Agonistes Prize

Dear Friend of Colonus:

When I founded this press in 2009, I chose the name Colonus from Sophocles’ play, Oedipus at Colonus. Colonus was that sanctuary on a hill just outside of Athens where Oedipus, having endured a lifetime of revilement at the hands of his fellow Thebans for the crimes of patricide and incest, finally found sanctuary under the protection of the Athenian king, Theseus, and was granted his release by the gods in an apotheosis.

I had read the Theban plays many years ago in college, and the line to which my memory had always clung was: “One must wait until the night to see how beautiful the day has been.” I was sure this line had been spoken by the chorus in the Oedipus at Colonus and I had planned to use it to inaugurate my new press on its first home page (which has subsequently changed)—the idea being that Colonus Publishing would be a respite for writer and reader alike, a place of looking back on our lives from the vantage point of hard experience.

But when I began to research in the literature that apt metaphor for the need to view life from a very tough place—I could not find it. I re-read the Oedipus at Colonus several times, and the words were nowhere to be found—not in the chorus, not anywhere. Perhaps, I thought, my memory was mistaken. I re-read the Antigone. The words were not there, nor were they in the Oedipus Rex, either. When I turned to the Google machine, the version of the saying that leapt out at me from the Internet was: “One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.” And the saying was to my surprise almost universally attributed to President Nixon.

Well, I said to myself, I guess this makes sense. The saying seems so properly “Greek,” so obviously ancient and tragic. During the Vietnam War Garry Wills even wrote a book, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man, which had that very Oedipus Rex feel to it.

The Googled, popular perception is that Nixon made this remark upon his resignation in his farewell speech. Sometimes the popular perception works fine for me. I had no doubt that just before Nixon stepped into the helicopter on the lawn of the White House in August of 1974, he turned to face the crowd, and quoted Sophocles while waving his wooden double V for victory.

As I continued researching and writing the material for the Colonus Publishing, Inc., Web site, the saying, as I had found it on the Internet, didn’t sound quite right to me. It didn’t sound exactly Sophoclean, did not have that stark clarity that one would expect from Sophocles. In any case, I wanted to see for myself what word Sophocles had used for splendid, whether it was  aglaos, klutos, or perhaps phaeinos or kalos. I wanted to know what word he had used for day, whether it was hêmera or one of a number of metaphorical expressions involving light. I wondered if he’d really used hespera for evening, if perhaps he had not used nux for night.

I wanted to find the original Greek. I didn’t trust, at the time, a writer whom I thought to be one of Richard Nixon’s speechwriters. Last spring I contacted an old classmate of mine who teaches Greek at Wabash College, and asked him if he could find the source of the saying. He thought it would be easy enough. “It sounds familiar,” he said. But in the end, even he gave up and left to summer in Greece.

In The American Presidency Project of the University of California at Santa Barbara, I eventually found Nixon’s actual remark where he quoted Sophocles. It was in June of 1971, and in an address to a convention of retired people he attributed Sophocles’ saying to a conversation with Charles de Gaulle in 1963. Nixon had just lost the gubernatorial election in California, and he described to the retired gathering how de Gaulle had alluded to Sophocles to comfort him.

But to know that de Gaulle was a big fan of Sophocles has put me no closer to the original source of Sophocles’ remark. My search has merely unearthed the information that if you’re in a state park in California (you can check CA.GOV for this), California insists that you attribute authorship to Will Rogers. So, until I can ascertain the ownership of this saying so variously attributed, I am happy with my version. I find evening to be mushy, think that “night” strikes a Sophoclean clarity against the day. And splendid, I think, has too much of “distinguished” in it. Until I find the original Greek, I think Sophocles would have used a word to describe the day that connotes beauty.

My search through the speeches of Richard Nixon for this saying of Sophocles has given me the idea for the Agonistes Prize. Colonus Publishing, Inc., intends to award a prize in the amount of five hundred dollars for an essay about Richard Nixon as a Greek tragic hero.

View Agonistes Rules

Rich Skalstad
Editor, Colonus Publishing, Inc.