One prevailing argument about The Bacchae as with many of his other works is whether Euripides propounds a revolutionary or a reactionary message about society. This outlook, however, is skirting an essential element of The Bacchae’s theme. The moral-social values affirmed in Euripedes’ play are political only so far as philosophy itself is political. Euripides investigates the dichotomy between Pentheus and Dionysus. This conflict is used as a medium for commentary on the existing social order and the individual’s relationship to society in terms of a social construct and personal illusion. The antipodal relationship of these concepts defines a singular philosophical outlook that Euripides proposes.
The Bacchae formulates equilibrium between dichotomized elements of humanity. Such a relationship is often looked upon as a natural equilibrium, cited as an internal struggle or the “pendulum” of human philosophical existence. Euripides extends this idea to social commentary. His most powerful tool in this assertion is an illusion and social construct. Law, order, and the status quo are the all-encompassing elements of existence. Thus, the obvious repression of women is more important than their human consideration, the acetic sober of “civil” life takes precedence over emotional demands, and, overall, the needs of an arbitrary construct of a repressive society are more important than the emotional needs of the members of that society. This is most plainly presented through the character of Pentheus. He has control over society, but his subjects are discontent.
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Tiresias warns Pentheus of the folly of ruling with logic, rhetoric, and force alone and expresses his discontent with Pentheus’ decisions, especially his suggestion of praying to the gods to spare Thebes from the blasphemy of Pentheus. In addition, the guard sent to arrest Dionysus states that he has no desire to arrest the man as ordered, but does so only under orders from the king (ll 442). Pentheus seems most attuned to this construct as he has almost no sympathetic or positive emotion, even toward family and certainly not toward his subjects. Cadmus is similarly deceived as seen through his rationalization to Pentheus for taking part in the Bacchic rituals.
Tiresias and Cadmus both follow the rites of Dionysus, not from genuine respect or belief in the god, but because of tradition. Extensive reference to “the old way” and the path of “our forefathers” is made in relation to the worship of Dionysus. . . . no argument of yours/ shall ever make me spar with gods (ll 324-5).” “We stay close to the hallowed tenets of our fathers:/ as old as time (ll 201-2).” Various comments throughout the play, such as Tiresias’ accusation that many laugh at his celebration of Dionysian ritual, are indicative that the acetic social construct is widely accepted. Those who are not subject to this facade, however, still yield to another illusion.