Leaving Life From an Inn, Not a Home

Cicero De Senectute, 84

“Even if some god should permit that I would return to the time of my birth from this age, I would sternly refuse–for, truly, I do not wish to restart as if to retrace a race run from the finish line to the starting post.

What attraction does life have? Or, rather, what labor does it lack? Let it have clear charm–even still, it must have either satiety or a conclusion. It is not my purpose to deplore life as many–even learned men–have often done. And I do not regret that I have lived, because I lived in a such a way that I do not believe I was pointlessly born.  And I am leaving life as if from an inn, not a home. For nature has given us a way-station for a brief delay, not to permanently reside.”

Et si quis deus mihi largiatur ut ex hac aetate repuerascam et in cunis vagiam, valde recusem, nec vero velim quasi decurso spatio ad carceres a calce revocari. Quid habet enim vita commodi? Quid non potius laboris? Sed habeat sane; habet certe tamen aut satietatem aut modum. Non libet enim mihi deplorare vitam, quod multi et ei docti saepe fecerunt, neque me vixisse paenitet, quoniam ita vixi, ut non frustra me natum existimem, et ex vita ita discedo tamquam ex hospitio, non tamquam e domo; commorandi enim natura divorsorium nobis, non habitandi dedit.

This last bit made me think of Lucretius:

De Rerum Natura, 3.970-971

“Thus one thing never ceases to arise from another,
and life is given to no one for ownership, but to all for rent.”

sic aliud ex alio numquam desistet oriri
vitaque mancipio nulli datur, omnibus usu

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Weekend Plans with Alcaeus

Alcaeus, Fr. 38A (P. Oxy. 1233 fr. 1 ii 8–20 + 2166(b)1)

“Drink and get drunk with me, Melanippos.
Why would you say that once you cross the great eddying
River of Acheron you will see the pure light of the sun again?
Come on, don’t hope for great things.

For even the son of Aiolos, Sisyphos used to claim
He was better than death because he knew the most of men.
Even though he was so very wise, he crossed
The eddying river Acheron twice thanks to fate
And Kronos’ son granted that he would have toil
Beneath the dark earth. So don’t hope for these things.

As long as we are young, now is the time we must
Endure whatever of these things the god soon grants us to suffer.”

πῶνε [καὶ μέθυ᾿ ὦ] Μελάνιππ᾿ ἄμ᾿ ἔμοι· τί [φαῖς †
ὄταμε[. . . .]διννάεντ᾿ † Ἀχέροντα μέγ[αν πόρον
ζάβαι[ς ἀ]ελίω κόθαρον φάος [ἄψερον
ὄψεσθ᾿; ἀλλ᾿ ἄγι μὴ μεγάλων ἐπ[ιβάλλεο·
καὶ γὰρ Σίσυφος Αἰολίδαις βασίλευς [ἔφα
ἄνδρων πλεῖστα νοησάμενος [θανάτω κρέτην·
ἀλλὰ καὶ πολύιδρις ἔων ὐπὰ κᾶρι [δὶς
δ̣ιννάεντ᾿ Ἀχέροντ᾿ ἐπέραισε, μ[έμηδε δ᾿ ὦν
αὔτῳ μόχθον ἔχην Κρονίδαις βα [σίλευς κάτω
ελαίνας χθόνος· ἀλλ᾿ ἄγι μὴ τά[δ᾿ ἐπέλπεο·
θᾶς] τ᾿ ἀβάσομεν αἴ ποτα κἄλλοτα ν [ῦν χρέων
φέρ]ην ὄττινα τῶνδε πάθην τά[χα δῷ θέος.

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Dante Being rowed across Acheron, 5th c, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 6r. B.L.

Some of us can’t say this any more…

Don’t Blackmail Sick People for Money, A Healthcare Plan

Corpus Hippocratica, Precepts 4.10

“The way you address a patient requires some kind of a theory too. For, if you begin talking about payment, then something else occurs in every situation. You will leave the sick person with the kind of impression that you will abandon him and leave if there is no agreement and that you don’t care and you will not apply any relief in the present.

Therefore, you should not make an issue about payment. For we believe that this kind of thought is harmful when someone is sick, and even more so if the sickness is intense. For the swiftness of a sickness which does not provide ample time for changing your mind urges the one who practices medicine well not to seek profit but to think more of reputation. It is, therefore, better to rebuke patients who have been saved rather than to blackmail those who are facing ruin.”

