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.”