Natalie Haynes’ excellent Voltaire Lecture for the BHA yesterday on how the ancient world can tell teach us about ourselves and our society, made me remember an article I wrote 5 years ago for ‘Scottish Review’ on ‘the book that most influenced you’. Here it is (since you probably don’t read ‘Scottish Review’):
When I was at university I was studying the history of Greece two and a half thousand years ago and reading the Oresteia, a trilogy of plays by the dramatist Aeschylus which he wrote for performance in Athens.
The basic plot is quite simple. In the first play, the king Agamemnon returns from the Trojan war and is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and the man she has taken as her lover in the ten years her husband was away. She kills him in the bath with an axe. In the second play, her son Orestes, returns from exile and, encouraged by his sister, kills his mother in revenge for her murder of his father. Revenge is a pattern of the trilogy, because one of the main reasons that Clytemnestra murdered her husband in the first place was because he’d sacrificed their daughter to the gods. As a result of killing his mother, Orestes is haunted by the Furies – goddesses of revenge – who pursue him across Greece, not letting him rest, always trying to tear him to pieces.
This nightmare of blood and revenge continues until, in the third play, Orestes comes to the city of Athens. That’s where the cycle of revenge is broken, and the city comes together in a new way to judge, in the first court in history, the crime of Orestes, and to replace vengeance with justice. The furies are converted into spirits of righteous justice and the darkness that has pervaded the plays, is dispelled with a torch-lit parade of thanks.
Aeschylus had seen a terrible war in his youth, but unlike the thousands that died in it, Aeschylus was lucky. He lived on past the war to enjoy the results of victory when his native city of Athens, rich through victory, was the scene of a cultural explosion: poetry, art, drama, sculpture, political equality, the rule of law at the time when he was writing. When he looked back on the events of his lifetime, he saw the same sort of story that he put into his plays: the struggle of mankind to break the bounds of savagery, and establish a new sort of existence for itself.
The plays are beautiful: well-crafted, poetic, tragic in a truly moving sense, but full of hope. Their historical importance is immense: they don’t just describe the beginnings of civilisation, they helped themselves to light the spark of civilisation, and they made Europe and the whole western world what it is today.
Although we don’t go around these days killing our mothers because they killed our fathers who killed our sisters, for me the play still reflects a timeless reality. The thought that through our own efforts we can bring order and justice to a naturally harsh world, that we can control it, that people almost three thousand years ago were doing just that when they took the first steps towards creating the world that we know today, has made me very optimistic, because it’s made me aware of how much we can do, and how much we’ve done in the past.
It’s given me a more long-term perspective, to know that human society has been struggling with questions of justice and ethics, and meaning and purpose for so long. I’m always suspicious of politicians, journalists, and commentators of all sorts when they make expansive statements about the course of history, and I’m sure it’s because this book made me realise how long – unknowably long – human history really is.
It’s made me think more critically – when someone says that something is right or inevitable, because I remember how the characters in the book, and the man who wrote the book and all the other people in the society he lived in, made purpose and meaning for themselves in a world where there was no ultimate meaning, and where the characters that were gods were petty and destructive and weak, and it is the people who are noble and strong, because their lives are short and they are the only lives they have.
It’s given me a sense of the unity of humanity throughout time, because we can see how the problems that we face today are so similar to the problems of three thousand years ago, understood by people in a rural backwater that at the same time was one of the most civilised places on earth.