BMCR 2021.03.16

Flower of suffering: theology, justice, and the cosmos in Aeschylus’ Oresteia and presocratic thought

, Flower of suffering: theology, justice, and the cosmos in Aeschylus' Oresteia and presocratic thought. Trends in classics - supplementary volumes, 97. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. xii, 264. ISBN 9783110685527 $126.99.

Taking on the Oresteia and some of the most complex and widely discussed passages of early Greek philosophical thought and bringing them together in a fresh dialogue is no small feat. In this thoughtful, articulate and engaging book, developed from a 2015 PhD thesis, Nuria Scapin undertakes this challenge and comes out with some important achievements. The book makes a significant contribution to the growing consensus that tragedy’s relationship to early philosophical tradition is too important to be left in the margin. Although with its focus on the theology and philosophy of dike, it has a somewhat narrow scope, it also shows how much more there is to do.

In the introductory chapter, Scapin sets the scene, outlines her methodology and surveys the (limited) scholarship on Aeschylus’ engagement with early philosophical tradition. Seaford’s extensive work on the subject[1] is naturally a central point of reference, and Scapin shows that there are both convergences and divergences in their respective approaches. Like Seaford, she does not go down the path of looking for Aeschylus’ allusions to, or influence by, presocratic models, but seeks to trace a more organic development of the Aeschylean worldview in the Oresteia that parallels, builds on, or responds to presocratic thought in a self-aware manner. Nor does she moralise Aeschylean theology. The book focuses on theological and ontological dimensions of the trilogy, especially on the question of dike, rejecting (as many others have done) the traditional view that Aeschylus has a conception of dike which encourages straightforward faith in the rule of the gods. What is more, Scapin sees Seaford’s interpretation of the end of the Eumenides as progressivist (evolving from a Heraclitean to a Pythagorean model), whereas she presents hers as being more open-ended and evolving, as will emerge in Part II, from an Anaximandrian model (of violent alternation between opposites) to a Heraclitean model of unity of opposites in perpetual tension. Scapin argues, in particular, that the constant tension between opposite religious attitudes which pervades the Oresteia may be read as a self-aware response to some of the ideas and the theological debates of the time’ (15). The chapter finishes with methodological definitions of philosophical theology / theistic philosophy.

Part I, ‘Philosophical Theology in Presocratic Philosophy and the Oresteia’, looks at the conceptions of the divine in Xenophanes and in Heraclitus. Scapin rejects the common assumption that Xenophanes advocated monotheism, arguing for a qualitative rather than a quantitative concept of the divine. Still Xenophanes’ qualitative conception of the divine contains a curious blend of abstract and corporeal properties – and this, as Scapin will argue at length later on, is strikingly similar to Aeschylus’ representation of Zeus. In her discussion of Heraclitus’ theology, one of her strongest readings of presocratic material, Scapin follows Kahn and others in stressing the philosopher’s ambiguous and equivocal use of language and its startling resemblance to that of Aeschylus. Naturally, this part of the discussion focuses on the Heraclitean unity of opposites, concluding that Heraclitus’ comprehensive reality (hen panta) is a ‘unity-plurality pervaded by opposites’ (62). Scapin pays particular attention to B67 in respect of the ‘ceaseless’ god/comprehensive reality in Heraclitus; and to B32 and B41 in relation to the governing nautical metaphor, and the inherent qualities of immanence, wisdom and separation of the cosmic governing principle. These are complex concepts, but Scapin achieves clarity which first-comers to the presocratics and Aeschylean tragedy will find welcome.

