Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Aeschylus and Plato

Political Science 160A
Classical Political Thought

Political Thought Midterm Examination: Aeschylus and Plato

The tragic poet Aeschylus and the philosopher Plato present in the Oresteia and the Republic two accounts of how justice came to exist in the human community or polis. Compare and contrast these two perspectives, and explain which you find more persuasive.

The tragic poet Aeschylus and the philosopher Plato present in the Oresteia and the Republic, two accounts of how justice came to exist in the human community or polis. Yet both Aeschylus and Plato present their views of how justice came to exist in the polis in completely opposite ways. Aeschylus shows justice’s evolution through and individual basis, where individual actions represent different elements in the evolution of justices in the polis. The relationship of these individual actions together shows how justice exists. Plato takes the opposite approach. Plato examines how justice will exist by creating a perfect example of a human community and then compares justice’s existence in the polis with justice’s existence in the individual.

Aeschylus trilogy of plays in the Oresteia shows a complexity not only in the story line of the plays, but also in the complex metaphors of which the characters and audience are confronted with. The trilogy begins in the Greek kingdom of Argos at the end of the Trojan War. Aeschylus does not view Argos as a true kingdom or as a city-state. Aeschylus views Argos as a trial society rather than a true city-state. This is important since Aeschylus is attempting to show justice’s evolution in the city-state from a political structure that is of a simpler design. This tribal society is represented as the palace of King Agamemnon where most of the events of the trilogy will take place in the palace. This tribal society has certain characteristics that Aeschylus can use. First, the tribal society is a small, communal-oriented existence. All individual characters interact with each other in the House of Argos. This will continue until the Eumenides where Orestes will seek refuge in the temple of Athena. Yet even in the Eumenides, the actions of the play take place inside the temple. There is no change of set or scenery, which one can view Athena’s temple as another tribal society. A second aspect of tribal society is the constant emphasis of war. Throughout the Oresteia, the reference of the Trojan War continues to surface. The first scene at the beginning of Agamemnon shows a watchman standing at the roof of the palace, waiting for news of Troy’s capture through signal fires (Aeschylus, pg. 35). War is a constant reminder in Agamemnon. Clytemnestra tells the chorus of Troy’s capture saying, “[The] Trojans are stooping now to gather in their arms, their dead, husbands and brothers; children lean to clasp the aged who begot them, crying upon the death of those most dear, from lips that never will be free,” (Aeschylus, pg. 45). Even the Chorus laments the cost of war on Argos, saying, “The god of war, money changer of dead bodies, held the balance of his spear in the fighting, and from the corpse-fires at Ileum sent to their dearest the dust, heavy and bitter with tears shed, packing smooth the urns with ashes that once were men,” (Aeschylus, pg. 48).

In a tribal society, there is no specific type of government. Instead, the strongest individuals are considered the leaders of the tribe. A leader of the tribe will have a specific set of characteristics. The leader will have a strong emphasis on heroism—he will perform heroic deeds that ordinary men would be incapable of doing. Agamemnon shows such a heroic deed when he sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the gods so his ships of war can sail safely through the storm (Aeschylus, pg. 41). In addition, the leaders are to show an incredible amount of hubris, where they will attempt to defy the establishment and do things on their own. This hubris comes from the extreme self-confidence and pride, which they display. Agamemnon shows this hubris as he enters the palace in a chariot with his mistress Cassandra beside him, allowing his wife Clytemnestra to watch them both (Aeschylus, pg. 59). Even Clytemnestra shows hubris when, after killing Agamemnon and Cassandra, she admits to the Chorus of killing them, claiming Agamemnon was, “Caught in the folded web’s entanglement, she pinions him and with the black horn, strikes. And he crumples in the watered bath,” (Aeschylus, pg. 70). A final aspect of tribal society that Aeschylus introduces is the importance of custom and norms over the rule of law. Tribal society is based on customs—no specific rules that are legislated through a governing body. Agamemnon shows very little legislation in his kingdom. In fact, the only action Agamemnon takes is to leave Argos to fight in the Trojan War, (Aeschylus, pg. 36). Agamemnon must fight in the Trojan War since he was the king of Argos and the strongest warrior. It is the custom of warriors to fight in wars. But an even more important custom in the tribal society is the custom of blood feuds. A blood Feud exists where killing a member of a family will cause other members of the family to seek revenge for that death. Violence begets violence and blood begets blood. This blood feud is the catalyst in allowing the evolution of justice in the polis. Aeschylus constantly reiterates the blood feuds in the three plays. Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon in revenge for sacrificing her daughter Iphigenia, claiming “By my child’s Justice driven to fulfillment, by her Wrath and Fury, to whom I sacrificed this man,” (Aeschylus, pg. 82). Orestes tells Clytemnestra that he intends to kill his mother to avenge his father—Agamemnon’s death, saying that Clytemnestra, “killed and it was wrong. Now suffer wrong,” (Aeschylus, pg. 126).

