Polynices v. Eteocles (Phoenician women by Euripides)

Polynices v. Eteocles (Phoenician women by Euripides)

TransConflict is pleased to present extracts from Dražen Pehar’s book, ‘Dediscoursification – how discursive attitudes cause wars’, the key contention of which is that the attitude to language should be theorized as one of the major causes of war.

 Suggested Reading Collaborate GCCT

By Dražen Pehar

In the period between 411 and 408 BC, Euripides, one of the three greatest classical Greek dramatists, published and directed the tragedy Phoenician Women.[1] The tragedy is a story of conflict and war between Polynices and Eteocles, the two Oedipus’ sons cursed by their own father. The story is a part of the Theban epic cycle which, like Homer’s epic oeuvre, generated many themes of classical Greek literature. Hence, here we deal with mythic characters; however, we should also keep in mind that Euripides ascribed often realistic contents to those characters that were widely recognizable by the public of the time. For instance, in his work we often find some theses, or views, that we know were presented by Classical Greek sophists, and also by politicians.[2]

The theme of the tragedy is as follows: Polynices and Eteocles agreed to share the rule over Thebes by rotating the ruler’s seat every other year. Polynices was the first to concede the throne, so he left the city, while Eteocles remained to rule. It seems that the two’s key motive was to avoid their father’s curse, in which they obviously did not succeed. Polynices spent his year of absence living a kind of refugee life in Mycenae, hosted by king Adrastus who even gave him his own daughter for a wife. Polynices, however, explained that his life in Mycenae was like a life of a slave, which is important both for the theme of this section and of this book, as will be explained latter. After the year of his rule passed, Eteocles was unwilling to return the rule to his brother. Polynices responds by taking a whole army from Mycenae and moving towards, and against, Thebes. This theme was used earlier in Greek tragedy, most famously in the Seven against Thebes by Aeschylus.[3]

Why are Polynices and Eteocles important to the topic of dediscoursification? Jocasta, their misfortunate mother, also both mother and spouse of Oedipus, organized a meeting between the two within the city of Thebes to try to find a mediated, a peaceful solution to the conflict. Eteocles guaranteed safety to his brother, and the two then attempted to resolve the crisis in a brief round of negotiating. Though it is a relatively short episode (approximately lines 446 to 640), it is rich in contents and presented in a masterful style. Euripides was a keen and skilful painter of social interaction who wrote the tragedy in the period of the Athenian decadence, near the end of the Peloponnesian war, which to him offered a rich social-psychological template he incorporated in the dramas that dealt specifically with the human conflict and violence. We will see that all the important features of dediscoursification are contained in the brief episode of negotiation between Polynices and Eteocles. Literally, it reads as if, using the two warring brothers as fitting examples, Euripides wrote a succinct treaty on dediscoursification.

The negotiation episode can be divided into six stages: first, Jocasta gives to her sons a brief lesson on the principles of effective negotiation; secondly, Polynices presents his case; thirdly, Eteocles responds to his brother; fourthly, Jocasta attempts at mediating; fifthly, Eteocles calls off negotiations and thereby opens the door to war; the sixth stage is one of a logomachia, a battle of words, of the ugliest kind–two brothers exchange threats, humiliations, expressions of rage and hatred, their talk becomes emotional, accelerated, and dense, and starts sounding like a fist fight, or a sword clash, losing completely that quality of calm and measured tone of argumentative and cooperative turns.

To begin with, negotiations are opened by mother Jocasta: she advises Eteocles in person to be self-controlled, to speak in slow words (bradeis mythoi) that suit wise persons; she also suggests to the two to look one another into the eye and forget for a while about their past; they should look forward to the future and attend primarily to their own current verbal expression. She adds that Polynices is one who should start first; “you suffer injustice, as you claim” (adika peponthos, hos sy fes, line 467), and then she calls on a god to help them.

Now it is Polynices’ turn. He claims that his speech will be simple as pertains to the word of truth (haploys ho mythos tes aletheias ephy, line 469), and he expresses hope that “an unjust logos may be cured by wisdom.” He then briefly recounts the history of the conflict, emphasizing that Eteocles has sworn to gods when he accepted the arrangement of a one year-rotating mandate. In other words, this tells us that the brothers have made a promise to one another, and also sanctioned the promise by official taking of solemn oaths. Finally, Polynices issues a threat of the use of force, of commanding the army he brought along, unless he gets his just due. Again, he refers to gods as the witnesses to fairness of his demands. Interestingly, the Chorus of Phoenician women, who inspired the title to the tragedy and who were interrupted on their trip to Delphi by the conflict between the two brothers, commented approvingly on Polynices’ demands (lines 497-8).

