The issue of justice is central to both political thought and a complete understanding of politics. Both Aristotle and Aeschylus argue that politics or human political activity necessitates justice.(1) Aristotle says that without justice there can be no polis and therefore no political life (Politics 3.12.1283a19-22). Aeschylus dramatizes this point in his Oresteia. It is clear, at least in Aristotle, to be fully human, human beings need the political community to fulfill their natures (Politics 1.2.1252a25-53a40).(2)
The claim made by Aristotle that "human beings are political animals" (Politics 1.2.1253a2-6 and 3.6.1278b18-19) has, in the past several years, become a controversial topic in Aristotle scholarship.(3) In many ways, the scholars have made the political animal argument to stress the natural sociability of humans, against the view held by Hobbes and other modern political theorists, who argue that human sociability is not per se natural. The rejection of human natural sociability culminates in the rejection of Aristotle's claim that the polis or the political community is natural.(4) Also, a good portion of the scholarship, concerning the political animal question, in Aristotle's political thought fails, in at least four ways, in addressing why the political community must be authoritative over all other human associations. The four failings are the following. 1. There is a tendency, among certain scholars, in their attempt to defend the natural sociability of human beings against the denial of Hobbes et al, either to undermine or ignore the distinction between the political community and the household (see Arnhart 1990, 1994, and 1995; Masters 1989; and Wilson 1993). In doing so, these scholars, who claim to be defending Aristotle's understanding of political animals, seem to forget, he explicitly states, those who fail to distinguish between the household and the polis--as being different in kind and not merely different in terms of number or size--"do not argue rightly" (Politics 1.1.1252a7-15). 2. Another tendency, of another group of scholars, is to over stress the cultural and productive (or technological) aspect of human nature, which they believe really defines human beings as a political animal (see Yack 1993). This group tends to stress the humans need to create and construct--both physical and linguistic social constructs--as what defines how humans are political. Yet this view ultimately denies any sort of naturalness to the political bond and therefore tends to turn Aristotle into Kant or another modern social thinker. 3. Then there are those scholars who claim that Aristotle's political animal teaching is a blunder, which forces an inconsistency in Aristotle's political thought, when otherwise he would really agree with Hobbes, that the political community is a human construct and is not really natural (Keyt 1987). 4. Finally, there is another group who in a way agrees with the prior view but argues that Aristotle does not make a blunder, instead the blunder about the naturalness of the city is an esoteric cover, one which points to the tension of the polis and the best way of life--i.e., philosophy (Ambler 1985).
All four of the above groups of scholars seem to address how human beings are (or are not) political animals, usually in strictly biological or anthropological terms. They tend not to address the question in political terms--i.e., that politics is the ruling or most central concern for human beings. Thus, against the aforementioned ways of looking at the political animal question, I will examine a question which was ignored by the above scholars, why the city or the political community must be authoritative. Addressing this question is of utmost importance if one desires to understand why human beings are political animals. It is the logic of man's political nature which requires that the polis or the political community be authoritative--i.e., to have the authority or the power to sanction, legitimize or empower--in matters of human affairs. To do this, we must address the origins of the polis and Aristotle's claim that the polis is prior to both the individual and the household (Politics 1.2.1253a19). Although Aristotle gives us the conceptual framework to address this question, Aeschylus gives us a poetic example, which not only dramatizes but also clarifies and presents explicit reasons why the political community must be authoritative, that are implicit in Aristotle's account.
Aeschylus' trilogy suggests that the polis became authoritative when the forces of the household were made to submit to the laws of the polis. Or as Ferguson says, "the play cycle is about the blood feud coming under the rule of law, and the people caught up in the process" (Ferguson 1972, 108). This article will attempt to show how Aeschylus' trilogy helps us come to a fuller understanding of Aristotle's teaching about the authoritativeness of the polis. Although the authoritativeness of the polis over the household is stated by Aristotle in the Politics, nowhere in that text is it shown how or why the polis became authoritative. On the other hand, Aeschylus's Oresteia, especially the Eumenides, dramatizes both how and why the polis is authoritative. It shows how the old gods, represented by the Furies, which symbolize the power of the household, are put under the control and rule of the polis. Thus the tension, between the new--Olympian--deities and the older deities, is an intentional reflection of the tension between the household and the political community. As Meier contends, the discovery of the political occurs when political life through community derived decisions override family/kinship derived decision processes. This is the teaching of the Oresteia.
At the end of the Oresteia, the realm of the household, oikos, is now to be under the
authority of the polis or more correctly the political community.(5) In one sense the Oresteia
represents not the rise of the polis per se, since the polis may be said to have existed before the
end of the trilogy, but the rise of the authoritativeness of the polis or, as Christian Meier says, the
discovery of the political in Greek political thought (Meier 1990, 80-139).(6) Meier says that the
Oresteia "gave expression to the political at the very moment when it first burst upon Athens, and
did so, moreover, in a manner that was wholly adequate to the theme and is still relevant today"
(Meier 1990, 82). Although the Oresteia concerns itself with showing how the political became
authoritative, let us not forget the particular regime that triumphs at the end of the trilogy--Athenian democracy--and Aeschylus' role in giving it a defense. Also, W. B. Stanford argues that
Aeschylus' portrayal of Athena's founding of the Areopagus presents him as a "conservative
democrat, he conserves his origins by competing with them, evincing their potential for the
future" (Fagles 1975, 97).
