Coming last in style
The ancient Greeks didn’t always treat athletes and athletics with reverence. Nicarchus (1st cent. AD) wrote a witty epigram about runner called Kharmos (‘Victor’), which I’ve translated as follows:
When Kharmos, in Arcadia, once entered in a race
competing with five runners, he came out in seventh place.
A curious result, and you’ll be saying ‘How in heaven,
with six men in the race, did Kharmos finish no. 7?’
The reason’s this. A mate of Kharmos, shouting ‘Go, you’re fine’
ran fully dressed around the course, and beat him to the line.
So Kharmos finished seventh, but here’s to his sporting health:
if he had five more friends, just think — he would have finished twelfth.
πέντε μετ᾽ ἄλλων Χάρμος ἔν ᾽Αρκαδίᾳ δολιχεύων,
θαῦμα μέν, ἀλλ᾽ὄντως ἕβδομος ἐξέπεσεν.
«ἓξ ὄντων», τάχ᾽ἐρεῖς, «πῶς ἕβδομος;» εἷς φίλος αὐτοῦ
«θάρσει, Χάρμε», λέγων ἦλθεν ἐν ἱματίῳ.
ἕβδομος οὖν οὕτω παραγίνεται· εἰ δ᾽ἔτι πέντε
εἶχε φίλους, ἦλθ᾽ἄν, Ζωΐλε, δωδέκατος.
Mark Ives, who teaches Classics at St Gabriel’s School in Newbury, drew my attention to another example of Nicarchus’s epigrammatic wit (Greek Anthology 11.395):
Πορδὴ ἀποκτέννει πολλοὺς ἀδιέξοδος οὖσα·
πορδὴ καὶ σώζει τραυλὸν ἱεῖσα µέλος.
οὐκοῦν εἰ σώζει, καὶ ἀποκτέννει πάλι πορδή,
τοῖς βασιλεῦσιν ἴσην πορδὴ ἔχει δύναµιν.
A fart, repressed, brings many to their death;
Released it rescues with its rasping breath.
So if a fart can save or cause death’s hour,
To kings it surely has an equal power.
They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead;
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed;
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking, and sent him down the sky.
And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
William Johnson Cory was the Victorian Eton schoolmaster who wrote this haunting translation of an ancient Greek epigram, Callimachus’ lament for his friend the poet (not the much earlier philosopher) Heraclitus. In Greek (Callimachus Ep. 2 Pfeiffer) it consists of three taut and simple elegiac couplets:
My translation here aims to capture the less sentimental quality of the original:
Cory also wrote the paragraph below, summing up what he saw to be the purpose of education at Eton. It expresses sentiments that nowadays might be more apt to education at university level (at least in places like Oxford and Cambridge where the tutorial system still exists) than to the more inflexible style of schoolteaching required to achieve good results in the league tables.
The shadow of lost knowledge
At school you are engaged not so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and for mental soberness. Above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge.
To this marvellous paragraph might be added the equally splendid essay by the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, written in 1950, entitled The Idea of a University. It is worth reading in full, but perhaps its most ringing paragraphs are the following: