Classics Essays

Why You Should Read Aeschylus

Aeschylus is considered the greatest of the Greek playwrights. His Oresteia remains one of the few tripartite classics of Western literature, a play and its threefold movement serve as a stirring window into the progression and development of antique literature and consciousness. C.J. Herington argued that the Oresteia includes, “a gradual climb from torment, through testing, into the light.” 

Why is Aeschylus the acme of the Greek playwright tradition, and why is he so important? On one hand, Aeschylus is great because his work is the manifestation of a long literary-philosophical tradition that was wrestling with the cosmogonic idea of strife. On another hand, it is because his works represent the ideal movement of humanity from strife, rage, and hate, to justice, love, and persuasion, which is the very spirit of civilization after all these millennia.

Cosmogony: From Strife to Strife and Love

Hesiod’s Theogony is a sublimely violent poem where the muses sing praises to the gods who engage in patricide and usurpation. The gods, which were conceived in lust and hatred, have nothing but lust and hatred toward their fathers (Uranus among the Titans and Cronus among the Olympians). Cronus castrates Uranus and his blood and phallus fall to the earth and sea giving rise to monsters and birthing Aphrodite from the open womb of Thalassa, the primordial goddess of the sea. Strife reigns supreme in Hesiod’s grand epic and is that which the muses sing in praise of.

Giambattista Vico argued that sublime poetry is the first—and primitive—instantiation of logos in human life. While Homer may have composed his grand epics before Hesiod, or around the same time, it is without question that Hesiod’s cosmos is the older one. Homer’s cosmos, while retaining much of the strife of Hesiod, is radically subversive. In this respect, Homer was the radical altering the Greek understanding of the cosmos while Hesiod was the reactionary trying to preserve—if not otherwise, return—to the more ancient cosmos of strife, blood, and guts.

Homer’s Iliad is a majestic epic of love. I have treated this subject in greater detail in my essay “Homer’s Iliad and the Shield of Love and Strife.” Whereas Hesiod’s muses sing of tyrannical gods, Homer’s muses sing of a rage-filled man in faraway Ilium who, over the course of the epic, learns something new about the meaning of life through the ingenious pen of Homer. Achilles is initially moved by his passions but, by epic’s end, comes to learn love by ordering his passions to something new and grander than rage.

“In strife, Homer subtlety informs us, there is the possibility of ordering our passions to something good, something beautiful, something productive.”

The defining image of Homer’s Iliad is the shield he receives after the death of Patroclus. The shield is emblazoned with two images: a seemingly peaceful city celebrating a wedding day which, upon closer inspection, is filled with strife. Surrounding that first image is the second image of a city at war. Though strife is more apparent in the second image, the strife experienced from war has led all persons: young and old, male and female, soldier and non-combatant, to be focused. In strife, Homer subtlety informs us, there is the possibility of ordering our passions to something good, something beautiful, something productive.

When rage-filled Achilles goes on his killing spree after the death of Patroclus, he slaughters the sons of Priam with his culling hand and spear. Lycaon throws himself shamelessly at the feet of Achilles and begs for his life. Achilles refuses to show pity and mercilessly cuts open his bowels as his intestines spill out onto the sand and his feet. After slaying Hector, he attempts to defile his body, but the gods prevent Hector’s bodily destruction.

In that most remarkable conclusion of Homer, Priam enters the tent of Achilles and throws himself at the feet of Achilles, just as Lycaon did. Homer inverts the image and outcome in this recapitulation of images (and Homer plays on, and pays homage to, many images of Greek mythological lure throughout his love epic). Rather than brutally cut down Priam, as he did many of Priam’s sons, Achilles learns to love and weeps with Priam. They shed tears together. Homer takes the strife-filled cosmos of Hesiod and his predecessors and turns it on its head by arguing that the cosmos is filled with strife and love, and that love may heal the strife-filled world if even for a brief moment. That is why Homer’s Iliad ends so fittingly, even though we know Troy is still to be sacked and Achilles killed.

Aeschylus’ Revolution: Toward Love and Persuasion

Enter Aeschylus. The Oresteia includes the conclusion of Agamemnon’s life. The first play in his trilogy opens with a lookout guard restless and as if imprisoned because of his duties and the restlessness that he feels. He is completely on edge and disordered. Though he looks up at the stars, the stars he knows “by heart,” the starry skies cannot guide him to the gods because he is an imprisoned watcher and his disquietude sets the ominous stage for the rest of the play.

We quickly learn that Clytaemnestra, Agamemnon’s unfaithful wife, is conspiring with Aegisthus to kill her husband as an act of revenge for killing their daughter, Iphigenia (which Euripides treats in naked detail in his play Iphigenia in Aulis), and for leaving her to be alone and worried for ten years. She feels betrayed by Agamemnon. Agamemnon’s love for her was less than his lust for power; as such, the world of Agamemnon is one that is restless, cold, and as if a prison cell of torment. The chorus hauntingly chants on the eve of Agamemnon’s murder: “The lust for power never dies—men cannot have enough!”

“Order, in this bleak and ancient outlook, is brought about by power and not love or persuasion (at least in the first movement of Aeschylus’ trilogy).”

The play ends in murder. It concludes with Clytaemnestra recapitulating the old cosmogonic world of strife and power as she stands over the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra whom she cut down in cold blood, “Our lives are based on pain…You and I have power now. We will set the house in order once for all.” Order, in this bleak and ancient outlook, is brought about by power and not love or persuasion (at least in the first movement of Aeschylus’ trilogy).

But this is not where the Oresteia arc ends. It continues. The Libation Bearers opens not with a restless imprisonment—but with a prayer to the gods and a plea for salvation. The opening sets the tone for all three plays, and the second act of the trilogy captures Orestes in pain and needing purgation but also his dependent on the gods who were largely absent in the brutal world of politicking and murderous scheming. It is true that Orestes will murder his mother and Aegisthus, thus standing over their dead bodies just as Clytaemnestra had done standing over the murdered bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, but where Clytaemnestra killed Agamemnon (and Cassandra) out of hatred and spite, Orestes kills his mother and scheming lover out of devotion to his father and to the gods (or so he claims). This sets up the third and final play, the Eumenides

Read the rest of my essay: Why Aeschylus Still Matters Today (Merion West, 15 August 2019)

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