What Good Is Speech? Hesiod on A Good King

Palaiophron’s post on the words of Piccolomini reminded me of a passage from the other end of Classical Antiquity, the opening of Hesiod’s Theogony, where the poet, somewhat unexpectedly, digresses on the importance of poetic speech to kings:

Theogony, 80-93:

[Kalliope] is the Muse who attends to kings and singers.
Whomever of the god-raised Kings the daughters of great Zeus
Honor and look upon when he is born,
On his tongue they pour sweet dew
And gentle words flow out of his mouth. Then the people
All look upon him as he judges the laws
With straight decisions. He speaks confidently
And quickly resolves a conflict with skill.
For this reason, kings are intelligent, so that they
May effect retributive actions in the assembly when men are harmed,
And with ease as they persuade everyone with gentle words.
When he walks into the contest ground people propitiate him
Like a god with gentle reverence, and he stands out among the assembled.
Such is the gift of the muses for men.

ἡ γὰρ καὶ βασιλεῦσιν ἅμ’ αἰδοίοισιν ὀπηδεῖ.
ὅντινα τιμήσουσι Διὸς κοῦραι μεγάλοιο
γεινόμενόν τε ἴδωσι διοτρεφέων βασιλήων,
τῷ μὲν ἐπὶ γλώσσῃ γλυκερὴν χείουσιν ἐέρσην,
τοῦ δ’ ἔπε’ ἐκ στόματος ῥεῖ μείλιχα· οἱ δέ νυ λαοὶ
πάντες ἐς αὐτὸν ὁρῶσι διακρίνοντα θέμιστας
ἰθείῃσι δίκῃσιν· ὁ δ’ ἀσφαλέως ἀγορεύων
αἶψά τι καὶ μέγα νεῖκος ἐπισταμένως κατέπαυσε·
τούνεκα γὰρ βασιλῆες ἐχέφρονες, οὕνεκα λαοῖς
βλαπτομένοις ἀγορῆφι μετάτροπα ἔργα τελεῦσι
ῥηιδίως, μαλακοῖσι παραιφάμενοι ἐπέεσσιν·
ἐρχόμενον δ’ ἀν’ ἀγῶνα θεὸν ὣς ἱλάσκονται
αἰδοῖ μειλιχίῃ, μετὰ δὲ πρέπει ἀγρομένοισι.
τοίη Μουσάων ἱερὴ δόσις ἀνθρώποισιν.

Whatever one’s political leanings, the ideals for a leader in this passage resonate in almost any era–that a leader should use speech to resolve conflicts (rather than create them), to use speech with justice in mind, and, through both, to create a safer, more unified public.


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