Acts of Compassion in Greek Tragic Drama (Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture, Volume 53)
The ability of human beings to feel compassion or empathy forone another—and express that emotion by offering comfort orassistance—is an important antidote to violence and aggression. Inancient Greece, the epics of Homer and the tragic dramas performedeach spring in the Theater of Dionysus offered citizens valuablelessons concerning the necessity and proper application ofcompassionate action. This book is the first full-lengthexamination of compassion (eleos or oiktos in Greek) as a dramatictheme in ancient Greek literature.Through careful textual analysis, James F. Johnson surveys thetreatment of compassion in the epics of Homer, especially theIliad, and in the works of the three great Athenian tragedians:Aischylos, Euripides, and Sophokles. He emphasizes reciprocity,reverence, and retribution as defining features of Greek compassionduring the Homeric and Archaic periods. In framing his analysis,Johnson distinguishes compassion from pity. Whereas in English theword “pity” suggests an attitude of superiority toward thesufferer, the word “compassion” has a more positive connotation andimplies equality in status between subject and object. Althoughscholars have conventionally translated eleos and oiktos as “pity,”Johnson argues that our modern-day notion of compassion comesclosest to encompassing the meaning of those two Greek words.Beginning with Homer, eleos normally denotes an emotion thatentails action of some sort, whereas oiktos usually refers to theemotion itself. Johnson also draws associations between compassionand the concepts of fear and pity, which Aristotle famouslyattributed to tragedy.Because the Athenian plays are tragedies, they mainly show thedisastrous consequences of a world where compassion falls short. Atthe same time, they offer glimpses into a world where compassioncan generate a more beneficial—and therefore more hopeful—outcome.Their message resonates with today’s readers as much as it did forfifth-century Athenians.