skip to Main Content

A Brief Commentary on the Anthropology of Aeschylus’ Oresteia

A Brief Commentary On The Anthropology Of Aeschylus’ Oresteia

Introduction: Aeschylus, the Cosmos and the Cosmion

A great gulf lies between the Minoans and Mycenaeans of the 2nd millennium B.C, on the one shore, and the Hellenes of classical times on the other. Nor is this gulf purely temporal, nor only indicative simply of an abyss of memory that already seems to have separated the civilizational descendants from their precursors. The passage of a thousand years and the intervention of a great Time of Troubles (to borrow Arnold Toynbee’s term), which is hinted at in Homer’s epics and attested to starkly by the disappearance of written language (in the forms of Linear A and Linear B) is well known.

What is less well attested-to or recognized in our own time and place, is the leap in being (to borrow from Kierkegaard and Eric Voegelin) which differentiates the very form of civilization of the Minoans and Mycenaeans from that of the Hellenes of Socrates’ place and era. I shall follow Voegelin in terming the former cosmological and the later anthropological forms. Furthermore, it should be understood, for our purposes and for brevity’s sake, that the cosmological form of political order and the quintessence of the cosmocentric experience of existence which informs the same, is that in which the city is conceived as the cosmos writ small. Thus, they stand in contrast to the anthropological form and the anthropocentric experience, in which the city is understood as the psyche writ large. By so understanding, in both instances, we are merely recollecting and paraphrasing the Socratic dictum which structures the Politeia, and which Voegelin too adopts.[1]

What stands, then, as one of the sharper points of contrast between the two types of experiences, is that, in the former case, the ordering of one’s being is thought to be found through participation in a correctly ordered cosmion – a concrete society which is held to be a miniature image of the cosmos at large. In such cases, the right ordering of one’s existence is also held to be dependent upon collectively representing or reimagining the order of the cosmos in a concrete society. One’s proper place in the immanent order of being, therefore, would be as a “part” in the “whole” of the cosmion, through which’s myths, cults, and institutions one participates vicariously in the greater order of the cosmos. Conversely, the failure of the cosmion to correctly mirror cosmic order would leave one floating rudderless in a chaos. Order is collective order; disorder is collective disorder.

On the opposite side of this, one then has the anthropocentric experience of being, as pre-eminently articulated in the works of Plato and Aristotle. It is defined by what may be termed the conjoint discovery of the psyche as the sensorium of transcendence (as Voegelin terms it) and its innate tension to an intelligible ground of being beyond the being things of the world. In broadly Socratic terms, the anthropocentric experience of existence is characterized by the discovery of the soul and the Noos as the fundamental grounds of conscience, beyond the bounds of the city, its cults, and nomoi. This remarkable discovery establishes the grounds by which such a strange fellow such as Socrates, a philosopher, could find the spiritual and intellectual resources to oppose the city with spiritual-moral authority – even while being himself condemned.

It is this element of transcendent individual conscience which goes unrecognized within the bounds of a cosmocentric experience of reality, and one notes in the history of Hellas that it emerges gradually. That experience of transcendence, or that leap in being, becomes quite obvious and is fully illuminated in the time of Socrates, and is well articulated in the writings of Plato. Between the eras of the imperial cosmioi of the Minoans and Mycenaeans, lost in the Time of Troubles, and the Suffering Servant Socrates, however, lie certain transitional forms. Among them, one should speak of the mythic poetry of Homer and Hesiod, and the cult of tragedy in Athens. In this essay, I shall be using Hesiod’s poetry, on the one hand, and Plato’s dialogues on the other hand, as foils by which to analyze Aeschylus’ Oresteia, with a view towards demonstrating that Aeschylus comes quite close to fully articulating an anthropocentric experience of order and existence.

Hesiod’s Work and Days

To begin then, in Hesiod’s Works and Days, one may hear a certain sharp edge poke out in the midst of the rhapsode’s admonishment of his shiftless brother, at lines 238-247, and again at 267-275. On the one hand, the poem as a whole is set-up as an admonition of “foolish Perses,” who, we gather, has fallen into certain false and viceful practices – these including prosecuting a civil suit against his much-suffering brother and bribing the judges, though one gathers that sloth, ignorance, and paedophilia might also be included in the list of bad habits. On the other hand, in the passages cites above, Hesiod also laments that it shan’t be possible for he or his son to stick to the path of Dike in a bad city. Rather, compulsion, he feels, will eventually throw them down into the mire as well, if the social corruption becomes sufficiently widespread. The apparent paradox of moral admonition and moral fatalism can be made clearer by understanding that the admonition itself is not aimed (as we might think) at inspiring a conscientious response to the transcendent ground of being and its demands upon individuals, through which response or grace foolish Perses may be justified (to use the Christian formulation). Nor, to use the Socratic formulation of the same, is Perses being drawn into the psychogoge, and the periagoge through which he is to be set on the zetema eis ten archen epekeina tes ousias, and the flourishing of arete and dikaiosune which comes along with the journey.

