Conceptions of Language and Reality in Euripides’ Helen

Eras – Willis, C.: Conceptions of Language and Reality in Euripides’ Helen

Conceptions of Language and Reality in Euripides’ Helen [1]
Chris Willis
(Monash University)

Euripides’ Helen has been described variously as a comedy, a romance, a ‘tragi-comedy’, an anti-war protest, or some combination of these, though rarely as a tragedy in the classical sense.[2] This paper, however, will argue that when read with an eye fixed firmly on its intellectual context the Helen is perhaps best described as a ‘drama of ideas’:[3] a work in which certain themes and ideas popular in fifth-century philosophical literature are explored in engaging ways. It might be the case, indeed, that the Helen can only be understood properly when such ideas are taken into consideration.

Beyond re-evaluating the Helen itself, though, this paper will also attempt to determine whether Euripides’ exposition can shed light on some of the more obscure aspects of ancient philosophy. Specifically, we will examine Euripides’ use of contemporary thought regarding language and its peculiar relation to the world, and how the Helen might help to illuminate the Sophistic philosophy of Protagoras, who was one of the most controversial thinkers of fifth century.

It may be fair to say that no issue has occupied as much space in the history of Western thought as that of the relationship between language and reality, or language and the mind. The first organised analysis of these concepts was conducted by early Greek philosophers of the sixth and fifth centuries such as Herakleitos and Parmenides. During the subsequent Age of Democracy and Empire in Athens, thinkers’ attentions shifted primarily to the functions and mechanisms of language. These labours would help lay the foundations for much of the work of Plato and Aristotle in the fourth century.

Unfortunately we do not have access to a large amount of the philosophical work that was produced in the fifth century. Evidence from this time is fragmentary and, particularly in the case of the Sophists, is derived principally from the works of Plato and Aristotle, who are not always the most reliable of reporters.[4] This means that as well as being an incomplete corpus, it is also one whose character has been partly shaped by various commentator biases and doctrinal projections.

Given the relative importance of fifth-century thought in the development of Western philosophy, this situation is rather frustrating for the historian of ideas; therefore, any information that we might gather pertaining to the philosophy of this period would be extremely valuable. It is hoped therefore that what follows will prove interesting and stimulating for both philosophers and classicists.

Euripides’ Critique of ‘Common-sense’ Conceptions of Language

We should perhaps begin by offering some reasons why Euripides, as a tragic poet, may have wished to explore the philosophy of language. First, we have the generally accepted fact that during his career Euripides was deeply influenced by contemporary thought.[5] Added to this it is clear that in the fifth century the tragedians were considered as educators of the general Athenian public.[6] It seems, then, almost inconceivable to think that ideas about language, at least in some general way, did not find their way into the tragic theatre, for Athens was very much a ‘City of Words’.[7]

Following the observations of W. Arrowsmith, it would appear that in the fifth century tragedy became one way for the Athenians to cope with the changing structure of society, and any crisis that emerged therein.[8] In the latter half of this century the study of language and rhetoric rose to new heights; inevitably, new techniques of persuasion developed by the Sophists were exploited by the politicians of the day to deceive or delude the democratic populace, often to the detriment of Athens herself.

This led to the Sophists being criticised for “making the weaker argument stronger”,[9] in Aristophanes’ opinion “by saying what is more unjust”.[10] As S. Goldhill has suggested, such a claim posed a threat to the entire polis, for its efficient functioning depended upon the citizens’ abilities to assess the legitimacy of each side of an argument effectively;[11] it certainly would not astonish us to find such a ‘crisis of communication’ on display in tragedy.

A number of contentious issues arose during the development of early philosophical theories that dealt with language. As many have noted, several of these centred on the Greek tendency to view knowledge as having a direct link to objects in the actual world; in other words, knowledge was thought to consist of that which one encountered, and became acquainted with, in the physical, perceptible kosmos.[12] Greek conceptions of language flowed naturally from this inclination so that words, in an essentially ostensible manner, were considered as ‘names’ that derived meaning from the things in the world to which they referred.[13] These ideas generated a number of disquieting reactions in the fifth century, such as the popular claims that contradictions, and false statements, were impossible to make.[14]

In the fourth century Plato and Aristotle set out to refute the ‘direct realism’ that had, in their estimations, threatened the capacity of language to operate effectively. This counter-movement brought with it a desire to formulate abstract referential units, such as the Platonic ‘Forms’, which served to dispel much of the confusion stemming from earlier conceptions of the language-reality relationship. For Plato the immutable Forms were the genuine references of words, and perceptible objects were relegated to the category of secondary or derivative reference through their ‘participation’ in specific Ideas.[15]

It is important to note here that Plato was really the first author to make such specific distinctions, and thus avoid some of the complications that had arisen in the fifth century; therefore, we must remember that Euripides belonged to a time in which the tools we now possess for analysing language did not exist.

This is not to say, however, that thinkers in the fifth century did not challenge the commonly-held beliefs of their time; indeed, philosophers like Herakleitos, Parmenides, and Zeno uncovered, and to some extent exploited, several of the most significant flaws in early conceptions of language.[16] As we will see, Euripides uses the Helen to explore the nature of knowledge derivable from logos(words/speech/reason/argument) and human perceptions, and in doing so exposes some of the apparent inconsistencies in common notions of what language is, and what type of relation it bears to the world. The result is an interesting amalgamation of early Herakleitean elements, later Sophistic thought, and Euripides’ own reflections.

Euripides’ Helen builds upon the somewhat sketchy counter-tradition that the real Helen never went to Troy, but rather spent the duration of the Trojan War in Egypt.[17] In the opening scene Helen relates the story of how she came to be in Egypt through the machinations of Hera, who fashioned an eidolon(image/phantom) duplicate of Helen to deceive Paris. According to Helen’s story this image accompanied Paris to Troy while she herself was exiled to Egypt. Thus, or so it would seem, Helen is an innocent victim of divine schemes rather than the treacherous harlot of Homeric tradition.

