Martha C. Nussbaum's Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities

Historians in the News
tags: Martha C Nussbaum, 2017 Jefferson Lecture, Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame

(This lecture contains material from THE MONARCHY OF FEAR: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis, by Martha C. Nussbaum, to be published in 2018 by Simon & Schuster.)

At the end of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, two transformations take place in the city of Athens. One is famous, the other often neglected. In the famous transformation, Athena introduces legal institutions to replace and terminate the cycle of blood vengeance. Setting up a court of law with established procedures of evidence and argument, and a jury selected by lot from the citizen body of Athens, she announces that blood guilt will now be settled by law, rather than by the Furies, ancient goddesses of revenge.  But the Furies are not simply dismissed. Instead, Athena persuades them to join the city, giving them a place of honor beneath the earth, in recognition of their importance for the health of the city. 

Typically, Athena’s move is understood to be a recognition that the legal system must incorporate and honor the retributive passions. These passions themselves remain unchanged; they simply have a new house built around them. The Furies agree to accept the constraints of law, but they retain an unchanged nature, dark and vindictive.

That reading, however, ignores the second transformation, a transformation in the character of the Furies themselves.  As the drama begins, the Furies are described as repulsive and horrifying. They are said to be black, disgusting; their eyes drip a hideous liquid. Apollo even says they vomit up clots of blood that they have ingested from their prey. They belong, he says, in some barbarian tyranny where cruelty reigns.  

Nor, when they awaken, do the Furies give the lie to these grim descriptions. As Clytemnestra’s ghost calls them, they do not speak, but simply make animal noises, moaning and whining.  When they do begin to speak, their only words are “get him get him get him get him,” as close to a predator’s hunting cry as the genre allows. As Clytemnestra says: “In your dream you pursue your prey, and you bark like a hunting dog hot on the trail of blood.” If the Furies are later given poetic speech, as the genre demands, we are never to forget this initial characterization.

What Aeschylus has done is to depict unbridled resentment. It is obsessive, destructive, existing only to inflict pain and ill. (As the distinguished 18th c. philosopher Bishop Butler observes, “No other principle, or passion, hath for its end the misery of our fellow creatures.”) Apollo’s idea is that this rabid breed belongs somewhere else, surely not in a law-abiding democracy. ...

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