παραινέσιος δ’ ἂν καὶ τοῦτ’ ἐπιδεηθείη τῆς θεωρίης· εἰ γὰρ ἄρξαιο περὶ μισθαρίων· ξυμβάλλει γάρ τι καὶ τῷ ξύμπαντι· τῷ μὲν ἀλγέοντι τοιαύτην διανόησιν ἐμποιήσεις τὴν, ὅτι [οὐκ] ἀπολιπὼν αὐτὸν πορεύσῃ μὴ ξυνθέμενος, καὶ ὅτι ἀμελήσεις, καὶ οὐχ ὑποθήσῃ τινὰ τῷ παρεόντι. ἐπιμελεῖσθαι οὖν οὐ δεῖ περὶ στάσιος μισθοῦ· ἄχρηστον γὰρ ἡγεύμεθα ἐνθύμησιν ὀχλεομένου τὴν τοιαύτην, πουλὺ δὲ μᾶλλον, ἢν ὀξὺ νόσημά τι· νούσου γὰρ ταχυτὴς καιρὸν μὴ διδοῦσα ἐς ἀναστροφὴν οὐκ ἐποτρύνει τὸν καλῶς ἰητρεύοντα ζητεῖν τὸ λυσιτελές, ἔχεσθαι δὲ δόξης μᾶλλον· κρέσσον οὖν σωζομένοισιν ὀνειδίζειν ἢ ὀλεθρίως ἔχοντας προμύσσειν.

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Murderous Odysseus and His Murderous Sons

Joannes Malalas, Chronographia, 5.21 6-7 (=Diktys BNJ 49 F 10)

“Some time passed and Odysseus began to see dreams which told of his death. After he woke, he summoned everyone who had experience in interpreting dreams—among whom was Kleitophon of Ithaka and Polyphemos of Argos. He told the dream to them and said what he thought:

“I was not lying on my own bed but instead there was a beautiful and frightening divine creature which could not keep the shape of a grown man. I saw it happily. But I was also disoriented by it. That bed from which it took life was no longer obvious to me from my familiarity with it or by knowledge. Therefore, once I recognized this, I wanted to throw my arms around it eagerly. But it spoke using a human voice and said there was a connection and binding of relationship between us and that it was my fate to be destroyed by him. As I was thinking about this a sudden stab came at me from the sea, targeted at me by his order. I became paralyzed by my great panic and I died shortly. These are the things I saw and you need to fear nothing when you offer me an interpretation. I know well that the vision is not a good one.

Then those who were there were examining the interpretation and they said that Telemachus should not be there. When he left, they said that Odysseus would be struck by his own child and die. He immediately rushed toward Telemachus because he wanted to kill him. But when he saw his son crying and begging him and he returned to a paternal mindset, he decided to have his son sent away and he ordered him to guard himself. Then he himself returned to the farthest part of Kephalenia, believing he would protect himself from fear of death.”

6 χρόνου δὲ διεληλυθότος ὁρᾶι ᾽Οδυσσεὺς ἐνύπνια τὴν αὐτοῦ τελευτὴν σημαίνοντα· καὶ διυπνισθεὶς συγκαλεῖ πάντας τοὺς πεῖραν ἔχοντας, ὅπως διακρίνωσι τὰ ὀνείρατα, ὧν ἦν καὶ Κλειτοφῶν ὁ ᾽Ιθακήσιος καὶ ὁ Ἀργεῖος Πολύφημος. τούτοις ἀπαγγέλλει τὸ ὄναρ καί φησι νομίζειν ῾μὴ ἐπὶ τῆς ἰδίας εὐνῆς με κατακεῖσθαι, <ἦν δὲ> εὐμορφόν τι καὶ φοβερὸν ζῶον θεοειδές, οὐκ ἀνθρώπου τελείου σχῆμα σώζειν δυνάμενον, ὅπερ ἑώρων ἡδέως· καὶ εἶχον αὐτοῦ δυσνοήτως. τὸ δὲ λέχος ἐκεῖνο ὅθεν ἐζωογονήθη οὐκ ἦν μοι φανερὸν οὐτε τῆι συνηθείαι τῆι ἐμῆι οὐτε τῆι γνώσει. γνοὺς οὖν ἠβουλήθη<ν> τὰς χεῖρας αὐτῶι περιπλέξαι σπουδαίως· τὸ δὲ ἀνθρωπίνηι φωνῆι χρηματισάμενον ἔφη θεσμὸν εἶναι καὶ σύνδεσμον οἰκειότητος ἀμφοτέρων ἡμῶν, καὶ εἱμαρμένον εἶναι ὑπ᾽ ἐκείνου με ἀφανισθῆναι. ἐμφροντίστως δέ μου ἔχοντος περὶ αὐτοῦ αἰφνίδιόν τι κέντρον ἐκ τῆς θαλάσσης ὑπὸ τῆς ἐκείνου ἐπιταγῆς ἀοράτως ἀναδειχθὲν ἐπ᾽ ἐμὲ ἦλθεν· ἐγὼ δὲ ὑπὸ πολλῆς ἐκπλήξεως ἐγενόμην ἀδρανής, καὶ μετ᾽ ὀλίγον ἔθανον. ταῦτά ἐστιν ἅπερ ἐθεασάμην· ὑμεῖς δὲ διακρίνατε μηδὲν δεδιότες· ἐπίσταμαι γὰρ ὡς οὐκ αἴσιον τὸ ὅραμα.

