Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Greek of the Week: On the "Prescriptions" of Nature

There's an amusing moment in The Clouds by Aristophanes. In the play the character of Pheidippides has been sent by his father to partake of the "New Learning" (i.e. the teachings of the "Sophists") so that he can learn how to make "wrong into right" (i.e. learn the art of "Rhetoric"). He learns too well it seems, because he returns home and beats his father, offering the following theoretical justification for his act:
σκέψαι δὲ τοὺς ἀλεκτρυόνας καὶ τἄλλα τὰ βοτὰ ταυτί,
ὡς τοὺς πατέρας ἀμύνεται: καίτοι τί διαφέρουσιν
ἡμω̂ν ἐκει̂νοι, πλήν γ' ὅτι ψηφίσματ' οὐ γράφουσιν;
Observe the rooster and all of the other animals,
and how they punish their parents. How, in fact,
do they differ from us except that they do not pass laws?

To which his father Strepsiades replies:
τί δῆτ᾽, ἐπειδὴ τούς ἀλεκτρυόνας ἅπαντα μιμεῖ
οὐκ ἐσθίεις καὶ τὴν κόπρον κἀπὶ ξύλου καθεύδεις
Well then, since you imitate the rooster in all things,
why don't you eat shit and sleep on a perch?
Have I ever mentioned that I'm quite fond of the Greeks?


  1. That's a great exchange, Kyklops.

    I'm starting to be a fan of the Greeks myself.

  2. Maht, yeah, if it weren't for the Greeks we wouldn't have cool movies like 300!

  3. You reminded me of a different one: 'All animals get sad after sex. Except for the rooster, who crows'.
    We've come a long way since the Greeks, but instead of continue moving forward, we're moving backwards, towards Obscurantism.

  4. Ah, yes, those Greeks. Have I ever told you the story about the Greek seaman who lived on Decatur Street about twenty years ago? He had this awesome third-floor apartment overlooking the Mississippi River. What we did on that balcony...

    Um, I'm always amazed at Aristophanes' relevance. Aren't you?

  5. Usual Stuff,
    It's not so fashionable to speak in such terms these days, but if there is such a thing as "Western culture", then it was surely the Greeks who were its intellectual spirit. Given today's realities there's a certain irony in that it was Arab/Islamic culture that preserved and built upon Greek knowledge that was lost to Europe for hundreds of years. The re-discovery of that knowledge played a large part in dragging Europe into modernity.

  6. Glenn,
    Um, you quoted Homer (on the balcony)? ;-)
    Yeah, I would argue that all the Greek playwrights are still relevant today (although it seems that the comic poets tended, ultimately, to represent more "conservative" elements in Athenian society). I'm surpised that there are relatively few well-known, quality adaptations of a lot of Greek drama (although I'm talking more about movies than plays--you probably could correct me on this.) The best example I can think of is The Godfather trilogy which (to my mind) has clear connections to The Oresteia by Aeschylus.

  7. Well, yes, I had previous background on that one. It is only in the spirit of openmindedness and rationalism that we might still rescue something. In this moment when we're going back (both east and west) into religious radicalism, the Greek insight and philosopy should be emulated. Pity there are such a few good Logic and Humanistic studies left.
    Is that your particular area of expertise, by the way?

  8. Usual Stuff, my background is in Classics (focus on Greek language, literature, and philosophy). These days I teach English (socially in Japan I'm probably considered to be slightly above a foreign stripper, lower than, well, pretty much everyone else!).