Philosophy Week 9: Aeschylus – Agamemnon, Choephoroe and Eumenides
Aeschylus – Agamemnon, Choephoroe and Eumenides
As with many other classics, the works of Aeschylus are easily available, affordable and provide an excellent understanding of the development of morality and law.1 The Trilogy plays are frequently grouped as the Oresteia.2 They are tragic plays full of revenge, curses, love and even corrupted sacrifice.3 Orestes is the son of Agamemnon, who features throughout Homer’s work.4 Orestes forms the leading role as the protagonist in two of the plays. The stories capture the death of Agamemnon and the revenge against a mother by the son Orestes in avenging his father. The plot is thickened with the complicity and help of Electra, his sister.
Other playwrights, including Sophocles, have touched on the subject of Tyrannicide and have created other stories around the same characters.5 Equally, Euripides has several surviving plays on these characters as well.6 Unfortunately, only a few of these tragedies remain, with the majority lost to time. It is known that Aeschylus one at least twelve prizes for his plays, and yet only seven of a total of more than ninety of these works survive. These plays were developed and used as religious worship during the time of the Athenians after the defeat of the Persians and before the Peloponnesian War.
Aeschylus was a fighter and was involved in the war at Marathon in 490 BCE. His appetite has a monument to this noting:
This memorial stone covers Aeschylus the Athenian,
Euphorion’s son, who died in wheat bearing Gela.
His famed valour the precinct of Marathon could tell
in the long-haired Mede, who knows it well.
The playwright died and was interred in Gela increase in 456 BCE.
Understanding the Trilogy
The plays can be read either from the dramatic perspective or as a deeper form of literature. Each of these has been performed constantly for over 2,000 years. The various place teaches us something about the law. Through these dramatic appearances, the characters introduce both the concept of law and lawbreaking. Further, the legend of the house of Atreus is introduced to provide a background scenario that Aeschylus dramatises.
While each of these stories has been pulled together from a variety of other prior stories, including Homer, there exist several common themes both in the story before the story that we see in the house of Atreus and with other readings. The genealogy of the house of Atreus begins with Tantalus, a descendant of Zeus. Pelops is the son of Tantalus. In a rather twisted turn of fate, Tantalus kills his son Pelops and serves him to the gods and Olympus in a banquet designed to test whether the gods are all-knowing. This name references the word “tantalise” and acts as its root.7
As a punishment, Tantalus was confined in Hades up to his neck in water without the ability to bend and drink. In addition, a fruit tree bearing ripe fruit was positioned so that it hung just out of the reach of his mouth, but he could still smell and be tantalised by the drink and water that he could never have. Finally, Pelops was brought back to life by the gods who discovered the duplicity. The sons of Pelops included Atreus and Thyestes. Thyestes had an adulterous affair with Atreus’ wife. As a consequence, the two brothers quarrelled. Again, we have family members ending up in cannibalism.
Agamemnon and Menelaus were each the sons of Atreus. Menelaus married Helen of Troy. At this stage, this was not her name. Agamemnon was required to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to bring about the winds needed to take the fleet to Troy. When the first play begins, Agamemnon has returned, unaware of his wife’s infidelity. The wife still blames her husband for the daughter’s death kills Agamemnon in the story.
In the Choephoroe, we see the gods working at different objectives yet again. Apollo urges Orestes to revenge on his father and does this with the help of his sister Electra. These two siblings murder their mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. The Furies then pursue Orestes for matricide. In Eumenides, the story continues with the escape of Orestes and the continuing curse going back to the beginning of the family that has turned family members against one another since the time of Atreus. Orestes seeks refuge from the Furies and purification of his sin in coming to Athens.8
In seeking answers, where different gods are pitted against each other with the beginning of a legal debate. The Furies argue for the death of Orestes for the crime that they say he committed. Apollo argues that Orestes was acting under his instructions. To answer this difficult question, Athena implements the first court. With the tie and indecision, Athena cast the deciding vote favouring Orestes, freeing him and leaving the Furies to seek to avenge themselves at will upon Athens.9
Athena pacifies the Furies by renaming them and placing them in the role of defenders of Athens, where they will be honoured and worshipped.
