Greek, in common with other languages such as Finnish or German, is endowed with a class of words known as “particles” which lend something like a tone of voice to utterance. They’re hard to pin down, and in reading, one tends to just think “oh, that’s a particle” and rely on the context. In addition, any one particle may be used with different shades of meaning. The problem is addressed for classical Attic prose by the magisterial Greek Particles by Denniston, without which no classics library would be complete: he gives lots and lots of examples culled from his canonical authors.

One such particle is γε μήν. I think the sense roughly corresponds to something like the English sentence “It’s not warm out, but it is sunny” with an emphasis on the “is”. One might equally say “at least it’s sunny”, but that does suggest something a little different.

Theocritus Id. III concerns a lovesick goatherd serenading the unreceptive Amaryllis outside the cave where she lives, curtained with fern and ivy (the erotic resonance is all too tempting, after Freud). At one point he threatens to throw himself off a cliff. The textus receptus (the manuscript tradition) says “And if I don’t die, but you will be pleased”, where “but” translates the particle. There are two apparent problems — γε μήν can’t be used in a conditional sentence like that, and wouldn’t it make more sense without the “not”? Many editions print δή (another particle, perhaps “indeed”) in place of μή (not), and Denniston himself in this passage proposed changing γε μήν to γε μέν, meaning something like “at least”; and it can be used grammatically in a conditional sentence. One subsequent commentator gets the meaning of the particles the wrong way round (relying perhaps on library notes that became misleading somewhere between library and study), another says γε μήν is here used in “one of the senses” of γε μέν, which at least saves altering the text by conjecture. Or you can keep γε μήν in its native use, by supposing an anguished break in the sense between protasis and apodosis (more exactly, there would be no apodosis, if without then followed by an independent exclamation); this works with either μή or δή. It seems both the manuscripts and Greek authors themselves muddled up their particles, especially by the Hellenistic period. They are, after all, subtle!

One commentator mentions that Sappho threw herself off a cliff for love, and subsequent unrequited lovers used the same spot as a drastic remedy: if they survived, they would be cured of their love; which in our case, would doubtless please the beloved. Is that too neat and tidy?

I’m not competent to judge the question, but had I been reading Theocritus without the privilege of a well-stocked library, I would most likely never have encountered the admittedly interesting possibility that the text says the less obvious thing (difficilior lectio), relying instead on the judiciousness of commentators in making the sensible choice. And even if you have the library, it takes time to take stock of such questions. So perhaps the tortoise wins the race after all.


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