Bibliotherapy

Aeschylus-From Blood Revenge Of Family Law To Constitutionals State As Universal Arbiter Of Justice

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Today’s sharings from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Werner Jaeger’s ‘Paideia’, volume 1, from page 258 to 260. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1946.

Aeschylus did not believe that destiny was simply a force which punishes the guilty man to make an example for others. So much is clear from the language of the macabre images in which he depicts the workings of Atë (In Greek mythology, Atë, Até or Aite (/ˈeɪtiː/; Ancient Greek: Ἄτη) was the goddess of mischief, delusion, ruin, and blind folly, rash action and reckless impulse who led men down the path of ruin. She also led both gods and men to rash and inconsiderate actions and to suffering. Atë also refers to an action performed by a hero that leads to their death or downfall*), for no poet before him had so vividly realized and expounded its daemonic nature. By Aeschylus’ description, even the stronger believer in the moral power of knowledge is driven to see that Atë always remains Atë, whether (as Homer says) its foot moves over the heads of men, or (in Heraclite’s phrase) man’s own character is his daemon.

What we call character is not an essential element in Aeschylian tragedy. His whole conception of fate is summed up in the tension between two ideal-his faith in the perfect and uninterrupted justice of God’s government of the world, and his horrified realization of the daemonic cruelty and perfidiousness of Atë, which leads man to violate the world-order and inevitably to be punished for his violation. Solon, starting with the belief that injustice was social pleonexia (Pleonexia, sometimes called pleonexy, originating from the Greek πλεονεξία, is a philosophical concept which roughly corresponds to greed, covetousness, or avarice, and is strictly defined as “the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others”, suggesting what Ritenbaugh describes as “ruthless self-seeking and an arrogant assumption that others and things exist for one’s own benefit.*), injurious aggrandizement, endeavored to discover whether injustice was punished; and determined that it always was. Aeschylus starting with the tragically moving experience of the power of fortune in human life, and searching for sufficient ground for its actions, was always led back to a faith in the ultimate justice of heaven. We must not overlook this difference of emphasis in the general agreement of Aeschylus’ and Solon’ view, if we are to understand why the same doctrine in one is so peaceful and in the other so dramatic and moving.

The tension of Aeschylus’ thought appears more clearly in the other tragedies than in the ‘The Persians’, which is a fairly simple and straightforward development of the idea that God always punishes Hubris in man. It was clearest of all in the great trilogy, as far as can be judged from the extant fragments; although we can see little of it in the earliest surviving tragedy, ‘The Suppliants’, since it is the first play in a trilogy of which the rest is lost. It is most easily traced in the ‘Oresteia’, which survives entire, and next to it in the Labdacid (In Greek mythology, Labdacus /ˈlæbdəkəs/ (Ancient Greek: Λάβδακος, Lábdakos) was the only son of Polydorus and a king of Thebes. Labdacus was a grandson of Thebes’ founder, Cadmus. His mother was Nycteïs, daughter of Nycteus.*) trilogy, since we fortunately possess its last play, ‘Seven against Thebes.’

In the ‘Oresteia’ not only Aeschylus’ structural art and his genius for imaginative language, but the tension of his religious and moral thought is at its highest point: it is almost incredible that he completed this gigantic work, the most powerful drama in the entire literature of the world, in his grey old age soon before his death. In the first place, we must observe that it is impossible to separate ‘Agamemnon’ from the two tragedies which follows it. Strictly speaking, it is barbarous to treat it as an independent play-to say nothing of the ‘Eumenides’, which cannot be understood except as a colossal final to the whole trilogy. ‘Agamemnon’ is no more an independent work than ‘The Suppliants’:  It leads straight on to the second tragedy. For the ‘Oresteia’ is not simply a dramatic account of the curse of guilt which clings to the family of the Atridae ( In Greek mythology, Atreus (/ˈeɪtriəs/ AY-tri-əs, /ˈeɪtruːs/ AY-trooss;[1] from ἀ-, “no” and τρέω, “tremble”, “fearless”, Greek: Ἀτρεύς*) was a king of Mycenae in the Peloponnese, the son of Pelops and Hippodamia, and the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus. Collectively, his descendants are known as Atreidai or Atreidae.): that would have made a trilogy of coordinated but semi-independent tragedies of guilt, one for each generation, which Agamemnon is the center and Orestes as the last play.

No, Agamemnon states the conditions of the unique antinomy which occupies the central position, the involuntary but inevitable guilt of Orestes, acquired when he obeys Apollo’s command to kill his mother in revenge for his father. And the whole of the final tragedy shows how this knot, which no human with could loosen, is cut by a divine miracle of grace-a miracle which brings about both the acquittal of the guilty Orestes and the abolition of the custom of revenge for blood (a horrible relic of the old supremacy of the family in law and custom) and sets up in its place the new constitutional state as universal arbiter of justice. Thus, in the representative poetry of a new democracy the city-state appears as the guarantor of the freedom and the human dignity and security of the individual.

The guilt of Orestes is not founded on his character. Aeschylus does not consider him to be a man whose nature destines him to commit matricide. He is merely the unfortunate son who is bound to avenge his father: at the moment when he enters manhood, he is faced by the dreadful deed which will destroy him before he even tastes life, and to which the god of Delphi constrains him again and again whenever he shrinks from the fixed end. He bears the burden of an immutable fate. None of Aeschylus’ tragedies exposes the problem on which his poetry and thought were centered more clearly than the ‘Oresteia’.

That problem is the conflict between the divine powers which, each in its own way, strive to uphold justice. The living man Orestes is only the point at which, with destructive impetus, they collide; and even in the final absolution is far less important than the general reconciliation between the old and new gods of justice, and the festal hymns which consecrate the founding of the new state-justice and the conversion of the Furies into Kindly Spirits.

Orestes at trial with Apollo, Athena, and the Erinyes The Erinyes of Clytaemnestra pursue Orestes. Beside Athena, who presides the court, sits Apollo. Engraving from G. Schwab’s Die schönsten Sagen, 1912
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