Tuesday, April 23, 2024


Nature versus Nurture

Pindar, Nemean Odes 3.40-42 (tr. Richmond Lattimore):
The splendor running in the blood has much weight.
A man can learn and yet see darkly, blow one way, then another, walking ever
on uncertain feet, his mind unfinished and fed with scraps of a thousand virtues.

συγγενεῖ δέ τις εὐδοξίᾳ μέγα βρίθει.
ὃς δὲ διδάκτ᾿ ἔχει, ψεφεννὸς ἀνὴρ
    ἄλλοτ᾿ ἄλλα πνέων οὔ ποτ᾿ ἀτρεκεῖ
κατέβα ποδί, μυριᾶν δ᾿ ἀρετᾶν ἀτελεῖ νόῳ γεύεται.
The same (tr. Anthony Verity):
It is by inborn distinction that a man gains authority,
while he who has only been taught is a man of shadows;
he veers hither and thither, and never enters the arena with a confident step,
trying out thousands of exploits in his futile mind.
The same (tr. C.M. Bowra):
A man has much weight if glory belongs to his breed,
But whoso needs to be taught,
His spirit blows here and there in the dark,
Nor ever enters he the lists with sure foot,
Though countless the glories his futile fancy savours.
The same (tr. Anne Pippin Burnett):
Fame inborn gives weight to a man, but
one who needs teaching pants blindly after
this and that, his foot never sure
as he foolishly samples ten-thousand exploits.
Stephen Instone ad loc.:
40-2 The conclusion to be drawn from 28-39 turns out to be one of Pindar's favourite sayings, namely that success in physical struggle depends on the natural ability one has inherited rather than on any taught skills (cf. O. 2.86-8, O. 9.100-4). It is not surprising that Pindar should be drawn to this belief, since (a) many of the successful athletes for whom he wrote were themselves descendants of successful athletes (though not, it seems, Aristocleidas, since nothing is said in N. 3 about previous victories in his family), (b) success in the games requires good physique rather than brain.

The way the contrast is expressed has been tailored to the context: 'carries great weight' (βρίθει 40) suits a heavily-built pancratiast; 'with a sure foot' (ἀτρεκεῖ ποδί 42) suggests the pancratiast's need to resist being thrown; and the implied consequence of having inborn ability, namely that it will enable you to see through to the end what you set out to achieve, is clearly relevant to the victor: he has devoted himself single-mindedly to the pancration event and met with success. Lines 70-1 below resume the theme: achievement comes from putting yourself to a proper test.

41 a faint man ψεφεννὸς, not found elsewhere, is equivalent to σκοτεινός ('dark') or ἀμαυρός ('dim').

blowing now this way now that ἄλλοτ᾿ ἄλλα πνέων, lit. 'breathing different things at different times'. The man is like an inconstant, erratic wind; cf. Hes. Theog. 872-80 ('Winds blow differently at different times, and wreck ships and destroy sailors', 875-6).

The man who dabbles in lessons in this and that, with no inborn talent for any single activity, is a feeble person: he can never achieve anything or reach his goal; cf. N. 4.39-41 (on the futility of being envious): 'With envious eyes he rolls in the dark his empty thought and it falls to the ground'; P. 11.30 'The man who breathes on the ground roars unnoticed' (i.e. he who lives in obscurity may make a loud noise, but it will be futile).
See llja Leonard Pfeijffer, Three Aeginetan Odes of Pindar (Leiden: Brill, 1999 = Mnemosyne: Supplementum, 197), pp. 324-334.

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