A Comparison of Civilization in The Oresteia and Milton's Paradise Lost

A Comparison of Civilization in The Oresteia and Milton's Paradise Lost

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Civilization in The Oresteia and Paradise Lost

      The continual search for a perfect civilization marks the history of human progress. From Plato to Locke to Marx, man has sought to order society to provide justice for himself and his children. In this quest for paradise, myths of primitivity help describe how social institutions can direct humans away from their temptations toward higher goals. In Aeschylus' The Oresteia and John Milton's Paradise Lost, human civilization is viewed as an imperfect balance of opposites which helps combat man's tendencies toward barbarism and misogyny.


For Aeschylus, successful civilization defines itself not by complete devotion to Fate or the gods; instead, society forms "the ultimate product of conflict between opposing forces" in which violence and antisocial behavior are repressed through a "hierarchization of values" (Zeitlin 1). The social myth of The Oresteia is viewed not as a historical reality but as a useful symbol - a consideration of humans run amok as the social institutions of family and government give way to a cycle of destructive violence. The trilogy sets justice, family, and city against revenge and ambition in a test of whether any social institution can survive in the face of a threat to its supremacy.


In contrast, the strongly Puritan John Milton describes the structure of society as a least among evils; it forms the "scaffolding" which, "when the building is finished," is only a "troublesome disfigurement" to man's own ability for good (Milton The Reason of Church-government qtd. in Fish 534). The conflict in Paradise Lost juxtaposes man's submission and faith with his sensuousness and ignorance. The Coming of the Son promises the final solution to man's problems and an end to this "clash of values" (Fish 536). Yet until the Resurrection, the Fortunate Fall leaves lasting marks on human civilization that are dramatically portrayed as cracks in the veneered perfection of mythic Eden.


The gorgeous garden belies the theological chasm that separates man from his Creator. Humans cannot accept the command to "be lowly wise" (PL VIII.173). When Adam promises to avoid "obscure and subtle" (PL VIII.192) thought, he acknowledges that "apt the mind or fancy is to rove/Unchecked" (PL VIII.

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188-189). Precisely because man cannot "know good except through evil" (Milton CD 408), he is incapable of controlling "the spirit within him free" (PL VIII.441). Only after eating from the Tree of Knowledge do humans understand the full ramifications of their disobedience. Yet it is too late; humankind's unending quest for knowledge has begun. Eating the Forbidden Fruit unleashes man's amazing capacity for creation and thought but also guarantees his inescapable mortality. Human nature destroys Paradise, but as Adam and Eve begin their journey from Eden into the toils of the world, they have little reason to look back.


The Oresteia opens with a similarly tainted splendorous celebration. The mighty city of Troy has just fallen to the Greek armies, yet the unfolding crisis over family and city tempers the resulting joy. During the absence of Agamemnon, the ties of family have been broken; the house of Atreus "might tell some stories" (Agamemnon 48). "What's happened to this house" is that "things are not being governed well" (Agamemnon 22-23). This revelation ties the futures of oikos and polis together in the hope for a stable social system. Clymenestra's temporary rule has produced "grim...corrosive pains" (Agamemnon 124). With the return of Agamemnon and the continuation of the cycle of violence, she only furthers the deterioration of Greek society; in the consummation of her rebellion, Clymenestra finds that "by slaying her husband and choosing her own sexual partner, she...brings social functioning to a standstill" (Zeitlin 1). The rejection of sovereignty and family represents a challenge to civilization that cannot merely be overcome with violence, but must instead be transcended through social institutions. To prevent revenge, a judicial system must be established; to fight sexual rebellion, the family must be reasserted; to provide just government, the sovereign ruler must return. Clymenestra's role in deconstructing social and family relationships only furthers Aeschylus' goal of demonstrating what must be rebuilt to form a just Greek society.


Many critics interpret Clymenestra's violence as an attempt to justify social repression of women. Precisely the opposite is true: a woman must serve as the symbol of rebellion not because she is inherently inferior, but because her position in society is so important. The city can survive the immoral actions and prolonged absence of Agamemnon. Only when Clymenestra abandons her roles in passing on societal values (mother) and creating social order (wife) does the community's welfare suffer. But The Oresteia is not a philosophical tract, merely a myth. It "explains nothing...but...appears at least to mitigate any logical scandal" (Levi-Strauss qtd. in Zeitlin 13). Aeschylus commits to drama what would be difficult to put in logical argument. Clymenestra's violent revenge must be rejected because of its destabilizing effects on society. The final acceptance of Athena and the Eumenides dramatically evidences that anarchy, and not femininity, must be fought. Indeed the "woman in power does not disappear, but is reasserted" (Zeitlin 13) in her socially positive role as progenitor and stabilizer. The progression of Aeschylus' civilization marks out woman's change from unappreciated servant to violent rebel to powerful equal.