The plot of the Oresteia should be familiar to most readers. The Oresteia is in fact a trilogy--Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. It begins with Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks in their war against the Trojans, returning home from the war. He returns home the victor of a great, yet costly war. He brings back many great prizes. One of them is the Trojan princess Cassandra. Expecting great acclaim and acknowledgment upon his triumphal return, instead he finds his wife Clytemnestra has taken up with Aegisthus, a political enemy. The reason for her action is that she desires revenge on Agamemnon for the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigeneia.
Clytemnestra plots Agamemnon's death with her lover to revenge Iphigeneia's sacrifice by Agamemnon, whom he sacrificed to win the war against Troy. Although Aegisthus does not actually take part in the killing--Clytemnestra alone murders Agamemnon--he goes along with the plot so he may take over the Argos. Agamemnon ends with Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus in charge of the city and the citizens waiting for Orestes to remove the newly imposed tyranny.(7) Although the citizens of Argos challenge what both Aegisthus and Clytemnestra did, they are powerless to right it. Although the citizens can easily rise up and kill both murders(8), they lack the authority or sanction to take action against either Aegisthus or Clytemnestra. The citizens must wait for Orestes, who because he is Agamemnon's son, has sanction to take vengeance. Argos is thus reduced to the household of Agamemnon, where only the head of the household has authority to pursue policy.
Orestes, who is in exile, returns home to mourn over his father's grave. There he meets his sister, Electra. Although he desires to revenge his father, he has some doubts. Electra demands that her father's murderers be punished. This is the story of The Libation Bearers. Orestes informs her that he sought counsel from Apollo's oracle. He says the oracle told him to "kill them to match their killings" or the Furies of his father's blood would drive him mad. Now resolved to do as Apollo's oracle commands, he disguises himself as a stranger to enter his mother's house. He then kills both his mother and Aegisthus. After killing the killer of his father, Apollo then instructs Orestes to cleanse himself, to purge himself from any guilt from the act that divine necessity required. Although he follows Apollo's instructions , his mother's Furies nevertheless pursue him, attempting to drive him mad. This is how they seek vengeance for the murder of his mother.
The Eumenides begins with Orestes fleeing from the Furies. He again appeals for Apollo's protection. The god arrives but he cannot stop the Furies' wrath. In an attempt to stop the Furies and aid Orestes, Apollo arranges with the Furies for a trial of Orestes with Athena presiding. In Athens, however, Athena says she cannot decide the case of murder alone, because the law requires a jury trial. Athena in doing this establishes the Areopagus as the political institution in Athens which is concerned with justice and the rule of law (compare Meier 1990, 106-115, 120-121, 124, and 134 and Hogan 1984, 168, 173 and 174). A jury trial is agreed to. Apollo presents his defense of Orestes and his actions. As Meier says, in this play, "right is pitted against right: a worse dilemma cannot be imagined" (Meier 1990, 89).
After Apollo's defense, the Furies then present their case against Orestes. Meier makes the case that the Furies "alone have assumed the task of avenging Clytemnestra, since no mortal avenger is left" (Meier 1990, 90). Thus they see their role as defender of blood ties forced in that no one will take action against Orestes. Athena, before the jury hands in its verdict, says her vote will be for Orestes, because she is wholly for the father, and if there is a tie Orestes is to go free. With Athena's vote, the vote of the whole jury results in a tie--thus the verdict favors Orestes.
Ferguson suggests that there is a relationship between the number of speeches made by both parties and the vote of the jury. He says "the Furies have spoken six times, Apollo five; there are six votes for condemnation, five for acquittal" (Ferguson 1972, 107). The Furies are not satisfied with the outcome of the verdict. Although they will end their pursuit of Orestes, they now desire to seek vengeance on Athens. Athena is aware of this and being Athens' protector she begins to persuade the Furies not to engage in that course of action. Instead, she attempts to persuade them to be the special guardians of the polis. She is successful in her argument and the Furies are reconciled to the polis. The play ends with Orestes restored as ruler of Argos, promising that Argos will never be an enemy of Athens, and the Furies, now to be known as the Eumenides, becoming the defender of the polis.
In the Eumenides, there is a clear tension between the old gods, the Furies, and the new
gods, Apollo and Athena, fathered by Zeus. This tension echoes the tension that is found in the
play between the household (and the pre-political) and the polis (and the political). The old gods
are aligned with the household and the new gods are aligned with the polis. This is important: At
the time of the trial, the Furies are still unreconciled toward the polis. The household bonds,
expressed as kin loyalty, force one to a cycle of revenge, in order to right wrongs done to the
family. There is no end to vengeance and no peace. The desire for peace, which is needed for the
fulfillment of human happiness (eudaimonia), entails that one rise above one's own--kin ties--to
some other claim that is more authoritative. This other claim is that of the polis.
