The Tragedy of Electra’s Justice

Euripides. Electra. 405 BCE. Ancient Greek tragedy.

Electra / irene papasBy the gods, where do I begin? This is a bloody, brilliant masterpiece! Literature that raises devastating philosophical dilemmas is rare indeed, and all the more precious when executed so flawlessly as by Euripides. With crisp, flowing dialogue that actually really is dialogue and not drawn-out monologuing by arcane choruses, this ancient Greek tragedy follows Electra and Orestes as they plot to murder their mother Clytemnestra in retribution—a term synonymous with justice, as Kant sensibly recognized—for her killing their father, King Agamemnon of Mycenae.

I love what Euripides does with this set-up. He suggests that all killing is impure, regardless of how justified it may be, and that all killers must atone in some way, including through the ritual cleansing of guilt. (This provokes the query: might the lack of any socially or religiously based means of purification contribute to the PTSD running wild among soldiers nowadays?) It is this vital distinction between justified and just that civilization has lost—drat Augustine and his just war theory. We forget that while killing may sometimes be necessary, it is never right.

Electra-149x300The characters in Electra do what they feel they must do, what their souls or fates inexorably impel them to do, but they do not rationalize their sins; they merely explain the reasons that motivated those sins. And although they have to nerve themselves to the deed and their consciences torment them after the fact, they regret the necessity of killing—they don’t regret the actual slaughter. Nevertheless, our killers are not fatalists; indeed, it is their very capacity of choice that torments them so, because free will means that we alone are responsible for our actions, whatever fate, honor, or dreadful circumstance bind or impel us. We are naked before the gods.

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