A Bœotian and a Gentleman

(Pindar and the Persian war.) Was Pindar in thorough sympathy with the party of the Theban nobility to which he belonged by birth, by training, by temperament, or was he a friend of the national cause--as it is safe to call a cause after it has been successful? Within the state there seems to be no question that Pindar was a thoroughpaced aristocrat, and those who think they have noticed greater liberality in the middle of his life have to acknowledge that he became more rigid towards the close. Without the state his imagination must have been fired by the splendid achievements of the Hellenes, and his religious sense must have been stirred by the visible working of the divine power in setting up and putting down. He could not but be proud of the very victories that told against his own country, and yet there is no note in all his poems that shows the kinship that reveals itself in Simonides. The story that the famous fragment in praise of Athens brought upon him the displeasure of his countrymen, which they manifested by the imposition of a heavy fine, reimbursed twofold by the Athenians--this story, with all its variations, the statue, the προξενία [proxeni'a], has not escaped the cavils of the critics, and does not, in any case, prove anything more than a generous recognition of the prowess of an alien state, if, after all, anything Greek could be alien to a man so fully in sympathy with all that made Greece what it was. For in the sense that he loved all Greece, that he felt the ties of blood, of speech, above all, the ties of religion, Pindar was Panhellenic. The pressure of the barbarian that drew those ties tighter for Greece generally, drew them tighter for him also; but how? We are in danger of losing our historical perspective by making Pindar feel the same stir in the same way as Aischylos. If he had, he would not have been a true Theban; and if he had not been a true Theban, he would not have been a true Greek. The man whose love for his country knows no local root, is a man whose love for his country is a poor abstraction; and it is no discredit to Pindar that he went honestly with his state in the struggle. It was no treason to Medize before there was a Greece, and the Greece that came out of the Persian war was a very different thing from the cantons that ranged themselves on this side and that of a quarrel which, we may be sure, bore another aspect to those who stood aloof from it than it wears in the eyes of moderns, who have all learned to be Hellenic patriots. A little experience of a losing side might aid historical vision. That Pindar should have felt the impulse of the grand period that followed Salamis and Plataia, should have appreciated the woe that would have come on Greece had the Persians been successful, and should have seen the finger of God in the new evolution of Hellas--all this is not incompatible with an attitude during the Persian war that those who see the end and do not understand the beginning may not consider respectable.
Basil L. Gildersleeve, Pindar: The Olympian and Pythian Odes (1885), pp. xi-xii.
That Gildersleeve served the Confederacy during the War Between the States (as did his father and three brothers), in the field during the summer months, until in 1864 he nearly lost a leg to a Spencer bullet, and at the University of Virginia with doubled teaching responsibilities during the academic year, should explain the piquancy and sympathy with which he writes about Pindar the Boeotian.

Of course no artist is more closely associated with the Olympic Games than Pindar the poet. Gildersleeve, as Pindar's foremost modern interpreter, must have been compelled to experience the renewed Games in 1896, but his initial reaction was rather cool:
"...The writers nearly all overlooked what seemed to be the religious significance of the games, and as a devout Hellenist, who belonged to the church of which Pindar was pastor, I was shocked at the flippancy with which the whole matter was handled...."
He very nearly determined to avoid Athens. But, as I say, he must have been compelled. Professor Basil Gildersleeve on the first modern Olympics: "My Sixty Days in Greece: The Olympic Games, Old and New," Atlantic Magazine (Feb, 1897).

July 15, 2004


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