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"Sophron Polis: on the Pension of the Handicapped Athenian (Lysias 24.)", Newsletter, The American College of Greece, p16

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CoverSophron Polis: on the Pension of the Handicapped Athenian

By Eleftheria A. Bernidaki-Aldous, Ph.D.

Many scholars have drawn the theoretical implications for the Greek wareness of mortality. What they have not considered (and some even doubted) is the possibility that the compassion which characterized attitudes toward the handicapped in literature had any application in everyday life.

In an analysis of Lysias 24. Peri Adynatou (On Behalf of the Invalid), I examine the practical applications of the theoretical implications of the humanitarian view of Greek literature, and especially Sophocles. When I tried to obtain a sense of practical context from consideration of appeals of a handicapped Athenian in the court (end of 5th century B.C.), and studied Lysias's Peri Adynatou, I found that scholars had been preoccupied with technicalities instead of working with the theoretical premises and the cultural context of the speech. They failed to notice that this speech does not only recount the legislation and practices regarding social welfare, but also reveals the dominant sensibilities of the culture.

The question addressed here is whether the humanitarian theories and attitudes expressed by the intellectuals alleviated the suffering of real blind and other handicapped Athenians. Does the humanity (which in Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus makes the blind beggar a friend of the king—empolin and a hero) transfer from the stage to the streets of Athens? Do Platonic ideas influence legislation? Do humanitarian theories influence the verdicts of Athenian juries?

My thesis is that in practice, as well as in theory, the handicapped enjoyed the benefits of legislation for social welfare which resulted from the humanitarian views of the intellectuals. Lysias's speech shows that the legislators, the Invalid defendant, the plaintiff, and the jury - all were perfectly aware of such theories and expected to act accordingly. The Athenian state (polls), acting like a "decent sophron," legislated for the welfare of the handicapped (Lys. 24. 22, 26).[1] The jurymen (boule) are urged to act like the "noble sophron" (14) by voting for the continuation of the Invalid's pension (7, 8, 22, 26). The trustworthiness of the plaintiff and the worthiness of the defendant are judged by the same cultural ideals (2-3).

Although a speech in court is likely to reflect popular rather than intellectual views, it draws on the ideas which inform Greek literature everywhere. While there is a difference in the approach to problems and suffering between the intellectuals and the "many," it appears that the higher ideals and beliefs of the intellectuals were understood even by those who failed to act according to them. The testing ground for humanity (sophrosyne) may differ from the blind seer of Colonus to the Invalid of Lysias's court, but the considerations are the same. What is at stake in Oedipus At Colonus may be of a grander scale (heroization or deification, rather than a pension of a mere obol), but the same sentiments are involved: a deep awareness of a common humanity, and the theoretical and social command for individuals and society to act on this knowledge. The gap separating theory from practice might have been great. Yet the fact that these ideals and beliefs were persistently expressed and invoked shows a deep cultural concern with these issues. In spite of differences, in a culture as homogeneous as the Greek, attitudes were shared by all groups which constituted the social hierarchy. Pity, for example, was common to all.

If we place this speech in its cultural context (Homer, dramatists, Plato, etc.), many questions will be answered. Any analysis of this speech must go deeper than a list of the facts. Here are some pertinent facts: Athenians, who were prevented by a handicap from earning a living, received a pension of an obol a day at the time of this speech. There was an annual review to establish that (a.) the disability continued and (b.) the property of the recipient was no more than three minae. In the case of the Invalid of Lysias, the pension had been opposed on both grounds. I disagree with those who think that this opposition was justified just because the Invalid nowhere categorically denies that his property is worth more than three minae, and just because he does not give an account of his possessions. "Indeed the lack of firm evidence of any kind in this speech has baffled some commentators and exasperated others, and has let yet more to suppose that it was never delivered in an actual trial" (Edwards and Usher, p. 263).[2] However I do not think that we should explain the speech away by grouping it necessarily with speeches which were perhaps published "for the notice of potential clients" to illustrate Lysias's "technique in difficult cases" (ibid). I believe it quite likely that the Invalid won his case because his appeal plays skillfully on the sensibilities of the Athenian citizens who were on the jury.

