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A bit of wordplay in Chrysostom?

June 19, 2012

I’m reading some of the homilies of St. John Chrysostom on the Pauline epistles as part of my summer project on Paul, and came across this line near the close of his homily on Romans 6:19-7:13 which, in English translation, comes across as a rather earnest figure of speech:

Taking then all this into consideration, let us flee from the abyss of a little mind, and take refuge in the port of patient endurance, that here we may at once “find rest unto our souls” (Matt. xi. 29)

But fortunately, the version I’m reading reproduced the key Greek words here:

Taking then all this into consideration, let us flee from the abyss of a little mind (μικροψυχίας), and take refuge in the port of patient endurance (μακροθυμίας), that here we may at once “find rest unto our souls” (Matt. xi. 29)

Look at that micro/macro contrast, the assonance, and the final rhyme – doesn’t that give it a much lighter feel?

I’m not sure what psychia and thymia connoted to Chrysostom or his audience, but I’d guess they had more in the way of parallelism and contrast than “mind” and “endurance” do in English.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2012 10:40 pm

    If Mr Honey-tongued couldn’t play with words, where would we be!

  2. June 20, 2012 7:38 am

    To Chrysostom or his audience,,, they had more in the way of parallelism and contrast than “mind” and “endurance” do in English.

    Wonderful post, Victoria. Great point here. This is Philip Schaff’s often quoted and frequently read English translation. As he only suggests briefly with the reinsertion of the contrastive Greek words, but as you bring to our attention much more, Chysostom is playing. That is, the Greek writer is practicing what he preaches, or is playing off of what Paul is struggling with in Romans VII. So, Chrysostom is riffing off of, Greek philosophy and Greek rhetoric and the Greek septuagint and the Greek new testament, not only Paul but also Matthew translating Jesus appropriating the admittedly awful Greek translation of the Hebrew by the grandson of Jesus Ben Sirach. It’s not just the allusions to prior texts that Chrysostom is getting his readers to enjoy if not to guess about. It’s also that Chsystom is engaging in the rhetoric of wordplay, of performing/ practicing what he’s preaching. Schaff struggles (a bit) to show this.

    For example, in his discussion here of v 13 of Romans VII, Chysostom early on says:

    “For things natural remain unalterable (Arist. Eth. b. 2, c. 1), as we have told you frequently in other discourses also.”

    Note the quotation of Aristotle here, one of the Greek philosopher’s many insistences on Nature being fixed. Then not but a bit later, Chysostom brings in rhetoric, in a very playful way, which Schaff also tries to show some:

    “Is not this a paradox then, a derangement, a madness in the extreme? Let us then forsake this first of evils, or rather let us not even touch this covetousness at all. Yet, if we have touched it, let us spring away from its first motions (προοιμίων).”

    The notions of paradox vs. orthodox are rather amusing in this seemingly straight talk on lust by men of women. Chysostom is advising his readers, presumably men, to flee the “prooimion” of covetousness, that is the first step of the arrangement of a piece of rhetoric, as if he’s equating desire with speech. This is a very Greeky sort of thing that Chysostom is doing in this very little sentence.

    Chrysostom elaborates, quoting (as Schaff brings out), Job of LXX and the Acts of Luke, to say further, repeating this play on the rhetorical ProOimion:

    “Take an instance of my meaning. Are you in the habit of false swearing? do not stop at this only, but away with all swearing, and you will have no further need of trouble. For it is far harder for a man that swears to keep from false swearing, than to abstain from swearing altogether.1386 Are you an insulting and abusive person? a striker too? Lay down as a law for yourself not to be angry or brawl in the least, and with the root the fruit also will be gotten rid of. Are you lustful and dissipated? Make it your rule again not even to look at a woman (Job xxxi. 1), or to go up into the theatre, or to trouble yourself with the beauty of other people whom you see about. For it is far easier not even to look at a woman of good figure, than after looking and taking in the lust, to thrust out the perturbation that comes thereof, the struggle being easier in the preliminaries (προοιμίοις).”

