The Dreadful Work of Justice
Aeschylus's vision of democracy is suffering into order and balance
By Ken Kwek
Aeschylus has described his own masterpiece, The Oresteia, in words poignantly straddling pride and humility, as containing ‘slices from the banquet of Homer’. Paying humble tribute to the father of epic poetry whilst boldly comparing his own work to that of the great pioneer, Aeschylus posits himself not only as the inheritor of a creative tradition, but also, to the modern viewer, along the historical line of an evolving civilization. The Oresteia has been marked as much for its aesthetic grandeur as for its instrumentality in assessing the socio-political development of fifth century Greece- or more particularly, fifth century Athens. In the only complete Greek trilogy that has hitherto been recovered, Aeschylus depicts a concatenation of revenge vendettas beyond the fall of individual warriors- he records the tragedy of a great house and the tectonic shifts of a wider society. To interpret the plays’ series of brutal reprisals as a political allegory is thus to understand The Oresteia as a drama of government; it is a theatre of political evolution - the rite of passage from tribal savagery to ordered democracy.
The trilogy begins more than nine years after Agamemnon has sacrificed his daughter, Iphigeneia, begot with his wife Clytaemnestra, to the goddess Artemis. This he does in order to secure a successful Greek invasion of Troy. In the first installment, Agamemnon, the eponymous king returns to Argos from the sacking of Troy, bringing home with him Cassandra, the daughter of Priam and priestess of Apollo. The pair is slaughtered by the vengeful and formidable Clytaemnestra, who establishes herself and her paramour, Aegisthus, as the new rulers of Argos. In The Libation Bearers, the only son of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, Orestes, obeys the command of Apollo and, as the next avenger, kills the murderers of his father. But his mother’s Furies drive him mad and in the last play, The Eumenides, they pursue him to the shrine of Apollo in Delphi. There the god can cleanse the protagonist from blood-guilt, but cannot release him from the Furies and so refers him to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, for judgment. The goddess in turn establishes the Areopagus, a court of law, to try Orestes for manslaughter in the only extant Greek tragedy to stage a courtroom scene. Orestes is acquitted and restored to his fathers’ lands in Argos, whilst Athena persuades the demonic Furies to become benevolent patrons, or ‘Eumenides’, the ‘Kindly Ones’, of Athens. With this conversion, The Oresteia ends with the blood-stained spirit of man triumphing over the harsher elements of life, and the resulting birth of a new order.
In spite of the happy ending, Aeschylus seems less concerned with the outcome of his trilogy than with its process. The dramatist’s focus is on the heart-wrenching transition, the necessary agon (Greek for ‘contest’) and agony that must be borne in a difficult passage towards individual self-awareness and collective recognition of the human predicament. In the transmutation of society, Aeschylus would agree with Thomas Hardy: ‘if way to Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst’ (In Tenebris II, line 14). So in The Oresteia, we must first face the turmoil and the torment that underlines ananke – the ‘necessity’ of mortal action – and its collision and conference with mightier, though not always comprehensible, agents of judgment: ‘Our lives are based on pain... What we did was destiny,’ (Agamemnon, l.1690-92) proclaims Clytaemnestra, subordinating criminal volition to greater elements of moira – ‘destiny’.
The over-riding tragic sense of The Oresteia is that the ruling house of Atreus is gripped by an inherent curse of the ‘savage ancient spirit of revenge’ (Agamemnon, l.1530) that forces its progeny to commit relentlessly the crimes of its fathers, which on a wider scale threatens the health – even the survival - of its community (represented in part by the Chorus). Each generation seeks internecine revenge against (and for) the other - Clytaemnestra for Iphigeneia (so she claims), Orestes for Agamemnon - though ‘the one who acts must suffer - that is law.’ (Agamemnon, l.1592) The same might be said of the opposite, which completes a vicious cycle of suffering: ‘the one who suffers must act’- ‘to act’ meaning to perform a heinous but almost ritual act of criminal perversity. This seemingly interminable spiral of ‘tribal killings’ is further complicated by its occurrence under the auspices of similarly and simultaneously fractious higher powers. The collision of Apollo and the Furies in The Eumenides might be said to mirror the bloodthirsty imbroglios of mankind; but their clash is more significantly a neo-Homeric presentation of the epic tussle for Dikę, or ‘the force of right’ – ‘justice’ in terms not clearly stipulated according to the complexities of human society. This struggle for and refinement of Dikę is crucial within a contagious legacy of crime and punishment that breeds what E.R Dodds calls in his 1951 book The Greeks and the Irrational a pathology and culture of guilt. It is a culture that consequently cries out for purgation and justice.
