bronze statue of Athena presided:
This was the statue named as Athena “Promachos” (“Fighting in the front rank, and leading her people to victory”), where the virgin goddess was worshipped as a warrior. Athena brought victory to Athens, and victory brought wealth.
Athena’s message here is abrupt and peremptory: “Theseus, I am Athena; listen to my words.” She orders him not to permit the unconditional return of the bodies to Argos. Instead he must make the Argives swear an oath never to march against Athens in arms, and to take up arms in Athens’ defense if she is attacked. Athens is under no reciprocal obligation: the promise of non-aggression binds Argos only; the defensive alliance is to be one-sided. Argos’ oath is to be sanctified by a blood sacrifice. (Again, we see Greek international law resting on supernatural sanctions.) Theseus is to slay three sheep and to capture the blood that runs off in a bronze tripod that the hero Heracles took at Troy and that Theseus has been storing. After the sacrifice Theseus is to inscribe the Argives’ oath in the hollow of the tripod and present it to Apollo’s temple at Delphi, so that all of Greece may be witness to Argos’ pledge. Theseus is also to bury the knife that he will use in sacrificing the sheep and bury it in the earth near the seven pyres of the fallen Argives, so that if an Argive army encroaches on Athenian territory and reaches this crossroad, it will be reminded of the city’s oath (and take the route to Thebes instead). The buried knife will be a lasting reminder to Argos of the buried dead whom Athens had restored to it.
Athena’s instructions to Theseus recall the bitter wisdom of Bias of Priene, whom the Greeks considered one of their seven sages, and whose maxims were often quoted. Bias cynically counseled mistrust: he advised his listeners to love their friends as if they would one day hate them. In the Rhetoric (1389b13-25), Aristotle cites Bias’ maxim, saying that old men, who know that “most things turn out badly,” tend to agree with Bias. Theseus is still young, and he trusts Argos as if it would always remain a friend to Athens. Athena demands that Theseus, as king, think like an old man instead.
Athena and the young Argives
Then Athena turns to the Argive sons. “When you reach manhood you shall sack the city of Thebes/In vengeance for your fathers’ blood.” The young Aigialeus, the son of King Adrastus, is to take his father’s place as commander-in-chief. (It is as if Adrastus, who is standing by, is already dead.) Diomedes, the son of the kin-slaying fugitive Tydeus, is to accompany him. The young soldiers are to hurl their bronze-armed forces against Thebes as soon as they are of age. They shall be the “lions’ whelps,” and they will sack the city. (Recall that Theseus had spared Thebes from that calamity.) The term for “sacking” the city is repeated twice, as if to emphasize the importance of that action, an extreme of violence that was rare in classical Greece: sacking is “[c]ognate to the Homeric practice of mutilation of the body” (Lendon). They must do this in order to avenge (“ekdikazontes”) their fathers; the word for “avenging” has the word “justice” (“dike”) as its root. “This is how things must be,” Athena declares (Euripides: Suppliant Women (James Morwood ed. & trans. 2007).) They will be called “The After-Comers,” and they will be remembered in heroic poetry sung throughout Greece. Their expedition against Thebes (unlike Adrastus’ one) will have the gods’ blessing (“sun theoi”). She does not say whether Thebes in its turn will seek revenge.
Two kings, the just warrior Theseus and the unjust warrior Adrastus, stand before the goddess, humbled and abashed. Theseus at once promises to obey, telling Athena “by your voice/Alone I am saved from error.” He will make Adrastus take the oath Athena prescribes. Adrastus is silent. So thoroughly has Adrastus been marginalized that the Argive women, not he, promise to give the oath to Theseus and Athens (even though Athena has said that Adrastus as King had the authority to make the pledge). Indeed, it is possible that Adrastus has neither seen nor heard Athena, who has not addressed him. (In the Ajax, Odysseus hears but does not see Athena, Ajax both sees and hears her, and Tecmessa neither sees nor hears her.) The Argive women thank Theseus, and the play ends.
Can war be “just”?
In these scenes, the question of war’s “justness” seems to shrink in significance;
what matters about war is its inevitability. It seems that we do not, after all, choose it; it comes to us. Like Lear towards his end, Theseus, Adrastus, indeed all of humanity, are “bound/Upon a wheel of fire,” King Lear, Act, IV, scene 7; and that wheel is war. One commentator suggests that Athena’s promise to bless the sons’ future war against Thebes is “needed to ensure that an act of war can function as justice,” but that seems plainly wrong to me. See Rebecca Futo-Kennedy, Athena’s Justice (2009). The divinely-guided war that Athena ordains will surely be less just than the purely human war ordered by Theseus. Athena, who brings a just resolution to violence in the Eumenides, is here the renewer of revenge. She is like the gods in Book IV of The Iliad who, after debating whether to perpetuate the fragile truce that the Greeks and Trojans have made or to stir up war again, decide on war, and chose Athena as the instrument for tricking the Trojan archer Laodocus into targeting Menelaus and breaking the truce. Let humans try to establish peace if they can; their efforts are useless. The mind of the gods is on war, and they will thwart our plans.
