Child sacrifice and drama (Agamemnon)

It has been a great pleasure to continue to work my way once more through these Greek dramas as part of the Great Books of the Western World reading plan. There is so much here that it is difficult to know where to begin.

One aspect of drama itself that has long interested me is its ties to religious ritual. In ancient Greece, the drama grew out of the worship of the gods. Throughout the classical period, there was an altar in the center of the stage, lest the roots of the drama in worship and sacrifice be forgotten. When drama declined following the collapse of the Roman Empire (though I would aver that it declined long before that), it was largely replaced by Christian liturgy. One can see, for example, evidence of this in the frequent calls of the early medieval Church Fathers to avoid the theater in favor of attendance at the services of the Church’s liturgical cycle — matins and vespers, mass and compline, and so on. And rightfully so, I might add; St. John Chrysostom’s condemnation of the theaters is hardly a form of proto-puritanism. It is, rather, a recognition that the theaters — far from being the place of presentation for great literary achievements — had become showplaces for pornographic nonsense. It’s often forgotten today, but there is an indubitable relationship between concern for the mind and concern for morals (witness, as a case study, Bertrand Russell’s inability to develop a coherent philosophical justification for his general outlook, closely related to his begin a philanderer).

Drama was not to remain dead, however. It, like philosophy, art, music, and the other liberal and fine arts, was merely waiting to be reborn in the high middle ages in a form purified by the crucible of Christian faith. As in ancient Greece, drama grew once again out of ritual. The liturgical worship of the Church gave birth to the mystery and, later, the moral plays of the middle ages and, eventually, formed the trajectory that led to Shakespeare.

Aeschylus’s plays, and the Agamemnon in particular, stand out to me as particularly fascinating exemplars of what seem to be holdovers from primitive Greek ritual. In particular, Agamemnon seems to me almost certainly to feature some remnant of rituals of child-sacrifice. Agamemnon himself, of course, is guilty of sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia. And then there are the other child-murders in his family, such as the famous child-murder and cannibalism in the story of Thyestes. There are some biblical scholars, so I have read, who believe that the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is a sort of dramatization of the Israelite abandonment of child-sacrifice, a practice that remained quite common in the ancient world, including among those peoples who lived around and among the Israelites. The story of Agamemnon seems to be such a moment in the history of the Greeks as well. Of course, infanticide was never abandoned by the Greeks, and it may be argued that this makes them different from the Israelites in an important way, and it does. Yet, it also seems that there was, especially by the Roman period, a certain unease with the practice and a shame that attached to it.

I am reminded here of the arguments of Chesterton in his Everlasting Man, one of which concerns the Roman abhorrence of the Carthaginian practice of infant-immolation. This is, says Chesterton, proof positive that while the Romans worshiped gods, who may be angels or God misunderstood, the Carthaginians worshiped demons. And hence the Roman Empire became, eventually, the vehicle for the destruction of Carthage and, later, the spread of Christianity. If this is so, and I think Chesterton is right, it all begins with the Greeks.

Man’s law, God’s law (Antigone)

It has been wonderful to have the opportunity to reread some of these great Greek dramas for the Great Books of the Western World reading plan. I had forgotten just how excellent are so many of them, and the works of Sophocles are by no means the least. It is a shame that we will not be returning to Sophocles again for several years in the reading plan.

I once presented Antigone, in a somewhat simplified version (not because of ability but because of time), to my 8th graders as an outstanding early example of a point that Martin Luther King would make so eloquently in 20th century America: that the law of man is not the law of God and that when the two come into conflict it is God’s law that must be followed.

Rereading the drama in whole again I began to reflect on the way that ideas are born, live and change, and sometimes, though very rarely, die in history, and on the way that small innovations can have profound ramifications in the least likely places. Would there, in short, have been a Civil Rights Movement in the modern United States had it not been for Sophocles?

Of course, Sophocles is not the only exemplar here. There seems to have been a movement during this time toward a new way of thinking about God, man, and the world; I believe it was Huxley who coined the term “Axial Age” to refer to this era of nearly universal and significant change in outlook. Christopher Dawson’s thought on the centrality of religion to culture has also often focused on this era, though I’m not sure that he chose any special name for it. There was a movement, it seems, from nature-centered religions (and, therefore, cultures) which saw human activity as necessitating an imitation of nature. Dawson links this to the early agriculturalists who found that through imitating the natural processes of plant growth they could produce their own fields of crops. The result was a worship of nature, and the belief in nature as the standard for human activity, including in the moral sphere.

It was during this Axial Age, however, that there is a widespread recognition of the insufficiency of nature as a model for human activity. Man, now settled agriculturalists, began to look for another standard, an extra-natural or supernatural existent from which could be derived another set of standards transcending the order of the merely natural. In China, the result is Lao Tzu’s notion of the Tao — natural, yet transcendent at once. In Mesopotamia, the transformation of the tribal warrior-deity Yahweh into the Supreme God of all nations, surpassing even his own name, in the thought of the Prophets. In India, the movement away from the simplistic materialism and crass magician tricks of the Vedas toward the intellectualizing, complex, and mystical Hinduism of the Upanishads. And, of course, in Greece, the movement away from the relatively simple worldview of Homer toward the philosophy of Plato, aiming toward another world as the true.

Running from fate (Oedipus Rex)

One aspect of the story of Oedipus that has long intrigued me is that Oedipus, in a sense, brings his fate upon himself by attempting to run from it while simultaneously, if unconsciously, seeking it out. This running from fate begins, of course, when his parents attempt to abandon him on the mountainside after they hear the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. This attempt to escape from fate, however, only pushes him further toward his fate by giving him the false assurance that the couple who adopts him are the parents referred to in the same prophecy when he hears it as an adult. His runs again, fleeing from the home in which he was raised in order to escape his fate and yet falls again into it when he encounters and kills his real father along the road and unknowingly marries his mother after saving Thebes from the Sphinx.

In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus evinces this ability to simultaneously run toward and away from fate through the play. He pursues his fate through the questions he asks even while he attempts to run away from it, hoping that the answers to his questions will reveal that he is innocent.

In the light of last month’s reading of the Iliad, there is a great deal of comparison to be made between Achilles and Oedipus in the way that each grapples with his fate. Where Oedipus goes wrong, it seems, is in his failure to accept his fate. Boethius’s quite Greco-Roman notion of accepting one’s fate with a sort of virtuous resignation comes to mind here. One wonders, given that his avoidance of his fate is what walks him into it, how things might have worked out for poor Oedipus had he adopted Boethius’s advice.


What is life?

I have not posted for some time here because I have been consumed with my studies. As the semester draws to a close, I will spend the next few months catching up on both my reading and my blogging, focusing, of course, on the Great Books of the Western World in particular. The next several posts will be somewhat out of the order in which these works are listed in our reading plan because I have been selective with those I have been able to sneak in here and there while reading, choosing those I was most interested in at the moment rather than whatever was next on the list.

For now, though, we are on track as I will be here briefly discussing Homer’s Iliad. It is fitting, it seems to me, that the title of the last work of last year’s reading was What is Life? Although that book is about a quite different topic, the question is an apt one to apply to Homer as well, and this work especially. (To be honest, it could be applied with equal force to nearly any of the Great Books).

This is the heart of the question that Achilles must answer when he chooses what sort of life he will live. His famous choice of two fates–to live a long, peaceful life or a short, glorious one–is one of the defining moments of the story. And it is, in a sense, the sort of choice that each of us must make. Behind this choice lies that question: what is life? What is the purpose and the value of a human life? For what are we intended? Achilles’s choice is well-known enough: glory–and an early death to go with it.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus visits Achilles in the underworld. During this visit, Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a poor farmer on earth than be dead. I don’t recall that it’s ever made explicit, but it seems evident to me that if Achilles were given a second chance he would choose a different fate for himself.