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. Continue reading