Aeschylus on Conscience: Why We Read Aeschylus Part II

Aside from its immense-attention grabbing power, the title of this post also serves as an effective reminder to those skeptics among you (you doubters, ye of little faith!) that when we, (i.e. we over here at Lionandox.com) make promises, we sometimes do deliver on our  promises!

We take our responsibilities seriously.

“What responsibilities?” you ask.

What responsibilities…Why, the very serious responsibilities that devolve upon those engaged in the daily defense of classical education!

It is one of those cruel ironies in life that classical education even needs defending!

Surely an education which aims at the perfection of the human being qua human being would seem on the face of it to need no defense. In fact it is precisely every other kind of education that needs defending.

How is it defensible that anyone would not seek a classical education? Don’t ask me. Doesn’t our human nature demand it?

But this is a discussion for another day. Presently we are engaged in discussing why we read Aeschylus!

Now I should point out that I haven’t read the Oresteia as a whole for at least a year, but I did have the good fortune of seeing the third play in the trilogy, to wit The Eumenides, acted on stage by a talented cast of seventh-ninth grade students that happen to attend the prestigious little school where it is my honor to teach.

I was reminded that God surely must have inspired Aeschylus with an understanding of man’s fallen state, his life, and his condition, specifically to instruct the world about man. And not only that, Aeschylus makes us feel the right way about these things as should be the aim of any good poet.

For example where is there a better and more vivid testament  about the reality of man’s conscience than that which is portrayed by the Furies in the Eumenides? Where is there a more vivid image, evocative of an unclean conscience, than those frightful terror-inspiring relentless goddesses whose duty it is to hunt down and take vengeance upon those who have not paid for their crimes – and especially upon those who have committed crimes against nature!

When stirred up towards the prosecution of sin they are horrid to behold as doth attest the Pythian Priestess!

Of women slumbers-not like women they, But Gorgons rather; nay, that word is weak,
Nor may I match the Gorgons’ shape with theirs!
Such have I seen in painted semblance erst-
Winged Harpies, snatching food from Phineus’ board,-
But these are wingless, black, and all their shape
The eye’s abomination to behold.

Fell is the breath-let none draw nigh to it-
Exude the damned drops of poisonous ire:
And such their garb as none should dare to bring
To statues of the gods or homes of men.

Conscience never really sleeps and will pursue the sinner even in his own sleep, as the Furies pursue their prey. Thus spoke Clytemnestra’s Ghost:

In dreams ye chase a prey, and like some hound,
That even in sleep doth ply woodland toil,
Ye bell and bay.

So powerful is conscience that even were a god to hide him who has committed an unrighteous act, yea, even if he were to hide him in the very depths of hell, he cannot escape his conscience!

Scornful to me thou art, yet shalt not fend
My wrath from him; though unto hell he flee,
There too are we!
And he the blood-defiled, should feel and rue,
Though I were not, fiend-wrath that shall not end,
Descending on his head who foully slew.

Aeschylus powerfully teaches us that no crime goes unnoticed by God.

Nor does the sinner escape his own conscience but that according to our very nature no crime goes unavenged and every sin must be expiated.

Follow, seek him-round and round
Scent and snuff and scan the ground,
Lest unharmed he slip away,
He who did his mother slay!
Hist-he is there! See him his arms entwine
Around the image of the maid divine-
Thus aided, for the deed he wrought
Unto the judgment wills he to be brought.

It may not be! a mother’s blood, poured forth
Upon the stained earth,
None gathers up: it lies-bear witness, Hell!-
For aye indelible
And thou who sheddest it shalt give thine own
That shedding to atone!
Yea, from thy living limbs I suck it out,
Red, clotted, gout by gout,-
A draught abhorred of men and gods; but
Will drain it, suck thee dry;
Yea, I will waste thee living, nerve and vein;
Yea, for thy mother slain,
Will drag thee downward, there where thou shalt dree
The weird of agony!
And thou and whosoe’er of men hath sinned-

Hath wronged or God, or friend,
Or parent,-learn ye how to all and each

The arm of doom can reach!
Sternly requiteth, in the world beneath,
The judgment-seat of Death;
Yea, Death, beholding every man’s endeavour,
Recordeth it for ever.

Conscience, just like the Furies, will never let the sinner rest and will ultimately drive him to despair or conversion.

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_The_Remorse_of_Orestes_(1862)

Reading Aeschylus is an excellent preparation for reading Augustine and Aquinas. For even through his darkened pre-Christian sixth century BC understanding, Aeschylus seems to have a preternatural grasp of human nature and the ghastly effects of sin upon it. Aeschylus saw that there is a law written in the heart of man which he must not transgress; there is a law which should we transgress, our conscience will cry foul. With the benefit of two and half millennia, the Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman teaches us about conscience in much the same way:

I say, then, that the Supreme Being…implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels.

And in Orestes’ case in the presence of the Furies! Newman continues:

“The eternal law,” says St. Augustine, “is the Divine Reason or Will of God, commanding the observance, forbidding the disturbance, of the natural order of things.”

Every sin is a disturbance of the natural order of things-but lest their be any doubt, Aeschylus illustrates the unnaturalness of sin through matricide, which even the most hardened of hearts must certainly recognize as unnatural.

Newman then introduces conscience:

“The natural law,” says St. Thomas, “is an impression of the Divine Light in us, a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature.” (Gousset, Theol. Moral., t. i. pp. 24, &c.) This law, as apprehended in the minds of individual men, is called “conscience;” and …”The Divine Law,” says Cardinal Gousset, “is the supreme rule of actions; our thoughts, desires, words, acts, all that man is, is subject to the domain of the law of God; and this law is the rule of our conduct by means of our conscience. Hence it is never lawful to go against our conscience; as the fourth Lateran Council says, ‘Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, ædificat ad gehennam.'”

This view of conscience…is founded on the doctrine that conscience is the voice of God, whereas it is fashionable on all hands now to consider it in one way or another a creation of man…The rule and measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, nor the happiness of the greatest number, nor State convenience, nor fitness, order, and the pulchrum. Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.

To those who read the literature of the Greeks, to the reader of Aeschylus, Newman’s discourse on the Divine Law, the Natural Law and Conscience will come very naturally. Such reading is propaedeutic to the teaching of the Gospel.

No wonder Newman praises Aeschylus and the Greek tragedians when he says

The majestic lessons concerning duty and religion, justice and providence, which occur in Æschylus and Sophocles, belong to a higher school than that of Homer…

Knowing his reverence for Homer, that is high praise indeed!

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About marklangley

Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their twelve children.
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