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by Aeschylus

Agamemnon Fate and Free Will Quotes

How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Line). We used Christopher Collard's translation.

Quote #4

(Chorus): "When [Agamemnon] put on the yoke-strap of compulsion,
his mind's wind veering round to the unholy,
the impious, the impure, from then
his purpose changed to hard audacity;
for men get overbold from the cruel derangement
and its ugly schemes that begin their affliction.
So he was hard enough to sacrifice
his daughter, in aid of a war
to punish a woman
and as first-rites for the fleet to sail." (218-227)

The opening words of this passage could also be translated as, "When [Agamemnon] put on the yoke-strap [or, simply, "yoke"] of necessity." The metaphor comes from ploughing; the basic idea is that Agamemnon is submitting to something that compels or constrains or forces him into a certain course of action. (It's pretty easy to see how this is related to the concept of "necessity"; if something is necessary, then it probably compels or constrains or forces you in a certain way, right?) So, once Agamemnon has put on this yoke, he can no longer act freely. But is he free in putting on the yoke? What does it mean if you freely choose to give up your freedom? Find yourself scratching your head? Don't worry, that's just what Aeschylus wants you to do. This is just one of many passages in Aeschylus's play that open up a lifetime's worth of questions, and lead to many sleepless nights.

Quote #5

(Chorus): "Justice gleams in houses foul with smoke,
doing honour to the righteous life;
but gold-bespangled mansions where hands are unclean
she leaves with her eyes turned away,
and approaches those which are pure,
with no respect for riches and their power
when falsely stamped with praise;
she directs all things to their ending." (772-781)

Don't worry if you find this passage, spoken by the Chorus, a little tricky to understand. The most difficult idea is that "Justice" here doesn't just refer to something abstract; instead, the Chorus imagines Justice as a goddess, who leaves houses that are sinful and seeks out houses that are pure. With this in mind, you can probably see how this makes the issue of fate and free will a bit complicated. Think about it: Atreus killed his brother Thyestes's children; this made his house "unclean." Because his house was unclean, Justice left; because Justice left, Agamemnon acts in unjust ways. But if Agamemnon acts in unjust ways because his father drove out Justice, how is he responsible for his actions?

Quote #6

(Agamemnon): First I address Argos and the land's gods: it is my duty to these accessories in my return and in the justice I exacted from the city of Priam. The gods heard a case without speeches, which brought men death; they cast their votes for Ilion's destruction into the bloody urn without division; the opposed vessel had Hope approach it, but no hand began filling it. The city was taken; its smoke even now makes it a clear mark; the storms of Ruin live on; the ash of its dying sends out rich puffs of wealth. For this the gods should be paid very mindful thanks, since we punished an arrogant robbery, and it was for a woman that Troy was ground into dust by the Argives' beast of destruction – the offspring of the horse, shield-bearers in a body, launching their leap at the Pleiades' setting. (810-825)

These are the first words spoken by Agamemnon after he gets back to Argos; in them, he emphasizes that it was the gods who crushed Troy when they voted for "Ilion's destruction." (Ilion is just a different name for Troy.) But he also says that he is carrying out a duty in thanking the gods. Let's try to think this through. A duty is something you're supposed to do, but you have to choose to do it, right? (That is, you don't just automatically find yourself doing it, like breathing or blinking, do you?) But how can Agamemnon think he is acting with free will by praising the gods, yet also say that he was carrying out the will of the gods when he made war on Troy? Is he contradicting himself? We actually don't think these two ideas have to contradict each other, but we don't need to go into that right now. A more basic point is that the Greeks didn't see fate and free will as necessarily opposed. As an earlier Greek poem, Homer's Iliad, makes clear, even if something was fated to happen, people and gods still had some leeway over how it would happen. Could this idea be relevant to some of the tricky passages in Aeschylus's Agamemnon?

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