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Why Aeschylus Still Matters Today

“But Aeschylus’ cosmos goes beyond Homer’s in presenting Reason, Persuasion, as an integral aspect of the cosmos that was otherwise absent in Homer.”

Aeschylus is considered the greatest of the Greek playwrights. His Oresteia remains one of the few tripartite classics of Western literature, a play and its threefold movement serve as a stirring window into the progression and development of antique literature and consciousness. C.J. Herington argued that the Oresteia includes, “a gradual climb from torment, through testing, into the light.” 

Why is Aeschylus the acme of the Greek playwright tradition, and why is he so important? On one hand, Aeschylus is great because his work is the manifestation of a long literary-philosophical tradition that was wrestling with the cosmogonic idea of strife. On another hand, it is because his works represent the ideal movement of humanity from strife, rage, and hate, to justice, love, and persuasion, which is the very spirit of civilization after all these millennia.

Cosmogony: From Strife to Strife and Love

Hesiod’s Theogony is a sublimely violent poem where the muses sing praises to the gods who engage in patricide and usurpation. The gods, which were conceived in lust and hatred, have nothing but lust and hatred toward their fathers (Uranus among the Titans and Cronus among the Olympians). Cronus castrates Uranus and his blood and phallus fall to the earth and sea giving rise to monsters and birthing Aphrodite from the open womb of Thalassa, the primordial goddess of the sea. Strife reigns supreme in Hesiod’s grand epic and is that which the muses sing in praise of.

Giambattista Vico argued that sublime poetry is the first—and primitive—instantiation of logos in human life. While Homer may have composed his grand epics before Hesiod, or around the same time, it is without question that Hesiod’s cosmos is the older one. Homer’s cosmos, while retaining much of the strife of Hesiod, is radically subversive. In this respect, Homer was the radical altering the Greek understanding of the cosmos while Hesiod was the reactionary trying to preserve—if not otherwise, return—to the more ancient cosmos of strife, blood, and guts.

Homer’s Iliad is a majestic epic of love. I have treated this subject in greater detail in my essay “Homer’s Iliad and the Shield of Love and Strife.” Whereas Hesiod’s muses sing of tyrannical gods, Homer’s muses sing of a rage-filled man in faraway Ilium who, over the course of the epic, learns something new about the meaning of life through the ingenious pen of Homer. Achilles is initially moved by his passions but, by epic’s end, comes to learn love by ordering his passions to something new and grander than rage.

In strife, Homer subtlety informs us, there is the possibility of ordering our passions to something good, something beautiful, something productive.

The defining image of Homer’s Iliad is the shield he receives after the death of Patroclus. The shield is emblazoned with two images: a seemingly peaceful city celebrating a wedding day which, upon closer inspection, is filled with strife. Surrounding that first image is the second image of a city at war. Though strife is more apparent in the second image, the strife experienced from war has led all persons: young and old, male and female, soldier and non-combatant, to be focused. In strife, Homer subtlety informs us, there is the possibility of ordering our passions to something good, something beautiful, something productive.

When rage-filled Achilles goes on his killing spree after the death of Patroclus, he slaughters the sons of Priam with his culling hand and spear. Lycaon throws himself shamelessly at the feet of Achilles and begs for his life. Achilles refuses to show pity and mercilessly cuts open his bowels as his intestines spill out onto the sand and his feet. After slaying Hector, he attempts to defile his body, but the gods prevent Hector’s bodily destruction.

In that most remarkable conclusion of Homer, Priam enters the tent of Achilles and throws himself at the feet of Achilles, just as Lycaon did. Homer inverts the image and outcome in this recapitulation of images (and Homer plays on, and pays homage to, many images of Greek mythological lure throughout his love epic). Rather than brutally cut down Priam, as he did many of Priam’s sons, Achilles learns to love and weeps with Priam. They shed tears together. Homer takes the strife-filled cosmos of Hesiod and his predecessors and turns it on its head by arguing that the cosmos is filled with strife and love, and that love may heal the strife-filled world if even for a brief moment. That is why Homer’s Iliad ends so fittingly, even though we know Troy is still to be sacked and Achilles killed.