Similarly, the character of Eve serves as a barometer of the attitudes toward women which develop alongside civilization. From the beginning, the first couple is "not equal, as their sex not equal seemed" (PL IV.296). The male reserves "absolute rule" while the female's lot is "subjection" (PL IV.301, 308). Yet these important parts of Book IV are not universal narration but instead the observations of Satan. The epic demonstrates the temptation toward unequal treatment of women. This attitude is created as yet another threat to Milton's pre-Fall human society. Questioning "among unequals what society/Can sort" (PL VIII.383-384), Adam is confronted with a dichotomous quandary as he prepares to leave Eden. Woman must be equal to man for stable society to exist, but Eve's transgression and frailty seem to make her the lesser of the two. This difficulty is merely the "creation of the distorting perspective of local contexts" (Fish 536) which is overcome by the "all-inclusive glance" (Fish 535) of God's plan. Just as in The Oresteia, the temptation to turn woman into a symbol and logically conclude her place in the world is resisted by an overarching system of values. Human civilization precludes misogynist attitudes just as it does anarchy. Trying to guarantee this sort of society, however, poses a larger question.


The construction of a post-Eden civilization requires a mechanism to fight man's tendencies toward "affecting Godhead" (PL III.206) and his history of "lust...bringing forth sin" (James I:14-15 qtd. in Milton CD 416). For Milton, the Fortunate Fall brings about a world in which man's free will allows him to save himself by following God's commands. Thus post-Eden human civilization serves as a "vindication of God's justice" where man can "operate in good works" even without God's "absolute command." (Milton CD 420). While man's will alone does not guarantee justice, "God's general government" (Milton CD 430) points the way to future salvation. Man's inevitable desire for knowledge and personal gain necessitate God's role in maintaining order within human civilization. The Mosaic Law, though "elementary, childish, and servile" is the first step toward a "new creature, and to a manly freedom" (Milton CD 413).


Similarly, when Clymenestra fractures her primitive Greek society, the resulting violence is a necessary purgation of evil so that justice can be triumphantly proclaimed. The city's glory, which once "rang in every ear," has now "been thrown away" (The Libation Bearers 68-70). Past injustice continually "cries out for revenge" but "will not dissolve or sweep away" (The Libation Bearers 84-85) - the cycle of violence continues unchecked through the House of Atreus. Orestes alone embodies the hopes of human society. Though forced to engage in violence "against [his] inclinations," he will "follow what his masters say" (The Libation Bearers 101-102). In his willingness to sacrifice present pleasure for future civilization, Orestes mirrors the actions of Hebrew leaders who toiled under the Mosaic Law and hoped for the establishment of a more perfect civilization with the Coming of the Messiah. Finally seeing an end to its struggle, the chorus calls on the gods of war to "begin the slaughter" (The Libation Bearers 215) if it can resolve the ancient curse. As Orestes flees from the murderous Furies, it becomes clear that divine intervention will be necessary to save himself from death and his civilization from anarchy. The promise of a miraculous civilization to come drives him ever onward, and the future of all humankind rests on his harried quest for forgiveness.


The transformative power of civility forms the focus of The Eumenides. The chorus "born for evil" (The Eumenides 90) must find a way to integrate itself into society and "provide .. all sorts of benefits (The Eumenides 990-991). Athena's intervention marks the transformation of the crisis from the personal to social and theological levels. This single transcendent moment, just like Milton's Incarnation of Christ, is necessary for the establishment of civilization. Its example, and the myth it inspires, provides a model for humans to live civilly without divine intervention forever afterwards. By arguing that the Furies not let "anger lead [them] to excess" (The Eumenides 100), Athena sets a precedent for an impartial judicial system and positive cooperation among citizens. Immediately the Furies feel their "rage diminish" (The Eumenides 1122). This transformation is echoed in their "blessing on the land" (The Eumenides 1124) that once was cursed. By accepting the need for conflict resolution and a more humanistic system of government, the Euminedes reject the violence and revenge of Clymenestra and lead the way toward Greek civilization.


Milton's and Aechylus' views of society focus on the way that prominent institutions can help fight man's natural negative tendencies. These civilization-creation myths present strikingly-similar methods of fighting social ills and channeling mankind's abilities to positive ends. Through the prioritization of values and the elimination of anarchy and misogyny, these societies strive to create justice and peace in their time.


Works Cited

Aeschylus. Agamemnon. The Oresteia. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1977.

- - -. The Eumenides. The Oresteia. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1977.

- - -. The Libation Bearers. The Oresteia. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Fish, Stanley E. "Discovery as Form in Paradise Lost." Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York: Norton, 1993. 526-536

Milton, John. Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York: Norton, 1993.

- - -. "From Christian Doctrine." Complete Prose Works of John Milton (1973). Rpt. in Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York: Norton, 1993. 396-428.

Zeitlin, Froma. "The Dynamics of Misogyny: Myth and Mythmaking in The Oresteia." Playing the Other. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.



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