The third stage: Eteocles responds to his brother’s demands. This is the stage of the crisis on which further developments critically depend. However, by the end of the stage, the reader/spectator will have realized that this was to be a tragedy in the classical sense, and that the conflict was not going to be resolved peacefully. Eteocles delivers a speech that may be taken as a perfect example of a dediscoursifying discourse. His response begins with the following words: “Should the same matter be beautiful or wise to all, a two-tongued quarrel [amphilektos eris – a quarrel marked by “both” discourses, reminding directly of amphibola – ambiguity] would not take place. As it is fixed in reality, nothing is to mortals of equal worth, or the same, except words/names; the matter itself [of equal worth and the same] does not exist here [in this world].” (lines 499-502) In other words, Eteocles here claims that the words, the designations of matters, especially those relevant for social and political relations, are vacuous; the identity of names gives no guarantee that there is, for instance, the identity of justice or of beauty, or for that matter of any value that should steer social relations. He thus indirectly tells Polinices that the latter’s words are empty and refer to nothing. There is no shared justice, no shared notion of equality; there are only justices and equalities as desired and promoted by particular individuals.

Eteocles in fact here poses an advanced claim that an agreement cannot be reached because there is no shared definition of key moral-political terms. We should also note that he uses the very fact of quarreling as an argument, reminding us thus directly of Izetbegović’s “topic” I present in the next section. “You see, what now happens between the two of us–that is the norm. There is no alternative to this”–this is his key message to Polinices. The quarrel, the dispute, is here to remain; it cannot be settled or removed. This means that Eteocles’ “argument” is of a self-referential nature: the two brothers have a dispute, and since the dispute indicates that there is no shared idea of justice and equality, brothers shall remain caught in the state of dispute. Here we can also witness a direct influence of the Greek sophistic relativists on whose ideas Euripides draws deliberately and skillfully in this episode.

Eteocles then continues his defense with a straightforward claim: he would give everything to be able to hold onto the greatest of the goddesses, the Tyranny (Tiranis), something we can descriptively designate as “an absolute kingly power of one over the multitude.” We can here immediately notice that, by posing the claim, Eteocles has already committed a contradiction: if designations of values are vacuous, then the name of the value he mentions is vacuous too–to different minds, the notion of “tyranny” will read differently. Hence, what Eteocles means by it, according to his own reasoning, cannot be of any general worth or significance. In other words, Eteocles cannot mean some general, common good. He can only mean some kind of “absolute kingly power that does not embrace or unify the multitude; a power that remains private and unrelated to those over whom it rules.”

Besides, Eteocles adds further, Polynices arrived at Thebes fully armed; he has issued a threat, and should Eteocles now give in, that would be a shame for both him and Thebes; it would also be an insult to his manliness if he accepted a loss–“to pleon” (an accumulation of gains, in Greek), guaranteed to him by his Tyranny, would slip away from his hands. Polynices’ army is used by Eteocles as another “argument”–the latter points out that the word should be able to accomplish the same as the sword, and one who attempts to make peace fully armed commits a wrong. By saying this, however, Eteocles commits another contradiction because he started his response by claiming that language is powerless. To remind, to Eteocles, language is an unruly cluster of vacuous words that cannot be filled with shared, general, or to all language users applying contents. Finally, Eteocles concludes that he would never be a slave to Polynices, and would openly commit injustice, because “should one do injustice, doing injustice for the sake of Tyranny is the most beautiful” (lines 524-5).

