Analysis of Pindar's "Pursuit of Excellence"
“The Pursuit of Excellence,” was a short work by the Greek poet Pindar written at a time when philosophical schools of thought were growing and individualism was celebrated. Within this poem, Pindar shares a view of excellence marked by hard work, but also showed tragedy and misfortune. The poem lauded an athlete’s achievement and then talked of the brevity of the man’s success due to his death. Despite the misfortune of death that all men (great or not) must experience, the poem advocated hard work and for men to “keep striving” even if life ultimately ends in death. Pindar’s “Pursuit of Excellence” is an early example of Western philosophy, particularly humanism.
During the 6th century BC, Greek thinkers split from beliefs in Gods controlling nature, to speculation, rationalism, and more abstract schools of thought. This shift in ideas brought about the study of science and philosophy. By the late 6th century, when “The Pursuit of Excellence.” Soldiers showed solidarity through the hoplite phalanx, but during this same period, examples of strong individualism appeared. This sense of uniqueness was demonstrated in sculptures and in lyrical and epic poetry.
Poems sharing private feelings, love, water, satires, and ironies were penned. Sculptures showing ideal figures were created, not to show the actual likeness of an individual, but rather, how they ought to have looked: young and beautiful. This idealism showed in Pindar’s poem, where an athlete worked hard to triumph, to reach the ideal that was early humanism.
Despite the humanistic urge to take up all physical ability, intellect, and moral capacity to achieve excellence, humanism also had another side: triumphs were short-lived and life was tragic. No matter how great a person was in their youth, they would eventually die. Life was a triumph full of personal conquests, victories, and accomplishments. At the same time, it was a depressing ill-fated tragedy. While there was no grand prize at the end of life, humanistic beliefs didn’t bring about a demoralizing blow. Rather, it was able to bring about a personal strive for excellence in its followers.
The poem talked of an athlete who achieves victory and with that victory, the athlete obtained the greatest prize: the sense of pride. The poet introduced tragedy to the victor quickly after, having dealt him death. The poem shared the gravity of the death with, “such is man: a shadow in a dream” which showed that death was not itself a prize (with a glorious afterlife), but rather as a consequence of merely having lived. The poem didn’t close with death, though, it closed with the memory of the victory, “a god-given splendor visits him. A bright radiance plays over him, and how sweet is life!” This was the linchpin. Here, the poet reminded the listener, death happened to all men, no matter how great, but one should still strive to obtain glory. Thus, when a man died, he knew that he’d done good things in his life.
Pindar’s “The Pursuit of Excellence” was written at a time where Greeks were exploring philosophy, celebrating personal achievements, and reaching for ideals. This poem is the product of these schools of thought. The protagonist in Pindar’s poem worked hard toward a goal (a strong ideal in humanism), celebrated his personal achievement, and died shortly thereafter. While death was a tragic blow, the athlete had died knowing he’d achieved something great in his life. This was an ideal spread throughout humanism: Greek humanists should have worked for their own personal excellence, created flawless works of art, lived harmoniously, and have done everything they could so they could have live as near-perfect and beautifully as possible.