Pursuing the logic of this interpretation to its limit, we could be led to think that war, as Euripides dramatizes it here, is a necessity of nature, not an activity subject to human control, and hence is “beyond good and evil.” To ask whether a war is just or not would be like asking whether a drought or a plague or an earthquake or a crop infestation was just or not. War is a recurring, ineliminable feature of human existence, necessitated by the basic circumstances, forces, passions and drives that structure and constrain our lives, or by what men otherwise once called “the gods.”
Justice and the order of nature
Let me briefly explore a still bolder interpretative possibility. This is that even if Euripides is saying that the question whether any particular war is just has at best limited significance, nonetheless war as an institution or practice is just. Moreover, he might even be taken to be saying that even if war is a necessity of nature. How might he have reached that startling conclusion? At the risk of being extremely imprudent, let me offer this suggestion.
In a brilliant and influential essay, the Princeton historian of philosophy Gregory Vlastos argued that several “pre-Socratic” Greek thinkers taught, in various ways, that nature was maintained in a state of self-regulating, dynamic equilibrium by the unceasing conflict of equal, opposing forces. See Equality and Justice in Early Greek Cosmologies(1947). At various times, one of the forces would prevail, and its opposite would recede; then the receding force would in its turn prevail, and the force that had once prevailed, would recede. Thus, summer would give way to winter, and after its season, winter would give way to summer. The continuous balancing and rebalancing of opposing forces would produce a healthy equilibrium: the onset of winter would prevent the lassitude and indolence that would be caused by an endless summer, the return of summer would relieve the harshness and asperity of an unending winter. These ineluctable regularities or laws established, not only a natural pattern, but an immanent cosmic justice. By “invading” summer, winter would do summer an “injustice;” but the subsequent return of summer would constitute winter’s “reparations” for that injustice; and so on in turn. Indeed, justice is assured by the facts that all of the opposing forces are equal in strength, all take precedence in turn, and all exist in subjection to a “common law.” The resemblances to a democratic polity’s understanding of “justice” are not accidental. The “commonwealth of nature,” as Vlastos calls it, is the democratic city projected onto the plane of nature as a whole. Cosmic justice is ensured by cosmic equality.
Vlastos sees this philosophical concept of nature in several of the pre-Socratics, including in this fragment quoting Anaximander (Vlastos’ trans.):
And into those things from which existing things take their rise, they pass away once more, according to just necessity; for they render justice and reparation to one another for their injustices according to the ordering of time.
Vlastos argues that this physico-moral conception of nature eventually became “the common property of classical thought.” We can also discern its influence on Greek tragedy, as in these lines that Sophocles gives to Ajax in the play of that name:
Things of awe and might submit to authority. So it is that winter with its snow-covered paths gives place to fruitful summer; night’s dark orbit makes room for day with her white horses to kindle her radiance; the blast of dreadful winds allows the groaning sea to rest; and among them all, almighty Sleep releases the fettered sleeper, and does not hold him in a perpetual grasp.
(R. Jebb (trans.)).
Now it is very likely that Euripides, who was personally acquainted with some of the pre-Socratic thinkers, was both aware of this conception and influenced by it. He might, e.g., have heard about it from Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, who was only fifteen years older, a close friend and adviser of Pericles, a long-time resident of Athens and, reputedly, Euripides’ teacher. While we cannot be certain of this, we do know that Anaximander’s ideas were still being discussed in Athens (by Aristotle) well after Euripides’ death.
Granting these assumptions, it is possible to surmise that Euripides is saying that the endless cycle of war and peace is a manifestation of cosmic justice. War purges away the staleness and tedium of a protracted peace; peace relieves the terror and cruelty of war. There is no “just war.” But because war is natural, and what is natural is just, so war is just.
What should we conclude?
What are we to make of this strangely beautiful, perplexing play, and particularly of its unexpected conclusion? Why, in the warm afterglow of Theseus’ and Adrastus’ mutual promises of lasting amity and good will, does Athena suddenly appear, speaking in the cold voice of power politics? (Fitton describes her here as “the conscienceless voice of State Power.”) Why does she insist that the mere obligations of gratitude are insufficient? What accounts for her peremptory demand for political rationality and realism, for one-sided treaties ratified by blood-sworn oaths, in place of reliance on the ties formed by friendship and generosity? Is Euripides saying that realpolitik alone must be the guide to the conduct of international affairs, and that the memory of past benefits conferred is as likely to create resentment as affection? Is Euripides contrasting the strength and self-confidence of the pre-war Athens with an Athens weakened, wary and coarsened after years of war? Is the final image he gives us one, not of a benign and civilized Athens, but of a harder and more cynical city?
The play’s conclusion raises even deeper and more intractable questions than these – questions that go, not to fifth century Athens alone, but to the nature of war and peace as such. How should we read the play as a whole? Is it, as some critics have argued, an encomium on war-time Athens? Or, as others have said, is it a denunciation of war and imperialism? Is it blueprint for just war, or a demonstration that war cannot secure either peace or justice, even for a little while? Is it a vindication of Theseus’ rational theology, or a proof of the opacity of the gods’ intentions? An argument for human self-reliance and the exercise of intelligence in the face of an indecipherable universe, or an acknowledgement of human helplessness and the futility of action? A plea for civilization, humaneness, and international law, or the bleak recognition that the defense of civilization must itself engender atrocity? A disparagement of human justice, but an affirmation of cosmic justice?
Must we choose between these alternatives, or may we affirm them all? We cannot be sure even as to that. To call the play “dialectical” is only to scratch its surface. Euripides’ greatness is to leave us with questions that are as urgent as they are unanswerable.
A small distraction from various present horrors. I have written about Anthony Trollope before, one of the greatest and most unjustly under-appreciated (at least in the United States) novelists of the Victorian period. But particularly for those interested in law and religion, may I recommend “The Warden”–the first of Trollope’s Barsetshire Novels–as one of the greatest little novels I’ve read in years. A few notes on the plot:
The story concerns a will by one John Hiram, who establishes in the 15th century a “hospital” (really a kind of sanatorium) for the care of several bedesmen (needy pensioners). An Anglican churchman–the warden–is given the care of this hospital, with an attendant salary. But over the years, as the property increases in value, so does the warden’s income, which by the time of the story sits at a very comfortable 800 pounds. The warden at the time of the telling, Septimus Harding, is a kind, gentle, caring, and honorable man who takes exceptional care of his charges. Nevertheless, a question arises about Mr. Harding’s entitlement under the will to so generous an income. A reform-minded young man named John Bold (who also happens to be the suitor of Mr. Harding’s daughter) begins to make inquiries–with the utmost good faith–about the nature of the original bequest. And this unleashes a bitter contest between the local archdeacon and the reformers (as well as other unscrupulous and nasty types) about the propriety of the income of the wardenship at Hiram’s Hospital.
Part of what makes the novel so good is the delicacy with which the characters are drawn. Unlike in Dickens, where the characters are perhaps a bit too often either the purest angels or the most abject devils, Trollope’s novel is populated with characters who have doubts about what is right. Mr. Harding himself is a deeply good man, but also one with sincere and real qualms about the justice of the matter. As Trollope puts it, Mr. Harding was far less concerned to be proved right at law than to be right.
Though their lives are entirely comfortable, many of the bedesmen are lured into joining a law suit when the promise of 100 pounds a year is dangled in front of them by an exploitative lawyer who strikes the appealing notes of self-righteousness in tandem with legal entitlement. In the end, after his name is repeatedly dragged through the mud by the local press, the warden resigns and the bedesmen don’t see a cent. In a touching scene at the end of the novel, as the warden is leaving the hospital, he says goodbye to a bedridden bedesman who is destined to die within the week, “poor old Bell”:
“I’ve come to say goodbye to you, Bell,” said Mr. Harding, speaking loud, for the old man was deaf.
“Are you going away, then, really?” asked Bell.
“Indeed I am. And I’ve brought you a glass of wine; so that we may part friends, as we lived, you know.”
The old man took the proffered glass in his shaking hands, and drank it eagerly, “God bless you, Bell!” said Mr. Harding; “good bye, my old friend.”
“And so you’re really going?” the man again asked.
“Indeed I am, Bell.”
The poor old bed-ridden creature still kept Mr. Harding’s hand in his own, and the warden thought he had met with something like warmth of feeling in the one of all his subjects from whom it was the least likely to be expected; for poor old Bell had nearly outlived all human feelings. “And your reverence,” said he, and then he paused, while his old palsied head shook horribly, and his shriveled cheeks sank lower within his jaws, and his glazy eye gleamed with a momentary light; “and your reverence, shall we get the hundred a year, then?”
How gently did Mr. Harding try to extinguish the false hope of money which had been so wretchedly raised to disturb the quiet of the dying man! One other week and his mortal coil would be shuffled off; in one short week would God resume his soul, and set it apart for its irrevocable doom; seven more tedious days and nights of senseless inactivity, and all would be over for poor Bell in this world; and yet, with his last audible words, he was demanding his moneyed rights, and asserting himself to be the proper heir of John Hiram’s bounty! Not on him, poor sinner as he was, be the load of such sin!
