The death of Socrates (J. Louis David, 1787)
The motto γνῶθι σ(ε)αυτόν (“know thyself”) was one of the maxims inscribed on the pediment of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, along with μηδὲν ἄγαν (“nothing in excess”), inviting mankind to exercise moderation in life. It was through these maxims that Apollo’s oracle – one could think of it as one of the “mass-media” of ancient times – invited men to self-investigation, prompting them to discover that the essence of one’s life is not to be searched for in the world outside, but instead within ourselves.
This emphasis on the inner life and on the importance of knowing oneself will become a core element of the philosophy of Socrates, whose Protagoras (343a-b) traces the history of the Delphic inscription back to the Greek Seven Sages:
Such men were Thales of Miletus, Pittacus of Mytilene, Bias of Priene, Solon of our city, Cleobulus of Lindus, Myson of Chen, and, last of the traditional seven, Chilon of Sparta. All these were enthusiasts, lovers and disciples of the Spartan culture; and you can recognize that character in their wisdom by the short, memorable sayings that fell from each of them: they assembled together and dedicated these as the first-fruits of their lore to Apollo in his Delphic temple, inscribing there those maxims which are on every tongue—“Know thyself” and “Nothing overmuch.(μηδὲν ἄγαν)”.(Translation by W. R. M. Lamb)
In ancient Greek poleis laws and customs varied and so it did the ‘path’ that young people had to make to become a citizen.
If we consider the two most representative models, i.e. the Athenians and the Spartans, we notice that the educational processes were already distinguished in their name: while the Athenian program was universally known as παιδεία (paideia), Spartans rather called it ἀγωγή (agōgē).
The παιδεία consisted of physical, cultural and psychological education aimed at achieving the individual’s harmonious participation to society through the assimilation of the Athenian ethos.
At the centre of παιδεία is the παῖς (pais), who concludes its education with a two-year period of ephebeia, preparing itself for the military tasks of the hoplite: the future citizen must share the ideology of the polis and take on his duties towards the community as a counterpart to those rights he would enjoy.
It is always a pleasure and a great privilege to introduce my students to Archilochus. We have been focusing on the very famous fr. 128 West, written in catalectic trochaic tetrameters: one must face the storms of life and be able to rise again, confronting fiercely the enemies and any hardship that may come our way.
Θυμέ, θύμ’, ἀμηχάνοισι κήδεσιν κυκώμενε,
ἀναδύεο· μένων δ’ ἀλέξεο προσβαλὼν ἐναντίον
στέρνον, ἐνδόκοισιν ἐχθρῶν πλησίον κατασταθεὶς
ἀσϕαλέως· καὶ μήτε νικέων ἀμϕάδην ἀγάλλεο,
μηδὲ νικηθεὶς ἐν οἴκῳ καταπεσὼν ὀδύρεο,
ἀλλὰ χαρτοῖσίν τε χαῖρε καὶ κακοῖσιν ἀσχάλα
μὴ λίην, γίνωσκε δ’ οἷος ῥυσμὸς ἀνθρώπους ἔχει.
Let us try our hand at translating this fascinating text. All translations from Archilochus are loosely based on Douglas E. Gerber’s LOEB translation.
“My heart, my heart, shaken by unrelenting woes”
The apostrophe to the heart reminds us of Odysseus, who, having returned incognito to Ithaca, silently fumes at the sight of his young servants in cahoots with Penelope’s suitors τέτλαθι δὲ κραδίη, καὶ κύντερον ἄλλο ποτ᾽ ἔτλης, “Endure, my heart, you have suffered even more biting torments” (Odissey XX, 18). It is worth noting Archilochus’ use of the verb κυκάω (κυκώμενε “shaken”), which is etymologically linked with κῦμα, the wave of the sea to hint once again at the metaphor of life as a (potentially tempestuous) sea-voyage. (more…)