In developing this tribal environment for the plays, Aeschylus is able to show through the interaction of the individual characters how justice evolved from the tribal society to the polis. Each play shows a specific step in this evolution. The first play Agamemnon shows how the tribal society existed and how the characters interacted in the tribal society. Agamemnon as the leader, displayed his heroism by entering the palace in a chariot, and displayed his hubris through bringing the slave and his mistress Cassandra. Cassandra is a slave captured by Agamemnon in the fall of Troy. She is a stranger of the tribe and does not belong in the tribal society. Clytemnestra even addresses Cassandra as a stranger, asking if Cassandra uses, “speech incomprehensible, barbarian, wild as the swallow’s song, I speak within her understanding, and she must obey,” (Aeschylus, pg. 67). Clytemnestra acts out the blood feud in killing Agamemnon. Even Clytemnestra’s lover Aegisthus has a blood feud motive since Aegisthus’ father, Thyestes, quarreled with his brother Atreus for the kingdom of Argos. Thyestes was driven out of the kingdom. As reconciliation, Atreus invited Thyestes to a feast where Atreus killed Thyestes children, and then served them as concealed dishes where Thyestes ate their flesh. When Thyestes was told of what he ate, he cursed Atreus and the house, and then left with his son Aegisthus. Atreus’ remained King of Argos, willing the kingdom to his two sons Agamemnon and Menelaus. Because of this, Aegisthus also has a motive to enact the blood revenge against Agamemnon for what Agamemnon’s father Atreus did to Aegisthus’ father Thyestes. Aegisthus uses this as a pretext to engage in an affair with Clytemnestra and plot with her to kill Agamemnon, taking over the kingdom (Aeschylus, pg. 86). Finally, because Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon, this continues the blood feud since Orestea must now enact revenge against his mother for killing his father. While Clytemnestra finally asks for no more blood to be shed, the Chorus asks in the end if “God’s hand guiding brings Orestes home again,” (Aeschylus, pg. 90).

In the second play, The Liberation Bearers, Aeschylus looks to within the individual to examine the conflict of enacting revenge of blood. Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, is presented with a dilemma. In order to avenge his father’s death, he must kill his mother. In a sense, Aeschylus shows a precursor to the individual conflicts of the human soul, which Plato introduces in detail in the Republic. Orestes is faced with a dilemma of action. He knows he must kill his mother to avenge his father. He has been told through Apollo’s oracle to enact revenge against Clytemnestra and that Apollo—as the god of reason and intellect—will not forsake him, (Aeschylus, pg. 103). Orestes sister, Electra, is filled with hatred and revenge against Clytemnestra. Electra laments at Agamemnon’s grave “To call you father is constraint of fact, and all the love I could have borne my mother turns your way, while she is loathed as she deserves,” (Aeschylus, pg. 102). In the end, Orestes resolves to proceed in killing his Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. In the Liberation Bearers, Aeschylus shows through individual characters, the conflict inside an individual between three different parts. The character Apollo represents intellect and reason, the character Orestes represents spirit and action, and the character Electra represents appetite and basic emotions. However, Aeschylus does not fully explore this individual possibility as much as Plato does in the Republic.

