In Aeschylus’ play The Libation Bearers the motivations of Electra and Orestes are formed out of a responsibility to honour their father, and uphold their promises to the gods out of a fear of possible punishment. In this essay I plan to evaluate how the environment in which a person is born can affect their moral views; based on cultural, religious and parental beliefs, and how these beliefs are all relative to the time we live in.
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Electra’s and Orestes’ motives are based on two duties: duty to their dead father and a duty to the gods. They feel that if their father had fallen at Troy he would have “left behind such glory,”[i] but because he “died horribly dishonoured,”[ii] they owe it to him to avenge his death. By murdering Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, Orestes is paying respect to Agamemnon and allowing him to have the honourable death he deserved[iii]. However, it is ultimately Orestes’ duty to the god, Apollo, which leads him to murder his mother. When he questions how he could possibly murder Clytemnestra he is reminded of Apollo’s oracles; by failing to kill his mother he would “pay the debt of his own life…all [his] living tissue [would] be devoured.”[iv] Although it is out of honourable duty to their father that their plan is born, it is their fear of the gods that forces them to follow through with the murders.
The religious nature of their motivations suggests that if it had not been for the gods, neither Electra nor Orestes would have considered murder a possible option. This is important in considering their moral character because, to them, it was the right thing to do; both their religion and their law[v] saw revenge, through murder, as a reasonable punishment. If this was the case we could not consider the murders as immoral actions but rather, as an ethical option relative to the time Electra and Orestes lived in. However, while we should keep the religious beliefs of the ancient Greeks in mind when examining their actions, it is ultimately irrelevant to the overall moral assessment. Our morals are based on the time we live in, and while having the knowledge about the power of religion in ancient Greece allows us to understand and perhaps accept their actions, it does not mean that we approve of their decisions.
Simon Blackburn argues that “we respond to what is true, never to what ought to be true”[vi]In other words, Blackburn asserts that ethics is dependent upon both individual and societal beliefs; we respond to what we have come to know as the truth, not what was true in the past. Although the respect owed to both parents and gods was formidable in Athens, murder would not be considered a moral representation of respect today.
The ancient Greeks may have felt that it is “better for all men to hate you than the gods,”[vii]but in twenty-first century Canada this belief would be held by the minority. Personally, I place more significance on my relationships with other people than with my God. Although I do feel it is important to have faith in something greater than humans, I do not believe that every decision I make should be dictated by a book written over two-thousand years ago. I do not agree with murder, but I also do not agree with subjecting people to abuse because of their colour or sexual preference. Religion is relative to the time we live in; what was right for a person two thousand years ago does not necessarily apply in the present day. While the stories in the Bible provide guidelines for people to follow, they have to be adapted to meet current ethical standards. The basis of the theory of relativism is adaptability; we cannot say that our beliefs are superior or more moral than any other society for beliefs are all relative to the time and culture of where we are, which constantly change.
There is no way to prove that one opinion is more true than another.[viii] Although murder has historically been disapproved of, the ancient Greeks would have been able to relate to the importance of Electra’s and Orestes’ duties to their parents and gods as it was an understanding that ancient Greeks owed something to them, even after death. In the modern West we may not agree with murder as a form of punishment, but this disagreement is based on what we have come to know as the right thing to do, our own truth. There are certain rights present today that we may never consider changing, such as “the right to life, liberty and security of person,”[ix] but, as times change our beliefs must also change. In 458 B.C.E. Athens, homosexuality was celebrated, not frowned upon, but, with the introduction of Christianity two thousand years ago there was a sudden change from celebration to disgust. This feeling is just beginning to diminish as; once again, our cultural beliefs are changing. The reality of relativism is that our individual and societal beliefs are constantly transforming, and with each change our judgement of moral character changes too. The judgements we pass on another person are formed from our own beliefs; while understanding a past society’s culture may help us to understand why individual’s acted the way they did, it will not help form our opinion of their actions. Individuals respond to what is true for them, without the consideration of other
[i] Aeschylus, The Oresteia: The Libation Bearers, trans Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 397
[ii] Aeschylus, The Oresteia, 509-510
[iii] Aeschylus, The Oresteia, 557-559
[iv] Aeschylus, The Oresteia, 311-318
[v] Aeschylus, The Oresteia, 1118
[vi] Simon Blackburn, Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics: Relativism (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2003) 29
[vii] Aeschylus, The Oresteia, 1030
[viii] Simon Blackburn, Being Good, 29
[ix] Simon Blackburn, Being Good: The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: The First Seven Articles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 25