Throughout history the relationship of reason to morality and its consequences has occupied more volumes than perhaps any other subject. This is in part because of the nature of the topics themselves; reason is at the heart of how we come to know things, and morality is the basis for how we view our rights and responsibilities toward one’s self and others. Prior to the Enlightenment, this discussion was largely conducted within two broad traditions (at least, within Western civilization): (1) Greco-Roman thought and (2) Judeo-Christian theology. In both traditions, the discussion of these subjects was expressed largely in terms of the logos (reason, Word), ethos (habit, custom, mores) and arête (excellence, virtue), emphasizing an ethics that balanced the roles of nature, habit and reason, while also tempering the demands of both the individual and the community. And yet the Enlightenment was not the first indication of change. The shift away from traditional ethics began during the Renaissance, as writers began emphasizing a more pragmatic approach to ethics, education and politics. In this series, we will briefly (and selectively!) survey the history of this shift from its classical roots, through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, before concluding with a brief look at their legacy today.
In the Ancient Greek mind, it was “a lawgiver’s prime duty to arrange for the education of the young,” so much, in fact, that any new constitution required a system of education as the basis for its very existence (Politics 1337a). The purpose, however, was not the development of a good worker or a good citizen, but rather a good person. For Aristotle, such a conclusion followed naturally from his view of human nature. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he refers to the ultimate good of humanity as happiness, and defines such as, “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue . . . in a complete lifetime” (NE 1098a). He formed, then, an integral connection between nature, activity and character, which he inferred from the very meaning of the word ethics: “Moral goodness [Gk. ethikos], on the other hand, is the result of habit [Gk. ethos], from which it has actually got its name, being a slight modification of the word ethos” (NE 1103a). Human nature therefore pointed to happiness as the end of human existence and to ethics as the true subject of education.
The etymology and uses of the words usually translated virtue (in Hebrew, Greek and Latin) suggest at least three meanings: martial valor, civic virtue and moral excellence. Aristotle tends to lean toward the last of these three meanings, without losing the sense of praiseworthy public service that is to be equally inferred from his works. “But virtuous acts are not done in a just or temperate way merely because they have a certain quality, but only if the agent also acts in a certain state, that is, (1) if he knows what he is doing, (2) if he chooses it, and chooses it for its own sake, and (3) if he does it from a fixed and permanent disposition” (NE 1105a, emphasis in original). Virtue therefore is character rooted in the knowledge of moral principles and expressed through conscious moral choice. Each of these parts is equally important, as is seen in his discussion on emotions. No emotion is inherently wrong or right, “But to have these feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way is to feel them to an intermediate, that is to the best, degree; and this is the mark of virtue” (NE 1106b). No action should be judged, then, without a proper understanding of the context in which it was performed. Virtue without prudence is not virtue at all; “virtue ensures the correctness of the end at which we aim, and prudence that of the means towards it” (NE 1144a).
Though Aristotle could have pointed to historical examples of such virtue, he was more apt to recommend artistic representations, particularly in the form of drama. In his view, “A tragedy . . . is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself . . . with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions” (Poetics 1449b). For this reason, tragedians do not deal with unrealistic characters that are either wholly good or wholly bad, but instead prefer characters we meet daily in the street and in the mirror: an “intermediate kind of personage, a man not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement” (Poetics 1453a). So, through no seeming fault of his own, the tragic hero becomes entangled in a situation that can only lead to a messy end, made possible dramatically through reversal and recognition (see Poetics 1452a). Thus, as Aristotle points out in his definition, the audience is overcome with a sense of pity or fear (and at times, both) in order to refocus his moral compass.