By exploiting this particular variant of the Helen myth, Euripides establishes a particularly interesting dichotomy: one that finds voice throughout the play. As F. Solmsen observed almost seventy years ago,[18] onomata (names), andpragmata (things) or somata (bodies) are contrasted and compared with a frequency that demands consideration.

Euripides draws attention to the ambiguous relationship between onoma and pragma at a very early stage when, in her opening speech, Helen claims:

The Phrygians fought for me (except it was not I

but my name [onoma] only) held against the spears of Greece.[19] (42-3)

Here Euripides clearly wishes to make some distinction between name and object, which in this case happens to be an identity. These lines suggest that any explanation of the meaning of a name painted merely in terms of its purported object of reference may fail to capture the essence of that name’s functional value.

Quite obviously, a single name can be used to label two separate and distinct things, as was allegedly the case with Helen and the eidolon. More than this, however, a name might even be used to label an object erroneously, but nevertheless supply that object with a meaning significant enough for people to act upon, as the Greeks’ futile labours at Troy thoroughly demonstrate. So, even if a name is used to refer to something incorrectly, it might nevertheless, at least in a practical sense, affect that something and the things around it in important ways.

Euripides later appears to invest onomata with even more power to influence the world. At various stages in the play Helen bemoans the fact that she is wrongly cursed by men, and we are told that her onoma is now reviled in Greece (53-5; 66; 1447-48). To the name ‘Helen’ both guilt and innocence are somehow attached, though apparently in very different senses; and yet, while we might believe that Helen has been denounced unjustly by the Greeks, she seems to participate in this guilt on a surprisingly personal level:

Because of me, beside the waters of Scamander, lives

were lost… (52-3)

Her candid assumptions of responsibility here, and elsewhere (196-202; 280-81; cf. 1157-59), create a strange connection between onoma and pragma indeed. It would appear from Helen’s frank admissions of guilt that her “name of affliction” (199) is able to affect more than simply her reputation: Euripides actually implies that aspects of Helen’s innate character are shaped by her onoma, which seems to be the genuine vessel of guilt. This would appear to challenge the simplicity of the common view that names inherit meanings from their objects of reference, but not vice versa; the suggestion, at least prima facie, is that the transferral of meaning may not be merely a one-way process.

Common conceptions of language are questioned again with the appearance of Menelaos, who seems to embody the ‘naïve’ outlook; indeed, W.G. Arnott has gone as far as to describe him as “a man of limited brain”.[20] Menelaos is depicted as possessing a very simplistic understanding of language in which names and words are treated in an almost ‘physical’ manner (398-99; 435-36; 447-48). He has been shipwrecked on the return voyage from Troy and has left the eidolon Helen, whom he yet believes is his real wife, guarded in a cave while he seeks aid in Egypt. When the Egyptian Portress informs Menelaos that Helen of Sparta is here in Egypt, and has been since before the beginning of the Trojan War, his response is perhaps somewhat characteristic of common fifth-century conceptions:

…She said

that this one [ie. Helen] was by birth the child of Zeus. Can it be

there is some man who bears the name of Zeus and lives

besides the banks of the Nile? There is one Zeus; in heaven.

And where on earth is Sparta except only where

Eurotas’ waters ripple by the lovely reeds?

Tyndareus is a famous name. There is only one.

And where is there another land called Lakedaimon

or Troy either? I do not know what to make of it. (488-96)

Menelaos grapples with ideas of alternative realities due to his inability to draw any real distinction between words and reality.[21] His reaction reveals an instinct to view onomata and pragmata as things bound together inextricably; for Menelaos the names the Portress speaks of directly point to objects in the world with which he is acquainted, and the notion that they may refer to other things is bizarre and nearly incomprehensible.

When Menelaos meets the ‘real’ Helen at the tomb of King Proteus his naïveté is displayed once more. Though he immediately recognises the striking resemblance Helen bears to the being that he believes is his wife, Menelaos cannot accept the thought that she might be the real woman. In an attempt to persuade him Helen relates the story of the eidolon (582-6). He responds:

How could you be here and in Troy at the same time? (587)

Again Menelaos wants to form a direct link between name and object: if an onoma is somewhere it must be that itspragma is there with it because, within the epistemological structure of Menelaos’ world, a name really is nothing above and beyond the thing to which it refers. Menelaos’ mind attempts to understand Helen’s story in purely physical terms, and the result is nothing short of paradoxical. Helen replies enigmatically:

A name may be in many places, though a body in only one.(588)[22]

Though today we probably would not think of a name as being located ‘anywhere’ in the physical world, we of course must not forget that Euripides was working within a particular framework from which few Classical thinkers ever divorced themselves completely.[23] Euripides nevertheless manages here to underline yet another difference between onomata and pragmata in the idea that the former are not bound by the same laws that govern the latter.

These are indeed all interesting notions in themselves, but how are they to be properly interpreted in the context of the Helen ? Given the noticeable contrasts that we have seen between Euripides’ thought and the general beliefs of his time, we have at least some grounds for supposing that he was responding to naïve conceptions of language in a fashion similar to the reactions of the early Greek philosophers. As we shall see, a number of the ideas espoused by thinkers of the fifth century do indeed find voice in the Helen , and it is only by recognising this that we can hope to solve some of the puzzles that Euripides offers us.

Who is Helen? Sophistic Rhetoric and the Question of Identity

Despite Helen’s account of the eidolon and her abduction Menelaos remains unconvinced. As he is on the verge of leaving Helen to her fate a messenger arrives with the news that his ‘wife’ has escaped from the cave in which he had imprisoned her, having “…swept up out of sight into the hollows of the high air” (605-606). This, for Menelaos, is final confirmation of Helen’s claims, and he joyously greets her as his wife. Was the audience also entitled to suppose that Menelaos had been reunited with the real Helen?