Απόκομμα ΠεριοδικούSympathy was to be expected from the jury, who, like the Sophoclean choruses, could act well when guided well. The invalid makes explicit in his appeal what is implicit in every scene of the Coloneus. He reminds everyone of a capricious and common fate (Daemon) (10, 22). The point is this: blindness demanded and deserved sympathy because the physical dependence and darkness entailed by blindness was the best reminder of mortality, human limitations, and subjection to ananke (necessity). As blindness was the best paradigm of the human condition on a theoretical level, so it must have been a main concern for the sophron polis, i.e., the state which aspired to govern with laws informed by the knowledge of what it is to be mortal. Blindness and other handicaps, we may assume, must have enjoyed special consideration in the legislation of a polis which aspired to the ideals of Sophoclean humanism.

The Invalid argues as follows: "Men of the jury, it is because fate (Daemon) deprived me of the highest goods that the state legislated for this pension for me. The polis acted on the belief that fortune is common for all—noble and fortunate as well as humble and unfortunate" (22). The belief that fortune changes, and an uncertain future is common to all, accounts for the kind treatment of all victims of the caprices of fortune. Although the speaker of Lysias is not blind, but the victim of a less savage handicap, his argument is revealing. This profound humanitarian truth is common for the audience of Sophocles and of the Invalid.

In court, where only appeals to the most conventional sentiments and social usages are effective, the defendant refers to the polis and the jurymen, using terms which apply to a man of sophrosyne. He seems to know that state legislation, like the sophron, recognizes misfortune and the rules of a common ananke. He urges the jury (boule) to act with consideration for those rules, and to distinguish appearance from reality (like the noble sophron, King Theseus, in the Coloneus). He expects them to dismiss the insensitive and frivolous claims of the plaintiff which are void of sophrosyne and humanism. He says: "On your part, men of the jury, as is the job of men who are well disposed towards suffering, should believe in your own eyes rather than in his words" (14). The gap separating theory from practice, logos from ergon, seems to be closing in such an appeal.

Although remarkable distinctions exist (in this hierarchical society) between theory and reality and between hero and sophron, there is also striking homogeneity. The same ideals and attitudes inform every aspect of Greek life. The theory, which defines man by his subjection to mortality and to the ananke of suffering, defines him also by his ability for compassion towards others doomed like himself. Such theory gives birth to legislation for social welfare which the Invalid invokes in the court of his peers.

In an effort to explain the attitude of Greek society towards the handicapped, I have adopted a viewpoint drawn from the language of Sophoclean drama, because Sophocles draws the implication of the cultural awareness of mortality and suffering in an inspiring and instructive way. Thus, the three basic characters of Sophoclean drama (hero, sophron, Chorus) include (although in an abbreviated and schematic form) all of Greek society. The hero is the exceptional man, the transgressor. The blind seer and the blind poet is like a tragic hero (Oedipus). Oedipus transgresses the limits imposed on him as a mortal, and as a result, he is punished with blindness, but at the same time he is blessed with the gifts of prophesy, poetry and honor.

The sophron is the man aware of the rules imposed on him by his mortality and he tries to live by those rules. The degree to which the sophron accepts the transgressor (the hero) and the degree of his humanity determines my characterization of the sophron as simply a "decent sophron," a man of conventional wisdom, or as a "noble sophron," a man capable of risking his safety in the service of his less privileged fellow sufferer. The noble sophron is the man who overlooks even the fear of pollution in order to receive back into the society the hero (who is an outsider) for the benefit of this society.

Such a noble sophron is Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus. The Chorus represents the citizens (laos, as Aristotle says) and is influenced and directed by sophrones and heroes alike. (A striking example of this guidance of the Prince and his influence over the people is found in the whole of the tragedy of Philoctetes of Sophocles.) There is a clear distinction between the hero and the sophron, and a significant interdependence between them. In each sophron's reaction towards the hero there is room for a variety of responses; a variation in the depth and intensity of humanity.

There are at least two types of sophrones, which I call "the decent sophron" and "the noble sophron." The "decent sophron" is an honorable man who obeys established custom and law, strictly and without questioning. He represents the sophrosyne of the polis as it is usually implemented by good men of power (like Creon in the Tyrannus). Such men are blameless under the law and conventional moral codes, but lack the originality necessary for the drawing of more refined and essential distinctions. The "noble sophron" can distinguish between what is conventionally proper, and what is truly fair. The degree to which one possesses this ability is the degree to which he possesses nobility (to gennaion). These three categories illustrate the various responses towards blindness or other handicaps.

