To my thinking, the greatest intellectual contribution of the Ancient Greeks was the way they wrestled with the one of the most confounding existential mysteries of the human condition: Man’s inability to escape suffering, and more pointedly, the uselessness of righteous living as a talisman against tragedy.
For hundreds of years considered a core component of a good education, modern educators have determined that Greek philosophy and theatre are not very useful for Marxian didacticism, and hence the material is accessible to most only in elective college classes. Ancient Greek thought has much to offer us, as its sophistication, comprehensiveness of topic, and remoteness in time (2,500 years ago) provides insight into the universality of the human condition, occasionally doing so with a sublimely dark ironic wit.
Significant in Ancient Greek theatre was the notion of man mightily struggling against his fate. The Greeks imagined mythical Fates and Furies who used their godlike powers to torment man, and explored the notion that man has a fixed and pre-determined fate that he is powerless to escape.
Classics professor William Arrowsmith suggested that Greek Tragedy posits that in man’s struggle, and inevitable defeat at the hands of fate, we behold that which is most noble and heroic about human existence. While not an uplifting philosophy, it is very durable in the face of disaster, and is distressingly difficult to dismiss.
Whether she knew it or not, Chrissy Hynde, singer for The Pretenders, devestated by her fate, cursed the furies, proving herself the equal of any ancient human hero of Greek mythology.
The Pretenders, a British band had some success in the early 1980s. In their prime, they created a number of catchy New Wave tunes and moved a lot of vinyl. However, to me their crowning achievement was the 1982 ballad Back On The Chain Gang. Peaking at #5 on the US charts in 1983, the song is said to have been inspired both by Hynde’s relationship with Ray Davies, of Kinks fame, father of her daughter, and also the 1982 overdose death of The Pretender’s guitarist. I also hear anecdotally that Hynde doesn’t like to perform it live, due to the painful memories it invokes.
But as is often the case, human misery is a cradle of creative brilliance, and Chrissy’s powerful and original metaphors transcend the trite writing that often plagues lamentations:
I found a picture of you. What hijacked my world that night. To a place in the past we’ve been cast out of. Now we’re back in the fight.
A circumstance beyond our control. The phone, T.V. and the News of the World*. Got in a house like a pigeon from hell. Threw sand in our eyes and descended like flies.
Building to the penultimate moment whence she defiantly curses the furies:
The powers that be force us to live like they do. They bring me to my knees when I see what they’ve done to you. But I’ll die as I stand here today, knowing that deep in my heart, they’ll fall to ruin one day for making us part.
* The News of The World was a british newspaper.