Awful Grace

This is the story of three men: Martin Luther King, about whom I have written repeatedly on Traces (here and here and here), Robert F. Kennedy, and the Greek tragic poet Aeschylus.


On April 4, 1968, RFK was in Indianapolis campaigning. King had been shot and killed just after 6:00 p.m. The crowd was unaware. Kennedy took it upon himself to tell the crowd about the assassination, and then he issued a plea for love, wisdom, compassion, and justice during an era that he acknowledged was a difficult one for the United States. Watch, and notice that though he clutches a piece of paper that must have contained at least some notes for his speech, he does not look at it. Instead, he appears to be finding the words in the moment:



Kennedy claims Aeschylus as his favorite poet. He was an Athenian playwright, born in about 525 BCE. His surviving plays include the so-called Oresteia trilogy, which tells the story of the assassination of King Agamemnon and its consequences, The PersiansPrometheus Bound, and two others. Of the three famous Greek tragedians, Aeschylus is the earliest, in many ways the most difficult, and depending on one’s taste, more often stirring than is Sophocles (on whose Philoctetes I discoursed here) or Euripides.


Kennedy quotes Aeschylus as follows: “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.”


The Greek verses, from the first play of the Oresteia trilogy, are these (Agamemnon 179-83):


στάζει δ᾽ ἔν θ᾽ ὕπνῳ πρὸ καρδίας
μνησιπήμων πόνος: καὶ παρ᾽ ἄ-
κοντας ἦλθε σωφρονεῖν.
δαιμόνων δέ που χάρις βίαιος
σέλμα σεμνὸν ἡμένων.


Some have pointed out that Kennedy substitutes — accidentally, probably — the word “despair” for what should be “despite.” (The translation is by Edith Hamilton.) Make of that what you will, as you are aware of the black grief that he endured after his brother was assassinated.


Seth Schein provides a more nearly literal translation of the same verses: “There drips in place of sleep before the heart / pain-remembering toil; sound thinking / comes even to the unwilling. / From divinities, no doubt, grace comes violently, / divinities sitting on the helmsman’s awesome / bench.”


For my part, I want to make a couple of observations.


One is obvious: at one of the most emotionally and politically charged moments in modern United States history, Kennedy and through him the nation looked to the Greeks for wisdom and inspiration.


The second is a bit more involved, but I will restrain myself. Suffice it to say that by returning to the well again and again, the well of the ancients, that is, we have an opportunity to renew and deepen the values that Kennedy named in his speech.


Here, let me explain. The lines Bobby Kennedy quoted were even more apposite to what happened on April 4, 1968, than he thought. We find them in a choral song in Agamemnon, sung by old men of Mycenae as they enter the theater. In this entrance song, the chorus alludes to the fate of Iphigenia, the girl infamously sacrificed by her own father Agamemnon. And why? To placate the goddess Artemis, who was blocking any wind that might blow the Greek fleet to Troy, the city in Asia Minor that would fall to the Greeks after a decade-long war. Schein again:


Her prayers and calls of ‘Father’

and her virgin youth, the commanders

eager for battle counted as nothing.

Her father told his servants after a prayer

to take her and urgently lift her up,

above the altar, just like a goat, face down,

wrapped in her robes as she urgently reached forward

to grasp at his,

and by a guard on her beautiful mouth to hold back

a sound that would curse the house,


by violence and the speechless strength of a bridle.

Pouring toward the ground her saffron-dyed robe,

she struck each of her sacrificers with an arrow

from her eye evoking pity,

conspicuous as in a painting, wishing

to speak to them, for often,

at her father’s tables where the men dined,

she had sung and, a virgin, with her pure voice

had lovingly honored her dear father’s

paean-song at the third libation to good fortune.


This is all so terrible. Why would Artemis require this abomination of Agamemnon? The chorus says that before the war, Zeus furnished Agamemnon with an omen foretelling of the capture and destruction of Troy: eagles swooped down and killed a pregnant hare. Artemis resented this, for she was the goddess of wild things and the protector both of pregnant women and young things. And because the pregnant hare was an emblem of Troy, after all, Artemis’s compassion was not simply for one poor animal. Instead, she too foresaw the horrific destruction of Troy and pitied those who would suffer rape, torture, death, and enslavement.


In other words, she made Agamemnon feel at least a measure of the same pain that he (with the help of Zeus) would later inflict upon Troy. (In the play, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife and assassin, will allege the sacrifice of their daughter as the chief reason for the murder of her husband. So, in a sense, Agamemnon slays himself when he sacrifices Iphigenia.)


On that evening in Indianapolis, then, a man whose brother had been assassinated, who was faced with having to tell a crowd full of African Americans that a hero of the Civil Rights Movement had been assassinated, and who would himself be assassinated two months later, turned for inspiration to a play about what comes from violence and killing. And he quoted lines from a song  in which the audience is invited to consider whether there may be a power of compassion in the universe, a counterpart to the forces of savagery and brutality. A terrible power of compassion that could justify one man‘s assertion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


What a moment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s