Aeschylus on Suffering and Wisdom

Aeschylus
Aeschylus

The chorus in Agamemnon, a famous play by the Greek playwright Aeschylus (circa 525/524 BC—circa 456-455 BC) makes the following statement (in English translation):

  • “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

I encountered this statement in the excellent, fascinating contemporary novel Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, about which I will comment in future posts. The statement supposedly was a favorite saying of the novel’s Rev. Nathan Drum, a Methodist minister in southern Minnesota in the 1960’s. The author Krueger has said that he has liked this quotation and always wanted to use it in one of his novels, and so he did by putting it into the mouth of Rev. Drum.

For me, the use of this quotation by Rev. Drum does not ring true to his character. I could not accept that a Methodist minister wanting to impart wisdom to his two sons in the U.S. in the 1960’s would use the words of a pre-Christian playwright, rather than words of Scripture.

When I posed this problem to Mr. Krueger, he said that as the novel explains, Rev. Drum originally was going to be a lawyer and, as the novel did not explicate, he had had a broad pre-law education, which exposed him to Aeschylus. This response does not satisfy me, a retired lawyer who had a broad pre-law education.

I also am troubled by the English translation’s reference to the “awful” grace of God. For me, the word “awful” is strongly negative with “horrible” as a synonym. When Krueger was responding to my question, he referred to an alternate meaning of “awful” as “full of awe.” In the novel towards its end after many horrible deaths, however, Rev. Drum repeats the quotation to his older son Frank, who asks skeptically, “Awful?” Rev. Drum merely responds, “I don’t think it is meant in a bad way. I think it means beyond our understanding.” (P. 289.) Again this response does not satisfy me as one coming from an individual supposedly knowledgeable about Aeschylus.

In my investigations of this quandary I discovered that the quotation was used in 1968 by U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy on the night of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking to a crowd in Indianapolis, Indiana, Kennedy referred to his own grief at the 1963 murder of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Robert then said, “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”

Kennedy went on to say that night in Indianapolis, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black… Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” (The quotation from Aeschylus was later inscribed on a memorial at the gravesite of Robert Kennedy following his own assassination.)

I certainly recalled that Robert Kennedy made an emotional and moving extemporaneous statement on the night of Rev. King’s assassination, but I did not remember the specifics. Learning the specifics helps me understand why novelist Krueger wanted to use the Aeschylus quotation in a novel, but, in my view, does not justify putting those words into Rev. Drum’s mouth seven years before the King assassination.

Moreover, the English translation is poetical and sounds profound, but is misleading on a simple analysis, in my judgment. First, is suffering a necessary condition for obtaining wisdom or without suffering is wisdom impossible? “No” is the obvious answer for me. Second, is suffering a sufficient condition for wisdom or is wisdom always a consequence of suffering? Again, “No” is the obvious answer to this question.

In my opinion, suffering sometimes (but not always) provides an opportunity to gain wisdom that sometimes (but not always) produces wisdom. That opens for me the broader and more important question of how does one learn from suffering or pain in one’s life.

My cursory research about Aeschylus reveals that he “was a deep, religious thinker. Few poets have ever presented evil in such stark and tragic terms, yet he had an exalted view of Zeus, whom he celebrated with a grand simplicity reminiscent of the Psalms, and a faith in progress or the healing power of time.” (Emphasis added.)

This source recognizes what I believe to be the polytheistic belief system of the ancient Greeks and casts doubt, in my opinion, on any attempt in our time to use this Aeschylus quotation to elucidate the Christian perspective of a Methodist pastor or anyone else.

Agamemnon mask
Agamemnon mask

Agamemnon is the first play in the trilogy The Oresteia, telling the bloody story of the family of Agamemnon, King of Argos. It begins with the triumphant return to Mycenae[1] of King Agamemnon from his victory in the Trojan War, as told by the town’s people (the chorus) and his wife, Clytemnestra. She was angry with the King because of his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia to assuage the Gods to stop a storm hindering the Greek fleet in the war and also because of his keeping a Trojan prophetess Cassandra as his mistress. Cassandra foretells of the murder of Agamemnon, and of herself, to the assembled townsfolk, who are horrified. The play ends with a prediction of the return of Orestes, son of Agamemnon, who will seek to avenge his father.

I earnestly seek responses from those who know the ancient Greek language and who can shed light on the previous English translation of the Aeschylus quotation by Edith Hamilton.[2] I also welcome comments from those who are knowledgeable about Aeschylus more generally and about Agamemnon specifically.

