When ‘Good’ Means ‘Good Enough’

In the dialogue “Protagoras,” Plato attributes the following poem to Simonides of Ceos, the itinerant and influential poet who lived between the late-6th century and mid-5th century BC.

The text is anything but pristine. Plato did not quote all of the verses and he interpolated verses of his own (I’ve excised the lines editors have found most doubtful).

I’ve done some violence of my own: to make the poem’s argument–and what an argument it is!–somewhat easier to follow (and it still isn’t easy), I’ve divided the poem into more stanzas than exist in the Greek.

Simonides Fr. 542 (PMG)

It’s hard for a man to be truly good
in hands, feet, and mind,
a square, as it were, drawn without blemish . . .

Yet Pittacus’ maxim does not suit me,
though it was spoken by a wise man:
it’s hard, he said, to be good,
an honor only a god could enjoy.

A man can’t help but be bad when misfortune,
before which he’s helpless, overtakes him.
When things are going well, all men are good,
but when things are going badly, men are bad . . .

So, I’d never waste my allotted life searching
in empty, vain hope for the impossible:
an altogether unblemished man
among us men who eat the broad earth’s fruits.
But if I find one, I’ll let you know.

I praise and I love every man
who, when he’s free to choose,
does nothing blameworthy.
Against compulsion though,
not even the gods can fight . . .

<Someone> who’s not too lazy,
who judges what profits the city,
this is a sound man.
Even I can’t fault him,
not when the race of fools is countless.
Truth be told, all things are beautiful
when base things aren’t intermixed.

Fr.542 (PMG)

ἄνδρ᾿ ἀγαθὸν μὲν ἀλαθέως γενέσθαι
χαλεπὸν χερσίν τε καὶ ποσὶ καὶ νόῳ
τετράγωνον ἄνευ ψόγου τετυγμένον.

[Between 6 and 15 lines are missing]

οὐδέ μοι ἐμμελέως τὸ Πιττάκειον
νέμεται, καίτοι σοφοῦ παρὰ φωτὸς εἰρημένον·
χαλεπὸν φάτ᾿ ἐσθλὸν ἔμμεναι.
θεὸς ἂν μόνος τοῦτ᾿ ἔχοι γέρας, ἄνδρα δ᾿ οὐκ
ἔστι μὴ οὐ κακὸν ἔμμεναι,
ὃν ἀμήχανος συμφορὰ καθέλῃ·
πράξας γὰρ εὖ πᾶς ἀνὴρ ἀγαθός,
κακὸς δ᾿ εἰ κακῶς [ ]

τοὔνεκεν οὔ ποτ᾿ ἐγὼ τὸ μὴ γενέσθαι
δυνατὸν διζήμενος κενεὰν ἐς ἄπρακτον
ἐλπίδα μοῖραν αἰῶνος βαλέω,
πανάμωμον ἄνθρωπον, εὐρυεδέος ὅσοι
καρπὸν αἰνύμεθα χθονός·
ἐπὶ δ᾿ ὑμὶν εὑρὼν ἀπαγγελέω.
πάντας δ᾿ ἐπαίνημι καὶ φιλέω,
ἑκὼν ὅστις ἔρδῃ
μηδὲν αἰσχρόν· ἀνάγκᾳ
δ᾿ οὐδὲ θεοὶ μάχονται.

] μηδ᾿ ἄγαν ἀπάλαμνος εἰδώς
γ᾿ ὀνησίπολιν δίκαν,
ὑγιὴς ἀνήρ· οὐδὲ μή μιν ἐγὼ
μωμήσομαι· τῶν γὰρ ἠλιθίων
ἀπείρων γενέθλα.
πάντα τοι καλά, τοῖσίν
τ᾿ αἰσχρὰ μὴ μέμεικται.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.


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