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Playing Phthonos: Epinician Genre and Choreia in Plato

Theodora Hadjimichael

Phthonos is a recurrent theme in Pindar’s epinician odes. Pindar invokes envy prominently in his poems, to the extent that this negative emotion is presented as inherent in praise poetry (e.g. Kirkwood 1984; Bulman 1992; Most 2003). The presence of phthonos affects the way epinician poetry is received by Plato, in that phthonos was in all probability perceived as a built-in negative emotion in epinician poems. My aim in this paper is to look closely at the ways in which Plato chooses to ignore the epinician genre and to explore the reasons behind this absence, as these may relate to the emotional dangers that the epinician discourse exposes and to the social dynamics portrayed within epinician performances.

The analysis will look in particular at Plato's Laws. As recent scholarship has demonstrated, the Athenian lawgiver in the Laws fully redeems mousikē by institutionalising the art of the Muses and by incorporating choral art in the educational and ritual curriculum of Magnesia (Prauscello 2011; Peponi ed. 2013). The festive calendar of Magnesia will include choruses, musical and gymnastic contests (Lg.828c2-3), rituals with songs in honour of gods and encomiastic songs in honour of heroes (Lg.801.e1-4), performances of Homer and kitharōdia, tragedy (Lg.658b-d), even performances of threnoi (Lg.88b4-ec) and comedies (Lg.816d5-817a1). Strikingly though, Magnesia’s festival calendar will not include epinician choreia. Plato re-appropriates almost all of the public choral performances to the social needs of Magnesia, but he excludes from his musical programme the epinician genre. Given the competitive nature and agonistic character of the society in the ideal Platonic city in the Laws as well as the emphasis placed on the rhetoric of public praise and blame in its organisation, this absence comes as a real paradox. Phthonos, as exploited and depicted in the Pindaric epinician, and Plato’s anxiety in the Laws about the potential of invoking social envy through epinician performances become the primary reasons behind this disparaging attitude towards the genre all together. Plato after all emphasises the communal unity that public choral performances and musical competitions will project into the civic body and identity of Magnesia (Lg.664b), a unity which phthonos will inevitably threaten.

Firstly, I briefly examine the nature of the presence of phthonos in Pindar’s epinicians, arguing that the emotion is depicted both as being already present within the social decorum of the community Pindar addresses (e.g. O.6.72-76, O.8.53-55) and as brought to the foreground by the victor’s success and the poet’s praise (e.g. P.7.19, P.8.29, N.8.21-22). I then discuss the way in which citations from epinician odes are contextualised in Plato, who is reluctant to cite verses from the epinician genre, as when such quotations occur in the dialogues, they usually do not reveal the occasion for which the ode was composed (Phdr.227b9-10~I.1.1; Tht.173e5-6~N.10.87f; Euthd.304b3-4~O.1). It becomes apparent that his distance from the occasionality of the epinician ode is linked, on the one hand, with Plato’s social, moral and educational programme, and on the other with the emotion of phthonos that is consistently at work in the Pindaric epinician odes. Thirdly, I look at the manner in which the rhetoric of praise and blame is incorporated in the Laws (Lg.822e5-823a6, 829c2-5). Public praise is not in principle excluded from the social life of Magnesia, which consequently suggests that Plato’s caution towards epinician performances derives from the emotion of envy that lurks behind the epinician genre. Phthonos is rhetorically useful to Pindar, who turns it into a negative foil for both the act of praise and the poet, as he can potentially deflect it from his poems. But its portrayal as the emotion that could be provoked by an epinician ode was in all probability the reason for Plato to associate epinician performances with envy, the emotion that can lead to social disruption. 

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