Provide new insights. Correct my errors.


[1] Mycenae is now an archeological site in Greece, located about 56 miles southwest of Athens in the northeastern part of the Peloponnese. Argos is 7 miles to the south; Corinth, 30 miles to the north. From the hill on which the palace was located, one can see the Saronic Gulf. In the second millennium B.C., Mycenae was one of the major centers of Greek civilization, a military stronghold that dominated much of southern Greece. A number of years ago I visited the impressive site.

Mycenae Lions Gate
Mycenae Lions Gate

[2] Here are two other English translations that I have found. First, Ian Johnston in 2002: “Zeus, who guided mortals to be wise, has established his fixed law– wisdom comes through suffering. Trouble, with its memories of pain, drips in our hearts as we try to sleep, so men against their will learn to practice moderation. Favours come to us from gods seated on their solemn thrones—such grace is harsh and violent.” Second, Anne Carson in 2009: “Yet there drips in sleep before my heart a grief remembering pain. Good sense comes the hard way. And the grace of the gods (I’m pretty sure) is a grace that comes by violence.”


 


 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

14 thoughts on “Aeschylus on Suffering and Wisdom”

  1. Hello DWK. It’s a bit after the fact to comment on your thoughts regarding the proper translation of Aeschylus from Greek to English yet today I was reminded of Bobby Kennedy’s reference to the passage in question as others discussed yesterday’s passing of Joe Biden’s son and the tradgey that has befallen VP Biden over his adult life.

    As a lawyer, I know you were educated in the practice of critical thinking and advisarial argument as necessary methods to hone your edge and, collectively, inch our way toward wisdom and guard against folly. As a result, I know you must value the same when you consider religion in general and your own practice of Christianity.

    The history of religion in Ancient Greece depicts a diversity of opinion as wide as you would expect of any religion. The rituals, beliefs and practices of Greek religion were informed by the same kinds of communal, societal, political, economic, tribal and individual structures and experiences as our own are. To learn that Greek religion included a pantheon of gods and goddesses who most often exhibited personalities complicated by ferocious desire, sibling rilvery, nepotism, despotism, devious plots, convenient alliances and obsessive selfishness, should not come as a surprise to anyone. The outrageous and irrational desires of the gods and their means of satisfying those desires very often either intentionally or unintentionally effected the rise, fall and nature of rulers, political and economic fortunes and the destiny of individuals and families.

    Considering the vagaries of life, it is not a very strange idea to conclude that the entwined complexities of divine life were inexorably interwoven with those of human experience.

    So why, then, are you unhappy with a translation which, after all, is a translation of meaning not of words, precisely like every other translation of anything? In the context of Greek religion, awful grace is perfectly understandable but, more importantly, is surely what gives sense to the notion of tradgey—Greek tradgey or any other.

    Furthermore, the suggestion that God is complicit with misfortune, suffering, misery, inexplicable tradgey and evil is not foreign to the Christian tradition. Every theodicy is testimony to the fact that is is always possible to understand the nature of God in this way and therefore the need to provide for God a route of escape so that God remains untainted. You might also want to explore the history of how and why the book of Job, considered a heretical text by many, became an accepted but subversive part of the Hebrew Bible and then, over time, interpretation and translation, became an essential part of the Hebrew Bible.

    Tragedy remains, and the sense of it remains, that a mistake has been made or an innocent has been the unknowing pawn in a game between powers, that a saving truth has been concealed which, had it been known, would have changed everything. Awful grace indeed and not to be explained away.

    Perhaps I can help your word redemption career, if it is still ongoing, by suggesting your next target:

    Mysterium Tremendum

    1. Intelligent comment, and yes, “awe-ful grace” doesn’t necessarily seem like a bad thing in this context. It might be the kind of divine attention to make humans experience their own mortality and smallness. Wisdom that costs teaches students reverance.

      1. I’m a Christian too though so awe-ful grace makes me think of the grace of God. The writer of the book of Hebrews in the Christian bible talks about how God disciplines the ones he loves. He calls them sons. It is also written in the gospels that Jesus learned obedience by the things he suffered. Even though he was God, he was sent to suffer for our sake, and was given the name above all names: Jesus. He is the word of God made flesh. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I can see Christian meaning in this quote even though it wasn’t necessarily written by a Christian.

