Work as an academic

The Nod of Zeus: Signs in the Plays of Aeschylus

Forthcoming self-publication of my academic book, written 2007-2012

The Conclusion section from the book

Note: The following material is copyright protected and may be reproduced only with permission of the author and must accompany proper citation.

Aeschylus composed his plays during the 470s and 460s, a time when Greek thinkers began to engage in serious reflection on the nature and limitations of signs, evidence, clear knowledge, and indirect judgment. Aside from Xenophanes’ distinction between clear knowledge and belief, which does not involve the notion of sign-inference, the famous Delphic oracle fragment of Heraclitus (fl. 500) provides the earliest surviving example of such reflection, in that it distinguishes between clearly speaking, concealing, and providing signs. The victory odes of Pindar (fl. 480) offer one of the earliest surviving explicit references to signs per se in the form of the poet’s denial of the existence of clear and reliable signs from the gods. It was roughly the same time period that Parmenides (fl. 490) described his deductive proofs as “signs” along the path of what is real, a novel use of the term, which suggests reflection on the topic. Aside from these scant, admittedly vague examples, the plays of Aeschylus provide the only other explicit and direct reflections on the nature and limitations of signs and sign-based judgment prior to 450, after which we find Anaxagoras’ remark about phenomena as “the sight of the unseen,” along with similar ideas in Alcmaeon, Herodotus and Thucydides, the Hippocratic corpus, the Prometheus Bound, the fragments of Euripides, and various Attic orators, such as Antiphon and Andocides. 

Aeschylus’ concern with the validity of sign-based judgment as a means of knowing and controlling the issues of character, fortune, fate, and finality is manifest throughout his plays, both in various characters’ explicit demands for clear and direct proof and in their rejection of signs. Aside from the abundance of such portrayals, two passages stand out in particular as examples of unequivocal reflection on the matter: the chorus of elders’ distinction between “knowing clearly” and sign-based “guessing” in the Agamemnon; and, in the Seven, Eteocles’ criticisms of his enemies’ sign-based boasts, which he justifies on the grounds that, as such, they amount to no more than seeming, likenesses, and words, and thus fall short of the realities they purport to represent.

Moreover, Aeschylus’ overall picture of the invalidity, failure, paradox, and ambiguity involved in sign-based judgment serves to illustrate vividly, and thus to validate, the traditional wisdom that many of his characters express in the form of gnomic statements: for instance, the elders in the Agamemnon on the authority of “learning through suffering” (pathei mathos), and the futility of premature rejoicing versus the clarity of directly experiencing how things turn out in the end; Cassandra on the fragility of unexpected success; Agamemnon’s remarks about the illusory and shadowy nature of friendliness; Electra on the stormy vicissitudes of mortal fortune and the never ending sequence of human hardship; the Oceanids and their fearful reverence of Zeus’s supremacy; and the Danaids and the chorus of the Seven on the unexpectedness of salvation and safe arrival.

Clearly, Aeschylus worked within a well-established tradition of reflection on human intelligence and indirect judgment. When he was writing, a key issue was whether clear and definitive knowledge through signs is possible – whether there exists a touchstone of ultimate value, whether there can be clear sign-posts, as it were, of the right road to take in a dilemma, whether the gods ever provide us with clear boundary markers of the hidden line between opposite types of outcome, and whether the phenomena that mortals take to be signs ever stand a chance of corresponding to the nod of Zeus. In this debate, Aeschylus adopts the stance of archaic pessimism. We see this not only in the gnomic statements that advise resignation, in the ambiguity of the outcomes that sign-based judgments are supposed to ascertain, and in Aeschylus’ consistent use of language and themes closely related to the problem of signs, but also in the juxtaposition of mortals’ attempts to determine final outcomes alongside their praise of the finality and authority of Zeus, who alone is “in control of the end” (τέλειος).

Another way Aeschylus seeks to validate archaic pessimism and the wisdom of resignation is the inconsistency of mental outlook with which he characterizes individuals, and indeed, mortals as a whole. This device, in fact, drives most of the action. Throughout his plays, Aeschylus’ characters tend to offer an explicit defense of the traditional wisdom in the form, for instance, of expressing the need for clear and direct experience in order to decide or act, and in particular, by emphasizing the notion that the intentions of Zeus are obscure and utterly unknowable to mortals. In such cases, the respective characters will thus decide to remain silent and cautious, even suspending judgment about the meaning of the supposed signs in front of them. Their hopes, however, tend to get the better of them once more convincing signs appear, and once matters begin to seem indisputably clear and final. The characters thus go on to neglect their earlier remarks about caution, instead jumping to conclusions, and assume not only that the relevant situation is in accordance with Zeus’s intentions, but also that their own decisions and judgments are absolutely final.

In such moments of inconsistency, despite their best intentions to resign and remain cautious, the individuals in question go on to issue a conclusion with the utmost conviction and confidence, thereby revealing a fundamental inability to secure their decisions. Unlike Zeus’s intentions, their own fail to remain steadfast. This occurs, moreover, not once or twice, but repeatedly throughout each play, and often in the very same scene or speech. It thus seems to be a chronic problem with Aeschylus’ mortals. In fact, the tendency goes beyond the sort of religious hypocrisy that persists even today – i.e., admitting that human beings cannot possibly know God’s plan, and yet constantly seeking to define it and to advise others and explain events in terms of it. Rather, Aeschylus appeals to the prevalence and recurrence of this cycle of inconsistency and wavering in order to illustrate the depths of the hopelessness to which mortals are bound. That is to say, mortals, despite their best efforts and better judgment, simply cannot resist appealing to signs. What is more, in doing so, they inevitably assume a direct connection between their own experiences and the divine world, a connection which, in turn, they expect to be a fundamental source of meaning in their lives.

