Monthly Archives: March 2023

One way of establishing the kairos (what, and perhaps when) is divination. I read an interesting piece some time back in the LRB about pre-battle prognostications in the Ancient Near East: ritual sacrifice was held to guarantee success, as well as determine propitious tactics. If you won, that proved the effectiveness of the priests; if you lost, then they must have done something wrong. It was a perfect self-validating system that created order out of chaos, giving princes control over their military fortunes; rather as the ducking-stool was an effective way of dealing with the witch problem.

I thought I’d written about his here before, but I can’t find it. The I Ching, an old friend once said to me, works as long as you believe in it. This ancient text has acquired accretions like the Talmud, but at its core, relates a military campaign. This means it’s full of ‘kairetic’ questions: whether to cross the river, or wait; whether to humour your enemy, or attack; and so on. One consults the oracle by choosing a question, a matter of doubt; surely the habit of so doing encourages doubt itself, which it might or might not be a good thing to countenance more often. Then with yarrow stalks or coins, a hexagram is chosen, with adjunct passages brought into play by “moving lines”. Then you puzzle out how it might be relevant to the thing at hand, and what the upshot might be.

But this works without attributing heuristic potency to the oracle itself: the process of consulting it is a device to help see round corners. It might be that the fact of considering a possibility you shrink from serves either to close it off, or open it up; and the gnomic words of the hexagram allow either interpretation, according to what one is prepared to contemplate. Or it might be they suggest a course of action or inaction that never would have occurred to you, but which lay silent in the mind.

There’s also an attitude implicit especially in the accretions: a spiritual reticence, that might rub off on a person who lets it in. For those who can’t read ancient Chinese, there’s the difficulty of translation as well, with its tendency to learn only the lessons it chooses from what is an alien world. But the same problem exists for native speakers, perhaps pushed back centuries or millenia into the past, when at one time or another, the text acquired its patina.

I was going to mention this in the last post but one, which had far too many things in it. This is, I suppose, an example (or two examples) of how the kairos doesn’t actually exist in the world, till we make it, whether that means making the best of what might be seen as adversity, possibly of our own making, possibly thrust upon us by others; or trying our best to procure a better outcome, by judicious reflection, or consulting heart as well as head, or heart before head; or whatever is needful.

But on the whole, such a practice probably isn’t going to change a person’s course. The Assyrians and the Hittites will sooner or later come to blows. Thinking of getting a new job, having an affair, getting a bicycle? You probably will in the end.


Pascal’s wager — you might as well choose faith, because if you are wrong, you are no worse off — probably deserves deeper consideration within its time and within the Pensées. I mention it here merely to note that it’s commonly regarded as a bit feeble. Perhaps Pascal intended it as an overture to the sceptical reader, and felt no need himself of such an inducement. The whole way of thinking the question implies is one in which the battle is already lost.

The God of the theologians has many faces, and that inconsistency is both disingenuous and fatal. God cannot be at once a person with whom we engage (inviting theodicy) and a cosmic principle. [The concept of “person” has forensic roots.] But at some point, as is still the case in most of the world today, the existence of God seemed obvious, without whom the whole moral and cosmic order would come tumbling down. Atheism was a position both barely conceivable, and intolerable. The atheist would stand outside society as an amoral predator. In Deism, this idea was watered down to the extent that religion was necessary to maintain social order — a poor remnant of the sense of immanent and sustaining divinity, in which the moral principle that the godhead embodies holds up our hearts and the world.

