The book: The Philosophical Stage (Princeton University Press) introduces a new way to view Greek literature, placing drama at the heart of intellectual history. While scholars have typically viewed philosophy and literature as the primary mode of classical Greek thought, Billings points out that unlike drama, neither was a defined form in the fifth century B.C. Instead, he analyzes tragedy and comedy to better interpret the birth of Greek philosophy — resulting in a novel approach to classical Greek study and our understanding of the early modern world.
The author: Joshua Billings is a professor of classics at Princeton University. He is the author of Genealogy of the Tragic: Greek Tragedy and German Philosophy, which won the 2015 Society for Classical Studies Charles J. Goodwin Award of Merit. His research focuses on ancient Greek literature and philosophy and modern intellectual history, with a particular concentration on tragedy. Billings serves as editor-in-chief of TAPA, the research journal of the Society for Classical Studies, and teaches with the Prison Teaching Initiative. He is the recipient of advanced degrees from Harvard University and the University of Oxford.
“Wise is Sophocles, wiser Euripides, of all men Socrates is wisest” (σοφὸς Σοφοκλῆς, σοφώτερος δ’ Εὐριπίδης, ἀνδρῶν δὲ πάντων Σωκράτης σοφώτατος). According to one report, this is the reply of the Delphic oracle to a question concerning the wisdom of Socrates. Though almost certainly apocryphal, the oracle’s identification of the three men as distinguished—and competing—in wisdom is not wholly implausible. As the leading tragedians of the time, Sophocles and Euripides were among the most prominent public intellectual figures in Athens, celebrated throughout the Greek-speaking world for their dramas. Socrates, though probably not yet so widely known, must have had a significant reputation for such an oracular consultation to be undertaken. The response indicates that poets and philosophers could be thought to possess the same quality of wisdom (sophia). This may not be intuitive today: poetic skill appears different in kind from philosophical intelligence, and a comparison of the two would seem to lack any criterion for judgment.
Poetic and philosophical thinkers were felt to be much closer in the fifth century BCE. The strong differentiation of poetry from philosophy with which we are familiar largely postdates the notional date of the oracle (around 420), and has little purchase for understanding this period. The late fifth century in Athens witnessed a productive and often competitive interaction of poetic and philosophical thinking and writing, which would have made a comparison of Socrates and the tragedians possible and even natural. All three figures were looked to as intellectual authorities, able to help Athenians fulfill the Delphic injunction to know themselves. The oracular response, though probably not historical fact, speaks to the historical situation of the late fifth century.
This book is an attempt to reanimate the intimate and multiform relation of philosophical and poetic thought that obtained before philosophy defined itself in contradistinction to other discourses. It suggests that drama can be recognized as significantly philosophical, and read alongside the canonical texts of early Greek philosophical writing. Drama’s awareness of developments in philosophical thought has already been the subject of much research. A selection of the evidence is collected in the appendix, “Philosophy and Philosophers in Greek Comedy and Tragedy,” to the recent edition of Early Greek Philosophy by André Laks and Glenn Most, which gathers allusions and references in Attic drama, organizing them by philosophical topic and philosopher. The collection (and substantial previous research it draws on) demonstrates that drama frequently integrates developments in philosophical thought, and that this integration is significant and widespread. My contention here is stronger: that dramatic texts are themselves developments in philosophical thought, and should be recognized as part of the canon of early Greek philosophical writing. By attending to the thinking of drama, we recover important dimensions of fifth-century intellectual culture, and bring into view a wider, more dynamic, and more vibrant philosophical field.
The idea that Greek drama is importantly philosophical is famously in evidence in Aristophanes’ Frogs, in which Euripides touts himself for introducing Athens to new ways of thinking. Plato’s Symposium suggests a different, but just as intimate relation between drama and philosophy, portraying in the dialogue’s final pages Socrates deep in conversation with Agathon and Aristophanes, tragedian and comedian, respectively. The ancient scholarly tradition frequently emphasizes Euripides’ reputation as the “philosopher of the stage,” and the widely circulated Life of Euripides connects him biographically to Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Prodicus, and Socrates. There is much less ancient discussion of the philosophical interests of Aeschylus, whose death in 458 puts him well before the heyday of philosophy in Athens, or of Sophocles, who, though he lived until 406, would have been well into adulthood by the time that Anaxagoras famously brought philosophy to Athens (probably around 455). Modern scholars have recognized ways that both dramatists are in dialogue with contemporary philosophical thought—and this study extends these arguments—but the conventional story of fifth-century thought sees Euripides’ philosophical interests as distinctive within tragic tradition.
Reprinted from The Philosophical Stage, by Joshua Billings. Copyright © 2021 Princeton University Press.
“Lucid and persuasive. Billings returns drama to its rightful place at the center of Athenian intellectual life and early Greek philosophy. The Philosophical Stage stands to be an influential book.” — Victoria Wohl, author of Euripides and the Politics of Form
“Billings opens the way to future research by providing new conceptual tools for clarifying the relationship between ancient classical drama and philosophy. The Philosophical Stage is a most important book.” — André Laks, author of The Concept of Presocratic Philosophy: Its Origin, Development, and Significance