The Progress of Law: Aeschylus’s Oresteia in Feminist and Critical Theory

Date01 April 2020
Published date01 April 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2020, Vol. 48(2) 139 –168
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591719884570
The Progress of Law:
Aeschylus’s Oresteia
in Feminist and
Critical Theory
Wairimu Njoya1
The Oresteia is conventionally read as an account of progress from the age
of private vendetta to the public order of legal justice. According to G.W.F.
Hegel, an influential proponent of this view, the establishment of a court
in Athens was the first step in the progressive universalization of law. For
feminists and Frankfurt School theorists, in contrast, the Oresteia offers an
account of the origins of patriarchy and class domination by legal means. This
article examines the two competing interpretations of Aeschylus’s trilogy,
arguing that they are not mutually exclusive. Rather than rejecting Hegel’s
progressive thesis altogether, the critical theorists discussed here focus
on the underside of progress. They make two claims that are explicated
and defended in this article: first, that law follows a dialectical progression
wherein measures to advance justice simultaneously intensify domination;
second, that the dialectic of progress arises from the legal form itself—its
presumed universality.
Critical theory, law; feminism, Hegel, tragedy
1Department of Political Science, Williams College, Williamstown, MA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Wairimu Njoya, Department of Political Science, Williams College, 24 Hopkins Hall Drive,
Williamstown, MA 01267, USA.
884570PTXXXX10.1177/0090591719884570Political TheoryNjoya
140 Political Theory 48(2)
Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 BCE) dramatizes an ancient myth of the origins of
law. The three plays—the Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers, and the
Eumenides—depict a cycle of revenge that leads up to the founding of a court
in Athens.1 Ten years prior to the stage action, Agamemnon sacrifices his
daughter Iphigenia in order to win divine support for the Trojan War. As soon
as he returns home from the battlefield, Agamemnon is murdered by his wife
Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra is in turn killed by their son, Orestes, who takes
responsibility for avenging his father’s death. Hounded mercilessly by the
Furies, whose original role among the gods was to punish murder within the
family, Orestes flees to Athens where he is put on trial for killing his mother.
The trilogy is typically read as an account of “progress” from the age of
private vendetta to the “civilized” order of legal justice.2 But the Oresteia is
also much more than a legal drama. Within its multiple layers of significa-
tion, the trilogy contains political, religious, and sociosexual allegories.3
Political theorists have frequently interpreted Aeschylus’s text as a demo-
cratic lesson in civic ideology,4 using their readings of the three tragedies to
inform debates on intergenerational justice,5 suffering,6 sacrifice,7 punish-
ment,8 truth and reconciliation,9 and the recognition of difference.10 From a
psychoanalytic perspective, the Oresteia offers reflections on psychic inte-
gration11 and the constitution of the subject.12 These and related elements
have been analyzed in recent scholarship on Aeschylus’s trilogy, contributing
greatly to our understanding of how law extends beyond the strictly legal
sphere and permeates the fabric of civic, social, and psychic life.
The breadth of this critical engagement with the Oresteia can help to bring
fresh perspectives into legal theory. But it also raises a difficult question:
What, in all these complex configurations, belongs specifically to law as
law? While acknowledging that Aeschylus’s text produces meaning simulta-
neously and interactively at many different levels, this essay takes the view
that there are specifically “legal” claims made in the trilogy that require
examination on their own terms. References to a “new” legal order in the text
of the Eumenides imply that formal law is distinct from the social context into
which it enters.13 What, then, is the nature of law as presented in the Oresteia?
Does the establishment of the court (“legal progress”) necessarily entail
advances in other domains of social life (“social progress”)? Specifically,
does legal development expand the concrete experience of freedom for sub-
jugated groups in society?
The framework for this discussion is the “evolutionary approach” to law
developed in nineteenth-century German philosophy and subsequently taken
up (often in oppositional ways) in twentieth-century Frankfurt School theory.
Evolutionary approaches examine changes in the legal system over time,
attending both to intrinsic features of law and the broader social context in

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