My students at the University of Texas recently had a spirited debate about justice. How do we balance fairness and compassion in our judicial system? Which is more important? How do we decide? My students are not studying political science, law or philosophy but Greek mythology.
Mythology offers valuable lessons about how to have a meaningful dialogue without breaking the bonds that join us together. These lessons may come in handy around holiday dinner tables, where family members who love one another may find themselves at odds about difficult issues.
Like the ancient Greeks, my students have found that tough current issues — such as immigration and refugees — are easier to grapple with through the lens of a mythological tale about a time and place long ago. Every student in this class understands why mythology is relevant. Their discussions about these ancient texts are preparing them not simply to pass a test, but to consider a range of viewpoints on difficult issues and to be more thoughtful and engaged citizens of our democracy.
The students were talking about justice while studying Aeschylus’ “Furies,” a play that recounts an origin myth about a murder trial that was the first case heard by one of the Athenian law courts. When this play was first performed, at an important Athenian religious festival in 458 B.C. attended by thousands, it commented indirectly on recent changes to the court. Yet the play’s specific message about contemporary events is sufficiently indirect that scholars disagree to this day about what Aeschylus actually thought about these judicial reforms.
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Many Greek plays are clearly relevant to contemporary issues, but — like “Furies” — they do not spell out exactly what the relationship is between the mythological story and the life and times of ancient Athens. Instead, the play suggests parallels between what happens in the drama and current events, and leaves it up to the audience to decide what the connections are.
As still happens today, people with different perspectives would find different similarities between a mythological tale and their own lives, and people who think they are talking about a play may find that they are in fact talking about current events that would otherwise be impossible to discuss without bad feelings. We can all do this. We can retell stories that we all find meaningful as a way to air different opinions and reaffirm our bonds at the same time.
In the “Furies,” Orestes, who is on trial for murder, tells the presiding goddess Athena that he will accept her judgment of his actions. But Athena finds his case so challenging that she sets up a court to judge it, and she orders the jurors to conduct thoughtful deliberations and deliver an honest verdict. She tells the Athenians that their reverence for justice will be essential to the smooth functioning not simply of this new court, but of democracy in their city.
The words of both Orestes and Athena make a sea change in Aeschylus’ drama, where justice had previously been carried out in an endless cycle of family vengeance arising from anger, fear and loss, not in a rational deliberative process organized by the state. They also make a ringing declaration of contemporary Athenian values that was intended to fill the citizens with pride in the ideals of their democratic society.
We could inscribe Athena’s description of proper judicial conduct over the main entrance of any courthouse in the United States, and it would be just as relevant and just as inspiring as it was in that Athens theater 2,500 years ago. We can all agree on those ideals, even if we disagree about how best to carry them out. Greek mythology has helped my students find common ground with each other. Everyone can do this. We can all find common ground through the stories we share, whether they are Greek myths, family lore or favorite movies. Rather than getting into a shouting match with Uncle George during the holidays, maybe try sharing stories you both care about instead.
Deborah Beck is an associate professor of classics at the University of Texas.