    But then Schaff does something very very unfortunate in this context; he starts equating as purely Christian what is rather deeply Greek. For example:

    “our own Christian spirit (τἥς οἱκείας φιγοσοφίας)”

    And then for instance this bit right up to that excerpt you quote. I’ve reinserted the Greek to show what’s missing:

    “Consider then how many good things you cull together from the affair. First, you rid yourself of all vexation and trouble. Secondly (rather this should come first), even “if you have sins, you put them off, as the Publican did by bearing the Pharisee’s accusation meekly. Besides, you will by this practice make your soul [ψυχὴν] heroic [φιλόσοφον] (Gr. philosophic), and will enjoy endless praises from all men, and will divest yourself of any suspicion arising from what is said. But even if you are desirous [ἐπιθυμεῖς] of taking revenge upon the man, this too will follow in full measure, both by God’s punishing him for what he has said, and before that punishment by thy heroic conduct [φιλοσοφίας] standing to him in the place of a mortal blow. For there is nothing that cuts those who affront us so much to the heart, as for us who are affronted to smile at the affront. As then from behaving with Christian[??] heroism [φιλοσοφεῖν] so many honors will accrue to us, so from being little-minded just the opposite will befall us in everything. For we disgrace ourselves, and also seem to those present to be guilty of the things mentioned, and fill our soul [ψυχὴν] with perturbation, and give our enemy pleasure, and provoke God, and add to our former sins.”

    How is the Greek philosophic here (playing against the Greek rhetorical) Christian? Christian heroism?

    Note the emphasis in context on the soul and the play on “desire” as if it’s lust, with the word epi-thymia.

    These translation mistakes, or at the very least misdirections, ruin the later wordplay, the wordplay you bring to our attention.

  3. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 20, 2012 7:10 pm


    Thanks for a fascinating post. I blogged on makrothumia some time ago, but I can’t offer a better way to translate it than endurance. A better way to make this more visible in English might be –

    “Taking then all this into consideration, let us flee from the abyss of a pusillanimity (μικροψυχίας), and take refuge in the port of longanimity (μακροθυμίας), that here we may at once “find rest unto our souls” (Matt. xi. 29)”

    But that is hardly Enlglish. However, it does make clear that psyche and thumia are used as if they were roughly synonymous in Greek.

    What about,

    Taking then all this into consideration, let us flee from the abyss of small mindedness (μικροψυχίας), and take refuge in the port of large heartedness (μακροθυμίας), that here we may at once “find rest unto our souls” (Matt. xi. 29)

  4. June 20, 2012 10:07 pm

    Thanks all for your comments!

    Kurk, I did notice the reference to Aristotle there – it struck me because that’s the sort of thing Aquinas would characteristically do centuries later in the West. That use of prooimion is delightful.

    The insertion of “Christian” into a text that doesn’t have it in the Greek is very troublesome.

    I noticed some odd (to my sensibility) uses of “philosophy” to mean heroism or the like. What does Greek philosophic connote over against rhetoric?

    Suzanne, thanks for your nearly-English translation! I wonder if this might capture it:

    “Taking then all this into consideration, let us flee from Pusillanimous Deeps, and take refuge in Magnanimous Harbour, that here we may at once “find rest unto our souls” (Matt. xi. 29)”

    (…and having done that I really want to use nautical verbs for flee and take refuge, but anyway…)

    I like your small-minded/large-hearted, that’s very good, and it must be closer to what Chrysostom was doing.

    You said makrothumia is best defined as endurance, but what does the thumia morpheme connote by itself? And is psyche really mind, as Schaff has it? I would have expected soul.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 21, 2012 12:49 am

    I don’t think that the “mind” part of “small-minded” refers to the mind per se, but rather to one’s personality, one’s psyche. I could hardly call someone “small-souled.” In fact, “soul” is only occasionally a good translation for psyche.

    The problem is that while mikropsychia can be calqued into English, makrothumia is more difficult. You can take mikropsychia apart and translate it and reconstruct it again. But usually makrothumia, being “long in the temperament”, is translated simply as endurance or patience. One can say “longsuffering” but that is not quite a piece by piece translation either. So makrothumia is translated as an indivisible unit.

    Thumos, of course, is just one more of those nebulous words. The LSJ offers soul, spirit, as the principle of life, feeling and thought, esp. of strong feeling and passion.

    It isn’t soul as in “soulful” but “feeling” – the part of a person that breathes fast and gets worked up, so also desire, anger and so on. So in makrothumia it means “taking a long time to get angry”. On the other hand, it does NOT mean, “taking a long time to desire.”

