Heidegger’s Sojourns: Pindar and the Possibility of Political Philosophy

Heidegger quotes Pindar’s Olympian Ode to comment on his own experience of Olympia:

Water is preeminent and gold, like a fire
Burning in the night, outshines
All possessions that magnify men’s souls.
But if, my soul, you yearn
To celebrate great games,
Look no further
For another star
Shining through the deserted ether
Brighter than the sun, or for a contest
Mightier than Olympia
Where the song
Has taken its coronal
Design of glory…

(Sojourns 15)

The excerpt is inescapably political. It was meant to celebrate Hiero of Syracuse’s victory in the Olympics. This same Hiero was a tyrant depicted by Xenophon as an immoderate buffoon; he is implicitly chastised in the Hiero for competing against those he ruled in races.

Heidegger must be aware of some of the political implications of the passage. We know Olympia (the Olympics) is itself the song of the poem from a prior thought of Heidegger’s:

…the games themselves and the proximity of the gods that is preserved in them – what would all these be without the song that praises, without the word which first, through the vibrating-articulated tone, reveals and veils that which has been here? (14-15)

The games are brought about by the song of “praise,” the end of the games. That song is the word, the poem. “Vibrating-articulated:” word is distinct even in the flux of becoming. “Reveals and veils:” the song of praise reveals, as it shows one as he is truly. But songs can also be nomoi, as Plato’s Laws continually joke. Nomoi are laws (Gk. nomos – convention). The word also means “melodies” when an emphasis is placed on the other syllable.

The Olympics are not only a pan-Greek institution. As they are a “song,” perhaps Pindar’s poem itself, they have a “coronal design of glory.” This is the design, that which we see as simply best, worthy of rule. This is the cosmos (Gk. kosmos – order, ornament; what is fitting). The song establishes Olympia as brightness. That brightness is the fire, the Promethean gift of techne (art/technology).

The “design,” I submit, is politics. Conventionality imposes order on the chaos and allows the arts to prosper. Now how aware is Heidegger of any of this? I suspect he knows Hiero to be a tyrant, but looks at that irony as alluding to Oedipus and the tragedy of politics itself. I do think, given the sharp comments against modernity’s technical orientation earlier in the book, that there is a religion-politics-nature mixture he sees as giving birth to the arts as opposed to any particular reward. By extension, modern democracy may be problematic, as it goes hand-in-hand with more exploitative processes.

Still, Heidegger does keep an explicit focus on the poetic (Gk. poesis – making). His prose following the Pindar quote:

The withered beauty of the festival in this place has concealed itself from us. It lingered, however, as an immediate present [Gegenwart] in the creations and the figures stored in the Museum of Olympia which was established with great knowledge and care. Before that, however, we rested for the noon in the high grass under aged trees near the Altis, as butterflies were playing over us making the stillness more intense – a dim sign of Pan’s hour. (16)

Techne and Dasein (“being the open”) allow the “creations and figures” of the past to become “an immediate present.” The natural stillness before this encounter was, as a matter of course, more intense. Nature is a striving for a thing to achieve its being. The distance of the outdoor beauty prefigured the inevitable con-frontation of past meeting present for the sake of a future understanding.

Note: I am not in the business of translating Pindar, who has a very wide vocabulary. I bring forth more typical Greek philosophical vocabulary to make metaphorical matters clearer.


Heidegger, Martin. Sojourns: The Journey to Greece. trans. Manoussakis. Albany: SUNY, 2005.


  1. Quote from John dickerson’s analysis of the recent debate:


    “Discussing the individual mandate, CNN’s Blitzer asked Paul a hypothetical question about a young man without insurance who is severely injured and requires hospitalization for six months. Who would pay for his care? Should society “just let him die?” “Yes,” came a few calls from the crowd. It was chilling. Paul said charities would pick up the tab as they did when he was first practiced medicine, in the pre-Medicare era. The macabre audience response wasn’t the first. At the last GOP debate, the mention of Texas’ more than 200 executions drew cheers. There are five more debates scheduled for this year. At this rate, they should schedule one for Halloween.”

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