President Remarks 2003

Delta of Missouri Chapter Initiation
April 13, 2003
President’s Remarks: “Darmok” ,  Diomedes, Dialectic, and  De Ira

It has been the practice of our presidents to speak to current campus issues while underscoring the merits of your achievement in being elected to Phi Beta Kappa.  I shall follow in the footsteps of my esteemed colleagues.

Today’s remarks are brought to you by the letter “D”.  D is for Delta and that’s good enough for me.  Delta is the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet and we are the fourth Phi Beta Kappa chapter to be housed in a Missouri institution of higher learning.  Delta is also the Greek letter used to represent change in mathematics and physics.  When employing techniques of differential calculus to examine rates of change, the Greek “delta” or the Roman “d” is often employed.  My four “d’s” today are “Darmok” ,  Diomedes, Dialectic, and  De Ira .



“ Darmok” is the title of an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.  (Production 202, aired 9/30/1991, Stardate 45047.2 ,  for more information, see  and )

Even with the universal translator, the crew of the Enterprise cannot communicate with the race known as “The Children of Tama”.  The problem is not vocabulary; the problem is not grammar; the problem is the difference in how they each expect their respective languages to work.  The Tamarian captain, Dathon, keeps telling Jean Luc Picard “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”.  Eventually Picard figures out that the Tamarian language operates through allusion to stories, both mythical and historical.  Stories which bring the Tamarian people together as they face challenges, defeats, victories, and new friendships.

In Tamarian mythology, Darmok was a hunter on planet Shantil III who fought a beast on the island of Tanagra with another hunter named Jalad. The Tamarians use the reference to this story, the phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”, to describe an attempt by two people to understand each other by sharing a common experience.

Dathon and Picard likewise fight a beast and share the stories of their home worlds’ ancient days.  Picard tells the Babylonian story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.  They learn more than how to make the words work, they learn about shared values, shared curiosity about the natural and social worlds, and shared recognition of their own mutability and mortality.  To say more would ruin the episode for you.  What story would you tell if you wanted to communicate with an alien interlocutor?

Will we be in the situation that Wittgenstein describes in the Philosophical Investigations  II. ix. when he says “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”? (Anscombe tr. 223.) Will our ways of life be so different that we cannot bridge the gap through our communicative efforts?



I wouldn’t tell the tale of Gilgamesh.  I would probably see if I couldn’t get some one to beam me down a copy of Homer’s Iliad, the epic tale of fifty days of the ten year Trojan war; the tale of the wrath of Achilles.   I couldn’t tell the story myself, because I don’t remember stories in terms of word, word, word, word unless I learned to sing the words before the age of fourteen.  I remember stories in terms of structures, or in terms of multidimensional images (at least four dimensions), or in terms of rather complicated relationships of emotional and intellectual responses to the text on various encounters.  I can’t expect our extra-terrestrial interlocutor to think like that because I know most of my students and family don’t think like that.  I hope that I would be allowed to read the beautiful images evoked by the Homeric similes and underscored by the epic characters’ interactions.

It does not start “In the beginning,” nor would I.  I would do some plot summary and then set in.  I would start, not in Book Delta, but in Book Epsilon, even though we get a marvelous contrast between the coward, Pandaros and lion-like Diomedes in that earlier book. The coward, Pandaros breaks the oath of truce by using a curved bow (4.85-4.165). Lion-like Diomedes reminds Agamemnon how at Thebes he survived through courage and attentiveness, while “others died of their own headlong stupidity” (4. 408-409), a headlong stupidity repeated in the battle that begins as the Trojans and Achaians are driven into fighting by Terror, Fear, and that sister of Ares, Eris, that is Hatred.

I would start in Book Epsilon, Book 5, when Diomedes has his day.

There to Tydeus’ son, Diomedes, Pallas Athene granted strength and daring, that he might be conspicuous among all Argives and win the glory of valor.  She made the weariless fire blaze from his shield and helmet like the star of the waning summer who beyond all stars rises bathed in the ocean stream to glitter in brilliance.  Such was the fire she made blaze from his head and shoulders and urged him into the middle fighting, where most were struggling.  (Iliad 5.1-5.8)

I would read this section not to glorify war but to show how death and destiny were more powerful even than the deities (5.53-5.59). That even the hero can be injured by the coward. And how the hero becomes completely unlike ourselves when overcome by wrath:

As among cattle a lion leaps on the neck of an ox or heifer, that grazes among the wooded places, and breaks it; so … [Diomedes] hurled both [Echemmon and Chromios] from their horses hatefully, in spite of their struggles, then stripped their armor and gave the horses to his company to drive to their vessels  (Iliad 5.161-5.165).  (There is a more striking lion simile before this at 5.135-5.143, but it involves sheep and I would prefer not to upset my daughter Emily who is here today.)

