Tag Archives: Harmony

Harmony is beautiful

The wording of Vatican Saying 61 has presented a number of difficulties for translators. As a result there are translations in circulation which differ in meaning but seem to agree in their level of obscurity.

I suggest that a straightforward translation can be obtained which yields a very interesting meaning that is lost in mistranslation. My suggestion is as follows; textual and translation details need to be confirmed.

The sentence has the expression ‘the sight’ (ἡ ὄψις) combined with two dependent expressions, ‘those nearby’ (τῶν πλησίων) and ‘the family’ (τῆς συγγενείας). There has been a tendency to take ‘the sight of those nearby’ (or ‘the neighbours’) to mean the view that others have of them. A clearer meaning emerges if we take ‘the sight of those nearby’ to mean ‘the view on the part of those nearby.’ We then have those nearby looking at those described as ‘the family.’ On this interpretation, ‘the sight of those nearby of the family’ means ‘the sight those nearby have of the family.’ The wording is tricky because ‘sight’ (ὄψις) can mean ‘view’ of a thing and ‘thing viewed.’

The word here translated ‘family’ (συγγενείας) has also been translated ‘kin’ or ‘kinship’, rather vague words which have added to the impression of obscurity. The emendation συγγενήσεως, ‘meeting’, has been suggested instead. It seems to me preferable to avoid emending if a satisfactory meaning can be obtained from the text as it stands.

Further obscurity has been introduced in the translation of the word ‘first’ (or ‘foremost’, πρώτης); ‘primary’ and ‘original’ have been tried in different combinations. What can ‘first family’ mean? I suggest it has the straightforward meaning of the ‘first family’ in the Epicurean Garden, the family of Epicurus, i.e. his brothers and any other family members who were part of the community.

With Epicurus as a dominant leader, the community of the Garden inevitably had some kind of hierarchical structure. However much egalitarianism was encouraged, there must have been an unavoidable focus on the position of Epicurus’ relatives as special members of the group. It would be an acknowledgment of the obvious to call them the ‘first’ or ‘foremost’ family.

Along with position went responsibility. Epicurus himself had to set the highest standards in his personal values and conduct. His position and authority, and the tone and functioning of the community, would have been adversely affected if the attitudes and behaviour of family members were at variance with expected norms. Harmonious co-operation on their part, or at least concerted attempts by them to achieve and maintain harmonious co-operation (‘being of one mind’, ὁμονοούσης), would have been of key importance in running the group, and a great example and encouragement for everyone in close contact with them. I suggest that Vatican Saying 61 makes this practical point.

Thoughts for the Day, September 16: ‘It is a very beautiful sight for those nearby to see the leading family in harmony or making a great effort to achieve this’ (Vatican Sayings 61). The Greek translated here is: καλλίστη καὶ ἡ τῶν πλησίων ὄψις τῆς πρώτης συγγενείας ὁμονοούσης ἢ ἡ εἰς πολλὴν εἰς τοῦτο ποιουμένη σπουδήν (Codex Vaticanus, as reported by Wotke).

Respecting others as we respect ourselves

In Vatican Saying 15, Epicurus urges respect for others on the basis that we have respect for ourselves. This involves a principle of reciprocity which we also see in the Golden Rule, but there is a proviso at the end of the saying which might be interpreted to mean that fair and reasonable dealing is not obligatory where other parties are not themselves disposed to behave fairly and reasonably (ἀνεπιεικῶς).

The formation of a person’s character (the word used here by Epicurus is ἦθος) was a matter of philosophical interest. Thus in Plato’s Laws, for example, we find discussion of the influence of circumstances on the development of young people, and the view that both luxury and slavery have adverse effects (7.791d). A recognition of the influence of circumstances would provide an intellectual basis for treating others with understanding.

The language of Principal Doctrine 39 suggests an outlook of acceptance of other groups, a counter-cultural approach in comparison with such traditional antipathies as those between Greek and barbarian. The saying draws a distinction between ὁμόφυλα (what is akin) and ἀλλόφυλα (what is alien or foreign) and appears to recommend an avoidance of such polarization in dealing with outsiders. If something along the lines of this interpretation is correct, we may take the saying as evidence for an attitude of generosity towards a wide variety of other people and a desire to overcome suspicion and hostility.

Thoughts for the Day, August 9: ‘We value our characters as we value our own possessions, whether they are good and admired by others or not; similarly we should also respect the characters of our neighbours, if they are fair and reasonable people’ (Vatican Sayings 15).