Re: The aorist

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Tue Nov 24 1998 - 08:45:18 EST

<x-flowed>At 7:50 AM -0500 11/24/98, Paul F. Evans wrote:
> Kevin,
> This is precisely the "inconsistency" I was trying to nail down to my own
> satisfaction. Cindy's statement about the aorist was helpful because it is
> a clear way to approach the aorist. She said that the aorist speaks of an
> action in the form of a snap shot without any reference to its duration (or
> lack thereof), or repetition. To be able to make decisions about the nature
> of the action in its original context, one must recover that original
> context from other indicators in the text or from the nature of the verb
> itself. More and more recently this is the sense that I get from the Big
> Greeks about the aorist.
> I do not want to get involved in the more theoretical and less useful (to
> me), speculation about aspect, by which I think is meant the difference
> between the action itself and the way it is conveyed in language. Having
> said that, I realize that we are teetering on that very precipice!
> I for one would like to hear from others on how they approach the aorist in
> determining how it a particular action is to be conceived. What indicators
> do you look for first and which ones hold the greatest weight for you?
> Another mystery to me, and I suppose to an extent this is why I have these
> questions, how does one really go about fixing an understanding to of aorist
> participles? For instance the old adage that they represent action prior to
> that of the main verb is now in question regularly. I was wondering about
> how to approach these issues in a sensible way. I probably can figure it
> out eventually, but my method is scatter-brained first here and then there,
> and eventually to some commentary! I want to have some sort of "formula" to
> follow that will enable me to apply an consistent approach to interpreting
> the aorist.

To cite an obnoxious old mot, "I don't like to say 'I told you so,' but I
told you so." On the "right" understanding of the aorist, there are almost
as many perspectives as there are persons with a perspective on the aorist.

I realize that my own contribution to the discussion yesterday was wholly
theoretical and therefore not at all useful. I'm inclined to think,
however, that the "formula" that you're looking for, Paul, is altogether
elusive if it even exists. We can offer such "formulae" for the aorist only
in the sense that Newton's physics provides formulae for explaining
physical events, but even without the degree of precision that Newton's
physics provides--i.e., we can offer "formulae" that will work with MOST
instances of the aorist, but that will leave us unprepared for the
occasional instance of an aorist that doesn't fit the formula. Thus we may
say, in general, that indicative aorists USUALLY and MOST OFTEN refer to
past actions/events looked at simply; we can also say, in general, that
aorist participles USUALLY and MOST OFTEN refer to actions/events prior in
time to that of the main verb. BUT (a) we have be aware that these
'formulae' are oversimplifications of much more complex linguistic
phenomena about the very nature of which research and theory is currently
"unsettled" (is that too mild a word?) and we have to be conscious that
when we meet an instance of an aorist that doesn't conform to the above
rules of thumb, we have to think the particular instance and its context
through; (b) my own view is that one's comfort-level with aorists from the
point at which one starts learning Greek decreases for quite some time
until it reaches an equilibrium and begins to increase: the more and the
longer one reads of Greek, the more confidence one gains about how an
aorist is to be understood in a particular instance--and yet one must still
be prepared to confront aorists that have to be thought through in their
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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