“Absolution in Discussion”

Alexander Kantner
October 31, 2000
Freshman Seminar

“Absolution in Discussion”

One of the central themes of Aeschylus’ Oresteia is the relationship between justice and fear. To look at the tragedy of the House of Atreus is to elucidate an aspect of man’s condition, the impulse to create and necessity to effect justice. The final act of the Oresteia, “The Eumenides” has a particular interest in this relationship. Through the actions and words of the characters, justice is defined by vengeance and retribution. If one looks at the story of the House of Atreus as a microcosm of a larger common experience of tragedy, then one sees that everyone is either party to or effected by this sense of justice. It seems then that the desire, the need, for vengeance and retribution is an inherent characteristic of humanity. The Furies further suggest in their prosecution of Orestes that fear occupies a necessary position in the human heart: “There are times when fear is good. It must keep its watchful place at the heart’s controls. There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain. Should the city, should the man rear a heart that nowhere goes in fear, how shall one any more respect the right?” (The Eumenides, 517-25) Fear and justice or born of each other, and it is through this relationship that we come to understand the endless tragedy of this story.
To understand the motivations behind the tragedy of the Oresteia is to make an inquiry into this condition of fear. There seems a definite correlation between the origin of human fear and the origin of human justice. Man seems at times unable to prevent himself from acting in ways which violate the notions of right and wrong he has established for himself. Situations arise which put the heart in conflict with itself, and it is in this conflict that he is first confronted by moral ambiguity. The ideal of justice is used to help clarify this state of ethical uncertainty, and is in fact a necessary function of the human psyche. Take for example Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia. As a king and a father he had to make a decision over which progeny he favored more, his country or his daughter. His inability to execute Iphigenia himself is testament to the conflict he felt. Every man confronts situations in which decisions must be made which contradict or at least question the foundation of morality he has set for himself. These situations are the most dire anyone can face, for they not only render morality ambiguous, but in doing so call into question the significance of anything. If one cannot define right and wrong, how can he in any way view his own actions and beliefs as virtuous or base, his life worthwhile? Consider Agamemnon’s demeanor when he returns from the war. 

I am a mortal, a man; I cannot trample upon these tinted splendors without fear thrown in my path. I tell you, as a man, not god, to reverence me. Discordant is the murmur at such treading down of lovely things; while God’s most lordly gift to man is decency of mind. Call that man only blest who has in sweet tranquility brought his life to a close (Agamemnon, 923-30).

The horrors of war are self evident, and would cause any soldier untold trauma. At the very least, however, a man would find a modicum of pride in the defense of that which he believes in. Agamemnon’s inability to take pride even in this bears witness to the devastating ambiguity which has plagued him throughout the ordeal, starting with the sacrifice of Iphigenia. He was able to conquer Troy only by murdering his daughter, and though he believed the cause worthy, was he able ever to truly move past the deed he did? Agamemnon cannot call himself a hero. “Not from the lips of men the Gods heard justice, but in one firm cast they laid their votes within the urn of blood that Ilium must die and all her people” (Agamemnon, 814-17). Instead he asserts that he was a tool of the Gods used to enact justice. Helen and her Trojan consorts have committed a basic moral sin, and this evil must be rectified. Agamemnon only asserts this, however, as a psychological affirmation of his decision to sacrifice his daughter. For if he is able to convince himself that he killed Iphigenia in order to defend a higher purpose, then he is able to see that decision as justified. It is to alleviate this devastating moral ambiguity that man erects the ideal of justice, that which defines right and wrong and defends his morality at all costs. For it is his sense of morality, his ability to perceive things as right and wrong, that makes life livable. A father could not bear the murder of his own child were he not able in some way able to render the killing just. The ideal of justice is constructed by man to help him bear the onus of the clearly unethical actions which he is at times unable to avoid taking.
There is an inherent problem though to this kind of justice. Such a stringent demarcation of right from wrong denies the existence of this moral ambiguity. This conflict does exist and it is a pervasive reality of the human experience. Nor is man only confronted by this ambiguity in matters of justice. For if one is to view justice as a necessary human construct, but a construct nonetheless, then one may also hold other supposed human virtues to the same touchstone. Take for example the idea of familial bonds. At the end of “The Libation Bearers”, Orestes is overcome by terror and confusion. Seeing the sudden apparition of the Furies, Orestes cries out: “These are no fancies of affliction. They are clear, and real, and here; the bloodhounds of my mother’s hate” (The Libation Bearers, 1053-55). It isn’t only the killing of his mother which maddens him, it is the possibility that the matricide wasn’t necessarily wrong. For such a realization shatters the ethical ethos which man’s intellect makes his reality. Man builds the ideal of justice to give himself something to fight for in defense of morality, to maintain and affirm this ethical reality. As said earlier, it is a necessary psychological function for man to establish right from wrong. Consequently when situations arise which render this distinction unclear, it is a terrible blow to the mind’s conception of reality. Thus we see Orestes’ sense of justice conjure the images of the Furies to reaffirm the iniquity of his action in order to maintain the fabric of his reality. In doing so we see the mind using fear to uphold justice. 
Man has certain impulses which by nature are inclined to push at the boundaries of morality. Sexuality, aggression, passionate desire in all its guises -- these traits all strain what man has defined as moral, for they stimulate passion on both a physical and emotional level which drives men to distraction. The passionate endless vengeance of the Oresteia is testament to this. Sexuality and aggression all contribute to the tragedy. Man is an animal, and it cannot demonstrably be claimed that the enlightened intellect of his race has ever achieved total dominion over these more instinctual traits. The greatest civilizations have all indulged in debauchery. The most idealistic constructs of humanity -- morality to religion to civilization to justice -- stand in direct opposition to and in denial of a constitutional element of his humanity. Man exists in a state of constant self censure. Thus the construction of human justice is responsible for the birth of human fear. Orestes’ experience during his trial demonstrates the dichotomy.

