‘I pray to lay my limbs in the ground as one who gladdened his fellow-citizens’

The following is an excerpt from Pindar’s Nemea Ode 8. Pindar (ca. 518-438 BC) was a lyrical poet living during the Archaic Age in ancient Greece. The extant odes, apparently representing only a small part of his oeuvre, commemorate the victories of athletes from the Olympian, Pythian, Ishmian, and Nemean Games. Apart from the high style, what is striking about the odes is their sense of the heroic greatness of men. The theme of glory, not that of human frailty which was to be explored at great length by later Christian writers and, in more tortuous ways, by the Renaissance humanist Michel de Montaigne, seemed to call forth a poet who would have enough facility with language to be able to sing the praises of men. Enter Pindar.

A word about Nimea 8. Here, Pindar turns his attention back on the role of the poet, then provides an inchoate vision of human flourishing as being that which is set within, as well as made possible by, a community of men “wise and just.”

Zeus father, may such never be my way;
let me, walking always in the path
of simplicity, make my life, and die thus, leaving
to my children honor without reproach. Some pray for gold, some for lands
without limit, but I pray to lay my limbs in the ground
as one who gladdened his fellow-citizens,
praising that which deserves it, scattering blame on the workers of evil.
 
But human excellence grows like a vine tree,
fed by the green grass,  among men wise and just, raised up to
the liquid sky. Many are the uses of friends, beyond all else
in difficulty, but joy also looks for proof
to set before friends’ eyes. O Megas, bring back your soul to life. 
 

Pindar, Nemea Ode 8

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