There is so much more in this superlative story of law, rights, religion, justice, reform, tradition, personal frailty, and the complicated nature of human motivations and character. One of the very best.
A violation of the Greek norm that enjoins dishonoring the bodies of an enemy’s
battle-dead is at the core of Euripides’ Suppliants. Correcting that violation is what appears to give Athens just cause to wage war against the violator, Thebes, which will not permit the burial of the soldiers from Argos who died in battle before Thebes’ gates. We have thus far tracked the development of this norm from Homer through Sophocles, with sidelong glances at other Greek authors. We have seen that the norm was upheld as early as Homer, although it permitted exceptions. We have also seen that the norm was sometimes characterized as unwritten, divine in origin and everlasting in duration, and sometimes as a custom binding in the Greek world only and a special mark of its superior civilization.
In what follows, we shall briefly review other sources of evidence for the norm: the early fifth century historian Herodotus, who was born in Halicarnassus, now in Turkey but then in Greek Ionia, and the later fifth century Athenian historian Thucydides. Both writers strongly confirm the existence of the norm. We shall conclude this section with an analysis of the special place of this norm to fifth century, democratic Athens, and to the Athenian audiences of Euripides’ play.
By the time Herodotus wrote, it would seem that the burial norm in question had
become well entrenched. In Book IX of his Histories, an inquiry into the wars between the Greek city states and the neighboring Persian Empire, Herodotus recounts a conversation after the Greek victory over the Persians in the battle of Plataea between one Lampron, a leading figure in the Greek city of Aegina, and Pausanias, a Spartan general. Seeking to ingratiate himself to Pausanias, Lampron proposed that Pausanias cut off the head of the fallen Persian Mardonius and impale it, just as Mardonius had earlier done to Leonidas, the uncle of Pausanias. This, Lampron said, would both avenge Leonidas and deter other barbarians from attacking Greece. But Pausanias was repelled by the suggestion. He said to Lampron:
Aeginetan, I thank you for your goodwill and forethought, but you have missed the mark of right judgment. First you exalt me and my fatherland and my deeds, yet next you cast me down to mere nothingness when you advise me to insult the dead, and say that I shall win more praise if I do so. That would be an act more proper for barbarians than for Greeks and one that we consider worthy of censure even in barbarians.
Herodotus further illustrates the norm in a story that concerns Onesilos, the younger brother of the King of Salamis in Cyprus, who was killed while besieging the city of Amathous. Herodotus tells us (Book V, cc. 114) that the Amathousians cut off his head and hung it up over their city’s gates. In time bees swarmed into the hollow skull and honeycombed it. The Amathousians consulted an oracle about it, who advised them to take down the head, bury it, and worship Onesilos as a hero every year. It would seem that the Amathousians had wronged Onesilos by displaying his severed head and had to make recompense by offering him worship.
A single episode from Thucydides’ History will suffice. This occurs after the
battle of Delium in November 424, in which the Athenians were defeated by the Thebans. See The Peloponnesian War, Book IV, cc. 97 et seq. As was customary for the side that had been defeated, the Athenians requested a truce after the battle so that they might reclaim and bury their dead. The victorious Thebans at first refused, arguing that because the Athenians had transgressed the law by occupying and fortifying the consecrated site of a temple, they would not permit them to gather in their dead until they evacuated the temple. The Athenian defense, which is not of direct concern to us here, is an extended and sophistic application of the doctrine of “necessity” in war (on which see Clifford Orwin, Piety, Justice, and the Necessities of War: Thucydides’ Delian Debate(1989). For our purposes, the critical facts are that the Athenians affirmed, and the Thebans did not deny, that but for the alleged Athenian sacrilege, the Thebans should have granted a truce and allowed the Athenians to recover their dead. Moreover, after driving away the Athenians, the Thebans did in fact permit the Athenians to retrieve the bodies, thus underscoring the legitimacy of the Athenians’ claims.
Several scholars have viewed this episode after the battle at Delium as the inspiration for Euripides’ Suppliants, thus dating the play close to 424 (perhaps 423). That may be so, although the evidence is inconclusive. Other scholars, observing that the play ends with an alliance between Athens and Argos, date the play to around 421, seeing it as a celebration of the treaty that Athens and Argos concluded that year. (See L.H.G. Greenwood, Aspects of Euripidean Tragedy (1953); for the treaty, see Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Book V, cc. 44, 47.) This too cannot be proven. In her valuable Theseus, Tragedy, and the Athenian Empire (1997), Sophie Mills notes that “since an alliance was made between Argos and Athens in 421 (and renewed in 416), it is likely that the alliance of the play is also intended to link the myth with contemporary politics for the audience;” but she also points out that “although the language of Euripides’ treaty strongly resembles that of historical treaties, its actual terms differ significantly from those of the treaty of 421.”