The jury (like the Chorus) would act well (eu phronouton) if influenced by sophrones thoughts, the kind which the sophron polls was urging on its legislation for the care of its less fortunate citizens. The job of the defendant is to say such things and in such a way so as to prevent the jury from being influenced by the aphron plaintiff (10, 14, 22, 27). The speech of the Invalid is likely to draw on conventional rules of decency and to reveal popular and traditional values regarding the treatment of the handicapped in Athens. The Invalid reminds them how men under extreme misfortune are to be pitied even by their enemies (7), and how it is indecent to injure those who are weak, since they are unable to defend themselves or retaliate (18, 27).
As the jury considers their verdict, they also consider cultural ideas of humanity which characterized Greek thought from Homer to Hellenistic times and beyond. They probably recalled Achilleus's definition of humanity in the scene with Priam (II. 24. 525-533), and the keen warning of Simonides of Ceos about the subjection to ananke and mortality. Sophocles, the advocate of Greek humanism par excellence, epitomizes the Greek ideal of sophrosyne in the response of Theseus towards the blind Oedipus (Oed.Col., 551-568). Theseus, as a guest and stranger (xenos) on this earth, is as ephemeral and insecure in his fortune as any blind wanderer in need of hospitality (humanity). Theseus comforts Oedipus, saying: "I know, being a mortal, that the day to come has no more share for me than for you." It may not be pure coincidence, or the coincidence may be significant, that the Coloneus and this speech by Lysias were composed at the same time.

The Invalid hopes that the jury will act like the "noble sophron," but that is not to say that he did not fear the usual negative attitudes towards the handicapped. Then, as now, there was plenty of room in the human heart for contradictory feelings. The unfortunate are worthy of pity and compassion, and more likely to be the oppressed rather than the oppressors. Yet, their very condition, by nature of its uniqueness and magnitude of its suffering, generates awe and bewilderment. It is probable (the Athenians thought) that the handicapped might be resentful and perhaps dangerous. Their fate (Daemon, 22) is strange. It imposes unbearable suffering, physical and emotional. Some metaphysical, abnormal behavior may also be theirs. The belief that "suffering spoils the character" (II, 24. 525-533; Euripides, Hecuba; Plato, Euthydemus:; Lysias, 24. 12, 15) in conjunction with related beliefs in the evil eye, pollution, and the adoration of youth and bodily excellence—all gave birth to serious prejudices. In addition, someone else's suffering might serve as an unwelcome reminder of what might be in store for any man.

The Invalid tries to counter possible bias against him (12), because of his looks, as much as the plaintiff probably tried to utilize such prejudices. "I am using two sticks," the defendant explains, and popular prejudice runs in favor of one (to reverse the numbers of Dickens's description of Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby, who "had but one eye, and popular prejudice runs in favor of two). The Athenian Invalid is aware of such prejudices, or else, he would not (and even if he wanted, he could not) have felt it necessary to assure the jury that he would not harm them because of his weakness (15-18). He only hopes that he will be skillful enough to direct the jury to be influenced by Sophocles rather than by the aphrones and inhuman arguments of the plaintiff.
I think that his hopes were well founded, because the emphasis on the need to distinguish form from substance, and appearance from reality is acknowledged everywhere in literature and, presumably, in life.

The Invalid is obviously aware of the rules and presuppositions for compassion. One may be pitied if not responsible for his misfortune. Aristotle explains that "regarding the sufferings of the body, those which are caused by us are blameworthy, but those for which we are not responsible are not blameworthy" (Eth. Nic, 3. 5. 1114A). The invalid obviously suffers from old age and some physical handicap for which he should not be blamed, but pitied and helped. He seems quite aware of the popular (and philosophical) belief that worse than a physical handicap is a bad or handicapped soul. He talks as though he has in mind Socrates's words: "to live with an unhealthy soul is much worse than to live with an unhealthy body" (Plato, Grg., 279b). He is keenly aware of the importance which Greek popular morality and the intellectuals placed on the way in which mortals endured the inevitable. As Plato says (Rep. A329b-d): more important than any suffering is "the way in which people endure it" ("ho tropos ton anthropon").

