Agamemnon, the first play of the Oresteia trilogy begins much like other great plays, such as Hamlet, on the walls of the city with a a lone watchman who bemoans the state of affairs, waiting for a light showing that Agamemnon, his king, is returning home from the Trojan War. Upon spotting the foreboding beacon, he scrambles to tell Clytemnestra of the news, which she doubts. As Aeschylus’s play represents the culmination of Greek lyric poetry synthesized with Greek theatre, and multiple players on stage, the play features a notable struggle between the Greek elders, the Chorus, and Clytemnestra. A lone herald comes forth first announcing Agamemnon’s return, followed by Agamemnon himself, who appears not in disguise, apparently learning nothing from his great and notable comrade, Odysseus. Instead, he follows in the short-sighted footsteps of Achilles. As a result, Agamemnon carries with him a curse that befalls him for the murder of his daughter Iphigenaia, for which his wife, Clytemnestra, has never forgiven him. Additionally, he brings home a cocubine from Troy, Cassandra, that enrages Clytemnestra. However, his family’s curse goes back much further to the feud between Agamemnon’s father, Atreus and his twin brother Thyestes, and some would say, even further to the curse of Tantalus, the Titan. Atreus murdered his brother’s children and fed them to him for committing adultery and sleeping with Atreus’s wife -successive generations of his family are thus cursed in their efforts. This culminates in Agamemnon’s murder by Clytemnestra, however in other accounts it is her lover, Aegisthus who commits the murder.
In the second part of the play, TheLibationBearers, Orestes returns from mainland Greece to find his sister pouring libations on the grave of their father. Together, they devise a plan to exact revenge on their mother and her imposter suitor. Orestes appears at the palace doors as a wandering traveler who announces the death of Orestes. Offstage, he kills Aegisthus and exposes his identity to his mother, before killing her, too. After this bloody affair, he flees the palace as the furies, or Eumenides, haunt him and chase him away.
The final part of the play, The Eumenides, at least what has survived for the modern eye, begins at the Pythia who beckons Apollo and it opens with a dialogue between Apollo and the Chorus of furies. The ghost of Clytemnestra appears to the sleeping furies, who have been put to sleep by Apollo, and she scolds them for not doing their duty to exact revenge. The scene is set when Athena appears and conducts a trial over whether to accuse Orestes of the crime of matricide or to find him blameless. Apollo comes to his defense and the furies are given a new role, underground, while Athena warns the Athenians to maintain a sense of fear, while also self-governing themselves, and to always hold themselves upright for having overcome the barbaric cycle of vengeance and retribution.
For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore translation.
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.
In Act II scene 7 of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, we encounter one of the more fatalistic and artful monologues in all of Shakespearean literature, Jaques’s famous “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy. Drawing on Ovid, Shakespeare uses the character, Jaques, to compare the totality of human life to the charade of a play, and he enumerates the seven stages of a man’s life -it is sometimes called the ‘Seven Stages of Man’ monologue. However, unlike Ovid there is something nihilistic about Jacques’s speech -perhaps an idea he gets from the clownish “philosopher” Touchstone.
To set the scene, the tyrants have overtaken the good and noble men. Orlando, a willing and capable man with natural talents (“Fortune”) is denied his due inheritance and rightful place by his conniving and jealous older brother, Oliver. According to their family servant, Adam (thought to have been played by Shakespeare), Oliver plans to kill his younger brother Orlando, so Adam and Orlando take flight into the Forest of Arden. Meanwhile, Duke Senior has been overthrown by his usurping brother, Duke Frederick, and has fled with a band of loyal noblemen into the Forest of Arden to live like Robin Hood and his merry men in the wild, pastoral, wilderness. One of these men is Jacques who has been led to question the nature of things and the meaning of life by a fool -a philosopher who laments the passing of time. According to Jacques, all of life becomes a tragedy when considering the passing of time as nothing more than another step closer to death. Are we growing or merely rotting? Is all of life vanity? Jacques, who has been influenced by the poison of the fool, is led to a life of woe -he is disillusioned and depressed. However, Duke Senior is not persuaded by his lugubriousness. Instead, when Orlando bursts onto the scene and demands food from the strangers for himself and his dying compatriot, Adam, Duke Senior provides an example of civility by inviting Orlando to the table. It is a moment of justification for civilization’s conventions to the brooding Jacques. Like the famous anecdote of Diogenes contra Alexander the Great, Jaques tells Duke Senior to stand out of his light. He plays the part of a cynic and Epicurean. He would rather live ‘like a dog’ (the meaning of the Greek word “cynic”) and entertain his mind with minstrels and distractions, preferring not to eat or care for the needs of his body.