Aeschylus’ Revolution: Toward Love and Persuasion

Enter Aeschylus. The Oresteia includes the conclusion of Agamemnon’s life. The first play in his trilogy opens with a lookout guard restless and as if imprisoned because of his duties and the restlessness that he feels. He is completely on edge and disordered. Though he looks up at the stars, the stars he knows “by heart,” the starry skies cannot guide him to the gods because he is an imprisoned watcher and his disquietude sets the ominous stage for the rest of the play.

We quickly learn that Clytaemnestra, Agamemnon’s unfaithful wife, is conspiring with Aegisthus to kill her husband as an act of revenge for killing their daughter, Iphigenia (which Euripides treats in naked detail in his play Iphigenia in Aulis), and for leaving her to be alone and worried for ten years. She feels betrayed by Agamemnon. Agamemnon’s love for her was less than his lust for power; as such, the world of Agamemnon is one that is restless, cold, and as if a prison cell of torment. The chorus hauntingly chants on the eve of Agamemnon’s murder: “The lust for power never dies—men cannot have enough!”

Order, in this bleak and ancient outlook, is brought about by power and not love or persuasion (at least in the first movement of Aeschylus’ trilogy).

The play ends in murder. It concludes with Clytaemnestra recapitulating the old cosmogonic world of strife and power as she stands over the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra whom she cut down in cold blood, “Our lives are based on pain…You and I have power now. We will set the house in order once for all.” Order, in this bleak and ancient outlook, is brought about by power and not love or persuasion (at least in the first movement of Aeschylus’ trilogy).

But this is not where the Oresteia arc ends. It continues. The Libation Bearers opens not with a restless imprisonment—but with a prayer to the gods and a plea for salvation. The opening sets the tone for all three plays, and the second act of the trilogy captures Orestes in pain and needing purgation but also his dependent on the gods who were largely absent in the brutal world of politicking and murderous scheming. It is true that Orestes will murder his mother and Aegisthus, thus standing over their dead bodies just as Clytaemnestra had done standing over the murdered bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, but where Clytaemnestra killed Agamemnon (and Cassandra) out of hatred and spite, Orestes kills his mother and scheming lover out of devotion to his father and to the gods (or so he claims). This sets up the third and final play, the Eumenides.

Orestes is haunted by Clytaemnestra’s furies which hound him into exile and pursue him to Apollo’s Temple because of the murder of his mother. But before those haunting images of a man pursued by the furies of conscience, Pythia opens the third act by discussing piety, destiny and free will, and the importance of love and family. Again, the opening of the play sets the tone and themes for the rest of the play, and the third play opens with the most optimistic imagery and language.

The furies are not just the spirits of Clytaemnestra; they are the link between the dead and the living. The furies act as intermediaries of sorts between the realm of the breathless dead and the pulsating living. That the furies hound Orestes also signifies that they are more than just Clytaemnestra’s ghosts: They are the psyche of Orestes who is haunted over his deed. The furies are the unconscious moral law written on the hearts of humans which remind us of our misdeeds and gross violations. The furies are awakened by Clytaemnestra’s wrath and pursue Orestes to Athena and Apollo (straight to the gods of reason and justice, incidentally).

It is the court case before Athena and Apollo which is the enduring achievement of Aeschylus. The furies demand justice for murder. Orestes appeals that he had done what he had done because it was the command of Apollo and because he had loved his father. No wife—and certainly no mother—would ever do what Clytaemnestra had done—or so Orestes appeals. The showdown pits instinct and persuasion against reason or persuasion: that supposedly high and noble ideal that finally enters Greek literature through the pen of Aeschylus. Athena says to the leader and the furies, “But if you have any reverence for Persuasion, the majesty of Persuasion, the spell of my voice that would appease your fury – Oh please stay.”

