Round him, as if to catch a haul of fish, I cast an impassable net—fatal wealth of robe—so that he should neither escape nor ward off doom.Aeschylus, Agamemnon, line 1380.
Robert Greene’s Laws of Power came out the same year I got an MBA. It was in the zeitgeist, and since then it’s become one of the most requested books in prison.
When I read Laws of Power, I began to recognize how its adherents shape our world. For example, LAW 6: COURT ATTENTION AT ALL COSTS. Need I say more?
When you encounter a Machiavellian framework such as this, you have a choice:
Accept: Learn the laws and play to win.
Reject: Follow your own principles and hope for the best.
And if you don’t like either choice, there’s yet another way.
Deconstruct: Learn how frameworks are made.
To make your own framework, all you need to do is cast a wide net throughout history to find interesting stories and then extract from them pithy lessons aimed at modern sensibilities.
With that in mind, let’s see what we can learn from the Oresteia, Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy of the fates of Agamemnon and his family after the Trojan War.
The Oresteian Rules
RULE 1: JUDGE IMPARTIALLY.
In the myth of the Judgment of Paris, Paris of Troy was asked to judge the fairest of three divine contestants. Each contestant offered a bribe. Paris might have chosen Hera’s diplomacy or Athena’s military power, but he chooses Aphrodite’s gift of the most beautiful woman. Maybe Aphrodite was truthfully the fairest, but when Paris accepted Aphrodite’s gift, he incurred the wrath of the other two, Athena and Hera.
Paris was doomed no matter which bribe he took. Had he picked Athena’s military power, Troy would have been undefeatable but vulnerable to a diplomatic or romantic defeat; and had Paris picked Hera’s diplomacy, Troy would be vulnerable to military or romantic defeat.
By choosing between the three bribes, Paris abdicated his role as judge. He was no longer judging the fairest, but rather judging the quality of the bribes.
It may seem difficult to refuse bribes, but that’s exactly what a judge must do.
RULE 2: STAND BY YOUR BROTHER.
Accepting the gift of Aphrodite, Paris took Helen away from Menelaus, her husband, and brought her to Troy.
Menelaus turned for help to his brother, Agamemnon.
Had Agamemnon refused Menelaus, it would have risked a sibling battle to match that of the prior generation, in which King Atreus killed his own nephews and served them up in a meal (c.f. the “Frey pie” in Game of Thrones) to their father, his own brother, Thyestes. Agamemnon’s refusal would have also emboldened other nations to strike against the Achaeans (Greeks) without fear of retribution.
Agamemnon gave his assistance without limit. The Achaeans fought on faraway enemy turf without foreknowledge of Troy’s offensive or defensive capabilities. They risked their lives and left their families and estates behind to restore Menelaus’ house.
RULE 3: OBEY GODS WITHOUT QUESTION.
Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to gain divine favor to win the Trojan War, placating the gods who would have kept the Achaean armies in check.
If you accept the existence of gods, you cannot question them, no matter what they ask of you.
No virgin, no peace.
RULE 4: PRUNE THE FAMILY TREE DECISIVELY.
As told in Aeschylus’ tragic play Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus take revenge upon Agamemnon for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. While Agamemnon was away, his wife Clytemnestra took a lover, the renegade Aegisthus, the only son of Thyestes that was not killed and cooked by King Uncle Atreus.
Agamemnon returns home from Troy and takes a ceremonial bath. Clytemnestra wraps him in a confining, heavy blanket of robes, and then, with the help of her lover Aegisthus, stabs him. The chorus wails.
The moral of the Iphigenia story is that if, on behalf of your brother, you’re going to kill your own daughter, you might as well go ahead and kill her mother too because there’s no coming back from something like that.
The moral of the Aegisthus story is that if your father kills all but one of your cousins, don’t be surprised if the sole surviving cousin comes around and stirs up trouble with your wife.
RULE 5: FATHERS OUTRANK MOTHERS.
In Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers, the children of Agamemnon and Elektra take revenge against their surviving parent.
Grieving at Agamemnon’s tomb, his daughter Electra wishes for the return of her brother Orestes, who then steps forward and swears by Apollo to avenge Agamemnon. He enters his mother’s palace in disguise, claiming to have news of his own death. His mother’s lover Aegisthus is brought in to hear the news. Orestes first kills him, and then Clytemnestra, a matricide that summons the Furies. Orestes flees.
Did Orestes really have to kill Clytemnestra? Could he have cast aside Apollo’s warning and Electra’s exhortations? Could he have spared himself from the wrath of the Furies? Apparently not. Orestes had to pick a side. Along with his sister Elektra, he picked Dad’s side. Even though Dad killed Orestes’ sister Ginny on behalf of Uncle Menny and his Trojan War. He was a war hero, so he gets a pass retroactively.
RULE 6: IF YOU SEEK JUSTICE, GO VENUE SHOPPING.
In Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, Apollo helps Orestes to elude the Furies. Recall that Apollo had sanctioned the hit on Clytemnestra.
Orestes reaches the temple of the Athena, goddess of wisdom. Athena convenes a citizens’ court to try Orestes for the murder of his mother. It’s a tie vote. Athena breaks the tie in favor of Orestes.
The Furies protest and threaten to spread miseries among the people, but Athena placates them to wrap up the episode.
Why did Athena acquit Orestes and placate the Furies?
The answer is that Athena wasn’t an impartial judge. Paris chose Aphrodite over her, and Agamemnon sacked Troy with her blessing. In Athena’s wisdom, she was not ready to punish the Apollo-sanctioned killing of the murderer of a war hero.
RULE 7: DISREGARD RULES 2 THROUGH 6.
I didn’t write the rules … oh wait, yes I did.
So let’s say this instead – I didn’t write the stories that the rules are based on. I just wrote the rules extrapolating lessons from the stories.
The first rule came out fine, and the second isn’t objectively horrible until you grasp the implications, and then we get into some pretty dark places. Not at all what I had in mind.
If you want to change the rules, if you want better rules and fairer rules, if you want true justice, start with different stories.
Let’s change the rules.