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by Aeschylus

Agamemnon Wisdom and Knowledge Quotes

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

Quote #1

(Watchman): "My real wish however, when the house's lord has come, is to clasp his well-loved hand in mine. The rest, I keep silent: a great ox is treading on my tongue – but the house itself, if it got a voice, would speak very plainly; I talk willingly to those who know, and for those who do not know, I choose to forget." (34-39)

These are some of the most famous lines in Aeschylus's play. But what the heck do they mean? The Watchman claims he is unable to speak; then, he says that he would speak willingly to people who already know what he's talking about. What's the deal with this? One explanation would be that Clytemnestra's rulership has created a culture of fear in Argos; thus, the Watchman is unable to speak because he fears being punished. This might also explain why he only wants to talk to "those who know"; if the people he's talking to already agree with him, then he won't have to worry about being reported to the authorities and punished for uttering thoughts hostile to the regime. But is fear the only issue in play here? As you read through the other quotes in this section, you'll notice that one of Agamemnon's major themes is whether or not learning only happens through suffering. If learning did only happen through suffering, then this would be another reason for the Watchman to remain silent. What would be the point of him communicating if only those who have suffered what he has suffered are capable of understanding him?

Quote #2

(Chorus to Clytemnestra): "Say about this what is both possible
and rightful; acknowledge and heal our concern here" (97-98)

Here, the Chorus acknowledges further difficulties of communication. Not only is communication limited by human knowledge, as the Chorus indicates when referring to what it is "possible" to say; it is also limited by questions of social appropriateness. Thus, there may be some things that Clytemnestra knows, but which are not "rightful" for her to communicate. Which of these two barriers to communication plays a more important role in Agamemnon? Or are they about the same?

Quote #3

(Chorus): "[A] man crying triumph for Zeus
will meet with wisdom totally –
Zeus who put men on wisdom's road,
who gave 'Suffer and learn'
Misery from pain remembered drips;
instead of sleep before the heart; good sense
comes even to the unwilling." (174-181)

If you remember only one thing from Aeschylus's play, it should be the phrase "Suffer and learn" (pathei mathos in the original Greek). This can also be translated as "Experience and learn," or, in more contemporary terms, "You learn through experience." But the idea of "suffering" still remains present. This connected to the idea of language and communication. If the Chorus is right about this, then communication is essentially impossible. Think about it: if the only way you can learn something is through experience, what's the point of my communicating it to you? But does the Chorus actually say that this is the only way for mortals to learn? Not exactly. What they say is in fact pretty vague: Zeus gave this principle "authority." This could mean that it holds true in some cases and doesn't in others. One thing you should always be alert for in reading Aeschylus's play is when learning happens only through suffering, and when it happens through other means.

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