What matters more for us is that by the time The Suppliants was produced, the Greeks considered it to be among the most fundamental norms of war to allow an adversary to collect and to bury its battle-dead. The justice of a war depends in large part (though not entirely) on the justice of the cause for which it is undertaken. If Euripides means us to think that Athens made war on Thebes to uphold this norm, then that war would seem to have had a just cause.
War and democratic Athens
Moreover, we are now also in a position to see the particularly compelling nature of the norm for Euripides’ audience in democratic Athens. To an extent that most Americans would find hard to understand (even though our country has been almost constantly at war since 1941), the Athenian imagination was saturated with the idea, and usually the fact, of war. W.R. Connor, in an article on Greek warfare cited earlier, remarks that for fifth century Greeks, “war was more than tactics, strategy and gore; it was linked to almost every aspect of their social organization and to their rich imaginative life.” And with its rulership over a large, tribute-paying overseas empire, democratic Athens was especially war-prone. David Pritchard writes of fifth century Athens:
War now dominated the politics of the city and the lives of thousands of upper- and lower-class citizens. Foreign policy was the mainstay of political debate, with war and peace being a compulsory item on the agenda [of Athens’ assemblies]. Fifth-century Athenians waged war more frequently than ever before: they launched one or more campaigns in two out of every three years on average and never enjoyed peace for more than a decade. . . By the 450s military service was also perceived as the duty of every citizen, which the Athenian demos appears to have taken very seriously.
When our Athenian authors wrote or spoke of war, they spoke with first-hand knowledge. Thucydides was a general, as was Sophocles; Socrates had fought at the battle of Delium. Over 70% of adult, male Athenian citizens were available for active service, and about 30% of militarily active citizens served in the hoplite infantry (Pritchard). At the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles (in Thucydides’ account) stated that Athens was fielding 13,000 hoplites and deploying another 16,000 men to guard the city’s forts and walls. At the time, the adult male population of the city is estimated at about 60,000. And not only did many Athenian citizens experience combat; high numbers of those citizens were killed in action, and many more risked being killed.
For Athenian citizens and their families, therefore, war was woven into the fabric of ordinary life. They debated it; waged it; endured its hardships; and died in or from it. And for those reasons, the city’s practices regarding the burial of its citizen battle-dead were of the utmost importance to all of them. The city’s commemoration of those dead flooded and enriched its citizens’ imaginations. Its funerary practices lay at the center of the web of reciprocal claims and obligations that bound the citizens and the city to each other. Athens might ask you to give your life for it; but in return it promised you an afterlife of undying glory in its collective memory. Every Athenian soldier whom Pericles praised in his Funeral Oration had died, he argued, a beautiful death, worthy of a Homeric hero:
For having every one given his body to the commonwealth, they receive in place thereof an undecaying commendation and a most remarkable sepulchre; not wherein they are buried so much, as wherein their glory is laid up, upon all occasions both of speech and action to be remembered for ever. For to famous men all the earth is a sepulchre: and their virtues shall be testified, not only by the inscription in stone at home, but by an unwritten record of the mind, which more than of any monument will remain with every one for ever.
With this understanding of the Greek war convention in mind, let us consider the play itself more closely. In the following installments, I will review and analyze the action of the drama. The next posting will discuss the significance of the setting of the play at the shrine of the goddess Demeter at Eleusis, and will describe the institution of “supplication.” Thereafter, postings will successively cover the opening scenes leading up to the entry of the Theban herald; Theseus’ colloquy with the Theban herald; the scenes culminating in the report of Theseus’ victory at Thebes and his return to Athens; and from then on up to the play’s conclusion, including the appearance of the goddess Athena.
I am very grateful to the editors of this website for offering me the opportunity to return to its pages. I would like to use the opportunity to pursue what I hope will be a fresh approach to the just war tradition. I plan to explore just war thinking through an extended consideration of Greek tragedy – specifically, Euripides’ Suppliants (or Suppliant Women).
Just war theory has undoubtedly become the predominant account of the morality of war in contemporary secular thought. As Michael Walzer, who has done so much to stimulate the development, has observed, ever since the War in Vietnam, American debates over the morality of war have been structured in terms of Just War theory. See Michael Walzer, The Triumph of Just War Theory (and the Dangers of Success) (2002). So firm is its hold that it was not surprising to hear President Obama consider it at some length in his 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, or to read that his Administration claims to be following it in its military activities, including drone warfare. (For critical discussion, see this piece. Likewise, just war theory has long been the mainstream tradition in Catholic and other Christian thought about peace and war.