No, Perses is neither being admonished to turn his heart to Christ that he may be filled, not to open his soul to the pursuit of the Good and the Beautiful. As Hugh Lloyd Jones too notes, the archaic conception of Dike was deeply tied to the prevailing, pre-philosophic and pre-scientific understanding of the natural order.[2] That is as much as to say that following the path of Dike, in such a view as Hesiod’s, consists in conforming to the natural order and rhythms of the cosmos, and is dependent upon taking part in a society conforming with that order. There is, moreover, no effective way of appealing beyond society for righteousness (let alone beyond the immanent cosmos or its gods). Within the limits of a cosmocentric horizon, when the general social situation has indeed passed a point of irremediable decay, every man will indeed tend to think himself doomed along with it. Hesiod can only hope to provoke his audience into conforming with the image of order as it presents itself to common-sense experience, in the necessities of the cycles of nature, and in whatever social customs and forms which reflect them.

Aeschylus’ Oresteia: Paradise Lost

The action and symbolism of the Oresteia break with the moral fatalism which follow naturally from the more compact experiences of order, and of which Hesiod is a self-reflective example. Aeschylus’s trilogy pivots on many interwoven themes, e.g., the opposition between Heaven and Earth, the old gods and the younger gods, light and dark, matriarchal/Telluric and patriarchal/Olympian orders, to name a few. The central theme of the oppositions, in any case, remains to the end, the opposing divine claims to Dike. (Eumen, 415-469)  It is this opposition of right orders of existence and of praxis which forms the backbone of the drama. But it is the very apperception of a cosmos in tension between irreconcilable forces of right – a tension to be surmounted through the representative suffering of the tragic hero Orestes – which signals that the author is both possessed of a more differentiated experience of the order of things than the author of Works and Days, and has been given an audience at least potentially capable of resonating with and understanding the issue. One may say that the cosmos of Aeschylus’ Oresteia is a cosmos in a breeched condition – a condition to be overcome through tragedy and suffering, and lived in the reflective imaginations of the audience.

In terms of the drama itself, throughout the trilogy, the opposing, compact claims to Dike can be found articulated in a concentrated form, in the mouths and actions of the choruses. In one instance, one has the chorus of elderly men of Agamemnon, who ultimately come down on the side of the dike of the father and the laws (1407-12, 1650-71), but whom also one finds to be strangely unable to take independent action, in speech or in deed, not unlike Hesiod’s fears. (545-550, 1346-71) Any preventative measures that the old men might conceivably have engaged in to stem the corruption at court during Agamemnon’s absence goes undone, though, when the deed of murder is done and they challenge the murderers, they reveal that they are not truly afraid of death or retribution, per se (1650-55). In a second instance, one has the chorus of Trojan women of The Libation Bearers, who also come down on the side of the patriarchy and echo the Hesiodian moral fatalism, but now also side with the telluric blood-justice of the Erinyes (75-80, 106-64). The barbarian slaves (for both “barbarians” and slaves they are, under the House of Atreus) call not for the law of the established civic order, but for the perpetuation of the cycle of murder for murder which has haunted the house for generations – the blood-justice of the ancient gods from an age before Zeus.

In the third and final instance, one has in The Eumenides the baying chorus of Erinyes themselves, notably and openly taking the case of the mother and of the primordial dike of the telluric gods against that of the heavenly immortals (140-235). As the trilogy unfolds, one thus witnesses a steady degeneration in civilized life as the common, public order of the kingdom’s nomoi is, first, libidinously broken, then contracted into the cycle of private dike of family and Earth. One also witnesses a progressive descent of the paradigmatic source of justice from the immanent, Olympian Heavens, to the underworld of the Earth. To put the matter another way, the cyclical order of Heaven is symbolically supplanted by that of the Earth in immediate human affairs.

