The ways of wisdom are steep (σοφίαι μέν αἰπειναί)

A phrase from the end of Pindar’s Olympian 9 (104-108) that I always find more striking than I probably should and am now trying to justify to myself as worth the interest.

for some paths
are longer than others,
and no single training will develop
us all. The ways of wisdom
are steep …

ἐντὶ γὰρ ἄλλαι
ὁδῶν ὁδοὶ περαίτεραι,
μία δ᾿ οὐχ ἅπαντας ἄμμε θρέψει
μελέτα· σοφίαι μέν
αἰπειναί …

αἰπεινός is an adjective related to the far more common αἰπύς, both meaning something like ‘high, steep, sheer’. The full definitions of αἰπύς from Liddell Scott and Cunliffe’s Homeric Dictionary are below but, in short form, the word mostly appears in Epic and Lyric and the primary use is with cities, hills, and anything physically high up. An extended use later develops that allows application to what I’ll term vertiginous abstracts – death, darkness, anger, trickery, and toil (though you could probably argue for death as a transitional usage, its poetic conception ranging between a physical presence and a personified notion).

LSJ:

αἰπύς, εῖα, ύ, Ep. and Lyr. Adj., rare in Trag.,

high and steep, in Hom. mostly of cities on rocky heights, esp. of Troy, Od. 3.485, al.; of hills, Il. 2.603; later of the sky, αἰθήρ B. 3.36; οὐρανός S. Aj. 845; on high, ποδῶν αἰ. ἰωή Hes. Th. 682; ἁψαμένη βρόχον αἰπύν hanging high, Od. 11.278.

metaph., sheer, utter, αἰ. ὄλεθρος freq. in Hom., death being regarded as the plunge from a high precipice; φόνος αἰ. Od. 4.843; θάνατος Pi. O. 10(11).42; σκότος utter darkness, Id. Fr. 228; of passions, etc., αἰ. χόλος towering wrath, Il. 15.223; δόλος αἰ. h.Merc. 66, Hes. Th. 589; αἰπυτάτη σοφίη AP 11.354 (Agath.); arduous, πόνος Il. 11.601, 16.651; αἰπύ οἱ ἐσσεῖται ʼtwill be hard work for him, 13.317.

Cunliffe:

αἰπύς -εῖα, -ύ.

Steep, sheer: ὄρος Il. 2.603. Cf. Il. 2.811, 829, Il. 5.367, 868, Il. 11.711, Il. 15.84: αἰπεῖα εἰς ἅλα πέτρη (running sheer down into the sea) Od. 3.293. Cf. Od. 3.287, Od. 4.514, Od. 19.431. Applied to walls Il. 6.327, Il. 11.181: Od. 14.472. Of a noose, hung from on high Od. 11.278.
Of cities, set on a steep Il. 2.538, Il. 9.668, Il. 15.71: Od. 3.485, Od. 10.81, Od. 15.193.

Fig., difficult, hard.In impers. construction : αἰπύ οἱ ἐσσεῖται Il. 13.317. Of ὄλεθρος (thought of as a precipice or gulf), sheer, utter Il. 6.57, Il. 10.371, Il. 11.174, 441, Il. 12.345, 358, Il. 13.773, Il. 14.99, 507=Il. 16.283, Il. 16.859, Il. 17.155, 244, Il. 18.129: Od. 1.11, 37, Od. 5.305, Od. 9.286, 303, Od. 12.287, 446, Od. 17.47, Od. 22.28, 43, 67. Sim. of φόνος Il. 17.365: Od. 4.843, Od. 16.379. Of the toil and moil of war, hard, daunting Il. 11.601, Il. 16.651. Of wrath, towering Il. 15.223.

The less common αἰπεινός shows only the first use in Homer – the physical application. Again, Cunliffe:

αἰπεινός -ή, -όν[αἰπύς.]

Steep, sheer: Μυκάλης κάρηνα Il. 2.869. Cf. Il. 20.58: Od. 6.123. Rocky, rugged: Καλυδῶνι Il. 13.217, Il. 14.116.
Of cities, set on a steep Il. 2.573, Il. 6.35, Il. 9.419 = 686, Il. 13.773, Il. 15.215, 257, 558, Il. 17.328.

But then in Pindar’s four uses of αἰπεινός, two are figurative applications. One (Nemean 5.32) is explicable through comparison with the extended uses of αἰπύς seen in Hesiod’s Theogony (589) at the presentation of Pandora and the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (66). First Hesiod:

θαῦμα δ᾽ ἔχ᾽ ἀθανάτους τε θεοὺς θνητούς τ᾽ ἀνθρώπους,
ὡς εἶδον δόλον αἰπύν, ἀμήχανον ἀνθρώποισιν.

And wonder took hold of the deathless gods and mortal men when they saw that which was sheer guile, not to be withstood by men.

And then Hermes:

ἆλτο κατὰ σκοπιὴν εὐώδεος ἐκ μεγάροιο
ὁρμαίνων δόλον αἰπὺν ἐνὶ φρεσίν, οἶά τε φῶτες
φηληταὶ διέπουσι μελαίνης νυκτὸς ἐν ὥρῃ.

