Here’s a Problem, Now I’ll Solve it: aporía and lúsis in the Scholia

In Greek scholia—collections of ancient scholars’ comments on ancient texts, often included in the margins of medieval manscripts—shorthand for ‘problem’ (textual or interpretive difficulty) and ‘solution’ are aporía (ἀπορία) and lúsis (λύσις). Sometimes the terms are used verbally (participles or main clause verbs indicating that interpreters are “at a loss” or “providing a solution). Sometimes they show up in nominative form, like text-boxes in a modern textbook. The example below illustrates how this seemingly simple formula acts as an index for the possibility of multiple responses to an interpretive problem.

Scholia to the Odyssey 3.332

Od.3.332 “Come, cut the tongues and fill up the wine…”

ἀλλ’ ἄγε τάμνετε μὲν γλώσσας, κεράασθε δὲ οἶνον,

 “Problem: Why were they cutting off tongues for the gods? Solution: Some claim that the tongue is the strongest of the limbs; others say that it is necessary to safeguard whatever is said at symposia. This is where we get the proverb, “I hate the drinking buddy who doesn’t forget”.

᾿Απορία. διὰ τί τοῖς θεοῖς ἀπένεμον τὰς γλώσσας; Λύσις. οἱ μὲν ὅτι κράτιστον τῶν μελῶν ἡ γλῶσσα, οἱ δὲ ὅτι δεῖ τὰ ἐν συμποσίοις λεχθέντα τηρεῖν. ὅθεν καὶ παροιμία “μισῶ μνάμονα συμπόταν.” B.

“Here Telemachus seems speechless to Menelaos. It was the custom among the Greeks to cut the tongues from sacrifices and to burn them for their gods.

ἵνα ἄλαλος φανῇ ὁ Τηλέμαχος τῷ Μενελάῳ. ἔθος ἦν τοῖς ῞Ελλησι τὰς γλώσσας τῶν ἱερείων ἀποτέμνειν καὶ καίειν τοῖς θεοῖς αὐτῶν. E.

“There is another way of interpreting it. For they used to dedicate the tongues to Hermes as an overseer of speech. And when they were about to recline, they used to sacrifice showing their tongues because, once the day had passed, it was no longer right to chatter on, but it was the time for sleeping through the night after dining. There is also the explanation that it was not right on the following day to speak in reminding each other of the things that were sung at the symposium: one must be quiet about these things. This is why some wise person said “I hate the drinking buddy who doesn’t forget.”

There is another explanation, that it is not right for people to reveal the mysteries and those things proper to the gods to the uninitiated and private citizens. And this is why the tongue is the most noble part of the sacrifice, and why they used to dedicate the tongue to the gods. For this reason, someone said to some wise man “What is better from all the parts of the sacrifice?” And he responded, “The tongue”. And then he asked, “What is worse?” And he responded again, “The tongue because it may be used in divine hymns and speeches of praise, but also in blasphemy, insults, and mockery.”

῎Αλλως. τετραχῶς λέγεται. τὰς γλώσσας γὰρ τῷ ῾Ερμῇ ἀνετίθουν ὡς ἐφόρῳ τοῦ λόγου. καὶ ὅτε ἔμελλον κοιμηθῆναι, ἔθυον γλώσσας δεικνύντες ὅτι τῆς ἡμέρας παρελθούσης οὐ χρὴ ἔτι λαλεῖν, ἀλλὰ  καιρὸν ποιεῖσθαι ὕπνου μετὰ τὸ δειπνῆσαι τὴν νύκτα, καὶ ὅτι τὰ ἐν συμποσίῳ ᾀδόμενα οὐ χρὴ τῇ ἐπαύριον ἐν τῷ μεμνῆσθαι ἐκείνων λέγειν πρὸς ἄλλους, ἀλλὰ σιωπᾶν ταῦτα. διὸ καί τις σοφὸς “μισῶ μνάμονα συμπόταν.” καὶ ὅτι τὰ μυστικὰ καὶ θεοῖς ἁρμόζοντα οὐ χρὴ πρὸς τοὺς ἀμυήτους καὶ ἰδιώτας λέγειν ἀνθρώπους. καὶ ὅτι τὸ κάλλιστον τοῦ ἱερείου ἡ γλῶσσα, τὸ δὲ κάλλιστον τοῖς θεοῖς ἀνετίθουν. διὸ καί τις εἶπε πρός τινα σοφὸν, τί κρεῖττον ἐκ τῶν μερῶν ὅλων τοῦ ἱερείου; ὁ δὲ εἶπεν, ἡ γλῶσσα. καὶ αὖθις, τί χεῖρον; καὶ ἔφη πάλιν τὴν γλῶσσαν, ὡς ποτὲ μὲν ὕμνοις θείοις καὶ ἀγαθοῖς λόγοις χρωμένην, ποτὲ δὲ βλασφήμοις καὶ ὕβρεσι καὶ λοιδορίαις. E.

