You are here

Open-ended ἐφήμερος

Felix Budelmann

University of Oxford

Animals, plants, provisions, pleasures, thoughts, poisons, fevers and much else can, in certain circumstances, be described as ἐφήμερος, but in poetry at least the quintessentially ἐφήμερος thing is the human (cf. Plut. Mor. 1090b). This paper examines the combination of specificity and elusiveness that gives the notion of humanity as ἐφήμερος its particular expressive force. Ἐφήμερος, I argue, acts as a stimulus to thought, and indeed to poetic writing, by posing a question that allows more than one answer: what do we mean when we call humans “day creatures”?

Ἐφήμερος compresses the intimate connection of humans with the day, manifest in epic formulae like νόστιμον (ἁλώσιμον, δούλιον) ἦμαρ, in Hesiod’s account of days dangerous and benign, in the tragic timespan of the single day, and in the pregnant formula ἦμαρ τόδε (Herrero de Jáuregui 2013). Unlike θνητός, ἐφήμερος conveys not just that we die but also how we live: bound to the day. The manner in which we are so bound, however, is left open. So vague is the notion of “day creatures” that there is an established scholarly debate over the semantics of ἐφήμερος (Fränkel 1955, Dickie 1976, Theunissen 2000: 45-53). Ἐφήμερος adumbrates rather than specifies, and this, arguably, constitutes its appeal as an encapsulation of the human condition. It is an open-ended term for an open-ended problem.

The paper traces three ways in which this is so. First, ἐφήμερος means both “for a day” and “for the day”, and so looks at human lives both from without (they are brief) and from within (they are led without knowledge of tomorrow). Three texts—Bacchylides 3, with Croesus’ reprieve from certain death and the two-part gnome “life is brief, and winged hope ?undoes? the thinking of ἐφήμεροι”, and more briefly Pindar’s Pythian 8 and Aristotle’s account of the wisdom of Silenus (fr. 44 Rose)—illustrate different ways in which different texts mobilize this double perspective.

Secondly, ἐφήμερος raises the question of how we should go about living for the day. We cannot help being mortal, but we can try to shape our relationship with the day. Ἐφήμεροι, the poets observe, are prone to hope. Foresight is confined to the day, yet plans and intentions are not. This habit of ἐφήμεροι to let hope run beyond the day is variously accepted and condemned in our texts. Bacchylides 3 is again particularly interesting, now for embracing the contradiction. The gnome is followed by Apollo’s advice to Admetus both to prepare to die tomorrow and to expect fifty more blessed years. Isthmian 7 and Prometheus Bound (249-254) will briefly be looked at, as rather different responses to the same question.

Thirdly, ἐφήμερος, which categorically distances humans from eternal gods, shows up the fragility of the boundary between humans and animals. Animals too are ἐφήμερος, both because they may be short-lived (the mayfly carries ephemerality in its very name: ἐφήμερον) and because they are true “for-the-days”, who do not think about the future. The parallel is made explicit already by Semonides: “Humans have no understanding, but we live ἐπήμεροι, like beast” (fr. 1). The animalistic dimension of humans-as-ἐφήμεροι also underlies Thucydides’ observation, in the same breath as describing the breakdown of law and religion, that the plague made Athenians concentrate wholly on immediate pleasure “because they considered their bodies and possessions equally ἐφήμερα” (2.53.2). Here, and not only here, the potential of ἐφήμερος to capture aspects of what it means to be human assumes the form of paradox: a life wholly for the day is a life that abandons much that makes humans human.

Session/Panel Title

Aesthetics and Ephemerality

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy