Thank the gods we don’t believe in the utterances of oracles anymore. We don’t search for omens in the entrails of sacrificed animals or believe that women in drug-induced trances can foretell our destiny. Because the ancient Greeks fell for this superstitious mumbo jumbo, they were led into two disastrous wars that had devastating consequences. The great anti-war playwright Euripides offers his critique of wars and oracles in his play, Iphigenia at Aulis, now playing at the Court Theater in Chicago. My talented friend Jeanne T. Arrigo is in the chorus of this production and I have her and the Court Theater to thank for bringing this ancient gem to my attention.
Two Oracles, Two Devastating Wars
Iphigenia at Aulis was first performed a year after Euripides’ death in 406 B.C.E. He wrote it in response to Athens’ nearly 30-year war against Sparta. Known as the Peloponnesian War, it ended in 404 B.C.E. with Athens’ surrender, her fleet destroyed, and the city starving after a four-month siege. Euripides felt that part of the reason Athens went to war in the first place was that the Oracle at Delphi had predicted victory “if they did their best.” Not only did this encourage the outbreak of the war, but it probably made a negotiated settlement impossible. Because why would anyone cease the pursuit of victory if victory has been assured? The Oracle’s prophecy lent an aura of inevitability to the outcome of the war, which in effect robbed the Athenians of their agency. They marched to war like automatons in service of the gods.
To convince Athenians that they were on a path of self-destruction, Euripides dramatized a scene from the beginning of a previous bad military adventure, the Trojan War. As the Homeric story is retold by Euripides, the Greek armies are assembled in the port city of Aulis. Agamemnon is their general, ready to lead a thousand ships to attack Troy to recover Helen, who has run off with young Paris of Troy. The nation has mobilized to avenge this insult to Helen’s husband, Menelaus (Agamemnon’s brother) and all of Greece.
Unfortunately for Agamemnon, there is no wind. The soldiers soon tire of waiting and, despite their war lust, they are threatening to go home. But an Oracle has foretold that Artemis will raise the winds and bring certain victory on one condition: that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to her. Under pressure from the troops and his own lust for glory, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter and the thousand ships are launched. The war is on, and the play ends with the fleet sailing eagerly across the sea.
It’s a bittersweet ending. What everyone in Euripides’ audience would have known is that the war lasted 10 long years, Troy was completed destroyed, and fewer than 10 of those thousand ships ever found their way back home to Greece. Oh, and for his crime, Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra murdered him upon his return home and their son Orestes killed Clytemnestra to avenge his father’s death. Euripides’ point is this: The Oracle was tragically wrong. Although technically Athens scored a “victory” over Troy, it had devastating consequences. According to Euripides, Iphigenia’s death, which seemed so necessary in the rush to war, was a futile and unnecessary sacrifice that resulted in the deaths of thousands of other people’s children on the battlefield.
An Oracle for Our Times
As I said at the outset, thank the gods we don’t believe in oracles anymore. We understand what Euripides was trying to tell his contemporaries – thinking we know the end of things lends a feeling of inevitability to everything we do and ultimately robs us of our agency. The only choices we have left after an oracle’s pronouncement is what part we will play as events unfold to their foregone conclusion. We cannot alter outcomes, only play the parts assigned to us by the gods.
Though we no longer sacrifice to the gods or consult Oracles, I am afraid that we are still victim to the curse of knowing the end of things. I’m talking about the sense of inevitability that comes from politicians and generals who pronounce certain victory over our rivals. When victory feels inevitable or part of the march of history, we can succumb to the same loss of agency as the ancient Greeks. A good but terrible example is in the current rivalry between ISIS and the West. In the U.S., we are being told that we face an existential crisis and that we need to prepare for a prolonged war. And yet, we are assured by our politicians and generals that we are strong and will surely prevail. ISIS is sending a similar message, that their success so far is a sure sign of an inevitable return to a glorious past. Here are the two competing prophecies, the meta-prophecies if you will, that are governing the current conflict:
An Oracle for ISIS: Nostalgia
A defeated and humiliated people, reeling from the military defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WWI 100 years ago and the occupation that followed, looks to the past with longing. Gripped by nostalgia for a romanticized past dominated by glorious military, political, and economic victories, they fall victim to prophetic oracles that proclaim a return to past glory. They believe that their current humiliated condition is temporary, a way station on the path of their inevitable return to world dominance.
An Oracle for the U.S.: Progress
A people drunk on a century of military, political, and economic victory over rival empires believes that history has been completed in them. The U.S. believes the promise of the oracle: the long march toward a better future for all humanity will find its fulfillment when our brand of democratic capitalism is spread throughout the world. Having achieved the status of lone superpower, defeats in any arena are seen as minor setbacks in our inevitable march toward global domination.
The appeal of ISIS in the Sunni Muslim world is the lure of nostalgia fueled by a vision of an inevitable return to past glory and world dominance. America's vision of ISIS as an existential threat is fueled by the lure of future glory and the oracle of assured world domination. While the news is preoccupied with breathless analysis at the micro level of military and political tactics, the confrontation is governed by macro beliefs and competing prophecies. While we angrily defend our side and condemn our enemies, these differences have very little significance. What matters in the final analysis is that both sides are entranced by a sense of destiny that has as much credibility as if it originated with the oracle at Delphi.
Philotimia: A Tragic Flaw Then and Now
In his play, Euripides warns about the error of philotimia: the urge to be thought superior to others. When we look down on the ancient Greeks for their faith in oracles, we fail to see how we behave as if we, too, are under the influence of some inevitable prophecy. As we compete for global supremacy, we fail to question whether the path we are on is as inevitable as we believe. We also fall into the error of equating our victory with what is good and right, and so justifying any and all costs incurred along the way. Euripides wanted his fellow Athenians to know that some victories are just not worth the price of the death of even a single child. And that when the price escalates, and we find ourselves glorifying the deaths of tens of thousands of our sons and daughters whom we have sent to murder tens of thousands of our rivals sons and daughters, then Euripides warning should ring loudly in our ears: a victory bought at such a price will ultimately be our undoing. Euripides was no prophet and his warning is not based on superstitious mumbo jumbo. It emerges from his ability to free himself from the sway of the oracles and to refuse mindless obedience to their pronouncements. I cannot speak for those drawn to ISIS by the Oracle of Nostalgia, but I can pray that Americans will find the courage to resist the Oracle of Progress and discover for ourselves the authentic freedom and agency we so long to deliver to the rest of the world.
Image: The Temple of Apollo, Anastasios71 / Shutterstock.com