Returning to the passage in question, Duke Senior has just tried to convince Jaques that “we are not all alone and unhappy. This wide and universal theatre presents more woeful pageants than the scene wherein we play” (136-139). With the grace and respect shown among civilized men, Duke Senior and Orlando, there are many worse and more woeful places wherein Jaques could dwell. The debate is between cynicism and convention, Diogenes and Alexander the Great. Duke Senior defends the superior of the latter, while Jaques seems tempted by the former.
We now turn to Jaques’s monologue. “All the world’s a stage” is stated by Jaques in response to the Duke claiming that there are “woeful pageants” elsewhere that are far worse than the present situation. Jaques undermines Duke Senior’s claim not by denying that there are worse situations elsewhere, but rather that all situations are mere fantasy. The word “All” is used twice to encompass both ‘all the world’ and also ‘all the men and women’. The most significant word in the opening sentence is “merely” used to describe players. The reason for this significance is that it serves to deny praise of theatre, claimed by some, and rather to highlight Jaques’s pessimism about the nature of things. In other words, a “mere” player is directly connected to the stage, and one could make the claim that all the world’s a stage is a Platonic or perhaps Nietzschean notion that high art is what forms the basis of culture, however Jaques is not a creator, in the way that Prospero is in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Recall Prospero’s “our revels now are ended” monologue during the fabled marriage ceremony of his daughter, Miranda. He laments the transience of all things man-made, but perhaps not to bring them all down and see things from a jaded, disillusioned perspective. Jaques, being a young man and well-traveled like Odysseus, is quickly and easily reoriented by the fool to be a woeful Epicurean moral philosopher. His opening statement is an ontological claim -all the world is a stage. He does not use poetic similes, such as ‘like’ or ‘as’ imagery to highlight his claim to knowledge of the meagerness of the world and all the men and women who dwell in it.
“They” (or all the men and women) have their “exits and their entrances” and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. Jaques has moved from denying the authenticity of the stage, to affirming the falsity of all busy men and women, to examining the life of one man in his seven ages, limiting human beings to a short and easily defined life. Under the weight of this new perspective gained from the fool, Jaques proceeds to identify the seven ages of man. For guidance through each age, we turn to the help of Robert Smirke’s painting series in 1798-1801.
1) Infant: this stage is defined only by one sentence, of an infant “mewling and puking” in his nurse’s arms. Here Jaques employs the grotesque, rather than the charming, to describe an infant that is typically the subject of adoration.
2) The “whining schoolboy” who goes to school by “creeping like a snail” in order to avoid the cane. He also has a “shining face” and a satchel. He has gone from mewling to whining.
3) The “lover”: in this stage he ‘sighs like a furnace’ with a woeful ballad (we recall Orlando and Rosalind’s great sighing in fits of love) with the ballads being written for his mistresses’s “brow” (taken from Petrarch). We note that in the first three ages, there is great suffering.
4) A “soldier”: here he is full of “strange oaths” and also “bearded like the pard”or a leopard. He is jealous in honor, sudden and quick (recall “swift footed Achilles”) and he is seeking a reputation even in the cannon’s mouth. The cannon destroys both life and fame, the cannon’s mouth does not echo the deeds of great man, only ends them without glory, we recall the moment Don Quixote encounters a gun for the first time.
5) The “Justice”: his belly is now fair and round, like a rooster or a capon. His eyes are severe now and his beard has a “formal cut”. He is also full of “wise saws” and “modern instances”, or arguments and justifications. Note that the “Justice could be replaced with a sophistry.
6) Jaques bookends the last 5 stages with “and so he plays his part” and a period. In the sixth age he is older with “pantaloons” and “spectacles”. Suddenly the world is too wide for him. His voice turning to “whistles” and “pipes” again. This age is also bookended with a period, whereas the first four were with a semicolon.
