Expanding the Liberty Canon: Aeschylus, Tragedy and the Oresteia

Notes On Liberty

Ancient Athens was the place where the comic and tragic traditions in western drama began. Aeschylus (c. 525 BCE to c. 456) was the first of three great tragedians. The other two will be considered in the next two posts. The work of those three is often known as Attic tragedy, with reference to the region of Attica which contains Athens and was part of the lands of the Athenian city-state at that time. The idea of a city state with extensive land outside the city might sound oxymoronic, but city states which expanded into neighbouring territory and where power still rested in institutions of city self-government, are generally still referred to as city states.

The tragedies were performed in day long festivals, which included religious sacrifices, and heavy consumption of wine.  Festivals took place in an outdoor theatre, the amphitheatre, examples of which can still be seen in Athens…

View original post 1,639 more words

Civic Dialogue and Irrational Desire in Euripides’ Orestes

Euripides tells a story of the murder of Clytemnestra by her son Orestes, which Aeschylus had already dealt with in the Oresteia.  There are  major variations in Euripides’ telling.  In both stories Agamemnon is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra after his return from the Trojan War, their son Orestes murders her with the help of their daughter, Electra.  What Euripides most obviously adds is a story about Menelaus and Helen (of Troy).  As Homer explains in The Iliad (the story of Ilium, the Greek name for Troy which is a Roman word), the Trojan War began because the Trojan Prince Paris seduced Helen, wife of the Spartan King Menelaus, and took her to Troy.  Menelaus’ brother King of Argos (Mycenae) assembles an army of all the Greek states.  After 10 years Troy falls, Menelaus takes Helen back as his wife, and all the surviving Greek leaders and soldiers return to Greece.   Homer’s story may have a historical basis in a Greek assault, towards the end of the Bronze/Mycenaean Age, just before a Mediterranean Dark Age,  on now the ruined city in Hısarlık, western Anatolia, which is possibly the city known to the Hittites as Wilusa, but it is impossible to know this for sure.

According to Euripides, Menelaus sends Helen ahead of him by ship, at the end of the journey back from Troy, by night because she is so widely hated.  She is hated because her adultery with Paris (and adultery was a serious crime for the Ancient Greeks) lead to the deaths of thousands of Greeks.  The suggestion is that women in particular hate her because of the deaths of husbands and sons, with the implication that jealously of her famous beauty is also a factor. Orestes has murdered his mother in cooperation with Electra.  He is in a state of what we now think of as mental breakdown, though Euripides describes it as visions of the supernatural.  What Orestes sees are the Furies, the ugly looking semi-divinities which pursue revenge justice, and are understood to be female.  Orestes even mistakes Electra for one of the Furies.  Orestes comes under pressure from two directions.  Firstly, he is hated in Argos for murdering his mother.  Though Clytemnestra murdered King Agamemnon, for Orestes to kill hİs mother is to pollute himself and go against ideas of divine and Greek law.  Secondly, the return of Helen intensifies his frenzy to kill evil women.  Electra also hates Helen.  Se helps Helen to pass on a funeral offering for Clytemnestra, which includes some of Helen’s hair.  Electra is outraged by what she sees as Helen’s vanity in only cutting the end of some of her hair, so that her beauty is not impaired.  Orestes has an encounter with Tyndareos, father of both Helen and Clytemnestra.  He is deeply angry with Orestes, and condemns Menelaus for having friendly relations with Orestes despite the murder of  Clytemnestra.  Orestes and Tyndareos have an argument, which partly revolves around the idea of Orestes speaking his mind fully, which could be taken as a reference to the value of free public speaking, which Euripides emphasises in connection with Athens in The Suppliant Women (see two posts back).  The argument establishes that Tyndareos regards Orestes as a criminal, and that Orestes thinks he was right to kill his mother.  This is a moment of free speaking which does not resolve anything or lead to a political solution.

