I have started reading William Chase Greene's Moira: Fate, Good, & Evil in Greek Thought (1944, reprinted 1963) and I'm blown away by the first five pages, which include one of the most agile sweeps through core Greek concepts I have read anywhere. Those pages sketch relationships among dozens of crucial elements, though in-depth exploration of their meaning is left to the rest of his book. To aid my own milling of this nutritious grist, I'm going to explore the vocabulary here for a while to help explore the Greek cultural context of its philosophers, starting with this paragraph from page 5:
The spectacle, and still more the experience, of life’s vicissitudes has always been the parent of perplexity. Disappointed hopes, the prosperity of the wicked, the suffering of the innocent, even the little ironies of circumstance, invite men to question whether the ultimate power in the universe is good or evil. One type of answer, common among the ancient Greeks, takes a dark view of human life. It ranges from brooding melancholy to stark pessimism and the cry that “it were best never to have been born” (μὴ φῦναι [me psunai]); from kindly consolation of others, and counsels of moderation (sophrosyne) and the avoidance of risks (“the half is better than the whole”; “excess in nothing,” μηδὲν ἄγαν [meden agan], “live in obscurity,” λάθε βιώσας [lathe biosas], “endure and renounce,” ἀνέχου καὶ ἀπέχου [anechou kai apechou]) to manly endurance of hardship (tlemosyne), or even to the discovery that wisdom may come through suffering (πάθει μάθος [pathei mathos]), which is a school of character. . . .
Greene's strength is not in his priorities or even his conclusions but in the wealth of the material he works through. That is, although he does not always interpret the material correctly—indeed, most moderns fail to understand the Greeks at the level of profundity they require—he is right about as often as he's wrong, and more importantly he picks the right material to reveal the Greek preoccupations. In this opening chapter he turns over one vital, pivotal Greek term after another. If you truly wish to come to grips with many of the core concepts that so completely separate the classical Greek worldview from your own—and if you ever want to truly think, to understand yourself and your world, then you must find some worldview alien to the modern from which to triangulate, to gain perspective, without which wisdom is impossible—then here they are in these opening pages of his book, laid out in sequence for you to begin researching.
Yet to take an example from this paragraph, neither Greene nor most commentators on the meaning of pathei mathos truly come to grips with it. Here, for example, he summarizes its meaning as "the discovery that wisdom may come from suffering, which is a school of character." This is barely the beginning of what pathei mathos means. It obscures as much as it reveals, and the quirky, optional tone of his interpretation is a typically modern way of trying to distance himself from the core Greek concept here, which was intended as an indictment of human nature, something not optional at all nor arbitrary but essential to the nature of what we are, the problem we create for ourselves, the very reason why "know thyself" was considered such an essential mission for the classical Greeks that it was inscribed on the entryway of the Oracle at Delphi.
Pathei mathos must have been a very widely quoted expression in classical Greece, but today we know it best from Aeschylus's tragedy Agamemnon, and in that context its meaning and implications should be unmistakable, had we not a powerful drive not to hear what Aeschylus strives to tell us.
For the Greeks, the centerpiece of their literature was Homer's Iliad, which chooses a crucial sequence from the cycle of stories about the Trojan War, the war that effectively ended their heroic age with the utter devastation of their best and brightest upon the plains of Troy, squandered over a domestic dispute.
The culture that made that act of horrific shame and loss their first national epic paired it with their second, Homer's Odyssey, a selection from the cycle of stories referred to as The Returns, in which the surviving "victors" in that great debacle almost all died on the journey home or upon their return. Homer's epic chooses the ten-years of horror and despair through which Odysseus struggles to go home, one of the very very few to survive both the terrible war and the harrowing return home.
This is the context for Agamemnon, which is about the great king of the Greeks who led that fabled fleet of a thousand ships to its ruinous victory over Troy, and whose own return home ended rather less well than Odysseus's. Even beyond the sheer wasteful futility of the war itself, Agamemnon returned home reeking of the blood guilt of sacrificing his own daughter Iphigenia to change the winds to permit the Greek fleet to leave for Troy in the beginning; returned home with his concubine Cassandra, the Trojan prophet who foresaw all of the horrors to come but was cursed to be universally disbelieved and ignored, even by those she loved most, doomed to live through helplessly what she foresaw to no avail; returned home to be murdered by his wife Clytemnestra for murdering their daughter Iphigenia; returned home to become the reason their son Orestes would murder Clytemnestra for murdering Agamemnon.
