This afternoon’s symposium

Ah, welcome! I trust you avoided the homework like a champion. That video was sillier than I remembered, and not in a Monty Python sense, either, alas. You have to feel for the philosopher-host, though: when the guy you’re talking about has only a handful of epigrams left to his name, it’s hard to fill half an hour. Can you blame him for talking about shopping?

Yeah, okay, I suppose I can.

In any case, this looks like the perfect time for a little symposium! And I mean that in the original “drinking together” sense. So pull up a couch, friend, and grab yourself a kylix of whatever pleases you. I’ve got some exotic Canadian tap water here at hand, because nothing makes me chatty like… well, I’m always pretty chatty. The water’s a resulting need, not the source of prolixity.

Prolixity! I know, right? I’m already sounding pompous. This is going to be the best symposium ever!

Long before I was an amateur Medievalist, I was very nearly a professional classicist. I seriously considered it; I looked at graduate programs and attempted to learn Latin on my own (I’d done four years of Greek but no Latin because I was a weirdo Hellenist). I finally came to my senses and skipped grad school althogether, but it was a close thing.

Looking back, I’m not even sure why I studied so much Greek. I’m not particularly talented at language (with the possible exception of English), but some kind of bloody-minded stubbornness kept me coming back year after year for another round of letting the aorist imperative* punch me in the face. I suppose I just liked a challenge, and nothing could knock me out cold like the dative case.

* Aorist is a PAST tense. How can you be imperative in the past? Sat down! Was quiet! I could never get my head around it.

My difficulties with the language notwithstanding, I was and still am very interested in the ancient Greeks themselves. Epicurus is a favourite of mine. The video barely touched on his ideas about atoms (free will is the result of atoms occasionally swerving in unexpected ways! Every time I have an unexpected idea, I cry “Swerve!” Ok, not really). My favourite of his aphorisms is, “Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not yet come, and when death comes, we are not.”

But he’s the the tip of a vast Hellenic iceburg. Poets, playwrights, philosophers, historians, scientists: these people were busy thinking and creating and, ok, fighting. But all the thinking is what interests me most.

I have a theory — a completely crackpot theory, just so we’re clear — about how the jerkface nature of the Greek gods facilitated the rise of Greek culture. When your gods are capricious, uncaring, and egotistical, and your afterlife consists of being a shadow among shadows, gibbering and squeaking, I think that frees you up to look at the world around you with more secular eyes. I think it was the utter uselessness of the gods that gave rise to science and philosophy, to say nothing of art that revels in the physicality of the human form. If there was anything you wanted to achieve, now was the time to do it; your achievements were your only shot at immortality, the way to thumb your nose at gods who didn’t care about you anyway.

But don’t quote me. I don’t really know; I wasn’t there. That’s my (idiosyncratic) impression, having read a lot of literature.

It’s the impious ones who appeal to me most, as you might expect, and I’m sure that weights my analysis. I did my senior thesis on the satires of Lucian of Samosata  (I compared his use of paradox and parody to Cervantes’s in Don Quixote; I was eccentric even then). Lucian pokes fun at gods and mortals both. He poses awkward questions for Zeus, goes fishing for philosophers off the edge of the Acropolis, catalogs the catty conversations of dead people, and – my favourite – sells philosophies to the highest bidder. He’s an equal-opportunity mocker, mostly, but he seems to have admired Epicurus. Since he couldn’t spare a good word for anyone else, he’s sometimes considered an Epicurean as a result.

And there’s the connection to Seraphina: I named my prince Lucian, in honour of dear old Lucian of Samosata. And while there’s no Epicurus in Goredd for him to admire, he’s quite taken with a Porphyrian philosopher by the name of Pontheus, who has quite an Epicurean bent himself.

Well, I don’t know about you, but my kylix is empty! Let’s do this again sometime, shall we?


6 Comments on “This afternoon’s symposium”

  1. David says:

    They must have been crazy to use an imperative in a past tense!

    • I’m sure it meant something specific to them, I just couldn’t make it mean anything to ME. They also have something halfway between the indicative and subjunctive moods called the optative. I never got the optative either. English just isn’t nuanced in the right ways to reflect some of this stuff!

  2. Joshua Macy says:

    According to google, the aorist imperative is simply a command to take an action that is to begin at once, right now. It’s an example of the aorist’s use in talking about things that are happening at a definite moment, rather than continuously over time; it’s separate from its use in talking about things in the past. At least that’s how I understand it after two minutes poking around…

    • Pft. You grammarbots. Scott’s the same way. Learn the algorithm, plug in the vocab. You make it sound so reasonable, but I’m from the touchy-feely school of language acquisition. My brain says, “Ooh, this word feels like an aorist, but I don’t recognize the ending. That’s ok, I’ll just figure it out from context!” And then I DON’T.

      One of my professors once passed out a flow chart for how to understand all the possible meanings of the dative (ancient Greek has no ablative, so the dative carries a lot of that baggage). I still couldn’t get my head around it.

      Honestly, I suspect my mistake was studying a language that isn’t spoken by anyone anymore. I did Spanish for many years, and was reasonably good at reading and writing but off-scale awesome at listening comprehension. I think if I’m to have any chance of learning a language, it has to enter through my ears.

      • Joshua Macy says:

        Needing to hear and converse in the spoken language would kind of make it hard to be a classicist… now if Scott would only hurry up with that time machine! Then you will have already gone back in the past and learned it fluently!

  3. Martina says:

    I just need to put a little heart ❤ here. I studied ancient Greek in high school (in Italy: Italian schools are awesome for that kind of stuff) and I loved that language to pieces. Soooo much better than Latin…


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