Tyndareos and the common people of Argos want Orestes executed.  Euripides represents the opinions of the common people in a negative way despite his apparent respect for free speaking citizens. There may be an implicit criticism of Athenian democracy here.  The people are shown to speak out of anger and manipulation, rather than well formed judgement.  Though the aristocratic and royal characters do not appear very rational either.  Orestes is faced with mob justice, the divine vengeance of the Furies, and the possibility of more normal forms of legal condemnation.  This drives him further into a frenzy in which he consider joint suicide with Electra, and wants to kill Helen.  He succeeds in trapping Helen and nearly kills, but she suddenly disappears.  In his continuing frenzy Orestes grabs a Phrygian man, that is a man from a people who lived in western Anatolia, who has come back with the Greeks from the Trojan War.  This results in a grotesque parody of the sort of free speaking Orestes had engaged in with Tyndareos, and which was associated with Athenian democracy.  Orestes forces the man to speak his mind, but of course the man is frightened that Orestes will kill him if he says the wrong thing.  So he says what he thinks Orestes wants to hear, denouncing Helen, and so on, and Orestes realises the mans just says what he thinks Orestes wants to hear, which makes Orestes even more frenzied.

Menelaus arrives and Orestes grabs Hermione, the daughter of Helen and Menelaus, threatening to kill her.  Since Helen just disappeared (Menelaus thins Orestes has killed her and wants the body to bury), Orestes wants to use up his anger on the nearest thing.  He wants to destroy all wicked women and seems to regard women as largely wicked.  This is an extreme version of  general Greek attitudes, according to which women were inferior, irrational, and willing to betray.  His threat to kill Hermione contains an echo of Agamemnon killing his daughter Iphigenia, to win favour from the gods.  Orestes also threatens to burn down the royal palace in Argos. The god Apollo appears suddenly in order to resolve the situation.  He reveals that Helen was swept away by divine influence from murder by Orestes, so that she can live with dead heroes in a kind of Greek heaven.  He tells Menelaus that Helen cannot continue her previous life, because her beauty is so dangerous, serving the gods as an instrument to promote war between Greeks and Trojans, something they want because they wish to reduce the number of humans.   Apollo’s argument opposes Orestes’ view that Helen is an evil woman with the view that she is just one of the victims of a beauty which surpasses that of normal humans.  Apollo tells Menelaus to find another wife and escape from the cycle of disasters associated with Helen.  Apollo  tells Orestes that he will have to go into exile in a place called Parrhasia, which is the Greek word of free speaking.  So the suggestion is that Orestes is the victim of his tendency to speak too freely, to fail to exercise moderation in his use of free speaking, and to be dominated by uncontrolled emotions.  Apollo tells Orestes that after one year, he will  have to go trial in Athen, on the Mount of Ares, the hill associated with the god of war, and with the historically real court of Areopagus.  Apollo tells Orestes he will be acquitted after the Furies have presented their case.  He will then marry Hermione (who Orestes was just threatening to kill) and become King of Argos.  He tells Menelaus that he can only be King of Sparta, and not take Argos as compensation for losing Helen.  Apollo appears to have ended the war of the gods against the House of Atreus which led to the cycle of killings.  His intervention makes Athens the centre and judge of the Greek world, and suggests that Sparta does  not have the right to dominate Greece, all very relevant to relations between Greek states in the time of Euripides.

Apollo appears in a more positive role than in Ion, where he has become the evasive dissembling and rapist god. His role as giver of order, particularly the Athenian domination of the Hellenic order is still present, and with much less unfavourable context. We seem to have a much more straight forward celebration of divinity and civic life, though based on the overcoming of very extreme tensions. Women are present in two aspects: the dangerous excess of attraction on the side of Helen; as safe women who can be married without danger. There is an implied anxiety about sexuality and desire, that it might become to dominating over a man, leading him to treat a woman as a goddess, or be bewitched by her like a sorceress, possibilities both explored by Homer in The Odyssey. Euripides ideas about proper civic dialogue seem great from the point of view of any kind of liberal, republican, or democratic theory, but are embedded in a much disturbing struggle with desires and fears, which have a nonhuman force.


