- The Fate of Humanism in Greek Tragedy
The ancient Greeks seem to us the paradigmatic fatalists, their literature grappling with the unequal relationship between gods and humans. Perhaps for this reason we call them superstitious. We no longer believe a Zeus or Apollo is pulling strings behind the scenes of the sensible world, but we are more Greek than perhaps we know. For fate is everywhere these days. 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were both called acts of divine retribution. Popular television shows like Lost and Heroes insist that everything happens for a reason. The sales of astrological and New-Age books and paraphernalia are booming. The advertisements for psychics and clairvoyants are nearly inescapable. What could explain our fascination with the supernatural? Our modern, secular world is driven almost entirely by unregulated globalization, so the pervasiveness of the Fate industry, with its language of guidance and determinism, is surprising. This situation reflects a contradiction between official and unofficial belief, for we are ready to believe there is a larger purpose behind seemingly random events, that our futures, however shadowy, have a definite shape. This raises thorny questions: If forces beyond our control or comprehension are influencing our lives, what happens to choice? If our decisions are predetermined to [End Page 442] fit within a more meaningful order of existence, what space is left for human action? How are we to conceive of ethics in a world studiously indifferent to our choices?
Few understood the importance of these questions better than the Greeks, whose literature dealt with a central theological concern: What is (a) god? And how does god affect, impinge upon, or even enable human freedom? Tragedy holds the preeminent position with regard to these questions, engaging and re-imagining the relationship between humans and gods familiar to Homer, and doing so for precise reasons. Tragedy both resonates with the thematic fixations of Homeric poetry (heroes, Übermenschen, aristocrats) and diverges significantly from it. Compare, by way of example, a scene from Book 1 of the Iliad with Aeschylus' Eumenides.
Near the end of Book 1, after the Greeks have been ravaged for days by plague, Agamemnon and Achilles find themselves in serious conflict over the solution to their plight. Achilles, with the approval of the rest of the Greek army, suggests Agamemnon simply give back the girl Chryseis to her father, a proposal Agamemnon angrily rejects by threatening to take Achilles' girl Briseis in return. As Achilles in his anger poises to draw his sword and kill Agamemnon, Athena, prompted by Hera, arrives and prevents him from doing so. The gods' intervention in this episode, direct and unmistakable, suggests two things: First and foremost, gods play an active role in the course of the war, indeed even have personal stakes in it. Many of them have children involved, and others simply like the Greeks or Trojans for their own reasons. Second and more importantly, they intervene not only to influence the action, but also to forestall the consequences of decisions that are unforeseeable to the humans making them. (For all his justifiable rage, Achilles cannot foresee that killing Agamemnon is a disastrous move.) Human decisions and actions by themselves are short-sighted and dangerous. The gods are a necessary check on human impulse, a buffer between thought and action.
Contrast this episode with the plight of Orestes in Aeschylus' Eumenides. After Orestes has "justifiably" killed his mother to avenge his father Agamemnon (citing the authority of the god Apollo), he is hounded by the pus-oozing, acid-breathing Furies, punishers of kin-bloodshed. When Apollo arrives to defend Orestes (the first divine intervention in the whole Oresteia), he cannot simply save him like Athena saves Achilles. He must risk submitting Orestes to the bloody but lawful authority of the Furies. Even he, a god, cannot prevent the consequences of Orestes' [End Page 443] actions. Unlike Homer then, Aeschylus abstracts direct divine intervention. Apollo is there for Orestes, but he is no longer flicking away spears on the battlefield like...