“There is another approach, an allegorical one, that cutting [tamnete] the tongue is used instead of teaching [paideute] people how not to speak badly. Or, you need to sharpen them for praising the gods. It is right to reign them in before going to sleep. And Antipater claims that it is right that those who are going to bed stop using their tongues. But Porphyry says that they are talking about the gods as witnesses. In the same way that they pour libations from the containers listening to the sounds of the gods for omens, they used to throw their tongues around and listen for omens from the things that were said to the gods. Some say that they dedicated the tongues to the gods of the earth, cleansing themselves through this sacrifice of their blasphemous utterances and acts of slander.”

῎Αλλως. ἀλληγορικῶς, τάμνετε, ἀντὶ τοῦ παιδεύετε τὰς γλώσσας ὥστε μὴ κακολογεῖν. ἢ παραθήγετε εἰς τὸ τοὺς θεοὺς ὑμνεῖν. πρὸ γὰρ τοῦ κοιμηθῆναι δεῖ ψάλλειν. ᾿Αντίπατρος δὲ ὅτι χρὴ αὐτὴν παύειν πρὸς κοίτην ἰόντας. Πορφύριος δὲ, ὡς ἐπὶ μαρτύρων τῶν θεῶν διελέγοντο. ὥσπερ κατὰ τὸ οὖς τῶν ἐκπωμάτων ἔσπενδον ὀττευόμενοι τὰς ἀκοὰς τῶν θεῶν, οὕτω καὶ τὰς γλώσσας ἔβαλλον ὀττευόμενοι τὰ ῥηθέντα πρὸς θεούς. οἱ δὲ ὅτι τοῖς χθονίοις τὰς γλώσσας ἀπήρχοντο, τοὺς βλασφήμους λόγους καὶ τὰς λοιδορίας ἐξ αὐτῶν διὰ τούτων ἐκκαθαίροντες. E.




Knowing How to Be Silent is as Important as Knowing When to Speak (Plutarch, On the Education of Children, 10-11)

“Ruling your tongue, then, remains of the subjects about which I have set out to speak. If anyone thinks that this is a small or foolish matter, than he has strayed very far from the truth. For silence at the right time is a skill and stronger than all speech. For this reason it seems to me that the ancients established the mystery rights as they did, that, in becoming accustomed to silence during them, we may translate that fear from the gods to the safekeeping of human secrets. For, in turn, no one who was silent ever felt remorse about it; but countless chattering men felt regret. The word unsaid, moreover, is easy to speak out; but a spoken word cannot be taken back. I have heard of ten thousand men who have suffered the greatest misfortunes thanks to a loose tongue…”

Τὸ τοίνυν τῆς γλώττης κρατεῖν (περὶ τούτου γάρ, ὧνπερ ὑπεθέμην, εἰπεῖν λοιπόν) εἴ τις μικρὸν καὶ φαῦλον ὑπείληφε, πλεῖστον διαμαρτάνει τῆς ἀληθείας. σοφὸν γὰρ εὔκαιρος σιγὴ καὶ παντὸς λόγου κρεῖττον. καὶ διὰ τοῦτό μοι δοκεῖ τὰς μυστηριώδεις τελετὰς οἱ παλαιοὶ κατέδειξαν, ἵν’ ἐν ταύταις σιωπᾶν ἐθισθέντες ἐπὶ τὴν τῶν ἀνθρωπίνων μυστηρίων πίστιν τὸν ἀπὸ τῶν θείων μεταφέρωμεν φόβον. καὶ γὰρ αὖ σιωπήσας μὲν οὐδεὶς μετενόησε, λαλήσαντες δὲ παμπληθεῖς. καὶ τὸ μὲν σιγηθὲν ἐξειπεῖν ῥᾴδιον, τὸ δὲ ῥηθὲν ἀναλαβεῖν ἀδύνατον. μυρίους δ’ ἔγωγ’ οἶδ’ ἀκούσας ταῖς μεγίσταις συμφοραῖς περιπεσόντας διὰ τὴν τῆς γλώττης ἀκρασίαν.

Today Plutarch might say that not sending an email or a tweet is often better than sending one. My mother used to say “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say something at all”. It is not difficult to imagine Plutarch’s reactions to our constant invitations to commentary in the modern world. I do not think he would want people to be silent about corruption and injustice–this is a ‘manual’ for the raising of children–but instead that they learn the value of well-applied and strategic speech.

Not that Plutarch is necessarily a master of this. He left us enough words that “timeliness” of speech seems to have been his universal condition.