In chapters 3 and 4, she turns to the well-trodden question of Zeus and dike in the Oresteia, surveying much of the scholarship on the subject. She agrees with much of the scholarship that the Zeus not just of the Agamemnon and the Choephori, but of the whole trilogy, is a dispenser of violence as well as a dispenser of grace, arguing against theories that Zeus undergoes a progression. Neither do the Erinyes, she correctly maintains: the ambivalence is there from the start in both powers. The Olympian and the chthonic realms are not antithetical spaces of mutually exclusive powers. In chapter 4, Scapin lends further support to the theses that argue against Zeus’ anthropomorphic perception and defends Zeus’ understanding as the ultimate principle behind reality. She also discusses Aeschylus’ ‘epistemological prudence’, the theme of the difficulty – but not impossibility – of human knowledge in relation to the divine, which he shares with Xenophanes, Heraclitus and other thinkers of his time. She maintains that there are constant impediments to making definite sense of the god’s nature and justice – to the point that she sees Zeus as an amoral and almost impersonal force that is the cause and effector of all, the unitary principle of all the antithetical powers that pervade the Oresteia. Zeus does not have dike, Zeus is dike – cosmic dike, ‘a retributive principle in the grace of which all the elements of the universe, among them humankind, are subjugated within a perpetual conflict’ (113). As for how the humans experience it, their experience of pathos is given, according to the argument, the status of a profound knowledge, the meeting point of the human and the divine.

Part II, ‘Cosmic Justice: between a Metaphysics of Harmony and a Metaphysics of Conflict’ is, in this reader’s opinion, the most engaging of the book. Although it does contain a degree of repetition with Part I, it has also achieved more maturity and a more consistent direction. Even readers who take issue with individual arguments will acknowledge that Scapin has done some excellent work in navigating the presocratic material while preparing the reader for her reading of the Oresteia. Chapter 5 explores how the pattern of retributive justice in the trilogy reflects dike as self-regulating mechanism in the same way that dike was conceptualised by the presocratic philosophers. I find this thesis convincing in general terms, although I do believe that individual steps through which it is developed miss important opportunities. For example, Scapin follows Gagarin 1974 in tracing the development of the semantics of dike from fundamentally behavioural and judicial to concerning the behaviour of the external world, bringing examples from Homer, the Homeric hymns, Solon and Hesiod. She builds on this well-known thesis by discussing metaphor and metonymy as vehicles for conveying the notion of cosmic order, citing Anaximander B1 and Solon 12W as examples. Although this may be broadly convincing for a modern readership, positing the judicial and political sphere as conceptually separate from the natural sphere seems to me to be a rather anachronistic manner of categorisation which is not applicable to archaic thought, at least to the degree that Scapin posits. As has been argued by Segal, Oudemans-Lardinois, Padel and others,[2] archaic and early classical thought as reflected in much presocratic and Hippocratic material as well as tragedy, reflect a more interconnected experience of the different spheres of life. In this respect, it is a shame that Scapin has not considered the key role that Hesiod’s Works and Days has in connecting nature (and human conduct towards it), economic activity (especially possession and fair division), judicial relations and cosmic order. The missed opportunity is to be regretted especially since Aeschylus has long been shown to have a deep debt to Hesiodic thought.[3] Chapter 5 continues with an analysis of the development of Anaximander’s dike in the metaphorical thought of Heraclitus and Parmenides. Here, Scapin emphasises both innovation and continuity in relation to Anaximander. In the case of Heraclitus, she argues that dike is another essential cosmic force which governs reality through oppositions and antitheses and overlaps with logos, theos and especially polemos. In the case of Parmenides, as in both Anaximander and Heraclitus, dike has a strong characterisation as a force of compulsion and the interplay of opposites, but as polypoinos, she is still also heavily associated with legalistic metaphors (as in Anaximander). Scapin has taken the promising step of emphasising metaphorical thought as key in approaching the presocratics, which gives her the potential of a strong grounding when she moves to the Oresteia. The reader would wish a little more clarity in her delineation of metaphor and how she defines this complex mechanism of thought and reason, especially because it would have allowed her to go even further in her reading of the Oresteia; still, given the importance of metaphor in the Aeschylean trilogy, this is a step in the right direction.

Scapin then moves to dike in the Oresteia in light of presocratic ideas she has explored. In ch. 6, she focuses on the inextricable relationship between time, necessity and dike in the parodos of the Agamemnon. Here she discusses the centrality of various cosmic powers (Zeus, Erinyes, Moirai) in relation to time and telos, drawing parallelisms with Anaximander B1. Scapin shows that the new factor implicated in the Oresteia in the representation of this cosmos is human action, with the individual/human modelling and, at the same time, implementing the universal. Anaximander B1, where justice and injustice, victor and victim, are shown to be inextricable parts of one unit in perennially alternating roles, is also central in the discussion of the Aeschylean representation of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia and the cycle of violence that this generates. When she turns to the first stasimon, Anaximander is once again judiciously connected to the Aeschylean preoccupation with koros. As in the parodos, so here, Scapin argues that the individual conveys and enacts the universal.

