When the Giver Gains More, While the Recipient Loses by Accepting, Who Is the Altruistic One?

When, in the acting of giving, the giver gains, while the recipient loses, is the giver the altruistic one?

I recently read Alcestis by Euripides (and yes, this post will have some spoilers). The premise is that Admetus is fated to die in the near future, but due to help from the god Apollo, he can live a long life if a close family member dies his place. His father refuses to die so that he can live, his mother also refuses to die for him, Admetus doesn’t want his own young children to die in his place, so that leaves just one close family member: his wife, Alcestis. She loves him so much that she agrees to die instead of him.

In the play, everyone (except Admetus’ father) says that Alcestis is the most amazing woman ever and that Admetus was truly fortunate to have such an awesome wife, and that because she is willing to sacrifice her life for him, she will be famous forever. And it’s not just this play, it was general Greek opinion that this made Alcestis a great woman (check out this mention in Plato’s “Symposium”).

The Ancient Greeks had this idea that dying (relatively) young on the behalf of someone or something else, and thus attaining everlasting fame, was the best kind of life to have. Take the example of Achilles, who, when given a choice between having a long and boring life which would be forgotten, and a short life which would bring him fame and glory, he chose the latter. The leaders of Ancient Greece initiated a lot of wars, and in order to go to war, they needed to persuade young men to risk their lives. Generally, young men are reluctant to die, so to keep up all of this warfare, the leaders needed to pound the idea that on the behalf of one’s clan or (later) city-state in battle was much better than living to old age. A famous example of this is Pericles’ funeral oration speaking about soldiers who died in the early part of the Peloponnesian War.

Even though Alcestis was not a warrior who died in battle, it’s clear that the concept of martyrdom for fame and glory bleeds over to her.

But is dying for love and/or glory is so great, and his beloved wife is going to the underworld, then why would Admetus want to remain alive? That is the crux of the story.

There is a scene in the play where Admetus tells his father that it’s his fault that Alcestis died; he should have died instead of her. His father points out that, actually, Admetus himself could have just agreed to die, as was originally fated, if he had wanted Alcestis to stay alive so much. If he (the father) is to blame for Alcestis’ death, then Admetus is just as guilty. And, during the course of the play, Admetus figures out that Alcestis got the better end of the bargain. She gets the glory, while he gets to be known as a coward and deprived of his one true love for the rest of his life (and he also swears a vow never to re-marry, which is very unusual for an Ancient Greek widower who is as young as Admetus). There is a point in the play where Admetus seems to want to die himself because Alcestis is gone which is *ahem* ironic, considering why Alcestis died in the first place.

But this comes around to another question. If Alcestis’ choice really did condemn Admetus to a sad, lonely life with a bad reputation, then was the ‘gift’ she gave him really that great? And if not, is her glory really so glorious? The play does not take the line of thinking this far, but it’s an obvious next step. In a way, Alcestis made a grab for the glory, while leaving Admetus the responsibility of raising their young children.

There are many human cultures where givers gain prestige (i.e. social power) by giving, and the recipients of gifts may even lose social status by accepting. This often has the effect of stimulating a gift economy (people are always giving things to others in their community to maintain their social standing, thus keeping resources in circulation). Giving up one’s life to save another is such an extreme gift that it feels like it breaks this logic in some way which I cannot quite pin down.

This is something I sometimes consider when I am involved in a gift exchange (though I’ve never been in a gift exchange which involves life and death like the myth of Alcestis). It’s sometimes clear to me that the high the giver gets by the act of giving is of greater value than whatever the gift means to the receiver. Since it’s sometimes difficult for me to gauge how much a gift may benefit a recipient, I try to give them leeway to either decline the gift or at least give them something they could easily dispose of without my knowledge (books, for example, are easy to give away). And sometimes when I’m on the other end, I accept not so much because I want the gift in question, but because I want to give the giver that emotional high. In these situations, I think of myself as being the altruistic one.

2 thoughts on “When the Giver Gains More, While the Recipient Loses by Accepting, Who Is the Altruistic One?

    • No, I haven’t read that book. Do you recommend it? I know there is also an F/F novel in which Alcestis falls in love with Persephone – I haven’t read that one either.

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