Antigone: Sacrifice and Justice

The last of Sophocles’ Theban Plays  is Antigone, which was not written as part of the same set as Oedipus the King or Oedipus at Colonus, but is a good fit. Antigone is one of two daughters of Oedipus who comes into conflict with Creon, the brother of Oedipus’ wife (and mother) Jocasta. Her two brothers Polyneices and Eteocles have fought over the rule of Thebes, which led Polyneices to besiege the city to take it from Eteocles. Both die in the battle, but Creon who now takes power, has very different ideas about what it to be done wit the corpses of the two brothers. Eteocles was ruling the city, was therefore guarding it against Polyneices, and Eteocles orders an honourable funeral for him. Since Polyneices was the invader of the city, he is counted as an enemy by Creon, who commands that the body of Polyneices should be left on the battlefield, unburied and unmourned. The idea produces complete horror for Antigone,whose sister Ismeme is also horrified but less willing to take action though in the end wishing to share Antigone’s sacrifice.

Antigone takes the decision to resist Creon, and insists on burying Polyneices. The act is something that brings her into a sharp conflict between familial duty based  on divine law, and the commands of the sovereign. Leaving Polyneices unburied means that he becomes part of nature, as vultures and wild dogs will feed on him. There is an exclusion from human community and for Antigone a horror at the thought of her brother’s body decaying in the wild. Antigone is not yet married, and is clearly not at all experienced in intimate relations, as would have been expected of a woman of her standing. She is the daughter of incest, and there is a hint of improper desire in her attitude to her brother’s body.

Her repeated disobedience to Creon leads to entombment while still live, so that she becomes someone on the border of life and death. Oedipus crossed boundaries, killing  a man at the crossroads in the woods outside Thebes, the challenged and defeated the Sphinx, he became king in a city where he had no hereditary right, he found he had confused mother and wife, lost his sight, and went into the wilderness . Antigone challenged Creon, twice tried to bring her dead brother from the desecrating wilderness to ceremonial burial, and was placed between life and death. Antigone’s punishment leads to her suicide by angling in the tomb, paralleling the death of her mother after finding she has married her son. The death of Antigone leads to two further deaths, as her fiancé Haemon commits suicide after finding Antigone’s dead body in the tomb. Haemon is the son of Creon, and his death leads to the suicide of his mother Euydice.

Creon’s command to leave the body of Polyneices unmourned, and his determination to enforce this command on his niece, leads to the death of his niece, his son and his wife. The death of his son follows Creon’s retreat from his wishes to enforce his commands absolutely. Like Oedipus, he comes in conflict with the prophet Tiresias. Tireseas exposes Creon’s claim to just kingship when he provokes anger. This follows, as with Oedipus’ earlier anger against Creon, Creon’s anger and conflict in relation to Antigone, Ismeme (the other daughter of Oedipus) and Haemon. Unlike Oedipus though, Creon does give way to the advice of Tiresias, who predicts disaster for the city otherwise. He gives way to that advice and voice of the chorus, standing for the people of Thebes. His initial stance is to claim to listen to the people, but to insist on the absolute authority of his own commands.

In the play he progresses to a more real willingness to listen to other voices, and does not arrive at anything like the total downfall of Oedipus. However, that evolution of his understanding that his power is best used when not exercised t the most extreme limit follows three deaths which leave him isolated as king in that his closest family members have gone, because of his tendencies to autocracy. An autocratic tendency focused on his attempt to deny the most basic relation of the community to death, and of family members to keep dead members within the community after death, through the proper ceremonies. A way of regulating the relation between life and death that is about the relation with the gods, which is a way of summing up the community’s relations with death, nature, its outside in various forms, internal divisions, and its enduring nature despite death and change. Antigone is named after the central female character for good reasons, but it is the story of how a male ruler who learns to understand that power is better exercised within limits, through a most devastating series of personal losses and challenges to his authority.

