Photo by Carole Raddato on Wikimedia Commons

Classics and World Order

Hal Brands and Charles Edel

On April 4, 1968, traveling to a campaign rally in Indianapolis, Robert F. Kennedy learned that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Kennedy took it upon himself to break the awful news to the largely African American crowd at the rally. Speaking without notes from the back of a flatbed truck, Kennedy reminded the anguished people before him that King’s life had been dedicated to love and justice. It was in service of those values that King had willingly exposed himself to mortal risk. “In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States,” Kennedy stated, “it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.”

In answering that question he turned to the ancient Greeks. In words that might have seemed oddly detached, he told his listeners that his favorite poet was the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus, and reminded them that he, too, knew tragedy, having suffered the murder of a loved brother. Kennedy then recited from memory a passage from Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon:

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.

Bobby Kennedy had first encountered these ideas when Jackie Kennedy gave him her copy of Edith Hamilton’s classic The Greek Way after John Kennedy’s assassination. Hamilton’s study of literature, arts, and philosophy made the point that the Greeks lived heroically. They willingly stared into the abyss of pain, despair, and disaster and somehow drew strength from those encounters. By contemplating the fragility and uncertainty of their lives, they summoned the will to act bravely, to bear the burdens of leadership, to make sacrifices in the service of great causes. In the same chapter he quoted in Indianapolis in 1968, Kennedy repeatedly underlined Hamilton’s description of Aeschylus: “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.” This was the message Kennedy tried to convey to an angry and distraught crowd in April 1968. Despite the nearly 2,500 years between ancient Athens and twentieth-century Indianapolis, the message of drawing inspiration from tragedy resonated.

This is not as surprising as it may sound. If there was one thing the ancient Greeks took seriously, it was tragedy. At the height of Athenian power and greatness in the fifth century BC, citizens of the world’s first democracy gathered annually to experience tragedy. Great theatrical productions were staged, presented to the entire community, and supported financially by the public treasury. The subject and plot lines varied, but the form and lesson remained consistent. Prominent individuals fell from great heights due to error, ignorance, and hubris. Societies faced disasters brought on by mistakes of commission and omission. The injunction to the Athenian citizenry was clear: the destiny of the state was in the hands of fallible men, and even in their hour of triumph great societies were perched on the precipice of catastrophe.

As Aristotle argued, this familiarity with tragedy—this tragic sensibility—entailed an understanding of “not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen,” and it was purposefully hard-wired into Athenian culture. Aristotle wrote about the effect of tragedy on an audience: that they somehow liked watching the fall of the great, as it produced a feeling of horror, leading ultimately to catharsis. The catharsis was key, as tragedies not only aroused pity and fear but were intended to spur the audience into recognition that the horrifying outcomes they witnessed were eminently avoidable. By looking disaster squarely in the face, by demonstrating just how quickly things could spiral out of control, the Athenians hoped their citizenry would be charged with the sense of mutual obligation and moral courage needed to avoid such a fate.

One of the reasons people still study the classics is that they reveal timeless, elemental truths—insights about human nature and human relationships that are as applicable to our time as they were to their own. As secretary of state George Marshall remarked at the dawn of the Cold War, “I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and with deep convictions regarding certain of the basic issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the fall of Athens.” Indeed, the Athenians were onto something fundamental in their fascination with tragedy. For an understanding of tragedy remains indispensable—as it always has been—to the conduct of statecraft and the preservation of world order.

From The Lessons of Tragedy by Hal Brands and Charles Edel. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Hal Brands is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs in the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Charles Edel is a senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and previously served on the U.S. secretary of state’s policy planning staff.

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