On the afternoon of May 8, 2022, the Phase I Classics Workshop of Xinya College organized by Xinya College, Tsinghua University was successfully held. Following the theme of "Nature and Civilization in Ancient Greek Plays," the activity included discussions and comments on three reports about Antigone by Sophocles, Ion by Euripides, and The Clouds by Aristophanes. During the activity, many teachers had in-depth academic exchanges via video links. They included Gan Yang, Li Zhen and Yan Di from Xinya College of Tsinghua University, Zhao Xiaoli from School of Law of Tsinghua University, Wang Mingming, Zhang Hui, Gu Yu, Qu Jingdong, Wu Fei and Chen Siyi from Peking University, He Fangying from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), and Huang Weiwei from Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU).
I. Opening speech
As the lead planner of the activities of the Classics Workshop of Xinya College, Mr. Gan Yang delivered an opening speech. He said that the theme "nature and civilization" has much modern relevance. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our normal lives shows that the antithesis between nature and civilization is already evident. The repeated postponement of this workshop due to the pandemic is a good example. The holding of this workshop, an activity of human civilization, was hindered by the strong force of nature. It shows that we human beings are not living in a completely man-made safe environment but in the natural environment all the time. The COVID-19 virus is right a vivid reflection of the traditional or mainstream Western opinion that nature is unfriendly or, to put it most mildly, indifferent to humans.
Such an opinion also implies their understanding of human nature. Though civilizations are created by humans, human nature itself contains something that can never be tamed or controlled by civilizations. In modern works (created after the 20th century), Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud is the most typical work that expresses the opinion. According to this book, humans cannot be civilized to remove their libido or death instinct.
As human nature itself is imperfect and even ugly, civilizations created by humans naturally contain violence and other filthy elements. Mr. Gan believes that these might be implicit in the Western opinion on "nature and civilization" and that the opinion is different from the view of the Chinese.
The concept of the Oedipus complex, named after a 5th-century BC Greek mythological character Oedipus, was introduced by Freud in the first year of the 20th century. The related ancient Greek tragedies reveal the nature of humans, in which there is something that can never be removed from human civilizations. No matter how developed our society is now, these problems still lurk in our lives. In our thinking about the nature of humans or the nature of civilizations, the problems around ancient Greek, especially ancient Greek tragedies, can still enlighten us.
II. Reports and comments
The discussions revolving around the reports and comments were presided over by Mr. Zhao Xiaoli. In the first discussion, Mr. Chen Siyi made a report on Problems in Antigone from the Perspective of Nature and Customs.
Mr. Chen first introduced two traditional perspectives on problems revealed in the play Antigone. The problems can be understood under Aristotle's framework of "nature and customs" and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's framework of "family and state". Mr. Chen thinks that the textual basis of natural justice is inadequate and wishes to revisit the established framework for interpretation.
His interpretation was still made within the basic framework about "nature versus civilizations" established by Aristotle and Hegel. However, Mr. Chen does not agree with the two philosophers on specific conflicts. He believes that more deep-seated conflicts are hidden in the relationship between Antigone and Creon. Their efforts made in defense of the family and the city-state respectively were supported by the force of their own personalities. The force, however, can push them to go against the principle of community upheld by them, or even create something that can never be defused. In the play, the conflicts between Antigone and Creon are hidden by the conflicts between Antigone and Ismene as well as Creon and the Chorus. In some senses, Ismene and the Chorus represent the spirit of the traditional principles of "family and state".
In his further analysis of the character Creon, Mr. Chen thinks that the stories took place in a crisis precipitated by the civil war. The war caused the natural justice to replace the political law. The Chorus wishes the political law can regain dominance but Creon does not, which is a stark contrast. Creon does not want to be enthroned just de jure. Instead, he hopes that he deserves the throne because of his character and ability of judgment. That is why he refuses the established political order and tries to take advantage of the crisis provoked under the natural justice to test his political character. Creon strives to tackle the crisis by virtue of the force of his own personality. He needs fundamental legislation to help him establish a new order. First, he differentiates a friend from a foe by treating the two corpses differently, and then he differentiates the ruler from the ruled by requiring all citizens to obey the decree.
Mr. Chen pointed out that the personality of Creon is similar to that of Antigone. They both want to satisfy their desires in the midst of a major test. Antigone's request for a funeral reflects not only the natural justice but also the most fundamental burial custom of the ancient Greek. She aims to embed the order of civilization in the natural justice. In Antigone's argument with Ismene, the latter focuses on individual destiny and status and the corresponding norms. Ismene accepts the established order and thinks it acceptable that one takes action on the premise of obedience. Antigone, however, regards the action as an opportunity to show her noble nature and proactively categorizes the issue as a matter of principle and takes it to the extreme. In fact, Antigone is sensitive to and fascinated by death, which supports her dream of becoming a heroine. All heroes and heroines are eager to obtain infinite glory and immortal fame by acting proactively and enduring trials and tribulations in their limited lives. Therefore, Mr. Chen believes that Antigone is not the epitome of a family ethics defender because she has typical characteristics of Greek heroism. She has strong self-awareness, a stubborn sense of principle, a tendency to act outside the norm, and too much conceit. These characteristics reflect more the force of her personality featuring heroism than the ethical principles of a political or family community.
