The Oresteia: Justice Rewritten
The Oresteia is a multipurpose work that sets the foundation for the evolution of modern political thought throughout the ages. It also serves to outline the beginning of the understanding of humanity through multiple different lenses. The human life is examined to a thorough extent, and the result is the beginning of a new form of justice. However, is this new justice the permanent form? The power dynamics that shift throughout The Oresteia present a complex question. The questions posed in this work are critical to the formulation of democracy. The principles of justice, equality, power, and fairness are called into critical question and reflection.
In The Oresteia, the shift from the old form of justice to the newer is a powerful one, but is only one step on the ladder of political evolution. The Oresteia acts an effective political solution as it results in the transition to a new order featuring the trial by jury, the appointment of impartial judges, and the delegation of checks and balances. The trial by jury is a staple in the democracy of today. However, it was not always this way. Blood law used to rule Ancient Greece. In this form of justice, blood ran freely. The cyclical patterns of violence resulted in violence ten times over, providing no room for rationale. The times of murder for murder resulted in an open-ended, cyclical, unforgiving, and disruptive way of life. In this, the importance of the individual life was reduced to a single unit.
In The Oresteia, the pathway from blood revenge to a trial by jury is paved with the pains of the House of Atreus. In a series of blood-thirsty murders, it is decided that the blood must stop somewhere. As Athena is bearing witness to the birth of the trial, the Furies give their input in the transition of systems. “No, you’ll give me blood for blood, you must” cried the Furies (The Oresteia 243). Though it appears the Furies are calling upon the old system for revenge, this quote takes on a stronger role based on the surrounding text. In this scene, Athena begins the process of forming the new judicial system. The Furies continue to say “And there you will see them all. Every mortal who outraged god or guest or loving parent: each receives the pain his pains exact” (243). The system is shifting from a literal bloodshed to a metaphorical one. The idea of a prison or some type of confinement is brought about by that phrase of the Furies. As Athena is called to give judgment, her wisdom comes to the forefront. She decides to place the matter in the hands of one’s peers, which brings about the birth of a new political community. “Too large a matter, some may think, for mortal men to decide. But by all rights not even I should decide a case of murder – murder whets the passions” (243). Athena points to the perfect explanation as to why the current system must be reformed: murder drives one to irrational thoughts and judgments. The cyclical bloodletting could never be stopped based on the human passion by which it is driven. In her confession that even she cannot be impartial, she implies that a different form of judgment should come about.
Another feature of modern democracy is the appointment of impartial judges, who are to remain impartial and rely on the facts to make decisions. In The Oresteia, the judges are appointed by Athena, in her wisdom. As Athena has recognized that she is not impartial enough to make the decision involving murder, she decides to appoint mortals to perform that task. Athena is forced to deal with the task at hand, and decides that, ”since the matter comes to rest on us, I will appoint the judges of manslaughter, swear them in, and found a tribunal here for all time to come” (253). This process is the one that remains in place today in a democratic judicial system. With this statement, Athena formally establishes the tribunal of Athens to cast judgment in the court, essentially putting an end to the barbaric vengeance seen earlier in the The Oresteia. She commands the newly-appointed judges to perform their tasks by her declaration. “And now if you would hear my law, you men of Greece, you who will judge the first trial of bloodshed. Now and forevermore, for Aegeus’ people, this will be the court where judges reign” (253). The effectiveness of her declaration as a political solution comes with the terms of her declaration. Athena commands, with the powers of her goddess status, that the citizens adhere by the system. Clearly that declaration had an impact, seeing as the ideal democracy today still contains these elements.
Finally, Athena establishes the role of the Furies in her democratic system. She commands them to act as the guardians of the new order. “Do you hear how Fury sounds her blessings forth, how Fury finds the way?…. Hold them kindly, kind as they are to you. Exalt them always, you exalt your land, your city straight and just- its light goes through the world” (274). She removes the Furies from their former role, that of antagonizing their victims and aiding in the practices of blood revenge, and transforms them into the guardians of this system she has created. They take on the role of the modern-day castigatory systems, including institutions such as the police. They are transformed from demonic hecklers to a method of deterring humans from doing wrong, similar to the institutions of prison and law enforcement. In doing this, Athena rounds out her new system.
The Oresteia is the most basic transformation story, taking a barbaric, uncivilized manner of handling justice and morphing it into a complex, multilevel system with a formal trial of one’s peers, systems of castigation, and checks and balances. It is, all in all, a very powerful political solution. The creation of a trial by jury, the appointment of impartial judges, and the delegation of checks and balances are figures represented in The Oresteia that are still manifested in modern democratic systems. The Oresteia is a story of justice upheaved, transformed, and rewritten.
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The Oresteia is a multipurpose work that sets the foundation for the evolution of modern political thought throughout the ages. It also serves to outline the beginning of the understanding […]