In the final play, the Eumenides, Aeschylus finally shows how justice comes to exist in the polis. At the end of the Liberation Bearers, Orestes is chased by the Furies for killing his mother. The Furies are earth spirits, which represent basic feelings and emotions. After killing Clytemnestra, Orestes begins to see these Furies. The Furies “wear robes of black and they are wreathed in a tangle of snakes,” (Aeschylus, pg. 130). Orestes then flees Argos for Athens where he takes refuge in the temple of Athena. Here the final act of the Eumenides shows the development of justice. The Eumenides is actually a trial. It is the trial of the gods in order to determine the definition of justice. The plaintiffs of this trial are the Furies who are angered at Orestes for killing his mother. According to the Furies, blood feuds are acceptable if “such a murder would not be the shedding of kindred blood,” (Aeschylus, pg. 142). The defendant of this trial is actually Apollo. He aided in giving the reason and intellect, which allowed Orestes to see the reasons for killing Clytemnestra. Apollo actually claims responsibility for the murder of Clytemnestra (Aeschylus, pg. 155). While Orestes is also a defendant in the trial, he has become a sort of an Everyman who represents all of mankind’s actions in continuing the blood feuds in the tribal society. The judge of the trial is Athena—goddess of wisdom and daughter of Zeus. Athena listens to both arguments, but then fails to make a ruling on the trial. She decides to bring in a jury of twelve men to make the decision. This is a peculiar attempt in the play, but Aeschylus has a reason for this. First such a jury could become a precursor in creating a system for determining justice upon those men who are accused of committing crimes. Twelve men shall listen to the case, and then make their decision on the guilt or innocence of the accused. However, for Orestes case, this jury is unable to make such a decision. While this jury of peers may be an attempt by man to create justice in the trial, man continues to have an underlying conflict of what justice is. Man would not be ready to refute the customs of the blood feuds. Thus a decision by man would be deadlocked by those who may wish to create a new form of justice and those who wish to carry on with the blood feuds. This brings a second important reason that Aeschylus reveals. In order to create such a justice which is impartial, such justice must come from the gods. Athena must cast the vote to decide this case. She must look for a middle ground in order to placate all parties in this case. If she decides for Orestes, the Furies will enact revenge against Orestes and the blood feuds will continue. The Furies even claim that they will “let loose on the land the vindictive poison,” (Aeschylus, pg. 163). If she decides with the Furies, she may open up a conflict with the higher gods of Zeus and Apollo since Athena—as the goddess of wisdom has forsaken wisdom for basic feelings and emotions. Because of this, Athena takes a compromising approach. She decides for Orestes, allowing him to be free of the Furies wrath. However, with the Furies, she asks them to reside in a new home underground of the city-state of Athens where they “shall sit on shining chairs beside the hearth to accept devotions offered by your citizens,” (Aeschylus, pg. 163). She offers the Furies to live with her and to use their powers in the name of the city-state. Justice now belongs to the city-state has the right to decide what is just and to use power to enforce this justice. Because of this new arrangement, the right of the blood feud no longer applies. Orestes as Everyman is the last to claim the right of blood feud as a form of justice. This action also causes the world of the tribal society to cease with its customs and norms. The rise of the city-state will mean that such a city-state must create legislation and laws in order to define what is just, and then use the powers of the city-state to enforce the law. Finally, for justice to exist in the city-state, there must be wisdom in evaluating two sides of a conflict and determining the best decision of which will serve the interests of both parties and allow justice to continue in the city-state.

In Plato’s Republic, the original discussion is an attempt to discern what morality inside the individual is. Three definitions of morality are explored.

The first definition comes from Cephalous. Cephalous is an old, wealthy man who believes that morality and justice means that you live well and good, that you “avoid cheating or lying against one’s better judgment,” (Plato, pg. 8). Only then are you a just and moral individual. Socrates asks Cephalous if justice and morality is also “to tell the truth, and to give back whatever one has borrowed?” (Plato, pg. 8).

