Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Conscious Dignity, Freedom, and Tragic Fate

Just a brief reflection on thought that did not make it into yesterday's essay, "Man, State, and Morality."

In his short treatise, "Thoughts on Government" [1] John Adams wrote he wished for a people to be inspired "with a conscious dignity becoming freemen." The phrase reminded me of a wonderful section from H.D.F Kitto's classic, "The Greeks:" [2]

Pindar, Nemean Ode VI.
ἓν ἀνδρῶν, ἓν θεῶν γένος: ἐκ μιᾶς δὲ πνέομεν
ματρὸς ἀμφότεροι: διείργει δὲ πᾶσα κεκριμένα
δύναμις, ὡς τὸ μὲν οὐδέν, ὁ δὲ χάλκεος ἀσφαλὲς αἰὲν ἕδος
μένει οὐρανός.
One is the race of Gods and men; from one mother
we both draw our breath. Yet are our powers poles apart;
for we are nothing, but for them the brazen Heaven
endures forever.
So says Pindar, in a noble passage mistranslated by scholars who should know better, and made to mean: 'One is the race of Gods, and that of men is another.' But Pindar's whole point here is the dignity and weakness of man; and this is the ultimate source of that tragic note that runs through all classical Greek literature. And it was this consciousness of the dignity of being a man that gave such urgency and intensity to the word (eleutheria / ελευθερία) that we inadequately translate 'freedom.' 
Some were barbarians for living under despots, others for living in tribes, but they were all not free. The Greeks lived in what we broadly and inaccurately call the city-state, what, Kitto writes, "became the focus of a man's moral, intellectual, aesthetic, social and practical life, developing and enriching these in a way in which no form of society had done before or has done since. Other forms of political society had been, as it were, static; the city-state was the means by which the Greek consciously strove to make the life both of the community and of the individual more excellent than it was before."

I cannot resist drawing a parallel to the work of J. R. R. Tolkien here, especially because the folks at Tolkien Gateway put the ideas so well and in such similar terms:

The Gift of Men is death—the inheritance of Ilúvatar's Younger Children, which allows them to go beyond the confines of Arda, this world. Though the phrase commonly refers to this type of mortality, death is actually only part of the broader Gift given to Men: it is one with their ability to operate beyond the Music of the Ainur, which "is as fate to all things else". With this Gift, Men were to fulfill the world down to the finest detail. . . all other beings in Arda, including the Valar themselves, were bound to the World and its fate, [but] the Gift freed Men from this destiny, allowing them to shape their own lives as they wished.
But like all other aspects of life in Arda, the Gift of Men became darkened by Morgoth's shadow. Men came to view death with great dread, and it became a Doom to them rather than a Gift. . . However, those Men with the greatest understanding treated death as the Gift it was originally intended to be, and when their time came gladly gave themselves up to it. For example, the earlier Rulers of Númenor in the Second Age, and Aragorn in the beginning of the Fourth Age, accepted the Gift at the natural end of their lives. [3]

[2] Kitto, H.D.F. The Greeks. Penguin. Middlesex, England. 1951. p. 10


  1. Thanks for two great posts with tons of food for thought!

  2. Many thanks; I'm glad you found them so! I'd cut this out of the other essay (yes, believe it or not it was actually longer) and then realized there was no reason I couldn't put it up by itself. Cool, this internet thing.

    I also got a hoot out of last and this week's posts on your blog!