Aeschylus’ Eumenides: The Furies on Justice

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The Eumenides is the last surviving play in Aeschylus’ Orestia. In Agamemnon, Agamemnon, King of Argos, who returns victorious from the conquest of Troy, is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra. In the second play, The Libation Bearers, their son, Orestes, at the instigation of Apollo, exacts retribution for his father’s death by killing Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. In the third play, Eumenides, Orestes is hounded by Furies, ancient gods who avenge matricide. Orestes seeks help from Apollo, who is unable to deter the Furies, but assists Orestes in getting to Athens, where he throws himself on the mercy of Athena. Athena determines the matter is of sufficient gravity to warrant a trial. The Furies go along with her course of action even though they maintain nothing short of revenge on their terms will suffice. And they argue that effective deterrence is necessary for the social order to function.

From the Richmond Lattimore translation:

There are times when fear is good.
It must keep its watchful place
at the heart’s controls. There is
in wisdom won from pain.
Should the city, should the man
rear a heart that nowhere goes
in fear, how shall such a one
any more respect the right?

Refuse the life of anarchy;
refuse the life devoted to
one master.
The in-between has the power
by God’s grant always, though
his ordinances vary.
I will speak in defense
of reason: for the very child
of vanity is violence;
but out of health
in the heart issues the beloved
and longed-for, prosperity….

The man who does right, free-willed, without constraint
Shall not lose happiness
nor be wiped out with all his generation.
But the transgressor, I tell you, the bold man
who brings in confusion of goods unrightly won
at long last and perforce, when ship toils
under tempest must strike his sail
in the wreck of his rigging

He calls on those who hear not, caught inside
the hard wrestle of water.
The spirit laughs at the hot hearted man,
the man who said “never to me,” watches him
pinned in distress, unable to run free of the crests.
He had good luck in his life. Now
he smashes it on the reef of Right
and drowns, unwept and forgotten.

The jury issues a split verdict, and Athena casts the deciding vote in favor of Orestes, in part because she was persuaded by Apollo’s argument that women are mere vehicles for the seed of the father, and in part to affirm the principle of mercy. The Furies threaten to ravage the land, but after considerable persuasion by Athena and a bit of a bribe, they relent.

So the Furies, the representatives of an old, unforgiving order, were willing in the end to yield. That attitude seems to be less and less in evidence in our supposedly far more advanced civilization.

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  1. El Snarko

    Beautifully analogized. This depth of expression and quality of thought are alien to the cannibals with forks who most should avail themselves of it.

  2. Joe Rebholz

    “There are times when fear is good.”

    But most of the time fear is not good. Too many people think with fear and anger which distort their thinking. Is our fear realistic? That is the question we must always ask.

    1. F. Beard

      It’s the object of fear that is important:

      Psalm 112:1
      Praise the LORD! How blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in His commandments.

      Psalm 128:1
      A Song of Ascents. How blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in His ways.

      Psalm 128:4
      Behold, for thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD.

      Proverbs 28:14
      How blessed is the man who fears always, but he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity.

      1. Joe Rebholz

        For earthly things, fear is appropriate for immediate responses to immediate threats such as a possibly poisonous snake on the path in front of you. When you have time to think fear should be set aside since fear distorts your thinking by making it very difficult to focus your attention on anything else but the object of your fear. But many people continue to be emotionaly aroused by their fears (and angers, hatreds, etc.) about distant hypothetical possibilities (like terrorist attacks). This limits peoples’ ability to make more realistic, effective responses. Propaganda works well by continuously maintaining high levels of fear, anger, hatred against “enemies”, opponents, other political parties, individual persons, etc. This is “thinking with too much fear and anger” and too many people think this way too often.

    2. TK421

      Fear can be useful, like any feeling, but unless a person keeps an eye on their feelings with their rational intellect they are no different than a schizophrenic.

    3. TiresiasAGW

      Fear, here, is being talked about in a ‘non-modern’ or at least non-psalmatic way: It is fear of doing something wrong. And suffering the consequences of the old atavistic parameters for moral behavior. The rise of the church started a transition away from the moralistic fate that comes from the gods-to-be-avoided, displacing it into sin from which deliverance is assured.

      In our modern conception, it has mutated, or devolved, even more: Fear is now a worry or anxiety meant to cause anger, xenophobia, paranoia, and aggression. Please do not confuse the classical with the post-classical, or with the modern.

  3. F. Beard

    That attitude seems to be less and less in evidence in our supposedly far more advanced civilization. Yves Smith

    Appeals to mercy are useless because in economics it is supposedly “kind to be cruel and cruel to be kind”. That’s a lie, btw, but a widely believed lie among the so-called “serious people.”

