The Oresteia: An Affirmation of the Noble Lie

In Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers, we are first introduced to Orestes, the son of the late and betrayed Agamemnon. He appears, hidden, before the grave of his father as his sister Electra is making libations in her father’s honor. This second part of the trilogy takes place an unknown number of years after the murder of Agamemnon. Orestes has been exiled for most of his life in central Greece, in Phocis.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1862

Like Odysseus upon his return to Ithaca, Orestes disguises himself as a wanderer, or a beggar with news of the death of Orestes. In doing so, he is welcomed into the home of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Why does he put them through this elaborate ruse if he is only going to kill them? In disguise, one is capable of acquiring greater knowledge -as in the case of Gyges the lydian (recall in Book I of Herodotus’s History), or Odysseus in The Odyssey, or even Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Orestes is looking for knowledge. He wants to hear from the words of Aegisthus, the usurper, and his own mother Clytemnestra about the state of the house and the death of his father. As was customary in Greek theatre, the acts of violence occur offstage -first Aegisthus is killed when Orestes reveals himself and then Clytemnestra rushes to the scene to discover that he is, indeed, her son. The Libation Bearers concludes with Orestes being haunted by the furies, or the “Eumenides”, as he is forced to flee his own family’s palace.

In the closing part of the trilogy, The Eumenides, a chorus of furies confronts Orestes as he stands before the temple of Athena in Athens (though the play curiously opens with a confrontation between Apollo and Clytemnestra). The Chorus argues that Orestes should be found guilty or else everyone who commits the crime of matricide in the future will be found innocent, Apollo comes to testify on behalf of Orestes, and Orestes leaves his fate up to Athena. In making her proclamation at the end of the trial, Athena states:

“No anarchy, no rule of a single master. Thus
I advise my citizens to govern and to grace,
and not to cast fear utterly from your city. What
man who fears nothing at all is ever righteous?”

“These words I have unreeled for my citizens,
advice into the future. All must stand upright
now, take each man his ballot in his hand, think on
his oath, and make his judgment. For my word is said”
(The Eumenides 690-710).

In addition, upon reading the verdict that Orestes is found innocent, the Chorus of Furies responds by letting loose the tight hand of vengeance, though not gently:

“Gods of the younger generation, you have ridden down
the laws of the elder time, torn them out of my hands.
I disinherited, suffering, heavy with anger
shall let loose on the land
the vindictive poison
dripping deadly out of my heart upon the ground…”

Orestes was found innocent, by an evenly cast ballot which is deemed fair by Athena.

In Aeschylus, the chief characteristic of the tragedy is the action and the backdrop. The tragic component is a function of the war in Ilium, and the curse that has been brought upon the house of Atreus for it. The Oresteia is a play about the end of the cycle of vengeance -revenge and requital are replaced by a Republican form of judicial accounting -wherein a formal trial decides the fate of someone. However, Aeschylus reaffirms Greek mythos by installing the arbiter of justice as the god Athena, not a mortal man. Justice is still divine and super human, but it is also attainable to man on earth. In presenting it in this way, Aeschylus gives a hopeful, redemptive work of art that reinforces the Athenian way of justice and life.

In the place of self-destructive furies, Athena praises the future of the city of Athens, capable of self-governance, bound by reason rather than vindictiveness. In doing so, Aeschylus reaffirms a noble lie about the birth of the democratic sensibilities of Athens. Unlike Sophoclean, or even Euripidean tragedy, Aeschlyus’s tragedies engage the background and the plot as primary -in other words, the fate of Agamemnon, Orestes, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, Electra or any other one individual is not the ultimate subject of the play, instead it gives way before the story of the transformation of a people from vengeful to upright and judicial. It concludes with a cautionary hope for the future of democratic man.

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore translation.

Dialectic in Agamemnon

The central dialectic of the first part of Aeschylus’s famous trilogy occurs between the infamous Clytemnestra, a queen rivaled only by Lady Macbeth, and the Chorus of older men of the city of Mycenea. Both are skeptical of each others’ motivations and ambitions. In considering an historical example, recall the feud between King John of Lackland and his ongoing quarrel with the gentry of greater England -though this struggle produced the Magna Carta and the struggle between Clytemnestra and the Chorus is yet to find a solution.

Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon (with Aegisthis urging her on) by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin in 1817

Throughout Agamemnon, we encounter a recurring question of vengeance -on whose shoulders should the blame for villainy lie? With the backdrop of the ten year Trojan War (recall that in Homer’s Iliad we find ourselves immersed in only a few weeks of the ninth year of the war outside Ilium’s walls), Aeschylus forces the audience to question the inherent injustice in requital -a force of passion, rather than reason. Helen, appropriately meaning “death”, falls in love with Paris and elopes with him causing her husband Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon to muster all of the Achaeans, including the reluctant Odysseus, to enter into battle against the Trojans. The war is eventually won not thanks to the aggressive passions of the greatest Achaean warrior, Achilles, but rather to the skill and tact of Odysseus who devises the plan to enter the city through a wooden horse and level it from within, as recounted in Homer’s Iliad.

In Agamemnon, we do not find the same nostalgia, or homecoming with the house of Atreus. Unlike Odysseus who returns home disguised as a beggar or traveler, Agamemnon returns home undisguised, expecting a fond welcoming. He returns home with only one ship, and having had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia to gain favor from the gods on Aulis as they were trapped by inclement weather and winds. Clytemnestra, unbeknownst to Agamemnon, has fallen in love with his banished cousin, Aegisthus and she has sent their son, Orestes away under false pretenses. She has set the scene for an ambush as she greatly disrespects his decisions.

Agamemnon justifies his assault on the city of Priam by recalling the fact that the Trojans welcomed Helen and Paris into their walls and their protection. He also has justifications for why he needed to sacrifice Iphigenia, an act that Clytemnestra never forgets nor forgives, and why he returns home with a captured woman from Troy, Cassandra, who claims to be able to foretell the future thanks to a curse from Apollo to whom she promised a child, but she later denied it and he cursed her by making it so that no one alive would believe her prophecies.

A 1st century fresco depicting the moments before the sacrifice of Iphigenia

Agamemnon’s return is anticlimactic and foreboding. Standing outside the palace, the Chorus of men begin to grow restless until finally Clytemnestra opens the doors to the palace of Mycenea showing the murdered corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra, both of whom she killed. She still holds the bloody two sided axe used to murder him, by stabbing him thrice. This sows unrest among the people of Mycenea (Chorus), particularly when Aegisthus appears and they speak of how they will rule the people and take Agamemnon’s wealth.

As with other great works of tragedy, counting Aeschylus as the founder of the tragic “goat-song” art, we encounter the theme of a just regicide. When is power illegitimate and when does it require the use of force to end its claim? Clytemnestra justifies her act of murder to a horrified and skeptical Chorus of men, elders in the city, stating that her new claim to power has brought balance and peace to the city, though it clearly has not. The only hope is for the return of her banished son, Orestes, to avenge his father and presumably set things on the right path. However, are we not still posed with the same problem? To what extent is Orestes faced with the same problem that plagued Clytemnestra in her decision to gain justice for the wrongs levied against her by her husband, Agamemnon, and also the deep wrongs inflicted upon Agamemnon when the Trojans accepted the elopement of Paris and Helen under their protection? One recalls the famous Biblical account of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” -referring to the ancient law of retaliation found Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy and elsewhere. It is the principle of reciprocal punishment, exacting revenge. It is a primitive form of judicial thinking, one that we moderns still cannot escape as we are tragically bound by our fate, and is predicated on the tribal factionalism of groups like the Achaeans, where it is challenging to find a mode where saner heads, like Odysseus, prevail. It is a seemingly endless dialectic that Aeschylus provides a solution to at the close of the Oresteia, or at least what we moderns consider the close of the Oresteia as we have no access to the Satyr play found at the end of the classical quadrilogy.

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore translation.

Notes On Plato’s Euthyphro

At the outset of Plato’s Euthyphro, the pious Euthyphro is astonished to find Socrates at the Archon’s judicial court rather than hanging around the Lyceum where he usually spends his days. Socrates explains that he is being indicted by a young and unknown man named Meletus who claims Socrates is corrupting the youth by not believing in the gods and that he is creating new gods (Socrates regularly refers to a divine sign or daemon that guides him).

