The following essay was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 86-96.
The great problems of religion and morals, and of man's destiny and the government of the universe, enter so largely into the composition of the tragedies of Aeschylus, that in order to appreciate their full significance it is necessary to acquire some general notion of his views on these questions and of the ideas which he desired to inculcate. In the case of a modern dramatist the attempt to extract such information from his works might be hazardous and misleading, owing to the difficulty of discriminating between the real sentiments of the poet himself, and the opinions which were merely placed, for dramatic purposes, in the mouths of his characters. But in Aeschylus there is no such difficulty to be encountered. His choral odes, like those of most of the ancient tragic poets, are composed with the express purpose of enforcing his own ideas, and pointing the moral of the tragedy. Moreover, in many places the sentiments of the dialogue are obviously those of the poet; and the very substance of the plots is often of such a character as to place his opinions in the clearest light.
The sixth century [B.C.], in which Aeschylus passed his early years, was one of great stir and movement in matters of religion and speculation. The old theogonies of Homer and Hesiod, with their primitive morality and simple conception of the gods, had long since failed to satisfy the higher minds among the nation. The prevalence of deeper aspirations and a more searching curiosity is proved by many symptoms. Associations such as the Orphic societies and the Pythagorean brotherhoods, with their ascetic rules of life and their doctrines of immortality, began about this time to acquire their widespread popularity. The mysticism of Pherecydes, the pantheistic dreams of Xenophanes, and the cosmic speculations of Thales and Anaximander, are equally typical of the new spirit of the age. All these various tendencies, philosophical and religious, must have had their influence in forming the opinions of Aeschylus; and Cicero goes so far as to call him a Pythagorean. But the exact extent of the debt which he owed to his predecessors cannot any longer be determined, owing to our fragmentary knowledge of the doctrines of the sixth century. We must content ourselves, therefore, with the mere exposition of his views, as they appear in his tragedies, without endeavouring to discriminate between what was due to his own genius and what was derived from other sources.
The work which Aeschylus set himself to perform, as a moral teacher, was to reconcile the popular religion with the more advanced conceptions of his time, by purifying its grossness and harmonizing its various inconsistencies. In this attempt he was more successful than might have been expected. The primitive legends, remodelled and reilluminated by his genius, acquire ... an unwonted grandeur and impressiveness. But the task was one of insuperable difficulty. The old Greek mythology, with its medley of beauties and monstrosities, and of graceful fancies and coarse brutalities, hardly admitted of being systemized into a perfect whole. It was impossible, therefore, that Aeschylus, in endeavouring to accomplish this result, should avoid occasional incongruities, or that the scheme expounded in his writings should be complete and symmetrical in all its parts. Few, however, will deny that in his hands the religion of the Greeks has been raised to a higher level of moral dignity than it ever attained either before or since.
The first point to be noticed, in regard to his religious views, is the sublime conception of Zeus as the supreme ruler of the universe. The other deities are represented as merely the ministers of his will, and though still possessing their usual characteristics, stand in subordinate rank. The language applied to Zeus is monotheistic in tone, and his praises are chanted in strains of the loftiest exaltation. He is "king of kings, most blessed of the blessed, most mighty of rulers." His power "knows no superior, nor is any one enthroned above him; swifter than speech is the accomplishment of his purpose." He "holds for ever the balance of the scales: nothing comes to mortal man but by the will of Zeus." "Zeus is sky, and earth, and heaven; Zeus is all things, yea, greater than all things." His power, though invisible, is omnipotent and omnipresent. "Dark and shadowy," it is said, "are the pathways of his counsels, and difficult to see. From their high-towering hopes he hurleth down to destruction the race of men. Yet setteth he no forces in array, all his works are effortless. Seated on holiest throne, from thence, unknown to us, he bringeth his will to pass."
This noble conception of Zeus, it cannot be denied, is scarcely consistent with the character which he bears in Greek mythology, or with the actions which he sometimes performs even in Aeschylus himself. Hence some critics have been led to imagine that there is in Aeschylus a double Zeus -- the ordinary god of the polytheistic religion, and the one omnipotent deity in whom he really believed. They suppose that he had no genuine faith in the credibility of the popular legends, but merely used them as a setting for his tragedies; and that his own convictions were of a more philosophical type, and are seen occasionally in such passages as those above quoted.
This theory, however, though not without a certain plausibility, is open to serious objections. In the first place it seems to be most improbable that there was any clear distinction in the mind of Aeschylus between the Zeus of the legends, and the higher Zeus of his own imagination. In his descriptions of the deity the loftiest conceptions are closely intermingled with fabulous traditions. Though Zeus is invoked as "king of kings, and mightiest of rulers," he appears in the very next lines as "lover of Io and ancestor of Danaus." While addressed in glowing language as the lord of the universe, he is entitled at the same time successor of Uranus and Cronus. Inconsistencies of this kind were the natural result of the endeavour to reconcile legend with philosophy.
Further than this, the general impression produced by the plays of Aeschylus is unfavourable to the supposition that he was simply using the old legends for poetical purposes. The earnestness with which he inculcates reverence towards the gods of tradition, and the anxiety which he shows to remove all stumbling-blocks from the old mythology, seem inconsistent with the indifference of a skeptic. Not that we are bound to assume, on his account, that he accepted with unhesitating faith the whole circle of the legends. Much, no doubt, he regarded as uncertain, much as false. Even the name "Zeus" was to him a mere convention. Like Pindar, he felt himself at liberty to reject what was hateful and improbable. But the ancient mythical gods were more to him than mere types and abstractions; and though their names might be uncertain, and their deeds distorted by tradition, he seems to have felt no doubt in his heart that they were real and potent divinities.
Zeus, then, in the conception of Aeschylus, is the ruler of all created things. But he is not a capricious monarch, swayed by casual passions, like the Zeus of Homer. To act with injustice is impossible to him; he is "constrained" never to assist transgressors. There is a universal law of justice, a moral ordinance governing the whole world, to which even he must submit. This law is called by different names -- Fate, Destiny, Justice, Necessity; but under these various terms the same all-embracing rule is denoted, as many passages will prove. Thus Fate is said to "whet the blade of Justice"; Destiny "forges for Justice her sword"; the Fates "guide the helm of Necessity." The special instruments by which, in the case of the more heinous offences, this law of strict justice is enforced are the Furies, the daughters of the Night. These dread goddesses of the underworld, in whom the spirit of vengeance is personified, derive their functions from Fate; whence they are called, in mythical fashion, the sisters of the Fates. Their mission is to pursue criminals, and crush them with misery and misfortune. Their aspect is loathsome and horrible, so as to strike terror into the guilty soul.
But while the Furies are the subordinate instruments of vengeance, the general administration of the laws of Justice and Destiny is in the hands of Zeus. This point is clearly emphasized by Aeschylus. It is Zeus who sends the Furies on their errands. Justice is the virgin daughter of Zeus. Zeus "guides by ancient rule the courses of Destiny." No man can "escape from Destiny, or transgress the mighty inexorable will of Zeus." The chorus of the Choephori implore "the all-powerful Fates to accomplish, with the aid of Zeus, the ends of Justice." The function, then, of Zeus, as omnipotent ruler, is to govern the world in accordance with that law of Justice which has been ordained by Fate and Necessity as the established order of the universe. It is true that in the Prometheus his position is represented in a somewhat different light, and that he is there depicted as subject to the decrees of Fate, and ignorant of their tenour. But the description of Zeus, as given in the Prometheus, is altogether exceptional in this as well as in other respects.
The relation between Zeus and the Furies, as the administrators of justice, deserves more special notice. The Furies, and the gods of the underworld generally, belong to an earlier order of deities, and represent that inexorable spirit of justice which executes to the full the strict letter of the law, regardless of other considerations. They are relentless and incapable of compassion. Zeus and the Olympian gods, on the other hand, are of more recent origin, and their character is less severe, the justice which they administer being tempered with equity. The supremacy of Zeus, therefore, denotes the supremacy of the spirit over the letter, and of equity over law; and it is the constant object of Aeschylus to reconcile these two opposing forces, and to explain away the stories of conflict between the gods of Olympus and the gods of the underworld; to show, in other words, that the system of the universe is harmonious and consistent in all its parts.
Such being the scheme of divine government, as conceived by Aeschylus, in which the laws of eternal justice are administered by an all-powerful deity, it follows that injustice can never prosper, and that the punishment of sin is certain and inevitable. This doctrine was not a new one among the Greeks; it appears in Homer and Hesiod, and other poets of an early date. But there is no Greek writer by whom it is brought forward with such persistency, and emphasized with such vigour and intensity, as by Aeschylus. It forms the basis of all his dramas. The inexorable character of the divine justice, and the certainty of the retribution which follows crime, are themes on which he is never weary of dilating, with an energy and splendour of diction which recall the utterances of the Hebrew prophets. "Impious," he says, "are the thoughts of those who declare that the gods pay no heed to the sins of evil-doers." "As long as Zeus remains seated on his throne, the wicked shall suffer." "Whosoever commits all manner of transgressions, and swerves from right, he perforce in time shall lower sail, when trouble has overtaken him, and his yard-arms are breaking. Then he calls in his trouble to those who heed him not, and strives in vain amid the surge. And God laughs at the man of fiery heart, who boasted that no evil should come nigh him, when he sees him worn with inextricable woes, and ever failing to round the perilous promontory. And he perishes for ever, unwept, unseen, wrecking his former bliss on the shoals of justice."
Nor is the punishment of crime confined to the person of the criminal; the vengeance of heaven extends still further, and falls upon innocent victims, visiting the sins of the father upon the children even to distant generations. When guilt has been once incurred, a curse descends upon the family of the offender, and infects it with an hereditary taint. An Avenging Spirit is ever on the watch, and drives it on to fresh acts of wickedness. One crime begets another, until the history of the race becomes a long record of evil and disastrous deeds.