Given this, Nietzsche’s concise motto for Aeschylean tragedy – ‘All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both respects’ – is not without provocative sense. But his suggestion of a kind of “ethical duality” supports an amoral philosophy inclined towards the negation of human responsibility. Even so, Nietzsche had to admit the ‘Aeschylean tendency to justice’, even if he did not quite explain what this ‘eternal justice, throned above gods and men’, essentially meant. One interpretation of this ‘eternal justice’ might lie in Simon Goldhill’s explanation of tragedy’s primary concern:
There is in Greek tragedy, and especially in The Oresteia, an integral association - at institutional and linguistic levels - between evocation and practice of law and democracy, and the tragic dilemma of conflicting responsibilities- this, compounded by the urgency of (often irrevocable) decision-making. The cry for justice may at times be misguided or misplaced in the world of The Oresteia, but it is ever-present and ubiquitous. This is especially the case in The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides, wherein the action of the trilogy shifts from its violent assassinations to the dramatically significant and symbolically loaded trial of Orestes:
These expressions suggest that the ideals of ‘justice’ may, in the earlier stages of political evolution, be confused or conflated with the notion of ‘retribution’. Nonetheless, the incessant demand for moral and legal representation confirms the Aeschylean - and Athenian - belief that any will to power for the common citizen is inextricable from and underlined by the existence and function of Justice; Justice not merely as an ideal but as a perennially resounding moral force.
The Furies’ lament, ‘Guilt both ways, and who can call it justice?’ (The Eumenides, l.155) offers a frustrated counter-perspective to Nietzsche’s liberal ‘equally justified in both respects’ view, but it also acts as one of Aeschylus’ foils to suggest the very transcendent nature of Justice over opposing petitions for (personal) vindication. Looking back on the first of the trilogy, we are reminded that
The verb ‘steer’ implies that Justice possesses a kind of guiding energy, and that Orestes’ acquittal is not so much a ruling in favour of the hero as it is a recognition of the ‘complexity of responsibility, choice, causation and reasoning’. It is a symbolic assertion that the primitive but exuberantly destructive vigour of the tribal vendetta has been distilled into a moderate judiciary that exercises its power prudently over a society that has been, in every sense of the word, tried.
Accordingly, Aeschylus’s drama may finally be seen in terms of a quest for sôphrosunę – the Greek word meaning ‘prudence’ which can be used to describe political moderation. His vision of democracy is characterized by a body politic which has to suffer into social order and balance, with the recognition of mortal limits arriving only after humanity has been stretched to the most polemical and terrifying extremes. Apollo’s aggressive command for the Furies to ‘Go where heads are severed, eyes gouged out, / Where Justice and bloody slaughter are the same’ (The Eumenides, l.183-4) is charged with brutality, and his equation of ‘Justice’ to ‘bloody slaughter’, uncompromisingly radical. But he is in fact, according to Robert Fagles and W.B Stanford in their 1979 book The Serpent and the Eagle, elucidating the paradox that served as Aeschylus’ greatest inspiration – the notion that a bond might exist ‘between pathos and mathos, suffering and its significance.’, that the bond is life itself. Zeus, so the old men of Argos insist, ‘lays it down as law / that we must suffer, suffer into truth’ (Agamemnon, l.178-9). Suffering is the grim progenitor of justice, the necessary blood that runs through the evolution of human society and the development of civilized democracy. With the promise of Justice, Aeschylus’ art is ultimately bolstered by an optimism for the future of Athenian civilization, reflected in the twice-repeated promise that even as we ‘cry, cry for death’, the anguish written in that cry and death will inevitably ensure that ‘good [will] win out in glory in the end.’ (Agamemnon, l.125, 139, 160) For the first of Greece’s great tragedians, suffering is not only the hallmark of the human condition, but also the noble price of political victory.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 4 Jul 2005