Describing the frustration of Greek

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.


9 thoughts on “Describing the frustration of Greek

  1. What goes on in her head, you ask:) The phenomenon is called The Zeigarnik Effect, hence the brief focus on boots. The boot post was therefore an educational one (the show-and-tell type).

    Do you remember our discussion last Saturday on δοκέω and what I urged you to remember about the meaning of this verb? This time, I’ll write it in stone, ὡς ἔπος εἰπεῖν: δοκέω means the same as videor in Latin, i.e., “I seem.” Sure it can be used with infinitive as a subject, just as the English verb: “writing about boots seems frivolous.” But you also can use it personally, as in “the Ph.D. seems to be frivolous when writing about boots.”

    So if this little bit of instruction had registered, I’d have spared you a great deal of frustration. It didn’t, which means that this Greek verb must become a part of a Greeklish sentence. Irkab can also compose a song to go with it. And I’ll have to repeat the instructional bit some more, in accompaniment.

    Now, ἄρχομαι – “I begin” – can be used with both infinitive and participle. Hansen & Quinn have something about it on p. 402 (in Unit 14). The difference is slight but significant. When used with the infinitive, the combo means “I begin to respond (to your query)”; no hint about how I am going to do it, just a statement that I am beginning the activity. But if you use it with a participle, then it comes to mean “I begin by responding (after which I’ll slam you for not remembering my dicta).” Does this make sense?

    In Euthyphro’s statement, you have ἄρχεσθαι followed by κακουργεῖν – “he seems to begin to harm the polis.” You also have a particple, ἐπιχειρῶν. The question is, do we take the participle with ἄρχεσθαι, or do we treat it separately, as a circumstantial one?

    Let’s try and see what happens if we take it as detached from ἄρχεσθαι. “By injuring you, he begins to harm the polis from its heart(h).”

    And if it is attached to ἄρχεσθαι? “He begins by injuring you to harm the polis, etc.”

    What do you say at this point?

  2. Thank you for γραφοῦσα ἐν τῳ λίθῳ, but I think I got the use of δοκέω, even though I seem to have gotten the nominative participle wrong. I interpreted it as a substantive, i.e., “the man attempting seems…” But haec dictum concerning δοκέω I have remembered, ὦ χαλεπὰ διδασκάλη.
    As for ἄρχομαι… In fact, I do remember this feature of that verb now that you mention it. I made a major effort to commit that to memory in Greek II class, after which I promptly forgot it. But this is a great thing, because it also demonstrates the frustration of Greeklings. “How can I remember all this stuff??!?!?” It seems that if I haven’t memorized every footnote in H&Q, I can’t even make sense of a relatively simple sentence.
    Perhaps I should have phrased the question differently. Instead of asking what goes on in your head while reading such a sentence, it might be better to ask how you got to the point where you know every nuance and detail presented in the footnotes. I know, μέν, that you put in the hours of studying to acquire a Ph.D. in the subject, and I don’t want to diminish that. But, δέ, I think there may be something else going on here, similar to how I can find patterns in forms that prevent me from having to memorize every paradigm. Robert Funk has pointed out, in the introduction to his Greek grammar, that sometimes the students with the greatest knowledge of grammatical details can’t read Greek, whereas the students who get stuck on grammatical detail seem more proficient. He points out that even he, with decades of daily experience reading it, has to review the grammar books before teaching a class, because he doesn’t remember all the little details.
    I’m not advocating a “reading” approach that jettisons grammar in favor of inductive absorption of the language. But I am convinced that I’m doing something wrong in my approach, and that with the right approach, this sort of sentence will become a lot easier.

    1. How did I get to this point…

      The verbs in English are a fright.
      How can we learn to read and write?
      Today we speak but first we spoke;
      Some faucets leak, but never loke…

      I am getting ahead of myself here; ever since the Boot Post day, I’ve been reading stuff along these lines (what do you think I do while doing laundry?). The dog willing, I’ll post something later today.

      Looking for patterns is good but one must also memorize (pardon the M-word); in my case, I was also tested on a regular basis as to how well I’d memorized the stuff, even if I hadn’t understood it yet, so when later I saw some of it in context, there was already something to connect with it. Another thing I did was have fun and go to parties – as frequently as possible, always in stiletto boots.

    2. Just a couple of tiny little dicta on the use of Greek. You can say “thank you for γράφειν ἐν λίθῳ” (it would be even better if you put ἐν λίθῳ before the infinitive), or “thank you γραφούσῃ ἐν λίθῳ,” in which case the circumstantially used participle (the aorist form of which may even be better here) will agree with the indirect object, “you.”
      Also, the feminine of χαλεπός is χαλεπή.

  3. The Sphendonetes does NOT wear stiletto boots.

    I don’t have a problem with memorizing. In fact, I can memorize quite well. Unfortunately I am equally talented at forgetting.

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