In a series of posts I hope to continue, I wrote about some of the tricks I’ve learned for remembering Greek forms. The memorization of forms is one of the hardest things a beginner has to tackle, and I think it can be made a lot easier than it initially seems. I find the technical aspects of language fascinating, being a technical person by trade, and so I love to describe the ways Greek words change and the reasons for their mutability.
Forms, however, are only half of the trouble, and after twelve years of studying Greek I may be fairly comfortable with forms, but I am not comfortable with syntax. Greek syntax is at times impenetrable; deciphering complex (and often simple) sentences creates frustration for me. As I was getting stuck various places reading a new text, Plato’s Euthyphro, I thought I should describe my problems and see if I can perhaps perform a sort of self-diagnosis. Failing that, a certain Ph.D. in classics happens to run this blog, and maybe she will part with her boot collection for a while to analyze my grammatical malaise. Incidentally, while this post is specific to Greek, nearly every bit of this frustration is present for Latin students as well.
At 3A7, Euthyphro says:
ἀτεχνῶς γάρ μοι δοκεῖ ἀφ᾽ ἑστίας ἄρχεσθαι κακουργεῖν τὴν πόλιν, ἐπιχειρῶν ἀδικεῖν σέ.
Let’s analyze this as a classics student is taught. Where is our main verb? δοκεῖ is the only finite verb, so we can assume it is the main verb, and while it is frequently used impersonally, we know that impersonal verbs actually have subjects. (“To me it seems stupid to dance” = “To dance seems stupid to me.”)
We have a nominative subject, in the form of a participle, ἐπιχειρῶν, “the man attempting”, a verb which clearly takes a complementary infinitive, which we have (ἀδικεῖν, “to do injustice”). That infinitive takes an accusative direct object, which we also have (σέ, “you”). So, we know our subject is “the man attempting to do you injustice”, and we know this man “seems to me” to be something else. But what does he seem?
An adjective would be a possible completion, but we don’t have one here. An infinitive could also complete the thought, and we have two of those. The obvious completion is that he “seems to me” κακουργεῖν τὴν πόλιν, “to do evil to the city.” I’ll throw in the initial adverb (ἀτεχνῶς =“simply”) and connective (γάρ =“for”) since their meanings are clear. So: “For the one attempting to do you injustice seems to me to do evil to the city.” So far, so good.
But now we are stuck with some more words. ἀφ᾽ ἑστίας ἄρχεσθαι. What could they be doing here? A ἑστία is a hearth, or home, and it’s in the genitive after a preposition (ἀφ᾽ = ἀπό = “away from”) that takes the genitive. So, something is happening “away from a hearth.” But what? And why is ἄρχεσθαι there??
ἄρχω means “rule, command” in the active, but in the middle it can mean “begin.” (Actually, “begin” is the root meaning from which “command” is derived.) We have a middle/passive infinitive, so it could mean either “to begin” or “to be ruled.” In both meanings it takes a genitive object, and we do have a genitive preceding it, but that genitive would seem to be stuck to the preposition. So we seem to have an independent prepositional phrase “from a hearth/home”, and an independent infinitive “to begin/be ruled.” What on earth do the hearth and being ruled have to do with a seemingly straightforward sentence?
I gave up, and turned to a reliably literal translation, that of West and West in Four Texts on Socrates. Here is their version of this sentence:
For he seems to me simply to be doing evil to the city, beginning from the hearth, by attempting to do injustice to you.
Aside from flipping around the nominative into a prepositional phrase, the Wests seem to have the same translation until the troublesome phrase. Yet how did they get the infinitive into a participle, “beginning?” And what does this phrase even mean?
Let’s look at a reliably non-literal translation, that of Fowler in the Loeb text:
For it seems to me that he begins by injuring the State at its very heart, when he undertakes to harm you.
I actually like his translation of the nominative participle better, and now the meaning of ἀφ᾽ ἑστίας ἄρχεσθαι is clear. “To begin from the hearth” means that the injury inflicted by Meletus upon the city begins at its very core. The error of my first assumptions also becomes apparent. I thought the man ἐπιχειρῶν seems to κακουργεῖν (do evil), but in fact he seems to ἄρχεσθαι (begin). Begin to do what? To κακουργεῖν (do evil.) But wait, don’t verbs of beginning take supplementary participles, not infinitives? In fact, the Wests have it differently. He does indeed seem to κακουργεῖν, but he does this while beginning from the hearth. Even the translators are confused!
I chose this sentence because it is not one of Plato’s lengthy, multi-page creations, replete with subordinate clauses and obviously a challenge. This is a simple sentence, at the beginning of a dialogue, before the heavy philosophizing begins. It typifies the frustration of the Greek (or Latin) student, who nearly figures a sentence out only to have it slip from his grasp before it ends. I correctly identified the forms and vocabulary, and yet the enigma remained unsolved. How is it that our good professor can read a sentence like this so easily? What goes on in her head? I’m not even sure she knows. She just…does it. And this, for me at least, is a perfect description of the frustration of Greek.