16 May 2009

Thoughts on The Oresteia and Our Constitution

While reading Aeschylus’ drama The Eumenides (which is the third part of The Oresteia), I was struck by the following lines:

Never pollute
our law with innovations. No, my citizens,
foul a clear well and you will suffer thirst.

Neither anarchy nor tyranny, my people.
Worship the Mean, I urge you,
shore it up with reverence and never
banish terror from the gates, not outright.
Where is the righteous man who knows no fear?
The stronger your fear, your reverence for the just,
the stronger your country’s wall and city’s safety…
They are spoken by the goddess Athena as she stands as judge presiding over a jury of Athenians. Their chore is to judge Orestes for his crime, matricide, which he has committed because his mother willfully committed mariticide. Apollo stands with Orestes; he set Orestes on his task. These crimes stand at the end of a long line of acts committed in service of what is called justice throughout The Oresteia, but which truly amount to revenge.

Standing before an objective judge and jury, the cycle of revenge is broken, though not without risk to Orestes. Only Athena saves him through casting the tie-breaking vote. Athena breaks the cycle of revenge by setting Orestes free and justifying Apollo’s command to him. She does this not necessarily because she feels that Orestes or Apollo is blameless. Athena, in her divine state, uses the opportunity to make the Furies – those spirits as old as time who drive revenge ever onward – to serve not as the loose cannons of revenge but wather as the sword of objective justice. They are the “fear” and “terror” which stand as a warning on man’s moral map, they caution, “Do not pass this point.” They inflict pain and suffering on those who choose to ignore the warning. They are the severe negative consequences for choosing to disregard the highest law. They are the other side of mercy, because justice without the possibility of the Furies is nothing of the sort. It is the folly of blind kindness and can only lead to anarchy or tyranny.

Would that we had earthly justices as wise as the fictional Athena proves to be in this instance. Her advice to “Never pollute our law with innovations” seems particularly appropriate for our time. We should have reverence for our highest legal document, the Constitution. It is what keeps our country on the mean, away from tyranny and anarchy. It is not living; it does not breathe. We need not become innovative with it. And it does have roots in that of a higher power, something which man cannot touch, yet which sets our inalienable rights before us, those being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Work Cited: Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1984.

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