In attempting to understand the tension between the household and the polis, we can turn to Aristotle on the political and the polis.(9) He says that human beings are political animals (Politics 1.2.1252b30-53a5 and 3.6.1278b18-19). Yet Aristotle also says that the family, expressed in terms of the household, is natural (Politics 1.2.1252b10-14 and 1.2.1253a15-18). In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is more explicit concerning the naturalness of the family. He says that,
The friendship of man and woman also seems to be natural. For human beings naturally tend to form couples more than to form cities, to the extent that the household is prior to the [polis], and child bearing is shared more widely among the animals. (N.E. 8.12.1262a17-19 [my emphasis])
The two ties are essential to our nature as human beings, yet in order to be fully human we need justice. In the last analysis, for Aristotle, justice (what reason informs us that nature or human nature suggests is the right and fitting course of action)--or at least one's perception of justice-- is what truly defines a city. He explicitly says that without justice there is no polis (Politics 3.12.1283a19-22). This only reinforces his argument concerning the political nature of human beings. But would not the passage from Aristotle, which seems to say man is a bonding animal, imply that the household is prior to the polis and being prior to the polis, is also more authoritative than it? This appears to be, in that being prior seems to imply being historically prior and thus having a more ancient origin than the polis. Being older tends to give more authority and if the family is prior, and thus older, it would appear to have more authority than the polis. But note that Aristotle says that the bonding between man and woman is more natural than the formation of political communities in that couples are more easily formed than are political communities. Thus the forming of couples over political communities is accidental and due to the relative simplicity of forming a couple, compared to the greater difficulty of creating a polis. Yet the passage infers something more significant than the statement that couples arise more easily than political communities. The passage seems to suggest that the association between the paired man and woman is akin to (or similar to) the association of a political community. This would further suggest that the household is more dependent on the polis than one would originally think. But Aristotle does not develop either claim to any final extent. Rather, he merely argues that the polis is not only prior to the household (and the individual) in terms of existence (Politics 1.2.1253a19), but it is also authoritative, which means the household is subordinated to it.
On this point, the setting of the Oresteia is extremely informative, in that the two natural human ties--of family and of polis--are not yet unified. Rather, it could be said that there is truly no polis--or at least it has not yet become authoritative over the claims of the oikos, the household. To repeat: the setting of the Oresteia is one in which the polis or the political community is not yet authoritative. Rather the household, oikos, is still the source where legitimate moral and social authority emanates. But as shown by the action of both Clytemnestra and Orestes, who only act out the blood heritage of their family, the household only has recourse to revenge and vengeance, which is shown to be unending.
The example of the Furies, the defender of the oikos, compels us to examine how non-political or apolitical forces are limited in their attempt to rectify wrongs done. It is clear in the trilogy that, for the household, revenge is the only avenue available to rectify injustices. Yet, vengeance is unending, in that those who are acted against will desire to right what they now perceive to be an unjust injury. In one sense vengeance only ensures further vengeance. Also, vengeance allows no purgation of crimes committed or evil deeds done to enact it. It allows no peace nor happiness. It is the cycle of unending retribution.
The cycle of violence is also reflected in the nature of the gods. Ferguson notes that,
Ouranos ruled the gods by violence and was overthrown by violence. Cronos ruled by violence and was overthrown by violence. Zeus now rules. (Ferguson 1972, 78)
This seems to indicate that up until the end of the Oresteia, there seems to be no end to the cycle of violence. But Ferguson notes that Zeus' rule is unlike the rule of the other divine ruler, in that he does not merely rule by force but through wisdom as well (Ferguson 1972, 79). Zeus' rule is a break in the cycle of violence and thus is an attempt to establish the permanence of his rule over the gods. Zeus' actions--or directions--reflect the necessity to end the cycle of violence within the human community, in that Apollo claims he is acting on Zeus's orders. To end it will allow the establishment of a form of human rule that will lead to human happiness (eudaimonia) or, as Martha Nussbaum would say, lead to the flourishing of human beings.
The ending and purging of this cycle of violence is something required if human beings are
going to be able to live together in a fine and noble fashion. In one sense, the Oresteia is all about
the need to establish some source of authority that will judge concerning matters of perceived
injuries and evils. The authoritativeness of the political community allows the submission of
grievances to a non-participant judge who binds all parties to the decided outcome. This is what
law attempts to do. Law is, thus, the particular embodiment of justice in the given political
framework of a given political system. The establishment of authority of law in the city is an
attempt to redress wrongs and prevent further injustices. However, the Furies also claim to
redress wrongs and the Furies's wrath caused both fear and terror in the minds of human beings
that restrained them in their acts against their own. This is not enough, because human beings
must associate with more than merely their kin in order to live finely. However, the Furies seem
not to care about injustices done to strangers or people one is intimate, rather they merely defend
the ties of blood kin. Also, the Furies are unending and single minded in their pursuit of violators
of kin ties. Thus they bring about the cycle of violence that the polis desires to escape from.
The wrath of the Furies, in that it perpetuates the cycle of unending and relentless violence, does not allow the possibility of human community. Although it does allow for the perpetuation of the family, via. the preservation of the ties of blood, it ignores the ties of oaths or of words spoken. Recall that the Furies are deaf to the violation of Clytemnestra's marriage vows (Eu 209-225). In fact they reject their duty to revenge Agamemnon's murder because Clytemnestra was not blood kin to her husband. From the point of view of the Furies there is only one really important association, that of blood ties.
Aristotle argues that there are two natural human associations: 1) family and 2) political community.(10) The first is expressed in the household, oikos, and the second is expressed in the city, polis. The Furies only protect the ties of blood and this is essentially the realm of the oikos, the household. In regard to the city, the Furies are originally its enemies. This is made explicit, when the Furies awaiting the jury's verdict, say to Apollo,
I wait to hear the settlement.