Upon having read Eteocles’ speech, we realize that his interlocutor must be motivated to cease using discourse at once. By discoursing Eteocles violates every single value that a discourse between benevolent persons ought to uphold: he states contradictions; denies the thesis that essential moral-political attributes could carry a shared meaning; furthermore, he denies the validity of common criteria and values; openly admits that he intends to continue with violating his own solemn oath; and, as the only argument, he offers his own sense of “a private beauty” (at the very start of his speech he claimed that the term “beautiful” has no common meaning that several individuals could share) that quasi-justifies his “doing of injustice for the sake of Tyranny.” Predictably, the Chorus of the Phoenician women comments on his speech with the following words: “This is not beautiful, but is contrary to justice.”[4]

The fourth stage: Jocasta is trying to intervene, and mediate to the dispute. Her speech is much longer than either Polynices’ or Eteocles’, which could mean that Euripides placed some special value in the speech, and perhaps tried to propose his own credo in social or political philosophy. First, Jocasta obviously sides more with Polynices than with Eteocles. Her words aim predominantly at Eteocles. Her critique of Polynices, on the other hand, concerns only his taking of the army against Thebes, the city in which he grew up and to which he was emotionally much attached; it is probably uttered only to save the appearance of Jocasta’s neutrality. Secondly, her speech is an attempt at “re-discoursification.” She aims to rebuild Eteocles’ reasoning and discoursing capacity. However, one also senses that this was a kind of “swan song to discourse;” re-discoursification can take place only if there are two parties to it, and if both sides to a dialogue actively try to re-discoursify a relationship. As the things stand with Eteocles, this part by Jocasta is a solo performance as in Eteocles she could not find a partner to the process of the recovery of discourse and its values.

She delivers a subtle, rhetorically perfect speech that can be divided into three parts: first, she aims to defeat Eteocles’ thesis that equality is “but a name;” we are in advance very well aware that her argumentation might not succeed because Eteocles does not share some important premises on which she relies. Now, Jocasta claims as follows: equality should always be preferred to vainglory because it gave the humans the law; those who have less are an enemy to those who have more. This is followed by a wonderful metaphor: “Equality has also ordered numbers for mankind; the dark eye of night, the light ray of sun, all that goes in equal annual circles, and feels no envy for each other’s victories.” (542-5) Thus, she relies on a metaphor of natural phenomena and processes to explain to Eteocles that equality and justice are of universal prominence, not limited exclusively to the human realm. This is the first step of her argument–a step addressing equality as universal, not only a human, value.

Secondly, she aims to defeat Eteocles’ words on the beauty of tyranny and vainglory; she turns Eteocles’ argument against itself: “glory” and “possession of wealth” are themselves vacuous names. In contrast to the attributes of justice and equality, those terms are filled only with private and subjective content. As she emphasizes, “the possession of wealth” is simply a matter of fortune; what we have and enjoy is given to us by gods who, after some period of our enjoyment or sometimes suffering, deprive us of all property as and when they wish. This means that, in the second step/element, Jocasta insists on a fully private character of Eteocles’ values, values that one should not take too seriously because they are too indeterminate for us to draw prudently on them.

Then comes the third element–she aims to recover Eteocles’ reasoning capacity: try to imagine, she tells him, that you are faced with the choice between two things: the tyranny/absolute rule over Thebes, on the one hand, and the rescue of Thebes, on the other. In other words, she is suggesting to him that, due to the coming war and Eteocles’ stubborn adherence to his permanent tyrannical rule, the city of Thebes might end up being burnt, destroyed, or ruined. Instead of Eteocles, she herself is drawing the consequences by imagining that, in such a situation of an extreme choice, Eteocles would still prefer a tyrannical rule. Hence, the third step/element is of a practical nature–Jocasta presents to Eteocles specific practical effects of his own likely choice in a specific and realistic situation; she is trying to activate his capacity of prediction and control of his own deliberations. In other words, she is trying to scare him somewhat by presenting to him his own preferences that include his inclination to an empty/illusory value: “To the Thebans, the wealth (ho ploytos) you intend to possess will bring pain in order to satisfy but your own vainglory.” (566-7) Thus she tells him frankly that the wealth he would retain will be of no value; he will be stripped down to his own vanity.

Jocasta’s words and arguments are in vain. The fifth stage follows. Eteocles simply calls off negotiations and states that time has run out. There is only one solution, as he says: “for me to continue with the kingly rule in this city.” In other words, Eteocles openly claims that the words meant nothing, that he has not moved an inch away from his initial position, and that, from the very start, there was nothing to negotiate about. To his own mother he releases the final message as follows: “Ending your long advice/lessons (ton makron noythetematon), leave me alone!” (lines 592-3) Then immediately he turns to Polynices and issues a threat: “Leave these city walls, or die!”

