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A message from Aeschylus

(originally at Unleashed, June 2008)

Zimbabwe is not a happy place. The killing never ends (it only pauses) and the prevailing ethic is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Morgan Tsvangirai looks like a man who has better ideas than Robert Mugabe. But because he’d rather live than die he abandoned a dangerous election that might have seen a general massacre of his followers.

As for an eye for an eye—in 1982 Mugabe, a Shona, warned his enemies of the Ndebele tribe (also known as Matabele):

Some of the measures we shall take are measures that will be extra-legal. An eye for an eye and an ear for an ear may not be adequate in our circumstances. We might very well demand two ears for one ear and two eyes for one eye.

Following Ismail Kadare, we might call this an explicit blinding order. Or official permit. A recipe for ruin.

Civil war in Africa

Anyway Mugabe is adamant he’d rather have civil war than yield to parliament. In fact he rather likes war, and has boasted that he “has a degree in violence.” War, and nothing remotely resembling parliamentary compromise, has been his theme for years. In 2000 he said “the Movement for Democratic Change will never form the government of this country, never, ever, not in my lifetime or even after I die.”

At a party conference in December 2001 he declared “What we are now headed for is real war, a total war. We should move like a military machine,” adding a warning for Morgan Tsvangirai: “Death to the tea boy!”

Pessimists foresee a possible genocide by Mugabe’s mainly Shona supporters against Tsvangirai’s Ndebele-based Movement for Democratic Change (in earlier pogroms against the Ndebele during the 1980s some 10,000 to 20,000 are said to have died). And of course Zimbabwe is not alone. In other parts of the world too, intransigently hostile groups reject any mechanism for reconciling their differences, achieving unity, and moving on. An eye for an eye rules.

Why is this?

The Athenian breakthrough

2,500 years ago the Greek city states were continually at each other’s throats. Each behaved toward the others in a solidary way solely concerned with its own members and its own cause.

Then Athens made a breakthrough. A number of thinkers arose—poets, artists, and legislators—who looked at larger matters than tribal self-interest and asked questions about the general nature of justice and injustice, good and evil, war and peace.

Perhaps the most astonishing of them all was Aeschylus. A poet and dramatist who knew about war and killing at first hand, he fought against Darius and the Persians at Marathon in 490BC and against Xerxes’ assault on Athens in 480BC.

He’d seen the cruelty of man-to-man combat and felt the pain of watching his comrades die. A raging thirst for retributive vengeance would have been only natural. An eye for an eye. But that’s not what happened. Instead, in the year 458BC, he wrote a memorable trilogy dramatizing humanity’s need to bring cycles of bloodshed to an end.

Agamemnon and Troy

It took the form of allegory. And like most Greek dramas of the time its characters were drawn from myth and legend— especially Homer’s story of Agamemnon and the fall of Troy.

The background story was this. Before sailing across the Aegean to attack Troy, Agamemnon’s fleet had been held up for months by unfavourable winds. A god warned that only if Agamemnon made an offering and sacrificed his own daughter Iphigenia would the weather improve and carry his ships across.

And lo! After cutting his daughter’s throat the wind picks up, he sails for Troy, spends ten years away—and returns (with new girlfriend Cassandra) to face his wife Clytemnestra. After a decade grieving for Iphigenia it was now Clytemnestra’s turn.

And it’s at this point in the story that Aeschylus begins a trilogy where against all likelihood the fateful alternating violence of a traditional feud leads finally to judicial process, to the hearing of evidence, to the authority of legal judgment, and to at least the beginnings of inter-tribal peace.

The trilogy

The first play, Agamemnon, shows Clytemnestra luring her long lost husband into the palace where she stabs him to death in his bath, gloating afterwards over the bloodstained sheets and windings.

For this act of vengeance she in turn must die, and in the second play, The Libation Bearers, her own son Orestes kills his mother for killing his father. Now the Furies pursue him, hounding him to his doom in Hades, and it seems that his own fate is sealed…

But it isn’t. Because in the third play of the trilogy, The Eumenides, Aeschylus brings in the goddess Pallas Athena to adjudicate. She fears that if this sort of thing goes on and on — exactly as it does today in Zimbabwe and elsewhere today — then the suffering will never cease.

She speaks of the frightening prospect of civil war. No-one wants that. Speaking as the goddess of wisdom Pallas Athena says enough is enough: at her court in Athens she will listen to rival arguments in what she calls “the first murder trial”, after which the aggrieved parties must abide by her decision. From that day on law and judicial process replaces vengeance. Juries replace Furies. It all ends with the pacification of the Furies themselves, who are turned from agents of the underworld into models of good citizenship… and Orestes lives.

From Draco to Cleisthenes

This poetic interpretation generalises a long evolutionary process by which Athenian law developed from the days of Draco (who was draconian), to the reforms of Solon (who was wise, and made a first attempt to deal with Athenian tribalism) to the reforms of Cleisthenes (who made a second attempt, and sought to establish equality before the law regardless of descent or heredity).

But the point is this: the Athenians saw an internal political problem that had to be fixed. And they proceeded to fix it constitutionally in ways that were a lesson for mankind. There had to be established procedures for reconciling sharply opposed interests within the state, and for preventing blood feuds getting out of control. Otherwise there’d be civil war and unending anarchy.

Why is it so hard to get this message accepted today in places like Zimbabwe? In Sri Lanka? In the Balkans? In the Middle East? If somebody still has her number, would they please call Pallas Athena again.

Posted in Arts and Letters, For the Record, Notes.

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