One night about twenty years ago, an amazing moment on the television drama ER stunned me. Absolutely stunned me. Nurse Hathaway says to Carter, “You should stop feeling so guilty all the time.” To which he replies, “Maybe it’s because I am guilty.” I really didn’t know the general culture understood the difference between guilt as a feeling and guilt as a moral state. Nine times out of ten, when you hear the word “guilt” in conversation, people use it to mean only the feeling. For example, I’d had almost the same conversation in reverse not too long before seeing the ER episode. A student who invited me to her Buddhist chanting session told me she had left the Catholic Church because there was “too much guilt.” “Well,” I asked, “were you guilty?” She said she didn’t know what I meant. She met my explanation with a blank stare and didn’t invite me to chant again.
I’m a long-time fan of the feeling of guilt. It’s like pain: a sign that something is wrong and needs fixing. Sure, it feels bad at the time, but as a warning system, it’s very effective. Our culture, though, has doubts about morals and, as a consequence, about the state of guilt, so naturally it has difficulty seeing the benefits of the guilty feeling. But I think that Aeschylus understood the importance of the feeling of guilt, and I believe that his Oresteia provides us with an origin myth for the feeling. Others may find a different message in the plays (OK, will find a different message), but I’m sticking with my theory.
The Oresteia, the only dramatic trilogy to survive intact from the golden age of Greek drama (when trilogies were the norm), has, you guessed it, three parts: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides (or The Furies). In my view, the first one has a few great moments, and the second simply must be got through; but the finale really stands out as a great ancient treasure. The first play, Agamemnon, seems unfocused. As it begins, the king and general who gives his name to the play, the brother of Menelaus (whose wife’s abduction starts the Trojan War), returns home after ten years. His wife, the unmellifluously named Clytemnestra, is happy to see him at first. But then her complaints about him start. First she notes with displeasure that her husband has brought home a princess as a slave prize. Only after thinking about what Aggie may have done with that princess does she start to remind herself that the father of her children sacrificed one of them in order to get the gods to grant favorable winds on the journey out. Then Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon (or there wouldn’t be much of a play), only to reveal that she has been having an affair with Aegisthus. Then Aegisthus steps on stage to announce that he planned the murder from the beginning to avenge Agamemnon’s earlier murder of his (Aegisthus’) brothers. Not exactly Aristotelian unity here. (But Cassandra’s scene where she foresees the deaths and regrets her “gift” of sight is fantastic!) In The Libation Bearers, Orestes adds to the string of vendettas: coming home from exile, he kills his mother, Clytemnestra, in vengeance for his father’s death. Apart from a terrific motif of a viper drinking both milk and blood from a human breast, that’s about it.
The Eumenides, the culminating and best part of the set, opens in the temple of Apollo, where Orestes has fled for refuge. The hideous Furies, avenging spirits born of Night, lie scattered on the steps, asleep by the hand of the Pythian god. The scene of their waking is said to have been so horrifying as to have caused a miscarriage at the play’s premier 2500 years ago. And yet the Furies are the ones who talk sense most of the play. The gods, they say, have forgotten the ancient moral laws and only try to do whatever they can get away with. Might has trumped right. Sure the Furies want Orestes’ blood, but then, they are divine spirits judging man according to law. Athena holds a trial in which she gives Orestes his life: he’s only done what Apollo told him to, after all, and then atoned for it with animal sacrifices. But to keep the Furies from being . . . , well, furious, she gives them worshipers and a new power: the power of inner persuasion. Any human who does not heed their felt warning, they can punish with sorrow, personal disaster, or a sense of being lost. Those who do pay attention to the warning sign naturally end up happy because they deal with the problem and know to make amends. Granted the power to bestow a sense of guilt in the conscience, the play’s main characters go from being Furies to being Eumenides: Kind Ones. It does my heart good to find in Aeschylus someone else who understands the beauty of guilt.