  6. June 21, 2012 8:15 am

    Suzanne and Victoria,

    It’s wonderful how you’ve grappled with the English translation here of the Greek. For me, Chrysostom’s commentary (or homily) is surprising. On the one hand, it’s not the “rather earnest” sort of straightforward and clear explanation and analysis of meaning that we today tend to expect from an exposition of one of the great doctrine-laden epistles of the New Testament. On the other hand, it is dense and difficult and allusive, somewhat like the KJV statement of The Translators to the Reader. But then, there’s some sort of audience/reader interaction that we might just not be getting.

    It’s easy to conjecture what sounds and lexemes, letters and prefixes and words and clauses, might “mean.” It’s more interesting, to me anyway, to see how they play, to try to get at what they are doing in interplay between the text and other texts and between the writer and the reader.

    For instance, what might this mean?

    βοῦς ἐπὶ γλώσσῃ μέγας βέβηκεν·

    Is it:

    “A bovine upon a tongue large steps.”

    Or do we get more from Herbert Weir Smyth’s translation into English nearly a century ago?

    “a great ox stands upon my tongue”

    Or recently in our century has George Theodiris done better for us?

    “A huge cow is standing on my tongue…”

    Just the order of the words, in Greek, conveys meaning, plays of meanings. It’s funny stuff. Notice how the noun for tongue comes before the large great adjective that steps on the verb (reading left to right, as the sequence of spoken Greek). Where does that leave the bovine animal? What does this say to us? What’s the difference between a great ox and a huge cow and βοῦς … μέγας interrupted by a tongue, by a prepositional phrase?

    Well, it’s Aeschylus playing on words, with a Greek audience. He’s put the words on the tongue of the watchman, who is speaking loudly trying to rouse everybody when opening the gates (very nearly at the opening of the play). This is in the play Agamemnon, and the watchman, by Aeschylus’s Greek here is doing what characters in tv sit coms now sometimes do these days. I’m thinking of how characters, say in “The Office” will talk with one another in a scene but often will look then straight at the camera as if winking to the viewers on the other side of the television screen. The watchman is not silent, but is loud; he doesn’t have an ox on his tongue, a huge ox stepping on it. Rather, he’s speaking freely to the audience.

    So reading and hearing, just the syntactic ordering, makes you laugh. Then watching the play, listening to it and watching it, makes you laugh because of the context. The tension is built right at the opener. The audience is let in, like insiders. The other characters miss things: “I’m tongue tied,” [wink wink].

    Smyth clues us in to the likelihood that the first audience shared something else with the playwright, and they will share more in a later line. says Smyth His translator’s footnote reads like this:

    “A proverbial expression(of uncertain origin for enforced silence; cf. fr. 176, ‘A key stands guard upon my tongue.'”

    So there’s wisdom here, sophia. Or is it sophistry? Is it the sort of mindless group think that, according to Eric Havelock in Preface to Plato, Socrates in the Republic warns Greek citizens about?

    Well, I’ve gone on too long. But I may try to play with translation of Chrysostom some too. In English, what to bring out from his Greek, that is the question? What play?!

  7. June 21, 2012 3:58 pm

    Here’s an attempt. I’m using capital letters for the repeated phrases in the English translation. This is a small try at showing some of the Greek wordplay in Chrysostom’s homily (starting with Schaff’s rendering and also considering your translations and proposals as well):

    First, rid yourself of all CLAMOUR and muddle.

    πρότερον ἀπαλλάττεις σεαυτὸν θορύβου καὶ ταραχῆς•

    But next (rather this should come first),
    should you have SINS,
    then CAST these AWAY,
    as the tax-collector did with the Pharisee’s accusation,
    humbly bearing this.

    εἶτα δὲ, μᾶλλον τοῦτο κείσθω πρῶτον,
    κἂν ἁμαρτήματα ἔχῃς,
    καὶ ταῦτα ἀποδύσῃ,
    καθάπερ ὁ τελώνης τὴν τοῦ Φαρισαίου κατηγορίαν
    πράως ἐνεγκών.

