Theognis of Megara (fl. 6th century BC) was an ancient Greek poet. More than half of the extant elegiac poetry of Greece before the Alexandrian period is included in the 1,400 verses ascribed to Theognis.
This collection contains several poems acknowledged to have been composed by Tyrtaeus, Mimnermus and Solon; with two exceptions (T.W. Allen in Classical Review, Nov. 1905, and E. Harrison); modern critics unanimously regard these elegies as intruders, that is, not admitted into his works by Theognis himself; for this and other reasons they assume the existence of further interpolations which we can no longer safely detect. Generations of students have exhausted their ingenuity in vain efforts to sift the true from the false and to account for the origin and date of the Theognidea as we possess them; the question is fully discussed in the works of Harrison and Hudson-Williams.
Theognis lived at Megara on the Isthmus of Corinth during the democratic revolution in the 6th century BC; some critics hold that he witnessed the "Persian terror" of 490 BC and 480 BC; others place his floruit in 545 BC. We know little about his life; few of the details usually given in textbooks are capable of proof; we are not certain, for instance, that the poem (783-88) which mentions a visit to Sicily, Sparta and Euboea comes from the hand of Theognis himself; but that is of little concern, for we know the man.
Whether, with Harrison, we hold that Theognis wrote "all or nearly all the poems which are extant under his name" or follow the most ruthless of the higher critics (Sitzler) in rejecting all but 330 lines, there is abundant and unmistakable evidence to show what Theognis himself existed. However much extraneous matter may have wormed its way into the collection, he still remains the one main personality, and stands clearly before us, a living soul, quivering with passion and burning with political hate, the very embodiment of the faction-spirit (stasis) and all it implied in the tense city-state life of the ancient Greek.
There is neither profound thought nor sublime poetry in the work of Theognis; but it is full of sound common sense embodied in exquisitely simple, concise and well-balanced verse. As York Powell said, "Theognis was a great and wise man. He was an able exponent of that intensely practical wisdom which we associate with the 'Seven Sages of Greece.'" Had he lived a century later, he would probably have published his thoughts in prose; in his day verse was the recognized vehicle for political and ethical discussion, and the gnomic poets were in many ways the precursors of the philosophers and the sophists, who indeed often made their discourse turn on points raised by Theognis and his fellow-moralists. No treatment of the much-debated question "Can virtue be taught?" was regarded as complete without a reference to Theognis 35-36, which appears in Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Musonius Rufus and Clement of Alexandria, who aptly compares it with Psalm 18.
Besides the elegies to Cyrnus, the Theognidea comprise many maxims, laments on the degeneracy of the age and the woes of poverty, personal admonitions and challenges, invocations of the gods, songs for convivial gatherings and much else that may well have come from Theognis himself. The second section ("Musa Paedica") deals with the love of boys, and, with the exceptions already noted, scholars are at one in rejecting its claim to authenticity. Although some critics assign many elegies to a very late date, a careful examination of the language, vocabulary, versification and general trend of thought has convinced the author of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica article that practically the whole collection was composed before the Hellenistic period.
Nietzsche and Theognis
Theognis is referenced in Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality in which he describes Theognis' apparent disdain for the "deceitful, common man" and the general decline of the nobility in his day. Nietzsche, as a professor of philology, was also influenced by Theognis' writings concerning the shift and change in the meaning of words.
- We struggle onward, ignorant and blind,
For a result unknown and undesign’d;
Avoiding seeming ills, misunderstood,
Embracing evil as a seeming good.
Fragment LVIII (above) in particular provided some basis for the etymological theory mounted in On the Genealogy of Morality. (For further discussion, see James Porter, Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.)
- P. E. Easterling (Series Editor), Bernard M.W. Knox (Editor), Cambridge History of Classical Literature, v.I, Greek Literature, 1985. ISBN 0-521-21042-9, cf. Chapter 5, pp.136-146 on Theognis.
- Highbarger, Ernest L., "A New Approach to the Theognis Question", Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 58, (1927), pp. 170-198, The Johns Hopkins University Press
- Gilbert Murray, A History of Ancient Greek Literature, 1897. Cf. Chapter III, The Descendants of Homer, Hesiod, Orpheus, p.83 and on.
- Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker (1826); both these are epoch-making books which no serious student can ignore
- Jakob Sitzler (1880)
- Ernest Harrison, Studies in Theognis (1902)
- Thomas Hudson-Williams, The elegies of Theognis and other elegies included in the Theognidean sylloge (1910)
- Douglas Young (after Ernest Diehl), Teubner edition (1998) - ISBN 3-519-01036-4