Gary Pavela
4 min readJul 17, 2016
The Pavela Report

READING: Robert Kennedy and the Greek sense of tragedy

A 2006 New York Times article by David Brooks (“The Education of Robert Kennedy”) seems especially relevant now. Brooks told the story of how Robert Kennedy, “devoured by grief” after the assassination of his brother, turned to a book given to him by Jackie Kennedy: The Greek Way, by Edith Hamilton.

Brooks wrote that:

Kennedy found in the Greeks a sensibility similar to his own — heroic and battle-scarred but also mystical. He shared the awful sense of foreboding that pervades the work of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and that distinctly Greek awareness of the invisible patterns that connect events to one another, how the arrogance men and women show at one moment will twist back and bring agony later on.

Hamilton is at her best describing the tragic sensibility, the strange mixture of doom and exaltation that marks Greek drama. It was based on the conviction that good grows out of bad, virtue out of hardship, and that wisdom is born in suffering. Kennedy memorized a passage from Aeschylus, which Hamilton quotes twice in her book:

“God, whose law it is that he who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom . . .”

If they were doctors of the spirit, the Greeks’ specialty was to take grief and turn it into resolution . . . The story of Kennedy’s grief is the story of a man stepping out of his time and fetching from the past a sturdier ethic . . . The leaders who founded the country were steeped in the classics; Kennedy found them in crisis, and today’s students are lucky if they stumble on them by happenstance.”

Consider this image of a Hellenistic bronze statue Boxer at Rest, (330 B.C.E.) (Wikimedia commons).

The statue is superb visualization of heroism arising out of defeat and suffering. This isn’t the depiction of a beautiful athlete at a moment of triumph. The boxer’s nose is broken and his face is scarred. He seems dejected after a defeat and exhausted at the prospect of having to enter the arena again. But he knowingly perseveres because he is driven by “the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity” (Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man”).

Is there any compatibility between classical Greek and Christian tragic sensibilities? Remember this observation in President Obama’s July 12, 2016 address in Dallas:

Scripture tells us that in our sufferings there is glory, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Sometimes the truths of these words are hard to see. Right now, those words test us. Because the people of Dallas, people across the country, are suffering.

The added power of the word “hope” can be seen as a compelling attribute of a once obscure Jewish sect that triumphed over the Roman Empire.

Additional analysis from Edith Hamilton (The Greek Way):

Aeschylus was the first poet to grasp the bewildering strangeness of life, “the antagonism at the heart of the world.” He knew life as only the greatest poets can know it; he perceived the mystery of suffering. Mankind he saw fast bound to calamity by the working of unknown powers, committed to a strange venture, companioned by disaster. But to the heroic, desperate odds fling a challenge. The high spirit of his time was strong in Æschylus. He was, first and last, the born fighter, to whom the consciousness of being matched against a great adversary suffices and who can dispense with success. Life for him was an adventure, perilous indeed, but men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life. And, at the worst, there is that in us which can turn defeat into victory.”

A modern, secular sense of tragedy and social obligation: from Albert Camus, The Plague.

A character in the novel — named “Dr. Rieux” — had been fighting a relentless plague and reflected about the experience:

“Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done to them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise . . . Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of final victory. It could only be the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints, but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers” (Vintage, 1991, p.308).

Gary Pavela

TPR law and policy editor. Past: University of Maryland Honors College Faculty. Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University.