Progress Ancient and Modern: The Oresteia

The Furies and Orestes

It is a modern conceit that ours is a morally progressed age when compared to the world of the ancients. At least that is the impression one gets from reading books such as Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, or Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. Both Pinker and Wright, each in their own very different ways, give us insight into the brutality that was such a common, indeed daily, part of the lives of our premodern forebears- although they might quibble as to when our moral ascent away from this brutality and primitiveness began- with Pinker thinking it gained traction in the Enlightenment, and Wright pushing it further back to the appearance of the world religions.

There is also a tendency to see ourselves as more theologically or philosophically sophisticated than the ancients. How, for example, could the Greeks actually believe in those anthropomorphic gods who were thought to “live” on Mount Olympus and seemed to fill the Greeks with the twin illnesses of near continuous anxiety and misplaced hope.

I only wish that Pinker or Wright, or those who understand prayer to the gods as a version of “please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me, you’re so big, you’re so big” (@24 min) as the science fiction writer David Brin did in a recent talk,  had read and wrestled with the Greek playwright Aeschylus. For what we find in Aeschylus are tales that push human consciousness in the direction of the confrontation between values which inspire social reflection and change. The end result being something we should very much call moral progress. We also find the whole concept of the “gods” at its deepest with divinities used to personify and bring into conflict the often opposing values and existential conditions that are found in human life. This is perhaps nowhere better on display than in Aeschylus’ tragedy- The Oresteia.

The Oresteia is a trilogy: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides that deals with the issues of love and hatred justice and revenge order and chaos. There would have been a fourth part to the Oresteia, a satyr play, but it is lost. The three surviving plays tell the story of the cursed and at the same time blest (because through them comes the expansion of the human moral imagination) family of the King of Argos -Agamemnon.

Upon returning home from victory in the Trojan War Agamemnon faces a coup plotted by his wife Clytemnestra in an adulterous alliance with his cousin Aegisthus. Both Clytemnestra’s and Aegisthus’ actions are driven by the most primitive manifestation of the human desire for justice- primal revenge. Clytemnestra seeks revenge for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their daughter as “payment” to the gods for safe passage to Troy. Aegisthus is vengeful for other reasons; indeed, he is a human being created for the purpose of revenge itself, sired in incest, with his destiny to kill Agamemnon’s father Atreus for the cannibalistic murder of  his brothers.

It might seem strange to state this way, but the desire for revenge is perhaps the first rung on the long ladder of the human moral imagination (though it is not a step solely limited to humans for you can find it in other social animals as well). The idea of revenge, especially revenge for the harm inflicted on those close to us, demands that we take the rule violated or person harmed to be almost as important as ourselves for revenge comes with mortal risks to those that seek it.

In the Agamemnon revenge or “blood justice” has its due and the king of Argos is murdered by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. But the characters here are, like those in Homer, mere puppets on a string their whole soul and character propelled to preserving the moral order of the cosmos which demands, in the Greek view, that murder, whether accidental or purposeful needs to be repaid with murder. A life exchanged for a life balances the moral scale that bounds mortal existence.

This is the kind of moral order that can be seen, I think, in the Biblical Book of Revelation or the Christian idea of Hell where, in the former, God avenges the evil of the unjust who have heretofore ruled the world, and in the latter, where every earthly sin has its corresponding punishment after death. And though the concept of blood justice might have become more sophisticated for a while under Christians, with the accidental homicide the Greeks thought had moral meaning no longer being placed on the scale of justice and the interior self- the idea of intention- bearing the moral significance of an act, Calvinists would abandon this sophistication with their idea of predestination, which, arguably, brought moral understanding back to the primitive type found in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, a level the ancient Greek Aeschylus in the remaining plays of  The Oresteia would transcend, a meaning hinted at in these lines from the opening of the Agamemnon:

Zeus has led us on to know,

    The Helmsman lays it down as law

    That we must suffer, suffer into truth.

    We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart

    the pain of pain remembered comes again,

    and we resist, but ripeness comes as well.