His last words to Jocasta are ironic, and one can see this very clearly in the Greek text–he calls her words/argument “those items that bring order to the mind,” which is, of course, Jocasta’s, not his own perspective. Finally, one should also emphasize that Eteocles has described the whole process of negotiating as an “agon logon,” i.e. as competition by words, as a verbal duel, something that could have ended only with either a defeat or a victory. He does not frame negotiating as a search for compromise, but as a conflict between some firm positions which cannot be modified and of which only a single one may survive. Again, we witness a dediscoursifying agent, someone who does not believe that discourse could, or should, affirm or produce some shared values.

Now it is clear that the war will not be avoided. However, the dialogue is not over yet. A sixth stage takes place, which is a running tirade from lines 595 to 625; the verses are swiftly exchanged, Polynices delivers one immediately followed by one by Eteocles. The exchange is full of insults and threats. Expectedly, Eteocles is one who is more merciless. At the same time, however, we see the summit of Euripides’ literary art–the brevity of sentences symbolizes the end to discourse; the sentences do not carry a significant information value, they state nothing that is really important. Euripides envisaged and presented them probably as swords that clash and produce that monotonous clicking sound. The reader will also experience an acceleration of discourse, which connotes the brothers’ excitement and rush, their feeling that the war is around the corner; at the same time, the accelerated speech also connotes a process that is less controllable, or predictable, and which thus becomes a pertinent symbol of the fortune or accident that in all wars plays a major, sometimes even decisive, role.

For instance, Eteocles orders Polynices to leave the city, to which Polynices replies that he has been evicted from his own home, to which then Eteocles replies by saying “as you came here to evict!” Or, Polynices asks Eteocles to allow him to see his father, which Eteocles swiftly declined. Then Polynices calls his sisters, to which Eteocles responds as follows: “why are you calling them, when you are their worst enemy?” In some turns we see an interesting pattern. Polynices starts a sentence, but Eteocles completes the very same sentence in his own way, reversing and disrupting its intended meaning. For example, in lines 603-6 Polynices starts as follows: “Altars of my progenitor gods….,” to which Eteocles adds an ending as follows: “that you came here to ruin;” then Polynices adds, “do you listen to me?,” and Eteocles adds further, “who would listen to one who brought an army against his own homeland?”

The patterns read as if Eteocles deliberately steals some words from Polynices and reverses their meaning; the former resembles one who steals a sword from his enemy, and then uses it against its original owner; the strategy reminds us also of the imputation of meaning. At the same time, we do not hear, or read, the sentences that are whole, complete, and self-contained; we hear or read some combinations of words the meaning of which neither of the speakers fully determines. Language becomes unnaturally abbreviated, disrupted, and victimized by merciless manipulation, with the only purpose being to cause or express pain, or to cause, express or reinforce aggressiveness, which altogether results in a bizarre combination of expressions of both pain and aggressiveness. Euripides thus manages to simulate most vividly the human words that resemble animal cries and roars more than a human discourse (see also Papadopoulou 2008, 96-97).

We need to add two major aspects of the example of negotiation that, by generating dediscoursification, took a wrong turn, and moved the agents closer to the war instead away from it. Eteocles finishes his speech with an etymology; he says that Oedipus, his and Polynices’ father, was right when he christened Polynices the way he did: Polyneikes in Greek means “one whose quarrels are many;” in other words, the name designates a quarreler, one who produces many disagreements and misunderstandings. This is not an example solely of poetic irony where the actor, who showed no will to resolve a dispute (that is, Eteocles), attributes to his brother all the blame. This is also an example of Eteocles’ recognition that names may directly reflect the truth; he implies that the meaning of this name is something everyone should agree with, that it is imitative or onomatopoeic for all the users of the Greek language.

But, Eteocles with this claim again commits a contradiction because, to him, the name “Polynices” becomes a counterexample to his thesis that the common names are vacuous and a subject to individual both interpretation and variation. “Polynices” becomes an exception who, due exactly to his name’s meaning, needs to be destroyed so that both Eteocles’ claims can be confirmed, one on the lack of shared meanings and the other on the lack of a shared notion of justice and equality. However, in light of the etymology, we need to emphasize that the etymology of “Eteocles” is “one to whom the truth is glory,” or “one who is famous by his truthfulness.” Of course, this is an impossible etymology in this case, and I believe that Euripides deliberately abstains from putting it into Polynices’ mouth to enable the readers themselves to give thought to it.