7) The last scene “ends this strange and eventful history” and is called “second childishness” that is sans teeth, sans eyes, and sans everything. Along with childishness it is called “mere oblivion”. This fatalism concludes Jaques’s monologue and, shortly following, concludes Act II.
For this reading I used the essential Arden 3rd edition of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
In Book III of Herodotus’s Inquiries, we encounter a problem among the Persians. The untimely death of the insane king Cambyses has led to a power vacuum filled by the corrupt Magi. When the Persians finally instill a revolt against the Magi, a conspiracy of seven men decides to storm the palace and regain power. However, the problem remains for the future of Persia: what form of government should be established? How will it be decided? What is the most just regime?
The first to declare the best means forward, Otanes, encourages the men to place the government in the hands of all Persians, a democracy. He says this in reaction to a monarchical form of government wherein the regime is neither “pleasant nor good,” and as justification he reminds the men of the terrible monarchs, Cambyses and the Magus, to demonstrate that a Monarchy is unnatural and short lived. Additionally, in presenting his case, Otanes asks: how could a monarchy be coherent and harmonious when the ruler is accountable to no one? Otanes seeks for accountability and a more pleasant regime. He makes the claim that even the “best of men” will go insane by the immense amount of power placed in him, which spawns envy and arrogance, in which all evil lies, and human nature is incapable of overcoming these in the position of a tyrant. However, the rule of the majority has the most “beautiful” name of all -Equality. All actions are drawn by lot and are held accountable by the many, everything is held to an audit. Nothing is left unseen. The masses can become like Gyges and see the truth. Therefore, Otanes proposes elevating the masses of men to a ruling position, because “in the many is the whole”. As is the nature of democracy, or a rule of the people, Otanes is concerned primarily with numbers. Like the shape of a square, he longs for a mathematical equality that can be apportioned to the “whole” so as to present a safe option that does not risk corruption.
Next, Megabyzos, defends an oligarchic regime. He agrees with Otanes’s criticism of a monarchy, however he states that nothing can be more worthless than an effectual mob, which is the natural tendency of democracy. In escaping the arrogance of a tyrant, the Persians must not seek salvation in the undisciplined and uneducated common people (here, Megabyzos employs the word demos meaning common people or demes, districts located outside the center of the polis, the Acropolis. Otanes had previously employed the use of plethos, meaning a majority or koinon meaning the authority of the public or the common people). Megabyzos accuses the masses of men of behaving like an undiscerning torrent -this is a good option for the enemies of the Persians but not for the best of men among the Persians. He ends his apologia stating that the present company will be included among the future oligarchs, in the rule of the few.
Finally, Darius comes forth in defense of a Monarchy. In his central argument, he asks the men to consider the best possible regime for each -democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. Undoubtedly the perfect man, the best of all men, is the ideal ruler who rules justly, like a philosopher king. In the rule of the few, an oligarchy on the other hand, private men’s quarrels turn to public hostilities as power is grappled for and this naturally results in a monarchy. On the other hand, in a democracy, when the people rule, they will always do so incompetently, so that the people must form compacts or friendships with one another to keep the regime alive until the people elevate one man who they much admire, capable of keeping the regime from collapsing into anarchy. Therefore, democracy necessarily results in a monarchy as does an oligarchy. Both a democracy and an oligarchy must be forcibly instated by means of a revolution, however an oligarchy is the most naturally occurring regime. Darius concludes by providing justification for the regime in that freedom for the Persians came from one man, and they should therefore preserve this inheritance by preserving their own traditional cultural values.
As in the opening sequence of Plato’s Republic wherein Socrates encounters Polemarchus and returns to the house of Cephalus, we are presented with competing visions of a city in speech. The irony of the context in which the men discuss these three regimes, as in the case of the Republic, is that they embody the various regimes. Three of the best men present defenses, putting on trial the three forms of government, however ultimately the new monarchical regime is chosen by casting of lots, Otanes is outvoted. The result is a monarchy that comes under the rule of Darius in Persia, following the rumors of divine circumstances in which lightning breaks the moment his horse whinnies outside the city, as well as subtle lies by Darius and his comrades who rig the situation (as he had alluded to earlier in Book III, foreshadowing his Machiavellian tendencies). Persia, the best polis of the barbarians, has therefore also formed the best politeia.
For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.