The gods take pleasure in such poor souls. Would you oust them from the favor of the gods? What, moreover, could you give them in exchange? Good digestions, the gray monotony of provincial life, and the boredom—ah, the soul-destroying boredom—of long days of mild content.
In Act I, Jupiter, fully knowing that he is speaking with Orestes and not Philebus (Orestes's pseudonym) tells him what advice he would give to the real Orestes if, hypothetically, he were to meet him. Jupiter advises Orestes not to interfere in the lives of the Argives because these people, with all their piousness and guilt, please the gods. In this quotation Jupiter expresses two important points. First, he argues that the gods rejoice in the remorseful people of Argos. Remorse and fear help to maintain order, which is all that gods really want. Second, Jupiter insists that the people would be worse off if they did not live in remorse. Not only would they fall out of favor with the gods, but also their lives would be empty. The alternative to perpetual guilt is perpetual boredom. Living a bourgeois provincial existence one soon finds that one has nothing to do. It is better to remain in servitude to the gods than to be free and have nothing to do with one's freedom.
Since I came to the throne, all I said, all my acts, have been aimed at building up an image of myself. I wish each of my subjects to keep that image in the foreground of his mind, and to feel, even when alone, that my eyes are on him, severely judging his most private thoughts. But I have been trapped in my own net. I have come to see myself only as they see me. I peer into the dark pit of their souls, and there, deep down, I see the image that I have built up. I shudder, but I cannot take my eyes off it. Almighty Zeus, who am I? Am I anything more than the dread that others have of me?
In Act II, Scene Two, Jupiter comes to warn Aegistheus to arrest Orestes and Electra immediately. Aegistheus replies that he is tired of living and might as well let Orestes kill him. In this quotation, Aegistheus reveals that those who are in power are even less free than those over whom they rule. Having spent fifteen years maintaining an image to terrify his subjects, Aegistheus finds that he has no existence outside of their fear of him. Aegistheus and Jupiter are only images in the minds of others. They have no being of their own. They are not free to create themselves because their existence must serve the specific purpose of maintaining order. Aegistheus has set himself up as an omniscient judge who knows the deepest secrets of his subjects. Knowing so much about them, however, he has lost all knowledge of himself. He exists purely as a being-for-others. This is Sartre's warning to would be dictators: power comes at a high cost, for rulers lose both their freedom and their identity.
Justice is a matter between men, and I need no god to teach me it. It's right to stamp you out, like the foul brute you are, and to free the people of Argos from your evil influence. It is right to restore to them their sense of human dignity.
In Act II, Scene Two, when Orestes first strikes Aegistheus with his sword, the king asks how he can kill without remorse. Orestes replies that he is merely doing what is right. How could this murder be right, asks Aegistheus, if Jupiter himself condemns it? This quotation is Orestes's reply. When human beings act freely, they create their own values and freedom is the highest value of all. Justice must then be grounded not in divine pronouncements, but only in human freedom. In creating their values, human beings create their own justice. Orestes knows that it is right to kill Aegistheus in order to free the people of Argos, and it is right to do so because this is the view of justice that Orestes has freely created for himself. An action he carries out freely is necessarily right in his eyes; otherwise he would not carry it out.
This quotation also reinforces Orestes's motivations in committing the murder. His goal is not revenge or the fulfillment of his destiny. Those goals, grounded in the past, would not allow him to act freely. Rather, Orestes action is a creative one; its goal is to shape the future in a specific way. Orestes wants to free the Argives so that they can find their own freedom and build their own lives. Aegistheus has stripped the Argives of their freedom for the sake of maintaining order. By killing Aegistheus—the source of the people's suffering in remorse—Orestes hopes to free the Argives from fear. Since Aegistheus and Clytemnestra carried out the original crime for which the whole city is in repentance, in killing them Orestes also does away with the origin of the Argives's guilt. Since Orestes bases his own actions on his freedom, he takes freedom to be the highest of all values and therefore one that all human beings ought to recognize.
You are not in your own home, intruder; you are a foreign body in the world, like a splinter in flesh, or a poacher in his lordship's forest. For the world is good; I made it according to my will, and I am Goodness. But you, Orestes, you have done evil, the very rocks and stones cry out against you.
In Act III, this is Jupiter's last-ditch attempt to bring Orestes back under the wing of his divine law. Having opposed the divine law of Good, Orestes has carried out Evil according to Jupiter. Jupiter created the entire world based on his divine laws of Good and Evil. The world itself is Good, and it is the world itself that rejects Orestes, who has not acted in accordance with its laws. The notion that human beings are foreigners in the world, thrown in among objects that are unlike them, is central to existentialism. The world, or Nature, acts according to scientifically discoverable laws. The movements of stars, wind currents, and tectonic plates follow the ordered rule of cause an effect. A stone will always fall if dropped, the sun will always come up the next morning, the trees will lose their leaves in autumn, and so on. Human bodies are also physical objects that follow the same laws as the rest of nature. Human consciousness, on the other hand, does not follow the laws of cause and effect; consciousness can examine the physical world and react to it, but these reactions are not definite ones. If I hit a pool ball at a particular angle and with a certain force, that pool ball will always go in the same direction. If, on the other hand, a pool ball hits me, my reaction will not always be the same and it might differ from any other person's reaction. While nature acts according to fixed laws, human consciousness creates its own laws. Human beings are thus fundamentally different from the world around them: they don't follow the same laws and as a result they are intruders.
Fixed moral systems like the one Jupiter instills are imposed on human beings from above. Members of a society are simply told how to act, and they are told that acting in this way makes them Good. Imposing moral laws on human societies brings people in line with the law-bound physical world around them. If I kill someone, according to the ruling moral law I must repent of my crime. Orestes has recognized his freedom: he does not have to follow the moral law because he can invent his own moral laws. Since Orestes does not act according to the fixed laws of nature or of the society of Argos, he has done evil. His free action is evil because it does not follow established laws. Freedom, then, is necessarily evil.
They're free; and human life begins on the far side of despair.
This is the sort of cheery pessimism that leads people to complain that existentialism is a philosophy of adolescent angst. In Act III, Orestes tells Jupiter that he will share his despair with the Argives because it will enable them to live their lives. The meaning of "despair" here is not self-explanatory. Following moral laws is comforting: one does not have to take responsibility for one's actions. So long as one's actions follow some law, the responsibility for those actions lies with the law, not the agent. The Argives, bound to Jupiter's moral law, never have to accept responsibility for their actions. Orestes, having recognized his freedom, understands that regardless of what moral standards may govern a society, every human being still has the freedom to follow those laws or to break them. The presence of moral laws is not an excuse for doing something, since the individual can always violate those laws.
The Argives act as if they have no choice but to follow these laws, in the same way that rocks and trees have no choice but to follow the laws of physics. But human beings can also recognize that it is they themselves who give the laws their strength and that they can change the laws by creating new ones. Human beings can realize that nothing forces them to follow moral laws; they are always free to create new laws. This recognition that one's life is not governed by certain laws and that one has the ability and responsibility to create one's own laws is what Sartre means by despair. The comfort of knowing that one is always doing what is right according to certain laws is swept away. Instead, one always feels the anguish of knowing that there is no overriding authority that can determine who is right and who is wrong: moral judgment comes from us. Once we experience despair, i.e., once we recognize that the laws we follow are not definite and fixed, we are free to shape our own lives and create our own values. True human life can only begin once we recognize our freedom.
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