Unleashing the Furies

Demonstrators scuffle with NYPD police officers as they try to march through Times Square during a protest against racial inequality in New York City, June 14, 2020. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
The collapse of the public–private distinction has turned our national conversation into a zero-sum gladiatorial contest.

“How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.”

— Marcus Aurelius

The genealogy of the state has long been a subject of philosophical inquiry. Aristotle, seeking the origins of human society, found the polis to be a fact of nature. For him, man was a political animal, a creature of logos in search of collective bonds. Born out of a desire to achieve self-sufficiency, the state constituted a sublimation of our most deep-rooted feature: rationality. Centuries later, Hegel would go further and argue that the state embodies “the spirit of the world,” an almost mystical force without which the course of human events would have come to a halt. Rejecting Saint Augustine’s insistence upon the futility of the civitas terrena, i.e. the City of Man, Hegel called the state “an incarnation of the divine idea as it exists on earth.” Naturally, these accounts of statehood feel rather detached from today’s globalized world. In 1970, the historian Joseph B. Strayer wrote that “we take the state for granted”; 50 years later, the disappearance of statehood seems more evident than its inescapability.

For the literary critic Harold Bloom, the value of statehood was best captured by the Greek playwright Aeschylus. In his tripartite Oresteia, the tragedian related the rise of Athens and the fall of the house of Atreus, an aristocratic family trapped in a vicious cycle wherein one kin-murder justifies another.

The play begins with the end of the Trojan War. The Greeks have vanquished their enemies, and their commanding general, Agamemnon, is on his way home. Behind the expressive smiles of soldiers, tension shrouds the night. The ten-year conflict may be over, but the Mycenaeans still recall the bloody act that enabled their ships to sail. When Greek warriors assembled at Aulis to launch the expedition against Troy, the goddess Artemis demanded the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia. The dilemma opposed Agamemnon-the-father to Agamemnon-the-statesman. The latter prevailed — and had his daughter executed to appease the whims of Artemis.

Iphigenia’s death represented the logical continuation of a dreadful pattern haunting the house of Atreus. Agamemnon’s father had murdered the children of his own brother Thyestes, with whom he had fought for the rule of Argos. In response, Thyestes had pronounced a curse on Atreus’s descendants: Decade after decade, they would kill one another in a perpetual struggle for power and revenge. By sacrificing Iphigenia, Agamemnon carried the curse into another generation.

When the victorious Greek warriors reach the shores of Mycenae, Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, welcomes her husband with open arms. Eager to celebrate the glory of her beloved war hero, she asks the returning king to approach ceremonially on a red carpet. He hesitates; she insists; surrounding soldiers begin to moan in foreboding. Agamemnon decides to follow his wife’s command. Shortly thereafter, Clytemnestra slaughters him to avenge her daughter — and the pattern continues.

Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, returns to Mycenae. On the way, he meets his sister Electra, who questions the code of blood vengeance. But Orestes knows that his duty is to avenge his father by killing his mother, which he does. At no point does Aeschylus encourage any illusion about the inescapability of revenge; blood, and blood alone, can wipe away the stains of blood.

After the death of Clytemnestra, the Furies — ancient earth-god creatures who oversee primeval justice — pursue Orestes to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The Furies embody the violence of what Hobbes would later call the “state of nature,” this uncivilized world of violence and rage that precedes the emergence of statehood. They think in simple terms: Orestes’s matricide is a blood crime, for which he must pay with his life. Their reasoning does away with circumstances, with subtleties, with dialogue. Devoid of clemency and forgiveness, the Furies blindly uphold their moral absolutes. Yet Apollo refuses to yield to their ire and protects the young man.

Troubled by this conflict, Athena welcomes Orestes to Athens, where she asks him to be judged by a jury of citizens selected at random. Apollo will defend the accused, and the Furies will prosecute him. Gone is the unrestrained anger of the state of nature, gone is the use of violence in the name of the good. Enters a new conception of justice based upon mutual respect, due process, and rational deliberation. The trial also symbolizes the separation between the public and the private; for the first time in centuries, the house of Atreus leaves the fate of its heir in the hands of others. These two phenomena do not happen simultaneously by accident. For institutions to serve their purpose, opposing sides must leave the emotional weight of personal grievances at the door.

The trial results in a hung jury, but Athena casts the deciding vote to acquit Orestes. Naturally, the Furies refuse to accept the verdict and threaten to pitch Athens into civil war. Their outrage must be legitimate, and any disagreement with their rage must constitute an affront to real justice. The Furies’ rejection of Athenian jurisprudence signifies the fragility of civil order. Those who fail to distinguish between the public and the private, those who dress themselves in the garb of heroes whose virtue they have never possessed, and those who hide behind “justice” to sentence people to infamy will never accept the rule of democratic institutions. Just as many pluralists today exhort their compatriots to “live and let live” as long as everyone chooses to live in “the right way,” so the Furies stand ready to accept the trial as a process — but only if its outcome ratifies their worldview.