I have two minds still about my hate for the [polis]. (Eu 731-32)
This implies before this point, the Furies perceive themselves to be an enemy of the polis and now they appear to be undecided how to act regarding their hated. Their hostility towards the polis goes along with their ignoring the importance of speech or words. Not only do they ignore the marriage vow of Clytemnestra as unimportant, they will not let words have power over them. This is shown when the Furies refuse to let Apollo to stop their prosecution of Orestes by the power of his words (Eu 228). The Furies in the beginning will not let mere words stop them in their demand for vengeance and Apollo and the other gods appear either not to desire to use force or cannot use force to stop the Furies. However when Athena does end the Furies' hostility to both Orestes and the city, she does so not with force but through speech. She accomplishes this feat because the Furies are worn down by the power of Athena's words. Note that she tries to subdue them by persuasion at least three times before the Furies surrender to her argument. Why is Athena's speech more powerful than Apollo's? Clearly it rests within the greater persuasiveness of her speech over Apollo's. This is so because, unlike Apollo's, Athena's speech does not exclude, reject or spurns the Furies. Instead, her speech offers them a new and more important a role to play in the new dispensation. She offers them beauty and role in defending the political community, whereas Apollo merely desire their downfall.
The Furies ignore the claim of the marriage bed, and hence of the oath that makes possible the marriage bed. But is not the relationship between husband and wife, properly speaking the realm of the household? The Furies say No! In this sense their view of the oikos agrees with Kevin Cosner's Wyatt Earp that wives (or husbands) "come and go" and "live and die." The Furies would wholeheartedly agree with Earp's father who says "that blood kin is all that matters, all the others are strangers." Clearly the Furies hold to this same philosophy--blood kin over everything elsel, there is no other significant obligation!
The view presented by the Furies, that blood ties are the only ties that matter, very emphatically states that the most significant bond for the household is the bond of parent and child. In one sense this view is not incorrect, in that the bond between parent and child is the preservation, hence survival, of the household. Without the next generation the household dies. Because of this fact, the next generation owes a debt to the previous one for both giving them life and giving them a particular heritage. It is this debt that the next generation has to the previous one and it is the source of the Furies authority, in that it is wrong for a debt to be dishonored. The breaking of this bond is seen as a sacrilege that demands retribution. This is why Orestes is hounded. His act of killing his mother is seen as ignoring the debt of one generation to its predecessor. Also, this is why Clytemnestra is not haunted by them. She is no blood relation to her husband and hence owes no debt to him.
Aristotle suggests that the relationship between husband and wife, properly speaking, belongs not to the household but to the polis, in that the relationship between man and wife is not one based upon either master-slave or the rule of the foresighted over one lacking in foresight. Rather, the relationship between man and wife is akin to the relationship of citizens in the political community. Therefore the limited protection of the oikos by the Furies opens the door to the fuller protection by the polis. Thus Aristotle allies the marriage relation to the political relation, rather than either economic-household rule or despotic rule.
Please recall that at Politics 1.2.1252a25-b1, the two reasons for social association are 1. reproductive bonding and 2. the rule of the foresighted over those who lack it. Clearly the household involves both these associations--the pairing of man and woman and also both the rule of parents over children and masters over slaves. Yet in one sense it overlooks something about the first association. The process of sexual reproduction involves two stages: 1. the union of male and female and 2. the birth of offspring from that union. Although birth of offspring necessitated the union, the union does not necessarily produce the offspring. In other words, you can have the pairing (or bonding) of man and woman without necessarily bearing young. Therefore the pairing has a character to it that is more than merely the desire to reproduce another like one's self.
The claim of the Furies and hence the household in the Oresteia is the claim of blood ties and thus they concern themselves with the second aspect of the bonding of man and women--the production of offspring. Here is the tie of blood from one generation to another. Here is how the household is perpetuated. But the Oresteia seems to indicate that the guardians of the household, the Furies, have no concern for that which necessarily is prior and necessary for the generation of offspring--the paring of husband and wife.
The Furies are not concerned with the killing of a husband [or even a wife], but merely of
a mother [or a father or a son, daughter, brother or sister].(11) This supports Aristotle's claim that
the relationship between husband and wife is not similar to the household/economic rule or
despotic rule but political rule. This is why the polis must be both prior to the household in
nature and more authoritative than the household. The relationship between husband and wife is
the political bond--oaths are sworn to be loyal--like the oaths citizens make. One has some choice
in marriage, one has no such choice in blood ties. Thus marriage is like politics in that one deals
with choice or different possible courses of action, hence praxis.
The Oresteia is set against two different cities, with two different regimes (politeia): Argos and Athens. It is through these two cities and their differences that the question of how justice arises from the political first becomes clear. Argos is an elected kingship, whereas Athens is some form of limited democracy. First let us examine Argos and its regime and then Athens.
Argos's regime, elected kingship, is one of the five forms of kingship mentioned at Politics 3.14. The succession of the title of king is to be passed on from father to son. This is the law of Argos. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus's murder of Agamemnon, along with the forced exile of Orestes, enacts a revolution of regimes in Argos, from kingship to tyranny. Thus an act of vengeance becomes a revolution in regimes. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus's reign in Argos is clearly tyrannical. It is tyrannical in that it both violates the law, nomos, of succession of the title of king from father to son and is rule over unwilling subjects. The latter point is clear in what is said by the citizens in the ending of Agamemnon. After hearing the death moans of Agamemnon, the chorus of citizens say,
It is the king crying out; I think all is over.
But let us plan safety for ourselves--if we can.
My vote is to cry, Help! to the citizens
to come to the palace.
Yes, and at once, I think,
to catch them red-handed with dripping sword.
I think you're right; at least we should so something.
It certainly isn't the moment for hesitation.
But we can see. This is a kind of first act;
it looks like the beginning of a tyranny.
Yes, it does--because we're wasting time.