    From the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench

    there comes a violent love. (Lines 177-184)


The second play of The Oresteia, The Libation Bearers, tells the story of Orestes’, the only surviving son of Agamemnon, revenge against his mother and uncle for the murder of his father. The play begins with Orestes visit to Agamemnon’s grave where he secretly spies a group of women shrouded in black bearing libations- offerings to be poured in prayer. The women have come to the grave to find comfort for Clytemnestra who has been haunted by a dream of being strangled by a snake that suckles milk from her breasts. Accompanying the old women is Electra, the sister of Orestes who prays for justice in the name of her father. When Electra spots a lock of what she thinks might be her brother’s hair she cries these lines, which anyone who has ever escaped the grip of despair will understand in their heart:

We call on the gods and the gods well know the storms that torment us, sailors whirled to nothing. But if we are to live and reach a haven, one small seed could grow a mighty tree.  (Lines 201-204 )


When Orestes is reunited with Electra he is urged on by her and sanctioned by the god Apollo to seek justice against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Here the trilogy begins to gain new psychological and moral depth for intersecting in the mind of Orestes are two opposing systems of value- his natural maternal love and loyalty and his paternal bond to the memory of his deceased father. It is Apollo and his “new gods” that represent a new value perhaps best understood as a move beyond the moral ties born of blood to those born from the human capacity to make and keep promises. The crime Apollo seeks justice for is Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon to whom she was bound in marriage.

It is not so much in the act of murdering Clytemnestra that Orestes becomes fully conscious of these competing value systems, his mother after unsuccessfully pleading for her son’s mercy cries out:

“I must be spilling live tears on a tomb of stone”. (Lines 926 p. 219)

Rather, it is in the aftermath that Orestes recognizes the gravity of the decision he has made:

“ What bow could hit the crest of so much pain?” (Lines 1035 p. 224)  

It is in the last surviving play of the trilogy, the Eumenides, that Aeschylus brings all these elements together, and in the process brings the human moral imagination yet another step higher beyond the bounds of either blood ties or social contact.
In Eumenides Orestes is pursued by the Furies (pictured above). The Furies are deities dating back before Zeus overthrew the earth gods- the Titans. They have been given the task by a force more powerful than even the gods- Fate- to seek justice for murder and the breaking of sacred law. Contrasted with the concept of the Furies, the traditional dichotomy between good and evil found in modern religion seems almost simplistic. The Furies are certainly a force of darkness and yet their purpose is to restore the moral order through revenge against those who murder.

Over the victim’s burning head this chant this frenzy striking frenzy lightning crazing the mind this hymn of Fury  chaining the senses, ripping cross the lyre,withering lives of men! (Lines 328-333 )

Unable to find refuge from the Furies in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, Orestes, under the advice of Apollo and with the guidance of Hermes flees to Athens where he seeks refuge in the temple of Athena. The Furies delayed by being lulled to sleep by Apollo are eventually aroused by the ghost of Clytemnestra and renew their hunt. Animal like, they follow the scent of Clytemnestra’s blood on Orestes until they find him at the feet of the statue of Athena. When the goddess Athena appears she does something that had not been seen in the entire Oresteia up until now- rather than becoming partisan she shows both sides respect. She takes Orestes at his word that he may have been guilty of violating the letter but not spirit of the cosmic law for which the Furies seek his torment, but she also shows respect to the antiquity of the Furies and their rightful powers. She does not, as Apollo does, see the Furies as monstrous and unnatural- enemies of order- but as forces with a rightful place in the cosmos. Because of this respect the Furies ask Athena to judge Orestes’ case, and here Athena does something amazing. She asks a jury of mortal men to help her decide the matter.   

Too large a matter, some may think, for mortal men to judge.  (Lines 484-485)

Acknowledging that both Orestes and the Furies seem to have a strong case and that judgement in favor of either will have deep implications Athena muses:

So it stands a crisis either way.

 Embrace the one? expel the other? It defeats me.

 But since the matter comes to rest on us, I will appoint the judges

of manslaughter, swear them in, and found a tribunal  here

for all time to come. (Lines 495-499)

Something quite startling has happened here for Athena ( Aeschylus) has managed to make the rules of the gods subject to the reasoned judgement of mortal men. I am unaware of any such a leap anywhere else in religious history. Ultimately, their cases argued the jury tied with Athena breaking it in favor of  Orestes. The Furies feel the whole moral order has come crashing down and swear revenge against Athens for upending the eternal laws of justice.

All’s lost, our ancient powers torn away by their cunning,

ruthless hands, the gods so hard to wrestle down

obliterate us all (Lines 885-887)

Athena again tries to appease the ancient gods of the Furies with respect.

But if you have reverence for Persuasion,

the majesty of Persuasion,

the spell of my voice would appease your fury- (Lines 893-895 )

Athena offers the Furies a home in Athens. Their role to be the violent force behind the justice decided upon by the reasoned decisions of mortal men or the power behind their violent struggles with others. The Furies acceptance of this new and bounded role for their powers ends the trilogy.

The Oresteia thus represents something incredible as a piece of  literature, political philosophy, or religious reflection and I think we should consider it an example of all three. Not only as a great piece of literature does it give us insight into the human experience of injustice and the corresponding desire for revenge, it is also a tale of social evolution showing us how the violence natural to human societies which arises from this need for justice is contained with the establishment of political communities. But this isn’t just any political community- it is not Hobbes’ Leviathan terrorizing men into a state of peace. It is a community built around the active participation of citizens to decide upon and bound matters of justice. As a piece of religious reflection the Oresteia is revolutionary in that it subjects the gods to the reasoned judgement of  mortals even as it urges us to show respect to the wisdom and authority of ancient traditions.

To heed its lessons; now that’s what I would call progress!

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Response to James Cross

A fellow blogger, James Cross, who writes at Broad Speculations left some comments that I thought raised enough interesting questions to qualify for a response
in the form of a full blog entry.

Here is part of James’ response to my recent post:  The Shirky-Morozov Debate Or How Facebook Beat Linux.

I am interested in Shirky’s ideas but I am a little at a loss to understand how it would actually work. The Internet and social media have potential for making major changes in collaboration and political activity, but those things are mainly the theater aspect of politics whereas actual politics is about how resources are divided up and who has power.

Shirky’s position, or at least my understanding of it that I laid out in  The Shirky-Morozov Debate, was that Shirky: “sees the potential of governance to follow the open source model of software development found in collectively developed software such as Linux and Github that allow users to collaborate without being coordinated by anyone from above- as opposed to the top-down model followed by traditional software companies i.e. MicroSoft.”

James sees  potential for collaboration and political activity offered by the Internet as  “theater aspects of politics whereas actual politics is about how resources are divided up and who has power”. If I understand James correctly, Shirky et al are pushing on a string; the Internet and related technologies may offer real opportunities for collaboration and political activity, but at the end of the day these aren’t the things that actually count; real politics is about power and dividing up resources.

James’ position as stated in the quote above is a powerful and succinct summation of a realist’s conception of power. It put me in mind of the definition offered by Hans Morgenthau:

Power may comprise anything that establishes and maintains the control of man over man. Thus power covers all social relationships, which serve that end, from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another.  (Politics Among Nations)


With all due respect to both James and the late Morgenthau, while this understanding of power appears to gel with our commonsense notions, I do not think it is correct. For my part, I hold to the definition of power offered by Morgenthau’s friend, Hannah Arendt:


Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together (The Crisis of the Republic)

Under this understanding political activity and collaboration aren’t something separate from, less real, in James’ word “actual” than power, instead, political activity, collaboration, and power are all effectively synonymous.

This collaboration or political activity does not need to be understood in a purely positive way: a secret police may collaborate in a country to exercise political control, a conqueror needs the help of local “collaborators” to effectively rule over a conquered  territory. In a positive sense a minority group can join together and with others- collaborate- to secure political rights, a resistance can engage in political activity to overthrow a dictator.  In either sense, collaboration and political activity are the essence of politics not its surface.