The Just War Canon
Part of the explanation for the dominance of just war theory is the pedigree that scholars have assigned to it. In most standard accounts, such as Alex Bellamy’s excellent Just Wars: From Cicero to Iraq (2008), the tradition of just war thinking begins with the Roman politician, orator and thinker Cicero, is Christianized by St. Augustine, is then reconfigured by St. Thomas Aquinas, and afterwards is handed down through the early modern Spanish scholastics and their secular successors, including Hugo Grotius and Emer de Vattel to the modern period. In this narrative, the tradition waned in the “positivist” period of international law in the nineteenth century, but was revived in the aftermath of the First World War, see Cornelius van Vollenhoven, Three Stages in the Evolution of the Law of Nations(1919), and then came into its own in this country with writers of the Cold War period such as Paul Ramsey, see The just war: Force and political responsibility (1968) and others.
In my judgment, this standard narrative is at best incomplete, at worst false. If nothing else, it fails to account for the centuries-long gap between Augustine and Aquinas. As Philip Wynn has recently argued in a monumental work of scholarship, Augustine on War and Military Service (2013), Augustine’s writings on the justice of war are scattered and episodic, reflecting more his pastoral concerns as a bishop than his intellectual preoccupations as a systematic theologian. Moreover, as I have argued myself, the long interval between Augustine and Aquinas, Christian thought and practice concerning war and peace was not filled by continuing reflection on, and elaboration of, a just war doctrine stemming from Augustine. Instead, Christian thought exhibited several different tendencies, one of which emphasized the sinfulness of all wars, including just ones, and required returning warriors who had taken life in their campaigns to confess their sin and do penance for it. See Robert Delahunty, The Returning Warrior and the Limits of Just War Theory (2014). Just war theory, with purported roots in Augustine, was in fact largely the creation of canon lawyers working for the Papacy in the great eleventh century Reform (or Revolution) undertaken by Popes such as Gregory VII (Hildebrand). Later scholars have accepted as legitimate the pedigree that these canonists confected for just war doctrine.
A Different “Canon”
There is, moreover, another important, but largely neglected, stream of Western thought about just war that flows outside the current canon. I would hesitate to say that these other writings constituted a “tradition,” but they certainly equal the current just war canon in terms of antiquity, depth, and the distinction of their authors. This body of thought and reflection is found primarily in works of literature and history, rather than in theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, or statecraft. In this counter-canon (to call it that), the Roman historian Sallust would loom as large as Cicero does in the current canon, and Shakespeare would be as important as Aquinas or Grotius. In this series of postings, I will argue that the Athenian tragic poet Euripides, writing in the late fifth century BC, deserves inclusion in any canon of great Western writers on the subject of justice in war.
I am not, of course, arguing that one can find the term “just war,” or any near equivalent, in the writers of drama and history whom I have in mind. (For that matter, it is not so easy to find occurrences of the term in any ancient writers, including Cicero.) What I am saying is that the concept of a just war can be identified there, and that the application of that concept is studied in ways that can be of profound interest. To be sure, dramatists and historians pursue their studies in ways that are necessarily different from those of philosophers or lawyers, whose function it is to frame general rules. The former are essentially concerned with individual situations, and their presentation of the issues is concrete and unsystematized. To use Wittgenstein’s distinction, they show rather than say. But the very complications that are added by fixing on the unique and unrepeatable can deepen and enrich our reflections on the morality of war.
The Relevance of “The Suppliants”: Humanitarian Intervention
I am not especially concerned with whether Euripides’ play is relevant to contemporary concerns or not, but in fact it is.
Written (likely) sometime in the late 420s, The Suppliants is the product of wartime conditions. Athens and its great rival Sparta had gone to war for hegemony in Greece some years earlier, in 431. The end of the conflict came only in 404, long after any plausible date for the play. The war saw the collision of two very different types of system: Sparta was a conservative, land-based power of a somewhat autocratic cast, Athens had been a popular democracy for decades (an unusual political régime in the ancient world), a naval power, and a commercial hub, the center of a sea-based empire. Euripides’ drama is not overtly about the Peloponnesian War (though many readers have heard echoes of it in the play), but about a mythic conflict many centuries before, between Athens under its legendary King Theseus and the city-state of Thebes, long a rival and often an enemy of Athens.