Euthyphro, on the other hand, is a religious zealot. He has come to court to prosecute his own father for bounding a servant who killed a slave. Euthyphro’s father sent a request to the leaders to ask what should be done with the servant, but during that time the man died in the ditch. Euthyphro claims this is an act of impiety, regardless of intent. He claims to have superior knowledge of piety and impiety. Thus, Socrates and Euthyphro discuss the subject of piety. What is piety?

In his first definition, Euthyphro defines piety as his current activity -prosecuting wrongdoers (6d-6e). When Socrates reminds Euthyphro that he has not given an adequate definition, Euthyphro restates his position to say ‘what is dear to the gods is pious and the opposite for impiety.’

Socrates then engages Euthyphro in a discussion about the differences among the gods, such as discord, and how each are spawned by love of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Each god is different -what is loved by the gods is also hated by the gods. How, then, can one man claim knowledge of piety?

The third definition provided by Euthyphro: piety is what all the gods love, and impiety is what the gods hate. To this Socrates asks what the cause of piety is -are the pious loved by the gods and therefore pious? Or are they loved by the gods and in so doing become pious?

The conversation leads to a question of the just and the pious, and whether they are the same thing. Eventually Euthyphro responds that they are the same but only parts are concerned with the care of the gods, and once again Socrates tries to reason about the care of the gods. Again, it is a question of agency. Piety brings gifts of goodness upon men and Euthyphro claims that it benefits the gods (human piety) even though earlier he had acknowledged that piety is not god-loved. Socrates points out the contradiction but Euthyphro is willing to accept it and stay with it. The dialogue leaves a disappointed Socrates as he must part ways with Euthyphro. Euthyphro is now is late for prosecuting his own father. Socrates must go to his indictment without proper knowledge of piety or impiety.

One recalls the scene at the outset of Nietzsche’s great work Thus Spake Zarathustra wherein Zarathustra encounters a priest, and they pass like old friends, with a similar project in mind for humanity. In the same way, Socrates and Euthyphro are not mortal enemies, they merely differ on the question of reason versus revelation.

For this reading I used the Grube translation as featured in the Hackett Classics Edition.

Heroism and Tragedy in The Sun Also Rises

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.”

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, we encounter a series of vignettes that, together, tell the story of a group of expatriate Americans as they roam around postwar Europe. In a certain light, it is a tale of two cities: Paris and Pamplona, two cities of celebration divided only by an Arcadian excursion to the Pyrenees (in England The Sun Also Rises was published as Fiesta, an early working title).


The novel is told in the past-tense as a recollection. Our hero, Jake Barnes, is a former World War I soldier with a terrible injury leaving him (presumably) impotent. The novel is a fading memory from Barnes about his infatuation for Lady Brett Ashley. She is his unrelenting love interest who engages in numerous love affairs with different men in the group including Barnes’s boorish associate, Robert Cohn. Cohn is based on the person of Harold Loeb, a Princeton boxer and wrestler who descended from two upper-crust New York families. Lady Brett Ashley is based on Lady Duff Twysden, a British expat who came to Paris to weather the storm of a nasty divorce (and thus lose her title). Both of whom were friends with Hemingway during his years in France and Spain.

The Sun Also Rises explores questions of courage, virtue, and heroism by using the imagery of boxing, fishing, and, above all, bullfighting. Each sport tests a man’s courage and resilience. The vitalizing competitions are also juxtaposed with impotence, war, and infidelity. With boxing, fishing, and bullfighting there are natural rules of behavior, or codes of virtue, in contrast to the machinery of modern warfare which has eliminated all semblance of natural decorum. As in Don Quixote, the old chivalrous mores of courage and virtue struggle to find their footing in a rapidly changing world that has been traumatized by modern warfare. There are no more knight errants -and maybe they never truly existed except in chivalrous romances. Yet, heroically and perhaps tragically, Jake Barnes trudges onward, limited by his inability to be intimate with a woman and driven by his respect and admiration for the delicate, graceful art of Spanish matadors. Barnes longs for the old chivalric code of Western Civilization, yet the malaise of the world around him bears no respect for the old values. Unlike the Homeric war heroes, Odysseus or Achilles, the modern war hero is wounded and impotent, yet he is also dedicated and brave. He knows that he is living in a New World, but he cannot keep from clinging to the Old World. European culture had been decimated by the Great War, yet natural law still remains and the ‘earth abideth forever.’ Barnes and Lady Brett are both ambiguous -Barnes in his sexuality and Brett in her almost masculine appearance- while Romero the matador is unequivocally unambiguous: he wants a feminine woman.