After invoking Peitho, the goddess of persuasion, Athena forces the Furies into submission. If they are to remain in what will soon become the Athenian republic, the dreadful creatures must abandon their unidimensional rage and embrace the spirit of deliberation. Rhetoric and rationality triumph over unrestrained anger and revenge. Centuries before social-contract theorists, the tale of Aeschylus captured the essence of statehood and democracy: Both presuppose a strict separation between the public and the private, a rejection of emotional whims, and an unwavering respect for institutions.

In a way, tragedy itself constituted an Athenian institution to be revered. Inculcating civic virtue to an attentive citizen audience, the playwright was a figure of primary importance. By promoting a sense of responsibility through the lens of ancient traditions, drama became a democratic paideia — i.e., education — complete in itself. Freed from the urgency of decision that marked other political institutions, drama encouraged inclusive and reflective thinking about contemporary issues. The Oresteia was no exception. The trilogy made the Athenians reflect upon the revolution of 462, a series of uprisings in which democrats led by Pericles brought the city close to civil war in order to defend the rule of law against an arbitrary justice system.

By interweaving founding myths with contemporary politics, Aeschylus established a balance of proximity and distance that put events of his time in a pattern more complete, and thus more intelligible, than that available to Athenian political leaders themselves. Distance from the present furnished a universal context in which to understand the complexities of the time. Tragedies did not deprive issues of their urgency, but they did allow the citizen-audience to see themselves both as protagonists responsible for their deeds and as products of forces beyond their control.

Dramatizing Athens’s original struggle against revenge politics, Aeschylus reminded his contemporaries that the gifts of their ancestors must be deserved and their victories rewon. He turned the citizenry into a new generation of heroes and provided them with a magnified reflection of their living past — notably, the Oresteia ends with the whole people of Athens on stage. With eyes on those who came before them, and thoughts on those who would follow, Athenians could turn sight into insight and foresight.

The Polish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote that “literature is the memory of humanity.” Unfortunately, our time suffers from a pernicious kind of amnesia, deliberate for some, innocent for most. We have left the warnings of Aeschylus unheard. As Gilbert K. Chesterton put it, “every high civilization decays by forgetting obvious things” — among them, the need to keep Furies in check.

Rage has gripped the democratic world. The recent spasms began in Chile, where over a million people descended to the streets in response to a 4 percent increase in mass-transit fares. In all, 29 protesters were killed, 7,000 were arrested, 2,500 were injured, and property worth $1.4 billion was destroyed. A few months later, the French would launch the “yellow vest” movement after the imposition of a 7.6-cents-per-liter tax on diesel. There, 12 protesters were killed, 4,000 were injured, 8,400 were arrested, and an estimated €4.4 billion were lost to the economy. Now the tide of political anger has come to American shores — and the death count has already reached 28.

Naturally, these numbers need not delegitimize any of these mass movements. In fact, popular outrage is first and foremost a symptom of the widening gap separating the elite from the citizenry. But we should note that the only country where recent protests have remained peaceful and calm is Hong Kong — where people are fighting against a non-democratic government. Why do the victims of despotism feel the need to protect the kind of decorum that American, French, and Chilean protesters have proven incapable of maintaining? Perhaps because the causes of this surge in violence are not exclusively political.

Consider Portland as a case study. On the left, the same media outlets that deemed conservative gatherings careless, selfish, and fascistic now applaud mass protests. While the protests have been by and large peaceful, a majority of activists and commentators seem unable to condemn riots and arsons with even a bare minimum of tact. On the right, President Trump’s decision to send federal security officers dressed for combat — wearing jungle-camouflage uniforms with unclear markings, carrying heavy weapons, using batons and tear gas, and throwing people into unmarked vans — to Portland has done nothing but galvanize protesters.

Was the decision unconstitutional? No. Was it comparable to “storm troopers” or to the Chinese police state? No — had Trump wanted to imitate President Xi, peaceful and violent protesters would be staying in Xinjiang-style “re-education” camps by now. But what Trump’s response does show is his wider attitude toward politics. The president needs to fight an enemy, to be against something, to manufacture a narrative in which he is the last defender of civilization — even if that narrative elevates the status of the rioters and gives critics handy arguments to talk about “dictatorship.” A few weeks ago, the Trump campaign rolled out an ad proclaiming that the president would protect a statue of Jesus from the great awokening — which could have been fair enough had the statue not been Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer. This week, another ad in defense of “law and order” used a Ukrainian photo from 2014; the supposedly evil protesters in the picture were democrats fighting against the authoritarian rule of Viktor Yanukovych, a Ukrainian autocrat backed by Putin’s regime.

Some may respond that culture wars need to be fought with panache, or that the end justifies the means. But these incidents are not clumsy missteps. They are symptomatic of a zero-sum conception of politics in which every facet of life becomes a gladiatorial contest to be won with fire, fury, and unabashed intellectual dishonesty. Every maladroit provocation, every careless ad, every manufactured battle opposing Americans to one another gets us further away from E pluribus unum.

On both sides, the public–private distinction has collapsed. We live, breathe, and work in echo chambers where everything and anything has to become political. Addicted to Twitter duels and fiery hyperbole, we have unleashed the Furies of our age — and their ire threatens the foundations of the nation.


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