More Greek Treasures

Today is, for some of us, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. Not the Republican. A publican is a tax collector, one who makes sure all the fees are collected for the government. The story is short: the Pharisee stands in the front of the temple bragging about how good he is. He probably is pretty good, actually, but the bragging seems to be the part that is frowned upon.

The publican stands in the back, eyes down, and says: ” Ὁ θεός, ἱλάσθητί μοι τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ”, usually translated as “O God, have mercy on me a sinner!” This is fine, as far as it goes, but the verb ἱλάσθητί is not in the present tense. It’s an aorist/past tense imperative. Something like “O God, may you have had mercy on me already, a sinner!” It’s very hard to do in English. “O God, already have mercy on me a sinner?”

How does this change the meaning? I don’t know. Perhaps the publican is giving thanks for mercies already received?

(It’s also not the verb for “have mercy”, but rather the verb for “appease”. “O God, already be appeased on my sake, a sinner?”

Pretty neat, huh?

UPDATE: I looked into the aorist imperative, and found some help on the wonderful website textkit. Greek verb tenses express both tense (the time it happened) and aspect (how it happened–was it completed or not?). An aorist imperative tells the person “Do it once!”, while a present imperative would mean “do it and keep doing it!” In this text, the publican is telling God to be appeased once, not to keep being appeased. Make of this what you will. Perhaps it’s a sign of repentance that he doesn’t expect to need continual mercy.

Original Languages: Why Bother?

This post isn’t about biblical theology, but about language.

Do you read texts in their original langauges? Most people don’t. I understand why—it takes a long time to get reading competency in a language. Not as long as you think, but longer than you’re probably prepared to study. But, if you do, treasures are revealed to you.

Today in some churches is the Sunday of Zacchaeus, the short tax collector who climbs a tree to see Jesus as he passes by. Jesus has dinner with him, and everybody complains because he is a sinner, etc.

But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”

This is the translation approved by the US Catholic bishops. After this, Jesus says that salvation has come to his house. Seems straightforward, right? Bad guy repents and gets saved.

But let’s look at the Greek for verse 8:

Ἰδοὺ τὰ ἡμίσειά μου τῶν ὑπαρχόντων, κύριε, τοῖς πτωχοῖς δίδωμι, καὶ εἴ τινός τι ἐσυκοφάντησα ἀποδίδωμι τετραπλοῦν.

The verbs are bolded for you convenience. The first one (pronounced something like “didomi”) means “I give”. It’s present active indicative, not future or subjunctive as the New American Bible has it. “Behold I give half my possessions to the poor. . .” It’s the same with the second verb, “apodidomi”, “I restore” or “I repay”. Zacchaeus is literally saying that right now, this very moment, that’s what he does, not that he will do it in the future.

So, it could be interpreted differently, not that he was a bad man who repented, but that he was a good man. What to make of “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham?” It could be his eagerness to climb the tree that is the key, couldn’t it?

I don’t know the answer. As I said, this post isn’t about the Bible as theology. But because I can read a little Greek, I can see that the text itself is not the same as the translations. The translation is an interpretation. At Online Great Books, we encourage people to read the original texts (in translation) rather than commentaries on the text, because we want you to interpret it for yourself. Translations often contain hidden interpretations, and if you can read something in the original langauge, you probably should.

I know it takes time and effort, but imagine how many languages you could learn if you quit Netflix.

Briefly on the gods

Everyone’s first instinct when reading the ancient Greeks is to think that the gods are merely personifications of natural forces. The story is that the ancients would see things happen, and then, being dumb primitives, would say: “That thing there, that was done by a god!” Pretty silly, right?

But I don’t think that’s it. I don’t even think modern people think this way. When we are hit by natural forces, we feel like we percieve something personal in the attack. Stand outside in the storm, and you will know that Zeus exists, and just might hit you with a thunderbolt. Yes, I know that as a Christian I am not to believe literally in the Greek gods, except perhaps as demons. My point is that your experience of the powers of the world is every bit as personal as the ancients.

Consider the god Apollo, the god of light and music, but also the destroyer. He is called, in the beginning of the Iliad, “Farshooter Apollo”. ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος. It might be better translated as “crack-shot Apollo.” Deadeye Apollo? Sniper of snipers, Apollo. Whatever he aims at, he hits. But what does he shoot? In the beginning of the Iliad, it’s plague. He sends disease, unerringly to you. When you get sick and die, it’s because the gods have targeted you.

The modern equivalent: consider the way people think about cancer. It’s not a merely natural misfortune that happens, but rather a malevolent force that steals away life and loved ones. People even say “Cancer is a bitch,” personifying the disease as a goddess.

One of my rules of reading is that the ancients were not morons. If they believed something, they had good reason to believe it. Your job as a reader is to figure out what they believed and why. Victor Hugo says somewhere the job of history is to understand, not to judge. Now, beware of Eagle-eye Apollo!

The will of Zeus is being accomlished

The imperfect tense. If you think of verb tenses as determining just the time of an action (future, past, presesnt) you are missing something important. Tense tells also the way in which the action happens. The most common distinction is between a perfect tense and an imperfect tense. The perfect tense tells you that the action has been completed. Imperfect means that the action has not been completed, generally in the past. Let me give you an example.
Iliad line 5:

Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή

“And the will of God was being accomplished.”

Look at the word τελέω: it is pronounced “teleo” and means “fulfill, accomplish, execute, perform.” If you read Aristotle, you see him talk of the telos, which is the good toward which actions are directed. Here it is the verb whose subject is the word “will.” But it’s not present or simple past. It is the imperfect tense. So, it means that while everything else happens, the rage of Achilles, the heroes being thrust into Hades, the will of Zeus is not yet accomplished, but is in process of being accomplished.

So, when you read the Iliad, the whole thing is the working out of Zeus’ will. He wants it all to happen. Troy must fall, but so must the Acheans who die in front of the city. Zeus wants it all, and is continuing to want it.

About heroes

A continuation of our tour through Homer.

So who are these heroes? The rage itself (not Achilles) sets many pains to the Achaeans, and thrusts down strong souls to Hades, of heroes. What is a hero? Let’s take a look at the lexicon. “Hero” is given as a translation, but what is that? There is an intriguing reference to Hesiod, to the “Fourth age of men” between δαίμονες and ἄνθρωποι. The heroes aren’t the same as you and me. Hesiod says that they are demigods, that fought before Thebes, that died at Troy. “But they received, apart from other humans, a life and a place to live from Zeus the son of Kronos, who translated them to the edges of the earth, far away from the imortal gods. And Kronos is king over them.” Hesiod Works and Days

The poet Hesiod laments that he is born too late, that his is not the time of heroes:

If only I did not have to be in the company of the Fifth Generation of men, and if only I had died before it [= the Fifth Generation] or been born after it, since now is the time of the Iron Generation. What will now happen is that men will not even have a day or night free from toil and suffering.

Heroes are greater men than we are. Perhaps they love more, feel more, suffer more? They certainly seem more real to me in Homer’s works. When you sit down to read the story or listen to it, you are entering a god-haunted time where the stories are not about mere men, about common mortals. These are giants and kin to the gods. These are Heroes.

Let’s read the Iliad

I have a little Greek. Not very much, enough to know the letters, some grammar, some vocabulary. I can poke my way through the text and figure out what it means, generally. It seems to me a shame, however, that I have not read my favorite author in his original words. I’m going to rectify this. Would you like to read along?

If so, you can get the Greek text at the Perseus Project. Here’s the first line:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος

It starts with a command to the goddess. Sing! (ἄειδε) It’s an imperative. Sing what? The wrath of Achilles. But Achilles isn’t seen until the last word of the first line. Literally (with a weird word order)

Wrath sing! Goddess Peleus’s Achilles’

Wrath and Achilles contain the whole singing, the whole epic, between them.

Let’s dig into the word μῆνις/wrath for a bit. The LSJ (Liddell Scott James) lexicon says it means the wrath of the gods. This is an interesting twist. Achilles isn’t just angry or wrathful, he’s angry with the specific wrath of gods. See Iliad 5:34 where Athena says to Ares “Let Zeus give glory to either side he chooses. We’ll stay clear and escape the Father’s rage.” (Διὸς δ’ ἀλεώμεθα μῆνιν;) (Fagles trans.) It’s the same word, but is used there to refer specifically to the anger of Zeus. Achilles is godlike in his wrath.

Right in the first line we are given hints that Achilles is not just an angry petulant soldier. His mania/wrath is different. As Ajax will say to him later, anyone else would take Agamemmnon’s money and let bygones be bygones, but not Achilles. I don’t think you’re reading this book right if you don’t realize this.

