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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 24 (2002) 1-4
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Christa Davis Acampora
If I were free now, all my struggling would be unnecessary. I could turn to a work or an action and test all my strength against it.—As things stand now, I can only hope to free myself gradually, and up to the present I feel I am becoming more and more so. So the day of my real labor is also coming, and the preparation for the Olympic games is over.— 1
The Greek word aywv appears in the Homeric corpus 29 times, where it generally designates an assembly or gathering place. The noun stems from the verb agon meaning "to lead, or to bring with one". Later, agon came to indicate a particular kind of assembly, the public gatherings for the games, and eventually the word was used to refer to all manner of contests or struggles.
In an ode written for Hagesidamos, the boys' boxing victor in 476 BCE Pindar provides an account of the founding of the Olympic games. 2 The poem celebrates more than just the boy's victory. It begins with exceptionally playful references to indebtedness, and masterfully weaves together themes of gratitude, memory, truth, and time. Pindar is mindful of his debt (his promise) he must pay in the form of a "honeyed song" for Hagesidamos, but he does so only after allegedly forgetting his name. Lest he be thought a liar, he appeals to Alatheia (literally "unforgetfulness" and also used for "truth") for redemption, and advises his subject to not forget, to similarly "pay" his trainer the gratitude he owes him for his victory. Pindar is moved to recount similar debts by even the greatest of victors, Herakles. Those who "whet another's ambition" and "inspire [. . .] to prodigious feats" also merit high honor. And the very institution to which Hagesidamos is indebted for the opportunity to manifest his talent, the Olympic games, is itself a tribute, the payment for a debt owed for a victory that Herakles achieved inspired by his father, Zeus. At the dedication of the place for the games, Pindar claims, "the Moirai stood by, and next to them the one who alone proves Truth true, Time" (lines 49-53). [End Page 1] Immediately following these lines, the feats of the first victors are recounted. Their own accomplishments are indebted to Herakles who provided the opening, the place, the condition for the very possibility of their meaningful striving. With his own payment, Pindar serves the role of standing by Hagesidamas, making his virtue, his excellence, manifest by memorializing it and thereby lending it time. But the glory in no way belongs to Hagesidamas alone. Pindar articulates an entire economy of the production of honor that illuminates the fragility of excellence and the interdependency of those who seek it and those who support and recognize it. Hagesidamas would not have reached his peak if he lacked the ambition to strive, and his endeavor would be insignificant without the holding in memory that allows ephemeral acts to continue to be manifest, to abide and endure, to continue to be true.
It was thanks to Homer that Greeks thought they knew so much about the mythical age of the great heroes, the race of people who allegedly lived in the age before their own. For the heroes "everything pivoted on a single element of honour and virtue: strength, bravery, physical courage, prowess. Conversely, there was no weakness, no unheroic trait, but one, and that was cowardice and the consequent failure to pursue heroic goals." 3 Of paramount concern was one's reputation—whether and how the meaning of one's life would be held in memory and thereby verified as confirmed, validated, granted, and actualized. Achieving this kind of recognition was a public affair. James Redfield goes so far as to claim that we can see Homeric literature as reflecting the view that it was only through public competition that individuals could fully realize the height of human existence. 4 In this sense, the agon served as a site where human being gathers its...