Competition, Values and the Rhythm of Life: Some Reflections on Antiphon, Thucydides and Aristotle
The Olympic Games had more than a gymnastic significance in ancient Greece, as is best attested by Pindar’s odes. The modern interpretation of Greek culture was first introduced to the notion of the ajgwvn and the concept of the agonistic or competitive, “das Agonale”, by J. Burckhardt. Nietzsche elaborated it further, perceiving the phenomenon of competition as the origin of the fundamental Greek values, especially of justice and truth, and as the prerequisite for any fair evaluation.
In Antiphon, the idea of competition runs both through his forensic speeches and philosophical writings. His Tetralogies in particular reveal the competitive dynamics of judicial trials. A judicial procedure is a competition, ajgwnivzesqai, between the truth of facts and the truth of words, which may result in an unjust verdict. In that case injustice has prevailed over justice and truth. What is thus at stake is the truth of facts, ajlhv/qeia tw`n pragmavtwn. Antiphon uses the Olympic and Pythian competitions to elucidate the important decisions and activities in human life, such as education, marriage, and the pursuit of happiness in general.
Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War provides not only a description of the historical facts but also their evaluation. The development of military events, which is a competition of actions, ajgw;n e[rgwn, is elucidated by speeches, which frequently occur in antithetic pairs as antilogies, ajgw;n lovgwn. Political competition, however, is not limited to foreign policy but can be seen in the Athenian home politics as well. According to Alcibiades, the Athenian polis could only retain its supremacy through incessant competition, ajgwnizomevnhn aijei;. Nor does Thucydides neglect the Panhellenic significance of the Olympic festival.
Aristotle's philosophy, on the other hand, appears to distance itself from competition, being based on rJa/stwvnh, "easiness", and diagwgh, “pastime”. None the less, the phenomenon of the ajgwvn is a constituent characteristic of his dialectic, which forms part both of his first philosophy as general culture and of his criticism of the sophists. Competition is particularly important in his Art of Rhetoric, where all its meanings may be found: gymnastic, musical, judicial and moral. In his ethics and politics, the life of virtue is conceived as a balance between effort and repose, hard work and relaxation. Moreover, the virtues are articulated in terms of competition. In the Physics, the notion of the ajgwvn is used to describe the notion of infinity, which is used in turn to define time and motion. Infinity, the day, and Olympic competitions are phenomena capable of existing in both potentiality and actuality. As time is the measure of human life, the manner of man's existence determines competition as well. The competition, ajgwvn, in the Aristotelian ontology thus signifies the transition from potentiality into actuality, which creates the dynamic rhythm of life and existence.
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