Aeschylus and Athens – Thomson (Part 2 of 2)

1941, Fourth Edition 1973, Lawrence & Wishart, 374 pages (continued from part 1)

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 12: Democracy

Summary: Democratic revolution that expelled the tyrant Hippias marks the transition of Athens from simple agricultural to monetary economy: 1) hereditary privilege of landowners abolished, 2) claims of birth now inferior to claims of property, and 3) tribal system based on kinship swept away. Paradoxically, common people restored primitive communism of tribal society in democratic revolution: 1) use of lot, popular assembly, and common festivals. Merchants and artisans and started revolution with new wealth. Down to beginning of 6th century, clan owned property; individual enjoyed usufruct. Spartan economy marked by absence of money and repression of industry and trade. Cleisthenes’ democracy was a reversion to tribal democracy (which at end of sixth century had been subverted by aristocrats into a mechanism to oppress the bourgeois) on a higher evolutionary plane. According to Aristoxenos, Pythagoras introduced weights and measures to the Greeks (530 BC). Pythagoras’ political domination of Kroton may be described as commercial theocracy. In Pythagoras’ musical thought, opposing musical notes are resolved by their mean; this idea crossed over into his political thought where opposing social classes, the aristocrats and the low-born are resolved by the emerging middle class. Theognis quote on how money ruins everything: livestock is bred to maintain the noble breed, but nobles will marry lower classed folks who have money. The implication is that wealth has blended breed and so the ‘true’ citizens are dying out. Pythagoreans inherited from the Orphics view that life is a struggle and took the idea to the next level by incorporating a political element and reaching out to the new middle class. Aeschylus was a Pythagorean and a democrat.

Comments: Thomson’s comments on how the proliferation of coinage accelerated change by altering the balance of power between social classes rings true today. Today, however, it’s not coinage that precipitating change. It’s been around too long. Rather, today, the development of new financial instruments plays the same role, instruments such as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps (CDSs). After the Great Recession in 2008 when these instruments blew up, Warren Buffett famously referred to them as ‘financial weapons of mass destruction’. Like coinage in the 6th century, new financial instruments today play a role in redistributing wealth.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 13: Athens and Persia

Summary: Cleisthenes’ democratic revolution at the end of the 6th century took place against the backdrop of growing Persian and Carthaginian power. In this way, Greece was hemmed around on both east and west. For Athenian politicians at the beginning of the fifth century, several power plays were available: 1) appeal to democrats at home, 2) appeal to conservatives at home, 3) appeal to aristocratic

Sparta, 4) appeal to monarchical Persia, or 5) appeal to the moderates. Unforeseen power plays could result, such as Miltiades, an aristocrat from the illustrious Philaidai clan appealing to the masses. After the allied victory against Persia, Athenian society capitalized on the anti-Persian sentiment, became an empire, and began exploiting slave labour on a new scale.

Comments: Still the same unpredictable friends and enemies game in modern-day politics. Case in point: Hong Kong. When Hong Kong was a British colony, the democrats wanted to be freed from the imperial yoke. When Britain ceded Hong Kong back to China, the same democrats, finding that they had more freedom under the British, wanted to go back to being a British colony.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 14: Tetralogy

Summary: Ten dithyrambs performed, one from each tribe. Dramatic competition non-tribal: any citizen could submit a tetralogy. Themistocles may have been choregos for Phrynichus’ Sack of Mlletus (the play would have angered the pro-Persian Alcmaeonid contingent in the city).Thomson follows Pickard-Cambridge’s study on origins of tetralogy, i.e. the satyr play and the tragic trilogy. Also discusses the rise of comedy from death and resurrection rituals. Discussion of Peloponnese influences on Attic drama. Inauguration of comedy into the City Dionysia in 487/6 BC takes place when Themistocles, the radical democrat, at height of powers. Individual plays in the trilogy functioned as acts in Shakespeare plays. By having more than one play, the dramatist increases the scope of the plot.

Comments: The danger on writing on the ritual origins of tragedy is that so much is conjecture. One example that Thomson discredits is Murray’s conjecture that the tragic trilogy had three parts to represent the birth, death, and resurrection of the god. Even if this is true, how useful is it?—there is quite the leap between totemic ritual and the polished art form of tragedy.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 15: Oresteia

