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Must…build…bridges! The Moral of Classical Greek δεῖ and χρή

Christine Bartels
Wed February 21st 2024, 3:30 - 4:50pm
Margaret Jacks Hall, Greenberg Room (Room 126)

The early to mid-20th century saw a debate in Classics circles on the difference in meaning between the impersonal Greek verbs δεῖ and χρή (both: ‘it is necessary that …’), as used by e.g. the Classical tragedians and Plato. The debate drew its heat (by disciplinary standards) from firm opinions to the effect that one of these near-synonyms, unlike the other, invoked the “moral” realm proper – the trouble being that there were proponents on both sides. Unsurprisingly, the debate fizzled out without conclusion. From today’s perspective it seems rather obvious that (a) “morality” as defined by 20th c. philologists is unlikely to coincide with “morality” in any social stratum of Classical Greece, and (b) however defined, “moral” is not likely to have found its way into the core lexical properties of an abstract modal expression. Interestingly, though, there are distributional differences between δεῖ and χρή – noted by some, but not deeply understood at the time – that can be described in grammatical terms alone and, from today’s vantage point, are suggestive of abstract semantic contrasts familiar from extant languages. These contrasts, in turn, might (a very cautious ‘might’!) tell us something about specific connotations one or the other Greek author meant to evoke in what we might call a “moral” context. In short, there is an opportunity here for theoretical linguists to demonstrate, by way of a case study, how their tools could contribute to interpretive discussion of Classical texts.

It turns out that there are not one but two promising lines of semantic analysis for the difference between δεῖ and χρή, eachinvolving established notions. My goal in presenting these in Greenberg, as opposed to Bldg. 110, is to pick my audience’s brains not least on the relationship between these two approaches, which is not an established topic. Outsiders are likely to ask which are the primary and which the derived linguistic observations and concepts. There may not be a good answer to this, but it is a question worth pondering.