Homer’s Foolish Fox

Homer’s comedy, Margites

His Margites indeed provides an analogy: as are the Iliad and Odyssey to our tragedies, so is the Margites to our comedies.

It is lost. Its sense survives in quotes of others …

Him, then, the Gods made neither a delver nor a ploughman, Nor in any other way wise; he failed every art.

An unknown scholiast explained …

He refers to Margites, a man who, though well grown up, did not know it was his father or his mother who gave him birth, and would not lie with his wife, saying that he was afraid she might give a bad account of him to her mother.

Was it even Homer’s? No …

(Pigres was) A Carian … who inserted elegiac lines into the Iliad, writing thus: sing, goddess, of the ruinous wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus. Muse, for you possess the means of all wisdom. He also wrote the Margites and Battle of Frogs and Mice attributed to Homer.

Yes …

But to continue, Zeno the philosopher also has written on both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and, in fact, on the Margites too; he believes that this poem also was composed by Homer at the time when he was rather young and was testing his poetic genius.

Perhaps …

if indeed this work is really Homer’s.

Never mind. The association with Homer was enough to make Margites a figure for reflection. But which Margites?

Margites the Witless. When the emperor Julian was taunted, Libanius rose to his defense remembering that even Alexander suffered insult. A later encyclopedist remembered the same …

Aeschines in the (speech) Against Ktesiphon (writes): he gave Alexander the nickname Margites. This is what they used to call witless people.

Margites the Lazy. The bishop ridiculed …

In that event slothfulness would be of great value for living, and the Sardanapalus would carry off the highest prizes of all as regards happiness, or even Margites, who was neither a ploughman nor a digger nor anything else useful in life, as Homer said

Margites the know-all …

He knew many things, but he knew them badly…

What was the Poet saying? …

You surely do not suppose that Homer, the wisest and most divine of poets, was unaware of the impossibility of knowing a thing badly: for it was no less a person than he who said of Margites that he knew many things, but knew them all badly. The solution of the riddle is this, I imagine:—By badly Homer meant bad and knew stands for to know. Put the words together;—the metre will suffer, but the poet’s meaning is clear;—Margites knew all these things, but it was bad for him to know them.

Don’t forget the difference between the clever artist and the wise man, that the possession of any other kind of knowledge was more likely to injure than to benefit the possessor, unless he had also the knowledge of the best.

Margites the Fox …

The fox knows many a wile; but the hedgehog’s one trick can beat them all.

And at its end, Antiquity did cast off Margites and emulated the hedgehog. Its knowledge of the best? Knowledge of God.

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