In the play, Theseus and Athens are persuaded to intervene militarily against Thebes on behalf of a third Greek city state, Argos. Argos has gone to war against Thebes in support of a claimant to the Theban throne. Argos’ war, as the play will reveal, was impious and unjust. Argos has been defeated, and many of the warriors in the Argive expeditionary force have been killed in battle before the gates of Thebes. The Greek war convention called for the defeated side to request a truce so that it could recover the bodies of its battle-dead and bury them; the victorious side was expected to grant the truce and permit the recovery of the dead bodies. Thebes had denied the Argive request, and the bodies of the Argive soldiers remained unburied. Led by Adrastus, the King of Argos, the bereaved mothers of the unburied Argive soldiers come as “supplicants” to Athens, seeking its intervention against Thebes, whether by arbitration or, if need be, by war, to recover their sons. After considerable delay and debate, Theseus and Athens finally agree to march on Thebes. Their campaign is bloody and closely fought, but successful, and the bodies are recovered and brought back to Athens. That might seem a natural point at which to end the play, but Euripides has several surprises left for us, including the spectacular suicide of the widow of one of the Argive soldiers (a scene without precedent in Greek tragedy) and the unexpected appearance of the goddess Athena, a dea ex machina, at the end, who issues orders that countermand those just given by King Theseus.
The action of the drama poses, in stark form, the core questions arising from armed military interventions for humanitarian purposes. In recent decades, the United States has repeatedly faced the same question: in Kosovo; in Libya; in central Africa (against the Lord’s Resistance Army); and currently in Syria. Euripides forces his audiences and his readers to ask themselves what humanitarian interventions ultimately achieve, and whether they resolve conflict or only perpetuate it. Further, the play provokes reflection on the question of the motivations for humanitarian intervention: is the intervening power truly acting altruistically or for the sake of some international common good, or does intervention usually stem from hegemonic or imperialistic motives? (On the contemporary debate, see Michael W. Doyle, The Question of Intervention: John Stuart Mill & the Responsibility to Protect (2015)).
The treatment of the bodies of dead enemy combatants
There is a second issue dramatized by the play that holds contemporary interest – though our concern with it seems less than that of the Greeks. This is the question of the treatment of the bodies of enemy warriors who have been killed in battle.
Our contemporary war convention is clear and emphatic in its rules for the treatment of battle-dead soldiers. Article 15 of the First Geneva Convention of 1949, requires the “Parties to the conflict” “particularly after an engagement” “to search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled.” Article 17 further provides that the Parties to the conflict “shall further ensure that the dead are honourably interred, if possible according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged.” As the 1952 Commentary by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) notes, the Articles refer to the “Parties to the conflict,” thus making it plain that these obligations apply to both sides.
The ICRC Commentary also emphasizes the respect with which the dead bodies must be treated:
The dead must also be looked for and brought back behind the lines with as much care as the wounded. It is not always certain that death has taken place. It is, moreover, essential that the dead bodies should be identified and given a decent burial. When a man has been hit with such violence that there is nothing left of him but scattered remains, these must be carefully collected.
Similar prescriptions have also been laid down in religious teaching, and have long formed part of the customs and practices of war. Consider, e.g., early Islam. “Following the desecration of his own uncle by enemy soldiers, Mohammad (570-632) banned the mutilation of the dead. Following suit, Abou Bekr (571-634), explicitly told his soldiers going out to fight enemies that ‘see that none deals with treachery. You shall mutilate none.’ The scholar Abd al-Rahman al Awza’i (704-74) reiterated this rule against mutilation of the enemy dead.” Alexander Gillespie, A History of the Laws of War, vol. I (2011). Or consider the customs of war in early modern Europe. Shakespeare closes his Richard the Third with lines intended to show the magnanimity of the victor:
What men of name are slain on either side?
John Duke of Norfolk, Walter Lord Ferrers, Sir Robert Brakenbury, and Sir William Brandon.
Inter their bodies as becomes their births.
Notwithstanding the clear prescriptions of international law and military custom, the norm in question has often been violated, even by democratic armies fighting in recent wars. For whatever reasons, men at war often experience an overpowering desire to dishonor, despoil or mutilate the bodies of the enemy soldiers they have killed. Short of that, they or their governments may refuse to release the bodies of enemy battle-dead. The norms against such practices have to be powerful indeed, because the urges that they attempt to control are so compelling themselves.
Instances of violations are plentiful. In 2012, photographs and a video of four US Marines in Afghanistan urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters. An outcry ensued, and the military promised a criminal investigation. In 1967, a US Army sergeant was court-martialed after photographs came to light in which he was shown holding the decapitated heads of two enemy corpses. The Army declared the mutilation of dead enemy bodies to be “subhuman” and “contrary to all policy.”
The United States military is of course not alone in this. Israeli human rights groups have complained of their government’s policy of refusing to return bodies of Palestinians killed in bomb attacks they initiated or in conflict with the Israeli army. And in the civil war in Syria, both ISIS forces and those fighting them appear to have mutilated enemy combatants’ dead bodies.