Summary: Cicero, who studied at Athens, relates that Aeschylus was a Pythagorean as well as a poet. The story of Orestes as related by Aeschylus contains stratified bits of social history from the tribe, the monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Thomson relates in Agamemnon cool technique by which Aeschylus accelerates the action: “In the parades, and again in the first stasimon, the poet begins by taking our minds back ten years to the beginning of the war. Together they form the longest choral passage in his extant work, and of the stasima which follow each is shorter than the last—a device by which the tempo is quickened as we approach the crisis. Absorbed in the past, we forget the present, and when the action is resumed, the plot advances so rapidly that we accept without question the poet’s time-scheme, in which widely separated events are compressed within a single day. Thomson provides a reading of the Oresteia and notes ritual elements, such as when Clytemnestra ‘prepares’ Cassandra for an initiation (e.g. reversal of ritual like Berlioz’ witches’ mass in Symphonie Fantastique. Aeschylus takes elements of primitive ritual and elevates them into dramatic art: e.g. the thrones or lament between Electra and Orestes at their father’s tomb. Cult epithet of Moiragetes applied to Zeus at Olympia and Apollo at Delphi subordinated tribal rights to state. Thomson claims Erinyes stands for tribal order where kinship is traced through mother. Athena’s mediation of conflict between tribal custom (Furies) and aristocratic privilege (Apollo) results in birth of democracy where wealth of community is equitably distributed. In the Oresteia, the Erinyes stand for the blood feud (tribal society) and Apollo stands for the practice of purification and the rule of the landed aristocracy. The landed aristocracy is the intermediary between the tribe and the democratic state.

Comments: Thomson’s discussion of how Aeschylus makes the time-scheme believable reminds me of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds ‘Panic Broadcast’. Welles, by broadening the scope of the crisis by leaps and bounds, also creates a similar effect. It seems to me that, in the main, much is correct about the ritual interpretation except when it tries too hard. It strikes me as odd that, while the message of Marxism is that ‘wealth isn’t everything’ (because it’s evenly distributed), Marxists spend an inordinate about of time and energy talking and analyzing wealth and capital.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 16: Earlier Plays

Summary: The Persians dramatizes the aristocratic idea that wealth breeds pride, which is punished by the gods. In Seven against Thebes, the magical functions of early kingship associate the well-being of the king with the well-being of the state. In the epic tradition, both Eteocles and Polyneices have sons, and the latter’s son led an expedition against Thebes which ultimately destroyed it. Aeschylus breaks from this tradition to lay to rest the Erinys, the king’s ancestral spirit or curse. Thomson believes that this shows how kinship gives way to higher organization of state: the clans are swallowed up by the idea of citizenship. In Suppliants, Thomson identifies an economic factor motivating the Danaides’ refusal to marry their cousins: their cousins marry them for the sake of the accompanying inheritance, and, after the marriage, they are free to keep the inheritance if they divorce. In effect, the Danaides would be put in the position of a slave who has bought her master.

Comments: Seven against Thebes is a scorned text. Of all Aeschylus’ plays, Thomson gives it five pages of attention. Contrast this with the Oresteia and the Prometheia, to which Thomson devotes whole chapters. To me, the countdown to the seventh gate is one of the true marvels of the tragic stage. The suspense! If, as Thomson argues, the Danaides reject the marriage because of the economic implications, I wonder what Danaos, their father, who has led them out of Egypt at considerable risk, gets out of the deal?

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 17: Prometheia

Summary: Prometheus is patron saint of proletariat because he stole fire, a symbol of civilization. Higher stages of civilization marked by division of society into economically unequal classes with those who enjoyed the fruits of production and the producers. Man gets fire as a gift, but also Pandora’s box: no free lunch for fire. Hesiod, on the losing end of the material struggle, mentions Prometheus. The next writer to mention Prometheus is Aeschylus, also a democrat. Orphic Wheel of Necessity behind Prometheus legend. Aristocratic scholars such as Mahaffy side with Zeus in Aeschylus’ play. Shelley, the revolutionary poet, sees Zeus as a tyrant. Thomson sides with Shelley: Aeschylus as a dramatist capitalizes on the Athenian democrats’ fear of tyrants in his portrayal of Zeus. Reconstruction of the two lost parts of the tragic trilogy. In Shelley’s lifetime, Industrial Revolution had enriched the rich and impoverished the poor. Shelley, however, was less moderate than Aeschylus, who wanted to reconcile the landowners and the merchants.

Comments: I wonder what the impact of automation and robots will have on the class struggle? In Thomson’s reading, the class struggle has been around since the beginnings of the division of labour in tribal society. One class prevails, then another becomes oppressed in turn. First it’s the landowners fighting the merchants (in 5th century Greece). Then after the merchants have been reconciled, the slave trade picks up. With the rise of automation, you can have a class of inhuman producers. First time in history. The part of me that likes Hegel says that class struggle is a manifestation of not only economic priorities, but a desire for recognition, which will continue even as the world automates and robots become the new producing class.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 18: After Aeschylus