  2. I was asking myself the same questions after I recently discovered Bobby Kennedy’s powerful yet humbly delivered speech on YouTube. I looked up lines 176-183 on Tuft’s Perseus engine. Although my ancient Greek is rusty and Aeschylus is above my skill level, the Browning translation clearly reveals the most of the dense Greek original, which is much richer (though perhaps not as poetic?) than Hamilton’s translation.

    “Zeus, who leads onward mortals to be wise,
    Appoints that suffering masterfully teach.
    In sleep, before the heart of each,
    A woe-remembering travail sheds in dew
    Discretion, — ay, and melts the unwilling too
    By what, perchance, may be a graciousness
    Of gods, enforced no less, —
    As they, commanders of the crew,
    Assume the awful seat.”

    Comparing with Hamilton and keeping in mind your questions about polytheism, I noted that:
    – For Zeus, Aeschylus uses the word ‘kurioos’, i.e. master, or Lord. So Zeus does seem to occupy a special position, he’s not just one among the many. At the end he does use the word ‘daimonoon’ for gods, plural.
    – In the second line, a nuance that’s not in the Browning translation is that Aeschylus uses the word “mathos”, which is more of a custom than a law imposed by the gods. I don’t get the Greek completely here, but there seems to be a connotation of “usually” to it. On the other hand, the Greeks were known to say ‘Count no man happy until he is dead’, and generally saw the Gods as wishing them ill.
    – The “woe-remember travail” is a great translation of the Greek text, something that’s not in the Hamilton translation and, most importantly, a deeply recognizable event and very human trait. In the Greek text it’s literally this “travail” that “falls” on the heart (I don’t think the verb has a connotation of ‘dripping like dew’ as Browning’s translation suggests, but I’d love to be wrong).
    – That what Hamilton calls “wisdom”, Browning translates as “discretion”. According to the Perseus engine the verb ‘soofronein’ that Aeschylus uses literally means ‘to be sound of mind’. (On the other hand, the nuance of ‘wisdom’ seems to be there in that ‘sofonos’ means ‘wise-minded’ and ‘fronein’ means ‘to be minded’).
    – I think the word ‘awful’ in Hamilton’s translation is creative in the sense that it both suggests violence on the part of the gods as well as that it is against our will at that moment. The word Aeschylus actually uses, however, (biaios) merely means ‘violent’, ‘by force’. The ‘against our will’ is a separate word that Aeschylus uses on an earlier line (just like the Browning translation does).
    – Note the naval analogy that only appears in the Browning translation! It only appears in the very last line on is just three words in Greek (“selma semnon hymenon”). I can’t find a translation of the verb in this sentence, but the word ‘selma’ was indeed used to refer to the deck of a ship and ‘semnon’ is best translated as ‘august’. If anything, this shows how much ancient Greek can transfer in just three words. Browning has to add “commanders of the crew” (words which are not in the text) because to a Greek ear, the three words were enough to refer to the act of a ship’s captain entering the ship’s deck and assuming command.

    That’s as far as my understanding of it goes. Back to international law now 🙂

  3. I’m pretty much a naturally born philosopher that came to this world with the burden of always thinking and I found the quote throught the Kennedy speach, which is my favorite american speech btw. I don’t know much history and the translation might loose somethings but I think it hit’s me perfectly as the search for truth is not always painfull but there is much of it and you cannot escape it. About the “awfull grace of good”. It might be an mistranslation but I think the quote makes sense calling god’s grace awefull.

    So besides translations, intentions and original meanings, the quote as it stands in english have an profound meaning.

  4. I am not well educated and most likely have a much lower IQ than those who have initiated and responded to this conversation. My wife passed away several years ago, after suffering a long battle with cancer. She suffered greatly, both physically and mentally, for a long time. I watch her and helped her as she struggled to understand why God would not allow her to be healthy and write and sing and create and serve Him, here on earth. But she never, not once, became angry at God. She never, not once, spoke ill of Him. She was the most courageous human being I have ever known and the purest and most loving human on this earth. And she was taken, after much torture and anguish, to her “reward”. She said she wanted “to go home”, and she did. I have screamed at God for the answer. I have cried myself to sleep, begging to know the answer to the age old question of “why?” “…the awful grace of God…” Did an ancient Greek poet and play write find the answer? When I first read the Greek translation to English, then Hamilton’s “version” of the translation, it was like a bolt of light! The entire paragraph, the entire thought, with the conclusion “…the awful grace of God.” It seems to be that kind of articulate thought, that means different things to different people.

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