A strong example of this sort of tragedy and its affective and ethical power is found in Aeschylus’ trilogy, The Oresteia. Though modern readers are separated from the poet and his work by over two thousand years, the attraction of the plays and the tragedy of Atreus’ sons remains strong, as pointed out by Fagles and Stanford in their Introduction, “It is as if crime were contagious – and perhaps it is – the dead pursued the living for revenge, and revenge could only breed more guilt” (Fagles & Stanford 22). For both the poet and the reader, then, fate and justice become the unifying themes of the plays, drawing together horror after horror, and forming one tremendous train of tragedies. One of the earliest examples of this in The Oresteia is Agamemnon’s deliberation of whether to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia: “Obey, obey, or a heavy doom will crush me! – Oh but doom will crush me once I rend my child, the glory of my house – a father’s hands are stained, blood of a young girl streaks the altar. Pain both ways and what is worse” (Agamemnon 190)? The choice is clearly tragic (either road leads to disaster), but the reader tends to agree with Clytemnestra that the only just response to the king’s choice is his own death at her hands: the mother of the slain, and the wife of the adulterer.
In The Libation Bearers, this bond between fate and justice grows even stronger. Electra and Orestes are convinced that natural justice now demands the death of their mother. Electra cries to the gods: “Both fists at once come down, come down – Zeus, crush their skulls! Kill! Kill! Now give the land some faith, I beg you, from these ancient wrongs bring forth our rights” (Libation 256). But in the Chorus’ response there is both hope and caution: “It is the law: when the blood of slaughter wets the ground it wants more blood. Slaughter cries for the Fury of those long dead to bring destruction on destruction churning in its wake” (Libation 256-7; see too 253). Legal rights, then, while spurring on the siblings to avenge their father’s death, work both ways: perpetuating the tragic chain of killings and bringing Orestes himself under the penalty of the curse. He comes to recognize this doom before he commits the act – “I dread to kill my mother!” (Libation 285) – but spurred on by the reminder of his oaths, he fulfills Apollo’s command. The pain is felt immediately: “So [Zeus] may come, my witness when the day of judgement comes, that I pursued this bloody death with justice, mother’s death . [. . .] I must escape this blood . . . it is my own” (Libation 292, 295). Fate and justice thus unite to bring down first Agamemnon, then Clytemnestra and finally Orestes.
Though by this point the reader has long pitied the family, it is the Furies who demonstrate the cruel consistency of this natural form of justice, thereby ensuring that their ideas of justice will never win the day. In their exchange with Athena they point out the antiquity of their powers and, therefore, the superiority of their cause: “Young god, you have ridden down the powers proud with age. . . . No, you’ll give me blood for blood, you must” (Eumenides 307, 378)! For them, the lex talionis is justice, plain and simple. Athena, however, recognizes that while this complies with the letter of the law, this is not the same as complete or divine justice: “And you are set on the name of justice rather than the act” (Eumenides 388). Apollo agrees, exhorting the goddess: “You know the rules, now turn them into justice” (Eumenides 397). So just as fate demands fulfillment, true justice demands consideration of mercy (Gk. eleos): only eleos will end the cycle of death.
By uniting his plays by these themes, and then overturning them, Aeschylus demonstrates to his audience (both then and now) the ethical intent of his work. First, there is a sense of purpose in this world, whether we call it fate, predestination, or telos. Fate, however, controls only human action, thus one of the chief issues throughout the trilogy is how each individual – Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes – will be held responsible for their crimes, or whether, in fact, a crime in each case was committed. So while Agamemnon’s choice was, “predetermined supernaturally by the gods and genetically by Agamemnon’s nature,” he is “more than a victim of his fate, he is its agent with a vengeance” (Fagles & Stanford 25-26). Clytemnestra, too, by acting primarily for herself and her lover is condemned to death by Apollo. And in the end, it is only Orestes who finds purging and relief from the curse, having acted only at the prompting of the gods rather than a mere desire for revenge. And yet, he is acquitted by only one vote, that of Athena herself. Killing is still killing, but is not always murder. So ethical decisions, though made within an environment that is largely not chosen by the character, still demands a decision on their part, a decision for which they are responsible. But in the end, they and we both still hope for mercy.
Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1979. iBooks.
Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Hugh Treddenick. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.
---. Poetics. Trans. Ingram Bywater. The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle. New York: Random House, 1984. Print.
---. The Politics. Trans. Trevor J. Saunders. London: Penguin, 1992. Print.
Fagles, Robert & W.B. Stanford. Introduction. The Oresteia. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1979. iBooks.