Mark S. Weiner

Overcoming Feud in the Oresteia

In India, Law and literature, Rule of law, Rule of the Clan on January 25, 2014 at 3:02 pm

This afternoon, a question posed to me about Aeschylus by an outstanding college student sent me to an essay by Michael Dirda titled “The Oresteia: Law & Order,” which appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly. The following lines struck me, and for readers familiar with some of the issues I discuss in The Rule of the Clan, I thought I’d post them here:

“In the broadest sense, Aeschylus’ plays trace a progress from a culture of bloody, multigenerational vendettas to a culture based on jury trials in a court of law. Because of impossibly contradictory yet divinely appointed sanctions—you must revenge the death of a family member, you must not murder a family member—there has finally emerged a solution that shifts the responsibility of punishment from the individual to the state. The Oresteia ends, in scholar George Thomson’s phrase, ‘with the ratification of a new social contract, which is just because it is democratic.’ Athens is transformed: the polis will now rely on the so-called Areopagite court for the proper redress of murder.

“The chief impetus behind this new social contract has been the judicious and reasonable Athena. She represents the middle ground—a compromise between feuding parties as well as feuding sexes—being neither wife nor mother and having been conceived without sexual intercourse. (She emerged full-grown from Zeus’ forehead.) Nonetheless, her actual explanation for why she acquits Orestes still arouses controversy and argument.”

I’ll be thinking of this description as I continue to read about recent events in South Sudan, and about the latest headline-making abuse of a khaap panchayat in rural West Bengal—and the ongoing effort of the Indian government to put an end to vigilantism (which I discuss in my book).

I’ll be thinking about it as well in the wake of the recent warning by Chief Justice Roberts that budget cuts have imperiled the ability of federal courts in the United States to deliver prompt justice—and could “pose a genuine threat to public safety.”

I’ll be thinking also about writer Jillian Abbott’s argument in an article published this week in the Irish Times: that without robust government, western democracies can become “a paradise for predators.”

On February 15, I’ll be speaking at the eighth annual Telos conference, “The Difficulty of Democracy: Diagnoses and Prognoses.” My talk is called “The Legal Foundations of Individualism,” which will be the subject of my next non-fiction book.

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