The play Antigone has two points of concentration: the sacrificial death of Antigone; the melancholic survival of Creon. Sacrificial death of a woman who might challenge male power is inevitable in Greek tragedy, its values are those of a very patriarchal society. The plays expose a deep ambiguity in which it is recognised that women can be agents of justice and possessed of the capacity to criticise power gone beyond measure. Creon can only be a good ruler after learning from Antigone, becoming her in some way. He placed her alive in a tomb, which might serve as a metaphor for her relation to his kingship.

Oedipus Tyrannus: Political and Individual Disintegration

The transliterated Greek title of Sophocles famous play is given, because it is important to be aware that the meaning of kingship is at stake, and that Oedipus is defined as the less legitimate kind of king, tyrannus rather than basilieus. The very negative meaning tyrant has now was not so clear for the Ancient Greeks, though the word was certainly used in a negative way. Plato and Aristotle certainly gave a negative meaning to tyrant as opposed to the king who rules through moderation and justice. However, Plato tried to educate the tyrant of Syracuse Dionysius II, in becoming a proper philosopher-king, and other tyrants attended Plato’s school the academy. Of course, Plato’s intentions in contacts with such people was to persuade them to abandon tyrannical behaviour, I can’t see any reason to think that Plato wanted them to give up the power they had.

Going back to 6th century Athens, the tyrant Peisistratos seized power, using it against the aristocracy. He appears to have had the ability tı converse with the lower class Athenians and is treated with some respect by ancient writers, who usually leaned towards the aristocratic in politics. There is a case for saying that he forced through political and social changes which allowed the flourishing of democracy and individual liberty in 5th century Athens. Peisistratus is perhaps relevant to Sophocles’s play, it is at least worth thinking about how that might work.  The dominating figure of 5th century Athenian democracy, Pericles is also worth thinking about here, and scholars have done so. Pericles died in a plague in the city of Athens during the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, which does suggest a possible parallel with Oedipus who experiences plague in Thebes. He does not die of the plague, but his attempt to end it, by looking for the murderer of King Laius ends in self-blinding and exile, when he realises that he murdered Laius, that Laius was his father, and that he has married his own mother. None of these horrors apply to Pericles, but he was a kind of elected king.

Unlike the more traditional form of elected king who was appointed for life, Pericles had to stand for his office (of military commander in theory, political leader in practice) every year. Nevertheless he could be taken as a king-tyrant like figure in his power. That his power rested on his personal abilities and public charisma makes him like the tyrant in the meaning of the man who seizes power, the term is also applied to the descendants of such a person who hold power after him, or more traditionally established kings who behave badly. Pericles was in some ways like Oedipus, as the seeker of knowledge. He had a very educated (and aristocratic) background, his friends included the philosopher Anaxagoras, and his power rested on his intelligence, as part of his general force of personality. Oedipus came to power in Thebes, as an apparent foreigner, because he overcame the riddling sphinx, and is then destroyed by the search for knowledge of who killed Laius.

After a rather long detour through possible personal and political references in Oedipus Tyrannus, we should consider the play, which amongst other things is concerned with what kind of ruler Oedipus was. The presentation switched between the leader who listens to the people and is their representative in the opening of the play to the paranoiac tyrant who thinks the Prophet Tiresias is conspiring with Oedipus’ brother in law Creon to overthrow him. Oedipus is even identified as a tyrant by the chorus during these conflicts. He threatens torture and cannot listen to inconvenient opinions without accusations of sedition. When he does fall Creon does become king, and himself seems a bit of a tyrant, ordering Oedipus to hurry up towards his exile and ordering him to leave his children behind. Oedipus has become revealed as something monstrous, an anti-human who cannot live in the city. That status comes from being the exile who was offered a throne he did not inherit, and who found himself to be a native who had the right of inheritance to the throne. That discovery can only come with the knowledge that condemns him to be an outcast monster. In the opening scene, the Thebans are identified by Oedipus as descendants of Cadmus, not knowing that he is one of them. That already introduces the theme of incest, it is the city where every generation has intermarried, reflecting the general greek unwillingness to accept foreigners as citizens, or even the children of marriage between a foreigner and a citizen. The right of inheritance self-destructs in the play, through the outsider discovering he is legitimate heir, which brings the whole idea of kingship into question. All notions of political authority and citizenship disintegrate, more so than the ending in which power has passed smoothly to Creon suggests.