[He] sprang from the sweet-smelling hall to a watch-place, pondering sheer trickery in his heart —deeds such as knavish folk pursue in the dark night-time;

The context of both scenes is the realm of subterfuge. Pandora is intended as an inescapable (ἀμήχανον) evil slipped in amongst men. Hermes – who coincidentally leaps to a watching place (σκοπιὴ) to do so – makes thieving plans. The same context is activated below in Pindar’s telling of Hippolyta attempting to persuade her husband to ambush Peleus. I bold the relevant phrases but the main point is that we have here only the extended, metaphorical use. There is no element of the physical:

And, after a prelude
to Zeus, they first sang of august Thetis
and Peleus, telling how elegant Hippolyta, Cretheus’
daughter, sought to snare him by a trick, after she
persuaded her husband, overseer of the Magnesians,
to be an accomplice through her elaborate designs:
she put together a falsely fabricated tale,
claiming that in Acastus’ own marriage bed
he was trying to gain her wifely
love. But the opposite was true, for again and again
with all her heart she begged him beguilingly.
But her precipitous words provoked his anger,
and he immediately rejected the wife,

αἱ δὲ πρώτιστον μὲν ὕμνησαν Διὸς ἀρχόμεναι σεμνὰν Θέτιν
Πηλέα θ᾿, ὥς τέ νιν ἁβρὰΚρηθεῒς Ἱππολύτα δόλῳ πεδᾶσαι
ἤθελε ξυνᾶνα Μαγνήτων σκοπόν
πείσαισ᾿ ἀκοίταν ποικίλοις βουλεύμασιν,
ψεύσταν δὲ ποιητὸν συνέπαξε λόγον,
ὡς ἦρα νυμφείας ἐπείρα κεῖνος ἐν λέκτροις Ἀκάστου

εὐνᾶς· τὸ δ᾿ ἐναντίον ἔσκεν· πολλὰ γάρ νιν παντὶθυμῷ
παρφαμένα λιτάνευεν. τοῖο δ᾿ ὀργὰν κνίζον αἰπεινοὶ λόγοι·
εὐθὺς δ᾿ ἀπανάνατο νύμφαν,

(As an aside, I would add here the consideration that there’s a second or alternate influence on this use in Pindar – that αἰπεινοὶ in ‘τοῖο δ᾿ ὀργὰν κνίζον αἰπεινοὶ λόγοι’ is a transferred modifier, the background idea being ‘but her words provoked his precipitous anger.’ This sense would draw from the metaphorical application of αἰπύς to passions.)

Coming at last back to launching point in Olympian 9:

for some paths
are longer than others,
and no single training will develop
us all. The ways of wisdom
are steep …

ἐντὶ γὰρ ἄλλαι
ὁδῶν ὁδοὶ περαίτεραι,
μία δ᾿ οὐχ ἅπαντας ἄμμε θρέψει
μελέτα· σοφίαι μέν
αἰπειναί …

There is an easy near parallel to this thought flow in Hesiod’s Works and Days (286-292):

σοὶ δ᾽ ἐγὼ ἐσθλὰ νοέων ἐρέω, μέγα νήπιε Πέρση.
τὴν μέν τοι κακότητα καὶ ἰλαδὸν ἔστιν ἑλέσθαι
ῥηιδίως: λείη μὲν ὁδός, μάλα δ᾽ ἐγγύθι ναίει:
τῆς δ᾽ ἀρετῆς ἱδρῶτα θεοὶ προπάροιθεν ἔθηκαν
ἀθάνατοι: μακρὸς δὲ καὶ ὄρθιος οἶμος ἐς αὐτὴν
καὶ τρηχὺς τὸ πρῶτον: ἐπὴν δ᾽ εἰς ἄκρον ἵκηται,
ῥηιδίη δὴ ἔπειτα πέλει, χαλεπή περ ἐοῦσα.

To you, foolish Perses, I will speak good sense. Badness can be got easily and in shoals; the road to her is smooth, and she lives very near us. But between us and Goodness the gods have placed the sweat of our brows; long and steep is the path that leads to her, and it is rough at the first; but when a man has reached the top, then is she easy to reach, though before that she was hard.

Substitute Pindar’s σοφίαι for Hesiod’s ἀρετή (goodness, excellence – more), αἰπειναί for ὄρθιος (straight up, steep – more), and ὁδοὶ for οἶμος ( way, road – more) and you’re in the same region of folk wisdom. But what you get different with Pindar is typical of his construction generally – a marked condensing of thought alongside a heightened intensity. He manages the effect here through a unique (in surviving work) use of αἰπεινός that forces activation of both its physical and metaphorical senses – basically I read his σοφίαι μέν αἰπειναί as pulling together the entirety of Hesiod’s
τῆς δ᾽ ἀρετῆς ἱδρῶτα θεοὶ προπάροιθεν ἔθηκαν / ἀθάνατοι: μακρὸς δὲ καὶ ὄρθιος οἶμος ἐς αὐτὴν. It hits not just the physical difficulty of ὄρθιος οἶμος but also – calling in the metaphorical use of αἰπύς – the attendant psychic strain of τῆς δ᾽ ἀρετῆς ἱδρῶτα θεοὶ προπάροιθεν ἔθηκαν ἀθάνατοι (between us and Goodness the gods have placed the sweat of our brows). Wisdom here is difficult to reach like an elevated city or cliff and daunting to encounter/overcome like death, treachery, and the darker passions.

Truly a path longer than others.



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