Moral Compass US

The North American edition of The Quest for a Moral Compass is published this week by Melville House. I will be in New York and Toronto to talk about it. While I am away, I will be publishing on Pandaemonium short extracts from the book. This first snippet is from Chapter 1, and discusses Aeschylus’ trilogy of tragedies, the Oresteia, and what it reveals to us about the transformation of Greek moral thought. I have previously published the opening section of the book and a talk at the RSA in London exploring some of the themes of the book; and here are the first set of reviews.


From The Quest for a Moral Compass, pp 8-11

Aeschylus’ magnificent Oresteian trilogy begins where the Iliad ends. Troy has fallen. Greek warriors are returning home. The first play, Agamemnon, opens with Clytemnestra, wife of the Greek king and sister of Helen, awaiting her husband’s homecoming in the city of Argos. She is brimming with fury and rage. Ten years previously, on the eve of the war, Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to placate the gods and ensure favourable winds. Now Clytemnestra wants revenge. The play climaxes with the brutal murder of Agamemnon, his wife hacking him down with an axe, as if she was ritually sacrificing an animal

In The Choephoroi, the second of the Oresteian plays, Agamemnon’s son Orestes, who has lived his life in exile, returns to Argos at Apollo’s command to avenge his father. He is faced with a terrible dilemma: murder his mother or leave his father unavenged. He kills both Clytemnestra and her lover.

In the final part of the trilogy, The Eumenides, Orestes is pursued by the Furies, ancient pre-Olympain deities, more hag-like than god-like, whose role was to exact vengeance for major sins: blasphemy, treachery and the shedding of kindred blood. Orestes finds refuge in Athens where, on the Acropolis, Athena convenes a jury of twelve to try him.

Apollo acts as attorney for Orestes, while the Furies become advocates for the dead Clytemnestra. The jury is split. Athena casts her vote in favour of acquittal, a verdict that enrages the Furies who accuse her, Apollo and the other ‘young gods’ of usurping the power of the older divinities whom they represent. Athena eventually wins them over, renaming them Eumenides (The Kindly Ones), and assuring them that they will now be honoured by the citizens of Athens.

Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia in the middle decades of the fifth century BCE. This was the dawn of the era of ‘classical Greece’, an era which saw an extraordinary flourishing of art, architecture and philosophy, an era at the heart of which stood the city of Athens. In the 800 years between the fall of Troy and the rise of Athens there had been a great transformation in Greek life. Not long after the sacking of Troy, the Mycenaean civilization, to which Homer’s Achaean warriors belonged, itself collapsed, through a combination of economic decline, internal strife and invasion. The invaders were Dorians, like the Achaeans a Greek-speaking people from the north; their arrival ushered in what is often called the Greek Dark Ages. The kingdoms of Mycenaean Greece gave way to a more fragmented landscape of small, independent regions based around kinship groups. Famine led to the abandonment of cities. Art and culture became denuded. Written language seems to have disappeared.

Not for another three centuries, until the beginning of the 8th century BCE, is there evidence of economic recovery. With a rise in population, a new form of social organization, the city-state, or polis, begins to develop out of the kinship-based communities. Cultural life re-emerges. A new alphabet is adopted from the Phoenicians. One of its first exponents was Homer.

‘Polis’ meant to the Ancient Greeks much more than ‘city state’ means to us. It carried a spiritual sense and embodied a sense of ‘home’ and belonging. It embodied also the sense that only through membership of the polis was humanity raised above the level of barbarism. Most of the new city states began as monarchies. Through the eighth century many overthrew their kings and evolved into oligarchies, ruled largely by their wealthiest citizens. A few – most notably Athens – took the oligarchic experiment further, turning themselves into democracies. These were not democracies in a modern sense – women, foreigners and slaves were, for instance, all disbarred from governance. Athenian democracy nevertheless expressed the impulse that ‘rule by the many’ was better than ‘rule by the few’, an impulse that was to shape all progressive thought in the centuries that followed.


Athens had, by the beginning of the fifth century BCE, displaced Sparta as the dominant Greek city-state, in large part because of its role in thwarting the ambitions of the Persian Empire. Twice, in 490 BCE and again ten years later, Persian forces attempted to invade the Greek mainland. Twice they were beaten back, thanks in great measure to Athenian naval prowess. Success in the Persian Wars brought with it not just prestige but wealth and power, too. And wealth and power, together with the city’s democratic reforms, attracted to Athens artists and philosophers from all over Greece. It also created a leisure class able to afford them patronage. The result was an extraordinary explosion of intellectual energy. Socrates and Plato, Aristotle and Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles, Herodotus and Xenophon, Thucydides and Aristophanes, Phidias and Praxiteles – some of the greatest philosophers, playwrights, poets and sculptors lived in the city in the two centuries that followed Athens’ triumph.

Presiding over this intellectual pantheon was still the ghost of Homer. The virtues that made for a good citizen in a city in which all 21,000 free men of the right age could sit in the decision-making Assembly were necessarily different to those that had driven aristocratic warriors to submit to heroic fate. For Homer, honour was bound with nobility. In democratic Athens, the power of the nobility was constrained by the Assembly, and there existed a moral equality between commoners and nobles previously unknown. How could a moral code crafted in an age of warriors and heroes translate into an age of philosophers and democrats? Why should there be a moral equality between commoners and nobles? And what could justice might mean when it was no longer linked to a warrior’s search for honour? These were the questions that Aeschylus addressed in his Oresteian trilogy.

The Furies, in Oresteia, represent the old virtues of Homer, rooted in honour, blood and revenge. Athena embodies the new civic virtues of Athens, the determination to apply reason and the democratic spirit, rather than arbitrary divine fiat, to the application of justice. For Aeschylus, the Furies are arbitrary in their moral judgement – they condemn Orestes for the murder of Clytemnestra but not Clytemnestra for the murder of Agamemnon. They refuse to acknowledge the moral dilemma in which Orestes was placed. And they fail to recognize that justice cannot always be dispensed by following a set law. Athena’s judgement is righteous because she recognizes both the fallibilities of humans and the dilemmas they face.

Like Homer, Aeschylus understands the human condition as tragic, caught as humans are between a yearning for freedom and the necessity of fate. The citizens of fifth century Athens are, however, freer than the inhabitants of twelfth century Troy. Their yearning for freedom has been given concrete expression in the political structures of democratic Athens. The moral code has, therefore, to reflect these new ideas of human sovereignty. Aeschylus does not want, though, to detach himself entirely from either Homer’s world or the ancient deities. He views human life as lived in the shadow of the gods and accepts fate as a fact of life. Not only are some questions too difficult for humans to resolve – Athena herself, after all, has finally to decide Orestes’ fate – but the Furies must not be discarded but given an honourable, though different, role in the new moral cosmos. In democratic Athens, Greeks were more free than they had been in heroic Troy. But greater freedom only made even sharper the tragic condition in which humans find themselves.