How we wished it did not exist.
No matter how strong we are, or how well positioned we stand in this thing we call life, we would not last long under constant, unending pain. It has broken the greatest of us. It will yet break many more. There, however, in the horizon, a bit of hope. Aeschylus, arguably the greatest dramatist to have ever lived (sorry Shakespeare lovers), described pain and anguish for us in a way that we could understand it and relate to it. The playwright had fought and lived through the first great Greco-Persian War. In 490 BCE Cyrus, king of Persia, attacked Greece by attempting an amphibious assault upon the bay of Marathon. There, Aeschylus and his fellow Athenians waited for days; they waited for Spartan aid that never came. The Persians, feeling the advantage, sent men and horses via ships to Athens. The Athenians were desperate, their families were going to be obliterated. It is likely that it was at this moment that, by vote of the clan leaders, the Athenians charged down the sloping bay at the Persians. It was the only way they could win. There was no turning back. Honor, glory, fame, it had all faded into the nothingness of combat. They won that day, the Athenians; but Aeschylus had to look down upon a familiar face. During the battle, Cynaegirus, his brother, had too eagerly pursued the Persians to their ships and become separated from playwright and their brother Ameinias. He had died saving Athens. There was not time to bury the dead, the exhausted Athenians marched to Athens, getting there in time to make a show of force before the ships, which turned and fled. The bodies of the heroes of Athens laid in the dirt as their brothers saved their city.
Aeschylus’s pain was beyond hope. He turned to writing. First, the Persians came to him in 472 BCE, Seven Against Thebes in 467, Suppliants in 463 BCE. Then, in 458, he was inspired by the muses to write the Oresteia, a trilogy that spoke of death for the common good, of pain at the loss of a dear one, and vengeance. Agamemnon, king of the Achaeans, has sacrificed his own daughter to the gods both to redeem his men for the murder of a deer sacred to Artemis and to secure wind for safe passage to Troy. His wife, Clytemnestra, could not stop the ritual killing. She was there, with her daughter, when she died; she saw her pass on with honor, as a volunteer for the cause, and yet she could not forgive her husband. She suffered for ten years in this inextinguishable pain. She wandered the halls of her palace alone, thinking of her dear daughter, of her loss. No honor could restore her sanity, no worthy death could bring back her beloved child, no more than fourteen, now gone from her side. Aeschylus wrote of the pain he felt, of the desperation at the death of his brother thirty-two years prior. When pain is too much to bear even for the reader, the following words appear, as soothing balm to the blistered soul:
Ζῆνα δέ τις προφρόνως ἐπινίκια κλάζων τεύξεται φρενῶν τὸ πᾶν: τὸν φρονεῖν βροτοὺς ὁδώσαντα, τὸν πάθει μάθος θέντα κυρίως ἔχειν. στάζει δ᾽ ἔν θ᾽ ὕπνῳ πρὸ καρδίας μνησιπήμων πόνος: καὶ παρ᾽ ἄκοντας ἦλθε σωφρονεῖν. δαιμόνων δέ που χάρις βίαιος σέλμα σεμνὸν ἡμένων.
A noisy shout upon the victory forward-thinking Zeus gains a purpose for himself, to make man wise. He, being mindful of mortals, to make things passable, has set up a path as law, having rule-like power: Pain lets fall, in sleep towards the heart, memories of misery; and along unwillingness comes wisdom. Thus violent seems the grace of the spirit-gods enthroned up on their high seats.
I have read five translations of this same passage, mine is coarse and literal. My favorite, that by Edith Hamilton, often quoted by JFK and RFK, is the least accurate, but the most beautiful:
“And in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, and against our very will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of god.”
Edith Hamilton translates and comments, but Aeschylus does not speak of man’s unwillingness, nor of the constant remembering of pain. He speaks of his brother, of the pain he felt upon his bed when he laid there at night, with nothing else to do and the cutting memories of his death were dropped by the demons (δαιμόνων) Pain, ordered by Zeus to bring wisdom to man even upon the moment of victory (ἐπινίκια). Aeschylus felt the need for restraint upon the victory, even as the clashing (κλάζων) seemed to favor a side, and the victory song was raised; he cautioned care, for his brother had not taking it, and he had paid the price. This is how Zeus brought wisdom to man, by causing them anguish and pain so the cutting edge of memory would etch within our hearts the hard-won lessons of the past. If those lessons are not learned, they bring only destruction. Nothing had Agamemnon learned in Troy; for all his suffering he learned no mercy, for all his killing he learned not how to live. He was the same. His heart was untouched by the remorse of his daughter’s sacrifice and the death of his men.
Clytemnestra was the opposite, and yet her result was the same. For ten years she had suffered the miserable reminder of her daughter’s passing. She was reminded, time and time again, of her inability to help then. There was little else in her mind, but she had also hardened her heart. She slept little, she ate even less. She allowed no wisdom to pass into her spirit and she was driven mad; one purpose haunted her: to kill her husband. Four times Aeschylus speaks of wisdom in this passage: Zeus’ wisdom to teach men restrain even in victory comes first, then man’s lack of wisdom in this fact as the reason for the law; after, the coming of wisdom to humans through the law of Zeus, and finally the setting of wisdom through the pain of miserable memory. But a heart must be open, something that usually happens in dreams, during sleep, when mortal minds are less liable to be controlled by a sometimes-illogical brain. Aeschylus learned, I am certain, that his brother’s death was not for naught. In the telling, he also let go of some of that pain. A pain that, over time, had cut him a little less.
One more word I absolutely love in this passage is βροτοὺς, its Nominative is βροτοι, and it literally means ‘those who bloom.’ The translation is usually rendered as ‘mortals,’ of course, because we, like flowers, bloom, are beautiful but for a day, and die soon after. Pindar expressed the feeling behind the word best:
“Brief is the coming time of joy for mortals (those who bloom) and brief the flower’s bloom (hence the pun) which falls to earth shaken by grim fate. Things of a day. What are we? What are we not? Man is but the shadow of a dream.”
(Edith Hamilton’s translation – I remove the Biblical “Vanity of vanities, it is all vanity” which she added because it made the whole thing more dramatic).
Thus it is dreams, once again, that makes us liable to redemption from pain. Dreams is where we can see those we have lost, feeling the pain more often and yet a little less each time we see them. They are thus, forever, etched into our hearts. The reality of pain is eventually reduced to memory, but the memory of those gone is eventually turned into the reality of our love for them, and it becomes what we recall most.