The "eulogies to humans" in the play, manifesting the paradox about human nature, are also designed for Antigone and Ismene. The "eulogies" indicate that the power of nature is extremely dangerous as humans can conquer nature but not death. Besides, in a community, what one has to suppress is human nature. In other words, one must learn to live in a city-state, which goes against the audacious personality of humans.
In his speeches, Mr. Zhang Hui praised Mr. Chen for his important breakthroughs made under Hegel's theoretical framework. Mr. Zhang finds it interesting to understand the tragedy in an epic context (Antigone vs. Achilles, Ismene vs. Odysseus, Creon vs. Hector) and thinks it enriched our understanding of the ancient Greek view of nature. The conflict between nature and customs is reflected in the relationship between a family and a city-state and in individuals, especially those with superior abilities. Mr. Zhang added that to understand the play, one could also introduce Immanuel Kant's theory of the sublime to analyze the play from the perspective of metaphysics while using Hegel's theory of conflict. The ending of the play, in which the leader of the Chorus approves of piety once again, deserves special attention.
In the second discussion, Ms. Yan Di delivered a report on Citizenship in Ion by Euripides. Ms. Yan first explained the relevance of "citizenship" to "nature and civilization": Theogony by Hesiod exposes that nature itself does not form the basis of order and civilization. By giving the unnatural example of Zeus giving birth to Athena after swallowing Metis (while still pregnant with Athena), the epic shows that the cosmic order is established artificially and on the basis of the suppression and destruction of nature. Such a conflict between "civilization and nature" forms the basis of Greeks' reflection on this problem later. In classical antiquity, Athens tried to deny bisexual reproduction by using the myth of Spartoi, the "sown men" that sprang up from the dragon's teeth sown by Cadmus. It aimed to diminish the importance of women and to establish the social order in which men had the reproductive rights, so as to advocate male supremacy. In essence, it re-established civilization based on a new, imaginary "nature". In Euripides' view, this redefinition of nature and the building of civilization on the so-called "nature" is problematic. He discussed this problem in his play Ion, which begins with the myth of Spartoi and responds to the relationship between civilization and nature in the ancient Greek philosophy.
After a brief introduction to the stories of Ion, Ms. Yan pointed out that the play presents a post-Spartoi era, in which people acknowledged bisexual reproduction. During this period, one could obtain Athenian citizenship only if the parents were Athenians and legally married. Being a seeming objection to the myth of Spartoi, it virtually follows the myth as males retained the reproductive rights by relying on the civilized system of marriage. That fundamentally diminishes the importance of women in reproduction. Ion's being an illegitimate son was the opposite of the myth. Therefore, the core of the play was to save an illegitimate son, i.e. sending an illegitimate son who cannot have become an Athenian to Athens to obtain Athenian citizenship and even let him become the candidate for the highest ruler of Athens. It can be seen from the ending that it succeeded as the couple Creusa and Xuthus recognized Ion as their son and gave him Athenian citizenship at last.
Here is the question: If the play was bound to end this way, why Apollo didn't just tell Creusa and Xuthus at the same time that Ion was their son, but let Ion do this separately at the risk of the slow-moving plot? It is widely believed in the academic circles that such a design was to highlight Ion's several "deaths" and "rebirths". However, Ms. Yan thought the changes of Ion's identity was the more fundamental meaning behind his several "deaths" and "rebirths"—Ion obtained a different identity in the civilized world after every "death" and "rebirth". Hence, exploring the changes of Ion's identity in the play has become very crucial.
Actually, Euripides put forward and tested a couple of possibilities of Ion obtaining an legitimate identity in the play. One of them, also the most crucial one, was making Ion the son of only Xuthus. It seemed to be a good plan, but failed finally. Notably, it is right the male characters in the play that were responsible for the failure. Either Apollo or Xuthus or Ion underestimated the power of the woman Creusa, neglecting her as a potential source of power in the marriage or in the gender relations and never expecting her revenge. Such a twist of a woman's revenge brought home to the audience the important thing that the natural power of women in the civilized relationship of marriage cannot be neglected, and it is not advised to just assume that the male authority built on civilization would never be challenged by women possessing natural power. In a later plan, Apollo sent Pythia, the high priestess of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, to tell Creusa that Ion was the illegitimate son of theirs. At that time, Creusa became the only person who faced and revealed all the truth. She removed the fig leaf obscuring civilization and recognized the dark side of nature that civilization had hoped to oppress or evade. This was a decisive change, and also a solid starting point for the establishment of Ion's identity. At last, Ion reunited with his birth mother Creusa, but at the same time let Xuthus think he was the son of him and Creusa. Thus, Ion had an Athenian mother and an Athenian father and obtained Athenian citizenship.
Ms. Yan explained the profound meaning of the play. Euripides' realistic narrative demonstrates that the continuance of civilization needs to be based on the recognition of the dark side of nature. Even sometimes it was necessary to maintain the foundation with lies. Perhaps from the point of view of Euripides, it was hardly possible to reconcile civilization and nature completely in any way. One can never create nor conquer the other fundamentally. In this connection, only by recognizing the existence and eternity of natural power can civilization perpetuate itself.
In the comments that followed, Mr. Wu Fei offered high praise of Ms. Yan's interpretation of the theoretical meaning of Ion and associated Ion with The Mandrake, a satirical play by Italian Renaissance philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli. Meanwhile, he put forward the necessity of figuring out what is "nature" before discussing "nature and civilization." In Ms. Yan's report, "nature" seems to be more relevant to incest and sex. But if we see the connection between the mother and the son as a "natural" parent-child relationship, then the conflict between nature and the city-state's customs in the text would be not as strong as it appeared. Besides, when viewed from the perspective of religion, Ion is far more than about the citizenship rights of an ordinary illegitimate child. As a son of Apollo, one of the most well-known gods in Greek mythology, Ion can be compared with Romulus who was a son of Mars, the Roman God of War, and one of the legendary founders of Rome in Roman mythology. In the story of Romulus, being a son of God of War gives legitimacy to his kingship. Similarly, Ion's becoming the first king of Athens at last in the story should also have something to do with his origin as a son of a god.
The third report, "Cloud Goddess" and Socrates—Also Comment on the Criticism of Aristophanes towards Natural Philosophy, was given by Ms. Huang Weiwei. Its focus is on how comedy views the concept of nature and the conflict between nature and customs. From the point of view of Ms. Huang, the gist of The Clouds is: How knowledge and rhetoric influenced a city-state, or how enlightening natural philosophy negatively affected a city-state.
In this regard, Ms. Huang put forward the following three aspects that deserve attention. First, Strepsiades chose to believe in the cloud goddess for the sake of sophistry and deceit, and thus established a link between his vulgar desires and the highest existence. Second, the cloud's nature of being unpredictable provided the basis for the effect of sophistry. Third, Socrates replaced Zeus with the cloud goddess and removed the link between action and punishment. In this way, natural knowledge and rhetoric were connected three times. Therefore, the natural philosopher was to replace the religious beliefs of Athens with natural knowledge, and accordingly, the cloud goddess was revered as a new god.
But the cloud goddess created by Aristophanes was a natural god and was not the only god, which was obviously different from the case of Socrates. In the story by Aristophanes, the cloud goddess and other goddesses participated in parades and all holiday activities, which shows the cloud goddess knew more about life in the city-state than Socrates and had a connection with people there. Meanwhile, the cloud goddess recognized Zeus but did not worship him. This plot conveys two levels of meaning: First, she needed to consolidate her foundation as a natural god; second, she needed to prove her ability to integrate with the circle of the gods in the city-state.
Thus, the actual attitude of Aristophanes toward natural philosophy is: People can study metaphysics or natural philosophy, but cannot overthrow the customs of the city-state or impart natural knowledge indiscriminately; abstract theories with no basis in reality should be set in the context that is more realistic and natural philosophy should make a change toward political philosophy.
What followed were comments by Ms. He Fangying. She said Ms. Huang's report has aroused her interest to read again the work by Aristophanes; inspired by Ms. Huang's conclusion that "natural knowledge and rhetoric were connected three times", she thinks Socrates who worshiped the cloud goddess in the story may neither understand the physis (nature) of the cloud goddess nor the physis of his own soul. In other words, Socrates in The Clouds not only failed to really know nature and himself, let alone defend philosophical life. This may be the most poignant but also the most sincere criticism against young Socrates by conservative Aristophanes. After all, Socrates himself also recognized that he was thirsty for natural knowledge when he was young in Phaedo by Plato. In 423 B.C., The Clouds was put on the stage, and seven years later, Plato staged a production of the Symposium. In the story authored by Plato, Aristophanes and Socrates remained awake throughout the banquet. Such plots as this may be designed purposedly by Plato to answer the charges leveled against his teacher by Aristophanes in The Clouds. After making a change toward political philosophy, Socrates was faced with objections and criticism from many sectors of society in the city-state. This may make him pay more attention to a comic poet's friendly criticism—A sarcastic comedy that provoked thought on some dangerous truth is not only about a poet's understanding and recognition of the philosophical life, but also about the poet's wisdom on politics and friendship. Anyway, it was just inevitable for both the comic poet and the political philosopher to be confronted with criticism from different sectors of society in the city-state. At last, Ms. He raised some questions about the translations of Aristophanes' works which were led by Ms. Huang.
