I had intended to deliver a paper about reading Pindar as part of a conference on the larger topic of the relevance of Classics today. Since that project never materialized, I thought I would note down just a few of the preliminary thoughts I had on the issue.
The defense of Classical studies in educational institutions has been necessary since its direct usefulness in sciences began to wain. In a sense, that is when Classics became a distinct field as opposed to western education in general. Many of the defensive arguments reek of desperation on the part of Classicists, and do not convince me. Those who suggest that students should learn Latin because it teaches logical thinking are misled, I think, by the outdated notion that Latin is somehow more logical than other languages. For education in logic, nothing seems more suitable than logic itself, or its twin, mathematics. There are those who suggest that Greek and Latin should be learned for the insight which they provide into the vocabulary of English and of scientific terminology. I hope to treat that notion more fully in another essay, but suffice it to say for now that, while true, the traditional education in Classics is a long detour for that purpose. The issue comes down to the definition of the field itself, which is troublesome for its immense scope, and too large for this discussion.
Of those who value Humanities programs in general, few would deny the relevance of Classics, and it seemed rather amusing to me that there should be a conference of Classicists to discuss the importance of Classics. The usefulness of Homer, for instance, in the study of all subsequent Western literature is self-evident. The study of Greek drama seems to me also to need no defense. Plato and Aristotle are in the same position, but more so for the influence of Plato on the Christian tradition, and of Aristotle on the modern European intellectual tradition. Herodotus and Thucydides have a secure place in the study of historiography, and Euclid survives almost intact today. I have mentioned just a few authors, and only Greek ones, but I trust there is no controversy here. Authors like Hesiod and Xenophon and Demosthenes might require some persuasion for a few, but a good case could be made easily.
When it comes to Pindar, however, I think that the matter is different. Even among Classicists, he often demands some apology, and outside of that, the going gets tough. I find myself defending him even to other Greek philologists. Although he has been admired in most generations, this seems often to be based on his reputation, and his influence is not as marked as other major poets. Already in ancient times his language and meter proved difficult, and in modern times his genre has been a major obstacle.
It is this last point which seems to require the greatest defense for modern readers. In the end, I claim, the complaints are not entirely substantiated. That he wrote in praise of athletic victors is true, but athletes and athletics do not dominate even the epinikian songs, which are all that we possess of a much larger and varied output. The songs are much more focused on myth and wisdom and ethics, imagery, metaphor, and playful sounds. In short, the things we appreciate about poetry of all genres; and he is masterful at most.
I will return to his value as a poet, but he is also valuable for historical purposes as well. In the first place, it is acknowledged now that the so-called "lyric" tradition is perhaps more ancient than the epic tradition (based on metrical evidence) and Pindar is a major representative. Like Homer, he represents the very end of a long tradition, and as such he can tell us a great deal. He preserves elements of an Indo-European tradition in which the poet had an important place as educator, historian, and religious figure. The praise which he bestows on athletes is his version of the power which wordsmiths had to enhance great men and great ideas. In fact, he probably provides the best comparative evidence about the Indo-European poet from the Greek branch. Along the same lines, he is valuable for the study of historical linguistics and comparative mythology. While many people see his myths as original treatments, it is very often the case, in my opinion, that he preserves ancient traditions which are otherwise lost, although this is often unverifiable, and there is no doubt about innovations. As one of the last great representatives of Greek choral poetry, he is important both for the study of that genre, and for the study of the origins of drama, which developed out of the choral tradition. In a general sense, he occupies an important place in the transition into the classical period of Greece, after the Persian Wars, which is also represented by Aeschylus, but from a different perspective. And he provides an interesting study as a fifth-century poet who was neither from Athens nor focused on Athens; the value of this should not be underestimated.
Even as I write this, I am realizing just how much I have to say on the topic; I have only begun, and new ideas are developing already. But in the way of a conclusion, I would say that his greatest importance lies in the greatness of his poetry. He is relevant because great art is relevant. His style does not translate to English as well as other Greek poets, but in Greek it is hard to miss the beauty of sound and structure in his language. His rich imagery and complex metaphors are right at home, I think, in the modern poetic sensibility. And if one gives him the respect of close and multiple readings, there is no shortage of gems, even in translation, such as his famous musing that "man is a dream of a shadow," or that "war is sweet for those who have not participated," or that σοφίαι μὲν αἰπειναί, which can be rendered variously as "poetry is lofty," or "wisdom is hard to reach," or "art is steep." He warned us that "a crafty politician will not impress the noble with his speeches, and yet, flattering everyone, he weaves delusion to its end," and that "different desires stir the hearts of each man, but if a man attains his wish let him cling to it and not let it go for something far off: there is no way to know what will happen in a year." He advised us to praise even our enemies when they perform well, and he set an example for all men and women when he promised that "pursuing the joy of each day, I will calmly approach my old age and my fated lifetime; for we all die alike, but our destiny is unequal."