I was struck this time around teaching Aeschylus of the remarkable nature of this play. Robert Fagles in his illuminative commentary, "Serpent and the Eagle", claims that the Oresteia stands as one of the two greatest works of the golden age (the second being Phidias' Parthenon). Indeed, when one considers the problem of, as Fagles calls it, the perpetual cycle of human barbarity then the Oresteia offers a solution that is unique in history and pivotal to the development of Western thought.
When I teach the work I always begin by reflecting on the idea that drama originated as a bloodless representation of the bloody sacrifice of a goat or man for the sake of the city. The cathartic experience of seeing another living creature die for the sake of the city's sin, literally of witnessing a "scape goat", cannot be underestimated in the modern world. We all still need this cathartic experience which, as Walker Percy points out, seems to elevate us out of our daily life of complacent normalcy. Thus we still go for thrills at amusement parks, sports, movies, games, anything to jolt us out of the dull greyness of life. For those witnessing this early form of ritual violence the result must have been powerful.
But for the victim it was probably no bed of roses. Thus the myth that the goat sang a song of sorrow before being killed; a goat (tragos) song (oidos) that led to the tragedy (tragoidos) of later civilization. Tragedy became the bloodless representation of the bloody ceremony of death that prompts catharsis. The same jolt could be had through seeing simulated violence instead of seeing real violence and thus a civilization gained the merits of the cathartic experience without the barbarity of bloodshed that disrupts with its inevitable consequences. Mythologically, some god must surely have sent this bloodless substitute. Thus Dionysus, it was said, granted to Athens the Dionysiad; the week-long religious festival of dramatic performance. What began as a single chorus chanting the sorrowful dirges of death (perhaps as accompaniment to the impending sacrifice) evolved at some point to a chorus and a single actor (named Thespis for the sake of argument and thus "thespians"); this evolved again into chorus and several speakers and eventually into several individual characters as we have in modern drama.
The tragoidoi were, however, much more like modern religious ritual than modern entertainment. Just as in the modern Mass of the Catholic Church a single speaker (the priest) would lead a chorus (the congregation) in a series of movements, setting, dress, music, and words all designed to create a mythological world separate from daily experience and reinforcing the idea of a greater or elevated reality to human existence. (As a side soap box, the Church used to have, therefore, beautiful music, robes, incense, lighting, a dress code all in existence to create this separate world. Modern Catholicism abandons all this and so losees the whole sense of drama as ritualized transcendence. But that is another issue).
Aeschylus' plays are not too far removed from the chorus and one or two speakers of earlier drama. His play is still a religious iteration of the reality underlying human existence (like someone writing down the words of the Mass read by later generations). Oresteia, Fagles says, is a dramatic retelling of an eternal human story of death and rebirth; a movement from darkness into light. Yet the play also answers the age old question of what to do with human violence.
The problem with our race is that our default state of thought is tribal; we think first and foremeost in terms of The Tribe. Most of our history is a bloody business of violence and retaliation which emerges primarily from thinking in terms of ourselves as members of a tribe rather than of a polis, or city. Tribe does not mean just primitive societies such as Africa or Indians of Brazil or natives of Borneo, nor is tribe merely a question of sanguinity; "our kin". Rather it is a way of thinking about the world that keeps us primitive and violent
I refer, here, to the analysis of David Pryce-Jones in his study of the Middle East, "The Closed Circle". Pryce-Jones sets out three main criteria that distinguish tribal thought from polity thought. Tribal thinking consists of
1. "our group" greater than "their group"; us vs. them; we are blessed and they are damned
2. honor and the gaining of honor as the driving force of society; all is justified in the acquisition of honor
3. coersion as the main force to influence those w/in the tribe; force or violence
All lead to greater violence, retaliation, and more violence. The constant violence in Palestine, Afghanistan and Africa; the gang wars in Los Angeles and Chicago; the bloodshed in Japan all emerge from this form of thinking. How to break this? Can one break this especially since it goes back to the neolithic era or beyond? The cycle of violence seems perpetual; something ingrained in us from the dawn of rational humans. We specialize in slaughtering one another. Nor is our slaughter ended simply by sending Jimmy Carter to the Middle East.
Aeschylus' play suggests, to the contrary, that the perpetual cycle of human barbarity can be overcome.
Yet it can only be conquered by a radical shift in thought. First recognizing that this bloody cycle is a reality, is perpetual, and emerges from thinking in terms of the tribe. Second, Aeschylus suggests that the cycle can be overcome only by triumphing over "the barbarian latent in ourselves"; the hubristic capacity to commit all manner of horrors. This violence is a form of barbarism antithetical to civilization, yet within every person - everyone is capable of committing horrors. Only by triumphing over the barbarian w/in can we possibly break the cycle of violence. But how is this triumph over ourselves accomplished?
Aeschylus suggests, according to Fagles, that it is done by compassion and lasting self-control. The first, compassion, is loving your neighbor as yourself, seeing the annointed image of God in your neighbor. The second, lasting self-control, is pulling the plank out of our own eyes before taking the splinter out of our neighbor's eye. It must be lasting - like the alcoholic realizing he is an alcoholic must take steps against his disease and refrain, for the rest of his life, from drinking. So too the person wanting to conquer this barbarism must act upon love, realize he has been bought at a great price, and continually control himself from acting contrary to this love.
The serpent of our tribal barbarian, loathsome, close to the earth, inhuman in its reptilian coldness, has to be conquered by the eagle of our political self, immortal, autonomous, angelic. Only this conquering of the serpent in us, this movement out of darkness to light, from earth bound slavery in sin to the freedom of the new dawn, only this is a solution to what otherwise would prove a lasting servitude of horror and blood. This remarkable insight on the part of Aeschylus at the dawn of the Golden Age of Athens, even if it didn't take root in the Athens that was eventually defeated by Sparta at the end of the Polyponnesian war, nevertheless paved the way for the greater and more powerful mythology that was to dominate Europe for over 2000 years, which was to alter the course of Western Civilization from barbaric tribal roots to civilized political cultures, which even now seems the only solution to the problem of perpetual bloodshed and retribution.