The great Gilbert Murray, in the preface to his masterly translation of Agamemnon (available free from Project Gutenberg), takes us to the heart of things:
The trilogy of the Oresteia, of which this play is the first part, centres on the old and everlastingly unsolved problem of the ancient blinded vengeance and the wrong that amendeth wrong. Every wrong is justly punished; yet, as the world goes, every punishment becomes a new wrong, calling for fresh vengeance. And more; every wrong turns out to be itself rooted in some wrong of old. It is never gratuitous, never untempted by the working of peitho (persuasion), never merely wicked. The Oresteia first shows the cycle of crime punished by crime which must be repunished, and then seeks for some gleam of escape, some breaking of the endless chain of "evil duty." In the old order of earth and heaven there was no such escape. Each blow called for the return blow and must do so ad infinitum. But, according to Aeschylus, there is a new Ruler now in heaven, one who has both sinned and suffered and thereby grown wise. He is Zeus the Third Power, Zeus the Saviour, and his gift to mankind is the ability through suffering to Learn.
Implicit but not quite clear in Murray's summation is the nature of that gift—to repair a defect in human nature that made it possible for us to be so abysmally stupid that we could commit crimes in the name of justice and fail forever to realize that this must inevitably perpetuate the cycle of crimes. This gift is not one way among others to learn, as Greene implies in the paragraph I quoted above from Moira. The specific usage of pathei mathos within Aeschylus leaves us no doubt, if translated clearly enough. Murray, who understands this work so well unfortunately obscures the point a bit by molding the language into verse, but Herbert Weir Smyth's translation is clear enough:
Zeus, who sets mortals on the path to understanding, Zeus, who has established as a fixed law that "wisdom comes by suffering." But even as trouble, bringing memory of pain, drips over the mind in sleep, so wisdom comes to men, whether they want it or not. Harsh, it seems to me, is the grace of gods enthroned upon their awful seats.
In response to the cognitive dissonance of the alien nature of classical Greek culture clashing against our modern prejudices we tend to glide past or willfully twist the most profound passages. The full import of this fixed law we do not care to face.
First, only suffering can lead us to wisdom. Because of the defects of our human nature, we will do anything to avoid overturning our cherished delusions, so that the metamorphoses of wisdom can only work upon us against our will and under the duress of pathos (helpless suffering).
Second, wisdom does not always or even usually come to men, even by suffering, or else the great chain of crimes and punishments that constituted archaic justice would have been broken long ago by the wisdom it imparted to those upon whom it inflicted suffering—they suffered but did not gain the wisdom they needed to break the cycle of violence that Agamemnon is about—but whatever wisdom any given individual is capable of will have to be beaten into him. A modern will chafe at this interpretation, will insist on reading this passage in isolation from the entire rest of the play, indeed cycle of plays, of which it is a part, but that is merely an illustration of the first point, that we will do anything to avoid overturning our cherished delusions.
This gift of Zeus to mankind is not a Christian gift, like a salvation offered to all men (despite Murray's wording in his preface), nor is it a Modern gift, like a self-evident truth that we all share equally as birthright; it is a gift as understood by the classical Greeks, to whom the bad were many, the good few. This point emphasizes not that wisdom comes to all men but rather always against men's will. Heraclitus certainly agreed with the Aeschylean conception of pathei mathos: "Every beast is driven to pasture by blows," and "It would not be better for men if they got what they want." We want the wrong things and left to our own devices we veer away from wisdom in favor of petty, vitiating pleasures.
Greene's quick reading of pathei mathos overturns its distinctively Greek meaning in favor of a Modernist reading—hey, man, do whatever you like, you might even try suffering so you can grow wiser, that's one way to build up your character—but he does bring this powerful concept to our attention right up front, a service for which I'm happy to forgive him his perfectly understandable lapse in interpretation.
As an antidote to Greene's sketchy interpretation, I offer this transcription of Texas philosopher Kenneth Smith from his course on ancient Greek philosophy:
Taught by suffering: drop by drop wisdom is distilled from pain. This is the link between aristeia and the tragic ethos. A Greek aristos would rather be educated by suffering than be happy his whole life long, because you don’t get educated by happiness. No one is wised up by getting things the way he wants—that just consolidates the idiotism in him, makes his ego think the world exists for its sake, as the ego has always suspected. Suffering shows the schism between what we want and how the world is organized, the contraindication the world gives us that we’ve been strategizing from totally wrong precepts. Suffering is the collision between human delusions and real truth. Not every human being has equal potential to learn from suffering. Some people just suffer, or just respond with alternative tactics.
Finally, although there have been many attempts to translate this difficult but vital quotation, I should draw this one at least to your attention. Evan Thomas's article "The Worst Week," from the 19 November 2007 issue of Newsweek, discusses the connections between the collapse of Lyndon Johnson's presidency and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Junior and Robert Kennedy. He tells the story of how Kennedy wanted King's endorsement for the presidency and was on the verge of getting it when King was assassinated. On April 4th, 1968, at what was supposed to be a campaign speech in Indianapolis it instead fell to Kennedy to bear the terrible news to the people who had gathered to hear him speak. He abandoned his prepared speech and instead spoke from notes he had written on the plane flight, capturing his initial shock and grief. The turning point in his speech was his take on this passage from Agamemnon: "My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote, '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.'"