In either case, however, the order remains essentially cosmological, and becomes increasingly fractured at that, for neither Heaven nor Earth are destined to disappear. This fracturing is of such a serious nature that one cannot even properly speak of a cosmos while it prevails, but rather only of an environment of conflicting forces which have lost their balance. The disorderly state of the relationship of heaven, earth, and humanity can be sensed symbolized, not only in the contradictory demands for action placed upon Orestes (honor thine Mother, but avenge thine Father), but also in the threat of open warfare between Olympian Apollo and the Daughters of Night. Meanwhile, the common order of humanity has been lost with the breach – for from within the logic of cosmocentric experience, humanity has no reference point or paradigm for right action which is independent of that of the cosmion and its existential/sacerdotal representative (e.g., a king or pontifex rex).

Hence, the chaffing ineffectiveness of the chorus of old men, who should recollect to one’s mind Hesiod’s lament that he and his son may be compelled to conform to the adikia of the times, may be understood as expressing precisely a cosmological understanding of political order and being which is in the midst of breaking down completely. To break with the impasse between Heaven and Earth, symbolized by their competing claims of dikai upon Orestes, the son of Agamemnon undergoes representative suffering in which wisdom is found and a new order established, beyond the old. And, it bears emphasizing that this is indeed a sharp break, or leap, beyond the limits of the cosmological understanding of an Hesiod.

Aeschylus’ Oresteia: Paradise Regained

We may highlight the achievement through further contrast with Plato’s works. In the fully differentiated symbolism and vocabulary of Plato’s dialogues, the search for the grounds of order and justice in the cosmos are ultimately expressed in such terms as the ascents and descents of the psyche in its search for its ground, the impassioned search for the good beyond being, knowledge of ignorance, and the discovery of the metaxy quality of existence: that all of humanity participates in the tension between the Agathon and the Chora (Politeia 509a; Timaeus 49a), preeminently so through the vehicle of noos. Within the drama of the Oresteia, the issue of fundamental moral deliberations and decisions comes fully to the fore in The Libation Bearers, where Orestes’ aforementioned moral paradox ends with a gross violation of the dike of the chthonic gods in compliance with, and under the compulsion of, Olympian Apollo.

That small matter may well have been brought to reconciliation by Aeschylus in any number of ways which would have upheld the right of Heaven and subordinated the Earth, i.e., re-affirmed the cosmological status quo ante bellum. Apollo – sun-god and immediate representative of the forces of the heavens – is not, however, confirmed by the playwright, not in his overweening authority, nor in his ability to bring what has been sown to issue. Rather, the son of Leto is only scarcely able to stall the forces of the underworld through the force of his charms (and then only briefly), and is further shown to be too wholly implacable to weave a reconciliation with them. (Eumen. 149-234) For his part, Orestes is then compelled to seek refuge at the knees of Athena, goddess of wisdom and strategies, when the competing representative of the two dikes fail to reconcile at the site of the sacred omphalos.[3]

 Once the scene has changed to Athens, the action takes an interesting course. Rather than decide the case herself, Pallas moves for a jury of old men to hear the case, a case which cuts a predictable path as the plaintiffs and witnesses make their pleas (not to mention threats).[4] Orestes, for his part, points out that he is caught between the consequences of irreconcilable demands. Apollo speaks in favor of upholding the prerogatives of Heaven. The chorus of Erinyes demand the timai that they are rightfully due, and, just to press home the stakes for both Athens and the natural order, the Kindly Ones pronounce that they will unleash unholy Hades, if they are not honored. (409-515) The final scenes serve to make the symbolism of the situation intelligible: Heaven and Earth remain utterly opposed in their demands. Heaven’s sun-god – the Apollonian Apollo – for all of his charms, trickery, and sophistic argumentation, cannot re-establish the archaic order which has been broken by the Trojan War, its aftermath, and the flood of acts which have stemmed out of them. Humanity, dramatically concentrated in the figure of Orestes, finds itself caught in-between, even as it is the metaphorical “site” of the conflict.