The Greeks divided things up across the pantheon, a cosmology displaced for the thinking man by the quietist philosophies of the Hellenistic period (when life was to be endured, enjoyed, or mocked, now it could no longer be engaged in as politics by a free citizenry — according to the choice of Stoicism, Epicureanism, or Cynicism). We should not dismiss the Olympian way of thinking so lightly. The gods symbolised the dimensions and parameters of life, and their combination to wreak havoc as history’s Muse dictated. Here is Euripides on Eros (no Greek this time):

Eros, god of love, distilling liquid desire down upon the eyes, bringing sweet pleasure to the souls of those against whom you make war, never to me may you show yourself to my hurt nor ever come but in due measure and harmony. For the shafts neither of fire nor of the stars exceed the shaft of Aphrodite, which Eros, Zeus’s son, hurls forth from his hand. ‘Tis folly, folly, that the land of Greece makes great the slaughter of cattle by the banks of the Alpheus and in the Pythian house of Apollo if we pay no honor to Eros, mankind’s despot, who holds the keys to the sweet chambers of Aphrodite! He ruins mortals and sets them upon all manner of disaster when he visits them.

Euripides Hipp. 525 ff, translation by David Kovacs

Plato, too, notes that Eros deserves more attention among the gods than he gets (Symposium, 177a; 189c). Between florid paganism, the Greek faible for personification, and a pressing awareness of the same facts of life with which we too in our rational age contend, nothing could make more sense, and it is anachronistic to insist that it’s merely figurative, a manner of speaking. These are the present forces of life, be it eros, stormy seas, nice compunction, hunting or agriculture.

That brings me to my point that we do just the same in our own way. We would like to find “meaning” in life, and just as for the Greeks after Alexander, that seems to call for an inward turn, and an openness to wishful thinking. Life will not bear the burden. Materialism and fanaticism are stronger than the bonds of kindness. Parents and children betray one another. The best is squeezed out of us in — almost always — deforming, demeaning work. There is no fairness. War continually returns as the map is redrawn. homo homini lupus. The Fates spin the thread of our lives, measure it out and cut it off, before we go down to the shades.

And yet, our cultural imaginarium is populated by ideals we may put on for a while like a garment, before we must pass it on, notions of the worthwhile, such as the virtues (steadfastness, reasonableness, fairness, forethought); or art; or the family or community; truth, reason; love, faith, friendship. They are not ours to own, but we may inhabit them. Are these not our gods?

That was the title of the last post but one, till I realised it risked becoming intractable. The question remains whether it would have been better to synthesize the disparate material, or separate it; there is value in marrying ideas that seem ready to fly apart. The natural break is that it’s possible to consider the idea of the kairos (again, with a certain regret, or even distaste, transliterated) without placing it in the context of a particular Greek play: it is established that it can mean the right thing, not necessarily the right time.

The marriage, or leap, I want to make is between this idea and the process of writing, with reference especially to this writing. I used to keep — still keep — a journal, in which on the whole I don’t write about my actual life, something I lost interest in doing in my twenties. But I think I don’t write so much, or in so articulate a way, about ideas; that has been displaced to this blog, which in turn stands in the place of other forms of writing, that could be called literature. There is no public for Apipucos, but the very idea of having readers makes me try harder to bring these musings into focus; nonetheless, they don’t arrive anywhere. One could take that as a virtue: if I felt the need to establish incremental conclusions, I would just be writing some undergraduate essay, and worse, those who actually know about classics or epistemology or whatever it might be would probably tell me to go back to the library and get my facts straight. Most blogs, I think, really exist as an act of self-promotion, to ponder and advertise some other activity; to put it another way, their essential raison d’être is as a form of ephemeral engagement.

Contrast the Zibaldone of Giacomo Leopardi, with its thousands of pages of careful argument. The existential hesitation I propose is whether I would do better to tauten my journal, and archive this public face? Or undertake some public project with more traction on the world?