III. Round-table discussions
During the round-table discussions, Mr. Gan Yang commented on the first three reports and answered some questions put forward during them. According to him, all the three reports which threw the issues about "nature and civilization" into sharp relief in an interconnected way are very excellent. First, he agreed with the general idea of Mr. Chen who departed from the Aristotle's and Hegel's well-established theories of tragedy and saw what Antigone did as nature's arrogation of civilization; while he also pointed out that there seemed a tendency in Mr. Chen's report to put the analysis of tragedy into the context of Homeric epics, which needs further discussion. Then, he moved on to Ion, stressing that it is the first play about an illegitimate son in Western literature technically and that the term, "illegitimate son", exactly highlighted the issues about nature and civilization, especially the absurdities of civilization. Despite all the disguises in the play Ion, the question Herodotus tried to hide was thrown into sharper relief: Whether was there any civilization that was really built on the foundation of nature? To answer the question, another more fundamental question needed to be answered first: Whether did the "natural law" really exist? Moreover, the reason why incest became a serious issue was that kinship was crucial for human society. Hence, it remained to be clarified that incest was a natural choice or a human choice.
Then Mr. Wang Mingming answered some of the questions put forward in the reports and by Mr. Gan. According to Mr. Wang, further attention needs to be paid to the twofold logic behind the birth of "king" when it comes to the analysis of Ion: King is something between the inevitability of the kingship and the possibility of death of the human body. Besides, Mr. Wang also raised some questions. As he said, anthropology proposes a scheme of universal human progress from savagery through barbarism to civilization for the period from 1850 to 1900. Based on this, he raised his first question: To which extent can we use the scheme that divides the 19th century into "nature and civilization" to discuss the ancient Greek society? Is the discussion built on the theory of evolution? Second, can we see civilization and nature out of the context of civilization since the previous reports all viewed them from the perspective of civilization? Third and last, is it possible for us to gain an insight into the reality of nature and civilization during ancient Greek times?
Mr. Qu Jingdong offered his opinions based on Hegel's The Phenomenology of Spirit. In the book, Hegel analyzed the ethical world of ancient Greek with "immediate ethics" and "actual spirit". If we agree with the "immediate ethics", then the modern concept of "self" was absent during ancient Greek times. Hence, we still need to put the analysis of tragedy back into the context of ancient Greek's realistic fabric of society, i.e. the framework of the human law and the divine law. Besides, the "actual spirit" means that it was fundamentally necessary to make "death" a dividing line for human society. Thus, people living in the tragedy era needed to be buried by families that were reliant upon the divine law (underworld). As the human law and the divine law came into play and continued to work this way, tragedies interacted, blended, and at last split.
After the discussions, Mr. Chen, Ms. Yan, and Ms. Huang answered the questions about their reports, respectively. For the concept of "self" mentioned by Mr. Qu, Mr. Chen explained his understanding of the concept and questioned the idea of directly equating the human law with the ethics and the divine law; he also expressed his opinions about Mr. Gan's ideas and analyzed the relationship between the "Heroic Age" and the "Post-heroic Age." Ms. Yan answered the question about Ion as a "son of a god" in the play Ion and compared him with Dionysus, the "illegitimate" son in The Bassarids. Then she put forward that in the tragedy by Euripides, Ion's origin as a "son of a god" was more to highlight the illegitimacy of Ion. It can be supported especially by the ending of the tragedy—Ion claimed the throne, but it was based on the premise of concealing the fact that he was a "son of a god." This makes Ion a very special example of a "son of a god." Ms. Huang answered the question raised by Ms. He about Socrates' morality in The Clouds, and then expanded the topic to the love and sex of the philosopher and the poet that weren't mentioned in her previous report.
As the round-table discussions came to an end, Ms. Gu Yu who was the moderator put forward a question: Since this workshop is focused on interpreting "nature and civilization" around "people", can we have a more detailed discussion about the existence of "gods" and their order in the ancient Greek world? Mr. Gan said it was a very important question. Next, the third workshop under the theme of "Concept of 'God' and Early Chinese Thoughts" scheduled for June 11 will touch on the topic of gods from the perspective of China, which also reflects some thinking on the existence of gods in the West.
Minutes by: Yang Qi, Liu Yuwei