Moreover, there is nothing new about these practices, nor are they common only in developed societies. In Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior (1967), Peter Nabokov presents the autobiography of Two Leggings, a celebrated nineteenth century Native American. Towards the end of his story, Two Leggings reminisces about the joys of warrior life. He recounts the fate of a dead Sioux whom he had killed the day before:
Riding over into the bushes, I found the Piegan’s body. After scalping his whole head I cut it into four parts, giving one to White Eye, one to Short Bull, and keeping the other two. Also I carried away his rifle. We discovered that they were Sioux and not Piegans. . .
When we returned to our camp we drove the captured horses through the tipis and I carried my scalp pieces tied to the end of a long pole. Soon the camp was alive, men brought out their drums, and the women began the scalp dance. . . .
Everyone joined in. For several days there was feasting and dancing. I was invited everywhere and told the story over and over again.
We were happy.
Why this happens is not well understood. Frances Larson, an anthropologist at Durham University in England, has studied the question of mutilation in her fascinating book Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found (2014). During the Second World War in the Pacific, American servicemen regularly mutilated the corpses of dead Japanese soldiers, often decapitating them and preserving their skulls as trophies. “It was not particularly hard to find human heads on display during the Pacific Campaign of the Second World War. . . Skulls were hung from bulletin boards and lashed to the front of US tanks and truck cabs as macabre mascots.” Later inquiries seem to confirm the anecdotal evidence. “One forensic report estimated that the heads were missing from 60 per cent of the Japanese dead repatriated from the Mariana Islands in 1984. And a Japanese priest who visited Iwo Jima regularly in the decades after the war to conduct services for the dead reported that skulls had been taken from many of the remains . . . . Customs officials in Hawaii, the gateway home for returning American troops, routinely asked soldiers whether they had any bones in their bags.” Larson’s book illustrates her narrative with remarkable images and photographs, one of which, taken from Life magazine, shows an attractive young American woman gazing smilingly on a Japanese soldier’s skull. She is writing a “Thank you” note to her Navy boyfriend for sending the souvenir to her. Around the time the photograph was first published, a Pennsylvania Congressman presented President Franklin Roosevelt with a letter-opener fashioned from the arm bone of a Japanese soldier. (Roosevelt returned it.)
Legal warnings accomplished little if anything. The War Department pronounced the desecration of the Japanese dead to be a “grave violation of law and decency.” US Navy commanders in the Pacific theater threatened servicemen with “stern disciplinary action” if any of them were caught taking enemy body parts as souvenirs. But the harvesting of heads, teeth and fingers continued.
What causes such behavior? Larson refers to the work of another anthropologist, Simon Harrison’s Dark Trophies (2012), for a possible explanation. Harrison has argued that “trophy-taking tends to take place when men’s virility and power is expressed through hunting metaphors,” as when the military tracks “kills” and “body counts.” And a possible explanation is that such trophies have “conferred status” on their owners. Larson herself suggests what seems to me more plausible explanations. “[I]n the field of battle they performed many different functions. As heterogeneous as the soldiers who acquired them, they could symbolize fury or fear. Some were treated like hunting trophies, but others were transformed into tokens of love, mascots, pseudo-scientific specimens or playthings. And they were as likely to inspire moments of introspection as they were to encourage displays of bravado: after all, a human skull is the shell of a person that sits deep within us all. It is little wonder that soldiers, so close to death in more ways than one, were drawn to human skulls.” Taking enemy skulls “helped soldiers regain a sense of empowerment, because the trophy head, held aloft, is an assertion of control in the chaos of battle. The same could be said of the executioner who holds up a traitor’s head on the scaffold: order is declared anew.”
How and when did Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) emerge as a literary genre of its own? To what extent was it influenced by other disciplines, such as law, theology, or philosophy? How did different political or theological agendas shape works of tafsir, and in what ways did the genre develop over time and in different regions? These are some of the major questions which this book seeks to address.
This book constitutes the first comprehensive attempt at describing the genre of Qur’anic exegesis in its broader intellectual context. Its aim is to provide a framework for understanding the boundaries of tafsir and its interaction with other disciplines of learning, as well as the subgenres and internal divisions within the genre. It discusses the emergence of the genre in the beginnings of Islamic history and the changes and potential ruptures it has experienced in later times, the role of hadith, law, language, philosophy, theology, and political ideology for the interpretive process, the regional dimension, the influx of modernist ideas and the process of writing tafsir in languages other than Arabic.
Among the fifteen authors who have contributed to the volume are leading scholars in the field as well as young researchers, which makes for a unique and fresh perspective on a field that has long been reduced to its instrumental value for understanding the Qur’an. Covering the time from the formation of Qur’anic exegesis until the present, it is a valuable resource for advanced students and scholars in the field.