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What Could Obama Learn from Athena?

by Michael Austin, published

As far as I can tell, the first literary allusion to what we would call a “government shutdown” occurs in the final play of Aeschylus’ majestic Oresteian Trilogy—Eumenides—which is also one of the foundational works of Western democracy. Eumenides tells how the opposition of a powerful conservative block almost destroyed Athenian democracy in its infancy. It is a poem of great insight and wisdom that could, I believe, help Democrats bring an end to our most recent political crisis.

In a nutshell, Athena’s political problem is this: she wants to create a city based on democracy, but she is opposed by the Furies, powerful elder gods who are upset with the way that she and her brother, Apollo, have handled the dispute involving Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, who killed his mother in order to avenge his father.

Orestes acted on the authority of Apollo, and hence his actions were divinely sanctioned. But the Furies, who come from the generation of the Titans, are not under the jurisdiction of the Olympian gods. They have an ancient and absolute right to torment people who do particularly bad things (like killing their own mothers), and they intend to exercise that right with Orestes. Beyond believing that they are being deprived of their natural rights, they fear the coming of a social order that does not include them. If Athena wants to win, she must overcome the opposition of a group of scared traditionalists who still wield a lot of power and are not going away.

This is a standoff not unlike the one that we are currently facing in Congress. Like the President and the Senate Democrats, Athena and Apollo have more power than their opponents, but they do not have infinitely more power. They cannot destroy or banish the Furies, who have their own significant power base and are not going anywhere. Athena cannot establish democratic Athens under the threat that the Furies will drive everybody mad in revenge for her and her brother’s heavy handed opposition. As much as she would like to be rid of them, she does not have the power to make it so.

And Apollo is no help at all. He reacts with scorn. He taunts the Furies, calls them old and useless, thunders about his own power, and makes no effort to engage them in anything other than ridicule. He is right, they are wrong, and that is all he needs to know.

But Athena knows that this will not work. It has nothing to do with her being nice. She is not the Goddess of Nice. She is the Goddess of War—but the strategic side of war that actually tries to win, as opposed to Ares, the God of hacking stuff and ruining things in the name of war. As a master strategist, Athena knows that she must reach some sort of agreement with the Furies because it is the only way that she can move forward with her vision. She engages them in three different ways, each of which has much to offer partisans today:

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:

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.

3. Most importantly, 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)

And, of course, she reminds them that she knows where Zeus keeps his thunderbolts. But she wins. The Furies accept her terms and become the Eumenides, or "Kindly Ones" of Athens.

Much of what I hear from Democrats these days goes like this: “We are not going to compromise because the Republicans are throwing a tantrum and don’t deserve any concessions. We must stand strong. We will concede nothing. We must win.” This is the Apollo approach. It is how you deal with opponents that you can vanquish, but it is out of place in the current political environment. What we need now is Athena’s approach—a strategic engagement that accommodates a force that cannot be gotten rid of or rendered powerless.

And I am not just talking about the Republicans in Congress, but about the nearly 50% of the country that did not vote for Obama, does not like Obama, and fears the future that he seems determined to usher in. Though not quite a majority, this block of voters matters. They have a lot of power, and they are not going anywhere soon. In the end, Obama will only be successful as a leader to the extent that he can find ways to bring these formidable Furies into the future that he plans to create.

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