In the year 458 B.C., during the Great Dionysies of Athens, Aeschylus had the Choir of the Ancients say at the beginning of his Agamemnon:
« ‘Zeus’, whoever He is,
if this name is acceptable to Him,
I will invoke Him thus.
All things considered,
there is only ‘God alone’ (πλὴν Διός) i
that can really make me feel better
the weight of my vain thoughts.
The one who was once great,
overflowing with audacity and ready for any fight,
no longer even passes for having existed.
And he who rose after him met his winner, and he disappeared.
He who will celebrate with all his soul (προφρόνως) Zeus victorious,
grasp the Whole (τὸ πᾶν) from the heart (φρενῶν), –
for Zeus has set mortals on the path of wisdom (τὸν φρονεῖν),
He laid down as a law: ‘from suffering comes knowledge’ (πάθει μάθος). » ii
Ζεύς, ὅστις ποτ´’ ἐστίν,
εἰ κεκλημένῳ’ αὐτῷ φίλον κεκλημένῳ,
τοῦτό νιν προσεννέπω.
Οὐκ ἔχω προσεικάσαι
πλὴν Διός, εἰ τὸ μάταν ἀπὸ ἄχθος
χρὴ βαλεῖν ἐτητύμως.
πάροιθεν’ ὅστις πάροιθεν ἦν μέγας,
παμμάχῳ θράσει βρύων,
οὐδὲ λέξεται πρὶν ὤν-
ὃς ἔφυ’ ἔπειτ´’ ἔφυ,
τριακτῆρος οἴχεται τυχών.
Ζῆνα δέ τις προφρόνως ἐπινίκια κλάζων
τεύξεται φρενῶν φρενῶν τὸ πᾶν,
τὸν φρονεῖν βροτοὺς ὁδώσαντα,
τὸν πάθει πάθει μάθος θέντα κυρίως ἔχειν.
A few precisions :
The one « who was once great » and « ready for all battles » is Ouranos (the God of Heaven).
And the one who « found his conqueror and vanished » is Chronos, God of time, father of Zeus, and vanquished by him.
Of these two Gods, one could say at the time of the Trojan War, according to the testimony of Aeschylus, that the first (Ouranos) was already considered to have « never existed » and that the second (Chronos) had « disappeared » …
From those ancient times, there was therefore only ‘God alone’ (πλὴν Διός) who reigned in the hearts and minds of the Ancients…
The ‘victory’ of this one God, ‘Zeus’, this supreme God, God of all gods and men, was celebrated with songs of joy in Greece in the 5th century BC.
But one also wondered about its essence – as the formula ‘whatever He is’ reveals -, and one wondered if this very name, ‘Zeus’, could really suit him….
Above all, they were happy that Zeus had opened the path of ‘wisdom’ to mortals, and that he had brought them the consolation of knowing that ‘from suffering comes knowledge’.
Martin Buber offers a very concise interpretation of the last verses quoted above, which he aggregates into one statement:
« Zeus is the All, and that which surpasses it. » iii
How to understand this interpretation?
Is it faithful to the profound thought of Aeschylus?
Let us return to Agamemnon’s text. We read on the one hand:
« He who celebrates Zeus with all his soul will seize the Whole of the heart« .
and immediately afterwards :
« He [Zeus] has set mortals on the path of wisdom. »
Aeschylus uses three times in the same sentence, words with the same root: προφρόνως (prophronos), φρενῶν (phronōn) and φρονεῖν (phronein).
To render these three words, I deliberately used three very different English words: soul, heart, wisdom.
I rely on Onians in this regard: « In later Greek, phronein first had an intellectual sense, ‘to think, to have the understanding of’, but in Homer the sense is broader: it covers undifferentiated psychic activity, the action of phrenes, which includes ’emotion’ and also ‘desire’. » iv
In the translation that I offer, I mobilize the wide range of meanings that the word phren can take on: heart, soul, intelligence, will or seat of feelings.
Having said this, it is worth recalling, I believe, that the primary meaning of phrēn is to designate any membrane that ‘envelops’ an organ, be it the lungs, heart, liver or viscera.
According to the Ancient Greek dictionary of Bailly, the first root of all the words in this family is Φραγ, « to enclose », and according to the Liddell-Scott the first root is Φρεν, « separate ».
Chantraine believes for his part that « the old interpretation of φρήν as « dia-phragm », and phrassô « to enclose » has long since been abandoned (…) It remains to be seen that φρήν belongs to an ancient series of root-names where several names of body parts appear ». v
For us, it is even more interesting to observe that these eminent scholars thus dissonate on the primary meaning of phrēn…vi
Whether the truly original meaning of phrēnis « to enclose » or « to separate » is of secondary importance, since Aeschylus tells us that, thanks to Zeus, mortal man are called to « come out » of this closed enclosure, the phrēnes,and to « walk out » on the path of wisdom…
The word « heart » renders the basic (Homeric) meaning of φρενῶν (phrēn) ( φρενῶν is the genitive of the noun φρήν (phrēn), « heart, soul »).
The word « wisdom » » translates the verbal expression τὸν φρονεῖν (ton phronein), « the act of thinking, of reflecting ». Both words have the same root, but the substantive form has a more static nuance than the verb, which implies the dynamics of an action in progress, a nuance that is reinforced in the text of Aeschylus by the verb ὁδώσαντα (odôsanta), « he has set on the way ».