Diomedes’ wrath leads him even to injure the deity Aphrodite and the ichor flows (gods don’t have blood).  And eventually the gods join the fray and are even stripping armor.  It seems nothing can stop this madness.

Then in Book Six, Diomedes confronts Glaukos, son of Hippolochos.  Diomedes first checks to make sure he is not battling against a disguised deity and tells Glaukos a number of sad tales of those who defied divinities.  And Glaukos replies:

High hearted …[Diomedes], why ask of my generation?  As the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.  The wind scatters the leaves on the ground but the live timber burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.  So one generation of men will grow while another dies.  (Iliad 5.146-5.150)

Glaukos goes on to tell of his genealogy in a tale that has the only reference to writing in this entire epic of an oral tradition.   It is this story that stops Diomedes rampage, for the two warriors recognize that their grand-fathers had enjoyed a relationship of guest-friendship, xenia, that reached across war-lord affiliation, across language barriers, and across generations.

For most readers this is one of the most confusing scenes in the whole twenty-four book work.  These guys stop to discuss family in a raging field of battle, put down their weapons, exchange their armor “so that these others may know how we claim to be guests and friends from the days of our fathers”.  And they go their merry ways, one imagines, back into the fray.

Does that scene make sense to you?  One has to understand a whole culture where guest-host relations are esteemed beyond our ken.  The wrath of Diomedes is enflamed by having a god acting in him—enthusiasm: the god, theos, is in him.  He overcomes this when he is most reminded of his human burden of mortality and his human responsibilities to others through his shared communication with a stranger, xenos.

I would then go to another really strange part of the Iliad, the Doloneia, the story of Dolon in Book 10.  This is not a pretty story, but Diomedes gets to utter the most famous quotation from Homeric works found in Plato’s dialogues.

Nestor wants to send a spy among the Trojans at night.  Everyone is too afraid of such a mission except for ‘Diomedes of the great war cry’, who not only volunteers but urges others to undertake such risk with him:

When two go together, one of them at least looks forward to see what is best; a man by himself though he be careful, still has less mind in him than two, and his wits have less weight.  (Iliad 10.224-10.226)

Odysseus joins Diomedes and after they make their prayers to Athene “they went on their way like two lions into the black night through the carnage and through the corpses, war gear and dark blood”(10.296-10.298).    This is a really hard part of the epic to teach because our heroes go on to slay Dolon in a way we would find despicable:  “as when two rip-fanged hounds have sighted a wild beast, a young deer, or a hare and go after it…” so they cut Dolon off from his people, lied to him, questioned him, and killed him .  Homer’s word picture of this death is too graphic for our audience.

The ugliness of this scouting party’s deeds throughout Book 10, leaves one wondering why Plato uses this quotation from a hero who glories in facing his opponent with spear or sword.  Recall the lines when Diomedes addresses another Trojan using a curved bow.   In Book 11 (11.368-11.400) Diomedes addresses Paris/Alexandros as “You archer, foul fighter, lovely in your locks, eyer of young girls.”   Diomedes prefers to face his adversaries and speaks poignantly of the effects of his military prowess on the wives and children of his foes.



Plato quotes these lines out of context hoping we remember the context as we seek to act more humanely than those human lions, Diomedes and Odysseus.  With dialectic we face our friends as we grapple with our ignorant fears, rather than shooting from afar out of cowardice. I am not talking of the negative dialectic of the early dialogues, the Socratic  elenchos, which helps us clear away our mistaken beliefs based on doxa, opinion.  I am speaking of the philosophical dialectic of the middle dialogues which he describes as how one tries to speak from knowledge not opinion:  “To speak the truth about things one loves and values to friends one loves and trusts strengthens both courage and conviction.” (Republic V. 450e)

Plato gives much discussion to the role of dialectic in educating each individual to rule him or herself justly.  This education aims to have each “graduate”   \take a responsible role in the polis as well as to achieve lasting happiness:  eudaimonia ( probably better translated as “active human flourishing”).