Into this situation steps Wisdom and her Persuasion, her polis and Areopagus. The polis and its court serve as Wisdom’s practical and concrete representatives, but Athena reserves the tie-breaking vote for herself. Wisdom thus supplements and completes the law and its inevitable impasses, even as she allows herself to be guided by that which she has established. Moreover, the goddess announces beforehand how she intends to cast her vote, if the jury finds itself deadlocked: Wisdom will vote in favor of mercy. (735) However, she signals too that she is not heedless or unsympathetic to the dread goddesses of the Earth. (460-86)

And, Athena proves better than her word. In the name of her Father, the dread Zeus Dike, the unseen steersman of the cosmic drama, Pallas gives new honors and place in her polis to the newly lauded Eumenides. They, she pronounces, shall be honored and dreaded divinities who loom protectively over her court and city. In the end, Heaven, Earth, and Humanity are reconciled to each other upon a new foundation through the mediation of Wisdom, her immediate representative institutions, the representative suffering (which, after all, teaches men wisdom) of Orestes, and the inscrutable dispensation of the unseen Lord of All, whom Wisdom serves. In this, one sees none of the moral fatalism of Hesiod, nor indeed of the choruses of old men and slave women. In Aeschylus’ rendering of affairs, men’s moral characters are not so clearly bridled by the necessity of the immanent cosmos or a cosmion – not even in the extreme case of cosmos which has broken-down into divine stasis.

Much like when one clearly apperceives the meaning behind the cosmic myths told in Plato’s dialogues, when one perceives the Oresteia keenly, one witnesses the author pushing the traditional cosmological symbols of the gods and so forth, to the point of becoming transparent signs of an unseen Measure beyond the immanent cosmos itself – a Measure which steers it aright. Zeus’ invisible presence somewhere just beyond understanding or perception, and Athena’s status as mediator between the here and now and the unseen, come close to being symbolically equivalent to the meaning of the Agathon and noos in the Politeia and The Symposium, for instance.

While it is the case that, in the Oresteia, a strong emphasis is placed upon the will of Zeus, the accent remains that of a Zeus transcendent, and on the matter of humanity’s responsiveness – as the timely intervention of Pylades in The Libation Bearers can be taken to underline. Under the rule of the mature Zeus, human beings are free to kick against the grain, and preference is given to persuasion over compulsion. Justice compelled, thus, is deprecated to the status of justice incomplete – or so one may gather as a final message. Thus, while we remain some distance from espying in Aeschylus’ trilogy, the nearly completely independent conscience circumscribed by Plato’s Socrates, we may be compelled to conclude that it is proper to assess that, in the tragedian’s work, as opposed to Hesiod’s, we can perceive evidence of a psyche animated by a fully anthropocentric experience of being.

 

References

Cordner, Colin. “Trust, Understanding, and Paradigms in the Works of Michael Polanyi and of Plato.” Appraisal, The Journal of the British Personalist Forum. Volume 11, No. 3 (Autumn, 2017): 26-40.

Lloyd-Jones, Hugh, trans. The Oresteia,. (University of California Press: United States of America. 1979).

Plato. Complete works, ed. by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, Ind. : Hackett Pub, c1997.

Voegelin, Eric. The New Science of Politics in Modernity Without Restraint, Collected Works, v.5. (University of Missouri Press: United States of America. 2000).

 

Notes

[1]. I have written more extensively of the matter of the city as a symbol of the psyche, in “Trust, Understanding, and Paradigms in the Works of Michael Polanyi and of Plato.” Appraisal, The Journal of the British Personalist Forum. Volume 11, No. 3 (Autumn, 2017): 26-40. For more on Voegelin’s exposition on the varying essential forms of representation, see Eric Voegelin. The New Science of Politics in Modernity Without Restraint, Collected Works, v.5. University of Missouri Press: United States of America. 2000.

[2]. See Jones’ footnotes to lines 773, 781 of Agamemnon, as well as those of line 948 of The Libation Bearers, in The Oresteia, trans. Hugh Lloyd-Jones. (University of California Press: 1979).

[3]. The choice of a naked application of power remains at hand, however. Athena exhibits no shyness, in spite of some circumspection, in pronouncing that she will subject the Eumenides to her Father’s thunderbolt, if they refuse to listen to wisdom’s persuasion. The accent, however, has by that point changed to one of power wielded to punish libidinous rebellion, against the pull of reason. (Eumen. 825-36)

[4]. Note the opposition of the useless old men of the Agamemnon’s chorus, and those of Aereopagus of The Eumenides.

Colin Cordner

Colin Cordner is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and completed his Ph.D. at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada in 2016, where he is an instructor and occasional poet in the Department of Political Science. He is also owner of Fall's Edge Editing. His recent research focuses upon the works Plato and Michael Polanyi on scientism qua sophism, and the origins and therapies for the attendant spiritual crises and political disorders.

Back To Top