Agency, Responsibility, and Blame in Sappho fr. 16

David J. Riesbeck (University of Texas, Austin)

Scholars who have considered Sappho’s presentation of Helen in fragment 16 have tended to read it in one of three ways: as a celebration of Helen’s decision to leave Sparta for Troy (duBois 1984, Winkler 1981), as a condemnation of that decision (Austin 1994), or as defense of Helen as a passive victim of Eros or Aphrodite (Most 1981). Against all of these readings, this paper argues that Sappho’s treatment of Helen is best understood in light of two distinctions. The first is a distinction between responsibility and culpability. On the one hand, an agent is responsible for an action when he or she is both a cause of that action and liable to answer for it. On the other hand, an agent is culpable for an action when he or she may be justifiably blamed for it. The second distinction is between active and passive agency. Though all agency is active in one sense, actions may be more or less passive to the extent that their agents are influenced by factors that are or are conceived to be external. Representations of agency as more passive than active often displace blame from the agent, denying her culpability even as they leave her responsible in the sense defined above. After arguing for the relevance of these distinctions to Greek thought before and after Sappho, this paper applies them to fragment 16 in order to show that Sappho’s characterization of Helen is evaluatively complex in a way that previous interpretations have not adequately articulated. While celebratory readings of the fragment fail to account for crucial aspects of the text, attention to the subtleties of agency, responsibility, and blame allows for a synthesis of condemnatory and apologetic interpretations that is ultimately more satisfying than either.

No Greek text explicitly distinguishes between responsibility and culpability or between active and passive agency per se, and a clear and consistent terminology on these topics did not emerge from philosophical discussions in the 5th and 4th centuries. Nonetheless, these distinctions are helpful for describing the complex evaluations of agency at play in a variety of passages from different periods. Agamemnon’s famous appeal to atē in Iliad 19.85-90 and Aristotle’s discussion of the ‘counter-voluntary’ (to akousion) in Nicomachean Ethics 3.1 provide especially clear examples. For all of their differences, both texts recognize cases in which agents remain responsible for their actions even as they are absolved from blame due to the influence of external forces. Given the relevance of these distinctions to texts so remote in time and genre, their applicability to Sappho’s poem should come as no surprise.

Quite apart from the parallels, however, Sappho’s presentation of Helen seems best explained in terms of these two distinctions. Because her agency is passive in important respects, Helen is responsible but not culpable for her actions. Thus the poem neither celebrates nor condemns nor simply defends Helen, but portrays her sympathetically without commending or trivializing her behavior. This complex evaluative stance also suits Helen’s role in the poem as a parallel for Anaktoria; Sappho’s attitude towards Anaktoria more closely resembles the complex model of the poem’s judgment of Helen than any of the simpler models.

Austin, N. 1994. Helen of Troy and Her Shameless Phantom (Ithaca 1994).

duBois, P. 1984. ‘Sappho and Helen.’ In J. Peradotto and JP Sullivan, eds., Women in the

Ancient World: The Arethusa Papers. Albany.

Most, G.W. 1981. ‘Sappho Fr. 16.6-7L-P.’ Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 31,

No. 1 (1981), pp. 11-17.

Winkler, J.J. 1981. ‘Gardens of Nymphs: Public and Private in Sappho’s Lyrics.’ In H. Foley,

ed., Reflections of Women in Antiquity (New York 1981), pp. 63-89.

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