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Pindar's thought

Men who themselves owed everything to form have been found to maintain that translation conveys the essential, and that the highest survives the process of transmission without any considerable loss. Far less dangerous is the paradox of Moriz Haupt, “ Do not translate: translation is the death of understanding. The first stage is to learn to translate; the second to see that translation is impossible.1

” In the transfer to a foreign language the word loses its atmosphere, its associations, its vitality. The angle at which it meets the mental vision is often changed, the rhythm of the sentence is lost. The further one penetrates into the life of a language, the harder does translation become; and so we often have the result that the version of the young student is better than that of the experienced scholar, because the latter tries to express too much, and hence falls into paraphrase and sheer cumbrousness. The true vision of a work of literary art is to be gained by the study of the original, and by that alone. And this holds even as to the ethic value of poetry. To put Pindar's thoughts, his views of life, into other words, is often to sacrifice the delicate point on which the whole moral turns. If this is true of the single word, the single sentence, it holds with still more force of the attempt to form an image of the poet's world of thought and feeling by the simple process of cataloguing translations of his most striking thoughts under certain rubrics. This has been done by various scholars, notably by Bippart and by Buchholz.2 With their help one can give ode and verse for Pindar's attitude towards the beliefs of his time, for his views of the gods and heroes, of human destiny, of politics, practical and speculative, of Pindar's relations to persons.3 One can give ode and verse for Pindar's belief in blood, in genius, for his contempt of the groundlings, for his tenets of art, of life, of government, if, indeed, we dare break up the antique unity in which all three are merged. But the methodical channels in which Pindar's poetical vein is thus made to run give no notion of the play of the poet's genius. The stream that escapes from the waste-pipe of a fountain gives no notion of the rise and fall and swirl and spray and rainbow glitter of the volume of water that rejoices to return the sportive touch of the sunlight. The catechism has its uses, but it is not the Bible, and as there is no space in this essay for a Pindaric catechism, it must suffice to show how much the study of a few odes will teach us of what Pindar believed concerning God, and what duty he thought God required of man. True, to the great question, “What is God?” Pindar has no answer in any of his odes; he is as silent as Simonides. But when we ask, “Are there more gods than one?” the answer comes speedily from the first Olympian, “There be gods many and lords many.” Zeus dominates officially (v. 10),

and some see in this, as in the use of θεός and δαίμων elsewhere, a tendency to the monotheistic idea, but Poseidon (vv. 40, 73, 75), who held the Peloponnesos in his embrace, rules the myth. We are reminded of Kronos (v. 10); Aphrodite is not forgotten (v. 75), nor one of the great powers behind the throne, Klotho (v. 26), — to say nothing of the unfailing Muses (v. 112). We are in the familiar world of Greek divinities. The poet's attitude towards the gods is that of his people, and a study of all the odes would only confirm the impression of the first. Nearly every ode is full of gods. Not one of the shining forms of the great divinities is lacking, not even Hestia, who has a large space in N. 11. Pindar's world of the gods is an organized state, won by the victory of Zeus over the Titanic brood. In the first Olympian, as in all the Olympians, Zeus rules serenely. It is true that his throne, Aitna, rests on the violent hundred-headed Typhoeus (O. 4.6), but we do not feel the stirrings of the revolted spirit as in P. 1.15, or in P. 8.16, for the Pythians magnify the office of Apollo, who is the Word of Zeus, the god that bids harmony and measure reign in state and man. The being of Apollo is much more deeply inwrought with the Pythian odes than that of Zeus with the Olympian.

This belief in the gods, or acceptance of the gods, did not involve belief in this or that special myth. The historical

books of the unwritten Bible, so to speak, were open to all manner of scepticism, as we know from the annals of the time, as well as from Pindar. Every one remembers Xenophanes' revolt against the fables of Greek mythology. So, Pindar, in the famous passage, beginning (v. 28) θαυματὰ πολλά, καί πού τι καὶ βροτῶν, κτἑ.” , speaks of legends cunningly set off with glittering falsehoods. He distrusts the myth, he resolutely refuses to believe it when it jeopards the honor of God. He who himself invokes Charis for the praise of man, dreads her persuasive power in things divine. “I cannot call one of the blessed cannibal.” There is a conflict in Pindar's poems on this subject as on others. We of this time know well what this means, for doubt runs through all our literature. Only the antique poet is not tortured by his doubts; the priestly temper conquers. He keeps his tongue from aught that would offend the god, and leaves the god himself to reconcile the partial views of his worshippers. The cultivation of a religious temper is his resource against scepticism, and this age has seen many shining examples of critical knowledge held in harmless solution by reverence for the divine. Pindar's criticism, it must be confessed, is of the crudest. His interpretation of the story of the cannibalic meal of the gods is very much in the vein of the most prosaic school of Greek mythologists, and not unlike what we find in early rationalistic criticism of the Biblical narrative. In similar straits he simply cries out,

ἀπό μοι λόγον
τοῦτον, στόμα, ῥῖψον:
ἐπεὶ τό γε λοιδορῆσαι θεοὺς
ἐχθρὰ σοφία.

Still limiting our vision to the first Olympian, we ask, “What is Pindar's view of human life, human destiny?” The Greek wail over our mortality is heard here also. “The immortals sent Pelops straight back to dwell again among the tribes of men whose doom is speedy” (v. 65). And banished Pelops cries — “θανεῖν δ᾽ οἷσιν ἀνάγκα(v. 82) — “As we needs must die, why should one nurse a nameless old age in darkness idly sitting, and all in vain?” Life is darkness unless it be lighted up by victory such as the sunshine of Olympia (v. 97), but that is all. The light within man is darkness, and the light that comes from without depends on the favor of God. God has Hieron's cause at heart (v. 106), but God may fail. “If he fail not speedily” (v. 108), then — This strain is heard over and over again, the shortness and the sorrows of human

Man is of few days and full of trouble.
life, the transitoriness of its pleasures, the utter dependence on the will of an envious God. We feel throughout that we are in the atmosphere of Hesiod rather than in the atmosphere of Homer, and yet Homer is sadder than either by reason of the contrasting sunshine. Instead of searching for texts, read the eighth Pythian, the Ecclesiastes of the odes.

It is true that the first Olympian would not be the best place to look for Pindar's views of government. The ode from beginning to end has to do with the summits of things, not the foundations. But when in another

The State.
Hieronic ode (P. 1, 61) he comes to the basis of the state, we find that Hieron founded Aitna in honor of Zeus, “with godbuilt freedom in the use and wont (νόμοις) of Hyllid standard.” In these few words we have everything. We have the dedication to the Supreme, we have liberty based on God's will, we have a life directed by hereditary usage. The word νόμοις is a concession to the times — for Homer knows nothing of νόμος — but we still feel the “use and wont;” νόμος is not “law” to Pindar, it is “way.” So in his earliest poem he says, P. 10.70:ὑψοῦ φέροντι νόμον Θεσσαλῶν” , and a high and mighty way was the way of the Thessalians. How Pindar felt when the spirit of Tranquillity was violated we see by P. 8 — the truest expression of the aristocrat alarmed and grieved for his order.

The next point suggested by the first Olympian is the representative position of Pindar as the expounder of Greek

Pindar an expounder of Greek ethics.
ethics. Is Pindar speaking for himself or for his people? Many of his thoughts are not his own. They are fragments of the popular Hellenic catechism, and they become remarkable in Pindar partly by the mode of presentation, partly by the evident heartiness with which he accepts the national creed. So in v. 56, and P. 2.28, we find a genealogy which was as popular with the Greeks as
Sin and Death in the Christian system. ὌλβοςΚόροςὝβριςἌτη. The prosperity that produces pride and fulness of bread culminates in overweening insolence and outrage, and brings on itself mischief sent from heaven. That is not Pindar, any more than it is Solon, than it is Theognis, Aischylos. But the genius that stamps these commonplaces into artistic form, that gives to the wisdom of the many the wit of the one, and makes the doctrine a proverb, this was Pindar's, and Pindar's was the believing soul that breathed into the dead dogma the breath of a living and a working faith; and we call that man great who thinks and utters the people's thought best.

So it is no new doctrine that he teaches when he insists so much on the corollary of the abhorred genealogy just cited — the necessity of self-control. Laws are only symptoms, not remedies of disease in the body politic. Whenever crime is rife, legislation is rife, that is all, and the μηδὲν ἄγαν, the σωφροσύνη, on which the Greek laid so much stress, points to the moral difficulties of an impulsive race, whose moral harmony seems to be artistic rather than moral. The Greeks were too airy, too much like Hermes, of whom comparative

μέτρα μὲν γνώμᾳ διώκων, μέτρα δὲ καὶ κατέχων
mythologists have made the morning breeze, too little like Apollo. The text, then, on which Greek moralists preached longest and loudest, on which Pindar preached loudest and oftenest, is the need of self-control. Pindar cares not whether it be the old, old story or not. This negative gospel is the burden of his moralizing. So in the first Olympian, v. 114:μηκέτι πάπταινε πόρσιον” . “Be thou not tempted to strain thy gaze to aught beyond.” “As far as the pillars of Herakles, but no further; that is not to be approached by wise or unwise” (O. 3.44). And so in every key, “Let him not seek to become a god” (O. 5.24), or, if that is not Pindar, “Seek thou not to become Zeus” (I. 4 [5], 14). “The brazen heavens are not to be mounted,” says the moralist of twenty (P. 10.27). μέτρῳ κατάβαινε, says Pindar the aged (P. 8.78).

Another point also discernible in the first Olympian is the lofty self-consciousness of genius. This Pindar shows in

all his poems, and strikingly here. His theme is high, but he is level with his high theme. If higher come, he can still ascend. A more glorious victory shall receive a still sweeter song. The arrow shot has reached the lone ether, but the Muse has still her strongest bolt in reserve for him, and in his closing prayer he wishes a lofty career for Hieron, and side by side with the prince let the poet stand, πρόφαντον σοφίᾳ καθ᾽ Ἕλλανας ἐόντα παντᾷ. The proud self-assertion is hardly veiled by the prayer. In the second Olympian there is the same maintenance of high pretension. In the first Olympian it is the Muse that keeps her strongest bolt in reserve. In the second it is the poet himself that keeps his arrow within his quiver (v. 92). He seems, as has been said, to rise to the stature of Apollo himself in his proud scorn of the Python brood. How, then, is this to be reconciled with the self-control, the freedom from boasting, which Hellenic ethic enjoins? It is because of the source of genius — God himself. Pindar looks down on lesser poets as eagles on ravens (O. 2.96), on daws (N. 3.82). Contempt, scorn, superciliousness are hardly the words. It is a sublime looking over the heads of his rivals with at most a faint consciousness of their cawing far below. This is a dangerous assumption, an attitude that may be nothing but a posture, and we resent it in inferior poets, who take on Pindaric airs. But Pindar at his greatest height does not forget by whom he is borne up, the limits of his god-given power. “χρὴ δὲ κατ᾽ αὐτὸν αἰεὶ παντὸς ὁρᾶν μέτρον(P. 2.34) . The little that he has to say about training bears on the games rather than on his art. In O. 8.59 he is speaking expressly of a trainer,4 and there the meaning is disputed. Mild enough is O. 10 (11), 22.5 But elsewhere Nature is praised — often blended
with God and Fortune — to the exclusion of mere learning, of the διδακταὶ ἀρεταί of O. 9.108. τὸ δὲ φυᾷ κράτιστον ἅπαν is his motto. If Pindar cultivated a choice garden of the Graces, it is by a skill that Fate has allotted him (O. 9.27). If men are good and wise, it is in accordance with a δαίμων (v. 28), and as if never weary of the theme, he comes back to it in v. 100. Again it sounds forth in O. 11 (10), 10: “wisdom is of God.” When he longs for the good and the beautiful it must come from God (P. 11.50). Part and parcel of this belief in nature, in God, is his belief in heredity. This comes out more crudely, as might be expected, in his earliest poem — which is an arrangement in God and Blood (P. 10), but it is no less fundamental in that which some consider his latest (P. 8), when he intimates, not obscurely, that the hope of Aigina rests on the transmitted virtues of her noble stock.

Pindar has been called a Pythagorean, but this is saying nothing more than that he shared with Pythagoras the

The next world.
belief in the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, which had its main support in the Delphic oracle and in the Pythian temple. The symbolism of this belief is found everywhere in Greek religion, especially in the Bacchic cycle, and in the mysteries of the Twain Deities, Demeter and Persephone. The second Olympian shows his creed in part as to the future world.6 Such a creed, it may be noted, is of a piece with the aristocratic character of his mind, the continuation of the proper distinction between Good and Bad, in the Doric sense, not a system of revenges for the inequality of present fortune, as too many consider it. The grave is not all silence to Pindar; the ghost of sound, Echo, may visit the abode of the dead, and bear glad tidings to those who have gone before (O. 14.21). Immortality has not been brought to light, but the feeling hand of the poet has found it in the darkness of Persephone's home.

1 See H. NETTLESHIP, Maurice Haupt, a Lecture, p. 18.

2 BIPPART, Pindar's Leben, Weltanschauung, und Kunst, Jena, 1848. BUCHHOLZ, Die sittliche Weltanschauung des Pindaros und Aeschylos, Leipzig, 1869.

3 A. CROISET, Pindare, pp. 162-291, has treated these matters in the right spirit, because he has kept the setting for the most part.

4 τὸ διδάξασθαι δέ τοι
εἰδότί ῥᾴτερον: ἄγνωμον δὲ τὸ μὴ προμαθεῖν:
κουφότεραι γὰρ ἀπειράτων φρένες

5 θήξαις δέ κε φύντ᾽ ἀρετᾷ ποτὶ
πελώριον ὁρμάσαι κλέος ἀνὴρ θεοῦ σὺν παλάμᾳ.

6 See note on v. 62.

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hide References (17 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (16):
    • Pindar, Nemean, 3
    • Pindar, Olympian, 1
    • Pindar, Olympian, 10
    • Pindar, Olympian, 11
    • Pindar, Olympian, 14
    • Pindar, Olympian, 2
    • Pindar, Olympian, 3
    • Pindar, Olympian, 4
    • Pindar, Olympian, 5
    • Pindar, Olympian, 8
    • Pindar, Olympian, 9
    • Pindar, Pythian, 1
    • Pindar, Pythian, 10
    • Pindar, Pythian, 11
    • Pindar, Pythian, 2
    • Pindar, Pythian, 8
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (1):
    • Pindar, Olympian, 2
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