The furies cry out for justice in the form of revenge, which would just continue the lustful and bloody cycle of death. Athena convinces the furies that she has not supplanted their authority or prestige. On the contrary, she makes them realize that what they desire—justice—is something good and rational. The manner in which they sought to manifest justice, however, was the problem. The furies cry and wale at first but suddenly join with Athena. Love conquers hate and brings healing. “Give joy in return for joy, one common will for love, and hate with one strong heart: such union heals a thousand ills of man,” the furies chant after being persuaded by Athena and receiving a name change, a sort of baptism to represent them as a new creation. So the furies sing with Athena at the trilogy’s end, “Cry, cry in triumph, carry on the dancing on and on. This peace between Athena’s people and their guests must never end. All-seeing Zeus and Fate embrace, down they come to urge our union on – Cry, cry in triumph, carry on the dancing on and on!”

Aeschylus’ Cosmos

Aeschylus’ cosmos is not without bloodshed, violence, or torment. He has not completely shed the reality of patricide, filicide, and bloodlust which characterized the Hesiodic cosmos. Nor is Aeschylus’ cosmos the first instantiation of love penetrating the dark and fatalistic abyss of struggle; Homer achieved that (within the scope of Greek literature). But Aeschylus’ cosmos goes beyond Homer’s in presenting Reason, Persuasion, as an integral aspect of the cosmos that was otherwise absent in Homer.

In wrestling in the muck, mud, and blood, we do not remain there. We lift ourselves out of it.

Furthermore, the House of Atreus, which represents humanity as a whole, also goes through a metamorphosis over the course of the trilogy. The human actors were imprisoned, restless, and lustful in Agamemnon. The human actors are moved to passion and force in the Libation Bearers as the end of their restless lust displayed in the previous play. The human actors are finally moved to reason, persuasion, and justice when it comes to the Eumenides as Aeschylus completes the threefold movement from restless lust to persuasive justice.

It is through struggle and conflict, struggle and conflict with flesh and blood, and with conscience, that causes the great leap forward according to Aeschylus. In wrestling in the muck, mud, and blood, we do not remain there. We lift ourselves out of it. We proceed from restless passion to directed rage, and finally to ordered reason and the birth of civilization is premised on persuasion, love, and justice. The Oresteia is a window into the sad and sorry trials and experiences that pushed Orestes (i.e., us) to seek persuasion, justice, and the joy is found in persuasion and justice. Moreover, Aeschylus is a window into the development of the tension between instinct and strife with reason and order in the larger context of ancient Greek literature.

By the time we reach Euripides we see the destruction of Aeschylus’ synthesis from the cosmogonies of Hesiod and Homer (where the gods are central characters in all three). The gods and humans depicted by Euripides, the great cynic, is a return to the insufficiency of the pantheon and the ideal of persuasion. In trying to understand why Medea slaughters her children, why the depraved and enslaved women of Bacchus rip Pentheus limb from limb, and why the women of Troy, or even the daughters of men (Iphigenia) are brutally objectified and sacrificed, we must have Aeschylus in our mind when reading the horror stories of Euripides. 

Was the union of love and persuasion, as entailed by Aeschylus, really the gateway to the eradication of love in the name of persuasion? Were the furies in the right and Athena in the wrong all along (as Euripides entails in his cynical and often brutal depiction of the gods in his plays)? Can love and persuasion coexist? Are we doomed to fatalistic strife? Aeschylus is essential for anyone wrestling with these questions, as well as being a prophet in the darkness, or a demon masquerading as an angel of light—depending on how one peers into the sacristy of the Greek gods wrestled with by Hesiod, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and St. Paul, St. Cyprian, and St. Augustine among many others.

Aeschylus’ cosmos is one where love and persuasion, order and freedom, justice and punishment, are all tied together. The world that we often strive to achieve is the same world that Aeschylus hoped to achieve, more than two and half millennia ago. As such, Aeschylus remains the enduring playwright—perhaps laughing at us or weeping with us, in our struggle, like the furies and Orestes, to seek justice, to do justice, and to love without hatred or rage. Isn’t this the enduring pursuit of human civilization?.

Paul Krause is a graduate student in philosophy writing a thesis on the political aesthetics of Edmund Burke and holds an M.A. in theology from Yale and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University. He is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView and contributed to the book The College Lecture Today: An Interdisciplinary Defense for the Contemporary University (Lexington Books, 2019).

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