Ten years ago, when the florid viciousness of the internet today was a mere peachy bloom on the silicon, I caught the tail of a controversy about creative writing and the MFA, and made a snarky comment about something someone said about it, not knowing that she would get an alert as a result, as I realised when my post received a silent visit from across the water. (I believe this is called a “pingback”.) Thinking about what the blogosphere is actually for brought my misdeed to mind, and I returned for a look and saw not only that I had been unfair (for which I sincerely apologise) but what good sense and rich reflections on the writing life lay below in the same post by Sonya Chung . Here is the corpus delicti:

I will begin with some thoughts about kairos to prepare the way for the parallel with Chung on good (or perhaps rather, better) writing. Granted the possibility of making mistakes, through dithering or hubris or (thinking of Phaedra) misplaced compunction — whatever it may be — how do you tell? Even in hindsight, that may not be as easy as it might seem; “the road not taken” is one we probably won’t return to as “way leads on to way”. Given a choice, one should try to do the right or best thing (rarely though in practice is there a choice, constrained as we are by our commitments, habits, prejudices); but afterwards, isn’t what makes the difference, rather than the rightness of the choice, following it through with conviction? If for example a talented graduate decides to seek fortune in the new world, or remain in the old country, consequential as the choice is, either way, the chances of success probably lie not in one way being right and the other wrong, but subsequent application and good fortune? Hindsight will then approve the choice, whichever it was; within reason, in the fullest sense, that is, an intemperate, imprudent or unjust choice risks landing so badly it is beyond salvation.

In that post, Chung says that “the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty” — because success is so uncertain, both literary glory and the achievement on which it is supposed to rest (but public taste is fickle). She gives some examples, and then comes this marvellous metaphor:

As when you learn to drive a stick shift, there is a kind of “friction zone,” where your inner imperative to write and your tolerance for uncertainty cross each other, and the energy balance of that intersection either sets you off into motion, or you stall. I have seen many talented would-be writers stall (especially on steep inclines). Some find their way to restarting; others give up for good, they trade in for an automatic. As a teacher, I try to exemplify and nurture a deep love of reading and of sentence-and-story-making—one’s only stay against doubt and the feeling of non-existence that will inevitably creep in. I try to give student writers enough “gas” to help them manage and master the friction zone, so that they come to know that feeling of ignition, of takeoff, both bumpy and smooth, and develop a liking for it, an abiding passion, even an addiction.

If we just knew what “good writing” was, it could be turned out by the yard. All we can do is “keep writing; which by the way is the only way to write better.”

I feel like a suppliant at the temple of the Muses, not admitted as it rains for forty days and forty nights. What keeps me in vigil at the door is the abiding belief in the importance of true language, callida junctura, the mot juste, the aperçu. This can be seen too in the philologist’s pursuit of the truth of the text: both the true reading, and the true tone and sense; though none of these may be entirely recoverable, with judicious enquiry, perhaps they may come closer. For example, are the nurse’s words εἴ τοι δοκεῖ σοι at line 507 of the Hippolytus, to a reluctant, but crumbling Phaedra: “Well if that’s what you think, (then you shouldn’t have done it, but here we are) …” (giving easier sense) or “Very well then, (you shouldn’t have done it, but here we are) …” (reflecting — perhaps — idiomatic speech)? The colour of this moment — whether Phaedra is cajoled or enticed over the hump — is accordingly quite different, and the whole tone of the play also, by the accumulation of similar tough choices.

I have just discovered something rather marvellous. It is well known that the Greeks had several terms for love; C.S. Lewis wrote a book on the “four loves”, namely Christian love or love from charity (agape); eros or sexual love; philia, the love of friendship; and storge, familial love, especially between parents and children — less commonly of spouses, since after all, blood is thicker than water. Each has its cognate verb, in the case of the latter, stergo. But it has (broadly) two senses, the second of which is to endure evils, or as we might perhaps say, bear with them. One can, for instance, stergein a tyrant, or one’s fate, or one’s ills.

It’s easy to read too much into this sort of thing, and to do the observation justice, I’d need to delve; but at first sight, it appears illuminating.

The commitment to one’s family is not subject to evaluation. They are just there, part of the furniture; it is horrifying when parents abandon their wayward offspring, or vice versa. I’m also reminded of something a friend said to me which I may have mentioned here: in the end, you don’t love someone despite their faults, but because of their faults. The mid point might be: with their faults.

