“We must rebuke not only those sophists but also those who promise to teach political oratory—for these guys don’t care at all about the truth but instead think that it is an art because they get the greatest number of students thanks to the small size of their fee and the greatness of their pronouncements and then they get something from them.
They are so imperceptive and imagine everyone else to be that even though they write speeches worse than some of the untrained masses compose, they still guarantee that they will make their students the kinds of politicians who never leave out any of the possibilities in a matter.
Even worse, they don’t derive any of that power from their experiences or the talent of a student, but they say that they can train the knowledge of speaking as they would basic literacy—in reality, each of them believe that because of the insanity of their promises they will be objects of wonder and that people will think that training in their discipline is worth more than it is. In this, they have not even considered that the people who make arts great are not those who dare to boast about them, but those who have the ability to discover what the power of each art is on its own.”
de Ingenuis Moribus et Liberalibus Adulescentiae Studiis (§2):
“Anyone is allowed by law to change their name (as long as it does not involve fraud) or to move their home. But if someone is not trained in the liberal arts from youth, or if they be infected by corrupt methods of education, they may not entertain the hope of easily casting aside the bad lessons or learning the good ones straightaway. Therefore, we ought to lay the foundations of living well and form the mind for virtue at an early age, when it is soft and ready easily to admit any impression whatsoever. For whatever form the mind takes now will be preserved through the rest of life.”
Nam et mutare sibi nomen, dum id sine fraude fiat, unicuique per leges licet et transferre, quando libeat, domicilium nemo prohibetur. Artibus vero bonis, nisi quis ab adulescentia fuerit institutus aut si perversis infectus exstiterit, non facile de se speret in aetate provectiori posse aut has abicere aut illas continuo sibi parare. Iacienda sunt igitur in hac aetate fundamenta bene vivendi et conformandus ad virtutem animus, dum tener est et facilis quamlibet impressionem admittere: quae ut nunc erit, ita et in reliqua vita servabitur.
“I have no doubt that our state is looking at war. This affair has been managed with a man’s bravery and a child’s planning. Can’t everyone see that a king was removed but his heir was left on the throne?
What is more ridiculous? To fear this but not to consider that a risk at all! There is still in this moment much which is crooked. That the house of Pontius near Naples is held by the mother of that tyrannicide! Oh!
I should read the “Cato the Elder” I made for you more often. Old age is making me rather cranky. I am annoyed by everything. But, certainly, I have lived. Let the young men see to these things. You will care for my affairs as you do.”
Mihi autem non est dubium quin res spectet ad castra. acta enim illa res est animo virili, consilio puerili. quis enim hoc non vidit, <regem sublatum>,2 regni heredem relictum? quid autem absurdius? ‘hoc metuere, alterum in metu non ponere!’ quin etiam hoc ipso tempore multa ὑποσóλοικα. Ponti Neapolitanum a matre tyrannoctoni possideri! legendus mihi saepius est ‘Cato maior’ ad te missus. amariorem enim me senectus facit. stomachor omnia. sed mihi quidem βεβíωται; viderint iuvenes. tu mea curabis, ut curas.
“Certainly, while you may introduce a probable case, when those who are educated will prefer to read in Greek and those who do not understand will fail to read these things too, tell me, do you make your case enough? The fact is that those who could not read Greek and those who can will not dismiss the works of their own language. Truly, why would educated Greeks read Latin poets but not read Latin philosophers?
Perhaps it is because Ennius, Pacuvius, Attius and many others delight them because they have conveyed not the words of the Greeks but their power? How much more will philosophers please them, if they imitate Plato, Aristotle and Theophrastus the way our poets have Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides? I notice that some of our orators who have followed Hyperides and Demosthenes are praised for it.”
