Friday, November 02, 2012

Polybius, τύχη and παράδοξον

Central to the Histories is Polybius’s concept of τύχη (Tyche); the word occurs seventeen times in Book One.  Closely related to it is the word παράδοξον (paradoxon); this word occurs twenty-two times in Book One.  
To understand Polybius’s understanding of history, you need to understand the concepts of τύχη and παράδοξον.

It is difficult for us today to understand the concept of τύχη, which meant something for the Greeks which we need many different words and ideas to convey today.

A spectrum of meanings
Sometimes, you will find the word τύχη translated ‘chance’.  Thus in 1.1.2 your set text talks about ‘the changes and chances of our mortal life’ … but the Greek word Polybius uses for ‘chances’ is τύχη.

In another passage (Book 29), he discusses the impact of τύχη on men’s lives, and ascribes to it what we would today call ‘acts of god’:
For my part I, Polybius, say that, in finding fault with those who ascribe public events and incidents to τύχη and fate, I now wish to state my opinion on this subject as far as it is admissible to do so in a strictly historical work. Now indeed as regards things the causes of which it is impossible or difficult for a mere man to understand, we may perhaps be justified in getting out of the difficulty by setting them down to the action of a god or of τύχη, I mean such things as exceptionally heavy and continuous rain or snow, or on the other hand the destruction of crops by severe drought or frost, or a persistent outbreak of plague or other similar things of which it is not easy to detect the cause.

The importance of παράδοξον   
Polybius was aware that, as Robert Burns said, ‘The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men gang aft agley’.  Closely connected with his idea of τύχη, therefore was the word παράδοξον   Like τύχη, this is a word which can be translated by a variety of words in English.  Your set texts translate it once merely as ‘remarkable’, and another time as ‘unpredictable’.  In the Greek dictionary you will find it as ‘contrary to expectation’.  It has given us our word ‘paradox’, and the word carries the idea that sometimes, however much you plan and prepare, things simply do not turn out how you expected.  Sometimes these 'acts of god' are just – such as the fall which comes after pride, or the criminal who gets his ‘just desserts’ – at other times they are desperately unfair.

The goddess of Destiny
In Greek mythology, Tyche was the goddess who determined fortunes and destiny; she was capricious – sometimes benevolent, sometimes just, sometimes downright vindictive.  In Book 29, Polybius quotes approvingly the Athenian orator and statesman Demetrius of Phalerum, who wrote about ‘the cruelty of τύχη … whose influence on our life is incalculable, who displays her power by surprises’ and who, based on this, predicted the fall of Macedon 150 years before it happened.

Generally, said Polybius, it is wrong to jump to the conclusion that all disasters are sent by the gods – usually they can be ascribed to human causes.  But there are certain things which simply defy explanation, ‘So that in pronouncing on [the Macedonian War] and similar phenomena we may well say that the thing was a heaven-sent infatuation, and that all the Macedonians were visited by the wrath of God’.

When he is speaking, therefore, of the unstoppable forces of history – matters such as the rise of the Roman Empire – Polybius seems to invest τύχη with a (divine) persona, and to envisage her as the driving force behind history.  Thus in Chapter Four of Book One, the translator of your set texts gives:
In the period under consideration, Destiny seems to have directed all the affairs of the inhabited world towards one single end and driven them to focus on one specific objective.
… where the word he translates as ‘Destiny’ is τύχη.  WR Paton’s Loeb translation (1922) uses the word ‘Fortune’, but the capital letter shows that the idea is much the same – that there was a force and a meaning behind events, driving them in a certain way.  Today, we might use the word ‘Fate’.

Was Polybius contradicting himself?
Usually in his Histories, Polybius is very rational; he stands out from other ancient writers in that he genuinely sought non-divine causes for events: e.g. ‘how and under what sort of constitution Rome came to conquer the world’.  So it has not been lost on historians that this concept of τύχη stand at odds with that rationalism:
  • The Austrian historian Otto Cuntz (1902) suggested that Polybius started off believing in the τύχη of Demetrius of Phalerum ... but gradually became a rationalist.
  • The German-Jewish philologist Richard Laqueur (1913) tried to prove the opposite – that Polybius started off a rationalist but slowly came to realise the influence of τύχη.
  • The German scholar Walter Siegfried (1928) simply declared that Polybius had ‘two souls’ and that he switched from one to the other – perhaps in the way that a modern minister of religion will plan his sermon down to the last semi-colon, but still pray to God that his words might affect his congregation.
  • The English historian Frank Walbank (1957) suggested that Polybius himself was muddled about the concept.  According to Walbank, Polybius was a rationalist who used τύχη as a ‘rhetorical flourish’, according to the ideas of the time, ‘which habitually spoke of Tyche as a goddess’.

The inevitable flow of history ... and our response
The ideas of Cuntz and Laqueur are long discredited.  And I do not for a moment believe that Polybius was muddled about the concept that underlay the whole of his Histories.  

Anybody who watches the news can see that events develop a momentum of their own, and that nothing even the most powerful nations on earth might try to do seems to be able to stop them.  Similarly, on a personal level, we all plan for the future knowing that a letter can plop through the door tomorrow which changes everything.  Whether you ascribe these forces to ‘chance’ or ‘God’, we are often powerless against forces beyond our control; and I do not find it incomprehensible that Polybius personified these forces and called them τύχη.

At the very end of his Histories, as Polybius watched the destruction of Carthage with his friend Scipio Aemilianus, and the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal fell on his knees begging for mercy, Polybius records that Scipio turned to those about him and said: ‘See what τύχη is, gentlemen!’ … but later, he grasped Polybius’s hand and shared the fear that the same would one day happen to Rome.

This impressed Polybius:
Because, in the midst of supreme success for one's self and of disaster for the enemy, to take thought of one's own position and of the possible reverse which may come, and in a word to keep well in mind in the midst of prosperity the mutability of τύχη, is the characteristic of a great man, a man free from weaknesses and worthy to be remembered.

And thus Polybius ended his Histories as he started them.  The mark of a REALLY great man is that he has learned the lesson of History, which is:
the clearest, if not the only, guide to how best we may endure the changes and τύχη of our mortal life.

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