Few commentators have ever really doubted that Helen’s identity is affirmed in this scene;[24] however, in the very same speech in which Meneleos learns the ‘truth’ of the matter, some doubt is cast by the messenger’s confusion regarding Helen. He immediately identifies her as the individual who has escaped from the cave (616f.), suggesting to us that the question of Helen’s identity may yet be far from resolved; as we will see, when the appropriate Sophistic doctrines are taken into consideration, the true identity of Helen is hardly as assured as some might have thought.

In the ancient world, Euripides was renowned for his fondness of various Sophistic ideas. A popular study in the fifth century for the Sophists, and in particular Protagoras and his student Prodikos, was the ‘correctness of words’. In theProtagoras (337a-c) and elsewhere,[25] Plato satirises Prodikos’ overly pedantic method of drawing distinctions between the meanings of similar words. Protagoras himself was known to discuss the appropriate use of words and phrases, and apparently criticised poets for their mistakes.[26] Aristophanes mocks Euripides on a number of occasions for indulging in such Sophistic ‘hair-splitting’, portraying him as someone who enjoys quibbling over the meaning and appropriateness of words and phrases.[27]

If Aristophanes is to be believed, Euripides also shared in common with Protagoras certain ideas about education, and what a teacher should aim to impart to students. Protagoras apparently aspired to teach one:

…prudence in his own affairs, so that he may manage his own household in the best way, and prudence in the affairs of the city, so that he may be most effective in action and in speech in matters concerning the city.(DK 80 A5) [28]

In the Frogs (971-979), Aristophanes has Euripides make a strikingly similar claim in that he has taught people to talk and think rationally, so they now know how to run their households better than they had in the past. Later Aristophanes also has Euripides assert that poets should be admired because they make people better members of their communities (Frogs , 1008-1009).

An idea that appears to have been of particular interest to Euripides was the Sophistic notion of ‘contrary logoi‘. According to ancient sources, Protagoras was the first person to suggest that there are two accounts (logoi ) for every thing (pragma), and that these logoi are opposed to one another (DK 80A1.51, A20, and B6a). Certain passages from Aristophanes show us that Euripides was, at least in the eyes of his contemporaries, an active participant in such discussions, such as the report of Euripides’ slave that “He’s home and not home, if you know what I mean” inAkarnians (396).

Euripides’ Helen is indeed a play rich in its presentation of paired opposites: appearance versus reality; names versus objects; names versus identities; and, most prominently, Helen versus the eidolon. Since these have been the topic of much discussion in the past we need not examine them all in detail here.[29] For my current purposes it is, however, essential to note the way in which Euripides’ dichotomies reflect the flavour of the philosophy of his time. Explorations into the relations and nature of opposites were certainly very popular in the fifth century,[30] and theHelen seems to represent Euripides’ keen interest in these topics.

The very plot of the Helen is itself framed within the idea of contrary logoi, as we are presented with an account of Helen which stands in obvious opposition to the popular Homeric rendition of her story. Similarly, Helen herself considers the two contrary accounts of her conception in her opening speech (17-22). Later, when she meets Teukros, she is informed that there are two logoi concerning the matter of her brothers’ deaths; interestingly, Helen immediately asks Teukros which of the two is the ‘better’ account (137-39), by which she clearly means not which story is more likely, but which is the preferable tale.

This is telling in some ways, because it is very much reminiscent of certain thoughts expressed by Protagoras in relation to contrary logoi . Protagoras is somewhat infamous for claiming that all contrary logoi, as well as all appearances, are somehow true.[31] He also suggested, however, that for every pair of contrary logoi, one logoscould be made stronger via various rhetorical means, and therefore ‘preferred’ (DK 80 A1.19 & 53).[32] As a consequence, Protagoras purportedly instructed his pupils in the art of arguing both sides of an issue (DK 80 A21). By practicing this technique orators developed the ability to argue convincingly for either position in a dispute using the same set of facts in each case. This method of argumentation was known infamously as the ‘sophistic reversal’, and is characteristic of many of the extant fifth-century speeches.

A striking example of this technique is found among the fragments of Antiphon’s On the Revolution ,[33] a defence-speech originally used by Antiphon himself when he was put on trial for his alleged involvement in the Oligarchic coup of 411.[34] It appears, from Antiphon’s words, that his accusers had levelled against him charges that he had composed defences for others, who presumably were enemies of the democracy, and received payment for these. Instead of attempting to dispute this by resorting to other evidence, he replied:

Surely under an oligarchy I should not have had the chance to do this, while it is under the democracy that I am the powerful man that I have become…Answer then. What likelihood is there that I should want oligarchy? Am I too stupid to make this calculation? Am I the only man in Athens unable to appreciate his own advantage? (Sprague 87 B19) [35]

Ingeniously Antiphon used the damning evidence of his prosecutors to demonstrate his innocence.

Scholars have already acknowledged Helen’s use of such Sophistic techniques in Euripides’ Troades,[36] a work produced several years before the Helen; in fact, in this earlier play, Helen actually seems to make direct appeals to Gorgias’Encomium of Helen. In the Encomium Gorgias attempted, perhaps only half-seriously, to demonstrate why Helen should not be considered guilty of having caused the Trojan War (see DK 82 B11), and we see him utilise all the weaponry available to a Sophist of the fifth century in his endeavours. When she is brought to trial for similar crimes in the Troades Helen uses arguments very similar to Gorgias’, and employs reversal on several occasions.[37]

What is not yet recognised is that more than once in the Helen Euripides also has his characters make use of reversal: even the rather dim-witted Menelaos. Following the ‘recognition’ scene in which Menelaos and Helen are reunited, Menelaos urges his reluctant wife to tell him about how she was abducted from Sparta, because “to hear of a trouble past is pleasure”(665). Later, when Helen wishes to hear about his voyages after Troy fell, Menelaos replies:

…If I should give you your fill of my tale, I would be suffering still more in the telling of it, just as I suffered in the actual experience, and would be twice grieved.[38](769-71)

A close examination of the scenes involving Helen and Teukros, and later Helen and Menelaos, reveals an even more detailed illustration of reversal. In the former scene Teukros arrives in Egypt and by chance meets Helen. Upon sighting her he exclaims:

O gods, what do I see before me. Do I see

the deadly likeness [eidolon ] of that woman who destroyed

all the Achaeans and me? May the gods spurn you for

looking so much like Helen’s copy.