Descendants of Atreus And an Ongoing Curse
The story places each of the descendants of Atreus on the horn of a dilemma. No matter what they choose, something is leading to doom. The characters even recognise this. Clytemnestra herself understands that the continuous killing is a curse:
Now is thy judgement just, when thou dost cry
To that cursed spirit, that thrust fatted doom,
A Lust incarnate, death that cannot die,
That makes all Tantalids murderers in the womb,
I first for fresh blood either the old be dry…
Moreover, the chorus agrees with Clytemnestra:
This bloodied illusion, like an oncoming sea,
That may not hold until it makes the flood,
Rolls its rough waves, with kindred murder red,
Tell Justice leave the rank corruption bred,
Of that foul, cannibal roast of childish flesh.
The curse constantly manifests itself in cycles of murders that only escalate.10 The same type of story can be seen in Exodus (21:23-25), and the same sort of justice applies:
Thou shalt give life for life,
Eye for eye, try, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
We see throughout the play the same form of the law of vengeance. We see this also in the response of the Furies:
The mother-blood whose murderous hands have shed
Is the revocably fled!
The swallowing earth shall yield it nevermore,
Thy life for hers; thou shalt fill me a cup,
Drawn from those veins of thine…
There mother’s son shall mother’s agony
Expiate, throe for throe.
In this story, we see an early tribal world of revenge.11 But, we also see the development of an early system of justice. While at the time of Aeschylus, the court system in Athens was well-developed, it is necessary to think back to the Trojan War. At this time, the argument is presented that courts had only just been developed, and this myth documents the process argued behind that development.
There are difficult problems associated with retribution. However, the solution to the persistent problem that results from an eye for an eye comes with allowing the law to punish the guilty individuals. Moreover, the law is structured to do not allow guilt to be transmitted to those who execute the law. At the time of the plays, there is no blame on any of the characters for not using the legal process because it did not exist yet. At this point, the argument persists along the lines of revenge being the only methodology for seeking justice. Today, we can appeal to legal processes rather than trusting revenge. A civil authority provides a methodology to solve many of the ongoing conflicts between people without resorting to violence.12
Too Difficult for Even a God?
We see in this play that Athena finds the case too difficult even for herself to solve.
If any man think he can judge herein,
‘Tis much too weighty; whether it were it lawful
That I try murder, wrecked in bitter wrath…
Whether they [the Furies] stay or I bid them hence
I shall find trouble and perplexity.
Athena decides it’s beyond even her and places the decision in the hands of the court that she herself establishes.13
But, since… The business comes this way,
I will appoint a court for murder sworn
And make it a perpetual ordinance.
The Furies plead a case for the prosecution, and Apollo and Orestes speak for the defence. In this ongoing series of arguments, the vote of the court is in a tie, with Athena casting and deciding vote and allowing Orestes to go free.
It does not matter that the story and myth are implausible in many ways. What does matter is that those individuals within the Athenian society have decided to be bound to shared mythology and meme. In allowing themselves to believe in the power of the court, the individuals within the Athenian system have provided themselves with the justice of a court that is impartial and does not distribute revenge from generation to generation. Rather, problems are sorted, and society can build and continue without everyone constantly being at everyone’s throats.14
Was there Justice to Orestes?
The primary question is to act whether Orestes acted justly. The last two plays in the Trilogy evolve around this concept. At the time, the form of law was one based on kin rights and revenge. Through this, individuals would act to seek justice for themselves. The birth of a modern concept of justice took a long time to grow but started with the move away from revenge and into societal rules. In analysing this, we need to look at the actions of the protagonist and the general conduct of each of the characters and remember the views of the time and how the characters themselves justify their actions.