Causam autem probabilem tu quidem adfers, aut enim Graeca legere malent qui erunt eruditi, aut ne haec quidem qui illa nesciunt; sed da mihi nunc—satisne probas? Immo vero et haec qui illa non poterunt et qui Graeca poterunt non contemnent sua. Quid enim causae est cur poëtas Latinos Graecis litteris eruditi legant, philosophos non legant? An quia delectat Ennius, Pacuvius, Attius, multi alii, qui non verba sed vim Graecorum expresserunt poëtarum? Quanto magis philosophi delectabunt, si, ut illi Aeschylum, Sophoclem, Euripidem, sic hi Platonem imitentur, Aristotelem, Theophrastum? Oratores quidem laudari video, si qui e nostris Hyperidem sint aut Demosthenem imitati.
“These kind of things belong to poets; we, moreover, want to be philosophers, masters of facts not fables. And yet, these gods of poetry, if they know that these things would be ruinous for their children, would be considered to have sinned in conferring a favor.
It is just as if, according to that thing which Aristo of Chios used to say, that philosophers hurt their audiences when the things they say well are interpreted badly (for it was possible still to leave Aristippus’ school as a profligate or Zeno’s school bitter and angry).
If it is this way, and those who have heard them leave with twisted minds because they understand the philosophers’ arguments incorrectly, then it befits philosophers more to be quiet than cause their audiences harm. In this way, if people pervert the capacity for reason which was given by the gods to provide good council and used it instead for fraud and harm, then it would have been better if it had not been given to the human race at all.”
Poetarum ista sunt, nos autem philosophi esse volumus, rerum auctores, non fabularum. Atque hi tamen ipsi di poetici si scissent perniciosa fore illa filiis, peccasse in beneficio putarentur. Ut si verum est quod Aristo Chius dicere solebat, nocere audientibus philosophos iis qui bene dicta male interpretarentur (posse enim asotos ex Aristippi, acerbos e Zenonis schola exire), prorsus, si qui audierunt vitiosi essent discessuri quod perverse philosophorum disputationem interpretarentur, tacere praestaret philosophos quam iis qui se audissent nocere: sic, si homines rationem bono consilio a dis immortalibus datam in fraudem malitiamque convertunt, non dari illam quam dari humano generi melius fuit. Ut, si medicus sciat eum aegrotum qui iussus sit vinum sumere meracius sumpturum statimque periturum, magna sit in culpa, sic vestra ista providentia reprehendenda, quae rationem dederit
Internet pugilists take the following things very, very seriously. Form triumphs over content!
“But, just as two men strive over boundary stones,
As they hold their yardsticks in hand in a shared field
and they struggle over a fair share of the limited earth,
So did the fortifications separate them.
But over them still they struck one another
On their oxhide circles and winged shields.”
As some already know, I am a Homerist by practice and training, which means I have spent the better part of the past 20 years, reading, thinking, and writing about the Homeric epics. After all this, I am still regularly surprised by how much I don’t understand and often shocked by the fact that I have spent so many years doing just this, re-reading, being surprised, and then trying to learn something new.
The truth is, there was a time when I had little regard for the Homeric epics. I started reading them because I wanted to understand the ‘literature’ that followed them. About the same time I started reading Homer in the original, which was transformative on its own, I read both epics again in translation. The oceanic gap between the experience of the Greek and the translations rattled my confidence in my own aesthetic judgments (and in the act of translation).
But the difference between Homeric phraseology and Vergil (the Latin author with whom I had the most familiarity at the time) was striking: nearly every line of Homer is a self-contained unit of sense. Rather than being hypotactic (subordinating and delaying meaning), Homeric poetry is paratactic, building by adding. It is useful to know the language and stories of the Iliad before you start reading; but it is not necessary for enjoyment: the epic constructs itself in front of you as it tells its tale.
The simile above is one of the first things that I carried around with me everyday once I started reading Homeric Greek (I eventually made investigating it into a senior thesis). It is such a small, nearly forgettable moment. But its simplicity belies a compact and complex representation of the way Homeric poetry works and why it still matters.
In the middle of the battle over the walls the Greek have constructed against the resurgent Trojan defenders, the warring sides are compared to two men fighting over measuring their share of a common field. Even to this day, this comparison seems so disarmingly true as it reduces the grand themes of the struggles between Trojans and Greek, Agamemnon and Achilles, to that of two men over shared resources. The Iliad, at one level, is all about scarcity: scarcity of goods, of women, of honor, of life-time, and, ultimately, the scarcity of fame.
This simile works through metonymy to represent not just the action on the field of battle at this moment, but the conditions that prompt the greater conflict and those that constrain human life. It leaps through time and space and indicates how this poem differs from simple myths. The normal mortals who love this poem aren’t kings or demigods; we live small, sometimes desperate lives, the conditions of which are improved or exacerbated by how well we work together to make fair shares of our public goods.
The scholiast’s comments above, then, are doubly laughable. If I am reading them right (and the verb καταφρονοῦσιν without an object can be annoying), the commentator is imagining that these men in the simile are struggling over this small bit of land because they are poor and that wealthier men would not bother. Not only is this a tragic misunderstanding of human nature (wait tables or tend bar for only a few weeks and you will discover that the good tippers are not the wealthiest ones), but it is a poor reading of the epic, where the wealthiest and most powerful men alive are more than happy to keep fighting and ensuring that their people die.
The point of the simile is that it provides a meeting point between the actors of the poem and the worlds of the audiences; the line that separates imaginative story in the audience’s minds from the lives they live becomes permeable and the hero meets the mortal in the shared experience. This is how the world becomes a part of the story and how it also shapes the poem.
Right after this, there’s another simile.
“Many were struck across their flesh by pitiless bronze
Whenever they turned and bared their backs
As they struggled, although many were also struck through their shields.
The towers and walls were decorated everywhere with the blood
Of men from both sides, from Trojans and Achaeans.
Yet, they still could not force the Achaians to flee—
No, it held as when an honest weaving woman holds
The balance and draws out the weight and the wool on both sides
to make them equal so she might earn some wretched wage for her children.
So the battle and the war was stretched even on each side
Until Zeus gave the glory over to Hektor
Priam’s son, who first broke through the wall of the Achaeans.”
“The equal balance of those fighting, [Homer] compared to the beam of a loom, again. For nothing is so precisely similar to an even balance. And the one weighing this out is not the mistress of the household—for she does not often trouble this much for so small an equal bit—nor is it one of the household maids—for they would not seek to make so precise a measure since they are fed by the household’s master and do not risk their nourishment if they mess up on the loom weights—but it is a woman for hire who must provide what is needed for living by the effort of her hands.”
This passage has long moved me too because, as with the earlier simile, the great ‘epic’ themes and images of war were reduced to something simple, daily, and completely understandable. Even in the ancient world where many members of the audiences probably had considerably more experience of violence than we do and where most aristocratic audience members would certainly have nothing but contempt for working for a living, many probably heard a crucial echo of their own lives in this surprising comparison.
I also appreciate the way that the scholiasts here home in on how dire this woman’s position is, making the dubious but nonetheless striking claim that the household servants led less precarious lives than the woman of the simile who draws the weight so precisely because her pay—and the lives of her children—depend upon it. In a crucial way, this simile evokes the same sense of scarcity as that of the men on the field—but it adds that an all too familiar anxiety from the precarity that emerges when one lives constantly with the sense of how scarce those things we value are.
Indeed, the scarcity and precarity evoked by this simile and the one that precedes it extends the transitional moment begun with the image of the farmers to create anticipatory tension in the audience. At the epic’s middle, before we move from book 12 to 13 and to the slaughter of the Achaeans at the ships, the balance hangs ever briefly before it breaks. Hektor surges through the Achaean fortification: the balance of action fails just as the balance of the plot will too—the story of Achilles’ withdrawal will now translate into the slaughter he asked Zeus to precipitate leading to the death of Patroklos, Hektor and, ultimately, Achilles too.
These similes stand at the middle of the poem and convey the sense of tension at the passing of this moment and the spinning of the tale itself. The nameless men and the nameless woman stand in contrast to the named heroes who will suffer and die in the following books. But they are also vehicles moving between the lives of the audiences and the heroes’ deeds marking off the small stakes for which all are struggling and the limited life by which we are all constrained.