Aristotle, Oedipus, and Greek Tragedy

There has been a longstanding debate, dating back to Aristotle, regarding the purpose or telos of tragedy, and whether or not the key “tragic” element is the result of a unique or particular character flaw caused by the protagonist. In other words, is Oedipus merely a flawed human being who has brought about the destruction of himself, his family, and his city of Thebes? Is King Lear’s madness, and the subsequent downfall of his kingdom, the result of his own tragic undoing? It is a popular scavenger hunt for modern academics to search through the psyche of King Lear or Oedipus to find some fatal flaw -some poor decision they made as in the case of King Lear and his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. The purpose of this mode of scholarship is to uncover a convenient and easily digestible moral lesson from the tragedy.

Truly, a case can be made that Sophocles and Shakespeare offer tragedies to educate the polis, though perhaps not by mere moral allegory. Or at least this is not an Aristotelian reading of tragedy, according to Aristotle’s Poetics.

In the Poetics, Aristotle claims that all art is mimesis (imitation) and that all forms of tragedy are imitations of “actions and life” and not of “people” (1453-1454b). A tragedy is an imitation of one whole action, not a person. What is key to a story like Oedipus Tyrannus, is the changing of opposing and unpredictable events, such as when the old Corinthian messenger appears at Thebes to ease Oedipus’s mind, but his story actually does the opposite and sends Oedipus’s life into a tailspin. The action has already been complete. Oedipus merely realizes the tragedy of his life. This scene is composed of reversal, discovery, and suffering. In this way, tragedy imitates “fear and pity” (1452b). Everything Oedipus believes is reversed, and the oracle is proved right.

Oedipus and Antigone by Charles Jalabert (1842)

Tragedies, according to Aristotle, ought not to show men going from good to bad fortune as this is “repellent” and is not pitiable, and also not the converse for this is un-tragic. Therefore, Aristotle famously claims that a tragedy must beautifully show men “not surpassing in virtue and justice” so that they do not fall on account of some character flaw,  for they are imperfect by nature, but rather “on account of some missing of the mark” (1453b10). What does he mean by missing the mark? He uses this language elsewhere in the Politics as well as the Rhetoric. For Aristotle, there is a certain “mark” or “telos” in all things: nature, politics, art, and so on. The aim of human life is excellence or virtue understood as happiness by contemplation, the aim of the city is happiness and harmony in parallel to human happiness, the aim of poetics is catharsis.

In order to clarify, Aristotle uses Oedipus as an example to show how the spectator experiences katharsis – perhaps a purging of pent up primal desires, or also a kind of cleansing. This word, now written as catharsis, is meant to convey what he says in the Nicomachean Ethics, which is that all virtues of character are directed at an action that is beautiful, in itself, and this is the good. Therefore, the tragic action befalls an ignorant person who comes to realize the highest purpose of his life is no longer possible: his happiness in life is made impossible. He has “missed the mark.” The tragic hero must be relatable in his complexity, and the tragic elements cannot merely be the result of petty character flaws. In a word, the downfall of Oedipus is not a fault of his own, nor susceptible to modern psychoanalysis (for Aristotle had no notion of anger or spiritedness –thumos– as being a kind of character flaw as defined in the Nicomachean Ethics) but rather the destruction of Oedipus and his family is terrifying, just as the suffering in his life is pitiable. This is the teaching of Oedipus: that people in the audience are elevated (katharsis) when reminded that they, noble and pious people, can see a tragic fate, despite all their best efforts to appease the gods and do what is right. Amor fati is the teaching par excellence.

For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s masterful translation of Aristotle’s Poetics.

Thoughts on Aeschylus

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, The Libation Bearers, 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.

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.