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Menander as a timid social reformer (Aspis)

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Menander as a timid social reformer (Aspis)

Postby daivid » Sun Jul 06, 2014 10:21 pm

The law by which an epikleros, a girl who is the only survivor of her line may be forced to marry an uncle was intended to ensure that the property of father or in this case the brother be retained within the family. It's aim was to prevent households becoming extinct. The wishes or happiness of the daughter were of no interest to those who devised the law beyond ensuring the daughter was not actually turned out destitute onto the street.

Smikrines aim in the play is wholly in keeping with the law. He want's to marry the daughter so as to get his hands on the war booty but the law exists precisely to enable him to do so. The law does assume that the uncle should produce an heir but he does indeed wish to do this.

And yet the play is crafted to ensure that the audience sees Smikrines is a thoroughly evil person simply because he claims his rights under the law. Menander is not describing exceptional circumstances whereby a otherwise good law produces an unanticipated bad outcome because of unusual circumstances. The outcome that the good characters in the play struggle to avert is what is the normal functioning of the law.

I don't deny that Menander's first aim is to entertain but when he demonizes Smikrines for exercising his rights according to the law he cannot but be criticising the law itself.

As I can't claim to be an expert on Menander and indeed have read Aspis only in translation I'm comforted to find that someone with better credentials than myself makes much the same argument:
Love versus the Law: An Essay on Menander's 'Aspis'
Douglas M. Macdowell
Greece & Rome
Second Series, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Apr., 1982), pp. 42-52
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Re: Menander as a timid social reformer (Aspis)

Postby Qimmik » Mon Jul 07, 2014 12:11 pm

I'm not sure that Menander could be considered a social reformer or a critic of the law on epikleroi. If I'm not mistaken, Menander wasn't the only writer of New Comedy to construct a plot around the law, and the Aspis wasn't even Menander's only play that used the law as a plot device. The law lent itself to romantic comedy--love triumphs in the end, removing an obstacle to the marriage of two lovers, a beautiful young lady and a handsome young man.

We see this same theme throughout literature in societies where to arranged or forced marriages prevailed, or where financial considerations dictated marital alliances: Molière (Le malade imaginaire), Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night's Dream, which invents an Athenian marriage law even more cruel than the law on epikleroi), and any number of operas, Gianni Schicchi, La fille du régiment, etc.

This plot type obviously requires an obstacle to the ultimate marriage of the two parties, and the law on epikleroi in Athens was perfect for this purpose. The plot is typically a contrivance; what makes these comedies work (and, while many of them are footnotes, some rise to the level of important works of literature) is the characterization (and the music, in the case of opera). The individual attempting to prevent the marriage has to be portrayed as villainous or absurdly comical.

By the way, looking at the Wikipedia summary of the plot of the Aspis (yes, I know), it looks like (1) the young lady turns out not to be an epikleros after all when her father, presumed dead, shows up unexpectedly; (2) the girl's father sanctions the marriage; and (3) the young lady and the young man who are ultimately joined in matrimony are cousins--so the principle of keeping the wealth in the family is not violated. So the norms of upper-class Athenian marriage arrangements aren't really drawn into question: the dénoument of this drama actually allows those norms to be observed and fulfilled.

It's also worth noting that this plot type typically requires one party or the other to be wealthy--it usually doesn't work where both parties are poor. The "obstacle" is usually a function of wealth- and class-based constraints on marriage.
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Re: Menander as a timid social reformer (Aspis)

Postby Qimmik » Mon Jul 07, 2014 4:31 pm

Other works of literature in which money-based marriage institutions play a role are Jane Austen's novels and Tom Jones, among many others, of course. Like Menander's Aspis, these particular works have a happy ending: the right parties are united not only with one another, but also with the money. The happy ending certainly mitigates, if not nullifies, any element of social criticism directed at the marriage institutions prevailing in the respective societies.

I think the marriage institutions function in these works somewhat like war in Homer: they are inevitable, they are the backdrop for the plot, and they are not treated as either good or bad, though they may potentially result in unhappiness or even suffering. In the Aspis, the epikleros law is apparently swept into irrelevancy by the course of the plot; if criticism were intended, the law would be successfully flouted, but there is no bite where all ends happily within the framework of conventional institutions. (Which is not to say that Jane Austen doesn't movingly portray the plight of dowerless young ladies in a society where the institution of marriage is based on money, or that happy endings, though now relegated to genre fiction, can't produce great literature.)

It's generally in works where things don't work out happily, such as Hardy, George Eliot, Henry James, Anna Karenina, that criticism is directed at societal institutions which lead to unhappiness or tragedy.
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Re: Menander as a timid social reformer (Aspis)

Postby Scribo » Mon Jul 07, 2014 6:03 pm

I think that's the case too, the law basically helps form the crisis of the play rather than being the theme. I mean I don't think we should downplay the roles Comikoi might have sought for themselves with regards to social ethos or anything but I don't necessarily see this is an example of critique of the law.

It's also worth pointing out that the law itself can't be extricated from the net of circumstances which lead to the law being created: anxiety over the continuation of the oikos (here taken in an abstract rather than physical sense). Several related legal procedures existed. For the longest time fathers could not disinherit sons outside of very narrow reasons. Adoption occurred not, as for us, for the protection of children but for the advantage of the adopter. In fact one was an orphan when a male protector (kyrios) died. Basically, Athenian concerns align very poorly with ours. For an example of just how weird it could be check out the antidosis and the "logic" behind it.

