Serendipity: Fury Cursing the House of Atreus

The Progeny of Tantalus, Atreus, and Thyestes Is Cursed by the Gods

I have been reading the tragedies of Seneca, where I came upon this speech by the Fury that curses the progeny of Tantalus, which includes Atreus, Thyestes, Agamemnon, and Aegisthus. This occurs in the tragedy Thyestes. I cannot help relating it to the House of Trumpf in Washington.

Haughty brothers will lose their kingdoms, then be recalled from exile to rule again. The destiny of their house will swing violently back and forth between short-lived kings; the powerful will become humble, the humble powerful. Fortune will carry the kingship on a constant wave of uncertainty. When god restores to their country those exiled because of their crimes, they will return only to commit more. Everyone else will hate them as much as they hate each other. In their anger they will consider nothing off limits: brother will fear brother, father son, son father. Children will suffer wicked deaths but be born out of even greater wickedness. A hostile wife will plot against her husband. But in this wicked house adultery will be the most trivial of crimes. Righteousness, Faith, Law—all will perish. Wars will be carried across the seas; every land will be irrigated by bloodshed. Lust will exult victoriously over the mighty leaders of nations. Not even heaven will be exempt from your wickedness! Why do stars still shine in heaven’s vault? Why do their flames still feel obliged to offer their splendour to the world? No! Let there be deep night! Let day retreat from the sky! Embroil your household! Summon Hatred, Slaughter, Death! Fill the whole house with your contagion, fill it with the essence of Tantalus.

Just to refresh your memory, Tantalus was a son of Jupiter. He killed his son Pelops and attempted to feed him to the gods. “For this he was punished with eternal thirst and hunger while residing in a pool of water and surrounded by trees with low-hanging fruits, which would recede and retreat whenever he tried to drink or eat them—the origin of our word ‘tantalize.‘” (From the Penguin edition of Seneca’s Phaedra and Other Plays.)

Why were Seneca’s tragedies so dark? He was the Emperor Nero’s adviser, which drove him to commit suicide by taking hemlock.


“The Divine Felicity of His Style”

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero

When I was a boy, I was fonder of Seneca than of Cicero, and till I was twenty years old could not bear to spend any time in reading him; while all the other writers of antiquity generally pleased me. Whether my judgment be improved by age, I know not; but am certain, that Cicero never pleased me so much when I was fond of those juvenile studies as he does now when I am grown old; not only for the divine felicity of his style, but the sanctity of his heart and morals: in short, he has inspired my soul, and made me feel myself a better man. I make no scruple, therefore, to exhort our youth to spend their hours in reading and getting his books by heart, rather than in the vexatious squabbles and peevish controversies with which the world abounds. For my own part, though I am now in the decline of life, yet as soon as I have finished what I have in hand, I shall think it no reproach to me to seek a reconciliation with my Cicero, and renew an old acquaintance with him, which for many years has been unhappily intermitted.—Erasmus, Letter #499 to Johannes Ulattenus

“Life Is a Battle”



Spite of all do you still chafe and complain, not understanding that, in all the evils to which you refer, there is really only one—the fact that you do chafe and complain? If you ask me, I think that for a man there is no misery unless there be something in the universe which he thinks miserable. I shall not endure myself on that day when I find anything unendurable.

I am ill; but that is a part of my lot. My slaves have fallen sick, my income has gone off, my house is rickety, I have been assailed by losses, accidents, toil, and fear; this is a common thing. Nay, that was an understatement; it was an inevitable thing. Such affairs come by order, and not by accident. If you will believe me, it is my inmost emotions that I am just now disclosing to you: when everything seems to go hard and uphill, I have trained myself not merely to obey God, but to agree with His decisions. I follow Him because my soul wills it, and not because I must. Nothing will ever happen to me that I shall receive with ill humour or with a wry face. I shall pay up all my taxes willingly. Now all the things which cause us to groan or recoil, are part of the tax of life—things, my dear Lucilius, which you should never hope and never seek to escape.

It was disease of the bladder that made you apprehensive; downcast letters came from you; you were continually getting worse; I will touch the truth more closely, and say that you feared for your life. But come, did you not know, when you prayed for long life, that this was what you were praying for? A long life includes all these troubles, just as a long journey includes dust and mud and rain. “But,” you cry, “I wished to live, and at the same time to be immune from all ills.” Such a womanish cry does no credit to a man. Consider in what attitude you shall receive this prayer of mine (I offer it not only in a good, but in a noble spirit): “May gods and goddesses alike forbid that Fortune keep you in luxury!” Ask yourself voluntarily which you would choose if some god gave you the choice—a life in a café or life in a camp.

And yet life, Lucilius, is really a battle. For this reason those who are tossed about at sea, who proceed uphill and downhill over toilsome crags and heights, who go on campaigns that bring the greatest danger, are heroes and front-rank fighters; but persons who live in rotten luxury and ease while others toil, are mere turtle-doves safe only because men despise them. Farewell.—Seneca, Letters