Their hands don't sleep, and they trample underfoot
the good reputation of delay. (Agm 1343-1357)
Yet this passage points out another and more important problem with the regime of Argos. With kingship, the regime of Argos, it is too easy to confuse the household of the king with the polis. Thus the distinction of the household and the polis is blurred under such a regime.
Clearly the problem of the blurring of the polis and the household is seen in the reaction of the citizens of Argos to the tyranny imposed by the two murderers. The citizens say,
Are we then, in order to stretch our own lives,
to yield to a government that shames our royal house?
No, that is awful. Death is better than that.
Death is better than subjection to a tyranny. (Agm 1362-5)
Note that tyranny is said to be imposed on the household not the polis (see Aristotle's Politics 2, 3, and 5). But clearly Aegisthus and Clytemnestra's reign is not merely over the house of Agamemnon but over all of Argos.
The citizens are not alone in their confusion over the difference of the household and the polis. Aegisthus and Clytemnestra also blur the political community and household. Clytemnestra says at the end of Agamemnon,
Do not pay heed to their vain yappings. I
and you together will make all things well,
for we are masters of this house. (Agm 1672-3)
And the inaction of the citizens of Argos and their awaiting Orestes to set things right shows that in Argos there is no distinction between household and polis. On this point Peter Euben says that Clytemnestra, in murdering her husband, "moves out of the household to assume her husband's place" (Euben 1990, 74). Euben goes on to argue that like her husband, Clytemnestra assaults both the household and the polis. But unlike her husband, she destroys "the balance of nature" between the two (Euben 1990, 74). In one sense Euben over personalizes the action of the play, in that the wrongs Agamemnon commits are inherent in the political nature of his regime--kingship, in which the distinction between the polis and his own house is fundamentally unclear. However, Clytemnestra's actions are a willful destruction of the difference of the household and the polis. The weak balance between the polis and the household that kingship creates is wholly destroyed by her alliance with Aegisthus. She needs him to keep Argos, not her household, controlled. Also, her act of murder of her husband is not only a strike at the household but also the basis of all non-violent human association. Her murder not only destroys the existing social order and replaces it with her arbitrary and willful rule, but undercuts all human associations and therefore the possibility of human flourishing--happiness. Thus, Euben overstates the balance between household and polis, because he ignores Argos' regime and the role it plays in structuring the action of the characters.
The inability to easily distinguish between the political community and the household
found in the regime of kingship renders the citizens of Argos powerless or without authority to
act against Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. Tyranny is a political concept. It cannot be applied to
the rule of the household in a fitting manner. The only similarity in the household to tyranny is the
despotic rule of masters over slaves--thus the members of the household are all treated as slaves.
But despotism and tyranny are not the same. Tyranny is the negation of the laws of the political
community (or ruling without law or any rules restraining the ruler or ruling body), in favor of the
personal rule of the tyrant. Whereas despotism is the rule over slaves or treating persons as
though they are merely slaves. Thus Aeschylus's use of tyranny is said to be inappropriate in that
it is anachronistic.(12) But I believe that Aeschylus did this intentionally, to force the viewer or the
reader to ponder the political consequences of blurring the household and the polis.(13) Clearly the
citizens of Argos are correct in saying that the new regime is a tyranny, but to say this is to imply
a political reality that is not present in the context of Argos. Thus there is no polis--or more
correctly--no political community of Argos, there is only the household of Agamemnon.
Therefore there are no citizens, only subjects.(14) Again this is why the chorus awaits Orestes--the
son who is in authority after the father. He must lead in the household. If Argos were truly a
political community, the citizens themselves could have set affairs right and avoided the fate of
Orestes. But Argos is not a true political community and the chorus are not citizens, rather they
are subjects of the household and are totally without authority in this matter. This is why after
Orestes takes vengeance on the murderers, the dramatic action must leave Argos and go to
This leads us to Athens and why the last part of the trilogy is set there. Athens is either a form of democratic rule guided by law or some form of rule by a political multitude (see Politics 4.4.1291b29-92a38 and 4.6.1292b22-93a10). The exact nature of Athens's regime is not clear, but it does incline to some form of popular rule. Where Argos had a king, Athens in the play has no king presently. Athens on the other hand does have Athena--a goddess. Yet although she is there, she is not sovereign, rather she appears to be restrained by the polis and its regime. This is shown in that Athena says that she cannot decide Orestes's case by herself.
Although Athena may have the authority by divine sanction, she defers to the polis. Why does she defer her authority to the polis? Because, as she argues, the outcome of the case is too great a matter for her to judge, since the poison of the Furies if thought wronged could bring ill to Athens. But another reason is more likely: If Apollo could not stop the Furies from haunting Orestes, could Athena really have more power? One doubts it. So instead of deciding the case herself, which the Furies agreed to originally, the case will be decided by a jury of the citizens of Athens. Now in originally agreeing to having Athena hear the case, the Furies submitted their case to be judge by a deity who was a third party, not directly involved in the case. However, by deferring the authority of the case to the polis, Athena defers divine sanction to political sanction. Or she establishes the legitimacy of decisions by the political body concerning such matters, whereas before these matters where dealt with within the moral realm of the household, oikos.
As said before, the jury sides with Orestes--only barely because of Athena's vote.(15) Athena's vote siding with Orestes may forgive the murder of a mother by a son, but it also says that the murder of a husband by a wife (or viceversa) is worse and more dangerous to the life of a political community in that marriage is clearly a political creation. Stanford points out that Athena's siding with Orestes can be seen as lending support to "the ties of marriage, a civic institution, rather than the ties of blood" (Fagles 1975, 81).
The Furies are not happy and wish to punish Athens for acquitting Orestes. However this does not occur. Because Athena is determined to have them become part of the new social order --the polis. Athena's point in bringing the Furies into the political is as Stanford argues,
Think what men might gain... if Athens lets the Furies choose for good instead of for evil. Why together they might turn the tragic choice into a victory, nothing less than the birth of law itself, the Furies's evolution from their origins to the ministers of justice. (Fagles 1975, 77)
In fact, although Orestes is acquitted, he is not welcomed in the polis or at least he is not persuaded to become a citizen of Athens. On the other hand, the Furies are welcomed to become a part of Athens (Hogan 1984, 179). Thus the Furies are persuaded by Athena to be reconciled to the polis and thus to play a very important role in the new order as the special protector of the polis.
The embracing of the Furies by Athens at the end of the Eumenides symbolizes the new role that the household and its primary defender will play in the polis. Thus, Euben is insightful on the importance of the Furies. He says that they are "as much sustainers of civilization, pious dread of authority, and punishers of pride and violent outrages by men against their own, as they are uncivilized, outrageous violators" (Euben 1990, 79). Athena's actions indicate a fundamental awareness that the polis or the political community as such needs the power of the Furies so that the polis is able to defend itself. Thus like the alliance Orestes gives to Athens at the end of the trilogy, the alliance of the Furies to the polis is intended to strengthen the polis as the source of human fulfillment.
Clearly the goods that the household brings are essential to any notion of human happiness
or flourishing (see Politics 2.2.1261a10-b15). However, the problem of the household was its
inability to get beyond both the loyalty merely to one's own and the endless violence that occurred
because of its inability to adjudicate acts of injustice without recourse to personal acts of
vengeance. The polis provides an attachment that, while it does not implicitly reject the love of
one's own, places restraint on it so the public and common good of all who live in that association
will be preserved. In doing this peace is maintained and peace provides the possibility for the
attainment of human happiness.
The reconciliation of the Furies to the polis at the end of the Oresteia is essential if the political community is going to be authoritative concerning human affairs. This is Athena's gift to Athens--politics or more correctly the authoritativeness of the political community. Also, Euben is correct in saying that "what Athena does in the play, Aeschylus does through it" (Euben 1990, 83). Thus Aeschylus' portrayal of how the political becomes authoritative--which is wholly absent from Aristotle's discussion of the polis in either Politics 1.2 or elsewhere--is to remind us of how human life understood through community, by its rejection or ineffectualness can be returned to the pre-political cycle of blood violence. Also it is clear that Aeschylus sides with Athena not Apollo. Apollo desires to merely get rid of the Furies, Athena does not. She is far more understanding of the importance of the Furies in human life. Therefore Aeschylus underscores Athena's project--the creation of the political-- with his--the creation of the Oresteia.
Athena understands that without the power of the Furies the justice which the city desires to provide would be ineffectual. This echoes Aristotle's understanding that politics, against that of the Sophists, is more than mere reason or persuasion (logos), rather it is the combination of persuasion and coercion. Coercion or force is to be understood, in this particular context, as the exercise of law. If the justice of the polis is ineffectual then the forces of vengeance would continue to be the only source for the satisfaction of injustice. Thus the cycle of violence would again make human community either impossible or increasingly despotic. Therefore Stanford is correct in arguing:
[L]aw is strong, moreover, because Athena incorporates the new invaders, the Furies and their powers. Terror and reverence become her people's kindred powers, and seizing on the Furies' most creative hopes, Athena commands her people not only to repel injustice but preserve the right of men. (Fagles 1975, 80)
Ferguson adds to Stanford's interpretation of Athena's incorporation of the Furies in the polis. He argues that the Furies are needed allies for the survival of political community. He says that "in the past, justice has been equated with the power of the Furies, the power of blood feud, blood always calling for blood in endless secession" (Fagles 1975, 106). Now justice is to be associated with the polis and its manifestation in Athena's creation--the Aeropagus. Thus, in Aristotle's eyes, the Furies come to embody what is essentially what is necessary for politics, the promise of coercion, hence retribution, for non-compliance with the laws of the polis.
Aeschylus' project in the Oresteia is to reinforce and remind his audience of the argument that without the Furies supporting the Athenian jury's decision, its justice, would be wholly ineffectual. But making the Furies the special protector of the polis, not only puts the Furies under the control of the political community and thus restrains them in how they will carry out their vengeance, but it gives greater stature to the political community. In doing this, Aeschylus gives us a dramatic explanation of what Aristotle claims and also allows us to come to a fuller understanding of what Aristotle means by the political community and its authoritativeness in human affairs.
In the Oresteia, the justice of the polis is likened to the Furies ancient's role as defender of what is right and the corrector of injustices. Thus while the demand for "blood calling for blood in endless secession" is replaced by the deliberation and action of the jury, the polis will indeed do what the Furies did--right wrongs and protect the family. However, it will not do so in the same ruthless and destructive manner. Rather, the justice of the polis will be a compromise between the peace, which is an essential precondition for human happiness, and the demands that wrongs be righted and those who commit them be punished.
In the new order of the polis, it is clear that not all acts of injustice will be sought out and punished; rather, only those that threaten to destroy the peace or happiness of the human association. Therefore justice, which is made possible by the political community and which will make human happiness possible, cannot and will not punish all injustice. To do so would be irrational and harmful to the greater human good. This Aristotle knew well. It is why his account of justice in the Nicomachean Ethics is not as comprehensive or absolute as some contemporary social theorist desire it to be.
