Yesterday, we considered the relationship between education and evil and how and why education might appropriately approach the subject. But, as Socrates might so aptly remind Meno, it seems that we do not even know what evil is. So, the purpose of the article today will be to examine several examples of times when an evil action might be said to have occurred. And through examining situations in which evil events have happened, perhaps we will reach a more generalizable or universal account of what evil is.

The first example we will consider is that of a father sacrificing his daughter for military glory (yes, before even Stannis did it). Such an act, devoid of context, seems blatantly evil. Let us, however, examine exactly why it is that Agamemnon sacrificed his young daughter to the goddess Artemis and see whether context tempers our judgment. As the story goes, Agamemnon was hunting with his men as they camped at Aulis before setting sail for Troy. During this hunt, Agamemnon either claimed to have hunting abilities beyond those of Artemis, or he killed a sacred stag of hers. In any case, she was angry, and he was at fault. Artemis, therefore, turned the winds of the sea against the troops and marooned them on Aulis. The prophet Calchas prophesied that Artemis would only be satisfied by the blood of one of Agamemnon’s daughters. Under the pretense of being wed to Achilleus, Iphigeneia was brought to Aulis just to discover to her horror that she was actually to be sacrificed. Supposedly she was gagged and pled with her eyes until the axe met her throat.

Now, let us consider the situation in its broader context: Agamemnon was field-marshal and commander of 1000 ships set for Troy. Had he not sacrificed his daughter, which he at first did not wish to do, his men would have been stranded on Aulis by the winds of Artemis. So, which is more important: honoring the dignity and valor of the assembled men and bringing justice to the nation of Troy who abducted Helen, queen of Sparta? Or the life of Agamemnon’s young and unwed daughter? To add to this, was Artemis’ request in the first place a bloodthirsty and evil demand of a thoughtless word of Agamemnon? And thirdly, was Agamemnon’s tricking his daughter into coming to Aulis in the first place (under the pretense of marrying Achilleus) evil itself? We will move forward with examples before pausing for further reflection.

After Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, Klytaimestra never saw her husband in the same way again. Betrayed and hurt, she became prey for the enemies of Agamemnon and their plots while Agamemnon was away at Troy for ten years. Aigisthos, the cousin of Agamemnon who had murdered his father, Atreus, found his way to the court of Klytaimestra and became her lover. During this time–seven years–he effectively ruled Argos and convinced Klytaimestra that it would be just for her to execute Agamemnon upon his return from Troy. When Agamemnon returned, she and Aigisthos murdered Agamemnon in cold blood (and his new concubine Kassandra). Put blandly, and how Agamemnon presents it in Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey (lines 409-428),* Agamemnon was murdered by his faithless wife who served the interest of herself and her new lover by killing him.

Is the situation quite so simple, though? In sacrificing Iphigeneia, did not Agamemnon earn the wrath of the furies (by spilling the blood of a family member)? And since he did not confer with his wife, was she completely and outrageously in the wrong for killing Agamemnon? Was her reason for killing him justice for her daughter, or was it due to new love for Aigisthos, the hated rival of Agamemnon? Was her crime senseless, and must a crime be senseless to be evil? Let us continue forward with this question in mind.

Continuing down the branches of Agamemnon’s family, let us consider his son, Orestes. As we are told in Sophocles’ Electra and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Orestes was given over to Strophius and his son Pylades to raise (though in the one play by Klytaimestra (Agamemnon) and the other by Electra (Electra)). After coming of age, Orestes felt a duty to avenge his father’s death, so he ventured to Mykenai and with the help of Pylades and Electra he slew both Aigisthos and his mother Klytaimestra.

Now, this situation is even more complex; for on the one hand might see it this way: Orestes justly avenged the murderers of his father, the rightful king of Argos/Mykenai. On the other, however, he is an upstart refugee who has killed not only the king of Mykenai himself, but also his mother, in cold blood. Even if one concedes that Aigisthos “had it coming” and that Klytaimestra herself warranted punishment, was it right for Orestes to kill her himself? Did his duty to his father outweigh his duty to his mother? These examples all seem complex, and in their complexity there seems to be some justification for each of the characters. And due to this very presence of reason, validly judged by sound minds, though the crimes above all seem “bad”, they do not seem evil. Is it thus the case, then, that an action which admits of a reasonable or just reason cannot by definition be evil? Let us now consider an act which may shed a new light on our perception of evil.

The final example we will consider is at the very highest branches of the House of Atreus, Tantalos and his son Pelops, perhaps a prima facie example of that which we call evil. Tantalos, already being in trouble on the mortal plane, was given refuge on Olympos by Zeus. But Tantalos, having the nature that he did, was not satisfied simply to enjoy the camaraderie with the gods. No, he decided that we wanted to test their omniscience, and the way he thought to do this: make a stew with parts from his disembodied son. How utterly wretched. This brings us to our closest expression of evil and what differentiates it from something “bad” or “wrong”. There seems to be something ineffable and inexplicable in true evil. As if the process of thought which led up to it included a creative leap that a healthy or sound mind might not make. So much does this appear to be so that upon looking at the reasoning of an “evil thought”, shock rather than recognition fills the observer as he gazes with horror at the chimerical result of such abominable thinking. Let us consider this further.

If we are to label Tantalos’ actions evil and not simply unjust, cruel, bad, illegal, and mean, there must be something ineffable in what he did, or so “wretched” and “wrong” that what he has done does not admit of being spoken of–because its very mention might upset or bring about the wrath of the gods. This is an artful way of expressing that there is something beyond rational in an evil action–super or sub-rational. Certainly what Tantalos did in Antiquity was punished by the gods: his own father, Zeus, banished him to Tartaros, the deepest pit of Hades, where he would forever be submerged in water he could not drink and just below a tree of fruits from which he could not eat (Homer’s Odyssey Bk XI 581-585). But one must ask one’s self, was Tantalos’ killing and feeding of his own son to the gods to test their omniscience absolutely unthinkable? If yes, then one has there one’s definition of evil and a prima facie evidence of evil stripped right out from Greek mythology.

The nature of evil having been determined, we will move forward and consider further aspects of it in the article which is to follow.

*This is also the topic of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.


2 thoughts on “On Evil: The House of Atreus

  1. Your very thoughtful and compelling contemplation of inquisition of the phenomena of evil focuses my thinking on evil as a phenomenal manifestation of abject cruelty (sadism) which blows apart our everyday symbolic order, like a wound or trauma to the sensus communis, and is driven by envy and mania (the tripartite attitudes of triumph, control, contempt and glued together by perverse (sadistic) sexual excitement).


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