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August 31, 2004

Saving Your Brother Instead of Your Husband-- Herodotus and Confucius

You may remember the old Confucian question about what a man should do if he is
an a boat with his wife and mother and the boat tips over. Who should he save?
The Confucian answer is, "his mother", because he can always get another wife....

... The idea that wives are fungible may sound callous, but it is quite logical. If
you love both equally, how else are you to decide but on practicalities? Or, you
might be like Buridan's Ass, who was placed equidistant between two mangers and
starved to death because he couldn't decide which hay to eat.

Or, you might think that the Confucians dislike women. That is illogical right
from the start, since mothers are just as female-- more, I suppose-- as wives

I've recently found that Herodotus makes very good bedtime reading, though, with
his calm, pleasant manner and his five-minute stories, and last night I found
one which shows that the logic of the Confucian story is not just Confucian.

it is. ("Dareios" is a pretentious way to translate "Darius"-- I say,
pretentious, because if you really want to keep the Greek pronunciation, why are
you using Roman letters, and if you're so concerned about original
pronunciation, why are you saying it in Herodotus's Greek transliteration
instead of in the original Persian?)

both Intaphrenes himself and his sons and all his kinsmen, being much
disposed to believe that he was plotting insurrection against him with
the help of his relations; and having seized them he put them in bonds
as for execution. Then the wife of Intaphrenes, coming constantly to
the doors of the king's court, wept and bewailed herself; and by doing
this continually after the same manner she moved Dareios to pity her.
Accordingly he sent a messenger and said to her: "Woman, king Dareios
grants to thee to save from death one of thy kinsmen who are lying in
bonds, whomsoever thou desirest of them all." She then, having
considered with herself, answered thus: "If in truth the king grants
me the life of one, I choose of them all my brother." Dareios being
informed of this, and marvelling at her speech, sent and addressed her
thus: "Woman, the king asks thee what was in thy mind, that thou didst
leave thy husband and thy children to die, and didst choose thy
brother to survive, seeing that he is surely less near to thee in
blood than thy children, and less dear to thee than thy husband." She
made answer: "O king, I might, if heaven willed, have another husband
and other children, if I should lose these; but another brother I
could by no means have, seeing that my father and my mother are no
longer alive. This was in my mind when I said those words." To Dareios
then it seemed that the woman had spoken well, and he let go not only
him for whose life she asked, but also the eldest of her sons because
he was pleased with her: but all the others he slew.

This sees the Confucians and raises them one. Not only is a brother harder to
replace than a husband, it is harder to replace than a son.

It is interesting that evolutionary psychology would arrive at the same
conclusion as Mrs. Intaphernes (and as the Confucians). Genetically, her brother
and her son are about equally valuable, sharing half her genes, while her
husband shares zero. If the son was young enough to have appreciable
probability of dying before reproductive age, he counts for less genetically; if
her brother were too old to have many more children, he would count for less.
Darius gets this half-right--- he wrongly thinks the children are nearer in
blood to the woman than her brother is, but he rightly notes that the husband,
while dearer, is not a blood relative.

Posted by erasmuse at August 31, 2004 09:06 AM

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Tracked on March 11, 2005 09:18 AM


I'm glad to see you've gotten around to enjoying Herodotus, one of my favorite writers. He's so wonderfully calm about all the amazing strangeness of the world. Kind of like Marco Polo, another often underestimated author.

About that passage, Sophocles has Antigone (in the play of that name) make virtually the same argument when asked why risked all to bury her brother. This is often seen as proof that Sophocles too was an avid Herodotus reader.

The wife-mother tension is a bit different. It is connected to lots of things, but primarily to the degree to which the family is seen as a continuing patrilineal corporation (mother is tops, "momma's boy" is praise) or else as a temporary association (i.e. limited to a human lifetime) for raising children (wife is tops, "momma's boy" is an insult). There are all kinds of mid-stations on this (cognatic families, stem families, etc.).

Posted by: Chris Atwood at August 31, 2004 04:27 PM

A little later in Herodotus is another save-mother story. When Babylon rebelled against the Persians, part of the plan was that each Babylonian man killed all the women in his household, to save food for the siege, except for his mother and one other woman of his choice "to bake his bread".

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen at September 2, 2004 10:39 AM

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