Friday, September 23, 2011

Mankind as Grandiose Gnomes

Sophocles (ca. 496–405 BC)
Greek dramatist.

Πολλά τα δεινά κουδέν ανθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.

(Spoken by the chorus in
Antigone, and taken from the Gnomokologikon.)

MANY a wonder lives and moves, but the wonder of all is man,
That courseth over the grey ocean, carried of Southern gale,
Faring amidst high-swelling seas that rudely surge around,
And Earth, supreme of mighty Gods, eldest, imperishable,
Eternal, he with patient furrow wears and wears away
As year by year the plough-shares turn and turn,—
Subduing her unwearied strength with children of the steed.
From: Sophocles: The Seven Plays in English Verse (1906) [Project Gutenberg]
by Lewis Campbell, M.A., from the University of St. Andrews

(Children of the steed = mules)


BY now the dominion of man over the earth has become a trite concept, and one might argue that the dominion is inevitably imperfect and therefore an inaccurate posit.

But, given the ambiguity of 'ta deina' which can also I think be translated as 'greatnesses' or 'terrors,' Sophocles' line can be interpreted as a sharp criticism of humans' destructive capacity, which is how I was taught it. (My class looked at the quotation in isolation, so I'd forgotten that it was by Sophocles and only figured out today that it comes from Antigone.)

While that idea is then too self-hating or smotheringly moody to do be fair or uplifting, at least it is comforting to have an expression to use in 'emo,' misanthropic moments. It is nicer besides than adopting a Malthusian philosophy or saying that mankind is a scourge, by which one generally means that one should like to have other people die and somehow be given an exception for one's superior, omniscient self.


Picture: Sophocles Bust, National Gallery in Oslo
Photographed by Cnyborg (via Wikimedia Commons)

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