For once, I’ve transliterated Greek — fair enough I think, as I’m not discussing texts.

Plutarch’s comment on Phaedra’s tricky words about αἰδώς should not really be taken as an interpretation; he quotes the snatch of Euripides as an adornment and exemplum of his own argument, which as far as I can make it out goes something like this: when we are guided by an emotion in concert with reason, all is well, but if the emotion stands alone, it tends to lead us astray. Nonetheless — this is the matter that interests him — the emotion itself is of the same nature, rather than being a separate animal. Now Euripides actually says that there are “two kinds” of αἰδώς, and they are distinguished by the καιρός, if only that were clear. I’m not sure either author’s point would change in substance by taking the question the other way, and it may be a distinction without a difference. Here is Barrett again on the bad αἰδώς:

αἰδώς, which inhibits a man from self-assertion in the face of the claims of others, is properly a virtue; but it can turn easily into a diffidence or indecisiveness which prevents him from taking a firm line at all, and that done it becomes a vice — he αἰδεῖται, cannot bring himself, to do even what he knows to be right … [Phaedra] knows that this indecisiveness, this lack of resolution, is her besetting fault, and she names and dwells on it here because it prevents her from fighting down her love as she knows she should … We can see this same lack of resolution hampering her and leading her astray at every turn: by keeping her from the swift execution of the suicide on which she thinks she is determined, by allowing the Nurse to worm out of her the secret she had meant to keep secret; in a moment, at the very turning-point of her fate, we shall see it immobilizing her when she suspects the Nurse of betrayal and yet has not the strength to hold her back.

p. 230

If the καιρός were clear, there would not be “two kinds” of αἰδώς; so she says. It is not, and how then are we to recognise it? Yet if we spare the sickle in Diana’s sacred grove, the garden will flourish, just as parents might spare the rod, even though believing that to do so is to spoil the child; today we would praise their humanity. The dewy meadow, ungrazed and unshorn, cries out for economic rationalisation, but we will be richer for “not quite liking” that.

I see an example of the meaning Barrett finds in Phaedra’s speech in my own life. There is something I know I must do — really, it is not in doubt, though I could come at it various ways, the hesitation between them alters nothing of substance — but I just can’t bring myself to put it into effect; dither too long though, and I will rue it. One might consider this to be “acratic αἰδώς”, and it feels so different from the caring hand of the gardener. Perhaps what the two forms have in common is that they represent a kind of inertia that goes some way to stop us talking ourselves into things we might come to regret, but which may also prevent us from doing what is necessary. Nor need virtue coincide with right action: for example, we may hesitate to put our parents out to pasture in a “home”, and though the right time might have been sooner, the delay shows the very reverence that is at the heart of αἰδώς.

It might tentatively be said that αἰδώς is always a kind of discomfort, but if it is the virtuous kind, it passes when we renounce the thing it made us shrink from.

These moral concepts are alien to our way of thinking, but the strangeness is only skin deep: if we can recognise how they feel when we try them on for size, then they must match our own experience too. Specifically, though we do not teach it and might not know how to name it, I think the scruple that makes us hold back is naturally recognised as a virtue, just as “assertiveness” arouses distaste; the latter’s prospects of joining the canonical seven are surely low. The result is a conservative tendency in our lives and outlook, namely, in microcosm and macrocosm, from the hearth to the forum. Rather than being ground, the proper place of an axe is by the woodpile, in repose.