The San Fermín festival is a week-long celebration in Pamplona, Spain honoring Saint Fermín, a 3rd century Roman who converted to Christianity, becoming the first Bishop of Pamplona. He was martyred by being dragged to death. The most famous part of the festival is the encierro, or the “running of the bulls” which takes place through the city center each morning, but other traditions include bullfighting and the ‘giant heads’ parade. The festival takes place in early July each year.

Hemingway popularized this festival. He first wrote about it when he attended the festival in 1929, and he visited many more times until 1959.

The bullfighting only begins in the second part of the novel (the novel is divided into three books) when Barnes recounts the groups’ experiences at the San Fermín festival in Pamplona, Spain. Again and again, he praises the ‘grace under pressure’ exhibited by the bullfighters as they face their own death, only narrowly surviving. Barnes sees this activity as a kind of ancient manly virtue that has somehow survived into the modern age, despite the vulgar and repulsive advent of new technologies that prevent men from displaying courage. One is reminded of the scene in Homer’s Iliad in which Hector and Achilles, mortal enemies, exchange armor with one another before doing battle as a demonstration of honor. The Timocratic roots of high society are ever-present in Jake Barnes’s mind as he observes the careful, calculating dance of the bullfighter. Devoid of modern conveniences, the bullfighter stares down the wild, chaos of nature -the untamed, pre-civil creature may strike at any time if the bullfighter is not careful.

Likewise, as a metaphor, each of the men in the American expatriate group represent bullfighters, each needing to display his qualities of honor and virtue. Robert Cohn, the man for whom the opening sentence and chapter are dedicated (“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton”) behaves the most cowardly. He is the least in control of his temperament, like a bull needing to be tamed, and Jake Barnes regularly makes note of it. Together, all of the expats pursue Lady Ashley, however Jake Barnes does not actively pursue her. Instead he waits for her to come to him, preferring to dangle his red garment and wait for her charge. However, she only comes to Barnes when she is broken. While Barnes may be able to win her heart, he can never win her body. His victory is incomplete.

Jake Barnes is a modern tragic hero with an ancient disposition for classical virtue. He is plagued by the apparent meaningless of modern life -a life not governed by old narratives of faith and human greatness in battle. The Sun Also Rises is like a Sisyphean cycle -it opens as Barnes, Lady Brett, and others are roaming around Paris in the evening, seemingly without greater purpose, and the novel closes in a similar fashion – Barnes picks up Lady Brett from her escapade of a failed affair with the matador. Barnes and Lady Brett ride off in a taxi together as the sun is setting. Barnes is with the woman he loves, but can never have her.

“La vara rota” by Arturo Michelena (1892)

Appropriately, the title of the novel alludes to the King James translation of the book of Ecclesiastes -popularly thought to be King Solomon’s Heraclitean despair after the loss of his son. Ecclesiastes, perhaps the most Epicurean book of the Old Testament, explores the tragic and apparent nihilism that haunts the philosophers, as they contemplate the nature of life. It is the same fatalistic sentiment echoed by certain Shakespearean characters. By alluding to Ecclesiastes in the title of the book, Hemingway chooses to highlight the rising sun, not the setting sun. Perhaps the novel is not a work of despair, but rather a work of redemption -a kind of Nietzschean redemption of joy through suffering.

“‘Oh, Jake,’ Brett said, ‘we could have had such a damned good time together.’ Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’”

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. Scribner; Hemingway Library ed. edition, February 16, 2016.