Polemarcus then takes up the discussion of morality. His view is that “friends owe friends good deeds, not bad ones, (Plato, pg. 8). He also claims that morality is “helping one’s friends and harming one’s enemies,” (Plato, pg. 13). Socrates sees major contradictions in Polemarcus’ arguments. The first contradiction Socrates points out is that you may not know who your friends are and who your enemies are; therefore you cannot determine how to help your friends and harm your enemies. In addition, your enemies could become your friends and your friends could become your enemies in the future. Because of this, you do not want to harm them too much that they would resent you. Finally, you must not make people worse off than they are in harming them since you may need their help in the future.

The third individual arguments are presented by Thrasymicus. Thrasymicus claims that morality “is nothing more than the advantage of the stronger party,” (Plato, pg. 18). Justice, according to Thrasymicus, exists in a dog eat dog world where everyone is out for themselves and their own best interests. Socrates rebukes this by saying in the justice of the strong, the strong may make mistakes in their judgment, thus weakening them. In addition, rulers do not rule in their interests, but in the interests of the people being ruled.

As Glaucon listens to these arguments of morality and justice in the individual, he is not convinced of Socrates arguments. He then proposes two questions. The first question is that once people have experienced both committing wrong and being at the receiving end of it, they see that the disadvantages are unavoidable and the benefits are unattainable; so they decide that the most profitable course is for them to enter into a contract with one another, guaranteeing no wrong will be committed or received,” (Plato, pg. 46). This is an early form of a social contract that Glaucon has proposed. The second question is that Glaucon presents the extremes of a completely moral and immoral man. For a completely moral man to exist, he must be viewed by society with a reputation of total immorality while the immoral man must be viewed with a reputation of total morality, (Plato, pg. 48-49). Adeimantus also questions the issue of individuals who show the appearance of being just and moral while doing unjust things. Such individuals may gain wealth and use some of that wealth to perform sacrifices in order to appease the gods (Plato, pg. 53-54).

These challenges force Socrates to shift his thinking of justice and morality from an individual standpoint to that of the polis. He suggests that “Morality can be the property of whole communities as well as of individuals,” (Plato, pg. 58). This becomes the crux of Plato’s argument—in order to find justice in the individual, one must look for justice in the polis since both exist. Justice in the polis can be reflected within justice of the individual—both should be the same. However, Plato does not accept the idea of individualism or individuals of a society. With Aeschylus, the individuals who make up the Orestiea are complex characters with their own individual motives and desires. These motives and desires affect the relationship of each character, thus creating new motives and new characterizations. Socrates does not identify the individual as a separate entity with their own characterizations and motives for morality and justice. Socrates must equate the individual with the state. Socrates first creates the simple, utopian society. This society is based on the idea of people living in a simple, communal environment. Each individual is specialized in a trade—there is no jack-of-all-trades. People live in a natural state where they only take what they need and nothing more. This society will have no laws, no governing bodies or conflicts (Plato, pg. 59-62). To Socrates, this simple city shows a perfect balance of harmony with people co-existing with nature, and thus the simple city is just. This society is very similar to Aeschylus’ tribal society in the Orestiea. Glaucon does not accept this natural state. He sees this state as too simple. First, he sees that there is no conflict in a tribal society. Yet, in Aeschylus’ tribal society, conflict abounds—especially in the blood feuds. Glaucon also sees no progress or evolution of the society and he sees no luxuries that people may crave for. In the end, Glaucon calls Socrates utopian society as “devising a community for pigs,” (Plato, pg. 63).

