The Moral Obligation to Be Persuasive


To understand democracy from the inside, we have to go back to the Founding Fathers. I’m not talking about George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson—as important as they were. I’m talking about the REAL founders of democracy—people like Cleisthenes and Ephialtes and the other Ancient Athenians who first imagined a society governed by something other than the tribal codes of honor and revenge that structured so much of the Ancient world.

And we have to understand Aeschylus, the first great poet of democracy, whose Oresteian Trilogy delves perhaps more deeply into the pith and marrow of democracy than anything that has ever been written.

So let’s do a whirlwind tour of the Oresteia: It all starts when Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods in order to get good winds for the Greek voyage to Troy. Ten years later, when Agamemnon returns from Troy, his wife Clytemnestra kills him in revenge. Their son, Orestes, is bound by Greek law and custom (and instructed by Apollo) to kill his father’s murderer, who happens to be his mother. When he does, the Furies punish him savagely for his matricidal act.

Since they are gods too—albeit gods of an older generation than Apollo—the Furies are not bound by Apollo’s instructions. They are charged with enforcing the old moral order based on honor and revenge, and they have both the right and the responsibility to torture people who violate this order. The entire family drama comes down a trial scene in the final play, The Eumenides. Everybody agrees to allow a jury, led by Athena, to determine Orestes’ fate. The jury deadlocks and Athena gets the final vote, which she casts for Orestes, which sends the Furies into, well, a fury, and they vow to fight for their rights under the old social order.

Athena cannot compel the Furies to cooperate. They are very powerful, and they can make everybody’s lives miserable for a very long time. To win a conflict by force (which she could probably do, as she does seem to know where Zeus keeps his thunderbolts), Athena would have to abandon the democratic principles she is trying to establish. To succeed, she must persuade the Furies to abandon their resistance. Citizens of modern democracies should pay very close attention to how she does this:

1.   She reminds them that the decision was the result of a deliberative process that they accepted, even if they did not like the outcome. In this way she privileges the rule of law over any particular result of that law:

Listen to me. I would not have you be so grieved.
For you have not been beaten. This was the result
of a fair ballot which was even. You were not
dishonored, but the luminous evidence of Zeus
was there. (793-97)

2.   She assures them that they will have an honored place in the new social order that will result, thus easing their fears that they will simply be cast aside when a new order, with a different value system, emerges:

In complete honesty I promise you a place
of your own, deep hidden under ground that is yours by right
where you shall sit on shining chairs beside the hearth
to accept devotions offered by your citizens. (804-07)

3.  She offers them respect for their experience, and she values their perspective the same time that she asserts the superiority of her own:

I will bear your angers. You are elder born than I
and in that you are wiser far than I. Yet still
Zeus gave me too intelligence not to be despised
If you go away into some land of foreigners,
I warn you, you will come to love this country. Time
in his forward flood shall ever grow more dignified
for the people of the city. And you, in your place
of eminence beside Erechtheus in his house
shall win from female and from make processionals
more than all lands of men beside could ever give. (848-858)

As Athena is persuading the Furies through respectful civil discourse, Apollo is doing everything he can to antagonize them. He calls them twisted, ugly, old-fashioned troglodytes (and then acts surprised when they don’t bow to his godly will). Athena, however, does not have the luxury of throwing feel-good rhetorical grenades. All of the good that she plans to do rests on her ability coax cooperation where it cannot be compelled. That we live in a civilized society today is proof that Athena knew what she was doing.

What Athena understands (and Apollo does not) is this: those of us who live in a free society and sincerely believe that we are right have a moral obligation to be persuasive. Telling people that they are stupid, evil, bigoted, and useless does not work. It persuades nobody, and it does not advance the agendas that we think we are fighting for. Real persuasion requires wisdom, patience, respect, compassion, and a good sense of strategy. And even when our motives are pure, we must hold ourselves accountable for the good that we fail to do because our methods are flawed.