In other words, the man who celebrates Zeus « reaches the heart » (teuxetai phronein) « in its totality » (to pan), but it is precisely then that Zeus puts him « on the path » of « thinking » (ton phronein).
« Reaching the heart in its entirety » is therefore only the first step.
It remains to walk into the « thinking »…
Perhaps this is what Martin Buber wanted to report on when he translated :
« Zeus is the All, and that which surpasses him »?
But we must ask ourselves what « exceeds the Whole » in this perspective.
According to the development of Aeschylus’ sentence, what « surpasses » the Whole (or rather « opens a new path ») is precisely « the fact of thinking » (ton phronein).
The fact of taking the path of « thinking » and of venturing on this path (odôsanta), made us discover this divine law:
« From suffering is born knowledge », πάθει μάθος (pathei mathos)...
But what is this ‘knowledge’ (μάθος, mathos) of which Aeschylus speaks, and which the divine law seems to promise to the one who sets out on his journey?
Greek philosophy is very cautious on the subject of divine ‘knowledge’. The opinion that seems to prevail is that one can at most speak of a knowledge of one’s ‘non-knowledge’…
In Cratylus, Plato writes:
« By Zeus! Hermogenes, if only we had common sense, yes, there would be a method for us: to say that we know nothing of the Gods, neither of themselves, nor of the names they can personally designate themselves, because these, it is clear, the names they give themselves are the true ones! » vii
» Ναὶ μὰ Δία ἡμεῖς γε, ὦ Ἑρμόγενες, εἴπερ γε νοῦν, ἕνα μὲν τὸν κάλλιστον περὶ θεῶν οὐδὲν ἴσμεν, ἔχοιμεν περὶ αὐτῶν τῶν ὀνομάτων, περὶ ποτὲ ἑαυτοὺς τρόπον- ἅττα γὰρ ὅτι ἐκεῖνοί γε τἀληθῆ. »
Léon Robin translates ‘εἴπερ γε νοῦν ἔχοιμεν’ as ‘if we had common sense’. But νοῦς (or νοός) actually means ‘mind, intelligence, ability to think’. The metaphysical weight of this word goes in fact much beyond ‘common sense’.
It would therefore be better to translate, in this context, I think :
« If we had Spirit [or Intelligence], we would say that we know nothing of the Gods, nor of them, nor of their names. »
As for the other Greek poets, they also seem very reserved as for the possibility of piercing the mystery of the Divine.
Euripides, in the Trojans, makes Hecuba say:
« O you who bear the earth and are supported by it,
whoever you are, impenetrable essence,
Zeus, inflexible law of things or intelligence of man,
I revere you, for your secret path
brings to justice the acts of mortals. » viii
Ὦ γῆς ὄχημα κἀπὶ γῆς ἔχων ἕδραν,
ὅστις ποτ’ εἶ σύ, δυστόπαστος εἰδέναι,
Ζεύς, εἴτ’ ἀνάγκη φύσεος εἴτε νοῦς βροτῶν,
προσηυξάμην σε· πάντα γὰρ δι’ ἀψόφου
βαίνων κελεύθου κατὰ τὰ θνήτ’ ἄγεις.
The translation given here by the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade does not satisfy me. Consulting other translations available in French and English, and using the Greek-French dictionary by Bailly and the Greek-English dictionary by Liddell and Scott, I finally came up with a result more in line with my expectations:
« You who bear the earth, and have taken it for your throne,
Whoever You are, inaccessible to knowledge,
Zeus, or Law of Nature, or Spirit of Mortals,
I offer You my prayers, for walking with a silent step,
You lead all human things to justice. »
Greek thought, whether it is conveyed by Socrates’ fine irony that nothing can be said of the Gods, especially if one has Spirit, or whether it is sublimated by Euripides, who sings of the inaccessible knowledge of the God named « Whoever You Are », leads to the mystery of the God who walks in silence, and without a sound.
On the other hand, before Plato, and before Euripides, it seems that Aeschylus did indeed glimpse an opening, the possibility of a path.
The one that opens « the fact of thinking » (ton phronein).
It is the same path that begins with ‘suffering’ (pathos) and ends with the act of ‘knowledge’ (mathos).
It is also the path of the God who walks « in silence ».
iΖεύς (‘Zeus’) is nominative, and Διός (‘God’) is genitive.
iiAeschylus. Agammemnon. Trad. by Émile Chambry (freely adapted and modified). Ed. GF. Flammarion. 1964, p.138
iiiMartin Buber. Eclipse of God. Ed. Nouvelle Cité, Paris, 1987, p.31.
ivRichard Broxton Onians. The origins of European thought. Seuil, 1999, pp. 28-29.
vPierre Chantraine. Etymological dictionary of the Greek language. Ed. Klincksieck, Paris, 1968.
viCf. my blog on this subject : https://metaxu.org/2021/06/14/les-figures-de-la-conscience-dans-liliade-2-les-phrenes/
viiPlato. Cratyle. 400 d. Translation Leon Robin. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Gallimard, 1950. p. 635-636
viiiEuripides. Les Troyennes. v. 884-888. Translated by Marie Delcourt-Curvers. La Pléiade. Gallimard. 1962. p. 747