Hands and Feet, Speech and Mind: Evaluating a Person in Early Greek Poetry

A twitter correspondent asked a question about a passage I posed by Simonides earlier today.

Simonides, Fr. 37.1-3

“It is hard for a man to be truly good, built evenly with hands, feet and mind without blame.”

ἄνδρ’ ἀγαθὸν μὲν ἀλαθέως γενέσθαι
χαλεπὸν χερσίν τε καὶ ποσὶ καὶ νόωι
τετράγωνον ἄνευ ψόγου τετυγμένον·

Gregory Nagy (Best of the Achaeans  1979, 1999) has drawn on the work of others to argue that in early Greek poetry (especially Homer and Hesiod) there is a tension between character and activities associated with force (biê) and intelligence (mêtis). He sees Achilles and Odysseus as representing these vectors respectively and, in turn, as the antagonism or contrast between the heroes and (in part) their epics as an extension or embodiment of these basic qualities. Similarly, structural interpretations of Greek myth have mapped these tensions onto gendered polarities as well—for Hesiod’s Theogony, the conflict between the male and female forces can be conceptualized as well as one between male biê and female mêtis. (For this, see especially, Leonard Muellner, The Anger of Achilles 1996)

In Simonides (above) the “hands and feet” are metonyms for physical deeds while the mind (noos) represents acts of mêtis (be them planning or speaking). In the Odyssey, the hero’s mêtis is often illustrated with reference to his noos or operations thereof. That the reference to a complete man by Simonides recalls these tensions and laments the rarity of the person who can resolve them is supported in part by a few passages from the Odyssey. In the first, it is clear that “hands and feet” represent deeds. In the second, Odysseus himself opposes this concern with the hands and feet as those of “appearance” and not thought or speaking.

Odyssey 8.147-8

“For as long as he lives, a man has no greater glory
than that which he wins with his own hands and feet”

οὐ μὲν γὰρ μεῖζον κλέος ἀνέρος, ὄφρα κεν ᾖσιν,
ἢ ὅ τι ποσσίν τε ῥέξῃ καὶ χερσὶν ἑῇσιν.

Odyssey 8.166-177

“Friend, you don’t speak well. No, you’re like a wreck of a man.
The gods don’t distribute charms in this well to all men,
Not in form, brains or their ability to speak
For while one man is less than impressive in appearance,
But a god crowns his form with words. And people delight
As they gaze upon him, while he speaks strongly,
With reverent shame, and he is conspicuous among those assembled
As they look upon his travel to the city as if he were a god.
Another man in turn is similar to the immortals in appearance,
But not charm hands about his words at all.
That’s you: brilliant in appearance and not anyone
Not even a god could make you otherwise. But you’re useless at thinking.”

“ξεῖν’, οὐ καλὸν ἔειπες· ἀτασθάλῳ ἀνδρὶ ἔοικας.
οὕτως οὐ πάντεσσι θεοὶ χαρίεντα διδοῦσιν
ἀνδράσιν, οὔτε φυὴν οὔτ’ ἂρ φρένας οὔτ’ ἀγορητύν.
ἄλλος μὲν γὰρ εἶδος ἀκιδνότερος πέλει ἀνήρ,
ἀλλὰ θεὸς μορφὴν ἔπεσι στέφει· οἱ δέ τ’ ἐς αὐτὸν
τερπόμενοι λεύσσουσιν, ὁ δ’ ἀσφαλέως ἀγορεύει,
αἰδοῖ μειλιχίῃ, μετὰ δὲ πρέπει ἀγρομένοισιν,
ἐρχόμενον δ’ ἀνὰ ἄστυ θεὸν ὣς εἰσορόωσιν.
ἄλλος δ’ αὖ εἶδος μὲν ἀλίγκιος ἀθανάτοισιν,
ἀλλ’ οὔ οἱ χάρις ἀμφὶ περιστέφεται ἐπέεσσιν,
ὡς καὶ σοὶ εἶδος μὲν ἀριπρεπές, οὐδέ κεν ἄλλως
οὐδὲ θεὸς τεύξειε, νόον δ’ ἀποφώλιός ἐσσι.

