Scott Krane
a baal teshuva and self-proclaimed dilettante

Dissecting Western Morality (Aeschylus’ Agamemnon vs. Socrates)

"An Audience in Athens During Agamemnon by Aeschylus" by William Blake Richmond (1842-1921); oil on canvas; 1884; (Wikimedia Commons)

The source of Greek or Western morality is fifth century tragedy; or so historians of ethics have long argued. Yet, Socrates (Σωκράτης) would be appalled by the ethics of tragedy. Hence, as critics, we are left to investigate this fissure in the pedagogical concrete. What is it about fifth century tragedy, in particular, that historians of ethics see an archetypal model; and why would Socrates vehemently disagree? Tragedy is to be understood as the imitation of an action. If there is anything educational to be taken from tragedy, it is its ability to serve as a praxis (πρᾶξις) which delivers a lesson in morality. Tragedy does this, however, underhandedly, through the deliverance of pathos (πάθος).

Pathos is our name for the power of some events to stir us to a mysteriously agreeable sadness. It is our name for the emotions awakened by such an event, a mixture of tenderness and sympathy…

explains Thomas Gould in The Ancient Quarrel Between Poetry and Philosophy.  As it applies to the imitative act of tragedy, though, writes Gould, “…it may be esteemed for its ability to ennoble us or to deepen our understanding.” (Gould ix)  This being said, the tragedian knows, the stronger the effect of pathos (when a change of soul occurs on-stage), the more affective the tragedy. The marriage of wisdom, mathos to pathos, is an invention of the tragedian, Aeschylus (Αἰσχύλος), and we call it, pathemathos. It holds that wisdom comes through suffering. According to Aristotle (Ἀριστοτέλης), the audience is supposed to react to the pathos (if the mimesis (μίμησις) can bypass rationality) by having an experience of catharsis (κάθαρσις)that is, having a foreign substance purged from the soul (when a change of soul occurs, in the audience, off-stage). This is the process by which the moral lesson is instilled. Not only is Socrates offended by the degree of pathos which is involved in this ontological process, but he questions if the poet, himself, has the equipment to engineer such a method. Socrates recognizes poetry as sent by the Muses; however, he insists that the Muses must be censored. Socrates is recorded by Plato ( Πλάτων) in his Republic saying, “…we must remain firm in our conviction that hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be [permitted]….” (Plato 676)

Not unlike the painter, the tragedian is a mimetic artist. The hero of the poem must, in his rhetoric, display both ethics and morality, and for our purposes, this is the subject of imitation. As Aristotle says, “…tragedy is mimesis of those superior to us.” (Aristotle 81-83) To understand Agamemnon, we must recall the famous story—as probably first poetically told by Homer (Ὅμηρος )—of the Trojan War. Paris of Troy steals Helen, the wife of King Menelaus. Menelaus (Μενέλαο) is Agamemnon’s brother. The two Greeks launch one-thousand ships and head for Troy, where after ten long years of bloody battle, they are victorious. (In a previous episode, Agamemnon’s father, Atreus (Ἀτρεύς), boils the children of his brother, Thyestes (Θυέστης), and serves them to him. Thyeste’s only surviving offspring is Queen Clytemnestra’s lover, Aegisthus (Αἴγισθος), who is seeking revenge on his cousin, Agamemnon (Ἀγαμέμνων), for the heinous crime of his father). The hero of the tragedy, Agamemnon, is the namesake, the king of Argos. He is the perfect tragic hero, as the ethos (ἦθος) his character represents appeals to his authority: a brave king and warrior, who, brings pride to the Greeks. Socrates’ problem does not lay with the character. It is a more fundamental problem than that. His problem is with the poet, Aeschylus, and his imitation which attempts praxis deprived of rational logos (λόγος). “The poets deliver many fine speeches,” explains Mark Edmundson in the prologue to Literature Against Philosophy, “but when you question them about what they’ve said, their answers are puerile: they don’t know what they’re talking about.”(Edmundson 1)

Mask of Agamemnon; discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 at Mycenae, believed to pre-date the Trojan War by 300 years (Wikimedia Commons)