Even if we substituted the word “authority” for “power” in James’ formulation so that he would read:   “actual politics is about how resources are divided up and who has authority” I do not think the view of political activity, collaboration, and power being synonymous would change.  Imagine, if you will, that tomorrow some major scandal breaks upon the Obama Administration that is so deep that it alienates not just the people who already oppose him, but the majority of Americans (such as myself) who voted for the man. In such a scenario, the authority of his position as president would be almost useless, and he would be essentially politically paralyzed, not because he had lost his actual position of power, but because he would have lost the base of political support- the political activity and collaboration- that makes such a position meaningful and effective.

Once you start to look at power in this way I think a whole new set of questions start to open up. The questions are no longer necessarily “who holds power?” or “what resources does some group control?”, but, “How open is the system?” “Can any group participate or is political activity- the exercise of power- limited to some select group(s)?” “What are the barriers to participation?”

But, for me, perhaps the most important question  is “what is meant by political participation?” That is, what kinds of political activity/collaboration are encouraged/permitted by the political system.

As mentioned, Clay Shirky, among others, has thought that the Internet in particular, and the communications revolution more generally, would have lowered the barriers to political participation in a way that would make something like truly citizen-directed government possible. An example he cites in one of his talks is the open source crafting of legislation in Utah where the people collectively wrote one of the state’s laws online.  In this view, the answer to the question of “what is meant by participation?” would be decentralized collaboration between citizens who work together to achieve self-chosen ends. It is a model of politics analogous to open-source software creation such as that found with Linx.

The problem with this view is that it is detached from reality.  Nothing like citizen-directed government has really emerged from the Internet, which is far from a “new” technology.  Indeed, if the Obama campaign in 2012 is any indication , in political terms, the Internet is best thought of as a tool of mobilization not direct participation in the form of discussion and debate. Participation is defined here almost purely in terms of mobilization.

In a really interesting way, these developments seems to have brought us back to the era before television when party machines and unions would get out the vote- only now mobilization is done using social media and GOTV efforts targeted at specific individuals.  My lament here is that this politics of mass mobilization has left all the characteristics of political participation Shirky had hoped the Internet would make possible in the dust. Rather than citizen-to-citizen debate and discussion issues are already decided upon in the higher echelons of the political party. Instead of groups being organized horizontally, we are back to the world of the pyramid, with the new technologies being used to foster mobilization receiving centralized direction from the party’s data rich “war-rooms”.

To be honest, I am not even sure you could have something like truly collaborative politics as in Shirky’s Utah legislation example on the mass level of a nation even if all of the technological-political trends would have played out the way he had hoped. If you think the process is ugly now- imagine the Federal budget being crafted as an open source project by the entire country!

Still, I continue to believe that the kinds of possibilities for citizen-directed government cyber-utopians have been preaching about for years still have some potential to be realized, only at a smaller scale. I think the first step in doing this is to remember that the kind of representational democracy we have isn’t the only form of democracy to have ever existed, or perhaps even the best for all purposes.

Lately, for a book I’m working on, I’ve been looking at the most famous democracy of them all, Athenian democracy, which at the very least, offers us an example of a system that tried to maximize the opportunity for individual citizens to engage in political activity.  In what follows immediately below I will not address the glaring flaws of Athenian democracy- imperialism, the condition of women, slavery. Rather, I just want to lay out the mechanics of how their participatory system worked.

Athenian democracy differed from modern democracy in many ways, but most especially in this: that the citizens themselves, rather than their representatives, gathered together in their assembly, called the Ekklêsia, to make political decisions.
The Athenian Ekklêsia included all male, Athenian citizens, of whatever class who were over 18 years of age. It met on a hillside, the Pnyx, south-west of the Agora or marketplace. The assembly began with the words of the herald that seemed to sum up
the whole world-view that underlie Athenian democracy: “Who wishes to speak?” Here, any Athenian citizen, of whatever station, was free to bring to discussion, debate, and a vote anything which they wished.  On the Pnyx, Athenians made decisions such as whether to start or end a war, when to ostracize a citizen ( most famously Socrates),  who to name as a general, whether to found a colony, inaugurate a religious festival, or literally any other question or issue that a member of the Ekklêsia wanted to discuss and decide upon.

Citizens of Athens bore direct responsibility for their decisions in a way citizens today might find hard to grasp.  Especially in decisions of war, Athenians were asked to make complex choices which were likely to have an immediate impact on either themselves or their children.