Blogging Again. My course notes on: Tragedy, Ethics, Politics; Ancient and Modern Liberty; 20th Centıry Political Theory

I’m back blogging. For the last few weeks I have been completely concentrating on writing class notes which I’ve been posting on my university website. I decided to do all the notes for a semester (14 teaching weeks) in a bloc so that I could concentrate on other projects after getting that out of the way, and so that keener students can get detailed guidance on all course material and topics. Here’s a report on what I’ve been doing. If you want to see the notes click on this link, and if my report interests you at all please do. Go to my website and click on Teaching and scroll down. Responses are very welcome via the log. The notes are to help BA and MA students get a handle on texts and issues; I’ve ended up putting a bit of myself into the notes and they’ve helped me direct my own thoughts.

BA Classes

Introduction to Politics
Ancient and Modern Liberty
More Modern than Ancient Liberty, though I covered a lot of Antique thought in the next class. I wanted to go from Plato to Mill and spend 3 weeks looking at On Liberty properly because it is such a dominant text in discussing liberalism/libertarianism/free speech/individualism/tolerance and so on I also wanted to get a full range of Early Modern, Enlightenment, and 19th Century texts to give a really full background to Mill (though not earlier Utilitarianism which is a shame maybe). I had to include Tocqueville and Humboldt, since Mill invokes them and they are great writers. I had to include Constant to really deal with Humboldt and Tocqueville, in some respects Constant provides a bridge between them. Shame I couldn’t include the very relevant de Stael (or shame on me for not making the effort). Marx had to come in and so did Hegel because he is one of the main people to deal with the Ancient/Modern distinction and relate it to different conceptions of liberty. Montesquieu, Rousseau and Hobbes had to be in there for Ancient and Modern discussion, and so did Machivelli (The Discourses) for his revival of, and commentary on, Roman Republicanism. Antique Liberty has been squeezed into two weeks: one for Plato (Apology of Socrates) and one for Aristotle (The Politics, Book III). No Cicero but plenty of discussion of the Ancient world in the later authors.

Art, Culture, Society
Tragedy, Ethics, Politics
The course alternated between aq week on a tragedy and a relevant text on political/ethical theory. Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Marlowe, Machiavelli, Corneille, Racine and Pascal covered. Sad lack of readiy available Corneille translations, even online, which is why I used Le Cid instead of Horace. Euripides, Seneca and Racine linked by comparing their treatment of Hyppolitus/Phaedra story. Seneca studied as dramatist and ethical thinker in separate weeks. Aristotle studied in separate weeks as ethical and politcal theorist. Machiavelli considered through The Prince (study of monarchical states) and The Discourses (study of republican states) in spearate weeks. Lots of ideas came up while reading, preparing notes and teaching (less than half way through) on how tragedies deal with ethical and political issues. Must do some serious work of my own on this.


Schmitt, Rawls, Nozick, Sandel, Pettit, Derrida, Habermas, Foucault

A mixture of the European and Analytic. Not so easy to bridge them, though Habermas may help when I get there. Derrida text is largely commentary on Schmitt (relevant chapters from Politics of Friendship). I’ve included all of Society Must be Defended for Foucault. Not much direct reference to Schmitt, but emphasis on politics as war connects very nicely. Nozick text is largely a discussion of Rawls, Sandel text is largely a discussion of Rawls and Nozick, Pettit text is particularly concerned with Rawls. The course has two beginnings: Schmitt and Rawls. Habermas text has some reactions to Schmitt and there are obvious parallels with Rawls, and a dialogue with Rawls about Political Liberalism. The reaction to Schmitt tends towards quarantine, but a way maybe ıf unifying topics of sovereignty, friendship, war with rights, contract, entitlement.