One starstruck commentator on Euripides’ Hippolytus describes the following passage as “one of the most exquisite in all Greek poetry”. Hippolytus has plucked a garland from Artemis’s sacred grove, with which he crowns her statue (73 ff):

σοὶ τόνδε πλεκτὸν στέφανον ἐξ ἀκηράτου
λειμῶνος, ὦ δέσποινα, κοσμήσας φέρω,
ἔνθ᾽ οὔτε ποιμὴν ἀξιοῖ φέρβειν βοτὰ
οὔτ᾽ ἦλθέ πω σίδηρος, ἀλλ᾽ ἀκήρατον
μέλισσα λειμῶν᾽ ἠρινὴ διέρχεται,
Αἰδὼς δὲ ποταμίαισι κηπεύει δρόσοις,
ὅσοις διδακτὸν μηδὲν ἀλλ᾽ ἐν τῇ φύσει
τὸ σωφρονεῖν εἴληχεν ἐς τὰ πάντ᾽ ἀεί,
τούτοις δρέπεσθαι, τοῖς κακοῖσι δ᾽ οὐ θέμις.
ἀλλ᾽, ὦ φίλη δέσποινα, χρυσέας κόμης
ἀνάδημα δέξαι χειρὸς εὐσεβοῦς ἄπο.
μόνῳ γάρ ἐστι τοῦτ᾽ ἐμοὶ γέρας βροτῶν:
σοὶ καὶ ξύνειμι καὶ λόγοις ἀμείβομαι,
κλύων μὲν αὐδῆς, ὄμμα δ᾽ οὐχ ὁρῶν τὸ σόν.
τέλος δὲ κάμψαιμ᾽ ὥσπερ ἠρξάμην βίου.

For you, lady, I bring this plaited garland I have made, gathered from an inviolate meadow, a place where the shepherd does not dare to pasture his flocks, where the iron scythe has never come: no, it is inviolate, and the bee makes its way through it in the spring-time. Shamefast Awe tends this garden with streams of river-water, for those to pluck who have acquired nothing by teaching but rather in whose very nature chastity [I prefer: temperance] in all things has ever won its place: the base may not pluck. But, dear lady, take this coronal for your golden hair from a worshipful hand. For I alone of mortals have this privilege: I spend my days with you and speak with you, I hear your voice but never see your face. May I end my life just as I have begun it!

Translation by David Kovacs, from Perseus

Only the pure [by nature, not instruction] may pluck; all others refrain, from the feeling of Αἰδώς. As a result, the meadow luxuriates, as it were tended by the personified “reverence” that holds off the sharp iron, and waters the verdant green. It is according to W. S. Barrett’s commentary that which “prevents a man from breaking the taboo — αἰδώς, the feeling of ‘not quite liking’ which inhibits his natural self-assertion or self-seeking in face of the requirements of morality and the like …”

So much by way of introduction to a passage from the speech later in the play in which Phaedra, who has fallen in love with her stepson Hippolytus, explains the principles that underpin her decision to commit suicide. I will pick out a few lines that have puzzled the heads of commentators, not to join their conversation, though inevitably I take a certain view of the question, if only as with the duck-rabbit, which one cannot see both ways simultaneously; but rather, to unpick the notion of moral responsibility that has αἰδώς at its heart, and the cognate verb αἰδοῦμαι. Phaedra says she came to what is her settled view by mulling it over νυκτὸς ἐν μακρῷ χρόνῳ, while lying awake at night. She doesn’t think men come to ruin and evil through natural moral infirmity (κατὰ γνώμης φύσιν / πράσσειν κάκιονa); rather, she believes most of us understand and recognise what is right, but sometimes still don’t do it (in contrast to Plato’s view that no one intentionally errs) whether out of indolence, or putting pleasure before virtue. Life holds many pleasures, and (384 ff)

μακραί τε λέσχαι καὶ σχολή, τερπνὸν κακόν,
αἰδώς τε. δισσαὶ δ᾽ εἰσίν, ἡ μὲν οὐ κακή,
ἡ δ᾽ ἄχθος οἴκων. εἰ δ᾽ ὁ καιρὸς ἦν σαφής,
οὐκ ἂν δύ᾽ ἤστην ταὔτ᾽ ἔχοντε γράμματα.