Strangely Helen makes no effort to correct Teukros’ assumption that she is merely an eidolon of the real Helen. In fact she seems to go out of her way to suggest that she is not the daughter of Tyndareos through her consistent use of third-person references to ‘Helen’ (79, 85, 99, 109, 114, and 117). Helen’s words never explicitly contradict her earlier claims, though they certainly mislead Teukros.

When Helen asks Teukros whether or not he ever saw ‘Helen’ he replies that he has seen her with his own eyes (117-18). Helen proceeds to query the reliability of this information:

HELEN: Think. Could this be only an impression, caused by God?

TEUKROS: Speak of some other matter, please. No more of her.

HELEN: You do believe your impression is infallible.

TEUKROS: These eyes saw her. When the eyes see, the brain sees too. (119-22)

Helen questions Teukros’ implicit faith in his senses by suggesting that appearances can be caused by things other than that which they seem to be; therefore, she seems to imply, they should not be regarded as a dependable source of knowledge.

By the time she meets Menelaos Helen appears to have changed her mind on this issue. Unlike with Teukros she reveals her identity to Menelaos with little delay. His initial reaction is disbelief, and he wonders whether Helen is some sort of divinely induced hallucination (569), reminding us of Helen’s earlier cautions to Teukros (119). Helen, however, argues that he should trust his eyes:

HELEN: When you look at me, do you not think you see your wife?

MENELAOS: Your body is like her. Certainty fails me.

HELEN: Look and see. What more do you want? And who knows me better than you?

MENELAOS: In very truth you are like her. That I will not deny.

HELEN: What better teacher shall you have than your own eyes?(576-80)

This is clearly an example of Sophistic reversal. In each case, depending on her interlocutors’ positions and her immediate agenda, Helen selects alternate arguments from a pair of contrary logoi and strengthens both in turn: thus, the argument she puts forward to Teukros is summarily dismissed, or contradicted, by her logos with Menelaos, and vice-versa.

So far modern critics of the Helen have failed to acknowledge Helen’s use of reversal in these scenes. As a result many have perhaps downplayed the importance of certain themes in the play. Taken together, these scenes seem to cast a significant amount of doubt over Helen’s actual identity. In which account does she relay the truth of who she actually is?

A.N. Pippin once noted that every character in the play at some point holds a false belief,[39] though as we will see shortly ‘false’ may in some ways obscure what Euripides was really trying to convey. In any event, Euripides shows us quite clearly how knowledge and appearances are often seemingly at odds with one another. For instance, we ‘know’ that Menelaos is a king, and yet he looks like a beggar, and he manages to convince Theoklymenos that he is just that. Similarly, we know that Menelaos is alive, but we witness how Helen’s self-disfigurement and choice of garb serve to persuade Theoklymenos otherwise (1078-89; 1186-89). Added to this, of course, we know that there may be cases in which, based only on appearances, it is simply impossible to make any significant distinctions between two things, as in the case of Helen and the eidolon.

Euripides also suggests that comparable conflicts exist between knowledge and logos . When Helen and her husband trick Theoklymenos into believing that Menelaos is dead, and into allowing Helen to bury him in effigy, they both use a number of statements which seem to be ‘true’ in a literal sense, yet still manage to deceive the Egyptian king (1200-1201; 1204-1205; 1225; 1288-93; and 1294-95). For Theoklymenos, the problem is that he links their words to different objects than those to which Helen and Menelaos are actually referring; so, for example, Menelaos says to Helen:

You see your task, young woman; it is to love and serve

the husband you have, and let the other husband go.


Of course this is acceptable to Theoklymenos, as he takes it to mean that Helen should now love and serve him, and forget about the deceased Menelaos.

What does all this mean, then, in relation to the identity of Helen? Quite simply, it means that based only on her logosand the messenger’s tale to Menelaos we are in no position to assume that Helen’s identity has been secured. What are apparently the same appearances and logoi obviously can mean very different, and indeed contradictory, things to different people. More importantly, there seems to be no way of determining, in any absolute sense, which appearances and logoi should be discarded, and which should be retained; therefore, what can we possibly point to as being definite evidence of who Helen is?

In the next section it will be argued that the nature of Helen’s identity is something which is best understood in relation to the philosophy of Protagoras; somewhat conversely, we will also see if the Helen can help us better understand the fragments of this famous Sophist.

The Helen and Protagoras’ Man-Measure Dictum

Though Helen presents herself as an innocent, faithful wife, very much in the mould of Odysseus’ Penelope, there seems to be a dark side to her nature as well. Although having long since disappeared into thin air, the treacherouseidolon constantly re-emerges in people’s thoughts (683, 703-7, 749-51, 1135-6, and 1218-20), and is even associated with Helen herself in a non-trivial sense.[40] Why does Euripides continuously remind us of this image? On a number of occasions Euripides also prompts us to recall Helen’s poor reputation, allegedly caused through no fault of her own (for example: 53-5, 250-51, 269-72, and 926-28). Even more perplexingly, we are forced to consider the weird personal guilt that she displays (52-3, 196-199, 280-81, 362f., and 383-85).

Scholars have commented that as the play unfolds the two ‘Helens’ become less and less distinct from one another.[41] By this it is meant that the ‘real’ Helen begins adopting traits that are normally reserved for the less-than-innocent eidolon ; for instance, Helen uses double-edged logos to deceive Theoklymenos (1231-39), and later encourages the Greek warriors to destroy the Egyptians (1602-604). She thus becomes the treacherous Trojan Helen once again: the source of pain, misery, and destruction in the lives of those around her.

