Arguing With Art – William Lonn

Pindar in Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way

Pindar. Roman copy of a 5th c. BCE Greek bust.

Pindar. Roman copy of a 5th c. BCE Greek bust.

The Don Quijote Honors College has published several essays on Edith Hamilton’s books The Greek Way and The Roman Way. By now it should be clear that Hamilton, through a series of vignettes about different artists, philosophers, or modes of production, wants to explain the way(s) of a society. Hamilton seeks to distill some truth about the daily tedium or about the worldview of the Greeks and Romans from the works of these great creators. Given that our previous essays on Hamilton have largely dealt with the extraction of these Greek and Roman cultural elements, I have decided to attempt to extract truths about Hamilton’s worldview through a commentary on her academic approach. Hamilton’s argument about Greek society via Pindar’s work demonstrates a commitment to the dynamical and inexplicit relationship among works of art and between artists and their audiences.

On my first read-through of the Pindar chapter, I was most aware of the fact that Hamilton quotes five different poets before finally arriving at Pindar himself. First she quotes Percy Shelly saying that a specific poem of his “could be turned into another tongue without a total loss.”  Hamilton thus begins her discussion of Pindar with a pseudo-apology about the inefficacy of translation with regards to the magnificence of Pindar’s poetry. She sets his poetry firmly in the linguistic and cultural age in which it arose. The poet as philosopher composes aesthetically pleasing ideas and imagery that move the listener on an intellectual level. Hamilton claims that Pindar achieved no such mental provocation, commenting that Pindar’s thoughts “went along conventional, ready-made channels and could have moved no one to sympathy except the most stationary minds of his day.” Pindar does not present any concept or beauty that provokes a transcendental experience on the part of the reader. Hamilton introduces her own reader to the translatable mental acumen of Shelly in order to set Pindar apart, to separate him from her contemporaries’ conception of universally good poetry. This apologist approach assumes a dynamical interrelation of artists, works of art, and consumers of art. We as readers can only connect to past art via our own ideas of contemporary art. Yet Hamilton definitely stakes her understanding of art on the idea that Western art is a process built on the foundation provided by Greek and Roman artists. Art, as a medium through which an artist connects to an audience, has folded in upon itself: through ancient artists we can understand the development of art, and though contemporary artists we can perceive alien elements of ancient art. Hamilton present Shelly as a monumental poet of the modern era and implores us to abandon the investigative, intellectual approach needed for Shelly’s poetry. This dynamical loop brings us closer to understanding Pindar as his intended audience would have.

Continuing her descent into the past, Hamilton next invokes Horace as a more direct link to Pindar’s poetry. Not only does Horace exist at a closer time to the poet, but also the work she quotes explicitly references Pindar:

Pindar’s torrent of songs sweeps on resistless,
Deep-voiced, tremendous.
Or by a mighty wind he is borne skyward,
Where great clouds gather.

Hamilton emphasizes this force-of-nature element of Pindar’s work. She again claims that Pindar is to be felt emotionally, not intellectually, and that he is “beyond description.” That might be the case, but she attempts to describe him, saying, “his poetry is of all poetry the most like music, not the music that wells up from the bird’s throat, but the music that is based on structure, on fundamental laws of balance and symmetry, on carefully calculated effects, a Bach fugue, a Beethoven sonata or symphony.” The truth of the matter cannot be conveyed through explicit argumentation, so Hamilton has to approximate the nature of Pindar’s poetry through the pre-compiled packets of information that the more familiar Bach and Beethoven provide.

Rudyard Kipling. Painting by John Collier c. 1891.

Rudyard Kipling. Painting by John Collier c. 1891.

Hamilton continues her argument by presenting the reader with Shakespeare and Milton in quick succession to make the simple point that English poets tend to be “painters with words more than they are master craftsmen in metrical effects” like Pindar. Hamilton finds the poet’s closest approximation, and thus the most effective way to assess Pindar, in Kipling and quotes him at length:

Follow the Romany patteran
Sheer to the Austral Light,
Where the besom of God is the wild South wind,
Sweeping the sea-floors white.

The Lord knows what we may find, dear lass,
And the Deuce knows what we may do—
But we’re back once more on the old trail,
      our own trail, the out trail
We’re down, hull-down, on the long trail, the
      trail that is always new.

Hamilton reemphasizes her overarching point here saying, “the lines stay in the mind as music, not thoughts, and that is even truer of Pindar’s poetry.” This is actually only the preliminary point of Hamilton’s chapter, and, although it is fairly lucid, she does not present it in an overtly logical manner. She does not take apart a poem of Pindar’s line-by-line, translating the Greek and explaining the sounds (both pronunciation and accents) to portray his lyrical style. Instead, she invokes her reader’s own mental winrar and has him or her unzip the data contained in the files of more familiar artists. This argument takes immense faith in the project of art – that is, art as an implicit connector between individuals and their emotions. Leo Tolstoy in his What is Art? says it best: “The business of art lies just in this, – to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible.”  Although it seems weird to implement dissimilar art to explain art, it bridges the gap between Hamilton’s reader and Pindar. This method of argumentation requires Hamilton’s repetition of the underlying contention (i.e. “pathos not logos”) to confirm the emotional connection across several works of art from several eras.

Leo Tolstoy. Painting by Ilya Efimovich Repin c. 1887. Copies of What is Art? can be found at

Leo Tolstoy. Painting by Ilya Efimovich Repin c. 1887. Copies of What is Art? can be found at

Pindar, even to Hamilton, threatens to be “superfluous” if his “poetry is […] indescribable and his thoughts merely conventional.” However, Hamilton needed us to understand Pindar as an artist so that we can understand Greece through Pindar. Pindar’s works in and of themselves have compiled knowledge about Greece, knowledge we can only gain access to if we have access to Pindar himself. I encourage you to read some of Pindar’s work, but the connection important to understanding Hamilton’s argument is that we recognize the drum beating of Pindar’s poetry as a key element of the Greek aristocracy’s philosophy. Hamilton classifies Pindar as a “champion of a dying cause” because “his poems express to perfection and for the last time in Greek literature the class consciousness of the old Greek aristocracy.” With the benefit of hindsight we know that aristocracy does not work; however, Pindar was convinced that “a great tradition and a careful training made [the aristocracy] superior to the selfish greed and the servile meanness [that] other men were subject to.” It should come as no surprise that his poetry is only appreciable through emotion, because his whole worldview requires a sentimental elitism in order to be coherent. This romanticized tradition of superiority could not be expressed in translatable universalities but instead required metrical supremacy because Pindar’s work encapsulated “the great ideal [that] Greek aristocracy inspired just before it came to an end: physical perfection which evokes mysteriously the sense of spiritual perfection.” Pindar’s class and their governance were nobly justified because its members had been set apart by nature, the same unthinking nature that sets rhythm above logic. It is only through art and the attendant emotional connections that Hamilton can express this seemingly illogical element of Greek culture.


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