Before we begin to analyze the poem, we need to educate ourselves with the philosophy of Socrates. Socrates’ rejection of poetry (save for a defense of Homer in the early dialogue, Ion), an art-form to which he is no stranger, is on both ontological and psychological grounds. As for the former, there is a tripartite structure of forms which makes up the world. At the top is the ‘ideality.’ This is where the Truth exists; it is formed by God, and is only perceivable by the erudition of a philosopher. Below this are the ‘phenomena,’ or the form, concept or action, as we laypeople may perceive it. And then below the ‘phenomena’ is the level of mimesis. To Socrates, the tertiary level of imitation is immoral, “…all poetical imitations,” he says, “are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers, and…the knowledge of their true nature is the only antidote to them.” In the Republic, Socrates also tells his interlocutor, Glaucon, the son of Ariston, “…the tragic poet is an imitator…and therefore, like all other imitators, he is thrice removed from the king and from the truth…” (Plato 662)

Socrates explains that the human psyche also has three parts. The highest part is ‘reason’ or the ‘rational soul.’ It relates to math, logic and dialectical philosophy. The middle part is ‘spiritedness,’ which has to do with the body. The lowest part, we call the ‘appetitive soul’ or the ‘basement’ because it is the least valued part. This has to do with our senses such as sight, smell and touching; and this lowest part of our psyche enjoys the forms of mimetic art, (hence, ‘appetitive’) and in particular, the pathos of tragedy. Thomas Gould does a good job relating the Socratic structure of the psyche to the Socratic censorship of poetry when he writes, “The truth is that poets have nothing to say to the rational element in our souls, or to its angry ally, the middle part. They appeal only to the lowest element in our being.”  (Gould 31) Socrates says, “…in the human soul there is a better and also a worse principle; and when the better has the worse under control, then a man is said to be the master of himself; and this is a term of praise…” referring to poetry, however, he then continues, “but when, owing to evil education or association, the better principle, which is also the smaller, is overwhelmed by the greater mass of the worse—in this case he is blamed and is called the slave of self and unprincipled.” (Plato 430) Based on this, the poetry of Aeschylus, to Socrates’ reckoning, should not exist, let alone we find in it a source of morality. Mark Edmundson explains, “…poetry stirs up refractory emotions, challenging reason’s rule, making men womanish; it induces us to manipulate language for effect rather than strive for accuracy.” (Edmundson 1)

In Agamemnon, the victorious king, after laying siege to Troy, is sailing home for Argos on the Aegean Sea with his men. Suddenly a storm blows in and threatens their ship. We read the telling of the Chorus:

…Weatherbound we could not sail, our stores/ exhausted, fighting strength hard-pressed,/ and the squadrons role in the shallows/ off Chalkis where the riptide crashes,/ drags, and winds from the north pinned down our hulls/ at Aulis, port of anguish…

(Aeschylus 511)

One of Agamemnon’s men recognizes the deus ex machina, and they deduct that the storm was sent by Artemis (Ἄρτεμις), Goddess of the hunt:

Chalchas cried, “My captains, Artemis must have blood!”/ – so harsh the sons of Atreus dashed their/ scepters on the rocks, could not hold back the tears,/ and I still can hear the older warlord/ saying, “Obey, obey, or a heavy/ doom will crush me!

(Aeschylus 512)

In order to appease her, they must make a sacrifice. Writes Thomas Gould, “…as the dancers [chorus] reason in Agamemnon, gods can give mortals a revelation through a pathos only if they are capable of perpetrating monstrously unjust events, which is surely what the sacrifice of Iphigenia was.” (Gould x) In the following verses, the Chorus recounts to Queen Clytemnestra (Κλυταιμνήστρα) how Agamemnon is impelled to sacrifice his daughter:

…once I rend my child, the glory of my/ house—a father’s hands are stained, blood/ of a young girl streaks the altar. Pain both/ ways and what is worse? Desert the fleets, fail/ the alliance? No, but stop the winds with/ a virgin’s blood, feed their lust, their fury?/—feed their fury!—Law is law! Let all go well.