This ‘merging’ of ‘Helens’ has been read by some as Euripides’ attempt to exculpate the character of Helen, and yet somehow allow her to retain the qualities of deception and treachery for which she is traditionally renowned.[42]Why, however, does she feel personal guilt for deeds in which she purportedly had no conscious involvement? W.G. Arnott has offered a tempting solution to this conundrum. Philosophers of the fifth century regularly questioned whether a person should be held morally accountable for wrongs they had committed unknowingly or inadvertently.[43] Arnott believes that Euripides is pushing this popular question to its extremities by illustrating a situation in which an innocent person can feel responsible for injustices falsely perpetrated in their name.[44]

These sorts of explanations have proven very stimulating, and are not necessarily incorrect per se; they do seem, however, to rely rather heavily on the presumption that Helen’s identity has been established as distinct from that of the eidolon . Perhaps a far more appropriate solution is to be found if the apparently conflicting logoi and appearances of the Helen are viewed in relation to the philosophy of Protagoras and Herakleitos; to this end, we will now turn to a brief discussion of particular theories expressed by these thinkers.

We have already touched upon Protagoras’ thoughts concerning the idea that there are two contrary accounts for all things, and that for every pair of accounts one could be made stronger, and thus preferred. At the heart of these claims lay his famous Man-Measure dictum, which was expressed in the following way:

Man is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.[45] (DK 80 A1.51)

A great deal of ink has been spilled over this one expression; indeed every word and phrase has been analysed and re-analysed several times in the last century.[46] It is not surprising, therefore, that a wide range of interpretations have arisen. Disagreements have tended to centre on what effects such a theory might have had upon Protagoras’ conceptions of truth: if Man is the measure of all things, then what can we say truly of anything, because people quite clearly measure things in conflicting ways?

It would seem that Protagoras was willing to claim that all conflicting appearances and beliefs were somehow in fact true (DK 80B1). The classic illustration of how this worked for Protagoras is provided by Plato in the Theaitetos (151e-152a = DK 80B1). Take a particular wind, for instance, which may seem cold to one observer, and not so to another; according to Plato, Protagoras claimed that wind really was cold for the first person, and not for the second witness, in an objective sense. In other words, if something appeared a particular way to someone then it was, in effect, the truth for that person.

It is not entirely clear, due to the nature of the evidence, how we might best understand what Protagoras really meant by such claims. Scholars have interpreted him as a relativist, a subjectivist, an objectivist, and most recently as an ‘infallibilist’.[47] Each interpretation possesses both strengths and weaknesses,[48] and all have found a number of modern supporters; however, for reasons that should become evident in due course, the objectivist reading will be followed here.

Defenders of the objectivist analysis claim that Protagoras held that the contrary things which we perceive in certain objects are, in fact, all real properties of these objects; opposing perceptions appear contradictory not because they really are, but due to the fact that each individual appearance refers only to one part, or aspect, of the whole.[49]Presumably for Protagoras all contrary logoi are equally true in the same way: if one account seems to contradict another, it is simply because it refers to a different aspect of the thing which is being discussed.[50] To support the claim that Protagoras might have held such beliefs, scholars have drawn attention to the fact that similar ideas already existed before Protagoras’ time, and that his own contributions can be seen as a kind of logical extension of the philosophy of thinkers like Herakleitos.[51]

Herakleitos himself believed that there was an inherent correctness to names which was rooted in the nature (physis) of the things to which they referred. In one fragment (DK 22 B48) he draws attention to the odd fact that the word for bow (bios) possesses the meaning life, and yet the object itself has the function of death. It has been suggested that Herakleitos may have used this example to demonstrate that life and death are somehow connected, complementary, or even one and the same thing; thus by studying the name ‘bow’ we are presented with an understanding of these ideas that may not have been immediately apparent otherwise.[52]

In other fragments (DK 22 B57, 58, 59, 60, 61 and 62) he teases out the similarities between things which are apparently opposite in nature. For example, he says:

Immortals are mortals, mortals immortals: living their death, dying their life (DK 22 B62).[53]

Herakleitos appears to argue that opposites are not mutually exclusive: they depend upon one another for meaning, and consequently can only be understood properly in terms of their overall unity.[54]

Did Euripides have something similar in mind for Helen? Perhaps he wished to suggest that her identity is somehow best understood as a composite of a number of oppositions, such as innocence and guilt, treachery and loyalty, and perhaps even divine and mortal; this indeed would provide us with a coherent explanation for the so-called ‘merging of Helens’ that we witness.

By interpreting the Helen through the ideas of Protagoras and Herakleitos, it seems that we can make sense of a number of the difficulties that we have encountered. First, it would appear to be rather difficult to argue convincingly that Helen is either really innocent or guilty, or really an ill-fated mortal or in fact some divinely-conceived phantom. A much neater solution presents itself in the idea that she is in some way all of these things at once.

Some of the difficulties in explaining how it is that both appearances and names are apparently capable of affecting a person’s innate character also dissipate. For example, some scholars have wondered why it is that when Menelaos arrives in Egypt as a ragged beggar, rueing the loss of his kingly attire and ashamed of his current appearance (413-24), his appearance seems to cause the temporary loss of his heroic identity.[55] At this time, his characteristic assertiveness vanishes: he is easily subdued and actually brought to tears by an old woman (437f.), and is forced to beg another king for sustenance despite the fact that he himself is a king (511-12). All of this stands in direct contrast to the way in which he later refuses to beg Theonoe and scorns men who give into tears of sorrow (947-53). It would appear, therefore, that in some strange way his appearance is able to alter his identity.

