The handmaid’s tale

In the last number of posts we have been considering the first two of Aristotle’s three aspects of shame and fear: pain, disturbance, and bad things.  Now we move on to the third.

In an earlier post we looked into Socrates’ argument with the orator Gorgias, in which Socrates used two terms to define the shameful: pain (lúpē) and bad (kakōn, pl. kaká).  (Grg. 475a)  We also raised some questions about how translators tend to make Plato and Aristotle sound as though they are talking about fixed things more than they already are.

It would be foolhardy to try to rewrite Plato without using nouns. But we can see what’s going on more clearly in Euripides’ Alcestis. In a footnote to his translation of the play, Charles Beye explains that kaká is the neuter plural for

the commonest adjective for badness, kakos, which generally means ‘cowardly’ in the Homeric epics and tends by the time of tragedy to mean simply ‘bad.’  In the neuter plural, as it appears here, it means ‘bad things.’  Translations such as ‘calamities,’ ‘misfortunes,’ ‘disasters,’ and the like ignore the clinical, objective non-emotive quality of the word.  Even ‘evil’ is rather strong.” (Beye 70)

Beye is explaining the words of the handmaid in the house of Admetus, the husband of Alcestis.   Death was coming for Admetus, but his friend Apollo made a deal with Death to take someone else in Admetus’ place.  When Admetus couldn’t convince either of his parents to die in his place, he let his wife Alcestis die instead.  Euripedes uses the dramatic device of having a maid come out from Alcestis’ bedroom to report how she died.

The handmaid closes her description of Alcestis’ preparations for death with the words:

Ah, these are evils [kaká] now in Admetus’ house. And he’d be gone from them, if he’d died.  Death, he’s escaped to have instead a pain [álgos] which someday—he’ll not forget.  Beye, lines 196-8.

Aldington translates kaká as “misery” here, and Lattimore as “what [they] are losing.”  (Oates and Neill 247; Grene and Lattimore 16)

The kaká to which the handmaid is referring are the actions of Alcestis, her children, and her servants. As she is getting ready for Death to come, Alcestis prays for her children and cries as she says farewell to the bed where she gave up her virginity and now will give up her life.  Her children cling to Alcestis as she picks them up and kisses them.  Her slaves are crying as she speaks to each of them individually.  Beye can say that kaká is a “non-emotive” term, but the handmaid’s report (lines 152-198) is quite a tearjerker.

My main point here is that the kaká of which the handmaid speaks are all actions, reactions, and feelings.  Aristotle may use the neuter noun kakōn (pl. kaká), which his translators may put as “evil” or “bad things.” Aristotle may reify changes or actions (i.e., turn them into things) and use reifications like “phenomena bearing evil” (phainómena phérein kakōn) and “evil due to wickedness” (kakōn apo kakías).  He may enumerate kaká with abstractions like disgrace, poverty, sickness, friendlessness.  He may even present shameful actions in terms of violations of reifications called habits or virtues, but there is no escaping that his list of bad things that disgrace us and the ones we care for all come down to how we act:

  • cowardly,
  • wantonly,
  • greedily,
  • meanly,
  • weakly,
  • boastfully,
  • rottenly (ēthos kakōn),
  • obsequiously.

Even the situations of which, he says, we should feel ashamed involve actions by others and our reactions:

  • not getting or having one’s fair share, e.g., of education,
  • being dishonored or scolded,
  • submitting like a coward to dishonor.

In fact, his list of bad things one becomes ashamed of (i.e., “evils due to wickedness” kakōn apo kakías) includes only actions:

  • throwing away one’s shield,
  • running away from battle,
  • not paying what’s due,
  • sexual intercourse with wrong people or at wrong time or in wrong place,
  • making money by wrong means (petty, disgraceful, off the poor or the dead),
  • not helping when one could or not enough,
  • borrowing from those less fortunate,
  • flattery,
  • being a wimp before the old, the ill, the weak, or one’s betters.

We are ashamed not just of such conduct, but also of signs or talk of such conduct. (R. ii.6)   It is interesting that Aristotle’s examples of shameful actions all seem to involve failure to do what one should do.

Returning to Alcestis and her maid, we can see that Admetus does not do what he should do, not only in letting his wife die for him, but in whining about how bad he has it compared to Alcestis.   According to Beye, some of Admetus’s speeches evoke derisive laughter from modern audiences.  In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir of the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne, she describes how she re-read Alcestis because she remembered that it was particularly “good on the passage between life and death.”  Even more she was impressed with how coldly Alcestis behaved when Hercules brought her back from the realm of Death once he found out what a jerk her husband was.  Didion didn’t feel as though she had to explain why. (151)


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