In other words, Eteocles is one who carries a name that is a perfect misfit to him or perfectly incompatible with his character. In that sense, he has been placed outside language; his own name is misleading or deceiving, which suggests, or connotes, that language itself is unreliable, and that it serves more falsity than truth. Thereby the process of dediscoursification is already hinted at; our positive expectations vis-à-vis the use of discourse and the process of communication are drastically reduced when we encounter the very vacuous name of “Eteocles.”

The second major aspect is as follows: at the end of his speech, marking the move toward the conflict of armed force, Polynices states that he must flee his home again, like a slave, though he is a son of the same father as his brother (lines 627-8). However, what does he mean by “slave”? We need to return to his dialogue with Jocasta which immediately precedes the negotiating episode. He told Jocasta that those who are evicted from their homeland, and then hosted by a foreign ruler as he was, suffer primarily from a single evil, “ouk echei parrhesian” (line 391): “they do not enjoy the freedom of speech.” They do not use discourse as a free man, according to the values of discourse, but need to remain on guard and measure every single word even when they aim to tell the truth, or be sincere, or help one by a word. Jocasta replies to it as follows: “You refer to the slave who dares not say what he means.” Polynices to this briefly replies as follows: “One needs to bear the ignorance (incompetence) of those who hold power,” and adds that he himself had to endure such hardship for some short-term gain.

In other words, Polynices defines the slave as a person marked by a special attitude toward discourse: a slave is one who needs to control tightly his own discourse, one who subjects his discourse to some criteria that are not rational, and the origins of which lie not in the moral-discursive values. The master’s discourse may be irrational, lacking, flawed, in need of a correction, but, the slave is one who has to bear such a discourse, one who must not try to correct it; in the public dimension, the slave is one who has to treat a very imperfect discourse as perfect one.

This then means that a lie, or untruth, is inherent to the slave’s attitude toward discourse; and this also means that those who intend to use discourse in accordance with its inherent moral values are, qua slaves, discouraged to do so. Hence, the figure of a slave is primarily defined as one of a repeatedly dediscoursified person, one whose will to discourse is, due to his status, blocked or discouraged; and it is exactly for such a reason that the slave has been traditionally marked as something “less than human.” For instance, Aristotle describes them as a “living tool.”

It is quite natural for Polynices to find himself in such a state after his dialogue with Eteocles; he is in a state of one who tried to achieve something by discourse, but his discourse was made meaningless, void, and devalued by one who, most of all, enjoys Tyranny and uses discourse in such a way that a reasonable use of discourse could not reach him. Hence, we may conclude that Eteocles made Polynices again slave-like not as much by refusing to yield to the demand of “one-year rotating rule” as by reviving in Polynices the view that the use of discourse must remain unproductive, that moral or political problems cannot be resolved with a reasonable exchange of arguments, or by a joint assessment of reasons. Before Eteocles, just like before those who held power at Mycenae at the time of Polynices’ exile, Polynices must go silent; he must understand that he is now in a situation in which discourse cannot be of any use, in which he either has to yield to a force or try to neutralize it by a counter-force. He was fully aware that, following dediscoursification he experienced while communicating with his own brother, he had to remain a slave, that is, one who would not be able to express the potential of his discursive human nature even after he takes an otherwise praiseworthy role of the warrior, or the fighter, for justice.

Dražen Pehar has a PhD in politics and international relations from Keele University (SPIRE 2006), holds an assistant professorship (BiH) in the philosophy of law and in politics with sociology. Dražen is a DiploFoundation Associate, and previously served as Chief of Staff to the BiH Federation President (1996) and as a media analyst to the OHR (1999/2000). Dražen is also part of the Institute for Social and Political Research (IDPI), a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.


  1. In my presentation of, and citation from, the drama, I follow Euripides (1913) and (1938); I often modify the latter in accordance with the former. I also draw on an excellent expert comment by Papadopoulou (2008). The reader should also have in mind that Classical Greek drama is generally considered as a rich and inspiring source of social/political advice and theorizing, for which see, for example, Woodruff (2005).
  2. For an accessible introductory overview of the key sophistic doctrines, see Taylor, Lee (2014)
  3. Euripides, of course, draws on Aeschylus, but he also uses the duel between Menelaus and Paris from Iliad 3 as a prototype, for which see Papadopoulou (2008, 43-46).
  4. This contradicts the claim by Papadopoulou (2008, 78) that “the truth is that nowhere in the play do the Chorus openly oppose Eteocles.”

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