(Aeschylus 512)

(The last two lines of poetry allude directly to mortal man’s powerlessness, a toy of the divine, strung by nomos (νόμος) and phusis (φῠ́σῐς). Aeschylus, the poet, has methodically injected his poem with pain, hence, pathemathos. This event proves to be what Aristotle calls, harmatia (ἁμαρτία): the great mistake of the hero, which will bring about his downfall. Socrates, however, does not follow this metaphysical web of Aeschylus. He fears that an impressionable Athenian audience will see their hero, Agamemnon, acting in such a way on the stage, and they will repeat such behavior in real life. “Few persons ever reflect, as I should imagine, that from the evil of other men something of evil is communicated to themselves…” says Socrates to Glaucon (Γλαύκων), in Book X of Plato’s Republic, “And so the feeling of sorrow which has gathered strength at the sight of the misfortunes of others is with difficulty repressed in our own.” (Plato 675) Thomas Gould explains the reasoning of the Socratics to not applaud Agamemnon’s murder of Iphigenia (Ἰφιγένεια), or any pathos, for that matter: “The first mark of true piety, they insist, is the realization that divinity never condones, and certainly does not perpetrate, injustice towards anyone, man or god.” And he deduces:

Instruction and revelation through pathos, therefore, is not compatible with the nature of divinity, and any religion that moves its followers by pathe (plural of pathos) is necessarily false and inimical to true piety.

(Gould xi)

In Agamemnon, the hero’s tragic downfall comes as a result of his sacrificing Iphigenia, as well as the crime of his father. Agamemnon’s own murderer is his wife, Queen Clytemnestra. The audience must decide whether her murder of the King, to avenge Iphigenia is justified; and we decide it is not, thereby justifying the tragedy, when we consider firstly, that Clytemnestra has been unfaithful to Agamemnon with his cousin, Aegisthus, and secondly, and more so, that she also takes the life of Agamemnon’s Trojan concubine, the prophetess, Cassandra (Κασσάνδρα), (cursed by Apollo) whom he brings back to Argos (Άργος), a spoil of war. The action itself takes place off-stage, though the innocent Cassandra foretells of her own tragic fate through the Muse of Apollo, and therefore too, the fate of the tragic hero, King Agamemnon:

His fire!—sears me, sweeps me again—the torture!/ Apollo Lord of the Light, you burn, you/ blind me—agony! She is the lioness/, she rears on her hind legs, she beds with the/ wolf when her lion king goes ranging/—she will kill me—Ai, the torture!

(Aeschylus 540)

Cassandra’s emotion is necessary, perhaps, to underscore the pathos of a hero whose own actions are morally questionable.

She is mixing her drugs, adding a/ measure of hate for me. She gloats as she/ whets the sword for him. He brought me home/ and we will pay in carnage. Why/ mock yourself with these—trappings, the rod/, the god’s wreath, his yoke around my throat? Before/ I die I’ll tread you—die die die! Now/ you’re down. I’ve paid you back. Look for another/ victim—I am free at last—make her rich in/ all your curse and doom.

(Aeschylus 540)

The woman she is referring to is Clytemnestra, and she foresees her downfall too, however, it doesn’t take place in this poem. As Cassandra prophesies her own death, she curses Apollo and commands him to see Clytemnestra brought to justice. We, the audience, are entertained, even spellbound by the action and suspense, yet, Socrates is disgusted; meanwhile, keep in mind, historians of ethics, find in this poem, a source of Western morality.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) in 1882 (Wikimedia Commons)

