Enter the Agon! The Greek Contest
Written by Shawn Funk
The Greeks! Strength, beauty, and wisdom, they possessed all. In a short time, they made significant progress in the arts, athletics, science, and politics, resulting in what some call a golden age for humanity. By now, we are aware of our Greek inheritance in the above mentioned disciplines; I will not discuss them further. I am interested, however, in how the Greeks became great. What was it about the Greek culture that allowed its citizens to create the monumental works that have since become normative in the western canon? Where did such a vital force originate? Enter the agon!
Agon (Greek αγων) is a Greek word that means contest, struggle, or conflict, and it is the root word of “agony,” which denotes extreme pain and suffering. Acampora notes that in its earliest usage, “agon” meant “to lead or to bring with one,” later, it signified a public assembly for the games. In its final usage, it was used to describe any struggle or conflict (Acampora, 2013). The agon was, thus, a friendly but serious contest that demanded pain, suffering, and sacrifice so that one could rise above the other. We know this philosophy well in our modern athletic curriculum: no pain, no gain. I like to think we got this from the Greeks.
An important contribution to the study of ancient Greece was the recognition of the agon and its centrality in ancient Greek culture. While German philosopher Jacob Burckhardt originally discovered the agonal concept, it was later adopted by his admirer, the German philologist Friedrich Nietzsche (Joho, 2020). Nietzsche argued that the “agon” was responsible for the Greek vitality, which led to the creation of their potent civilization and rich culture; he suggests that the “goal of agonistic education was the welfare of the whole” (Nietzsche, 1879/1996). Citizens often contested each other in athletic games, debate, poetry, and music, leading Nietzsche to the declaration that “[e]very talent must express itself in fighting thus commands the Hellenistic popular pedagogy” (Nietzsche, 1879/1996). Pan-Hellenic games like the Olympic, Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean games were hosted across Greece among city-states. Athens held the festival of Dionysus every year, which showcased dramatic contests. These games not only united each city-state but also united Greece through competitive rivalry (Daqing, 2010). It was, therefore, imperative that the Greek citizen was well rounded in athletics, music, and poetry to ensure success for his city at the games—a rich source of pride (Joho, 2020). Given their centrality to Greek life, Nietzsche believed these contests were vital to preserving the state (Nietzsche, 1879/1996).
Despite Greek rationality, the ancients still believed that gods were responsible for everything that happened to them. Eris is the goddess of strife; she is associated with annihilation, jealousy, envy, and resentment. According to our modern standards of ethics, these are negative qualities; however, to the Greeks, Eris is responsible for the vitality of their state. In his Rhetoric, Aristotle parrots the Heraclitian logic that “the finest harmony arises from discordant elements, and all things come to be in struggle” (Aristotle, 2004). One problem here. How do the Greeks reconcile the paradox of annihilation with creation? Easy, they split Eris in two. Nietzsche highlights Hesiod’s admission that there are two named Eris; “[o]ne would be commended when perceived, the other is reprehensible, and their tempers are distinct. The one promotes ugly fighting and conflict . . . the other . . . is [set] in the earth’s roots, much the better for the men” (Hesiod, 1988). Here Hesiod makes a critical distinction between conflict that is destructive and degenerative against a conflict that is productive and creative. A productive conflict produces something of value that was not there before, while an ugly conflict will preserve what already exists through the destruction of the other.
I have mentioned the duality of Eris, serving positive and negative outcomes, but it is also important to note Eris’s association with envy, which is no problem for a Greek. Nietzsche states that the “Greek is envious and does not find this quality to be a blemish but the effect of a beneficent deity” (Nietzsche, 1879/1996). Envy is, thus, part of that positive, creative force that promotes action and is, therefore, praiseworthy despite its destructive potential. Aristotle makes a similar statement in his Nicomachean Ethics, “[t]he deeds or possessions which arouse the love of reputation and honour and the desire for fame, and the various gifts of fortune, are almost all subject to envy” (Aristotle, 1985). Thus, envy is the motivator that spurs destructive or productive competition.
Question: if a contest is between two equally matched contestants, what becomes of the man who has no equal? If one is the best, then what is left to envy? Nietzsche relates a cautionary tale of the great fighter Miletus whose success at the battle of Marathon left him without a mortal equal. Lacking an equal on Earth, Miletus inspired the envy of the gods, who seduced him to commit an act of hubris from which he met his fate. The tale suggests that without competition and lacking an outlet to discharge his strength, Miletus is consumed by his power, leading him to commit immoral acts that bring him dishonourable execution.
Interestingly, the Greeks had a solution for an overabundance of power. Ostracism was instrumental in redistributing power among the citizens. Anyone who had become too powerful would be ostracized, and competition would spike as contestants vied for a new pecking order. Nietzsche states that one “removes individuals who tower over the others only to awaken the play of powers” (Nietzsche, 1879/1996). Thus, ostracism kept competition from stagnating by cutting off the head of the organizational chart, creating a vacuum for others to flourish.
The progress and growth in western countries like Canada and the U.S.A. are a direct result of competing individuals making concerted efforts to outdo each other. However, it is vital to note that the ancient Greeks sought to curb excess power in the strongest to elevate competition through ostracism. Despite these mechanisms, power finds a way of congregating in the few, which eventually leads to a cataclysmic fall, not unlike Miletus’s. This is a dire warning to all who “through merit and fortune . . . arrive at the temple of Nike” (Nietzsche, 1879/1996). While we have inherited much from the Greeks, democracy, philosophy, beauty; the agonal spirit that permeated the citizenry of ancient Greece, I believe, is their greatest contribution to western civilization.
Acampora, C.D. (2013). Contesting Nietzsche. Univ of Chicago Press.
Aristotle. (1985). Nicomachean Ethics. (T. Irwin, Trans.). Hackett Publishing Company.
Aristotle. (2004). Rhetoric. (W. R. Roberts, Trans.). Dover Publications.
Daqing, W. (2010). On the ancient Greek αγων. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2(5), 6805–6812. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2010.05.031
Hesiod. (1988). Theogony: Works and days: Translated with an introduction and notes by M.L. West. (M. L. West, Trans.). Oxford U.P.
Joho, T. (2020). Burckhardt and Nietzsche on the Agōn: the dark luster of ancient Greece. In H. L. R. L. Reid, J. Serrati, & T. Sorg (Eds.), Conflict and competition: Agon in Western Greece: Selected essays from the 2019 symposium on the heritage of Western Greece (pp. 267-288). essay, Parnassos Press – Fonte Aretusa.
Nietzsche, F. (1996). Nietzscheana #5: Homer’s Contest. (C.D. Acampora, Trans.). North American Nietzsche Society. (Original work published 1879) Retrieved December 13, 2022, from http://www.northamericannietzschesociety.com/uploads/7/3/2/5/73251013/nietzscheana5.pdf