This transformation of character in Menelaos, we might now suggest, is actually not a change as such, but an illustration of how all appearances are somehow true; thus, when Menelaos looks like a cowardly beggar Euripides demonstrates how, in an actual sense, he really is one. In a similar way we can now see that Helen’s ‘name of affliction’ is not actually affecting her character,[56] but rather that it is, in itself, a real reflection of her dualistic nature.

The unity of opposites is also strikingly illustrated in Theoklymenos’ reversal in fortunes. When he becomes enraged after being informed that Helen has escaped from Egypt, he sets out to find and murder his sister, but is prevented from doing so by his own slave. He comments, somewhat ironically, that the roles of subject and master appear to have inverted (1683; also, 1630). Since the slave is in the end able to ‘control’ Theoklymenos, we might think that there is real truth in what he has said.

In these ways Euripides depicts how conflicting properties can co-exist in a single entity. In doing so, Euripides is also able to show how all contrary logoi are true in a literal way. This is achieved by his demonstration that not only are there two opposing accounts for all things, but that this structure is actually reflected in the state of the real world. Rather than attempting to reconcile the two opposing traditions concerning Helen, then, it appears that Euripides may have decided instead to show his audience how they might both be true. The ideas of Protagoras would have provided him with the means to do just this.

We cannot be sure that Euripides’ thoughts bear any direct relation to those of Protagoras specifically, though from everything considered here it seems very likely that Euripides was strongly influenced by his ideas. At the very least, nonetheless, the Helen can be used to support the objectivist interpretation of Protagoras’ Man-Measure statement. Defenders of the objectivist reading have faced the objection that there is very little evidence that can be used to support any explicit link between Protagoras’ philosophy and the thought of Herakleitos; indeed, those links that have thus far been established remain largely conjectural. The Helen shows quite clearly that the ideas of contrary logoiand Herakleitean opposites were strongly associated with one another in the fifth century, and may therefore add some amount of justification to the objectivist account.

The Helen might also have the potential to further illuminate the philosophy of Protagoras. A particularly interesting issue which one might wish to pursue is that of the epistemological worth of true perceptions and logoi within the objectivist framework. Was there, for example, a type of truth that was somehow ‘truer’ than individual perceptions, such as a truth which takes into account every opposing property of a thing simultaneously? Was this type of knowledge attainable, or was it only open to divine scrutiny? What can the Helen tell us about such notions? These are very interesting questions, but ones which the present work must, unfortunately, leave unanswered.


Gorgias once observed that: “the things we see do not have the nature which we wish them to have, but the nature which each actually has” (DK 82 B11.15).[57] From our limited vantage point, we do not have access to the exact nature or purpose of the Helen: only Euripides himself was privy to this information. Any attempt to read the play simply as a tragedy, or comedy, or indeed any other rigidly defined class of literature is thus fraught with danger: these types of designations are made for the sake of convenience only, to facilitate comparative studies of what are essentially unique works.

It nevertheless seems that we can make valid judgements concerning the types of issues that Euripides wished to explore. Works like the Helen tend to pose questions that are important to the societies in which they are created; at the very least, they provide insights into the types of issues significant to those cultures. It is clear that the issue between language and reality would have been a pertinent one in fifth-century Athens. Our investigations have certainly provided strong evidence that this subject was a primary concern for Euripides when he composed theHelen. What remains for us, therefore, is to attempt to elucidate Euripides’ poetic representation of this controversy.

In attempting to interpret a piece of art such as the Helen , problems seem to multiply when we simultaneously endeavour to extract philosophical meaning: we not only need to unravel brilliantly subtle images and complex rhetoric, but also understand the highly theoretical aspects underlying these expressions. The danger of misunderstanding the work thus increases as each step is taken. Yet scholars have not allowed this to dissuade their investigations of the early Greek philosopher-poets; nor indeed has this represented a serious deterrence for those studying the works of Plato, a recognised master of allusion and metaphor. Why then should we allow these problems to restrict our use of Euripides’ plays?

For some time now scholars have recognised that Euripides was influenced by Sophistic thought, though unfortunately no-one yet has really attempted to discover if his works may help to contextualise, or perhaps ‘flesh-out’, some of the more obscure fragments of fifth-century thought. The present study, however, has revealed that Euripides’ plays may indeed hold information which can be used to explain this difficult evidence.

While the task of extracting meaning from the Helen is challenging, it is arguably no more problematic than attempting to understand any of the fragments of fifth-century philosophy. Given the scarcity of evidence relating to many topics discussed during this period, we are almost obliged to make use of everything available to us. At the very least works such as the Helen may help us gain a deeper and more complete understanding of particular currents in fifth-century thought.

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[1] This paper has benefited immeasurably from the suggestions and criticisms provided by Gillian Bowen and Dirk Baltzly. Back

[2] For surveys of varying depth of the different interpretative trends see: A.N. Pippin (Burnett), ‘Euripides’Helen : A Comedy of Ideas’, Classical Philology LV, No. 3, 1960, p. 151; A.J. Podlecki, ‘The Basic Seriousness of Euripides’ Helen’, TAPA 101, 1970, pp. 401-402; C. Segal, ‘The Two Worlds of Euripides’ Helen’, TAPA 102, 1971, pp. 553-56; and D.G. Papi, ‘Victors and Sufferers in Euripides’Helen’, AJP 108, No. 1, 1987, p. 27. Back

[3] As used to describe Euripides’Medea by W. Arrowsmith, ‘A Greek Theatre of Ideas’, Arion 2.3, 1963, p. 47. Back

[4] See, for example, H. Cherniss,Aristotle’s Criticism of Presocratic Philosophy, Octagon Books, 1964 (originally published by John Hopkins Press, 1935). Back

[5] See below for further discussion.Back

[6] W. Arrowsmith, ‘Theatre of Ideas’, pp. 32-3; J. Ober and B. Strauss, ‘Drama, Political Rhetoric, and the Discourse of Athenian Democracy’, in J.J. Winkler & F.T. Zeitlin (eds), Nothing to do with Dionysos? Athenian drama in its social context, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1990, pp. 237-8; N.T. Croally, Euripidean Polemic: The Trojan Women and the Function of Tragedy, CUP, Cambridge 1994, pp. 17-21. See Plato, Republic X, 595b-c, and Aristophanes, Frogs 971-974 for two ancient perceptions of the tragedians as educators of the masses. Back

[7] Term borrowed from S. Goldhill’s Reading Greek Tragedy, CUP, Cambridge 1986, Ch. 3. Back

[8] W. Arrowsmith, ‘Theatre of Ideas’, pp. 32-8. Back

[9] Aristotle, Rhetoric II 24 (DK 80 A21). ‘DK’ will be employed throughout as an abbreviation for the collection of early Greek philosophical fragments compiled by H. Diels and W. Kranz (see Bibliography). Back

[10] Aristophanes, Clouds 112-115 (DK 80 C2). Back

[11] S. Goldhill, ‘The language of tragedy: rhetoric and communication’, in P.E. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, CUP, Cambridge 1997, pp. 133-5.Back

[12] A.P.D. Mourelatos, ‘Heraclitus, Parmenides, and the Naïve Metaphysics of Things’, in E.N. Lee et al (eds),Exegesis and Argument: Studies in Greek Philosophy Presented to Gregory Vlastos , Van Gorcum & Comp. B.V., The Netherlands 1973, pp. 17-23; J. Hintikka, Time and Necessity: Studies in Aristotle’s Theory of Modality, OUP, Clarendon 1973, p. 72; A. Graeser, ‘On Language, Thought and Reality in Ancient Greek Philosophy’, Dialectica 31, 1977, p. 384. Back

[13] A.P.D. Mourelatos, ‘Naïve Metaphysics of Things’, p. 17; A. Graeser, ‘Thought and Reality’, p. 360.Back

[14] For examples of these claims in ancient literature, see DK 22 B2; DK 80 A1.51, 53; DK A19; Plato,Cratylos 429b-c, and Sophist 251c; and Aristotle,Metaphysics 1024b32-35. Back

[15] J.S. Clegg, ‘Self-Predication and Linguistic Reference in Plato’s Theory of the Forms’, Phronesis XVII, No. 1, 1973, particularly pp. 27-8; see also, A. Graeser, ‘Language, Thought and Reality’, pp. 367-68; and D. Bostock, ‘Plato on Understanding Language’, in S. Everson (ed.), Companions to Ancient Thought III: Language, CUP, Cambridge 1994, pp. 10-15f., 23, and 26. Back

[16] See E.A. Havelock, ‘The Linguistic Task of the Presocratics’, in K. Robb (ed.), Language and Thought in Early Greek Philosophy , Hegeler Institute, LaSalle 1983, p.18; and A.P.D. Mourelatos, ‘Naïve Metaphysics of Things’, pp. 16-48, for the idea that the task of some early Greek thinkers was primarily to correct erroneous conceptions and usage of language. Back

[17] A tradition that was first voiced, so far as we know, by Stesichorus in the sixth century (see Plato,Republic IX 586C), and was also mentioned by Herodotus, Histories 2 .112-20; for discussion see F. Solmsen, ‘Onoma and Pragma in Euripides’Helen‘, Classical Review XLVIII, 1934, pp. 119-20; R. Lattimore,’Introduction to Helen‘, The Complete Greek Tragedies, Volume III: Euripides, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1956, pp. 483-4; A.N. Pippin, ‘A Comedy of Ideas’, p. 151. Back

[18] F. Solmsen, ‘Onoma and Pragma’, pp. 119-21. Back

[19] All translations of the Helen are from D. Grene and R. Lattimore (eds), The Complete Greek Tragedies, Volume III: Euripides, R. Lattimore (trans.), University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1956, unless otherwise stated. Back

[20] W.G. Arnott, ‘Euripides’ Newfangled Helen ‘, Antichthon 24, 1990, p. 15. Back

[21] A.N. Pippin, ‘A Comedy of Ideas’, p. 153; cf. W.G. Arnott, ‘Euripides’ Newfangled Helen‘, pp. 15-16ff, who highlights the comic side of Menelaos’ fumbling with the idea of two Helens.Back

[22] Trans. D. Kovacs, Euripides V, D. Kovacs (ed.), Loeb Classical Library 11, Harvard University Press, Mass. 2002.Back

[23] See A. Graeser, ‘Thought and Reality’, pp. 359-88. Back

[24] For example: A.N. Pippin, ‘A Comedy of Ideas’, p. 156; C. Wolff, ‘On Euripides’ Helen‘, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77, 1973, p. 64, 79; D.G. Papi, ‘Victors and Sufferers’, p. 27, 29; W.G. Arnott, ‘Newfangled Helen‘, p. 4. C. Segal, however, suggests that the Helen never completely resolves the question of what is real and what is illusion (‘Two Worlds’, p. 559; see also p. 611); elsewhere though Segal appears to lean towards the idea that Helen’s identity is secure (eg. p. 579, 580, 590, 594). Back

[25] For example: DK 84 A13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18. Back

[26] See DK 80 A25, 26, 27, 28, 29, and 30. Back

[27] Women at the Thesmophoria, 3-18ff.; Frogs , 1129f., 1154f., 1471, 1477-78, 1496-99. Back

[28] R.K. Sprague (ed.), The Older Sophists, trans. M.J. O’Brien, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 1972.Back

[29] Readers are referred to the following works (though this list is not exhaustive): A.N. Pippen, ‘A Comedy of Ideas’, pp. 151-163; R. Lattimore, ‘Introduction to Helen‘, p. 485; D.G. Papi, ‘Victors and Sufferers’, pp. 30-31; and F. Solmsen, ‘Onoma and Pragma’, p. 120, C. Segal, ‘Two Worlds’, pp. 559-60, 604-605, and C. Wolff, ‘On Euripides’Helen ‘, pp. 77-8, which draw comparisons between Euripides’ dichotomies and problems discussed in fifth-century Sophistic thought. Back

