LOOK TO THE OCTOPUS
πουλύπου ὀργὴν ἴσχε πολυπλόκου, ὃς ποτὶ πέτρηι,
τῆι προσομιλήσηι, τοῖος ἰδεῖν ἐφάνη.
νῦν μὲν τῆιδ’ ἐφέπου, τοτὲ δ’ ἀλλοῖος χρόα γίνου.
κρέσσων τοι σοφίη γίνεται ἀτροπίης.
Maintain the profile of a slick octopus, which gives the
appearance of looking just like the rock it’s clinging to:
now go for one look, now change your coloration to another.
I tell you, sagacity proves better than inflexibility.
Theognis Elegiae 215-218
Odysseus is the first character in Western literature likened to an octopus, at Odyssey 5.432-435, where it is the adhesive aspect of octopusness that Homer captures; Theognis, like many a poet before and after, modifies a Homeric model and captures the creature’s chamaeleonesque capacity for opportunistic adaptation to alterations in the environment.
For Theognis that environment was preëminently the highly unstable ecology of late sixth century B.C. politics in the Greek city-state, an age in which the great “democratic” movements were beginning to come into their own in many parts of ancient Greece and challenge the entrenched aristocracies. In this vibrant period societies were undergoing fundamental change in the organization and administration of their polities, and at all such junctures in human history – as we ourselves know from our own present, deeply confusing age – there are the losers (those politically least elastic) and there are the winners (those pragmatically more tensile).
In the sixth century B.C. Theognis of Megara was one of the former. Whether we take him to have been a real person or a composite of once hot political in-groups now shivering in the cold on the outside, and Megara as just Megara or an emblem of Greek city-states caught up in shattering change, his long elegiac poem gives us a fascinating picture of what it feels like for a self-anointed group cleaving intractably and bitterly to a superannuated political system to be bypassed by current events. (Amazing, isn’t it, how modern ancient governments can seem!) From the point of view of Theognis and his friends this picture was anything but pretty.
Theognis, imposing on Megarian politics a moral grid constructed with a mesh of his own devising, hurls surly reproaches of betrayal – motivated, one soon comes to sense, largely by simple human envy – at the new elements who have come into power. He is inventive at bending a descriptive ethical vocabulary to political ends, a feat of lexical legerdemain not unfamiliar from later Greek, or Roman, politics, nor, for that matter, from our own rather recent and happily nonviolent experience of a changing of the guard. These newcomers are κακοί kakoi “(morally) bad” and they have replaced the ἐσθλοί esthloi “(politically) noble” and ἀγαθοί agathoi “(morally) good.” Indeed, there is more than a suggestion that some of the old rats have simply made themselves over into the new political correctness, and it has become difficult to tell the genuinely good (like Theognis et al.) from the genuinely fraudulent (117-118). But most heinous of all, they are πλούσιοι plousioi “rich” and they have χρήματα chremata “money and property.”
It is this pecuniary vulgarity, one feels, that seems most to trigger and sustain Theognis’ unending indignation. What has happened in the course of the seventh and sixth centuries in the Mediterranean world is that commercialism has boomed and new and vast fortunes have been made in shipping and trade, not by the staid aristocrats but by people with no claim to impressive genealogies. Theognis was not the only unhappy conservative to deplore this unwelcome development, for the great poet Pindar a generation or two after Theognis was to note ruefully that χρήματα χρήματ’ ἀνήρ (Isthmia 2.11) “Money, money is the man,” herein echoing the horrified χρήματ’ ἀνήρ “Money is the man” of the poet (and exiled politician) Alcaeus (169W.3) from about a generation of two before Theognis. It’s all so very old and all so very new and all so hearteningly familiar, right? The nouveaux riches have finally taken over, and the world is about to end – at least the one I know, and what other world is worth living in?
How to deal then, Theognis wonders, with a universe where language deceives and noble genes count for nothing and eternal verities of social hierarchy are fluid at best, at worst chaotic? Become like the pliant octopus: sense imminent shifts in the environment and effortlessly don the exact coloration of the ambient movement. Blend in.
It was surely in part this kind of amoral and pragmatic centerlessness (with its horrific real-world consequences as exemplified in the radical Athenian democracy of the late fifth century B.C.) that pushed Plato into an ontological idealism of immutable and eternal forms of being. And of course this response itself to social chaos, albeit in his case in the collapsing sector of democratic rather than aristocratic institutions on the political circle, likewise had, like a brilliant moon, its own tenebrous aspect.