Reflections, like dreams, are a state of the mind in which we cannot find what is, but what should be. Perhaps, even, if we are to find something of the truth amongst the shadows of our own lives we must, also, become something more, or something else. I have thought of Pindar several times in the last few days, holidays and all (the US just celebrated Presidents’ Day), and the ideas that make us who we are. Going through old notebooks from classes I took years ago I found this quote by Pindar (Nemean 1, 25-26) and its subsequent translation:
τέχναι δ᾽ ἑτέρων ἕτεραι: χρὴ δ᾽ ἐν εὐθείαις ὁδοῖς στείχοντα μάρνασθαι φυᾷ.
Though skills being one or the other it must thus be that a person marching in a straight and narrow road is made to fight as a boxer by his nobility.
Once again, I have fought the classical translations; not because I did not like them, but rather because I do appreciate them. What Pindar meant here has been a bit of a conundrum to me, but one must appreciate the meaning of the original vs the translation. I love Pindar here because he uses one of my favorite words in the A. Greek, τέχναι. If teknon (child) is that which we make, technē is the skill which makes the child possible. In other words, technology is the product of our mind and our skill. Pindar is using τέχναι and ἕτεραι as comparatives for his audience, a form of the verb to be has been elided as unnecessary for context, something the Greeks loved to do. Ancient Greek students will tell you that elided verbs are the bane of their existence, yet you see it most often with the verb to be and when obvious nouns which don’t belong together seem to be used as an adjective and noun pair. Technically simple, practically hard. Thus, ‘skills [being] one of the two.’ His usage of ἑτέρων as an attributive genitive is fascinating. in other words, he is using the same word as before, ἕτεραι, but in a different context, to say something like ‘skills [being] one of the two of the two of them.’ A very complex way to say that to each man is a different skill. It is Pindar, after all, composer of the Olympian Odes, right?
The second part of the statement is not so bad. χρὴ δ is a conjunction that introduces a statement which must take place for the previous statement to be true. Thus, what is to follow, must take place if different skills can be attributed to different men. I love χρὴ because it denotes something that must happen, but it also translates as money in χρηματα or, in other words, what one must have. Although, I am not sure if this use of money as the possession that matters most was a thing with the Dorian and Ionian Greek dialects as much as it was in the Athenian Attic. One day I will have to look at that. ἐν εὐθείαις ὁδοῖς is just a preposition+dative construction that indicates the place in which the action is taking place. We may call it a prepositional phrase, I suppose. εὐθείαις is not quite a straight road, but sort of the ‘straight and narrow’ or morally-sound road. Pindar again uses metaphor to indicate that whilst ‘in the straight and narrow road’ στείχοντα μάρνασθαι.
There is no reference to man or a transitive verb in the second part of the secondary clause. Using a participle (στείχοντα) and an passive infinitive (μάρνασθαι), the author expects you will fill in some meaning. Στείχοντα literally means ‘able to be standing;’ don’t think of it as an infinitive, but rather as a hyphenated verb. Then we have μάρνασθαι, ‘to be fought.’ Funny thing about μάρνασθαι (marnasthai), it shares roots with marathon (map-). Now, Marathon was named after the Fennel that peppered the field surrounding the city. Marnasthai relates to a conflict fight of boxers. The root proper refers to a wasting away. Could this be a reference to the ‘wasting away’ of flowers, men, and boxers? More than likely. Words like madness (a wasting away of the mind) come from this root, so the theory seems sounds. At any rate, what we lack is a conjunctive verb. So we can supply ‘to be’ for our purposes. Thus, ‘a [man] marching [is] made to fight as a boxer’ is added to the phrase.
One may think that with only a word left there is not much to be done here. Alas, Ancient Greek is a language far beyond assumptions. Remember what I said at the beginning? That thing about reflections being like dreams? Pindar has brought us on a journey of self-discovery, his rhetoric has served the purpose of a vehicle to our minds and our souls in the search for meaning in ancient words. A single step on the ladder remains, φυᾷ (phua). Physis is the nature of a person, phua is the growth of the soul based on said nature. This growth is only possible by the good things anyone person does in life, say, by walking ‘in the straight and narrow road.’ Another conundrum, Pindar places the word ‘phua’ in the dative, it is the indirect object of the sentence. However, like the Latin ablative, the dative in Greek is the Jack of All Trades. Datives take on certain characteristics, especially when you don’t see their article (τῂ) somewhere in the sentence. What is that mean? Well, the dative is acting as a Dative of Means/Manner or a Dative of Agent – there many other dative constructions but they don’t die here. The first dative form tells us by which means the action is being made or the manner in which it is made. The second, especially when a passive verb exists, tells us the agent by which an action is being done (notice the passive verb in this sentence and the agent ‘which’). Considering that marnasthai is a passive construction, we can conjecture that phua, the nature of the person, is the agent making said person struggle.
Huh? I know. Nuts. But here is the thing: in life we only fight ourselves and our reflection in the mirror of life. We become great at what we do, whatever that skill is, only because we struggle the most against the thing that matters the most to us. We love our families because we can’t let them go, we fight for them. We love architecture (for example) because we have put in the time and money to learn the skills necessary to make it happen. We love writing because we have struggled to understand the intricacies of the written language. Life shows us who we are now, telling us we do not deserve the future we have planned for ourselves. But we can understand who we are only because we take time to reflect, to see ourselves in that mirror of life and choose to fight ourselves by virtue of the noble road we seek to take rather than the path we are currently taking. We change, because we have the courage to see ourselves as we are, and then fight ourselves, like a boxer in the ring against an equal, to make something else happen in our lives. Fight yourself, reader, for your own sake. Let us reminisce on that one for a while.