[30] E. Schiappa, Protagoras and logos: a study in Greek philosophy and rhetoric , University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 1991. pp. 93-4. Back

[31] We will return later to the issue of exactly what this might have meant, and what its implications are for the rest of Protagoras’ philosophy. Back

[32] For discussion, see G.B. Kerferd,The Sophistic Movement, p. 73; and E. Schiappa, Protagoras and Logos, pp. 107-109. Back

[33] Omitted from the Diels-Kranz collection whose editors, perhaps incorrectly, wished to distinguish Antiphon of Rhamnous from Antiphon the Sophist. This fragment is included in R.K. Sprague (ed.), The Older Sophists, 87B18-25.Back

[34] Thoukydides, The Peloponnesian War VIII, 68. Back

[35] The Older Sophists, trans. J.S. Morrison. Back

[36] Again, Aristophanes also provides some support for the argument that Euripides was well versed in such techniques: see Frogs , 1100f. Back

[37] Compare Troades 945-50 with DK 82 B11 (6 and 19), and Troades 959-62 with DK 82 B11 (7). For discussion see N.T. Croally, Euripidean Polemic: The Trojan Women and the Function of Tragedy, pp. 155-7 and P. Goldhill, ‘The language of tragedy’, p. 146f.; cf. M. Lloyd, The Agon in Euripides, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1992, pp. 100-1, who argues that there is no direct connection between Troades and the EncomiumBack

[38] Trans. D. Kovacs, Euripides V, D. Kovacs (ed.), Loeb Classical Library 11, Harvard University Press, Mass. 2002.Back

[39] A.N. Pippin, ‘A Comedy of Ideas’, p. 152. Pippin, however, grants Theonoe a special ability to see the truth which is lacking in the other characters (p. 152, 157-61); however, it should be noted that the extended critique of prophets in the Helen (744-60) may suggest that even if Theonoe sees, and perhaps even speaks the literal truth, there is some reason to doubt whether she should be trusted. Back

[40] Compare 1236 and 1514-16 with 605-606. Back

[41] C. Segal, ‘Two Worlds’, p. 569; C. Wolff, ‘On Euripides’ Helen‘, pp. 64, 76, 77-8; D.G. Papi, ‘Victors and Sufferers’, pp. 34-7. Back

[42] For example: C. Segal, ‘Two Worlds’, pp. 590, 594, 602, 607 & 610; C. Wolff, ‘On Euripides’Helen ‘, pp. 77-8; and D.G. Papi, ‘Victors and Sufferers’, p. 40, though Papi’s interpretation varies subtly. Back

[43] A famous example of this is supplied by Plutarch, who claimed that Protagoras and Perikles once spent an entire day trying to decide whether or not they should consider guilty a javelin thrower who had accidentally killed a spectator with an errant throw (DK 80A10). Back

[44] W.G. Arnott, ‘Newfangled Helen‘, p.4. Back

[45] Trans. M.J. O’Brien, The Older Sophists. It has been fashionable recently to translate ‘anthropos ‘ as ‘humanity’ or ‘a human’, given the somewhat sexist connotations associated with ‘man’; however, from the fragment it is not entirely clear whether Protagoras meant a person is the measure of things, or people in general are the measure of things. The present work therefore sticks with the older translation so that this ambiguity is partially retained. Back

[46] For an introduction to some of the issues, see L. Versenyi, ‘Protagoras’ Man-Measure Fragment’, American Journal of Philology, 83 (1962), pp. 178-84 (reprinted in C.J. Classen (ed.), Sophistik, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1976, pp. 290-97). Back

[47] The amount modern literature related to Protagoras’ Man-Measure philosophy is vast, and cannot be investigated here in any depth. For an introduction to a range of the various interpretations, readers are referred to the following works: for the relativist reading, see M.F. Burnyeat, ‘Protagoras and Self-Refutation in Later Greek Philosophy’, Philosophical Review 85, 1976, pp. 44-69; for the quite similar subjectivist reading, see G. Vlastos, ‘Introduction to Plato:Protagoras‘, B. Jowett (trans.), M. Ostwald (rev.), G. Vlastos (ed.), Bobbs-Merrill, New York 1956 (reprinted in C.J. Classen, Sophistik, pp. 271-89); for an example of the objectivist reading, see G.B. Kerferd, The Sophistic Movement, pp. 87-92ff, and 106-108; and for the most recently defended ‘infallibilist’ position, see G. Fine, ‘Protagorean Relativisms’, in J. Cleary and W. Wians (eds), Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy VIII, University Press of America, Lanham 1996, pp. 211-43. Back

[48] R. Bett (‘The Sophists and Relativism’, Phronesis 34, 1989, pp. 139-69), however, has cast serious doubt over the relativist interpretation by arguing strongly against the appropriateness of labelling any fifth-century philosophy as being relativistic in the modern sense. Back

[49] G.B. Kerferd, The Sophistic Movement, p. 86f. Back

[50] G.B. Kerferd, The Sophistic Movement, p. 89. Back

[51] See, G.B. Kerferd, The Sophistic Movement, pp. 88-90, and E. Schiappa, Protagoras and Logos, pp. 92-94, 108-109, and 130. Back

[52] A. Graeser, ‘Thought and Reality’, p. 365 n. 16. Back

[53] Trans. J. Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy, Penguin, London 1987. Back

[54] See A.P.D. Mourelatos, ‘Naïve Metaphysics of Things’, pp. 34-6. Back

[55] A.N. Pippin, ‘A Comedy of Ideas’, p. 152; A.J. Podlecki, ‘Basic Seriousness’, p. 402; C. Segal, ‘Two Worlds’, p. 575.Back

[56] See above, in section titled Euripides’ Critique of Common-Sense Conceptions of LanguageBack

[57] The Older Sophists, trans. G. Kennedy. Back