Perhaps one will be reminded of the scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” in which Brian, the mistaken messiah, abandons his sandal in flight, as his followers passionately debate, simultaneously, whether “the shoe is the sign,” as well as whether it is a shoe or a sandal, and if it is a sign, what it means and how they should react, and if it is not a sign, what other things that happen to be around them might in fact be signs of the messiah. Having found their signs, the crowd runs off to continue their search for the messiah himself. The parallel is not exact, but both the Python scene and Aeschylus’ plays do depict nicely the eagerness of human beings to believe in signs, their tendency to see them everywhere, even where they are not or cannot be, and, if they are present, to misinterpret them, giving them far more favorable significance than they are worth. We see here the overwhelming desire to find God in the mundane, the compulsion to seek out clear and definitive signs of divine will, even when our better judgment tells us there can be none.

Ironically, the result of this overwhelming propensity to seek closure and definite meaning in signs is further searching and ambiguity. Like Prometheus, mortals are bound by a never-ending cycle of ambiguity and mental wandering: Caution yields comfort, which yields confidence, which yields failure, suffering, and thus more caution. Despite, and indeed, often because of the great successes of our convictions, we must still suffer the consequences of our even greater shortsightedness. The Oceanids, convinced that they should leave their cave in search of answers, do attain freedom and presumably knowledge of suffering in the world outside; and yet, their conviction to leave the cave and support Prometheus leads to their painful subjugation to the forces of nature. Granted, as the elders conclude in the Agamemnon, learning through suffering is truly authoritative; the problem, however, in mortal affairs is that the suffering never ends until death (and sometimes it continues beyond). And even if it did end before death, we can never know that it was over, and so we can never justifiably claim to have learned.

Just like the Oceanids, Prometheus’ primitive mortals, and Io, we are better off for pursuing signs, knowledge, and power outside of the cave of childhood, but ultimately, this amounts to little, or at least, far less than we expect. True freedom and happiness would be to resign to our limitations, to return to the cave, as it were; but our very nature, our proclivity for signs, makes this impossible. If this picture of human existence and its dependence on sign-based judgment in Aeschylus’ plays is correct, then we can never know whether a problem (or a tragedy, for that matter) has reached a definitively happy ending – we simply are incapable of such knowledge. Celebration and praise of the alleged achievements of human institutions and deliberation – such as technology, law, democracy, and patriarchy – while inevitable, are simply not justifiable. At the most, we should (if only we could) remain skeptical of their ultimate value; even more appropriate would be to recognize and lament their fallibility and inevitable folly. This is what Aeschylus’ plays do.

This does not mean that Aeschylus’ plays are nihilistic.  Nor do they necessarily convey the primitivistic message that we are better off, or at least as good, abandoning democracy, agriculture, medicine, metals, house-building, and divination. We may, and indeed, must, continue to sail at sea and warm ourselves by the fire. On a practical level, we can go about our daily affairs with the usual assortment of successes and failures, genuinely valuing the benefits that technology, law, and other customs have made possible. It does not follow, however, that we ought to praise such institutions and their resolutions, and certainly not as unambiguous benefits capable of absolute, final, and definitive judgments. Rather, on an artistic and philosophical level, it is legitimate to bring into sharp focus the negatives of the human experience – the inevitable failures and insufficiencies of our foresight, how it goes wrong, and the possible consequences. Would anyone deny the ironies and paradoxes of human existence? What of the hypocrisies – for people to swear by the superiority of divine intelligence and the vast imperfections of the human mind, and yet, to insist that the courts have secured justice, or that a legislative assembly has decreed the best course of action, or that God himself has shown us the way to understanding and salvation through our own observations, creations, rituals, and decisions?

Human intelligence is prone to failure in its attempts to understand and control some of the most important issues in life – for example, the difference between right and wrong, success and failure, health and sickness, instances of genuine love, friendship, and innocence, the right time and strategy for war (if any), the moment and manner of our deaths, and how to ensure lasting and desirable resolutions to difficult problems. These matters, few would deny, constitute some of the most important aspects of our lives; and yet, they fall far outside the range of our direct experience, while sign-based judgment – our only chance of knowing and controlling them – fails at least as much as it succeeds, if we can say that it succeeds or fails at all. The confidence of those who assume they have such knowledge and power – a “clear sign,” as it were – need not, but can, and most often does, lead those people straight into the outcome they had intended to avoid, and probably worse. There is nothing at odds with acknowledging benefits as far as they go, and yet, at the same time, drawing attention to their ultimate folly.

© Joshua J. Reynolds, 2015, 2021. All rights reserved.

Saturday Night Live and Philosophy

SNL, Satire, and Socrates: Smart-Assery or Seriousness?

Published Feb. 2020 in Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series:

Slide presentation forthcoming

“Josh Talks” (2009 UT Austin Lectures on Ancient Greek ideas and culture)

Recorded lectures forthcoming


Academic Positions

Emory University / Oxford College Emory – Atlanta, GA. Instructor / Adjunct Assistant Professor, 2015 to 2016

Center for Hellenic Studies – Washington, DC. Junior Fellow, Researcher, 2009 to 2010

University of Texas at Austin – Austin, TX. Visiting Lecturer of Classics, 2008 to 2009

Colgate University – Hamilton, NY. Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics, 2006 to 2008

Northwestern University – Evanston, IL. Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics, 2004 to 2006

Princeton University – Princeton, NJ. Visiting Lecturer of Classics, 2003 to 2004