Theognis of Megara
Theognis of Megara (fl. 6th century BC) was an ancient Greek poet. More than half of the elegiac poetry of Greece before the Alexandrian period is included in the 1,400 lines ascribed to Theognis. There is a good deal of controversy over Theognis: as Campbell (1967) put it, "The field of Theognidean studies is battle-scarred, strewn with theories dead or dying, the scene of bitter passions and blind partisanship." Controversies range from the division of individual poems (which are unmarked in the manuscript) to the question of which Megara Theognis claims to be from: although most scholars currently agree that it was indeed the Megara of mainland Greece, one of our earliest sources on the matter, Plato, is very confident that Theognis is in fact from Sicilian Megara.
The greatest controversy, however, has to do with the identity of the author. The corpus is clearly not written by a single poet, inasmuch as it can be dated chronologically to a span of over two hundred years, ranging from the tyranny of the Cypselids to the coming of the "Median" (Persian) War, and includes a number of verses securely attributed to Solon, Tyrtaeus, and Mimnermus (see below). It is often considered that Theognis was, rather than an individual poet, an aristocratic poetic stance from which any number of symposiasts might deliver their own (or repeat pre-composed) elegies: thus the common use of scare quotes, "Theognis", or reference to the title of the corpus, Theognidea, instead of naming the poet. Such a theory is, of course, extremely nuanced and far from proven.
Another major controversy centers around the "seal" (sphragis) of Theognis, which the poetry claims will distinguish his elegies from those of impostors, guaranteeing the poem's authenticity. Theories propose that it is Theognis' name itself (l.23) which constitutes the sphragis; others have proposed that the address of Kyrnus, Theognis' young mentee, marks the poems as original. Since the poetry itself is clearly a composite work, influenced by many poets and times, it seems that the sphragis has failed to keep the original poetry in tact. Ford (1985), however, argues that the seal serves to mark a style of poetry - a poetic stance - rather than any particular author: "its prime function was the codification and authorization of a body of gnomological poetry as representing the standards and values of the true agathoi."
- One finds many companions for food and drink, but in a serious business a man's companions are few.
- Line 115.
- Even to a wicked man a divinity gives wealth, Cyrus, but to few men comes the gift of excellence.
- Line 149.
- Surfeit begets insolence, when prosperity comes to a bad man.
- Line 153.
- Adopt the character of the twisting octopus, which takes on the appearance of the nearby rock. Now follow in this direction, now turn a different hue.
- Line 215.
- Too many tongues have gates which fly apart
Too easily, and care for many things
That don’t concern them.
- Lines 421-423, as translated by Dorothea Wender
- Πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον
μηδ' ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου,
φύντα δ' ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀίδαο περῆσαι
καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.
- The best of all things for earthly men is not to be born and not to see the beams of the bright sun; but if born, than as quickly as possible to pass the gates of Hades, and to lie deep buried.
- Lines 425-428.
- Ploutos, no wonder mortals worship you:
You are so tolerant of their sins!
- Lines 523-524, as translated by Dorothea Wender
- Unless the gods deceive my mind,
That man is forging fetters for himself.
- Lines 539-540, as translated by Dorothea Wender
- Wine is wont to show the mind of man.
- Line 500.
- No man takes with him to Hades all his exceeding wealth.
- Line 725, comparable to: "For when he dieth he shall carry nothing away, his glory shall not descend after him", Psalm xlix, 17.
- Bright youth passes swiftly as a thought.
- Line 985.
Quotes about Theognis
- Theognis appears as a finely formed nobleman who has fallen on bad times, with the passions of a nobleman such as his time loved, full of fatal hatred toward the upward striving masses, tossed about by a sad fate that wore him down and made him milder in many respects. He is a characteristic image of that old, ingenious somewhat spoiled and no longer firmly rooted blood nobility, placed at the boundary of an old and a new era, a distorted Janus-head, since what is past seems so beautiful and enviable, that which is coming — something that basically has an equal entitlement — seems disgusting and repulsive; a typical head for all those noble figures who represent the aristocracy prior to a popular revolution and who struggle for the existence of the class of nobles as for their individual existence.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, as quoted in Friedrich Nietzsche (1978) by Curt Paul Janz, quoted and translated in On the Genealogy of Morality : A Polemic (1998) by Maudemarie Clark and Alan Swensen, p. 133.