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Another Perspective

Why Do We Suffer? Part Two: An Ancient Greek Perspective

And even in 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.
- Aechylus (525-456 B.C.E.)

In part two of this discussion about suffering, I turn to the ancient Greek dramatist, Aechylus. The ancient Greeks, like Aechylus, understood the role of suffering was to bring wisdom. In their world-view, Zeus was the supreme ruler of the universe. However, even Zeus was subject to what was regarded as a universal law of justice. This universal law of justice was a moral ordinance that governed the entire world and was called by various names, including Fate, Destiny, Justice and Necessity.

According to A. E. Haigh*, Zeus governed according to this universal law, one in which injustice never prospered. For the ancient Greeks, punishment was certain and inevitable. Nevertheless, people have free will - and therefore guilt. When a person committed a particularly vile crime, the strict law of justice was imposed by the Furies, the goddesses of the underworld who personified the harsh spirit of vengeance. It was the Furies who pursued criminals and crushed them with misery and misfortune without any compassion. The Furies ruthlessly enforced the letter of the law. Their presence was repugnant, stricking terror into the souls of the guilty.**

While it was Zeus who sent the Furies on their missions, he was less severe and more resasonable in his judgments, tempering justice with equity. Aechylus sought to reconcile the spirit of the law (Zeus' approach) with the letter of the law (the Furies' approach). The function of adversity, according to Aechylus, was to restore the guilty to a better frame of mind. Suffering should bring instruction, he wrote, "and it is a good thing to be taught wisdom by misfortune."

What are your thoughts about suffering as the teacher of wisdom?

* A.E. Haigh, The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1856, 86-96. Posted on www.TheatreDatabase.com, "The Religious and Moral Ideas of Aeschylus."

** Aeschylus' writing was so compelling that when his depiction of the Furies appeared on stage, a pregnant woman in the audience is reported to have had a miscarriage.
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