June 30, 2019

1. Jaeger on Ancient Greece

A. Theognis and Pindar

Theognis and Pindar were both aristocrat-poets. Theognis is angry that the lower class has taken power in his city (Megara). As Hesiod was inspired to write by anger at injustice, Theognis is inspired by anger at the seizure of power by the common people.

Pindar isn’t inspired by anger; he has the serenity that we see in Greek statues. Pindar celebrates the prowess of the Olympic athlete, the aristocrat-athlete, and the prowess of the athlete’s ancestors. So both Theognis and Pindar are aristocrat-poets; Theognis is the angry aristocrat, Pindar the serene aristocrat. They both wrote about 500 BC.

Wikipedia says that Theognis wrote “gnomic poetry... featuring ethical maxims and practical advice about life” (“gnomic” from gnome meaning “opinion”). Pindar, on the other hand, wrote “choral lyric,” praise of victorious athletes. Both were from mainland Greece (Theognis from Megara, Pindar from Thebes); the aristocracy lasted longest on the mainland. Earlier we discussed hedonist poets who weren’t from the mainland; these hedonist poets had less class-consciousness than Theognis and Pindar, they focused on personal experience, personal feeling.

The poetry of Theognis and Pindar is the “last hurrah” of the aristocracy; their poetry “eternalized the aristocratic ideal at the moment when it was most gravely endangered by new forces.”1 The middle class was rising, the aristocracy retreating. The aristocracy’s wealth was based on land, the “new rich” possessed a new type of wealth, money. Theognis “never tired of uttering complaints and curses against poverty.... He had doubtless known poverty himself.”

Some aristocrats married into the “new rich,” incurring the wrath of Theognis. “We select rams and asses and horses,” Theognis complains, “which are noble, and try to breed them from good stock: but a nobleman does not hesitate to marry a baseborn woman; wealth confuses breed.”2 In Athens, Solon tried to create a healthy polity by making all classes feel that they had a voice, they had a stake. Theognis takes a different approach; his goal is the survival of the nobility, and his book had fans in every city-state that had a “small aristocracy fighting to preserve its existence.” If Solon wrote the poetry of the future, Theognis wrote the poetry of the past.

Jaeger says that, in the time of Theognis and Pindar, books didn’t have title pages, so authors would begin a book by stating their name and their purpose in writing. Theognis expected his book to spread “throughout the world, over both land and sea.”3 He wanted to receive the glory of authorship. Only one manuscript of Theognis survived; the continuation of his fame depended on only one copy of his book. Theognis sums up the wisdom of the aristocracy, the oral traditions, as Hesiod summed up the wisdom of farmers.

The poems of Theognis are addressed to a young man named Cyrnus. “The love of a man for a youth or a boy,” Jaeger writes, “was an essential part of the aristocratic society of early Greece.” It was especially common in the Dorian/Spartan world, it “remained more or less foreign to Ionian and Athenian popular sentiment.” The Athenians who approved of it (Solon, Plato, etc.) were aristocrats. One might say that homosexuality in ancient Greece was controversial: “large sections of the nation despised or punished it, while in other social strata it had developed until, for men at least, it was part of the highest conceptions of moral nobility and spiritual perfection.”

Jaeger says that, in ancient Greece, homosexual love had an educational aspect, and the poetry of Theognis, addressed to the beloved Cyrnus, has an educational aspect. Theognis promises Cyrnus immortality:

I have given you wings, Cyrnus, with which you will fly over land and sea.... At every feast and revel you will be on the lips of many a guest; lovely youths will sing your name clearly and beautifully to the music of flutes; and when you have gone down to the dead you will still wander through the land of Greece and the islands of the sea, to be sung by men of the future as long as earth and sun shall remain.

This image is from a piece of pottery (a drinking bowl called a kylix). A man is reclining at a banquet, singing the first words of one of Theognis’ songs, “O beautiful youth” (O paidon kalliste). Note that the words are written from right to left.