In this light, to punish all violators would make the same error that the Furies did--to destroy all the good things one has to remove one single evil. But this is also why the Furies needed to be made part of the polis. The moderation which is to be imposed on the Furies is also imposed on the polis in regards to them. Moderation is now to be the qualifier of justice. Again, this echoes Aristotle's account of both justice and moderation (sophrosune) in the Nicomachean Ethics. Also, Richard Lattimore agrees with such an interpretation of the trilogy. He says,
Man cannot obliterate, and should not repress, the unintelligible emotions. Or again, in different terms, man's nature being what it is and Fury being a part of it, Justice must go armed with Terror before it can work. (Lattimore 1953, 31)
Rather the justice of the political community is a moderation of the Furies and therefore explains why the political is and must be authoritative for human life.
The above argument also explains the centrality of Aeschylus' Oresteia to the tradition of Western Political Thought. It is as Meier said about it--the document which gives form to the idea of not only the political but the supremacy of democratic or popular rule restrained by law (Meier 1990, 83-87). It also expands upon and clarifies Aristotle's argument that man is by nature a political animal. It does so by demonstrating that the political community, the habitat where human beings can only live well, needs to be authoritative in human affairs. Only when the political community is authoritative, can human life obtain not only peace and security, but also the higher goods, such as happiness and the best way of life.
Therefore, the supremacy of the political over the household, as dramatized in Aeschylus' trilogy, makes possible the enrichment of human lives that before were constrained by endless violence responding to endless violence. So justice-- that which the polis only brings about--insures an end or at least a long break from the violence of the non or sub-political. Yet, this is the essential precondition, in which human nature can fulfill its proper end in moral and intellectual excellence. Or, to repeat John Ferguson's comment about the Oresteia, "man finds his fulfillment only in ordered society" (Ferguson 1972, 106).
Given that the political community or polis (defined by its regime) is the ordering of society (see Politics 3.1.1274b34-38, 3.3.1276a40-b3, and 3.6.1278b9-11), we come full circle to the origins of the polis and why it is authoritative. Again the reason is simple. Aristotle says it is because human beings have speech (Politics 1.2.1253a9). Speech, in humans, serves "to reveal the advantageous and the harmful and hence also the just and the unjust" (Politics 1.2.1253a14-15). The ability to distinguish between the just and the unjust is said by Aristotle to be "peculiar to human beings" (Politics 1.2.1253a14-15). Regarding justice, Aristotle has also said that without it the polis cannot exist (Politics 3.12.1283a19-22). Thus the interdependency of the political community and justice becomes clear. Because justice, through law, habituates citizens of a political community to be just, therefore the political community becomes the soil or essential habitat for the development of human excellence.(16)
Given this, the political community is to be understood to be essential for human beings, for without it, it is highly unlikely that human beings would be capable of reaching the peak of moral or intellectual excellence. Yet Aristotle says this is only the precondition for the polis and not its end. To this point, Aristotle say, although the political community or polis "comes into being for the sake of living, it exists for the sake of living well" (Politics 1.2.1252b29-30). The implication of Aristotle's argument is that although "living well" is the real end or final purpose (i.e., telos) of the political community, nevertheless it is true that human being need to share a life together. He says that humans "join together, and maintain the political community, for the sake of living itself" (Politics 3.6.1278b23-25). He continues,
For there is perhaps something fine (kalos) in living just by itself, provided there is no great excess or hardship. It is clear that most men will endure much harsh treatment in their longing for life, the assumption being that there is a kind of joy inherent in it and a natural sweetness (Politics 3.6.1278b25-30).
It is this "joy" and "natural sweetness" which is inherent in mere life that signifies the importance
of the origins of the polis, for as Aristotle says, it comes to be for the sake of life. Thus, the polis
is not only necessary precondition for "living well," but because of the "natural sweetness" of
existence, it is the soil out of which humans flourish and grow toward their peaks of excellences --both moral and intellectual.
Ambler, Wayne. 1985. "Aristotle's Understanding of the Naturalness of the City." Review of
Politics 47. pp. 53-95.
Arnhart, Larry. 1990. "Aristotle, Chimpanzees, and Other Political Animals," Social Science
Information 29. pp. 479-559.
-----. 1994. "The Darwinian Biology of Aristotle's Political Animals," American Journal of
Political Science 38. pp. 464-85.
-----. 1995. "The New Darwinian Naturalism in Political Theory," American Political Science
Review 89. pp. 289-400.
Euben, Peter. 1990. The Road Not Taken: The Tragedy of Political Theory. Princeton:
Princeton University Press.
Fagles, Robert. ed. trns. 1975. Aeschylus The Oresteia [With introductory essay by W. B.
Stanford]. New York: Viking Press [reprinted 1977 by Bantam press].
Ferguson, John. 1972. A Companion to Greek Tragedy. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Green, David and Wendy O'Flaherty. ed. tns. 1989. The Oresteia of Aeschylus. [Introductions
by Green, O'Flaherty and Nicholas Rudall]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hogan, James C. 1984. A Commentary on the Complete Greek Tragedies: Aeschylus Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Keyt, David. 1987. "Three Fundamental Theorems in Aristotle's Politics." Phronesis 32. pp.
Kullman, Wolfgang. 1980. "Der Mensch als politisches Lebewesen bei Aristoteles." Hermes
108. pp. 456-77, This article has been translated into English for David Keyt and Fred D.
Miller, Jr.'s A Companion to Aristotle's Politics, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), pp. 94-117.
