Pre-Christian Greek writers use the term λόγος (logos) in a startling variety of ways.  It can mean something as simple as a word uttered by a voice, or it can mean the reason that underlies the uttering of that word.  It can mean a story told, or a rumor heard.  It can mean the capacity for reason, or it can mean the orderly structure of the universe.  Even someone with a Ph.D. in ancient Greek, one who has read the word λόγος countless times in Greek literature, must sometimes pause to consider what the word might mean in a given context. Sometimes classicists will get it wrong, for we often need to adapt our own understandings of the word to a particular literary context.  That’s half the fun of classics.  It is illuminating to have one’s preconceptions challenged.  It’s good to have to think about what a given word might mean in a given passage.  The old name for classics was Philology.  Philia is Greek for a certain kind of love (that’s a tricky word too!), and the last part of that word is λόγος, so Philology is a love of words.  This is a discipline which has often been mocked as nit-picky, myopic, and pedantic.  Philologists try to figure out what words mean.

Consider the first lines of the Gospel of John, ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.  οὖτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν, “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was in the presence of God.  And the logos was God.  This was in the beginning in the presence of God.”  God gets second billing to the λόγος, or maybe the λόγος is God.  Or maybe God is the λόγος.  What does John mean?  The λόγος appears to be something that exists in the universe prior to God, but is also identified with God.  That suggests that the λόγος might be atemporal or transtemporal; it must be something untouched by the flux of history and events.  The λόγος must be somehow transcendent, bound to the limitations of matter or space no more than to the limitations of time.  Later in his gospel (1:14) John says that this λόγος “became flesh” at the incarnation of Christ, but before that happened, the λόγος was not flesh.  That is consistent with the idea that the λόγος is to be understood as unbounded by matter, space, or time.

The Greek word for hatred is mîsos, so the term Misology refers to the hatred of the λόγος.  In this case, λόγος means something rather different than a word appearing in a work of literature.  Misology usually means a hatred for reason. (Misology was first coined in German by Kant in 1781, as he simply translated the cognate Greek term.)  Notice the inconsistency between the two etymologically cognate terms: Misology is a hatred for reason; Philology is a love for language.

I won’t here rehearse the Misology of the current moment, neither from the political right nor from the political left.  The λόγος is not thriving.  So what’s a philologist to do?  Shouting and sputtering about the merits of reason is surely a fool’s errand, and it only shows the philologist to be a lover of reason rather than a lover of language.  In the context of a contempt for reason philology can offer, at best, a pleasing haven.  Parsing Aeschylus may now be more valuable than calling for evidence-based arguments in Senate hearings.  Nearly no one cares what anyone thinks of the syntax of a line of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, but that’s the beauty of it.  We can think about that line and come to a richer understanding of it without running afoul of the misologists, for they have no interest in the pursuit.  Here, let’s see.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon, line 181, contains the phrase χάρις βίαιος (charis biaios).  The second word is easier than the first.  The word βίαιος is an adjective made from a noun that  means force or violence, so Aeschylus’s word means violent or forceful.  The first word in our phrase, χάρις, is very difficult.  It is used in the Christian bible to refer to God’s free gift to humans, and then it is translated as grace.  In classical Greek it can refer to the beneficence of a giver and to the gratitude of a recipient.  It can operate on both sides of a transaction of goodwill.  Indeed, it can mean the goodwill which underlies a transaction or gift exchange.  In our passage, Aeschylus is pushing hard on the complexity of this word, for his “violent grace” is said to come from the gods and to exercise a kind of control over humans.  Something outside of this world gives us a gift which serves to regulate, but that gift is violent, coercive.

Notice that the analysis above has not resolved Aeschylus’s two-word phrase into a perfectly simple meaning.  We still don’t quite know what he means by the phrase, but we do know more than if we hadn’t thought about it, and we see more depth and ambiguity in the phrase, even as we see its meaning a little more clearly.  Philology doesn’t work by syllogism; it labors under no quod erat demonstrandum, no QED.  Philology pokes under rocks and stares at sunsets; it doesn’t claim to offer truth or justice, but it does find beauty, and there’s a certain calm it offers amidst the din of those claiming to know truth or justice.

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