7 οἱ δὲ καθ᾽ ἑαυτοὺς γενόμενοι ἐσκόπουν τὴν διήγησιν καὶ ἔφασαν ἵνα ἐκ ποδῶν γένηται ὁ Τηλέμαχος· τοῦ δὲ ὑποχωρήσαντος ἔφησαν ὑπὸ ἰδίου παιδὸς πληγέντα τελευτήσειν. ὁ δὲ εὐθὺς ὥρμησεν ἐπὶ τὸν Τηλέμαχον ἀνελεῖν αὐτὸν βουλόμενος. θεασάμενος δὲ τὸν υἱὸν δακρύοντα καὶ δεόμενον, εἰς ἔννοιαν πατρικὴν ἐλθών, προέκρινεν ἀφεῖναι τὸν παῖδα, ἐκέλευσε δὲ αὐτὸν φυλάττεσθαι· εἶτα μετώικισεν αὑτὸν εἰς τὰ ἔσχατα τῆς Κεφαληνίας χωρία, ῥυσάμενος αὑτὸν τῆς ὑπονοίας τοῦ θανάτου.

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The Twit-Ostracism: Another Proposal To Fix Twitter

I was chatting with Sarah E. Bond online the other day and casually mentioned that I wished were could ostracize someone from Twitter who was playing the part of a braying ass (she suggested a time-out). Sarah suggested this was eminently tweetable material. And I tweet I did. But, I went a bit further. This is not quite as severe as my phallometric rating suggestion, but it started a conversation of sorts….(and continues a bit of musing about ancient governing institutions which might be useful today).

Philochorus, FGrH 328 Fragment 30

“The procedure of Ostracism. In his third book, Philokhoros explains the ostracism process when he writes this: “ Ostracism is like this: the people vote in advance of the eighth Prytany whether it seems best to make an ostrakon vote or not. When it seemed right, then the Agora was defended with planks and ten entrances were left through which the people would come and cast their ostraka [votes] entering in their tribal groups and keeping the inscriptions facing the ground. The nine archons were in charge with the boulê. Once the ostraca were counted, whoever had the most—provided the total was not under six thousand—had to handle his business and make arrangements over private affairs before in ten days and then to leave the city for ten years (later it was five). The exile had use of his own property, but was not permitted to cross the boundary within Geraistos, the promontory of Euboea.

The only person who was ostracized of regular people for his wickedness and not for pursuing a tyranny, was Hyperbolos. After him, the custom was ended, and it began when Kleisthenes established it as a practice when he expelled the tyrants so that he could exile their friends too.”

Lexicon Rhetoricum Cantabrigiense, – ᾽Οστρακισμοῦ τρόπος

ὀστρακισμοῦ τρόπος· Φιλόχορος ἐκτίθεται τὸν ὀστρακισμὸν ἐν τῆι τρίτηι γράφων οὕτω·

«ὁ δὲ ὀστρα[κισμὸς τοιοῦτος]· προεχειροτόνει μὲν ὁ δῆμος πρὸ τῆς ὀγδόης πρυτανείας, εἰ δοκεῖ τὸ ὄστρακον εἰσφέρειν. ὅτε δ᾽ ἐδόκει, ἐφράσσετο σανίσιν ἡ ἀγορά, καὶ κατελείποντο εἴσοδοι δέκα, δι᾽ ὧν εἰσιόντες κατὰ φυλὰς ἐτίθεσαν τὰ ὄστρακα, στρέφοντες τὴν ἐπιγραφήν· ἐπεστάτουν δὲ οἵ τε ἐννέα ἄρχοντες καὶ ἡ βουλή. διαριθμηθέντων δὲ ὅτωι πλεῖστα γένοιτο καὶ μὴ ἐλάττω ἑξακισχιλίων, τοῦτον ἔδει τὰ δίκαια δόντα καὶ λαβόντα ὑπὲρ τῶν ἰδίων συναλλαγμάτων ἐν δέκα ἡμέραις μεταστῆναι τῆς πόλεως ἔτη δέκα (ὕστερον δὲ ἐγένοντο πέντε), καρπούμενον τὰ ἑαυτοῦ, μὴ ἐπιβαίνοντα ἐντὸς Γεραιστοῦ τοῦ Εὐβοίας ἀκρωτηρίου».

*** μόνος δὲ Υπέβολος ἐκ τῶν ἀδόξων ἐξωστρακίσθη διὰ μοχθηρίαν τρόπων, οὐ δι᾽ ὑποψίαν τυραννίδος· μετὰ τοῦτον δὲ κατελύθη τὸ ἔθος, ἀρξάμενον νομοθετήσαντος Κλεισθένους, ὅτε τοὺς τυράννους κατέλυσεν, ὅπως συνεκβάλοι καὶ τοὺς φίλους αὐτῶν.

twitostracon 2

twitostracon 1

There were many responses. