When I began my doctorate on the language of Menander, my first task, naturally enough, was to read all of Menander (I never accomplished my goal of learning all Menander by heart). When I read this fragment, I suddenly understood why people had been so fascinated by Menander over the centuries. Fragments always provoke curiosity, but I had not realised how beautiful they could be. The encounter between the god and the old man Craton is charming – but there’s a sting in the tail as the god encounters man’s cynicism. There is a beautiful simplicity in the pessimistic thought of this fragment, but this conceals Menander’s wry humour at the carping old man; the pessimism is set off by Menander’s jewel-like intricacy of expression. The catalogue-style of ancient literature has never been more varied and elaborated.
Sometimes in life it is easy to become bitter and disappointed about things; this fragment for me is like a hand reaching out from the past and saying ‘don’t worry: sometimes things do seem difficult’. Oddly, this fragment consoles by reminding us how marvellous the achievements of humans are, even as it purports to turn its back on humanity.
εἴ τις προσελθών μοι θεῶν λέγοι “Κράτων,
ἐπὰν ἀποθάνηις, αὖθις ἐξ ἀρχῆς ἔσηι·
ἔσηι δ’ ὅ τι ἂν βούληι, κύων, πρόβατον, τράγος,
ἄνθρωπος, ἵππος· δὶς βιῶναι γάρ σε δεῖ·
εἱμαρμένον τοῦτ’ ἐστίν· ὅ τι βούλει δ’ ἑλοῦ”· (5)
“πόει με πλὴν ἄνθρωπον· ἀδίκως εὐτυχεῖ
κακῶς τε πράττει τοῦτο τὸ ζῶιον μόνον.
ὁ κράτιστος ἵππος ἐπιμελεστέραν ἔχει
ἑτέρου θεραπείαν· ἀγαθὸς ἂν γένηι κύων, (10)
ἐντιμότερος εἶ τοῦ κακοῦ κυνὸς πολύ·
ἀλεκτρυὼν γενναῖος ἐν ἑτέραι τροφῆι
ἐστιν, ὁ δ’ ἀγεννὴς καὶ δέδιε τὸν κρείττονα.
ἄνθρωπος ἂν ἦι χρηστός, εὐγενής, σφόδρα
γενναῖος, οὐδὲν ὄφελος ἐν τῶι νῦν γένει· (15)
πράττει δ’ ὁ κόλαξ ἄριστα πάντων, δεύτερα
ὁ συκοφάντης, ὁ κακοήθης τρίτα λέγει.
ὄνον γενέσθαι κρεῖττον ἢ τοὺς χείρονας
ὁρᾶν ἑαυτοῦ ζῶντας ἐπιφανέστερον.”
Suppose a god came to me and said “Craton,
When you die, you’ll start again from scratch.
But you’ll be whatever you want: dog, sheep or goat,
Or man, or horse. You’ll live again, you see.
It’s fated thus. Choose what you will.”
“Make me”, I’d say without a moment’s doubt,
“Just anything at all, except – a man! He alone
In all creation fares well or fails in unjust ways.
The best horse has a more solicitous
Treatment than his fellow; if you’re a good dog,
You’ll be better off than a bad dog – much better.
A noble cockerel find himself on a different diet,
But a common one fears his better!
If a man is good, honourable, of all men
Noblest, there’s no gain for him, things being as they are.
The flatterer prospers best of all, next is
The sycophant, third the man of low character.
To be an ass is better than to see
Ancient comedy’s cynical side is too easily forgotten – many of the fragments (including this one) might offset Shakespeare’s Iago nicely.
The fragment is a linguistic treasure trove: comparatives and superlatives; imperatives (present, aorist, contracted); conditional clauses (especially the tricky apodosis in 6); indefinite temporal clauses; relative clauses; and nominal sentences. Incidentally, the fragment happens not to violate Porson’s law.