Piety; the basis of Theognis’ model for living

In this post we present and discuss excerpts from Theognis, the ancient poet.

From Theognis’ “Elegies” we read:

Ancient Greek: “Μήποτε τὸν κακὸν ἄνδρα φίλον ποιεῖσθαι ἑταῖρον, ἀλλ’ αἰεὶ φεύγειν ὥστε κακὸν λιμένα.”

English: “Never make thou the bad thy friend, but flee him ever like an evil anchorage.”

NovoScriptorium: Theognis warns that any close relationship of an individual with bad people will eventually be catastrophic. Expanding this idea, we may assume that he would also support any possible effort (individual or institutional) been made in the direction of the isolation, limitation and expel of (any kind of) evil from the polity.

Now let’s remind ourselves the current situation among human societies. Without much doubt, Evil seems to prevail. Hence, if Theognis is right, ‘catastrophies’ are more than awaited at every possible intensity and variety.

Ancient Greek: “Κιβδήλου δ’ ἀνδρὸς γνῶναι χαλεπώτερον οὐδέν, Κύρν’, οὐδ’ εὐλαβίης ἐστὶ περὶ πλέονος.”

English: “Nothing is harder to know, Cyrnus, than a counterfeit man, nor is aught worth more heed.”

NovoScriptorium: Before commenting, let us first correct the translation. A more accurate one in English is: “Cyrnus, nothing is more difficult than to know/recognize a counterfeit man, nor there is anything more important than caution.” Hence, what Theognis suggests here is that for both the  individual and the society, it is crucial to always keep a cautious stance towards evilness. Obviously this doesn’t mean only observation (passive) but also actions (energetic).

Ancient Greek: “Οὐδὲν ἐν ἀνθρώποισι πατρὸς καὶ μητρὸς ἄμεινον ἔπλετο, οἷσ’ ὁσίη, Κύρνε, μέμηλε δίκη.”

English: “There’s nothing better in the world, Cyrnus, than a father and mother who care for holy Right.”

NovoScriptorium: Before commenting, let us first correct the translation. A more accurate one in English is: “Cyrnus, for those who care about the Divine Justice, there is nothing better among humans than the father and the mother”. Obviously, Theognis assigns great importance to the institution of Family and the respect that one should show to his parents, his roots, his House. Moreover, he directly links it with the Divine. Family is an institution blessed by the Divine; whoever honours his Family is accordingly blessed, too.

The opposite is also valid: whoever dishonours his House, parents and roots, is not blessed from above. We could even take this thought a little further (and rightfully so, as there are numerous Greek Myths that allow us to believe such a thing) and say that whoever dishonours his House, parents and roots faces the enemity of the Divine (and multiple punishments that follow).

Ancient Greek: “οὐδέ τῳ ἀνθρώπων παραγίνεται, ὅσσα θέλῃσιν· ἴσχει γὰρ χαλεπῆς πείρατ’ ἀμηχανίης. ἄνθρωποι δὲ μάταια νομίζομεν εἰδότες οὐδέν· θεοὶ δὲ κατὰ σφέτερον πάντα τελοῦσι νόον.”

English: “Nor doth any man get what he wisheth; for his desires hold the ends of sore perplexity. We men practise vain things, knowing nought, while the Gods accomplish all to their mind.”

NovoScriptorium: Before commenting, let us first correct the translation. A more accurate one in English is: “nor does any man get what he wants. Because the limits of human weakness hold him back. And we humans think in vain, without knowing anything. The gods bring everything to an end according to their nous/thinking (or “everything happens according to the will/nous/providence of the gods”)”. Theognis here reminds us of the weaknessess and limitations of the human nature. He is a firm believer that the Divine Providence is behind all things. In other words, indirectly, he suggests that Man should live a pious life, with deep respect and faith towards the Divine, as the outcome of all things is always in Divine Hands. Without the parameter ‘Divine/God/gods’, human life is/becomes an absolute vanity, full of ignorance and one-after-the-other manifestations of human weaknessess.

Ancient Greek: “Βούλεο δ’ εὐσεβέων ὀλίγοις σὺν χρήμασιν οἰκεῖν ἢ πλουτεῖν ἀδίκως χρήματα πασάμενος. ἐν δὲ δικαιοσύνῃ συλλήβδην πᾶσ’ ἀρετή ‘στι, πᾶς δέ τ’ ἀνὴρ ἀγαθός, Κύρνε, δίκαιος ἐών.”

English: “Choose rather to dwell with little wealth a pious man, than to be rich with possessions ill-gotten. Righteousness containeth the sum of all virtue; and every righteous man, Cyrnus, is good.”

NovoScriptorium: Theognis repeats here the importance of Piety. Moreover, he assigns greater importance to Piety than wealth. He assures that autarky accompanied with Piety is the perfect combination for a proper life for Man. Acquiring wealth and possessions through unjust acts is firmly condemned. He also links Justice with Virtue and Goodness. Indirectly, we receive here the guidelines for a proper (divinely blessed) living; be pious (always start from the Divine/with the Divine in mind in everything you do); be just; always struggle for Virtue; all these will make you a Good/Better Man. Of course, if every individual was taught this way of living, the polity as a whole would produce Piety, Justice, Virtue, Goodness. Hence, what we are discussing here apparently is deeply political -in the literal meaning of the word- and does not only have religious dimensions.

Ancient Greek: “Ὕβριν, Κύρνε, θεὸς πρῶτον κακῷ ὤπασεν ἀνδρί, οὗ μέλλει χώρην μηδεμίην θέμεναι.”

English: “To an evil man whose place he is about to remove, Cyrnus, God first giveth Pride.”

NovoScriptorium: Before commenting, let us first correct the translation. A more accurate one in English is: “Cyrnus, God first sees the Hubris of the evil man, whose situation he is about to annihilate”. It quite clear that Theognis believes in the mechanism of Hubris-Divine punishment. The link between Hubris and Evilness is unbreakable.

“Hubris” includes many different notions in it: we may speak of any act against the Divine (and Natural) Law, we may speak of deeds ‘inspired’ by insolence, pride, imprudence, lechery (and all kinds of morbid passions really). Hence, to avoid Divine punishment, people (individuals and polities) should resist all these acts of Hubris.

We cannot resist the temptation to apply the above in modern societies, where “Hubris” appears to increase every single day (and almost everywhere). According to Theognis then, soon enough, our societies should face Divine punishment.

Ancient Greek: “Τίκτει τοι κόρος ὕβριν, ὅταν κακῷ ὄλβος ἕπηται ἀνθρώπῳ καὶ ὅτῳ μὴ νόος ἄρτιος ᾖ. ”

English: “Surfeit, for sure, begets pride when prosperity cometh to a bad man whose mind is not perfect.”

NovoScriptorium: Before commenting, let us first correct the translation. A more accurate one in English is: “Satiety gives birth to hubris, when happiness/wealth/prosperity follows the bad man, whose mind is not healthy”. So, what Theognis suggests here is that “satiety” (of possessions, of pleasures, etc) is directly connected with Hubris.

He also links Mental Health with Hubris; a healthy mind would not turn to acts of Hubris. He also suggests that excessive Wealth in the hands of evil Men will, unavoidably, give birth to acts of Hubris. It is also clear that he firmly believes that a healthy mind cannot belong to an evil person. In other words, only the good Men may be mentally healthy. Let us also add that since the opposites of Hubris are Humility, Prudence, Continence, we are obliged to suggest that a mentally healthy person must own such characteristics. Another general conclusion is that it would be best for a polity to have many civilians living in autarky and Piety rather than in “satiety”.

Again, we cannot resist the temptation to apply the above to our modern societies. Not coincidentally, official social statistics show that Mental Health problems increase among the population all the time. The same social statistics show a steady increase of awful/horrible Crimes among the population. Last -and surely not least- we all ‘admire’ (everyday and at every social level) the deeds of all those evil Men who own excessive Wealth (and, consequently, Power).

Ancient Greek: “Μήποτε, Κύρν’, ἀγορᾶσθαι ἔπος μέγα· οἶδε γὰρ οὐδείς ἀνθρώπων ὅ τι νὺξ χἠμέρη ἀνδρὶ τελεῖ.”

English: “Never boast thou, Cyrnus, in assembly; for no man living knoweth what a night and a day have to accomplish for us.”

NovoScriptorium: Boasting is yet another act of Pride, i.e. of Hubris. And as Hubris is never left unpunished by the Divine, Theognis consults his friend Cyrnus -and all of us!- to avoid boasting. It is very important -especially for a Philosopher- for Man to learn how to control his tongue.

Ancient Greek: “Θεοῖσ’ εὔχου, θεοῖσ’ οἷσιν ἔπι κράτος· οὔτοι ἄτερ θεῶν γίνεται ἀνθρώποισ’ οὔτ’ ἀγάθ’ οὔτε κακά.”

English: “Pray to the Gods; with the Gods is power; ’tis certain that without the Gods man getteth neither good nor ill.”

NovoScriptorium: Theognis assures us that absolutely nothing may happen, good or bad, if the Divine does not allow it to. He insists that the true and the greatest Power is with the Divine. He advises everyone to Pray to the Divine, i.e. to cultivate a personal relationship with It and place all hopes and aspirations in Divine Hands. Once more, Piety appears to be the basis of Theognis’ model for living (the same that is for all Philosophers).

Social statistics in modern societies show that there is a steady increase in the number of people who do not live with Piety. According to Theognis then, not only these people “gamble” with their lives, but it is rather certain that they will also face the consequences of their Hubris.

All our extra translations are based on the Liddell & Scott Lexicon

Source for the Greek text

Source for the English text

Research-Analysis for NovoScriptorium: Isidoros Aggelos

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