Saturday, September 30, 2017

Greek Tragedy 
Presently there is a debate in education over the value of studying the humanities. What can you gain from the knowledge of history, literature or art from the distant past? Should schools and universities spend diminishing resources to teach students in the 21st century about events that happened thousands of years ago, or ask students to read the literature or philosophy of people who lived in that "dark backward and abysm of time" (Tempest 1.2) ?  To what purpose?

This is a photograph of Lyndon B. Johnson listening to a tape from his son-in-law, Marine Captain Charles Robb who was serving in Vietnam. In the tape, Robb is describing the deaths of American soldiers as Johnson collapses in anguish. The photo was taken by Jack Kightinger in 1968. This was the deadliest year of the war with 16,592 American soldiers killed. The high losses of American soldiers in the Tet Offensive in February and the moral depravity of the Mi Lai massacre in March of that year put mounting pressure on the American government to end the war. Johnson had already announced that America should take steps to limit the war in Vietnam and that he would not seek re-election. There were massive antiwar protests raging in the streets and on college campuses.

In the years before however, Johnson had been instrumental in escalating the war, believing that he needed to save Vietnam from the spread of communism and from falling under the power of the Soviet Union, a nuclear threat at the time to the United States.  But this was a war that Americans increasingly did not support, and American hegemony was unwelcome in Vietnam. 

The decision to wage war and sacrifice the lives of many is a brutal burden that our modern world has not erased. It is the decision that plagues Agamemnon in Euripides play, Iphigenia at Aulis, when Agamemnon must decide if he would sacrifice his own child in the war he is about to wage in Troy. His inconstancy of moral commitment is something that perhaps should not plague humankind, yet we are creatures who persevere in misguided truths. Knowing this is enlightenment. (See article on cognitive dissonance.)

Indeed, when Robert Kennedy ached to understand how he could announce the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968, Jacqueline Onassis advised him to turn to Greek tragedy.  He looked to Aeschylus' Agamemnon to find a character who, after sacrificing his child for political gain, returns home destroyed by grief at his own actions. (Link to speech.) Kennedy's words to a nation broken by racism included these powerful lines derived from this play: “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.” Robert Kennedy would himself be dead in less than two months. In June of this violent year, on his way to winning the Democratic primary for the presidential election, he would become another victim of political assassination.

Presented in Sophocles' Oedipus trilogy are eternal themes: In Oedipus Rex, it is of finding the courage to face trauma and the disease that infects us when we do our best to bury heinous truths. In Oedipus at Colonus it is the excoriating path to finding forgiveness and reconciliation for self and others. In the Antigone, it is the struggle to understand what is right when what you are threatened with death for your beliefs. 

Perhaps more than any other genre of literature, the brilliant tragedies from ancient Greece provide catharsis for the suffering from error caused by our inability to see clearly where our choices will lead. They provide the means of understanding that through human frailty, we inadvertently cause others harm, and must live beyond our own sins and find atonement. Aristotle, in his Poetica makes the claim that art has the moral obligation to edify society and help us all live better lives. As Edith Hamilton, a famous translator of ancient Greek wrote, the literature inspires us "to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world." These plays indeed provide ways to for us to heal the soul, and are as such perennially worth the effort to bring to students of all ages