This notion of an ancestral curse, which expresses in mythological form the belief in the remote and incalculable effects of sin, was likewise one of great antiquity among the Greeks, and was embodied in many of their ancient legends. It is employed by Aeschylus as the groundwork of several of his extant tragedies; and the mysterious working of the curse, as it descends from father to son, and blights the happiness of one generation after another, is painted in dark and terrible colours. A doctrine of this kind ... if pushed to extremes, could only end in fatalism and despair; and it has often been supposed that such is in reality the creed of Aeschylus, and that mankind are represented in his tragedies as the sport of a blind and capricious Destiny, which sweeps innocent and guilty into the same net. But Aeschylus had far too profound a conviction of the justice of Providence to acquiesce in dogmas of such a hopeless character. He is careful to warn us against this very conclusion, and to soften and modify the fatalistic rigour of the old belief. While recognizing the baneful effects of sin even upon remote victims, he never doubts the freedom of man's will, or his power to avert calamity by keeping his hands free from evil. When a curse is upon a family, it predisposes them to crime; but there is no actual compulsion. It is their own vicious inclinations, combining with the promptings of the Avenging Spirit, which bring the curse into operation, and cause the evil to be perpetrated. This point is clearly brought forward in the conversation between Clytemnestra and the chorus, after the murder of Agamemnon. Clytemnestra pleads that it is not she, but the Avenger, that has done the deed. The chorus reject the plea with indignation. "Who," thez reply, "will bear witness that thou art guiltless of this murder? Yet the Avenger might help thee to accomplish it."
In this reflection of the chorus we have a definite statement of the opinion of Aeschylus, that the effect of hereditary guilt in a family was not so irresistible as to crush the free-will of its members, or to absolve them from responsibility. The same truth is enforced in the plots of his tragedies. There is a curse upon the house of Oedipus, which eventually leads the two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, to their ruin. But they are neither of them guiltless; they bring the curse upon themselves through their own conduct, the one allowing his better judgement to be overborne by fraternal hatred, the other waging impious war against his native country. So too with the house of Atreus. Clytemnestra is an adulteress, and Agamemnon sacrifices the life of his daughter for ambitious purposes. Orestes alone is pure in his motives, and when he slays his mother, performs the deed as an act of strict justice, after long hesitation, at the express bidding of the oracle. Hence in his person the curse is expiated, and the family henceforth relieved from its calamities.
It is only guilt, therefore, which is punished by heaven; innocence and justice, on the other hand, are protected and rewarded. "Zeus inclines the scales on either side, sending evil to the wicked, good to the just." The Furies "visit not the man of clean hands; he passes his life unscathed." The old Greek opinion, that the gods look with envy upon the good fortune of men, and delight in visiting excessive prosperity with reverses, apart from the question of guilt or innocence, is expressly repudiated by Aeschylus. "It is an old saying," he declares, "that much prosperity begets misfortune. I hold a creed apart from this. It is the impious deed which brings forth an offspring of woe, like its parent stock. But the house that loves justice shall flourish from generation to generation." Yet he admits that wealth and prosperity are dangerous, often leading men into insolence and pride. From pride comes delusion, "the black irresistible deity," and takes possession of the soul, uprooting the moral sense, and alluring the victim with seductive wiles into the meshes of calamity. For such a man the only remedy is the discipline of adversity, which may restore him to a better frame of mind. For Zeus has appointed that "suffering should bring instruction," and it is "a good thing to be taught wisdom by misfortune."
Lastly, as to the question of a future state. In the time of Aeschylus the old Homeric conception of the obscure and comfortless existence of the soul after death had been expanded, by the teachers of the Orphic school, into a definite creed concerning a future world of rewards and punishments. But this belief was confined to the sects of the initiated, and never appears to have formed a part of the ordinary Greek religion. Aeschylus, indeed, refers to it on three or four occasions, but only in partial and incomplete manner. He holds out no prospect of future reward to the virtuous, all the blessings which he promises being confined to the present existence. His punishments, too, are mostly of the same kind; and though he sometimes speaks of the dead as still exposed to torment, yet in one of these places he mentions the belief as a report current among mankind, rather than as a conviction of his own. Otherwise his description of the souls of the departed is in accordance with the ordinary superstition. There existence is still dark and shadowy, as in Homer, and the feeling by which they are chiefly animated is a craving for vengeance upon those who may have injured them on earth. Thus Clytemnestra is taunted by the other inhabitants of Hades because her murder is still unexpiated; and the chorus remind Orestes that "the ravenous jaws of the funeral fire consume not the spirit of the dead," but that he still cries for vengeance from beneath the ground. Even this dim belief in a future state may have been introduced from dramatic necessity, and as forming an integral part of the legend, rather than from personal conviction; since in one of his fragments he enunciates the opinion that all things are indifferent to the dead, and that they feel neither pleasure nor pain.
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