Sunday, October 20, 2013

Aeschylus among the Somalis

In his Orestia, the Greek playwright Aeschylus recalls Orestes, whose life story provides a climax the cycle of violence that has dominated the House of Atreus. Aeschylus' audience would have known how Orestes, on the entreaty of his sister Electra, had killed their mother Clytemnestra, because she had killed their father Agamemnon, and how Agamemnon, in turn, had killed their sister Iphigenia. He thereby sparks the ire of the Eumenides (oddly, "the kindly ones"), avengers of patricide and matricide. Pursued by the spirits, Orestes seeks shelter in Athens, and the protection of its eponymous protector Athena.

Aeschylus fashions a climax in Athens which likely seems abrupt to modern audiences, and may have provoked the same sort of response from Athenians: Athena convenes a jury. She persuades the furies, in advance, to accept the verdict. The vote is a tie which, on Athena's rule, counts as an acquittal.

So Orestes goes free of the charge that he murdered (though he certainly did kill) his mother. To modern ears, I suspect the result will sound like an odd bit of casuistry, a slender reed on which to base the narrative of a great nation. Athena, that is, hasn't shown that her result is “right” any fundamental sense. Only that it may be functional insofar as it ends s cycle of killing. But this last is an empirical proposition, and it may be anyone's guess whether Athena's justice can deliver on its promise of less killing or not.

So it may seem; but none of this appears to have inhibited the critical community, which has spent the last 2500 years (or so) identifying Athena's trial and Orestes' acquittal as landmarks on the path of progress from barbarism to civilization.

I thought of Athena and Orestes this week when I was reading Jay Bahadur's Pirates of Somalia: Their Hidden World. It's an interesting book, not helped by the fact thst the notorious menace appears to have been brought under control for the moment. Though I suspect we are due for a reprise in popular media as audiences get a look at Tom Hanks in his role as the bluff and earnest defender of property and good order, a sort of Sully of the seas. In fairness, I haven't actually seen the new Hanktacular, though I did hear him chat about it with Terry Gross and he made it sound like great fun—Hanks is one of the few actors that I know of who can actually say something interesting when he's not just reading a script. 

Still, if there is anything Americans remember about Somalia aside from “pirates” it is probably Black Hawk Down and “failed state,” the three not necessarily unrelated: note that the last link to a piece on “failed states” takes you to a piece about Somalia as the very definition of a failed state.

Well, I must say I have no desire to spend my sunset years or any years in any melange so afflicted with poverty, disease, infant mortality and whatnot: “socialist” Denmark looks a hell of a lot better to me than government-less Somalia. Still, I think there is a conceptual error here, and you can see it in Bahadur's book. For if you think of “failed state,” I suspect that what comes to mind is some kind of entropy—grey and formless, loose atoms bouncing off of each other at random.

But read Bahadur and you can see that whatever is going on in Somalia, there is nothing random about it: his whole point is that living/working in Somalia put him to the task much like negotiating rush hour traffic in Palermo: it's intricate, heart-stopping and take all your luck and skill. But there is a kind of order: just not the sort of order that you and I would want to enjoy. Which is hardly a surprise. The truth is, by the standards of anyone reading this blog, most of the world is wretchedly governed most of the time, and we wouldn't want to put ourselves in the clutches of those who govern there except in our worst nightmares—or rather, not without a USA passport and a fat credit line on our Visa card.

Which brings me back to Aeschylus: perhaps he is part of the problem. He seems to have set the benchmark for what does, and does not, count as a “state.” Ever since we have counted “law” and “justice” (with somebody like Athena as the tie-breaking—actually, tie-making—vote). But her “state” endless retribution is not a “failed state;” the worst you can say for it is that it is a state “not worthy of the name.” And that, I should say, is a much different proposition. On this measure, of course, I suspect there are no "failed states;" I doubt that there can be. But as much may be the beginning of wisdom.

Afterthought:  My Daily Drucker for October 16, offers a squib on "Legitimate Power in Society."  Peter Drucker says in part:
No society can function as a society unless the decisive social power is legitimate.  Legitimate power stems from the same basic belief of society regulating men's nature and fulfillment on which the individual's social status and function rest.  Indeed legitimate power can be defined as rulership that finds its justification in the basic ethos of society.  In every society there are many powers that have nothing to do with such a principle, and institutions that in no way are either designed or devoted to its fulfillment.  In its fulfillment, in other words, there are always a great many "unfree" institutions in a free society, and a great many sinners among the saints. But as long as the decisive social power that we call rulership is based upon the claim of freedom, equality, or saintliness, and is exercised through institutions that are designed toward the fulfillment of these ideal purposes, society can function as a free, equal or saintly society.  For its institutional structure is one of legitimate power.
For extra credit, the reader is invited to make what sense he can out of this passage in terms of Aeschylus and the Somalis. 

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