In killing his mother, did Orestes act through justice? It is necessary to remember that there were no criminal justice systems or police, and in this, to ask whether avenging his father was a just act. Orestes obeyed the command of Apollo. Further, Aegisthus was also killed, and the question of justice needs to be asked separately for each of these instances. Finally, Clytemnestra killed her husband, Agamemnon. This question is touched upon within Homer’s work of the Odyssey, and in this, Odysseus is forewarned to be careful about Penelope because of the actions that occurred when Agamemnon returned to find his wife in an adulterous affair.
Another question that comes up is concerning the actions of Apollo. Can a God, as a being who is immortal and outside of the cares of humanity, act in a manner that is just or honourable, or must this be outside of the realm of human understanding? Finally, Athena interacts and casts a vote for Orestes. In this, it becomes important to question the nature of the court that has been formed and the results if a God needs to interact.
There are a series of difficult questions that need to be answered and likely cannot be in many cases. First, as we saw from the earlier section on Plato and justice, even defining the meaning of justice is likely to be in dispute. Next, the role of the Furies in first acting and then making the deal must be considered. Are they acting justly, or are they merely self-centred and self-interested in taking the deal with Athena. All of this brings us back to the question of what is justice. If the word lawful was replaced in each of the questions above, the answer could differ. For instance, in killing his mother, did Orestes act lawfully?
There was no civil law covering this scenario. Consequently, the creation of new laws and the decisions on justice must be made outside of the question of whether a law exists or not. There are multiple standards of lawfulness. Sometimes, it is more just to disobey the law, as noted. In the sections on Socrates, we see that it is possible to make a decision that is just but equally unlawful. When Orestes would have been taking these actions, the only law was the Lex talionis. This was a legal prescription over retribution and avenging other people such as family members.15
This proscription cannot be seen as a law in the modern sense. While the Old Testament includes the laws given by God to Moses with a variety of other ordinances, these differ from the rules of Zeus. Loxias (Apollo) is said to have commanded Orestes personally. Yet, the question is, how do we know what this was or who. So, at best, we can say that this is a commandment that takes the force of law or maybe even that Orestes acted under Apollo’s law as a command to avenge his father’s killing and then kill Aegisthus. With no other possibility to act in avenging his father than by killing his mother, Orestes may be said to be acting lawfully under the law of Apollo.
In some ways, it might be possible to argue that Orestes acted justly. Yet, it is unlikely to see this outcome in a modern court. Instead, Thomas Hobbes would argue that justice and injustice are human constructs that come into existence only when created through civil society and law.
Therefore, before the names of just and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of the covenant.16
Further, Hobbes notes…
And therefore, where there is no own, that is, no propriety, there is no injustice; and where there is no coercive power erected, that is, where there is no Commonwealth, there is no propriety, all men having right to all things: therefore where there is no Commonwealth, there nothing is unjust.17
In a Hobbesian view,18 human nature will naturally devolve without society.19 But, equally, the acts taken by Orestes may not be judged as just or unjust. There are no civil laws or rules covering the scenario or conflict of law to which Orestes was subject. To Hobbes, Orestes would neither have broken the law nor been able to obey one. To some, this view of life seems to be free. In this view, we cannot apply any moral or ethical quality to the actions taken in avenging his parent. Yet, equally, such an approach would not withstand scrutiny by one such as Kant.20
An inwardness in such an approach precludes both Christian and Kantian ethics.21 As such, we need to go beyond mere lawfulness and also look beyond the requirements of civil law in testing whether something is moral or immoral and note that justice and injustice cover more than just whether something can be measured where there is existing law. To some, the standard would be divine or natural law.22
Apollo’s command may be divine but not in the form we would recognise today. Equally, the argument made by Orestes in his defence saying that divine law requires that adulterous wives be killed would also be seen as a double standard with nothing for adulterous husbands. In some ways, it is required that Athena undoes the Gordian knot by entering into the interaction and creating a new institution in the form of the court. Through this, human law can develop beyond the level of any individual.