The passage above is especially charged in the Odyssey for a few reasons. For one, by calling the young Phaeacian prince atasthalos (ἀτασθάλῳ ἀνδρὶ ἔοικας) Odysseus aligns them with people who bring destruction upon themselves, including his own men and the suitors in Ithaca (For the atasthalia theme in the Odyssey see especially Cook, The Odyssey in Athens 1995; Bakker, The Meaning of Meat 2013, 96-119). I think that the comparison of the Phaeacians to the suitors is especially damning here. Both groups are characterized as being especially stupid, reckless, and concerned overmuch with leisure activities.

I think there is also an emerging political valence to the contrast. A presocratic fragments supports this.

Xenophanes, fr. 2. 16-19

“Swiftness of feet—the thing honored most in all of man’s acts of strength in the contest—could never make a city governed well.”

οὐδὲ μὲν εἰ ταχυτῆτι ποδῶν, τόπερ ἐστὶ πρότιμον,
ῥώμης ὅσσ’ ἀνδρῶν ἔργ’ ἐν ἀγῶνι πέλει,
τούνεκεν ἂν δὴ μᾶλλον ἐν εὐνομίηι πόλις εἴη·

As I have written elsewhere, “swiftness of feet” is a metonym for biê and the type of hero who succeeds through force and deeds rather than intelligence. For Xenophanes, this quality is an obstacle to eunomia (good governance). I cannot help but think that Simonides, Xenophanes and Homer are all involved in the same debate about what kind of a person should lead a city. Let’s not forget Archilochus too:

Archilochus, fr. 114

“I don’t love a tall leader, or one striding far,
Or one who takes pride in his hair or shaved head.
No, give me a shorter man, who looks bowed near the shins
But who is sure on his feet, and strong of heart.”

οὐ φιλέω μέγαν στρατηγὸν οὐδὲ διαπεπλιγμένον
οὐδὲ βοστρύχοισι γαῦρον οὐδ’ ὑπεξυρημένον,
ἀλλά μοι σμικρός τις εἴη καὶ περὶ κνήμας ἰδεῖν
ῥοικός, ἀσφαλέως βεβηκὼς ποσσί, καρδίης πλέως.

Pottery amphora decorated in the Fikellura style with a running man. Neck, triple cable. Shoulder, chain of simplified pomegranates, joined alternately. The diameter of the mouth is 0.16 m. from back to front, 0.135 m. between the handles: some pinching is common in Fikellura, but this is the extreme instance so far as is known.

c. 530 BCE (Miletus). Held in the British Museum: 1864,1007.156

Post-Script

The Odyssey pretty clearly falls on the side of mêtis and speech, as is clear from its hero. Ancient scholars sensed the themes deployed with Telemachus as well.

Schol QT ad Od. 8.166

“Friend, you do not speak well”: It is the Homeric custom to evaluate even the character of one you meet from his words. For elsewhere someone says about Telemachus “you are one of noble blood, dear child, based on the way you are speaking” (4.611). This is because he thinks that being well-born and educated necessarily coincide, and that speaking is conspicuous beyond all else. But Odysseus, does not maintain absolutely that he is reckless, but instead that he is like someone who is thanks to his response and what he said.”

ξεῖν’, οὐ καλὸν ἔειπες] ἔθος ἐστὶν ῾Ομηρικὸν ἐκ τῶν λόγων χαρακτηρίζεσθαι καὶ τὸν τρόπον τοῦ ἐντυγχάνοντος. καὶ ἐν ἄλλοις περὶ τοῦ Τηλεμάχου “αἵματος εἶς ἀγαθοῖο, φίλον τέκος, οἷ’ ἀγο-ρεύεις” (δ, 611.)· οἰόμενος τὸν εὐγενῆ καὶ πεπαιδευμένον ἀναγκαίως ὁμιλεῖν, πρεπόντως δὲ πάντα λέγειν. ᾿Οδυσσεὺς δὲ, οὐ γὰρ διεβεβαιώσατο τὸ ἀτάσθαλον αὐτὸν εἶναι, ἀλλ’ ἐοικέναι φησὶ τούτῳ διὰ τὸ ἀντειπεῖν καὶ εἰρηκέναι. Q.T.

 

 

One response

  1. Pingback: Hands and Feet, Speech and Mind: Evaluating a Person in Early Greek Poetry – Historyteller

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