Lattimore, Richard. tans. 1953. Aeschylus I: Oresteia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Masters, Roger D. 1989. The Nature of Politics. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Meier, Christian. 1990. The Greek Discovery of Politics. David McLintock, tans. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press.
----- 1995. The Political Art of Greek Tragedy. Baltimore Md: The Johns Hopkins University
Mulgan, R. G. 1974. "Aristotle's Doctrine that Man is a Political Animal." Hermes 120. pp.
Strauss, Leo. 1989. "What is Political Philosophy?" In An Introduction to Political Philosophy:
Ten Essays by Leo Strauss. Hilail Gildin, ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Swanson, Judith. 1992. The Public and Private in Aristotle's Political Philosophy. Ithica:
Cornell University Press.
Wilson, James Q. 1993. The Moral Sense. New York: The Free Press.
Yack, Bernard. 1993. Problems of a Political Animal. Berkeley: University of California Press.
1. 1. The following are the abbreviations used in the notes: NE, Nicomachean Ethics; Agm, Agamemnon; LB, The Libation Bearers; and Eum, The Eumenides.
In this essay, I used David Green and Wendy O'Flaherty 1983. Although Richard Lattimore 1953 and Robert Fagles 1975 are still available, Green and O'Flaherty's is slightly better in that they have these two fine editions to work from.
2. 2. John Ferguson argues that the Aristotelian dictum that man is a political animal is "not far from the center" of Aeschylus' Oresteia in that "man finds his fulfillment only in ordered society" (1972, 106).
3. 3. See Kullmann's (1980) article once again brought critical attention to this argument in Aristotle. R. G. Mulgan (1974) replies to Kullmann (1980) and begins the current controversy over Aristotle's claim that "man is a political animal."
4. 4. See Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan and Jean Jacques Rousseau. The Second Discourse. Also see Leo Strauss 1989, 48-57.
5. 5. Aristotle, and Greek political thinkers in general, treat the polis--usually translated as the city--in two ways: 1) the urban center--literally the city; 2) it is also the generic expression of the political community. In this essay I refer to the polis as the latter, not the former.
6. 6. Although Meier 1995 was released in translation after this piece was written, it is nevertheless extremely useful in approaching Aeschylus as a political thinker.
7. 7. Peter Euben rightly argues that Clytemnestra's actions take her beyond the proper scope of human action, thus endangering the possibility of human association (Euben 1990, 72-75). However Euben's feminist sensitivity understates the differences between the injustices of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. In one sense, although Agamemnon's actions are harmful to his own family, they could be justified in the context of faithfulness to one's own oath. Remember, he is obligated by an oath to punish the Trojans for their injustice to his brother. On the other hand, Clytemnestra's acts, in that marriage is the most fundamental basis of human association, are far worse than her husband's in that her acts destroy the basis of an important form of human association which does not wholly rely upon force.
8. 8. Nicholas Rudall says that the powerlessness or inaction of the free male citizens in Agm should be contrasted to the slave women, who are prepared to take action, in the beginning of LB (Green and O'Flaherty 1989, 21). Although the slave women are equally without authority to act, their thirst for vengeance--echoing the same thirst in the Furies against Orestes--has a plausible justification against tyranny. Clearly the rule of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra is tyrannical and since tyranny is an abrogation of the standards of all established authority and social norms, thus the slave women's lack of authority to act can be practically ignored given the general lawlessness of the newly established political regime. Yet the slave women do not act. Rather, Orestes, who in the old system--as heir and head of the household--alone has authority to act, carries out what they themselves desire to do, revenge Agamemnon's murder.
9. 9. The tension between the oikos, household, and the polis, the political community, is not to be understood as a tension between the public and the private. Such a reading, as done by Judith Swanson (1992), forces anachronistically the modern split of the public and the private upon Aristotle and his political thought. Only in modern political thought, following Hobbes and Spinoza, is there a radical separation of the private and public realms, whereas such a separation is non-existent in classical political philosophy.
10. 10. Some may say that the village is a third natural association, but Aristotle does not argue this. Instead of being another form of natural association, he claims, the village is "above all an extension of the household" (Politics 1.2.1252b16-17).
11. 11. In one sense, Clytemnestra's desire to revenge Iphigeneia's death, makes her a Fury or at least Fury like.
12. 12. See Lattimore's note on Aeschylus' use of tyranny in Lattimore 1953, 10-11.
13. 13. Does not the blurring of the household and the polis, and the consequences of doing so, in the Oresteia seem to agree with Aristotle's insistence that the two are fundamentally different in kind and those who fail to see this are in error concerning not only their understanding of politics but also human nature (Politics 1.1.1252a7-15).
14. 14. Please see Politics 3.3-4 about the distinction between being a citizen and being a mere subject. Also see Politics 1.3-13 concerning the character of the household and the relations of the various members--i.e., husband/wives, parents/children, and master/slaves--within it.
15. 15. The closeness of the vote is interesting in that the ugliness and horrible nature of the Furies versus the beauty, rationality, and nobility of Apollo is almost over looked by the male citizens of Athens. Far from being the male sexists which most feminist interpretations assert they are, the juror's outcome is too close to justify such a view. Rather, the citizens take seriously the argument of the Furies and are not overly convinced by Apollo's arguments. It is Athena, who because of her divine nature sees a greater possibility for the Furies in a new social order, makes possible Orestes's victory.
16. 16. Let us be clear here, being just is to be understood not merely as being lawful but also as embracing the moral excellences (see N.E. 5.1.1229b12-19).