Tempering Our Furies
The Greek playwright Aeschylus is hardly a household word these days, and neither is his famous trilogy of works known as The Oresteia. Amazingly, however, the concepts and lessons of this body of literature continue to unfold in today’s culture—and depending on your vantage point, the West may be no further ahead in grasping the big picture than it was at the time of ancient Greece.
Aeschylus’ tale is a sordid unfolding of revenge-upon-revenge. Various relatives, comrades and enemies connected in some manner to the mythical Battle of Troy carry out murderous deeds upon one another.
The third segment of The Oresteia, called “The Libation Bearers,” focuses on the character Orestes and his plot to avenge his father’s murder—by killing his own mother, who had murdered his father. Orestes believes his action has brought the cycle of bloodshed to an end.
But, as scholar George Welsh points out, “his view is hopelessly optimistic.” Instead, Orestes is hunted by Aeschylus’ spiritual beings known as The Furies, who make frequent appearances in classical theater in order to point out the larger implications of a person’s actions. In this context, they symbolize society’s demand for retribution due to Orestes’ own actions.
The Furies torment Orestes and drive him out of his city until he takes refuge with the greatest of all Greek “gods,” Apollo, who redeems him and argues his case before a jury of men. The jurors deadlock, but the goddess Athena breaks the tie by acquitting Orestes and appeasing The Furies by granting them an ongoing role as minor gods upon the Greek celestial landscape.
Welsh notes that Aeschylus’s trilogy presented the moral, legal code of the ancient Greek world—“an eye for an eye, a ceaseless cycle of vengeance in the name of justice.” The Trojan War itself, Welsh asserts, is “a lesson in revenge begetting revenge, ending in not only the destruction of Troy but, as well, that of most of the young men of Greece, the victors. In these stories, violence never ends, no one ever wins.”
Athena’s decision to acquit Orestes and elevate The Furies to minor god-status, Welsh adds, points out a couple of sustainable truths. The “Furies” are always with us, a barbarous nature that has plagued humankind since its fall from grace in Eden. Secondly, although human beings cannot become gods. the civilized will triumph over the barbarous if we agree to laws in the ultimate service of good.
“Only by the rule of law,” Welsh writes, “can The Furies in us be kept at bay and the Apollo in us cultivated.”
Writing thousands of years before the development of Judaism, Christianity and other religions and secular laws that point to an enduring code of conduct, Aeschylus offered insights that would change the world: The sins of human beings are eternal, but can be controlled. We can strive for virtue, but only if virtue is enshrined in laws that ensure the greatest possible good.
The problem with contemporary society is many of us opine that we are a law unto ourselves, seeking our greatest individual good rather than the collective good. Technology has empowered us, progress has emboldened us, and prosperity has blinded us to the vulnerabilities of our Furies. “Virtue” is reinvented with each passing fad, pop culture phenomenon and self-anointed voice of the masses that struts and frets for an hour or so upon the attention span-destroying stages of the 21st Century.
The harshest underbelly of this arrogant lack of self-awareness is the popular television, radio and Internet programming that daily unleash a vomit-like torrent of voices seeking to demolish one another. The perpetrators range from uneducated types taken advantage of by the media elite as they randomly air their dirty laundry, to the well-schooled political pols who search for conspiracy behind every phrase and express little desire to build consensus upon a common virtue.
Amid this backdrop the violent words never end. No one ever wins. Can anyone point to solid evidence of how our culture is becoming healthier and more cohesive, how we are becoming better stewards of one another, the economy, the environment? Where is the common virtue that is enabling us to leave future generations a legacy of vital community rather than an endless cycle of destroying one another?
Perhaps there is no longer a common virtue, no agreed-upon distant shore toward which we intentionally strive as a collective society. If that is the case, then there is no consensus on how to keep at bay the barbarians within each of us. And if each of us is left to define the boundaries and consequences of his or her own barbarianism, then none of us is safe from the implications of another’s barbarianism—or especially from those of our own.
What are your Furies, and what virtues are you cultivating? These are questions I can no longer evade, for my words and deeds do not take place in a vacuum.