Friday, 16 November 2012

Extracts from the Elegies of Theognis.

It's Ancient Greek poetry month here at the Chronicles. If ancient literature tells us anything, it's that nothing much really changes. Human nature, and the problems facing mankind, have been remarkably consistent throughout history considering we are all really just 'blank slates.'

From the Elegies of Theognis, c.550BC, which the author wrote (mostly) to his young lover, Kurnos:

This city's pregnant, Kurnos, and I fear
she'll bear a man to crush our swelling pride.
The people still have sense, but those in charge
are turning, stumbling into evil ways.

Gentlemen never yet destroyed a town;
but when the scum resort to violence,
seduce the masses and corrupt the courts
to line their pockets and increase their power,
then Kurnos, you may know this tranquil town
cannot remain unshaken very long.
When wicked men rejoice in private graft
then public evils follow; factions rise,
then bloody civil war, until the state
welcomes a Tsar. God save us from that fate!

Kurnos, the city stands; her men are changed.
You know, in former days, there was a tribe
who knew no laws nor manners, but like deer
they grazed outside the city walls, and wore
the skins of goats. These men are nobles, now.
The gentlemen of old are now the trash;
terrible sight. No principles at all:
these new men cheat each other, and they laugh.
You want to buy an ass, a horse?
You'll pick a thoroughbred, of course,
for quality is in the blood.
But when a man goes out to stud,
he won't refuse a commoner
if lots of money goes with her.
And vulgar oafs with brutish ways
can marry noble girls, these days.
Good faith means nothing now, it's clear,
hard cash is all that's honored here,
while gentle blood unites with base -
the drachma's ruining our race.
You wonder, lad, that I disparage,
the present state of civil marriage?
Interesting that, like Hesiod, Theognis considered his age to be already decadent, although neither lived in particularly advanced societies (Athenian democracy came a little later). Hesiod was a poor shepherd in a feudal aristocracy where trade was only just burgeoning, but even he complained about his society's "fallen laws." Theognis was writing a century and a half (or so) after Hesiod, at a time when capitalism was perhaps not yet thriving, but present enough for men to found their new morality upon the pursuit of wealth, to the exclusion of religion. Theognis's comment on the bourgeois class displacing the old nobility brings the revolutions of early modern Europe strongly to mind. Nothing much really changes, we go around in the same circles.

- Mojo

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