A Lot of Knowledge, But No Power: Herodotus on the Most Evil Pain

Because this conversation happens after a shared meal, it is thematically appropriate for this month.

Herodotus, Histories 9.16

After dinner when they were drinking together, the Persian next to him asked [Thersander] in Greek what country was his and Thersander said Orkhomenos. Then he responded “Since you are my dinner companion and have had a drink with me I want to leave a memorial of my belief so that you may understand and be able to make some advantageous plans.

Do you see these Persians dying and the army we left in camp by the river? In a short time you will see that few of these men remain.” The Persian stopped saying these things and cried a lot.

After he was surprised at this confession, he responded, “Isn’t it right to tell these things to Mardonios and those noble Persians around him?”

Then he responded, “Friend, whatever a god decrees is impossible for humans to change: for they say that no one wants to believe what is true. Many of us Persians know this and follow because we are bound by necessity. This is most hateful pain for men: when someone knows a lot but has no power.”

I heard these things from Thersander of Orkhomnos and he also told me that he said them to people before the battle occurred at Plataea.”

2] ὡς δὲ ἀπὸ δείπνου ἦσαν, διαπινόντων τὸν Πέρσην τὸν ὁμόκλινον Ἑλλάδα γλῶσσαν ἱέντα εἰρέσθαι αὐτὸν ὁποδαπός ἐστι, αὐτὸς δὲ ὑποκρίνασθαι ὡς εἴη Ὀρχομένιος. τὸν δὲ εἰπεῖν ‘ἐπεὶ νῦν ὁμοτράπεζός τέ μοι καὶ ὁμόσπονδος ἐγένεο, μνημόσυνά τοι γνώμης τῆς ἐμῆς καταλιπέσθαι θέλω, ἵνα καὶ προειδὼς αὐτὸς περὶ σεωυτοῦ βουλεύεσθαι ἔχῃς τὰ συμφέροντα. ’

‘ [3] ὁρᾷς τούτους τοὺς δαινυμένους Πέρσας καὶ τὸν στρατὸν τὸν ἐλίπομεν ἐπὶ τῷ ποταμῷ στρατοπεδευόμενον: τούτων πάντων ὄψεαι ὀλίγου τινὸς χρόνου διελθόντος ὀλίγους τινὰς τοὺς περιγενομένους.’ ταῦτα ἅμα τε τὸν Πέρσην λέγειν καὶ μετιέναι πολλὰ τῶν δακρύων.

[4] αὐτὸς δὲ θωμάσας τὸν λόγον εἰπεῖν πρὸς αὐτὸν ‘οὐκῶν Μαρδονίῳ τε ταῦτα χρεόν ἐστι λέγειν καὶ τοῖσι μετ᾽ ἐκεῖνον ἐν αἴνῃ ἐοῦσι Περσέων;’ τὸν δὲ μετὰ ταῦτα εἰπεῖν ‘ξεῖνε, ὅ τι δεῖ γενέσθαι ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἀμήχανον ἀποτρέψαι ἀνθρώπῳ: οὐδὲ γὰρ πιστὰ λέγουσι ἐθέλει πείθεσθαι οὐδείς. ’

‘ [5] ταῦτα δὲ Περσέων συχνοὶ ἐπιστάμενοι ἑπόμεθα ἀναγκαίῃ ἐνδεδεμένοι, ἐχθίστη δὲ ὀδύνη ἐστὶ τῶν ἐν ἀνθρώποισι αὕτη, πολλὰ φρονέοντα μηδενὸς κρατέειν.’ ταῦτα μὲν Ὀρχομενίου Θερσάνδρου ἤκουον, καὶ τάδε πρὸς τούτοισι, ὡς αὐτὸς αὐτίκα λέγοι ταῦτα πρὸς ἀνθρώπους πρότερον ἢ γενέσθαι ἐν Πλαταιῇσι τὴν μάχην.


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A Sweet Evil: Schadenfreude in Ancient Greek

From the Suda

Epikhairekakía: is pleasure at someone else’s troubles”

ἐπιχαιρεκακία δὲ ἡδονὴ ἐπ’ ἀλλοτρίοις κακοῖς

Diogenes Laertius, Vita Philosophorum 7. 114

“Pleasure is irrational excitement at gaining what seems to be needed. As a subset of pleasure, are elation, pleasure at someone else’s pain (epikhairekakía) and delight, which is similar to turning (trepsis), a mind’s inclination to weakness. The embrace of pleasure is the surrender of virtue.”

