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Aeschylus And The Question Of Human Responsibility When Confronted With Fate

Gustave Moreau, ‘Oreste and Erinyes’.


Today’s sharings from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Auguste Bouché-Leclerq’s monumental and long unmatched ‘History of Divination in the Antiquity’, Ernest Leroux Editeur, 1879. Volume 1, pages 23 to 26. Our working translation from the original French.


‘…Hence, we have Fate on one side, born from the necessity of things or a divine decree and approved by religious faith; and on the other side, human Will calling upon freedom for the sake of morality; such was the enigma the Athenian tragedians had to solve and upon which the anxious genius of Aeschylus relentlessly strived.

We can say that the question of human responsibility confronted to Fate had been the constant focus of the poet and that he made it the dynamic of tragical action. He resolved the problem in a way as modern than bold, rejecting all the shy transactions that feeling usually tears away from reason discarding some difficulties to replace them by some even more entangled.

For him, there was a time where irrational fate, represented by the three Moirai and the Erinyes, randomly determined the flow of things, and, where particular intentions, free of all apparent restraint, hurried, unknowingly, to the aim chosen by blind fatality. The arbitrary was everywhere. Fate was its expression, while all the other beings its illusion. That period is what the world went through before the rule of Zeus. Prometheus was born and grew up among this anarchy; he kept its principles under the new rule, and therefore, by freely devoting himself to philanthropy, he found himself a mere rebel in a world that obeys to Zeus, Fate included. In vain, does he repeat to himself, ‘no one is free for Zeus’, and that all those that have been great long ago, had to humiliate themselves or disappear; he does not want to understand and believes himself innocent because he used with empathy of a freedom that did not belong to him anymore. It is still an idea from another age he expresses when he proud himself in the hope that Zeus will bow under the yoke of destiny. He does not know that Zeus’ reason had tamed destiny and uses this blind power to serve his aims. The danger that Prometheus threatens Zeus, Zeus will know how to prevent it by rational means, as he will also break, by a series of measures skillfully gradual, Prometheus’s stubbornness itself.

In the present world, there is now only one ruling power, the will of Zeus well ordered by wisdom. Aeschylus reached to the purest conception of Providence. But what is, facing this free Providence, the part of initiative left to Man? Aeschylus is careful not to suppress, with freedom, this human responsibility. Anyone who is unhappy deserved it. There is at the root of all misfortune, a sin, usually the fruit of arrogance and pride, the hubris. This formal sin, the gods can make a man who deserves a punishment to commit it, so to have a factual motive to punish him. Aeschylus manages here the transition between the old morality, which was only looking at the deeds, while the new one considers intention. The gods manage to transform in punishable deeds this hubris, this impious pride, that they discovered in the very depths of consciousness. ‘When a man runs to his doom, the gods help him hurl towards it.’ Thenceforth, the guilty person is chased by divine vengeance and his misfortunes are linked into an unbroken chain that often outreach the limits of his own existence and extends through his posterity. This fatality is not anymore just a blind force like ancient destiny, it is this inexorable divine logic that evil gives birth to evil until the sinister fertility of sin is exhausted.

The hereditary transmission of the stain of sin does not seem to have upset Aeschylus’ moral sense. The strong religious constitution of the ancient family easily stipulated this generational solidarity that would dislike modern individualism.  But here again, Aeschylus harmonized the traditional doctrine with reason’s requirements. First, sons can suffer their fathers’ sins; but if they are unhappy due to others fault, they only are guilty of their own mischiefs. Finally, whereas in the past divine vengeance knew no mercy and would stop only with the eradication of the cursed, Zeus’ wisdom allots a limit to which the atonement matches the offence. Nothing rivals Apollo ‘s despising disgust for the ancient Erinyes that are chasing Oreste- these beings are deprived of mercy-but their astonishment and indignation they feel witnessing the dealings of these ‘new gods’ allied to absolve the parricidal Oreste, despite the ‘ancient laws’.

It was impossible to find a religious and moral theory more favorable to divination. Future, decreed in Zeus’ thought, could be revealed to mankind by himself or by Apollo, his prophet; and human will be cautioned, by the warnings of divination, against blinding arrogance that never fails to stir divine curse. Therefore, Aeschylus’ drama is embedded with the absolute faith in the infallibility and efficiency of the oracles. The gods are faithful to their words. We can see Apollo take charge of Oreste’s cause and spares nothing to make the advice given by Pytho come to fruition. The ancient fatality, that of the Moirai and the Erinyes, is vanquished without reverse possibility. It is not totally suppressed, but it is penetrated by divine intelligence and transformed into moral law.

Auguste Bouché-Leclerq

Aeschylus And The Question Of Human Responsibility When Confronted With Fate

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