If you're interested in Athenian law I can recommend too pretty good volumes. MacDowell's "The Law in Classical Athens" is often available pretty cheaply and is a damn good intro. Slightly beyond that would be S.C Todd's "The Shape of Athenian Law". Somewhat more technical in orientation, also good, these two books seem to be the most commonly recommended introductions to the subject and saved me a lot of trouble tbh. I can't claim to know too much about family law actually outside of where it intersects with religion since it's not very interesting. If you like drama check out the case of Hagnias. We've got two speeches Isaios 11 and Demosthenes 43. Actually maybe we've more? But this is an example of cross generational conflict over an oikos.
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Re: Menander as a timid social reformer (Aspis)

Postby daivid » Mon Jul 07, 2014 11:14 pm

Qimmik wrote:Other works of literature in which money-based marriage institutions play a role are Jane Austen's novels and Tom Jones, among many others, of course. Like Menander's Aspis, these particular works have a happy ending: the right parties are united not only with one another, but also with the money. The happy ending certainly mitigates, if not nullifies, any element of social criticism directed at the marriage institutions prevailing in the respective societies.

I think the marriage institutions function in these works somewhat like war in Homer: they are inevitable, they are the backdrop for the plot, and they are not treated as either good or bad, though they may potentially result in unhappiness or even suffering. In the Aspis, the epikleros law is apparently swept into irrelevancy by the course of the plot; if criticism were intended, the law would be successfully flouted, but there is no bite where all ends happily within the framework of conventional institutions.

I did write social reformer not social revolutionary. The evidence of the plays shows no signs of Menander wanting more than quite minor changes. I hazard that he would claim to be defending the marriage institution and that the epikleros law was not part of the package but a threat to that institution.

Of course you are right. If there are no barriers to love there is no tension and hence a boring play. If the epikleros law did not exist it would have to be invented. Hence today when the romantic comedy is very much alive, writers have to devise ingenious ways to put obstacles in the way of true love despite the fact that modern western societies are set up to ensure that as far as possible. But Menander didn't have to invent any barriers - his ingenuity was directed to contriving ways that true love could somehow survive when his Athens was set up to make it as difficult as possible.

But there are indications that the epikleros law was not simply a plot device for Menander.
Demetrios C. Beroutsos describes Smikrines as "the most villainous old man known in extant New Comedy"(A Commentary on the " Aspis " of Menander). Daos in refusing to work for Smikrines mentions how in his native Phrygia things are differently there. By implication if places outside Athens can manage without a Epikleros law so can Athens. And while it is difficult to be sure when so much of the second half is lost it seems to me that the law is successfully evaded. Kleostratos only returns after Smikrines has been successfully thwarted.


Qimmik wrote: (Which is not to say that Jane Austen doesn't movingly portray the plight of dowerless young ladies in a society where the institution of marriage is based on money, or that happy endings, though now relegated to genre fiction, can't produce great literature.)
It's generally in works where things don't work out happily, such as Hardy, George Eliot, Henry James, Anna Karenina, that criticism is directed at societal institutions which lead to unhappiness or tragedy.


So what is the more powerful motor of social change? Is it horror at injustice or rather is it the conviction that things ought and can be better that is essential.

My guess is that we in the west are shocked by the recent murders in Pakistan on women who have married for love has more to do with over 2000 years of romantic comedies making such events a violation of how we feel things ought to be. I also suspect those women in today's India who risk their lives to be with the one they love are more inspired by the Bollywood films with happy endings. Tragedy on its own seems to me a recipe for despair even if it is far more hard-hitting than Menander.

Of course it is possible that art really has no influence over such changes and merely reflects such changes. Why then did romantic comedy arise in state whose laws were so hostile to romantic love?
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Re: Menander as a timid social reformer (Aspis)

Postby daivid » Sun Jul 20, 2014 3:51 pm

Scribo wrote:I think that's the case too, the law basically helps form the crisis of the play rather than being the theme. I mean I don't think we should downplay the roles Comikoi might have sought for themselves with regards to social ethos or anything but I don't necessarily see this is an example of critique of the law.

It's also worth pointing out that the law itself can't be extricated from the net of circumstances which lead to the law being created: anxiety over the continuation of the oikos (here taken in an abstract rather than physical sense). Several related legal procedures existed. For the longest time fathers could not disinherit sons outside of very narrow reasons. Adoption occurred not, as for us, for the protection of children but for the advantage of the adopter. In fact one was an orphan when a male protector (kyrios) died. Basically, Athenian concerns align very poorly with ours.

Given that the continuation of the oikos was so essential to the state it makes even the timid questioning of the consequences of the law that we find in Menander significant.
 
Scribo wrote: For an example of just how weird it could be check out the antidosis and the "logic" behind it.
It is inefficient of course because once people get used to the idea that they might be forced to take on an extra liturgy under the threat of swapping their wealth with someone else people such doing all sorts of strange things to evade the consequence of such a law. But that is not the result of a different Athenian mindset.
If we had no bureaucracy then we ourselves would have to resort to such things to ensure our governments had sufficent income to function.
Scribo wrote:If you're interested in Athenian law I can recommend too pretty good volumes. MacDowell's "The Law in Classical Athens" is often available pretty cheaply and is a damn good intro. Slightly beyond that would be S.C Todd's "The Shape of Athenian Law". Somewhat more technical in orientation, also good, these two books seem to be the most commonly recommended introductions to the subject and saved me a lot of trouble tbh. I can't claim to know too much about family law actually outside of where it intersects with religion since it's not very interesting. If you like drama check out the case of Hagnias. We've got two speeches Isaios 11 and Demosthenes 43. Actually maybe we've more? But this is an example of cross generational conflict over an oikos.


I am more interested in how the law throws light on the social life of Athens rather than Athenian law itself so MacDowell's book sounds like what I should check out.
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