The common law system develops through the interactions and use of previous decisions. Consequently, the judgements of each individual judge and the decisions of a jury form a complex body of law that builds over time. It is not just the decision of an individual. The history and development of the common law as it has evolved over the past thousand years is interesting in itself.23 Moreover, the common law has formed a body of justice that interacts not only through the courts but with literature and the people’s will over time.24 And finally, it is the interaction of morality, what people see as natural law and the concepts developed by jurists, including St. Thomas Aquinas, that have built the foundation of common law into something more than individual proscriptions and legislative choice.25
Is Law Innately Good or Evil?
The number of jurors far exceeds anything that would be used in an American or British court. Further, it is not even possible to say that the Athenian court would be duly constituted under current rules. In part, the spirit of the common law has developed over time to incorporate a series of findings and practices that have become standard and, as such, to see something different is in itself questionable to us now.26
The selection of a jury in the play occurs because Athena wants them. In a modern courtroom, the jury is randomly called, and then there is a process to see who will sit. While no individual was excluded from prejudice by Athena, a fair jury today attempts to assure the system and the people that prejudice has been removed. Therefore, we seek to choose people without bias. Further, when a split jury occurs, there is no God such as Athena to step in and decide, and the choice is favoured for the accused.
There is a saying that it is better to release ten guilty men than imprison one innocent man.27 In our modern system, we value innocence and not punishing people who have not committed a crime far more than we value putting someone in prison for the sake of doing so. In such a scenario, we need to then look at whether laws can be good or evil in themselves. It has been claimed that the mere existence of a law is a form of coercion and that through this, men lose their freedom.28 Others have extended the concept beyond law and looked into legal coercion and distribution within the supposedly non-coercive state.29
Consequently, there is a sound argument that the fear of law and the mere existence of such sanctions will limit people’s freedom and prevent them from taking actions that may otherwise be just.30 But, equally, even preventing people through coercion can be seen to be limiting freedom when this is designed to stop unjust actions and make a better society overall. The question, of course, must then be answered, is this evil?31
Steiker has noted that “individual liberties entail social costs”.32 Each of the main characters, whether Agamemnon, Clytemnestra or Orestes, live in an anarchic condition despite the royal nature of the family. This state of being outside the legal requirements to follow one’s ruler in a state where the individual subject changes questions even further. This brings us to when, where, and how should we use criminal law?33 Simester and von Hirsch investigate the same underlying question when researching what legislature should do to enact a morally justifiable range of criminal prohibitions and when it is right to proscribe conduct.34
While Agamemnon and his family exist in a lawless state of anarchy, it is difficult to see that they are better off. Each may be free to kill without any more prescribing them, but equally, they have no protection against being killed by another. As a result, Hobbs would argue with many others that we are freer in civil society with the imposition of laws and that a lawless condition limits the ability for us to flourish as humans.
While society needs dissent,35 it is also necessary to have structure and security. Maslow posited a hierarchy of needs starting with basic security, and Hertzberg noted that we must satisfy these conditions to gain motivation.36 Civil society is far more secure than the anarchic state of nature. Yet, the society with the most laws is not the best. As such, it is not possible to merely create the best society by picking halfway between anarchy and tyranny but rather to analyse and decide on the form of the structure of law and government wisely over time.37
Questions and Reflections
In order to best understand and comprehend the work, we must question it and think about our understanding by challenging ourselves. Through this, we can learn how to question our own comprehension and whether we have been thorough in understanding what we have read.
- Which character predicts Agamemnon’s fate?
- What happens to Cassandra?
- What are the two places where Eumenides occurs during the play?
- At what stage do the Furies start to interact with Orestes?
- How did the Furies become the Eumenides, and what are Athena’s role and promise?
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