Re: Test of The "Timeless" Aorist

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Tue May 05 1998 - 12:11:24 EDT

At 10:10 AM -0500 5/5/98, wrote:
>The aorist as the "idea of an action" that has no time designation
>will usually be derived from observations of instances of that
>action. We see various objects thrown some number of times, for
>instance, and decide to name that observed action "throw", and that
>becomes the idea of that action. The instances of it are complete
>actions, and when we say 'throw' we are referring to ANY action that
>is that KIND of action. This is our conception, or idea, of 'throw',
>and is inherently aoristic because it has no time to it ~ Just the
>idea... That is designated by a word... Which is originally a sound...
>Designating the conceptual idea...
>Now... To what does this 'idea' refer? It refers to ANY instance of
>this kind of action, past, present or future, and for any particular
>individual it will recall to mind any number of 'throw' events that
>s/he has observed in the past, hence its evocative power, and perhaps
>the first 'time designation' was to differentiate all these past
>designations from the one going on right now ~ the Present. So in
>English we differentiate 'I throw' from 'I am throwing'. The Greek
>does it differently, but the principle is the same. Time designations
>are added on to the idea of an action, hence the 'tenses' ~ and the
>idea of the action itself has no such tense assignment. Thus the term
>'aorist tense' is something of an oxymoron. The Greeks preserved this
>original idea form of the verb as a verbal unit of discourse, so great
>was their love of ideas. For them, to talk about an event was to talk
>about the IDEA of the event, and the aorist was their verb of choice
>in narrative, and from that love of ideas, we have concluded that
>because the narratives are about past events, the aorist has past
>meaning. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Dear George:
Although I have written disparagingly of your notion of the aorist and
still find it impossible to acknowledge it as bearing any relationship to
actual Greek usage, I remain very curious about the source of your
understanding or vision of the aorist. Where did you get the notion that
the aorist represents the IDEA of the action? Are you thinking in Platonic
terms of a kind of "form" or "idea" of a verb that has a transcendental
existence apart from time/space and process? I know that on occasion you've
tried to extrapolate from the Greek adjective AORISTOS used by Greek
grammarians to refer to the Aorist, but you've also at time built upon a
notion of the elements in an aorist's stem and endings as having some
distinct sense. I just remain very curious where in any Greek text you have
come upon something that convinces you that the aorist in particular
involves the essence or idea of a verb.

The only thing remotely like this that I've ever seen, read, or heard
argued is that in one particular kind of aorist, the thematic "root"
aorist, we often (but not always) see the simplest FORM of the verb's root,
as, for example, we say that the verb "persuade" has an "E" grade, PEIQ, an
"O" grade, POIQ, and a "zero" grade, PIQ, or that the verb "have/hold" has
an "E" grade, SEC, an "O" grade, SOC, and a "zero" grade, SC; the "zero"
grade of these two verbs appears in what's sometimes called a "root" aorist
of the thematic type: for "persuade" there are Homeric EPIQON or classical
Attic middle EPIQOMHN; for "have" there's ESCON.

And that's the only phenomenon in Ancient Greek I'm aware of that could
suggest that the Aorist is the "simplest form of the verbal idea" or is the
verbal "idea" itself. BUT, (a) there are relatively few verbs in ancient
Greek that actually have that kind of a "root aorist," and (b) I've never
seen a semantic definition for the aorist of ancient Greek of any period
that involves the notion of "timelessness." So where exactly did you get
this? I would really like to know!

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR

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