‘Tell me, Timotheus,’ said Harmonides the flute-player one day to his teacher, ‘tell me how I may win distinction in my art. What can I do to make myself known all over Greece? Everything but this you have taught me. I have a correct ear, thanks to you, and a smooth, even delivery, and have acquired the light touch so essential to the rendering of rapid measures; rhythmical effect, the adaptation of music to dance, the true character of the different moods — exalted Phrygian, joyous Lydian, majestic Dorian, voluptuous Ionic — all these I have mastered with your assistance. But the prime object of my musical aspirations seems out of my reach: I mean popular esteem, distinction, and notoriety; I would have all eyes turn in my direction, all tongues repeat my name: “There goes Harmonides, the great flute-player.” Now when you first came from your home in Boeotia, and performed in the Procne, and won the prize for your rendering of the Ajax Furens, composed by your namesake, there was not a man who did not know the name of Timotheus of Thebes; and in these days you have only to show yourself, and people flock together as birds do at the sight of an owl in daylight. It is for this that I sought to become a flute-player; this was to be the reward of all my toil. The skill without the glory I would not take at a gift, not though I should prove to be a Marsyas or an Olympus in disguise. What is the use of a light that is to be hidden under a bushel? Show me then, Timotheus, how I may avail myself of my powers and of my art. I shall be doubly your debtor: not for my skill alone, but for the glory that skill confers.’
‘Why, really,’ says Timotheus, ‘it is no such easy matter, Harmonides, to become a public character, or to gain the prestige and distinction to which you aspire; and if you propose to set about it by performing in public, you will find it a long business, and at the best will never achieve a universal reputation. Where will you find a theatre or circus large enough to admit the whole nation as your audience? But if you would attain your object and become known, take this hint. By all means perform occasionally in the theatres, but do not concern yourself with the public. Here is the royal road to fame: get together a small and select audience of connoisseurs, real experts, whose praise, whose blame are equally to be relied upon; display your skill to these; and if you can win their approval, you may rest content that in a single hour you have gained a national reputation. I argue thus. If you are known to be an admirable performer by persons who are themselves universally known and admired, what have you to do with public opinion? Public opinion must inevitably follow the opinion of the best judges. The public after all is mainly composed of untutored minds, that know not good from bad themselves; but when they hear a man praised by the great authorities, they take it for granted that he is not undeserving of praise, and praise him accordingly. It is the same at the games: most of the spectators know enough to clap or hiss, but the judging is done by some five or six persons.’
Harmonides had no time to put this policy into practice. The story goes that in his first public competition he worked so energetically at his flute, that he breathed his last into it, and expired then and there, before he could be crowned. His first Dionysiac performance was also his last.
But Timotheus’s remarks need not be confined to Harmonides, nor to his profession: they seem applicable to all whose ambition prompts them to exhibit their talents and to aim at the approbation of the public. Accordingly, when I, like Harmonides, was debating within myself the speediest means of becoming known, I took Timotheus’s advice: ‘Who,’ I asked myself, ‘is the foremost man in all this city? Whose credit is highest with his neighbours? Who shall be my multum in parvo?’ Only one name could reasonably suggest itself — your own; which stands for the perfection of every excellence, the glass of culture and the mould of wit. To submit my works to you, to win your approbation — if such a thing might be! — were to reach the goal of my desire; for your suffrage carries the rest with it. Whom, indeed, could I substitute in your place, and hope to preserve a reputation for sanity? In a sense, no doubt, I shall be hazarding all on one cast of the die: yet with more truth I might be said to have summoned the whole population into one audience-chamber; for your single judgement must assuredly outweigh the rest, taken individually or collectively. The Spartan kings had two votes each to the ordinary man’s one: but you are a whole Privy Council and Senate in yourself. Your influence is unequalled in the Court of Literature, and, above all, yours is the casting-vote of acquittal; an encouraging thought for me, who might well be uneasy otherwise at the extent of my hardihood. Moreover, I am not wholly without a claim on your interest, as belonging to that city which has so often enjoyed peculiar benefits at your hand, in addition to those which it has shared with the nation at large; and this encourages me to hope that in the present instance, if judgement is going against me, and the votes of acquittal are in a minority, you will use your prerogative, and make all right with that casting-vote of yours. I may have had successes, I may have made a name, my lectures may have been well received:— all this amounts to nothing; it is visionary; it is a mere bubble. The truth must come to light now; I am put to a final test; there will be no room for doubt or hesitation after this. It rests with you, whether my literary rank shall be assured, or my pretensions — but no! with such a contest before me, I will abstain from words of evil omen.
Ye Gods, give me approval here, and set the seal upon my reputation! I may then face the world with a light heart: he who has carried the prize at Olympia need fear no other course.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57