… long chats and leisure, a pleasant evil — and αἰδώς, which has two kinds, one not bad, the other a weight [to crush] houses. If the καιρός were clear, there would not be two of them made up of the same letters. This is her view of the matter, she goes on to say, and there is no way I will change my mind.

Plutarch, discussing how emotion may go hand in hand with reason, or war with it, quoted the passage and remarked: ἆρ᾽οὐ δῆλός ἐστι συνῃσθημένος; ἐν ἑαυτῷ τοῦτο τὸ πάθος πολλάκις μὲν ἀκολουθοῦν τῷ λόγῳ καὶ συγκατακοσμούμενον, πολλάκις δὲ παρὰ τὸν λόγον ὄκνοις καὶ μελλήσεσι καιροὺς καὶ πράγματα λυμαινόμενον; [Euripides] had evidently observed this feeling in his own breast, often going the same way as reason and helping it to set things in order, but often going against reason and producing delays and hesitations that played havoc with his behaviour (De virtute morali 448f, Barrett’s translation)

The passage is an important one that lies at the heart of Phaedra’s understanding of her dilemma and her resolve to end it; the rest of her speech describes how she first tried to keep her love silent, then to master it by self-restraint, turning finally to the plan of suicide, to protect her good name and that of her children: she reviles adultery, which would be the shameful ruin of them all. But it has caused commentators to scratch their heads, and made me scratch mine too. The list of pleasures is rather narrow, even if it is to include virtue (τὸ καλόν); and what are the two senses of αἰδώς? One editor cuts several lines, another suggests there may be one or two missing.

αἰδώς both overlaps and contrasts with the normal Greek word for shame, αἰσχύνομαι, but as Barrett says in his commentary (p. 206f, on 244 of the play), it’s “properly an inhibitory emotion — not the retrospective shame of a guilty conscience, but the shame that restrains one and keeps one’s conscience clear”. It’s what leads the shepherd to respect the sanctuary and graze his flock elsewhere. A nice example from the play itself of the difference in usage is the moment Phaedra is induced to reveal her secret to the nurse, by the suppliant posture she adopts, clasping her mistress’s hand and knees: δώσω· σέβας γὰρ χειρὸς αἰδοῦμαι τὸ σόν (I relent, out of reverence for your hand, 335); contrast 244: αἰδούμεθα γὰρ τὰ λελεγμένα μοι (I wish I could take back what I said). The distinction is blurred, but can still be felt. One example that comes to mind is the reluctance many feel to leave food uneaten on their plate, with its origin a generation or two back in the time of rationing: it’s not (in my case) shame, but simply a sense of impropriety.

The good αἰδώς can be distinguished from the bad according to the καιρός. We may think of it as the right time or due season, but in the fifth century, the word had the broader sense of what is opportune or in keeping, hitting the mark rather than falling short. One thinks of Socrates’ δαίμων warning him at times against a certain course of action. It is, then, a salutary reticence. Its bad form is shying away from action that is necessary: dithering, lack of moral resolve, letting things slide, letting things go. Phaedra sees such a weakness in herself, and her solution is the most decisive action of all.

αἰδώς is not a virtue in much favour in our shrill twilight; all too easily dismissed as feeble, or enfeebling, scruple. Differently from this reading of Euripides (which is basically Barrett’s), I see in it the quiet potential to be our saving grace, where received opinion and specious strident voices carry the day.

One example of αἰδώς in the domain of classical scholarship is the reluctance to emend the textus receptus (notorious in the case of Housman). This passage reflects the tendency for difficulty in construing the words, and uncertainty as to what they should properly be, to coincide with beauty of language and literary or intellectual interest. Whatever is being said here is part hidden behind a gauzy veil, but it may even have been so when the poet first put stylus to scroll. The best we can do is read with the sensitivity, attention to detail and temperance we can muster, adducing textual and lexical parallels, recognising the fragility of the most judicious understanding at which we provisionally arrive.