    Toward these things,
    A WISE, LOVER OF PRINCIPLE is who you’ll acquire as your OWN SELF
    by this care;
    then, without end, and from ALL, you will REVEL AWAY in praises,
    and, from WHAT WAS SAID, you will CAST that suspicion AWAY, ALL of it.

    Πρὸς τούτοις,
    φιλόσοφον κατασκευάζεις σου τὴν ψυχὴν
    τῇ τοιαύτῃ μελέτῃ,
    καὶ μυρίων παρὰ πάντων ἀπολαύσεις ἐπαίνων,
    καὶ τὴν ἐπὶ τοῖς εἰρημένοις ὑποψίαν ἀποδύσῃ πᾶσαν.

    But even if that person you’re retaliating against you SET your DESIRE ON,
    this too will follow in full measure,
    and God will PUNISH him for WHAT WAS SAID,
    and before that PUNISHMENT even you the WISE, LOVER OF PRINCIPLE will stand
    against him in the place of a mortal blow.

    Εἰ δὲ καὶ ἐκεῖνον ἀμύνασθαι ἐπιθυμεῖς,
    καὶ τοῦτο ἐκ περιουσίας ἕψεται,
    καὶ τοῦ Θεοῦ κολάζοντος αὐτὸν ἀνθ’ ὧν εἴρηκε,
    καὶ πρὸ τῆς κολάσεως ἐκείνης τῆς σῆς φιλοσοφίας
    ἀντὶ καιρίας αὐτῷ γινομένης πληγῆς.

    For there is nothing that bites those who AFFRONT US so habitually,
    as the AFFRONTed among US who AFFRONT back with but a smile.

    Οὐδὲν γὰρ οὕτω τοὺς ὑβρίζοντας ἡμᾶς δάκνειν εἴωθεν,
    ὡς τὸ τοὺς ὑβριζομένους ἡμᾶς τῶν ὕβρεων καταγελᾷν.

    As such, then, from being the WISE, LOVER OF PRINCIPLE so many honors will accrue;
    however, from being such the SMALL SELF (μικροψύχους) just the opposite will befall you in ALL things.

    Ὥσπερ οὖν ἐκ τοῦ φιλοσοφεῖν τοσαῦτα ἔσται καλὰ,
    οὕτως ἐκ τοῦ μικροψύχους εἶναι τὰ ἐναντία συμβήσεται ἅπαντα.

    For we disgrace OURselves,
    and also seem to those present to be guilty of the things mentioned,
    and fill the SELF with CLAMOUR,
    and give our enemy pleasure,
    and provoke God,
    and to those SINS is added what’s put on by US.

    Καὶ γὰρ ἑαυτοὺς καταισχύνομεν,
    καὶ ὑπεύθυνοι παρὰ τοῖς παροῦσι δοκοῦμεν εἶναι τοῖς λεγομένοις,
    καὶ τὴν ψυχὴν θορύβου πληροῦμεν,
    καὶ τὸν ἐχθρὸν εὐφραίνομεν,
    καὶ τὸν Θεὸν παροξύνομεν,
    καὶ τοῖς ἁμαρτήμασι προστίθεμεν τοῖς ἡμετέροις.

    Taking then ALL this into consideration,
    let us flee from the abyss of the SMALL SELF (μικροψυχίας),
    and let us take refuge in the port of STALLED ANGRY DESIRE (μακροθυμίας).
    that here we may at once find rest for these OWN SELVES of OURS

    Ταῦτα οὖν ἅπαντα ἐννοήσαντες,
    φύγωμεν τῆς μικροψυχίας τὸ βάραθρον,
    καὶ πρὸς τὸν λιμένα τῆς μακροθυμίας καταδράμωμεν,
    ἵνα καὶ ἐνταῦθα εὕρωμεν ἀνάπαυσιν ταῖς ψυχαῖς ἡμῶν,

    as Christ also set forth,
    and may attain to the good things to come,
    by grace and by KIND, LOVING OF PEOPLE.

    καθὼς καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς ἀπεφήνατο,
    καὶ τῶν μελλόντων ἐπιτύχωμεν ἀγαθῶν,
    χάριτι καὶ φιλανθρωπίᾳ


  1. A Catholic’s Perception of an Orthodox View of Paul, informed by Certain Homilies by St. John Chrysostom | Gaudete Theology

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