I was greatly struck by something I read in the Indianapolis Star yesterday. This was a transcript of a 1968 speech given by Robert F. Kennedy immediately after the killing of Martin Luther King. Here is the background. Kennedy was scheduled to speak to a largely black crowd in Indianapolis on April 4. He received the news of the killing before it was generally known. Rather than retreat from a potentially explosive situation, he went on with his speech and broke the news of King’s death to the shocked crowd, while appealing for calm. Indianapolis was one of the few cities without riots that day, an occurrence attributed to Kennedy’s presence and speech.
The thing that popped out at me reading this transcript was that Kennedy appealed for calm by quoting Aeschylus, whom he said was his favorite poet. “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.” This is shocking on so many levels. First, Aeschylus is one of the great poets of revenge, and his Orestia supplies vengeance quotes aplenty. (“Right’s anvil stands staunch on the ground / and the smith, Destiny, hammers out the sword / Delayed in glory, pensive form / the murk, Vengeance brings home at last / a child, to wipe out the stain of blood shed long ago” and the like).
But that’s just showing off my knowledge of Aeschylus. Just try to image a politician today saying that Aeschylus was his favorite poet, even to an upper class white crowd. It’s astonishing to think of it. Yet Kennedy didn’t hesitate to hold up the ideals of the Greeks in encouraging that black crowd to follow their nobler nature and not give in to any justifiable anger in their hearts. “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
It just goes to show how much our world has changed. Not only did Kennedy know the classics, he held it as self-evident that the wisdom of classical civilization was universal wisdom, appealing to all men in all times. Apparently, on that April night, it did.