His best images for this progress to human flourishing are the image of the divided line and the moving image, i.e. allegory, of the cave.  Dialectic is that process of exchange which allows us to think beyond our raw sensations of the world of sights and sounds, allows us to exchange our sense of wonder about the processes of nature, allows us to inquire into social justice among mortals, allows us to get a metaphor or literary allusion.   He elucidates the role of dialectic in a course of education not unlike the liberal arts education that you have pursued.  “These studies have the power to liberate and raise the soul’s best portion to the level of what is best in the intelligible world”.  (Republic VII 532c)  Dialectic, as a part of our education, helps us progress up the divided line from groundless opinion based on hearsay, to knowledge that makes a difference in how we conduct our lives.  It helps us progress out of our self-made cave of militant ignorance.  It helps us be alert to what we are taking for granted as we try to reach understanding of our natural, social, and intellectual world.  It allows us to reach a kind of understanding that gives us perspective about change in the world and a hope for timeless wisdom.  He calls this sort of understanding “dianoia”.  Dialectic elevates us even beyond this understanding, but we would get beyond the letter “d”.  The study of calculus would fit into the level of dianoiic inquiry.

In Plato’s schema of education, dialectic is the “summit of all studies as the capstone above which no other study could legitimately find a place.” (Republic VII 534e) This is the study he urges people to continue after they have completed their basic liberal arts studies, when they will not mistake inquiry for contentiousness. (Republic VII 538c-d)

You are being honored today for courageously pursuing a difficult path out of the cave of ignorance.  You are being honored for progressing up that path with a sense of human excellence even though you knew there was no guarantee of a 4.0 or of a job upon finishing a BA or BS.  You are being honored for seeking broad cultivation through courses which stretched you beyond your usual ways of thinking. You are being honored for daring to interact with Ph.D’s outside your major in preparation for meaningful communication with interlocutors who may seem alien to you.

The national office of the Phi Beta Kappa Society states minimum stipulations concerning eligibility for election as a member in course. ( The last stipulation states:

7. Candidates shall have demonstrated in mathematics and foreign language knowledge appropriate for a liberal education.

Why mathematics and foreign language?  Because these are the areas that prepare us for dianoiic thinking.  Because these are the areas that prepare us for mature dialectic.  These are the areas that may allow us to find ways to talk to the lion, to the alien, or to someone who seems that removed from your own ways of thinking.


De Ira

To what end? Why seek liberal education and ongoing dialectical inquiry?  To actively flourish as human beings.  To be happy.

“D” is for delta:  The symbol for change.  If you talk to that alien, I can’t guarantee that he/she/it will get the pastoral imagery of mortality that is found throughout the Iliad.  I can’t guarantee he/she/it will individuate objects rather than thinking in processes. I can’t see any good reason for he/she/it to have a base 10 number system.  But if this alien is willing to engage in the temporal act of conversation, I bet he/she/it will understand some notion of change.

Remember Dathon and Picard from the “Darmok” episode.  They learned more than how to make the words work: they learned about shared values, shared curiosity about the natural and social worlds, and shared recognition of their own mutability and mortality.  They dealt with change together.

They demonstrated their broad cultivation in how they rendered respect toward each other and cared about one another.  The word cultivation comes from the Latin word “colere”  (Colo, Colui, Cultum).  It carries both agricultural connotations and connotations of respectful care. It can also have a connotation of healing.

Seneca ends his long work of Roman stoicism De Ira, On Anger, with advice to Novatius about what we shall do in the meantime.   How we shall flourish imperturbably while surrounded by change  (III. vi. 1-III.vii.2).  How we shall respect others and tend to their mutability (III. xxxvi.1-III.xxxix.1).  How we must continue our reflection on our education, have this educatiop translated into noble deeds, and display educated desire with intent on only that which is honorable (III.xli.1) (even when contemplating our own mortality III.xlii.1, III.xliii.1):

Meanwhile, so long as we draw breath, so long as we live among others, let us cultivate humanity. (De Ira III.xliii.5)

You, the next generation of Phi Beta Kappans will burgeon forth in the season of spring just as we were reminded of next generations by Homeric similes with leaves.  Maybe like Glaukos and Diomedes you will put down your weapons and recall generations of friendship.  Now that you have “gone together” with scholars and classmates maybe you will continue to “look forward to what is best” more as Plato intended than as Odysseus and Diomedes did.  Let us use what we have gained from our encounters with strangers across the liberal arts to cherish one another.



Lattimore, Richmond (translator):  The Iliad  of Homer  (1951, University of Chicago Press).

Plato:  The Republic , translated by  Sterling and Scott  (1985, W.W. Norton and Company).

Seneca: “De Ira” in Moral Essays, Volume I, translated by John W. Basore (1928, Harvard University Press)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig:  Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscomb (3rd Ed. 1968, MacMillan)
Patricia Burton
President, Delta of Missouri

Delta of Missouri Chapter