Since the simple city is only acceptable to pigs, Socrates then attempts to build a full-size community in which to show justice. This new community is made up of three parts. These parts are the craftsmen, the guardians, and the philosopher-kings. These three parts have social class stratification. The craftsmen are the laborers and workers of the city. They make the products—farming, metalworking, pottery, shipbuilding—which allow the city to survive. Socrates claims that the foundation of a political life is through economics. Each individual is specialized in his task and there is no way one person can become an expert in all tasks. Furthermore, there is no way a single person can get all the wants by himself. The craftsmen also are luxury lovers. They build things for the city and they are also things of luxury in order to make their lives comfortable. The craftsmen are the lowest run in the social class stratification.

In the middle class stratification are the guardians. The guardians are a type of warrior-class which will enforce the laws and regulations of the city. The guardians are professional soldiers who will live a Spartan life devoid of luxury. They are trained to think only of duty to the city. This training may include censorship of the arts, music and poetry which doe not correspond to the well being of the society and the guardian class. Guardians live in a communal way of life where they will share in the work of the community, share the raising of families, and share wives for the proper breeding of future guardian offspring. The Guardians will have no private property or money.

The highest stratification of the Utopian society is the philosopher-kings. Socrates is adamant that “Unless communities have philosophers as kings, or the people who are currently called kings and rulers practice philosophy with enough integrity, their can be no end to political troubles,” (Plato, pg. 193). The philosopher-kings are recruited from the guardian class. They are rigorously trained in the fields of mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music. This grounding of mathematics allows for the philosophers mind to be sharpened in determining a logical and rational argument to a subject while providing evidence to support this argument. Thus, the heavy concentration of mathematics allows for the philosopher to study dialect, or logical reasoning. When the philosopher-kings turn 50, they are then able to start to rule the city with the knowledge and experience.

Socrates society is developed as a hierarchical society where in order to function properly, all parts of the society must function perfectly with one-another. There must be harmony among the parts. Socrates actually coins a particular term called the Myth of the Metals. Each individual has within their heart, a certain amount of metal which will correspond to the nature of his morality. There are three types of metals—gold, silver and copper. Gold is the rarest of metals and individuals with gold in their hearts are to be regarded as philosophers. Silver is a little more common than gold, and individuals with silver in their hearts are the guardians. The last metal of copper is the most common metal and in can be found among the common people. Each individual with each type of metal in their hearts must be segregated within their own class—people with gold in their hearts live together, people with silver in their hearts live together and people with copper in their hearts live together. There is no class movement of individuals with different types of metals going to different classes, for example an individual with silver in their heart cannot move up to the gold class. Plato shows through this hierarchy how the utopian society will function in harmony. The philosopher-kings will provide the rules and legislation to the city. The guardians will enforce these rules upon the craftsmen and protect the city from harm. The craftsmen will obey the rules and provide the city with the products, which the city needs to survive. In order for this city to work, all functions must work in total harmony. The myth of the metals must be accepted without question and all individuals must accept their place in society. When the city is functioning properly and in harmony, there is justice.

Socrates then compares the functioning of the city with the functioning of the individual. He claims that while there are three parts in the city---the philosophers, the guardians and the craftsmen, these same three parts can be identified within the individual. The parts of the individual are intellect or reason, spirit and appetite. In the city or polis, the philosopher kings provide the rules for the guardians, which enforce the rules upon the craftsmen. In the individual body, intellect and reason provide the individual with the means to act in the spirit, while appetite is the basic bodily needs. In other words, intellect / reason and spirit control appetite. Intellect and reason can be compared to the philosopher-kings, spirit can be compared to the guardians, and appetite can be compared to the craftsman. When all three of these parts are working in complete harmony, then the individual has justice in the soul. Thus, justice can be seen both in the polis and in the individual.

Both Aeschylus and Plato show two contrasting accounts of how justice came to exist in the polis. However one simply cannot choose one account over the other. Both accounts show a unique perspective in the development of the polis. It is important to understand the positive and negative aspects of each account and how they relate to the development of justice so that justice can continue to thrive in many different political societies of this world.

Works Cited

Aeschylus. (1953). The Oresteia. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Plato. (1993). The Republic. New York. Oxford University Press.

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