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Ephemerality as exhortation

Sarah Nooter

University of Chicago

The paper follows on the first by examining the use of the Greek term ἐφήμερος as a performative act of speech, one that combines elements of exhortation and provocation. It traces a long history of ephemerality being lodged as a complaint, problem, warning or a wake-up call. The word itself literally denotes “lasting for a day” (following Dickie 1976 over Fränkel 1955) and commonly connotes the short-lived nature of human existence and endeavors. Yet it also often performs an activity above and beyond simply signifying something, especially but not only when it is used in the vocative: it imposes urgency on its listeners by creating a contrast against an opposing principle of eternality. We see the term mobilized to deliver this message from as early as the archaic period in the iambic verse of Semonides (fr. 1.3), where the nature of ephemerality is linked to our thoughts and our songs, but this is still merely a descriptive use of the term. Nonetheless, they suggest a negative aspect to mortality that allows the later exhortative use to emerge.

My argument is that this human problem—that of being an ἐφήμερος—is an animating challenge in the archaic and classical Greek imagination. It is implicit even when the term ἐφήμερος is not used, as in several poems of Simonides, who specifically points to the difficulty of human life as fleeting and challenges poetry to construct an eternity in return; the exhortative discourse of the ephemeral is an element of his overall poetics of generative negativity (as outlined by Carson 1999). The challenge of ephemerality is most clearly expressed in the well-known lines from Pindar, Pythian 8, in which I follow Most 2012 (and an ancient scholiast) in taking the word ἐπάμεροι as a vocative rather than as a nominative. This usage makes explicit the implied problematic of ephemeral existence. The exclamation, “creatures of a day! what is someone? what is no one?” (ἐπάμεροι: τί δέ τις; τί δ᾽ οὔ τις;), is followed by lines that designate mortals as a “dream of a shadow,” who are only occasionally granted light by the gods. This passage will be discussed alongside a seeming parody of it in Aristophanes’ Birds (685-7), in which the audience is also addressed as ἐφημέριοι, as against the immortal and knowledgeable birds. The use of the phrase in parody of course points to the recognizability of the trope in general.

So ingrained is the negative connotation of ἐφήμερος that by the time of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, the term can be trotted out as a casual insult with no explanation, but merely a juxtaposing term (the gods) that is first explicit and then merely implied: the ephemeral as the human is defined here by its absence of divinity. Its four uses in the play (at 83, 253, 547 and 945) map the cultural familiarity of this particular dialectic. In later literature, when this binary of ephemerality/eternity has been fully paradigmatic, ἐφήμερος becomes a term that, all by itself, can summon its inverse. Beyond this, the inverse of the ephemeral can be shaped to context. Thus the Athenian Stranger in Plato’s Laws adopts this poetic discourse when he imagines addressing the Athenians en masse as ἐφήμεροι. Implying that their short lives make them ignorant of their own nature, he summons not the eternal nature of the gods to compensate, but rather the permanence of state and race (923a). The power of the ephemerality as exhortation thus makes its way from the poetic to the political and philosophical spheres.

Session/Panel Title

Aesthetics and Ephemerality

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