Blood Justice and the Founding of Legal Order in Sophocles and Aeschylus
These readings help us consider the importance of liberty and responsibility in Sophoclean Thebes and in the Aeschylean world governed by the Furies. If destiny plays a major role in the latter, the former evinces interesting aspects of individual autonomy. One should consider the new order established by Athena in the third play of Aeschylus’s trilogy and compare it to rule of law established by Oedipus and Creon. How is the rule of law established, and what are the necessary conditions for its establishment? What must the family cede to the state in order to affirm civil justice? Is familial loyalty a natural right? Can it be alienated? If so, at what cost to families, individuals, and to the State?
The trilogy of Oresteia, by providing a mythological account of the founding of the Athenian justice system, presents relevant questions related to individual responsibility in a social context. After a long and successful war against Troy, Agamemnon is killed. His wife Clytemnestra pursued vengeance: their daughter Iphigenia was sacrificed and she had been deceived. Their son Orestes must seek revenge killing her mother. If the Furies demand blood and vengeance, Athena finally achieves civil justice. The Areopagus constitutes the end of a previous tribal stage and the beginning of a new society governed by formal justice. Individuals have autonomy, but also norms to follow. Society finds its civil pillar through the rule of justice. Orestes is absolved and a new era emerges.
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone explore issues related to responsibility towards family, gods, and law. Both tragedies also uncover interesting facets of individual autonomy, and the conflicts that emerge with society, and within society. This particular dichotomy between the individual and the collective, mainly represented by Oedipus and Antigone’s interaction towards the laws, is particularly significant in the shaping of civil society. Oedipus, the man who knew, found out what he did not know. Antigone knows what to do, but she ignores the laws. Both tragedies represent universal questions about individual liberty, justice, and responsibility.
Guide to the Readings
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Session I: Aeschylus: The Agamemnon
Aeschylus, The Agamemnon
Session II: Aeschylus: The Libation Bearers
Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers
Session III: Aeschylus: The Eumenides
Aeschylus, The Eumenides
Session IV: Sophocles: Oedipus Rex
Sophocles, Oedipus Rex
Session V: Sophocles: Antigone
Session VI: Final Discussion