῾Ηδονὴ δέ ἐστιν ἄλογος ἔπαρσις ἐφ’ αἱρετῷ δοκοῦντι ὑπάρχειν, ὑφ’ ἣν τάττεται κήλησις, ἐπιχαιρεκακία, τέρψις, διάχυσις. κήλησις μὲν οὖν ἐστιν ἡδονὴ δι’ ὤτων κατακηλοῦσα· ἐπιχαιρεκακία δὲ ἡδονὴ ἐπ’ ἀλλοτρίοις κακοῖς· τέρψις δέ, οἷον τρέψις, προτροπή τις ψυχῆς ἐπὶ τὸ ἀνειμένον· διάχυσις δ’ ἀνάλυσις ἀρετῆς.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1107a 8-11

“There are some vices whose names are cloaked with evil, for instance, pleasure at evils [epikhairekakía], shamelessness, and envy; and there are deeds too: adultery, theft, and manslaughter. All these things and those of this sort are called evil on their own, it is not an indulgence in them or an improper use that is wrong.”

ἔνια γὰρ εὐθὺς ὠνόμασται συνειλημμένα μετὰ τῆς φαυλότητος, οἷον ἐπιχαιρεκακία
ἀναισχυντία φθόνος, καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν πράξεων μοιχεία κλοπὴ ἀνδροφονία· πάντα γὰρ ταῦτα καὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα λέγεται τῷ αὐτὰ φαῦλα εἶναι, ἀλλ’ οὐχ αἱ ὑπερβολαὶ αὐτῶν οὐδ’ αἱ ἐλλείψεις.

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Twitter correspondents have been providing examples from other languages:


To Live is to Feel Joy and Grief Alike: Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, 30-44.

At the beginning of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis we find Agamemnon awake in turmoil, much the same way as he begins book 10 of the Iliad. An old attendant tries to calm him down. Then he asks for a story.

Agamemnon: “This is it, the noble risk,
And its ambition
It is sweet, but it causes pain when it is closer.
Sometimes divine decrees, incomplete, will
Upturn our life, and then the many implacable beliefs
Of human beings will shatter it.”

Old Man: “I do not like these thoughts from a leader
Atreus did not bear you for only life’s good,
But you must feel joy and grief: For you are a mortal.
Even if you do not want it, these things
Are still willed by the gods.
But you kindled the light of the lamp
And wrote on that tablet which you
Worry in your hand and you pour out
The same words again and then
You seal them only to wipe off the seal
And throw the pine frame to the ground
As you shed flowing tears. You seem at a loss-
You seem like someone who has gone mad.
What pains you? What’s new, king?
Come, share your tale with me.”

Αγ. τοῦτο δέ γ’ ἐστὶν τὸ καλὸν σφαλερόν,
καὶ τὸ πρότιμον
γλυκὺ μέν, λυπεῖ δὲ προσιστάμενον.
τοτὲ μὲν τὰ θεῶν οὐκ ὀρθωθέντ’
ἀνέτρεψε βίον, τοτὲ δ’ ἀνθρώπων
γνῶμαι πολλαὶ
καὶ δυσάρεστοι διέκναισαν.
Πρ. οὐκ ἄγαμαι ταῦτ’ ἀνδρὸς ἀριστέως.
οὐκ ἐπὶ πᾶσίν σ’ ἐφύτευσ’ ἀγαθοῖς,
᾿Αγάμεμνον, ᾿Ατρεύς. δεῖ δέ σε χαίρειν
καὶ λυπεῖσθαι· θνητὸς γὰρ ἔφυς.
κἂν μὴ σὺ θέληις, τὰ θεῶν οὕτω
βουλόμεν’ ἔσται. σὺ δὲ λαμπτῆρος
φάος ἀμπετάσας δέλτον τε γράφεις
τήνδ’ ἣν πρὸ χερῶν ἔτι βαστάζεις,
καὶ ταὐτὰ πάλιν γράμματα συγχεῖς
καὶ σφραγίζεις λύεις τ’ ὀπίσω
ῥίπτεις τε πέδωι πεύκην, θαλερὸν
κατὰ δάκρυ χέων, κἀκ τῶν ἀπόρων
οὐδενὸς ἐνδεῖς μὴ οὐ μαίνεσθαι.
τί πονεῖς; τί νέον παρὰ σοί, βασιλεῦ;
φέρε κοίνωσον μῦθον ἐς ἡμᾶς.