I plead guilty. My father was dear, and this was vengeance for his blood. Apollo shares responsibility for this. He counterspurred my heart and told me of pains to come if I should fail to act against the guilty ones. This is my case. Decide if it be right or wrong. I am in your hands. Where my fate falls, I shall accept (The Eumenides, 463-69). 

Orestes actions were influenced by two separate but related forces. He murdered out of both a passionate desire to avenge his beloved father, as well as out of a fear of justice were he not to “act against the guilty ones”. Orestes’ sense of justice is directly responsible for the fear which impels him to murder. By drawing the inherently indefinite line between right wrong, justice places a large weight upon man. Actual or not, this onus burdens him, for it excoriates wholly natural impulses, in this instance the passionate desire of Orestes to avenge his father, as morally wrong, thereby introducing the pervasive pressure of guilt into his world. Man’s perception of the world is shaped by his intellect, by the power of the intellect to make his constructs -- justice, fear, the Furies -- real. He is fully cognizant of the baser impulses he feels, yet at the same time his justice condemns him for having these impulses. Consequently, man’s central experience of his world is lined by guilt and wrought with fear. We see that justice and fear together are the issue for Agamemnon’s son. Together they caused him to act as he did, and it is through his trial that he makes the reckoning over which governs his fate. Orestes knows that his matricide was wrong; he pleads guilty at his trial. The question which will either condemn or exculpate Orestes in his own mind is whether or not the act is justified, whether or not in can be reconciled with the Furies.
This is the final conflict in the tragedy of the Oresteia. Having come this far, Orestes has moved beyond the fear which first caused him to kill. At line 598 in “The Eumenides” he proclaims: “I have no fear”. His fear of justice has gone, yet he still faces persecution by the Furies. There is a paradox here, for during the rest of the plays, the Furies had been equated with justice. Now it seems that this equation no longer exists. Having pleaded his case, Orestes says, “Where my fate falls I shall accept” (The Eumenides, 469). His fear of the situation, of what he has done and its repercussions, has eased into acceptance. Furthermore, we see the Olympic Gods vilifying the Furies: “...Zeus has ruled our dripping company outcast...” (The Eumenides, 365-6). If religion may be seen as a manifestation of the beliefs man holds, that what the Gods do are what he strives for, then we see that these forces of vengeance have indeed lost their power and grip over man’s mind, not through any trickery of the Olympians, but by an emerging desire to move beyond the vengeance and retribution which the Furies represent. They explain their sense of justice: “You must give back for her blood from the living man red blood of your body...” (The Eumenides, 264-5) It is exactly this sentiment which man is now learning to abandon. Rather, the conclusion of the Oresteia presents a new ethos.

Let not the dry dust that drinks the black blood of citizens through passion for revenge and bloodshed for bloodshed be given our state to prey upon. Let them render grace for grace. Let love be their common will; let them hate with a single heart. Much wrong in the world is thereby healed. (The Eumenides, 978-87)

A new system is established, an ethos which praises love over vengeance. And in the establishment of the new order we also see a dramatic change in the relationship between fear and justice. Vengeance comes from man’s fear of losing what he has acquired. Clytaemestra had her child “taken” from her by Agamemnon, and it was from that fear of losing her daughter that her violent passions roused Clytaemestra to action. To abandon the concept of vengeance and retribution as justice is to make way for a new, more rational sense of the term. Having deposed violent passion as the source of justice, there is now space for discussion. An inquiry into the motivation behind crime can now be made. The human intellect has emerged from behind the veil of vengeful justice it had formerly created for itself, and can now be used to its fullest faculties in order to enact a truer sense of justice, through discussion and rational evaluation of the circumstances which gave rise to the crime. This is the “wisdom won from pain” extolled by the Furies. Man is no longer fearful of what shall happen to him if he does the wrong thing. Rather, he is fearful of doing the wrong thing. Fear is no longer the instrument of justice -- it is the means by which man understands justice, and so sees its rightful place in the human heart.