The Athenian courts or, Dikasteria, represents another of the sharp differences between Athenian democracy and our own.   Whereas our societies are guided by the input of persons deemed to be experts in some distinct domain of human knowledge: lawyers and judges on issues of law, economists in matters of economic policy, foreign policy professionals in areas of international affairs etc. Athenian democracy had a deep distrust of experts, or more clearly, a very narrow range of fields deemed by the Athenians to be capable of true expertise- generalship and water management topped their list, and they possessed a much more widespread faith in the ability of average citizens to come to reasoned decisions on public questions.

A Dikasteria was effectively judge and jury in one. It decided whether to take a case, what evidence was permissible, came down on the question of guilt or innocence, and decided upon the final sentence.

The only qualification for serving as a dikast was being over the age of 30, which suggests that the “expertise” being selected for was life-experience more than anything else.  Dikasteria for a particular trial were huge when compared to modern juries. They  could number anywhere from a low of 500 to a high of 6,000 members. Unlike in modern legal systems, there was no public prosecutor- Athenians brought other Athenians to trial.  Nor were there lawyers, Athenians prosecuted fellow citizens or defended themselves before the dikasts.

In still another sharp contrast to modern democracies, ancient Athens possessed no executive or permanent bureaucracy. What it had was The Council of 500, or Boule.  Members of this body, which was chosen by lot from members of the Ekklêsia served
for a period of one year.  The Boule acted in a coordinating and supervisory relative to the Ekklêsia engaging in such detail oriented tasks as the supervision of public finances, or the assessment of tribute from allies.

The way in which members of the Boule were chosen by lot was indicative of the way in which Athenians viewed the idea of elections.  The idea of electing someone to political office is based on the underlying assumption that someone is, in a sense, more qualified for some position than another person. Given the narrow definition of expertise held by Athenians, the idea that most public offices demanded anything more than requirements in the form of the personal characteristics of morality and judgement, that were possessed by almost everyone, was untenable. All citizens were deemed equally qualified for most public offices.  Election as a consequence was limited to the aforementioned experts such as generals and engineers.

The whole point of the Athenian system was to maximize the possibilities for citizens to engage in substantial political participation. Our system does not have this as a primary goal. Hell, we don’t even have off of work on election day!

Athens then, is at least one model of how politics in a society that put a premium on substantial participation could be organized. Today, I can imagine all sorts of ways that technology could be used today to increase the possibilities for citizens to engage in politics above and beyond voting in elections or working for campaigns while electoral contests are being fought. Technology could help make participation easier, and more compatible with the non-political aspects of modern human life.

For example, cities and towns could adopt something like the Athenian assembly rather than the mayoral and city-council systems now commonly used. Not everyone would have to physically attend an “assembly” if those who wished to participate in some sort of political debate and decision were able to do so virtually.  The key is to make participation as easy, integrated, and seamless with the rest of our lives as possible.  If I can receive updates via Twitter on fantasy football picks, why shouldn’t I be able to get an update on the town council meeting such as “ Proposition X will be held to a vote in so many days. Log-in and vote before such and such a date if you have a position on this issue”.  If I can spend hours of time in a virtual world such as World of WarCraft, can’t I spend a fraction of that in a virtual assembly whose decisions at least have some real world impact.

Would the majority of citizens participate in this sort of decision making?  Probably not, but I have no issue with such participation being self-selecting. If all debates concern you, participate all the time, if some, then just those, or if none, devote yourself to your private concerns, but remember that you now have no justification to complain. The point is to make it as easy as possible for those who want to to have their say- let the numbers shake out whatever way they do. Participation will likely vary over the course of life of the individual and with the general social mood of the society at large.

The limits to the political influence of experts found in Athens are no doubt impossible in our complex technological society, but I can imagine software systems, and expert services that provide information to citizens so they can test assumptions about the potential impact of their decisions from tax policy to water and resource management to zoning rules.  I can imagine the application of a blended model (real world/online) of the Athenian Dikasteria to non-criminal trials, and much of litigation supplanted by community based mediation.

