BMCR 1993.01.03

1993.01.03, Patricia Bulman, Phthonos in Pindar

, Phthonos in Pindar. University of California publications. Classical studies ; v. 35. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. ix, 122 pages ; 26 cm.. ISBN 9780520097735.

In most of the societies of Classical Antiquity of which we know anything there is an acute consciousness of the omnipresence of φθόνος invidia. It was a presence that men both feared and loathed. Demosthenes in a passage much imitated in later antiquity says of φθόνος that it is evidence of an utterly wicked nature and that there is no excuse that can pardon its presence in a man (20.140). It is not to be pardoned, since those at whom it is directed have done nothing to deserve its malice. As such it is malice pure and simple, a feature of its character the Fathers of the Church were wont to emphasize when they inveighed against it. To suppose, however, that φθόνος and envy are one and the same thing would be a mistake. One of the considerable merits of the book under review is to make this clear and to bring out the complexity of φθόνος. It may usefully be thought of as a smallness of spirit—hence its frequent association with MIKROYUXI/A—that cannot, on the one hand, bear to give of the goods it itself possesses and, on the other, to see others enjoying any form of prosperity. Although ancient definitions of φθόνος dwell exclusively on the pain that this state of mind causes its possessor and ignore the malice that is inherent in it, it is important to bear in mind that, at least in its other-directed aspect, ill-will is at the heart of φθόνος. We should also not assume that what for us seem to be quite separate and distinct aspects of φθόνος were seen as such in antiquity. When, for example, Socrates in the Timaeus asserts that there is in a good man no φθόνος ever about anything at all (29e1-2), what is meant is that the good man will gladly and wholeheartedly give everything he himself possesses and will not resent but welcome others enjoying goods as great as he himself possesses.

For the epinician poet φθόνος in both of its facets is a central concern: as a man divinely-endowed with a poetic gift he has a great deal to give or withhold and his feelings about the successes of others will affect what he gives of himself. If he does respond without φθόνος to an athlete’s victory in the games, giving all of himself and holding back nothing out of envy at the other’s good fortune, he has then to contend with the envy that his wholehearted praise of the victorious athlete may arouse in others. Patricia Bulman has set herself the difficult and ambitious task, in what was originally a Berkeley dissertation, of describing the way in which Pindar, principally in his epinician odes, 1) exploits the notion of φθόνος to define his role as an encomiastic poet and 2) attempts to defuse the ill-will his praise may arouse in his hearers. In pursuit of this goal she has concentrated her attention on two odes, N. 4 and 8. The resulting work consists of an introduction in which she sets out the principles that will govern her work and gives an account of the moral and theological system of thought centered on φθόνος that she argues Pindar articulated. This is followed by an synopsis of all of the passages in which some part of the root φθον occurs; there is no discussion of the several passages in which allusion is made to φθόνος, though not in as many words (e.g., O. 2.95-97, 4.5, 8.83-88, P. 8.94, N. 7.61-63). Two chapters on odes in which φθόνος plays a particularly important part, N. 8 and 4, make up the rest of the book.

In the introductory chapter B. acknowledges the influence of Bundy on her thinking, and, in particular, his conviction that everything in an epinician ode is designed to further its encomiastic purpose. Since the interpreters of Pindar who proclaim their adherence to this principle have such very different views of what would constitute an encomium, it is not altogether clear that the principle as formulated means much. B.’s interpretations of N. 8 and 4 are a case in point: if I were one of the athletes whose victories were celebrated and was expecting to hear praise of myself, my family and homeland, then I might have felt somewhat short-changed, since Pindar does rather go on about himself. Equally important for B. apparently are some suggestions made by W.J. Slater ( CJ 72 [1979] 193-208) about analysing the progression of thought in the gnomic sections of Pindar’s poems. In Slater’s view there are commonplaces underlying this gnomic progression that are taken for granted by Pindar’s audience, but which we need to identify, presumably by reading widely outside of Pindar, if we are to follow the run of sense. The use to which B. puts this suggestion, though fruitful, may not quite be what its author had in mind, since she is very much an Aristarchus in interpreting Pindar, preferring to explain Pindar through Pindar rather than looking to non-Pindaric texts for illumination. This explicatio Pindari per Pindarum has in some cases led to interpretations very different from those which someone versed in commonplaces about φθόνος not found in Pindar might have given. B. also expresses her belief in the usefulness of what she calls cross-referencing to the explanation of Pindar’s train of thought. In practice this means B. is, in the manner of the New Critics, alert to verbal and other echoes. Finally, B. records her indebtedness to the work Adolf Köhnken has done in demonstrating that some Pindaric myths are paradigmatic and not merely decorative.

