Monday, December 27, 2010

Gods and Men Together: Guilt and Grace in Democratic Community


            The problems of human community and its governance are at the heart of Aeschylus’s The Oresteia.  The trilogy dramatically presents the pathology of power in the royal family of King Atreus, and most particularly in the murder of his son Agamemnon by his wife Clytaemnestra.  The relentless cycles of blood revenge, as the only way to restore order in Greek society, is brought to a halt in the tragic circumstances of the house of Atreus.  The death of a king is the central act which brings all questions of governance and the proper role of the gods literally to the stage of Athens.  In order for the play to propose a cure for human society (through a new understanding of the gods), the disease of our condition must first be diagnosed.     
            The vision of monarchy in the example of Agamemnon is polluted, impure, vicious, and immoral.  No contrary argument could be advanced.  In the cycles of revenge in the play, unchecked human power is completely convicted by Aeschylus.  The old vision of the gods and human kingship is thoroughly indicted, and the blood is on everyone’s hands in the first two plays.  The deepest values—what we should hold dear—have been continually sacrificed in the pursuit of power, wealth, empire, and revenge.  A father should never kill his daughter to wage war and plunder another nation.  A wife should never kill her husband, nor a son kill his mother.  In The Oresteia, parents kill their children, and children kill their parents, the deepest violation of human morality imaginable.  Hosts kill their guests, and guests kill their hosts.  The old order was no order at all, and Aeschylus highlights that the search for power and wealth, even under the auspices of democratic reforms in a new age, may enact the bloody cycle of revenge and immorality on an even larger scale.  The hubris of Agamemnon could perhaps be seen in the transformation of the Delian League from an institution to defend the Greek states to an arm for empire through domination of the seas.  Many in his audience would have made the connection.        
One might be able to argue that Aeschylus actually replaces the system of the gods through his vision of democracy, the “Athenification of the people” as it were.  The emptiness of human prayer and ritual in Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers are pervasive.  The gods are certainly nowhere to be seen in the first play, and the only sense of progress in the second one is in the growing awareness of absolute moral failure in Orestes.  This awareness comes even as he commits another murder, but he does learn that the cycle of revenge isn’t going to change anything.  Using the gods to purge bloodshed so that more bloodshed can be committed is no religion at all; it is blasphemy.  Even Apollo himself needs to learn this new lesson in the trial of Orestes.  The power of divinity must adapt to the new moral vision to survive, and the Furies demand coherence from the gods.  Yet the gods of Greeks do survive in these plays, and through these plays.  The playwright orders their preservation directly within his vision of civic pride through democratic activity, including the Areopagus as the central place to administer justice after homicides.  In order for humans and gods to survive, they must work together in human democracy, and the gods must be moral too.   
Aeschylus continually places the gods in the middle of human suffering; that every human and Athens herself must “suffer into the truth.”  Suffering is not seen as the failure of the old system of the gods, but rather as divinity’s difficult but necessary gift for our survival.  Humanity may truly serve the gods when we finally learn to serve each other.  The Oresteia is a kind of remedy for humanity’s original sin--when Man chose power over truth, and the treasures of empire over the primal bonds of family.  The antidote of Athenian democracy is then our penance and our grace.  Democracy is a kind of theophany to Aeschylus.  The love, loyalty, and justice which Thyestes, Iphigeneia, Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra, and Orestes deserved from each other as family are now the civic expectations of one citizen to another in a vision of the common weal.  The way Athenians treat their gods is thereby wed to how people treat each other.  Democracy is the sacramental place where gods and men come together, and the new priesthood, if there is one here, is among the tragedians who continually consecrate the new reality in the liturgies of their plays.

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