Theognis' Sphrêgis: Aristocratic Speech
and the Paradoxes of Writing

Thomas K. Hubbard

University of Texas, Austin

            Theognis' sphrêgis elegy (which I take to be 19-38, not 19-26) clearly seems intended as the programmatic "seal" to a written collection of poems, but betrays some discomfort with the medium of written dissemination and insists on the primacy of oral communication among aristocrats at the symposium. On the one hand, written preservation has been rendered necessary by the society of "new men," since it provides a defense against the fluidity of oral tradition, with the potential of changing lines (21) or reappropriating Theognis' work under someone else's name (20): the contrast in 21 between a "good" (esthlon) line and "worse" (kakion) one parallels that between "good" and "worse" citizens (cf. 35-36), and thus betrays Theognis' anxiety about his work being assimilated and transformed by the upstart classes. But writing also presents the disadvantage of his work becoming accessible to "everyone" (note the multiple repetitions of pas in 22-26), even though it is certain not to please everyone: Heraclitus expressed the same anxiety in the introduction to his corpus of aphorisms (F1 DK).

            I argue that 27-38 are integral to understanding 19-26, because it balances the written text with the observation that Theognis himself learned the content of his wisdom poetry through traditional oral-aural transmission, namely by listening to good men when he was a boy (27-28); he exhorts Cyrnus to follow his example (29-38). This emphasis on teaching wisdom through one's personal example and presence, embodied also in Theognis' self-fashioning as Cyrnus' lover and mentor, provides a counterpoint to the potentially depersonalized and remote teaching that a written text offers. 33-34 make it clear that the symposium is the scene for this type of personal instruction, and presumably for the recitation of Theognis' wisdom poetry.

I will survey the evidence of other contemporary corpora of wisdom poetry, such as Demodocus, Phocylides, Hipparchus, Critias, and Epicharmus, to support my contention that Theognis was a historical personage who actually assembled a collection of poems, which the sphrêgis elegy introduced. As such, I take issue with recent critics such as A. Ford and L. Edmunds, who have argued that it is merely the "codification" of a body of anonymous poetry.

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