In the second part of the introduction B. presents a Pindar who has more than a passing resemblance to Plato. B.’s Pindar is a systematic thinker who has a “consistent world-view (p.8).” This Pindar views φθόνος as a kind of bad ἔρως or passion that is misdirected and not under the control of reason or intellect. The individual who succumbs to this form of ἔρως when it manifests itself in φθόνος is self-indulgent and has no regard for the common good. His intellectual failure lies in his inability to take account of the limitations of his mortal lot. In marked contrast to this irrational, selfish and misguided character is the good man (ὁ ἀγαθός) whose ἔρως because it is guided by a firm understanding of his mortal limitations, directs him to the pursuit of ἀρετά and to public-spirited actions. The intellectual virtue which he possesses and in which the φθονερός is so woefully lacking is προμάθεια.

The main building block in this structure is a contrast that B. detects in N. 8 between φθόνος and a bad form of ἔρως. The rest of the edifice is made up of Pindar’s assertion at P. 2.88-96 that ἔρως kick against the divine dispensation, on his assertion at P. 11.54 that he strains after the common excellences while φθονεροί are punished, and on the gnomic utterance at I. 1.40 that one who has undergone πόνος wins προμάθεια. The notion that ἀγαθοί are free of φθόνος comes mainly from P. 2.

It is very much a matter of temperament whether an interpreter of Pindar is inclined to seek in his poetry a consistent and well-thought-out world-view or whether he is content to believe that Pindar is neither a systematic theologian nor a philosopher and that, like most men, he draws on a stock of common, though frequently incommensurable, beliefs, to make sense of the world. Those who incline to the latter point of view will not be troubled by Pindar’s holding apparently completely contradictory views on, to take an example, the nature of the divine: on the one hand, abhorring those who speak ill of it and crediting it with punishing wrongdoers and rewarding the virtuous and, on the other, praying that his praise of the victor may not arouse the gods’ φθόνος. Those who, like B., do not care for contradiction will resolve the dilemma by explaining away divine φθόνος as not really envy or jealousy at all, on the ground that “it is unthinkable that Pindar, who views envy among men as something contemptible, should attribute it to the gods (p.31).”

Whether Pindar was a systems-builder or not, the system that B. attributes to him needs examination. I happen to agree wholeheartedly with her conviction that in Pindar’s eyes φθόνος in a man makes him κακός and that ἀγαθοί are free of that vice. There will, nonetheless, be those who will remain unpersuaded of this, since A.W.H. Adkins’ influence still lingers. I am less happy about the equation of φθόνος with a bad form of ἔρως 1) because φθόνος is not generally an appetitive passion like greed, 2) because in B.’s key-text, N. 8, mention of the ἔρωτες (5) is widely separated from mention of φθόνος (21-23) and 3) because there is no evidence known to me from the rest of Greek literature that the two notions are ever connected. The idea that φθόνος can be seen as a failure to come to terms with our mortal lot is not to be gainsaid and there are ample parallels for it. The contrast that B. sees in Pindar between προμάθεια and φθόνος presents problems. Again there is no close verbal connection, either in Pindar or in the wider body of Greek literature, between the two notions. Finally, the ξυναὶ ἀρεταί after which Pindar strains and which are B.’s warrant for supposing that Pindar “commends a life of public service, a life that proves more enduringly happy than that of φθονεροί (p.27)” may not be virtues exercised for the common good, but excellences open to all, and not just tyrants, and not therefore so susceptible to the assaults of φθόνος. If so, Pindar is at P. 11.50-58 voicing the same wish as that found at Aesch. Ag. 471-474 and Eur. Med. 123-130.

B.’s second chapter is a useful commentary on passages in Pindar in which words derived from the root φθον appear. There is much here to be applauded. I would single out for particular commendation B.’s treatment of I. 1.41-45, 5.24-5 and O. 6.8. Not everybody will be persuaded that ἀφθόνητος at O. 11.7 “implies that the gods’ envy has not blighted (p.30)” the poet’s songs. There are interpretations here and there in which the emphasis might be changed or which might be modified. There is the rather intellectualist interpretation of P. 2.88-97 in which B. emphasizes the failure of understanding that φθονεροί display in not accepting their apportioned lot but has nothing to say about their not being assuaged by the knowledge that no one has uninterrupted good fortune, a variation on the theme found in moralists that φθόνος may be alleviated by comparing our own fortune with that of those worse off than ourselves (cf. Democr. DK 68 B 191; Favor. De. exil. XXVI.1-2 Barigazzi; Sen Dial. 9.31.1-3). Paean 2.55-6 (H)/DH φθόνος OI)/XETAI / TW=N PA/LAI PROQANO/NTWN) would at first sight appear to be an instance of the commonplace that envy fastens only on the living and leaves the dead alone (cf. Thuc. 2.45.1, 64.4-5, 6.16.5, Isoc. 9.5-7; Pl. Legg. 801e; Dem. 18.317), but B. follows Hubbard ( The Pindaric Mind [Leiden 1985] 87-8) in translating it as “Envy … disappeared long ago thanks to the men who died before (p.25).” How the genitive τῶν προθανόντων is to be explained on this rendering is a puzzle.

Chapter 3 is devoted to a detailed exposition of N. 8, in which B. argues that the poem is about the contrast between the good E)/RWS