What makes it different? The fact that Achilles is half-divine, that he can taste an immortality that he can’t actually share. Doomed to die but knowing immortality. It makes it different. It’s harder for the human to die than it is for the antelope. We, being on the border of eternity, know what we’re losing.

Shall we keep going? At this rate I’ll be done in about fifty years.

My Strength Hobby: an Update

Have you ever taken up a new hobby? All of a sudden it’s all you care about. Homesteading, motorcycles, learning sign language? You watch a few episodes of the British Baking Show and now you want to bake all day?

I remember a time when I thought Scorpions were a really good rock band. I still like them, but I don’t think they are the band for our times. Enthusiasms fade. Churches know this: the new convert is very eager to do everything perfectly; the old members nod and smile.

About 12 years ago I became very enthusiastic about barbell training. I started lifting to try to cure back spasms. It worked wonderfully! In fact I don’t recall having back spasms at all since my first day of deadlifting. Your mileage may vary. I learned about the squat, bench press, press, and deadlift and pursued them with nearly religious zeal. I bought books, attended seminars, got a certification, went to conferences, started coaching, and made it a career.

This was no ordinary enthusiasm.

How is it going, after twelve years? I can tell you that my zeal has not faded very much. Unlike Scorpions, the value, the concrete goodness of strength training is still there, and it’s still good for you. If you give me a moment, I’ll tell you that you should deadlift. I’ll explain how it makes your life better. I’ll ask you to imagine being twice as strong as you are today. "How would that change your life?" If I’m in an apocalyptic mood I’ll go on about how physical strength will be much more useful to you if SHTF than a high VO2 max. Nothing has changed.

For me personally, it has changed a bit, but just because I have gotten older. We’ve had a stressful year with many changes here at Schudt Manor, and it’s hurt my training. My strength levels are down. But I still train, and I still try to get PRs. I just don’t get them very often. I’m 51 years old and very strong for my age, but unlikely really to get much stronger. I’m ok with that. I’m still almost certainly stronger than you, dear reader, and I know that you need to add strength training to your life.

I am a barbell coach, and I still love my job. You can find me at Barbell Logic if you want to get coaching. We give you 24 hour feedback on all of your lifting, intelligent programming, and nutrition coaching if you want it. It’s a very good service and I’m proud to be associated with it. You’ll get stronger!

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Not Doing What You Want

Schopenhauer is lots of fun. Why did nobody tell me this?

He says the following about free will:

every one believes himself a priori to be perfectly free, even in his individual actions, and thinks that at every moment he can commence another manner of life, which just means that he can become another person. But a posteriori, through experience, he finds to his astonishment that he is not free, but subjected to necessity; that in spite of all his resolutions and reflections he does not change his conduct, and that from the beginning of his life to the end of it, he must carry out the very character which he himself condemns, and as it were play the part he has undertaken to the end.

The idea is that the Will is eternal, unchangeable, noumenal, and that the will-in-time is only will as perceive. If you look back at your history, all of the decisions you make will look like they were made of necessity, the necessity of one’s own character. Try as you might, you can’t change it.

I don’t think Schopenhauer is right-or, at least, I have some doubts. As Duns Scotus said, those who doubt that there is contingency in the universe should have fire applied to their feet until they admit the possibility that the fire could be removed.

But even if he’s wrong, he’s right. Most of your decisions will appear to you on reflection as coming from necessity. It will be like a river running downstream, that can’t ever run upstream. This seems phenomenally true. It’s what it feels like, when you find yourself doing the same old things again and again.

Is there such a thing as free will? I think so, and I think it can be experienced in the moments when you step out of necessity, which will be experienced as pain or discomfort. You aren’t free when you merely do what you want. Pigs do as much. They always do exactly what they want and yet are not free. To be free, one must do what one doesn’t want.

That time you didn’t take the job you really wanted because you had to take care of your family–that is freedom. The time you chose not to respond in anger even when the jerk had it coming: Freedom. Even the time you went to the gym when you didn’t want to–this is a habitual exercise of freedom.

Schopenhauer would probably accuse me of mixing the noumenal pure free will and the phenomenal, and he may be correct, but I only used his quote to bring up my own thought, which is that freedom is experienced primarily in the domain of the ethical and is experienced not as freedom, but as restriction. This is paradoxical but still true. The pig experiences no restrictions because he is not free. He cannot grasp the Good and model his actions to it instead of to his desires. But you can. You can realize that you shouldn’t do the thing that you really want to do, and sometimes you actually succeed in not doing it. That’s freedom.

Good, Better, Best

Have you ever given something up?

I had to chaperone a church trip earlier this summer, and as a result I couldn’t drink any beer for nine days. When I got home, my daughter said to me, "Why don’t you just not?" I thought about it for a while and said, "Sure." I haven’t had any beer since June. I had a little tequila when a friend visited from Mexico, but other than that I haven’t had any. I’m not opposed to it, I don’t care if you do it, I still love Vesper martinis, and might have one in the future, but for now, I’m refraining.

It’s part of a general simplification of life. I’ve been having monkish urges. Asceticism seems very attractive to me now. Get rid of stuff! Stop doing things! This is what I want. I don’t want to travel. I don’t want to watch sports. I have no interest in movies. Perhaps you feel the same thing? If so, I’d like to dig into that feeling a bit more. I want to make room for better stuff. But what does that mean?

Indulge me for a moment: Thomas Aquinas famously has five proofs for the existence of God in the Summa Theologiae. My favorite is the fourth way. Here is an excerpt.

The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But "more" and "less" are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; . . .

Never mind if there is a God or not. For me what is fascinating about this proof is the premise that there are things more or less good. There is an order in the universe. This is a fact of experience, isn’t it? But things can’t be more or less good unless there’s such a thing as the good. Take the notion of "progress": the concept is nonsense unless there’s something towards which we progress. Aquinas takes it to the ultimate conclusion that there must be a God. Leave that aside for now. But if you have the feeling that some things in your life need to go, that you need to make time for better things, realize what this implies: you also believe in the axiological nature of the universe. Some things are better than other things.

If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be good to figure out what are the best things? What are you getting rid of things for?

(You can join us at Online Great Books and think about this stuff with us.)

Melons and Music

I have a son who loves music. He plays piano all day and can pick out melodies by ear, which is a rare skill. I’m proud of him. But he listens to very simple music, mostly video game themes or piano music geared for the pop music ear. While I’m happy to hear him play, the monotony of the music bugs me.

I say “monotony” not in the literal sense of the sameness of tone, since the music he plays does have movement in the melody. It isn’t monotonous, but it does have the other definition: “tedious sameness.” Usually there is one idea which is then repeated without much alteration through the entire song. Sometimes it is a good idea, a catchy bit of melody, which is then beaten to death for the next four minutes.

I don’t want to snuff the candle-flame of his love for music, but I keep waiting for him to fall in love with Beethoven. Take my favorite symphony, No. 6, the Pastoral Symphony. Go dig up a streaming version and listen. I’ll wait.

Note the first four notes: A Bb D C. Listen to how it is repeated in the beginning, then mutated, moved around the scale, given to different instruments, rhythmically changed, but always recognizably the same theme. John N. Burk describes it thus:

There is no labored development, but a drone-like repetition of fragments from the themes, a sort of murmuring monotony, in which the composer charms the ear with a continous, subtle alteration of tonality, color, position. One is reminded (here and in the slow movement) of the phenomena of floral growth, where simplicity and charm of surface conceal infinite variety and organic intricacy.

I think that’s a good metaphor, the bit about floral growth. I have a plot of watermelons growing right now, and the vines and flowers have scattered over the earth in a pleasing variety, but it’s all recognizably watermelon. The symphony is the same. It’s all the opening theme, but growing out wherever the sun and water lead it.

The modern popular music would not be floral. If it is to compared to any agricultural product, it would be the factory chicken farm, where the birds are debeaked and kept confined, so that they may only develop in a narrow band of possibility.

Unfortunately, listening to and enjoying the 6th Symphony requires a little bit of musical discernment (the ability to follow a theme), time to listen, quiet, and patience, all things which are in short supply. You can certainly listen and enjoy, but it may seem as merely pleasant background music until you open yourself up to let Beethoven lead you on his journey.

The upside is that the music is much better. It isn’t that what my son listens to is bad. It’s not. It’s just not as good as what you’re capable of. The peak of European concert music is one of the great accomplishments of the human race. Pyramids, aqueducts, the Great Wall of China, geometry, and European concert music.

Try to dig into it. There are treasures.