αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων
Always be the best and be far above others.
Homer Iliad 6.208
Glaukos, fighting on the Trojan side, stops in mid-battle to exchange personal and family information with the Greek warrior Diomedes. It turns out that the two of them are related several generations back. Therefore they do not destroy each other on the battlefield but exchange gifts and go off to find some other Greek and Trojan, respectively, to maim and kill.
The stem in the second word above (ἀριστεύειν arist-) gives us the first part of our word aristocrat, a term that has come very recently to suggest the grimmer sides of elitism and snobbery by birth as it were. Well, before we feel too smug about any allegedly enlightened semantic re-investiture of this word in our own day, it is useful to note that the term has been taking on pejorative connotations since the sixth or fifth century BCE, when so-called aristocratic forms of government were paving the way to the great ‘democratic’ movements of fifth-century Athens.
It is Glaukos who is made to speak the cited words. He is repeating to Diomedes the paternal injunction his father Hippolokhos had laid upon him before he went off to fight in the Trojan War, much as my father told me – with greater particularity than Hippolokhos, and certainly with a less momentous enterprise in store for me than for Glaukos – what I should and should not do when I was going off as a freshman to Stanford in the mid-fifties. And, I suspect, so have most fathers (and mothers) throughout human history advised their offspring on ways to deal with the new and often strange world they will encounter beyond the sheltering walls of the childhood home – much, again, as I told my son and daughters when they went off to more school after graduating from High School.
The Homeric father wisely left the field for the achievement of excellence open, although one strongly suspects he had martial matters in mind. He did not tell Glaukos to become a rich doctor or a clever lawyer or a learned professor or an educated dropout – just that he “be the best” (ἀριστεύειν). Can one seriously argue with such advice, even if it is so very old that it is very modern?
Freshmen at any university may perhaps identify most immediately and poignantly with Glaukos in this regard. The advice Hippolokhos gave his son some 3,200 years ago still seems to me very good advice today. As in, “Be the best you can be!” It is certainly worth pondering, perhaps even living up to. It would appear to have kept its edge sharp over the millennia, and there is perhaps no small comfort in knowing that the good guidance your own father and mother gave you when you continued your education or joined the military or decided to go to work stands proud and tall in a very, very long tradition of parents caring deeply for their children and urging them both to do and, in every sense of the, word, to “be the best”.