Aeschylus, Agnosticism, American Government, American Politics, Arthur Schlesinger, birth, Catholic, Catholicism, Charles Spalding, Christianity, Department of Justice, despair, Edith Hamilton, Euripides, existentialism, fate, God, Government, Greek philosophy, Greek tragedy, grief, history, Jackie Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, JFK, John F. Kennedy, Kennedys, Nat Fein, Oedipus Tyrannus, Paul Mellon, President, Robert Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and His Times, Sophocles, The Greek Way, tragedy
“Over Easter in 1964 [Robert] went with Jacqueline, her sister and brother-in-law, the Radziwills, and Charles Spalding to Paul Mellon’s house in Antigua. Jacqueline, who had been seeking her own consolation, showed him Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way. ‘I’d read it quite a lot before and I brought it with me. So I gave it to him and I remember he’d disappear. He’d be in his room an awful lot of the time… reading that and underlining things.’…
Robert Kennedy’s underlinings suggest themes that spoke to his anguish. He understood with Aeschylus ‘the antagonism at the heart of the world,’ mankind fast bound to calamity, life a perilous adventure; but then ‘men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life…’ This was not swashbuckling defiance; rather it was the perception that the mystery of suffering underlay the knowledge of life… Robert Kennedy memorized the great lines from the Agamemnon of Aeschylus: ‘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 to us by the awful grace of God.’…
As John Kennedy’s sense of the Greeks was colored by his own innate joy in existence, Robert’s was directed by an abiding melancholy. He underscored a line from Herodotus: ‘Brief as life is there never yet was or will be a man who does not wish more than once to die rather than to live.’ In later years, at the end of an evening, he would sometimes quote the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles:
The long days store up many things nearer to grief than joy
… Death at the last, the deliverer.
Not to be born is past all prizing best.
Next best by far when one has seen the light.
Is to go thither swiftly whence he came.
The fact that he found primary solace in Greek impressions of character and fate did not make him less faithful a Catholic. Still, at the time of truth, Catholic writers did not give him precisely what he needed. And his tragic sense was, to use Auden’s distinction, Greek rather than Christian—the tragedy of necessity rather than the tragedy of possibility; ‘What a pity it had to be this way,’ rather than, ‘What a pity it was this way when it might have been otherwise.'”
Again from Arthur Schlesinger’s great (if hagiographic) biography Robert Kennedy and His Times.
About the top picture: It is not an image of Robert and John together, with John walking away from his brother across the dunes. Rather, this photograph was taken in 1966. Robert was touring a photo gallery, when he came across this Mark Evans mural of his brother. While he had casually strolled past the other works, he stopped for several seconds before this one, not saying a word, then continued walking. The resulting photograph of the event was taken by Nat Fein.
I’ve written out some meandering reflections on the references and broader implications to be found in this section of Schlesinger’s book, but I’m going to publish them later this week, hopefully in combination with some other scattered thoughts about John F. Kennedy’s legacy and death.
Until then, read a section of Robert’s improvised eulogy for Martin Luther King Jr., in which he quotes the above passage from Aeschylus.
Or, read some additional wisdom from the Greeks: