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Better than Revenge: The Ancient Greeks’ Revolutionary Discovery

A young man avenges the murder of his father by killing the murderer. Do you admire him? Do you think that he has done well? If so, many people would agree with you. Vengeance equals Justice in many places in the world today, and the equation dates back to archaic times. In Homer’s Odyssey (c. 700 BCE), the great Olympian god Zeus commends a young man for murdering his father’s killer and holds up this young man as a shining example of admirable behavior for other young men to emulate. Everyone in the Odyssey agrees that Justice means revenge.

The Cycle of Violence

Hundreds of years later, however, in retelling the tale of this same young man’s vengeance, the Greek tragic playwright Aeschylus reminded his audience that revenge cannot possibly constitute Justice. In the Oresteia (458 BCE), Aeschylus shows that if everyone defines Justice as revenge, then each avenger simply falls prey to the next one. The violence never stops: Orestes’ father chose to sacrifice Orestes’ sister. In revenge, Orestes’ mother murders her husband. To avenge his father’s murder, Orestes must kill his own mother. At this point, there are no human avengers left, and Orestes’ matricide outrages the Furies, the spirits who avenge crimes against blood kin. Driving Orestes out of his mind, they demand his blood in payment. But the great god Apollo, having commanded Orestes to kill his father’s killer, opposes the Furies. As a result, not just the human community but the whole universe is in chaos.

If you’ve always thought that vengeance equals justice – as many people not just in Aeschylus’ day but also now do believe – Aeschylus’s tale of Orestes makes you think again. Surely justice cannot be the same thing as revenge, for how could true Justice produce devastation and chaos? That would suggest that justice is a bad thing, and that would make no sense.

Aeschylus’ Oresteia exposes a truth we can recognize in the 21st century: the false equation of revenge with justice devastates individuals and families and destroys the quality of life in communities world-wide. In gang violence in American inner cities, for example, or tribal or clan violence in failed or failing states in other parts of the world, each avenger claims to act justly, and the violence escalates without end.

Justice not Vengeance

But what is the alternative? In between the time of Homer and the time of Aeschylus, in the early 6th-century BCE (i.e. nearly a hundred and fifty years before Aeschylus produced the Oresteia) the Athenians had begun to devise a substitute for vengeance killings: the jury trial. But a jury trial offers a very imperfect solution. We all know, as the Greeks surely did, that no jury trial – even a fair one – can satisfy the thirst for revenge. Deep down, however, we also know that even a vengeance killing fails to satisfy. No amount of bloodshed can restore the dead to life. Still, in the heat of anger, we may not be able to restrain ourselves. We may refuse to accept a jury’s verdict or even reject the process of the trial itself. We may be unable to resist the short-term satisfactions of vengeance.

Aeschylus reminds us, as he reminded his contemporaries, that our natural desire for revenge will destroy us unless the entire community intercedes and commits to holding a trial. Retelling the story of Orestes’ revenge, Aeschylus shows that the community must intervene to prevent vengeance killings. Only a jury trial can supplant the interminable and ever-escalating cycle of vengeance and restore order.

Our Stories Define Us

Aeschylus’ Oresteia emphasizes the vital power of theater to influence human behavior. The tale Aeschylus tells is not our own, so we can view it objectively without partisanship. Aeschylus invites us to recognize that, inadequate as it is, only a jury trial can protect a community from the infinitely destructive passions of injured citizens. A jury trial enables the community to contain the spirit of vengeance and survive.

In the 21st century, our movies, TV shows, novels, plays, and video games have the power to cultivate our most self-destructive impulses or our better judgment. They can affirm the primitive, false equation of revenge with justice, or they can encourage us to reject it. Don’t turn off your intellect when you turn on your device; every story is shaping you.

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