In chapter 7, Scapin elaborates on the well-known argument that the semantics of dike are constantly negotiated and renegotiated throughout the trilogy by bringing in her reflections from the earlier discussions of Anaximander and Heraclitus. By offering close readings of Ag. 1407-1576 and Cho. 306-478, she argues that there is an oscillation between the Anaximandrian and the Heraclitean models of justice in the first two plays – whereby the Anaximandrian model of retaliation is gradually abandoned in favour of the Heraclitean model of inevitable unity in conflict. Once again, the argument that human action is conceived as a reflection of cosmic dynamics is key: human violence is/models/reflects/shapes cosmic violence and the other way around. In chapter 8, she revisits the ultimate redefinition of dike in the Eumenides through yet another presocratic lens, that of Parmenides B1 and the element of ‘gentle persuasion’ of Dike by the Heliades. As in Parmenides, Scapin argues that persuasion in the Oresteia has epistemological and not only ontological significance: ‘peitho plays the crucial role of blandishing the Erinyes to open the gates for a new form of knowledge to be attained’ (212). Another element that makes her comparison with the persuasion of the Erinyes plausible is that compulsion in Parmenides’ conception of dike is also retained. In chapter 9, ‘A cosmos of opposites’, Scapin returns to the Heraclitean model of dike and explains how (contra Seaford) it is the most suitable model for understanding the ultimate development of this key concept in the Oresteia. However, the divergence between Seaford and her is not actually as stark as she presents it to be. Although Scapin argues that ‘in Eumenides, in which action moves towards a reconciliation of opposite forces, it is the idea of justice as simultaneous rather than alternating equilibrium that prevails’ (216), the fact that she employs the very concept of the equilibrium to illustrate her approach, shows that in her version, too, as in Seaford’s, dike operates in fundamentally economic terms (albeit with ‘economic” much more broadly defined).

The above shows that Scapin’s book provides much food for thought in this relatively untapped area. However, perhaps the most serious objection that this reader has is that Scapin’s reading of the Oresteia is too conceptual. Theatre creates meaning in performance, including when it does cosmology;[4] taking performance into account is not optional in any analysis of any theatrical work. In Scapin’s analysis, partly because she is mainly interested in choral sections, there are only very minor references to performative elements (for example, the note that the chorus’ appearance in Choephorievokes the Erinyes). One, of course, cannot do everything, but the performative meaning of the trilogy should have at least been acknowledged in the methodological section.

Despite these objections, The Flower of Suffering is an ambitious study and the judicious product of a significant scholarly effort. It undoubtedly makes an important contribution to Aeschylean studies and opens up the way for more progress in this regard.


[1] The list of references to Seaford spans from (2003) ‘Aeschylus and the Unity of Opposites’, JHS 123:141-63 to (2013) ‘Aeschylus, Herakleitos and Pythagoreanism’ in Cairns (ed.) Tragedy and Archaic Greek thought, Swansea: 17-33, and includes the (2012) monograph Cosmology and the Polis: the Social Construction of Space and Time in the Tragedies of Aeschylus, Cambridge.

[2] Segal (1981) Tragedy and Civilisation, Cambridge MA; Oudemans, T. and Lardinois, A. (1987) Tragic ambiguity: anthropology, philosophy and Sophocles’ Antigone, Leiden; Padel, R. (1992) In and out of the Mind, Princeton; and now Zatta, C. (2019) Interconnectedness: the living world of the early Greek philosophers.

[3] Solmsen, S. (1949) Hesiod and Aeschylus, Ithaca.

[4] Valuable thoughts are included in Rehm, R. (2002) The Play of Space, Princeton; Wiles, D. (1997) Tragedy in Athens, Cambridge; and in all the works by C. Segal on Sophocles.