October 08, 2002
Delphic Advice

Now that my books are out of storage, though mostly still in boxes, I can do a little more 'quote of the day' and 'interesting historical fact of the day' stuff. (Threat or promise? You be the judge.) Here's the first:

Everyone knows that the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was inscribed with two maxims, "Nothing too much" and "Know yourself". There was actually a third, quoted far less often since it does not lend itself to philosophical generalization. Plutarch gives all three in his dialogue The Dinner of the Seven Sages. The sage Periander has just asked Chersias to explain the significance of the frogs carved around the base of a palm tree at the temple. I would like to know the answer to that question, too, but we never find out, since Chersias replies (section 164B):

"But I will not say until I have asked these people here what significance they give to the precepts 'Avoid extremes' and 'Know yourself', and, in particular, that one which has kept many from marrying, and many from trusting, and some even from speaking, which is: 'Give a pledge, and recklessness attends.'"

'Recklessness' could also be translated 'blind delusion' or 'infatuation'. It should perhaps be capitalized, since there seems to be a hint that she (Áta is a goddess) is an invisible witness to the foolish contract. In modern terms, it's roughly equivalent to 'never sign a binding contract' -- much broader than just 'never cosign a loan', though that is also implied. It's interesting that the third maxim seems to have been more often taken as a guide in everyday life than the first two. The dialogue ends soon after, so we never do find out much about the meaning of any of the three.

For the three of my readers (if I'm not being overoptimistic) who want to see the Greek, here is a transliteration, with underlined E and O for eta and omega:

  1. Medèn ágan ('Nothing too much')
  2. Gnôthi sautón ('Know yourself')
  3. Eggúa pára d' áta ('Give a pledge, and recklessness attends' )
Posted by Dr. Weevil at October 08, 2002 07:49 PM