    Appeals to justice, otoh, are harder to dismiss since supposedly that is what our economic system is based on though it isn’t. Instead, our economic system is based on a government backed/enforced counterfeiting cartel, the banking system, which favors the so-called “credit-worthy” over every one else.

  4. notjonathon

    Welcome back, Yves. We have missed you. LS has done truly excellent work, but you are the heart of this blog.

    Not used to delivering words of great praise, but I opened a bottle of California “Champagne” yesterday and drank a portion of it. I then capped the bottle with a great (yes, it is rather large for a stopper, but I refer to its qualities) stopper, but tonight (Guam time, which is EDT + 14hr) I had to finish the bottle, for it cannot be capped twice. Unused as I am to consuming so much. . .

    As a lurker of long standing (from here and from Japan), I’d like to convey my thanks for your insight.

    When sobriety returns, I might even try some constructive commentary.

    1. William C

      Agree great to see you back Yves, though LS has done very well.

      Great also to see the Classics being cited. They still remain relevant. Here in London we have a production of Antigone which has got a rave review (basic story line is Antigone defies the King Creon by insisting on burying her brother because that is right rather than leaving his body to be eaten by the animals. Creon has her put to death. The basic dilemma is: do you do what is right or what the government tells you?) According to the review the actor playing Creon plays him as Tony Blair.

      The Eumenides was written at a time when democracy in Athens was becoming increasingly powerful. So another respect in which our era may be providing interesting, less than wholly reassuring comparisons?

  5. F. Beard

    Yes, welcome back Yves. It’s a pleasure to see you haven’t abandoned us! I hope the rest did you good.

    Lambert did very well, I agree.

  6. docG

    The Furies represent the old ways, the old religion, while Athena offers the vision of a new morality, based on justice tempered with mercy. Almost an ancient Greek version of Old vs. New Testament. The “bribe” she offers is to call them, not “Erinyes” (Furies), but “Eumenides,” i.e., “the kindly ones,” possibly the original euphemism. Also a huge lie. The “Eumenides” are no more kindly than the House Republicans.

    An extraordinarily powerful play, which does indeed resonate through history to this very day. Thanks, Yves, for reminding us.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Yes, the play is amazing. The choruses (particularly the Furies in the intensity of their desire for vengeance) are gripping and the dialogue (for instance, Athena deciding how to handle this situation) is crisp and direct.

      1. F. Beard

        (particularly the Furies in the intensity of their desire for vengeance) Yves Smith

        Sounds like Austrian savers. I’ve pointed out to some of them that a universal bailout (combined with a ban on further credit creation) would fix them too in real terms. But it’s not enough for them to have money in a debt-free country; they want suffering too.

  7. rob hollander

    The Furies argue that letting criminals go free — like letting bank CEO’s go unchastised — undermines social fabric by undermining fairness. I hold with the Furies, but at the end of three murderous vendetta dramas, I’d be ready for mercy too. At a certain point, the cost of justice begins to outweigh its social benefits: enough already. Does that make Geithner & Obama the banks’ Athena and Apollo? Do you really think CEO’s should not be made accountable?

    Easy to talk about mercy in the abstract. Justice has a purpose.

    1. F. Beard

      like letting bank CEO’s go unchastised — undermines social fabric by undermining fairness. rob hollander

      Banks are inherently unfair: The banks and the so-called “credit-worthy” are allowed to steal purchasing power from everyone else, including and especially the poor.

  8. SR6719

    Thanks for this post, Yves, and welcome back.

    I like notjonothans’ comment above: “When sobriety returns, I might even try some constructive commentary.”

    And so, for what it’s worth, some readers might prefer the late British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes’ translation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, to Richard Lattimore’s.

    According to George Steiner: “The true translator is he or she who, via the paradox of mastery in obeisance, plunges us into the strangeness of the archaic world, into its distance and darkness, and who almost blinds us with the contemporaneity, with the actuality of a “light that screams across three thousand years”.

    Unlike Richard Lattimore’s close translation, Hughes does not attempt to translate things that are completely alien to a 21st century sensibility or to re-enact the complex metrics and syntax of Aeschylus.

    For instance, here’s how he deals with Cassandra as she envisions the butchery of Agamemnon as well as her own death at the hands of Clytemestra:

    “I’ve finished with tears.

    Finished with prophecy

    And the pitiless designs of fate.

    Finished with Troy

    And the will of the gods.

    Death is my new life.

    Let me welcome it.

    No struggle or clinging to breath and tears –

    A single numbing blow to liberate me.

    Then let me drop and relax and melt

    Into the huge ease – of death.”

    (for more, George Steiner on “Greek is the Word”)

    1. craazyman

      it’s always so hard to capture the essential tonal rhythms of the original which harmonize so precisely with the action and the words, but the dance of ideas, the “logopoeia” in Ezra Pound’s phrase, is reasonably accessible and usually the fallback option. But the music of the source nearly always defies any translation, and renders some almost unbearable.

      Keat’s sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, which we all, in my day, read as schoolboys, nails that sublime shock of empathetic recognition, connecting over the millenia, provoked by a translation that works.

      1. SR6719

        I forgot to mention that the line in my comment above: “the light that screams across three thousand years” is from Christopher Logue’s “account” of the Illiad.

        (Achilles’s “helmet screams against the light;/ Scratches the eye; so violent it can be seen/ Across three thousand years.”)

        Logue is another British poet, one who doesn’t pretend to understand classical Greek, and so he never described his “Iliad” as a translation.

  9. TiresiasAGW

    The key to this is in how we define ‘transgressor’. In The Furies minds, Orestes is the transgressor because he avenged his fathers death. As the Furies represent the Old Order, the transgression must then be against the old order (the taboo of matricide.)

    But, to me here in 2012, the Old Order is just as much the Clintons and Obamas, as well as the right wing or the bankers. Neoliberalism AND neoconservativism are the old order to me. If Orestes can be said to be a symbol for modern Greece, facing the triplicity of Furies (neoliberalism, right wing fascists, and bankers), then perhaps Athena and Apollo are really our only hope.

    Yves, are you trying to promote wisdom and solar energy as the answer to our present conundrum?

  10. SR6719

    While visiting the city of Gela, in Sicily, in 456 or 455 BC, it’s claimed that Aeschylus was killed by a tortoise that fell out of the sky after being dropped by an eagle.

    And I was thinking I have bad luck.

  11. LeeAnne

    Thanks Yves and welcome back. That was a short vacation.

    For lessons of fury misplaced and the price we are paying for it we need not look back so far as the ancients. In our own day, Americans overlooking the lessons of alcohol prohibition that ended in part because of accelerating punishments to the point of threatening execution along with growing violence among alcohol dealing gangs, have accepted the SCOTUS decision that handed over tyrannical US Treasury control of narcotic drug classification, drug enforcement worldwide through the UN, and criminal penalties.

    This puritanical strain running through the American psyche that prefers drug addicts’ punishment and injustice to treatment turns a blind eye to the illegal drug-saturated international banking system in the $100s of billions to $trillions that supports the oppression of millions of human beings just like you and me who are trapped in an expanding and increasingly privatized for-profit criminal justice HOMELANDA system with no end in sight.

  12. JTFaraday

    “Athena casts the deciding vote in favor of Orestes, in part because she was persuaded by Apollo’s argument that women are mere vehicles for the seed of the father”

    Oh, sure. That’s a great answer. Perfectly justifies the original crime in this cycle of violence and vengeance, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, resolving the affair in its entirety and establishing the firmest basis for social stability.

    But then, I don’t particularly like Greek tragedy. I don’t trust the chorus.

    In fact, any brush with Greek tragedy is occasion for a hot shower and re-reading The Clouds.

    1. Nathanael

      I’m fond of Euripedes, whose choruses are consistently presented as unreliable — I believe he was trying to get people to think for themselves.

  13. rob hollander

    @ F. Beard
    No doubt. But so are the family, the division of labor, the diversity of personalities and capacities and bodies, and certainly property — all are intrinsically unfair prior to any redistribution or balancing. Justice serves to balance and to constrain them. What’s telling about Aeschylus’ ending is the Athenian conclusion: the rationalized process of a trail and a vote, instead of just more of the blood-passioned revenge that he established in the previous two dramas as an ever-repeating cycle. If our own governance were more transparent and accountable, it might be such a process of adjudication. Instead, sidelined like an audience, we watch the ineffectual battling the brazen.

    1. F. Beard

      But so are the family, the division of labor, the diversity of personalities and capacities and bodies, and certainly property — all are intrinsically unfair rob hollander

      US citizens are entitled to equal protection under the law. The banks are a government privileged money cartel that discriminate in favor of the rich. Our banking system thus violates the 14th Amendment.

      1. skippy

        People are the 1%, every thing else is labor.

        Skippy… A more perfect union = corporations, Happiness = ownership of property and capital, thingy… snicker.

      2. rob hollander

        The value of an institution can be judged by its overall benefit, hence the process of trial and vote to modulate law. The key is whether we all have equal access to equal protection, or only those institutions or 1% have access.

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