In skepticism, the ancient greeks on 16/08/2011 at 7:11 am

I turn everything inside out/ looking for new solutions/ to the problems of today,/ always critical, giving/ suggestions for gracious living/ and they come away from seeing a play/ in a questioning mood, with “where are we at?,”/ and “who’s got my this?,” and “who took my that?.” (Euripides, in Aristophanes, The Frogs, trans. Richmond Lattimore, Four Comedies, 1969, 62)

In Euripides’ Electra, Electra receives evidence of the secret arrival of Orestes, offering three signs that correspond to the three signs offered to Electra in Aeschylus’s earlier Libation Bearers. The ‘older’ Electra rejects the possibility that the hair could be anyone’s but Orestes’s (520 – 23), but Euripides’s Electra is unwilling to make such a leap of faith, methodically rejecting the very same arguments given by Aeschylus’s Electra. She rejects the possibility of her brother would return in secret, for she assumes that he would return openly (524-26) and then she goes on (527-29) to note the inherent differences between the lock of hair from a woman and a man and the irrelevance of foot-size in determining relatives. Many unrelated people also have, obviously, similar hair. This here is the new faith in the capabilities of reason, and yet this faith is repeatedly undermined, not just in literature, but in our everyday lives.

Euripides paints a world full of confusion and error, for the objects-in-themselves tell Electra nothing about things she does not know. Euripides’s Electra embraces faith, too, but it is a faith in the nobility of Orestus, the nobility of humankind. This is the faith of modern science, where reason is taken to have triumphed over superstition, and yet it claims far more epistemic warrant than it deserves. It is a type of faith. All the evidence is rejected (and rightly so!) as demonstrating nothing, and yet Orestes is present, and has been speaking with his sister for some time.

Electra is wrong just as she is making the most reasonable assessment of the evidence at hand. And yet her earlier incarnation makes the correct inferences for all the wrong reasons. The ‘evidence’ is of nothing, and Aeschylus’s Electra is a credulous and superstitious buffoon. Euripides mocks the very pretensions of human reasoning, to know more than one knows, revealing that Electra, too, has a deep faith in rationality, and by extension, that evidence and truth are often worlds apart: Electra is right in her reasoning, and yet she is wrong. Everyone, even the shrewdest and most rational, is ignorant of the certain-truth.

What does this say about the capacity of human reason when the skeptics are wrong for all the right reasons? When the credulous are right for all the wrong reasons?


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