“With Socrates, Greek taste changes in favor of logical argument,” (Nietzsche 475) writes German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, in Twilight of the Idols. Indeed, Socrates, the self-proclaimed Philosopher King of his own imaginary city-state, Kallipolis (Καλλίπολις), who went around Athens lecturing with a crown on his head, found poetry, like all imitative art, irrational in itself, and therefore, it brings all others to a state of irrationality. Hence, his rejection of tragedy is a sociological one. “Reason equals virtue and happiness,” writes Nietzsche, “that means merely that one must imitate Socrates and counter the dark appetites with a permanent daylight — the daylight of reason.” (Nietzsche 478). Aristotle, however, claimed that the psyche is not a tripartite structure; the soul has no “basement” with “dark appetites,” hence we shatter, somewhat, the rhetoric which Nietzsche has aimed at Socrates; in fact, Aristotle argued the psyche has no parts. In his Poetics, Aristotle, who also cites the sociological pragmatism of art, namely music, (in his Politics), leaps to defend tragedy in the language of philosophy. In poetry, according to Aristotle, the characters may behave irrationally, but they do so, on stage, wearing masks; the Greeks did not wear masks on the streets of Athens, therefore the audience sees a separation between what is real and what is imitative. Therefore, mimesis is not a direct imitation, it is a masked, altered interpretation of reality; this enables catharsis, the telosτέλος) of poesis (ποίησις); and the audience purges themselves of the spiritual toxins. A contemporary of Socrates, Gorgias, took the attack on Socrates one-step further, making the Socratic dialectic, subordinate to rhetoric, and claiming poetry is merely rhetoric with meter. However, I do not wish to digress, and anyway, (although I will finally claim that while historians of ethics see in tragedy a source of Western morality, they do so on grounds already trod by Aristotle; which is to say, poetry is more philosophical than history, in that it displays the kinds of things that can happen, as opposed to the things which already have), let’s assume that while Aristotle is a defender of tragedy, he does not necessarily understand it; tragedy, like rhetoric, is meant to persuade. The salient point is, in the time of Aeschylus, poetry was written for, and performed at the religious festival of Dionysus (Διόνυσος), “a vegetation deity especially associated with the vine” (Thalmann 502); and so the duty of the poet was a religious duty. “The Dionysia, as it was now called, lasted for four or five days, during which public business (except in emergencies) were suspended and prisoners were released on bail for the duration of the festival.” Instead of sacrificing a bull in the temple, we sacrifice a tragic character. Aeschylus is especially crux to the understanding of tragedy because it was he “who added a second actor and so created the possibility of conflict and the prototype of the drama as we know it.” (Thalmann 502) Beholding, as we have just done, only the tragedy of Agamemnon, we can see where the faint-hearted may feel offended by the radical pathos; (and been dumbfounded as to find in it a source of Greek and Western morality) had we analyzed too, the following two poems of the Orestia trilogy (Ὀρέστεια), to which it belongs, The Libation Bearers (Χοηφóρoι) and The Euminides (Εὐμενίδες), the poesis would come to light more, as the morality-value would eventually drown-out the pathos and we would behold the true meaning of pathemathos. This is because, “The theme of the trilogy is justice, and its story, like that of almost all Greek tragedies, is a legend that was already well known to the audience that saw the first performance of the play.” (Thalmann 503) For all of the moral wrongs which the characters perpetrate, in Agamemnon, there is always retribution. For instance, the murder of Agamemnon, which Aegisthus justifies, is avenged in another poem, when Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, takes his mother’s life. (Despite what Aristotle sees in tragedy as a means of catharsis, and a method of philosophy, more educational than the study of history); it is on these grounds of justice that today’s historians of ethics find in fifth century tragedy, and especially, Agamemnon, a source for Greek or Western morality.

Works Cited

Aeschylus. Agamemnon. Trans. Robert Fagles. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature (Eighth Edition). Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York/London, 2006. 506-551. Print.

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Stephen Halliwell. The Loeb Classical Library. Ed. G.P. Gould. Cambridge, Massachusetts/London, England. Harvard University Press, 1995. 59-141. Print.

Edmundson, Mark. Literature Against Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 1995. 1-29. Print.

Gould, Thomas. The Ancient Quarrel Between Poetry and Philosophy. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey, 1990. ix-xxvii. 3-48. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols. Trans. and Ed. Walter Kaufmann. A Nietzsche Reader. Viking Penguin, Inc., New York, NY. 1954. 475-478. Print.

Plato. The Republic. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. The Portable Plato. The Viking Press, Inc. Ed. Scott Buchanan. Kingsport, Tennessee, 1948. 281-658. Print.

Thalmann, William G. Aeschylus. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature (Eighth Edition). Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York/London, 2006. 502-505. Print.

Written at Bar-Ilan University Department of English Literature and Linguistics, Graduate Studies Program, January, 2011

About the Author
Scott Shlomo Krane has been blogging for TOI since 2012. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Tablet, Ha'aretz, The Jerusalem Post, the Daily Caller, JazzTimes and he will be the host of a forthcoming blog on Scott was a columnist and breaking news editor for Arutz Sheva (2011-2013). In addition to holding a degree in Judaic Studies and a Master's in English from Bar-Ilan University (for which he wrote his thesis on the poetry of American master, John Ashbery), he has learned Judaism at Macon Ha'Gavuah L'Torah in Israel and Hadar Ha'Torah Rabbinical Seminary in Brooklyn.
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