The Invalid knows that his moral character and behavior will affect the verdict. He takes pains to contrast his own noble endurance with the mean spirit of the plaintiff. He draws attention to the way in which he endures his suffering as he tries to convince the jury to continue his disability pension. He says: "So, he who envies those whom everyone else pities will not abstain from any other kind of evil, don't you think...It is already clear, men of the jury, that this man envies me. He envies me because, although I have to deal with such a misfortune, I am a better man than he. And I am a better citizen, men of the jury, because I am of the belief that we should cure the misfortunes of the body by means of the virtues of the soul. In any case, if I were to have my attitudes and aspirations on the same level as that of my suffering, and if I were to conduct my life in a manner equal to my misfortune, in what way would I be different from him?" (2-3).

There is no doubt that the citizens, whom the Invalid expected to convince, understood the same language as the spectators at the theater of Dionysus, who watched with interest and care the fate of the old, blind Oedipus. No matter what the difference between the Invalid of Lysias and the Oedipus of Sophocles, between common people on the one hand and heroes on the other, no matter what the gap between theory and everyday reality, no matter what the chasm between ergon and logos, we may certainly conclude that the ancient Greeks shared a basic understanding of the suffering and the value of human life. This speech shows that humanitarian principles, which formed the center of theoretical inquiry, had become the inspiration for legislation which provided for handicapped Athenian citizens. More importantly, this speech shows that the Invalid knew that he could appeal to the humanity of his peers and could expect their admiration for his noble endurance.

This speech remains enigmatic. We may never know the name, the deme, the exact age and property qualifications, or even the nature of the handicap of this charming defendant. We may never find out if he won his case, or even if he told the truth. But all this (although it would be very useful to discover) is not very important. It is more important to notice what the defendant felt he had to say in his struggle to win his case. It is crucial to know that theoretical speculation on mortality and human suffering had given birth to a polis which aspired to be sophron (after the example of the legendary King Theseus, the "noble sophron" of the Coloneus). I think it is fair to conclude that Apollo's command to "know thyself" was not perceived to apply only to individuals, but to the state as well. The oracle seems to have instructed each Athenian citizen in the knowledge that every human is subject to suffering and that an uncertain future is common to us all. This Delphic oracle (in addition to starting Socrates on his quest for knowledge) seems also to be saying: "Athenians, take care of your less fortunate brother, lest you find yourself in his place some day." A polis which aspired to legislate and act with sophrosyne seems to have heeded the command of Apollo (the god of light and logos and prophesy). In all probability, so did the jury, the Athenian boule, to whom the Invalid appealed in the name of a common fate (Daemon) and a common humanity.

Eleftheria Bernidaki-Aldous, Professor II of Classics and Greek Literature, joined the Deree faculty in 1992. A native of Crete and alumna of Pierce College, where she began her study of classics, she has been blind since the age of three. She received a B.A. in classics and M.A. in history from the University of Rochester and an M.A. and Ph.D. in classics from the Johns Hopkins University. Her doctoral dissertation, Blindness in a Culture of Light, was published by Peter Lang in 1990. The book examines - in a scholarly and personal manner - the paradox of sight and blindness for the ancient Greeks, particularly in the case of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus.
William Arrowsmith, a renowned classicist, called the book "a splendidly searching study of the meaning of blindness in a culture that, from Homer onwards, was pervaded by a love of light felt to be one with life itself. The author provides an invaluable compendium of ancient Greek values as they get into literature and as literature transforms and revalues them."
Daniel Dombrowski, writing in The Classical Review, said, "This book should be of interest to several classes of scholars: to classicists who are interested in the Oedipus plays, to literary scholars or theater historians who are interested in a non-Freudian interpretation of Oedipus' psychology, and to philosophers who are interested in responding to Rorty and the other deconstructionists who have criticized the supposed dominance - ever since the Greeks - of visual metaphors in the history of philosophy."


[1] The speech by Lysias, Peri Adynatou, is translated in English as On Behalf of the Invalid, and numbered Lysias 24. (Other numbers in parentheses indicate paragraph numbers of the text.)
[2] M. Edwars and S. Usher, Greek Orators I:Antiphon and Lysias. Bolchazy Carducci, and Aris and Phillips, 1985


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