Early Greek writing runs from right to left for the first line. The second line then runs from left to right and the direction of the lines alternate for the complete text. This kind of writing is called boustrophedon (as the ox turns when he plows a field.) Later the left-to-right system, which we use today, became the standard.4

Theognis complains that Megara has been taken over by the lower class, by people with no tradition, people who wear goat-skins, people who are neither honest nor trustworthy. “Treachery, deceit, and wiles are what these hopeless creatures love.” This deception may be successful against the gullible noble (agathos means noble/good/naive/trusting/gullible).5

Is there any objective basis for Theognis’ remarks? Or is he voicing a purely subjective fondness for the nobility, and dislike for the lower class? Is the lower class really dishonest? In an earlier issue, I spoke of “taqqiyah, the very Iranian-Shiite art of dissimulation, which historically grew from the trials and tribulations that Shiites have endured in the much larger, often unkind Sunni Muslim world.” Persecuted groups may be forced to dissimulate in order to survive; they can’t afford the luxury of candor. The lower class in Greece and elsewhere was dominated by the upper class, they may have dissimulated in order to survive, lying became a habit, the habit was passed down to the next generation. So perhaps there is an objective basis for Theognis’ remarks, perhaps the lower class really is prone to lie.

Jaeger says that Theognis imitates Hesiod. Like Hesiod, Theognis begins with “a complaint against the distortion of justice,” and then has “a collection of brief aphorisms.” The aphorisms are inspired by experience, by anger at the distortion of justice. “Both poets were led, by their own personal situation and the needs of the moment, to utter eternally valid truths.” Jaeger praises the “personal expression and emotional intensity” of Hesiod and Theognis. (Later he criticizes court poets like Simonides for lacking this anger, this intensity.)

Turning to Pindar, Jaeger points out that, while we think of ancient athletes competing at Olympia, there were actually four sites where all Greeks would gather for games. Wikipedia:

[Pindar’s] victory odes are grouped into four books named after the Olympian, Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean Games — Panhellenic festivals held respectively at Olympia, Delphi, Corinth and Nemea. This reflects the fact that most of the odes were composed in honor of boys, youths, and men who had recently enjoyed victories in athletic (and sometimes musical) contests at those festivals.

The most ancient and prestigious games were those at Olympia.

The games were part of religious festivals, as music and drama were part of religious festivals. Olympia was important in Greek religion as well as Greek athletics. “The religious life of the nobility,” Jaeger writes, “reached a culminating point in the incomparable energy and ambition of the contest.” Religion and sport were interwoven.

As religious festivals included athletics, so funerals sometimes included athletics. The Iliad describes games at the funeral of Patroclus.

Early hymns celebrated gods. In Pindar’s time, some hymns celebrated godlike athletes, victorious athletes. Likewise, the sculptor carved either a god or a victorious athlete. Pindar’s poems celebrated the godlike athlete. Jaeger calls Pindar’s poems “devoutly religious.”

In an earlier issue, I wrote, “The Greeks are concerned not with the individual’s subjective qualities, but with the ideal man.” Pindar, like the sculptor, doesn’t focus on the athlete’s subjective qualities, he “does not write of the victor as an individual but as the representative of the highest areté.” Pindar depicts the ideal in order to inspire, educate.

Pindar tried to educate the Sicilian tyrants Theron and Hieron, who weren’t aristocrats but rather parvenus. Pindar “felt that the education of kings was the last and highest task to which the aristocratic poet was called in the new age.” Pindar visited the court of Hieron, as Plato later visited the court of Dionysius. Pindar urged Hieron to “Become what you are,” become your best self.

Pindar identified with the athlete whom he wrote about. “He always stood on the same plane as the victor whose triumph he celebrated, be he a king, a nobleman, or a simple citizen. In his eyes, the poet and the victor belonged to each other.” I take the same approach with writers (including Jaeger), I celebrate their achievements.

Pindar’s poetry is “a rebirth of the old, the original function of the bard — to proclaim the glory of great deeds.... praise of the prowess which is a pattern for posterity.” A victory demands a poem, a victory must not be “silently hidden in the ground,” the poet owes a debt to the athlete. Likewise, I praise the intellectual, the literary hero, believing that the achievements of a writer like Jaeger must not be “silently hidden in the ground.”

Pindar’s poetry is a revival of Homer’s approach. “Through [Pindar’s] work, the heroic spirit and the praise of heroism which were the inspiration of the epic are reborn in lyric form.” Homer didn’t use “I” and didn’t express his own feelings. Likewise, Pindar doesn’t express his own feelings, as the hedonist poets did, as Archilochus and Sappho did. Jaeger speaks of Pindar’s “complete, almost priestly self-dedication to the service of the last survival of ancient chivalry.” Like Homer, Pindar glorifies: “At Pindar’s magical touch everything in this dull ordinary world at once regains the fresh vigor of creation’s morning.”

The early games were aristocratic pursuits. The aristocracy had leisure for training, they valued athletic prowess, and they saw body and soul as an organic whole. Jaeger speaks of “the ideal unity of physical and spiritual which... we still admire in the masterpieces of Greek sculpture.” Later, the Greeks “began to feel that the spirit was different from or even hostile to the body, the old athletic ideal was degraded.” Sport was professionalized.

In Pindar’s day, the typical athlete was an aristocrat, and aristocratic families traced their descent from a god or demigod. The athlete inherits his areté. So Pindar celebrates not just individual athletes, but families. “Pindar cannot consider a victor purely as an individual, since his victory was won through his divine blood. Accordingly, almost all his praise of a hero’s deeds passes over into praise of the hero’s descent.”6

Can areté be learned/acquired, or is it always innate? Pindar ponders this question, and Plato was preoccupied with it. Pindar says, “Through inborn glory a man is very mighty; but he who learns from teaching is a twilight man, wavering in spirit, never stepping forth on firm foot.” Jaeger: “Education cannot act unless there is inborn areté for it to act upon.” As the athlete must have innate talent, so the poet must have innate talent. “Like the areté of the Olympic victor, the art of the poet cannot be learnt.”

Pindar sees himself as an eagle, his critics as ravens. “Wise is he who knows much by nature; but those who have but learnt, in the violence of their chattering, vainly croak like ravens against the divine bird of Zeus.”7

B. Tyrants

I mentioned in an earlier issue that, in many Greek city-states, aristocracy replaced monarchy. But when money became a means of exchange, and trade/industry became more lucrative than land-ownership, the middle class rose, and some aristocrats fell into poverty. The rising middle class, accustomed to being ruled by nobles, lacked the “political consciousness” for self-rule, so tyrants emerged to represent the middle class, and to reduce the power of the aristocrats. Thus, three transitions occurred in many Greek city-states:

Did the same transitions occur in modern Europe? Should we view the French Revolution as an expression of the rising power of the middle class? Should we view Napoleon as a “tyrant” who represented the middle class before it was ready for self-rule? Did Cromwell also play the tyrant role?

“Tyrant” is now a pejorative term, but Jaeger calls it an “inevitable social process.” Plato saw its inevitability, and felt that it was justified by this inevitability.8 Tyranny played an especially important role in Sicily.

Jaeger points out that the tyrants were patrons of the arts, like the Medici in Renaissance Italy, or “enlightened despots” such as Frederick the Great. Every Greek tyrant wanted poetry, architecture, athletes. The culture of Periclean Athens was a continuation of the cultural traditions established by the tyrants. The Athenian tyrant Pisistratus reorganized the Panathenaic Games, and made recitations of Homer part of the Games. “After the work of the tyrants,” Jaeger writes, “no state could afford to exist without pursuing a systematic cultural policy.”

The culture fostered by the tyrants was somewhat artificial, it didn’t grow naturally from the aristocracy or from the people. It was “unconnected with the rest of life... the bloom on the specially favored existence of a few.” Poets like Simonides traveled from one tyrant-court to another. “The culture which such men represented was as rootless as their lives. It could entertain a clever nation of beauty-lovers, like the Athenians, but it could not stir their souls.”9

Tyrants favored poets like Simonides, who didn’t address public questions, and didn’t create dissension. The tyrants didn’t want culture that “brought the state into conflict with itself,” and they didn’t patronize philosophers. (During the Cold War, Communist tyrannies patronized athletes, and certain types of culture, but discouraged free-thinking philosophers.)

Like Napoleon and Cromwell, the Greek tyrants were often talented, colorful figures. Of the Seven Sages of Greece, two were tyrants, Periander and Pittacus. Tyrants often expressed the growth of individuality in Greece. When the Greeks began writing biographies, their favorite subjects were poets, philosophers, and tyrants. When individuality was developing, individuals supported each other.

Nearly all the poets of that period lived at the courts of tyrants. Individualism was not yet a general rule, and there was no universal levelling-down of the intellect: individualism still meant true spiritual independence. And for that very reason the few independent souls sought one another out for mutual support.

Attic farmers viewed the tyranny of Pisistratus as a Golden Age. Greek philosophers sometimes took a favorable view of tyranny. “The Greeks always felt that the rule of one supremely able man was, in Aristotle’s words, ‘according to nature.’” Tyranny can also be justified by its results; the age of the tyrants was “a period of rapid and valuable progress.” The tyrant “was the first to show that a nation could be governed on a far-sighted plan involving long-term calculations of means and ends.”

Tyrants were numerous around 550 BC. Tyrants helped tyrants in other cities, just as, a century later, democrats helped democrats in other cities, and oligarchs helped oligarchs. “The Athenian tyranny of Pisistratus,” Jaeger writes, “was established with the help of the despot of Naxos, and he in turn was supported by Pisistratus.”

I mentioned earlier that tyrants ruled before the middle class acquired “political consciousness.” Tyrants didn’t foster the growth of political consciousness; “the tyrant repressed all individual initiative and himself promoted every action undertaken by the state.” On the other hand, lawgivers like Solon “allowed and even enjoined political activity on the part of the citizens.” Solon opposed Pisistratus.

Tyrants were always supported by armed men. The bodyguard of Pisistratus carried clubs, unlike soldiers, who carried spears. “If a state does not produce a legal and efficient form of government for itself,” Jaeger writes, “backed by the will of all or most of its citizens, it can be ruled only by an armed minority.”10

© L. James Hammond 2019
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1. Ch. 10, p. 186 back
2. Ch. 10, p. 204. While Theognis speaks of breeding within the aristocracy, Plato speaks of breeding in a more general way: “The best of either sex should be united with the best as often, and the inferior with the inferior, as seldom as possible...they should rear the offspring of the one sort of union, but not of the other.”(Republic, 5) back
3. Ch. 10, p. 191. “[Theognis] was the first Greek poet known to express concern over the eventual fate and survival of his own work.”(Wikipedia) back
4. historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions /civil/greece/gr1060e.html back
5. Nietzsche’s first published article (published when he was 23) was on Theognis. In his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche speaks of “the Greek nobility, whose mouthpiece is the Megarian poet Theognis.” Nietzsche says that the Greek nobility referred to themselves as “the truthful” (esthlos). “Truthful” came to mean noble, “as distinct from the lying common man, which is what Theognis takes him to be.”(First Essay, #5) back
6. Sometimes an illustrious family loses its prowess, and has a period of decadence, sterility, aphoria, just as societies have decadent periods. Jaeger notes that “the author of the treatise On the Sublime discusses the disappearance of creative genius in the age of decadence.”(Ch. 10, p. 216)

If you want to learn more about ancient athletics, consider H. A. Harris’ Greek Athletes and Athletics, and Sport in Greece and Rome. Consider also E. N. Gardiner’s Greek Athletic Sports and Festivals, and Athletics of the Ancient World. back

7. Ch. 10, p. 220. “Pindar takes the eagle as a symbol of his consciousness of his poetic mission. It is not a mere decorative image. He feels that he is describing a metaphysical quality of the spirit, when he says that its essence is to live in the unapproachable heights, and to move freely through the kingdoms of the air, far above the lower sphere where the chattering daws seek their food.” The eagle metaphor was adopted by later poets, “handed down until it appears at last in Euripides’ magnificent line, ‘All heaven is open to the eagle’s flight.’” back
8. Ch. 11, p. 223 back
9. Ch. 11, p. 232. Simonides (sometimes called Simonides of Ceos) is known for his remarks on areté, and his poetry is discussed in Plato’s Protagoras, which deals with the nature of areté. Simonides said, “Areté lives... on difficult peaks... few mortals can see her unless soul-torturing sweat has been wrung out of their vitals.... ‘Hard it is to become a man of true areté, foursquare and faultless in hand and foot and mind.’” (Ch. 10, p. 213)

The poet Anacreon lived at the court of Polycrates, tyrant of Samos. When Polycrates lost power, the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus (son of Pisistratus) brought Anacreon to Athens in a 50-oar ship (a penteconter). back

10. For more on tyrants, consider The Origin of Tyranny, by P. N. Ure. back