And there I think is a very long background in response to James’ second comment:

I find myself in a rather odd political position of being a small government progressive. I want to find ways to organize society to accomplish progressive goals without an intrusive government.Do you or anyone else have ideas on that?”

A problem, I think, is that if the goal is meaningful participation where the individual can have a substantial impact on the society in which he or she lives, then the level at which many important decisions made by the government emerge will have to move downward. Right now, the level of government where an individual can most easily have an impact, municipal government, falls off the radar of most people. Part of the reason for this is certainly the role of national media which can only cover government at the Federal, and on rare occasions the state level. But, a large part of this inattention to municipal government probably also stems from the fact that almost all important political decisions are made at the higher levels of government.

In order to place real and substantial power at the level where individuals are actually able to shape it, one would have to shift many of the responsibilities and capacities now the prerogative of the Federal and state government, to a level closer to the individual. Oddly enough, this is a change in the direction of more democracy many conservatives would get behind. My guess is that the bottom level for such a unit would be a mid-sized city and its surroundings. If you go much smaller you cannot support the cultural institutions and ways of living that form the bones and sinews of a truly distinct community, go much larger to the level of a nation and the scale no longer supports a true sense of distinct community which is a matter of shared institutions and ways of living, not shared ancestry or ideology.

Perhaps oddly enough, libertarians are at the forefront of attempting to experiment with local level governance. There is Peter Thiel’s idea of utopian seasteading  and the grandson of Milton Friedman who is hoping to create cities based on libertarian principles from scratch in the Third World, at least partially inspired the similar idea
for charter cities of the economist, Paul Romer.

My guess, however, is that, at the end of the day, such experiments won’t work and any shift of responsibility to the municipal level will actually trend in the the direction of progressive government. Even the incredibly successful city-states whose economic performance these movements hope to emulate, such as Singapore, have governments that minimize social divisions and hold the well-being of the poor to be the responsibility of the community.

What the architect of Singaporean society, Lee Kuan Yew, understands is that no true community- as opposed to some gated enclave where wealthy people live- can be composed of only the rich. (It is a disaster for a community when it is composed of only the poor).  The wealthy seem more likely to pony-up if their money goes into the community where they and their children live.  To support progressive politics a community cannot be so small that the rich will simply put up and move, or so large that the wealthy cannot see that from their largess comes a community they and their children want to live in because of the quality of its cultural institutions, its schools, and general social and physical health.

This all may seem utopian, and perhaps, especially in terms of participatory politics it is.  Much of this, however, is echoed by someone like Jane Jacobs who saw a large part of the reason for the decline of the city in the 20th century in the shift of taxing authority away from the city to the Federal government. Though, I have yet to read the book, I believe they are also echoed by in Benjamin Barber’s recent If Mayors Ruled the World where he lays out just how much more effective the mayors of large cities have been at addressing endemic social problems than the ideologically driven national political parties. The danger here is paternalism as both Mayor Bloomberg’s New York, and the aforementioned Singapore of Lee Kuan Yew, seem to attest.

Relocating much of Federal authority to the level of cities might spur major innovations: in energy systems and climate policy, educational systems, food systems, criminal justice, tax policy, promoting economic equality, care for the elderly, health care, and the way we relate to and integrate technological and scientific innovation, which could prove scaleable and serve as solutions to the wider and more important national and international aspects of these issues. It might balance out the mind-numbing homogenization of modern industrial society: ”And each town looks the same to me the movies and the factories” (Simon & Garfunkel, Homeward Bound) from Shanghai, to Moscow, to London to New York.  As mentioned,  it might also put a brake on the tendency of the rich to avoid taxation because the effect of their taxes will be immediately manifest in the communities it which they live.

This century will be the first in which the majority of the human population will live in cities, if they can be allowed to get it right, things will work out for all of us- even for country dwellers like myself. One way to do that would be to relocate some of the powers of national governments regarding taxation, economic, and social policy back to the cities. Here also, I think a different, more participatory, and even more progressive form of democracy could find its 21st century home.

Thanks for inspiring this post James! As always, critical comments from everyone are desired.