Summary: Population of Athens in 431 BC: 172,000 citizens (including women and children), 28,500 resident aliens, and 115,000 slaves (why not round to the nearest 5000?). In 413 BC 20,000 slaves in the mines went over to the Spartans. Nikias owned 1000 slaves in the mines. From 450-430 BC class of rentiers came into existence from Pericles’ policies: that was the price Pericles paid to retain support. The rentiers, of course, lived off he backs of the others, mainly the resident aliens. Contradiction in Athenian democracy was that the constitution which had been founded in the name of equality was overthrown by the class that had founded in the name of inequality. The only way to maintain the welfare state where the citizens no longer worked was to expand the empire. Development of money accelerated growth of private property. Aristotle discusses money saying its original function is to facilitate exchange. Selling in order to buy is good, but buying in order to sell (profit) is bad: moneymaking becomes an end in itself. Thomson has interesting Marx quote:

The simple circulation of commodities (selling in order to buy) is a means for the appropriation of use-values, for the satisfaction of wants. The circulation of money as capital, on the other hand, is an end in itself, for the expansion of value can only occur within this perpetually renewed movement. Consequently, the circulation of capital has no limits.

Solon said at the beginning of the Athenian monetary revolution that “Riches have no limit.” Aristotle writes on the dangers of inflation: savers who are too into moneymaking may find themselves like Midas starving amongst gold because their money has become worthless because of inflation. Thomson writes about how money makes complex the old relationship between peasant and landlord. Now speculators who overproduce crops can find no buyers. Thomson has a Sophocles quote on money:

Money wins friendship, honour, place and power,

And sets man next to the proud tyrant’s throne.

All trodden paths and paths untrod before

Are scaled by nimble riches, where the poor

Can never hope to win the heart’s desire.

A man ill-formed by nature and ill-spoken

Money shall make him fair to eye and ear.

Money earns man his health and happiness,

And only money cloaks iniquity.


Of all the foul growths current in the world

The worst is money. Money rives men from home,

plunders great cities, perverts the honest mind

To shameful practice, godlessness and crime.

Thomson summarizes each of Sophocles and Euripides’ play in relation to the class struggle and changing social and political trends. For example, he writes that Plato’s Republic, with its basis in slavery, is an implicit confession of the intellectual bankruptcy of the city-state. Nice observation in how the Orphics asserted the independence of the soul as a coping mechanism for their brutal life; now Aristotle used the idea of the soul to justify the subjection of slaves and women: just as the body is secondary to the soul, women and slaves are secondary to men, argues Aristotle. Aristotle and Plato’s theories supporting inequality remind Thomson of Malthus in the nineteenth century, who based ‘laws’ justifying the existence of cheap, expendable labour on Darwin, the laws of the struggle of existence and the survival of the fittest. Pindar declares Tyche one of the Moirai and the strongest of them all. Thomson argues that tragedy after Euripides was exhausted because it could no longer solve the conflicts in society. It would not rise again until the bourgeois revolution of modern Europe brought back similar conditions out of merchant princes in early Athens.

Comments: I wonder if the development of money accelerated change by giving folks who otherwise could not have property the ability to accumulate capital through monetary instruments rather than land? Instead of enslaving the masses, monetary instruments gave savers a tangible goal. Property was out of reach, but money could be accumulated. This chapter is the best so far in the book. Sweeping look at the birth and death of tragedy from an economic perspective.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 19: Pity and Fear

Summary: Plato and Aristotle both agree tragedy serves a social function. Difference is that Aristotle thought tragedy serves a positive social function by purging pity and fear. In primitive medicine, epilepsy and hysteria were treated by a rite of initiation, in the course of which the patient would die and be born again. Like a reboot. Dionysos Bacheios (induce) and Dionysos Lysios (cure) similar to Koryantes in that he had power to induce and cure madness. Phrygia and Thrace are mining districts for gold and silver, the development which induced a spiritual crisis because of the labour draw. Thus in Thrace Herodotus recounts how, when a child is born, its kinsfolk laments the birth. But when a man dies, they celebrate. When Aristotle talks about the purgation of pity and fear he is describing theatre in terms of religious experience. Theatre experience more involved in ancient times. In London theatres, members of audience keep emotional reaction inside. But in ancient times (and among the peasantry in the west of Ireland), members of the audience had a strong visceral reaction to theatre. Athenian playwright is descendent of priest-magician, medicine-man, and exorcist.

Comments: That’s a good point on how we’re expected to keep emotions in check during performances. That laughter is excluded is a profound point. Very true. I remember seeing a performance of Bach’s oratorio the Saint John Passion some years ago at the church across the street. There was a young lady sitting beside me, and when the chorus starts yelling ‘Kreuzige ihn! [Crucify Him!]’ , she started sobbing, and continued to do so. I remember thinking that, for some reason, this was odd. The action isn’t real. But I remember being touched by the depth of her faith: here was her Saviour being dragged to the cross. Why wouldn’t she cry? Why weren’t the other members of the audience crying. Lots has changed between the theatre of Aeschylus and today, perhaps more than we think. Maybe someday this will come back, and we’ll be allowed to express our emotions in public places.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

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