Friday, 28 December 2007

Nothing in excess

I should have written this post about excess before Christmas; but never mind.

When the Greeks said Μηδὲν ἄγαν (Nothing in excess), they meant in all aspects of life – in politics, ethics, aesthetics, culture, art, architecture, psychology and so on – defiance of which invited hubris, discord and catastrophe and amounted to the repudiation of what the Greeks aspired to more than anything – living with beauty and truth.

Nevertheless, it was Nietzsche who pointed out the essential deceit of the Nothing in excess maxim – carved into the temple of Phoebus Apollo at Delphi – and asserted the root of Greek art and life is not rationality and moderation but strife and pain, and that only a people – like the Greeks – who experienced an ‘excess of strength and courage to gaze into the horror of individual existence and not be turned into stone by the vision’, who were familiar with the ecstatic dream world of Dionysiac art, would have dared to unravel the mysteries of beauty and truth.

‘What suffering [the Greek] race must have endured to reach such beauty [in their culture],’ Nietzsche says at the end of The Birth of Tragedy.

Here’s another view of excess, from Odysseas Elytis, as expressed in his poem The Sovereign Sun, in which he prefers to extol the virtues of moderation, praise the man who has few needs in life and pity the tragic fate of those – like the Greeks – who create modest paradises and then find themselves at the mercy of the avaricious, the envious and resentful, of those whose needs are excessive and malicious.

There’s nothing much a man may want
but to be quiet and innocent

a little food a little wine
at Christmas and at Easter time

wherever he may build his nest
may no one there disturb his rest.

But everything has all gone wrong
they wake him up at break of dawn

then come and drag him to and fro
eat up what little he has and lo

from out his mouth from out of sight
and in a moment of great delight

they snatch his morsel in an evil hour.
Hip hip hurrah for those in Power!

Hip hip hurrah for those in Power
for them there is no ‘I’ or ‘our’.

Hip hip hurrah for those in Power
whatever they see they must devour.

1 comment:

Hermes said...

Nearly all human dramas and passions have been played out in the Greek world and this is why it is difficult to characterise Hellenism. Delphi, Nietzsche (Heraclitus) and Elytis are all right.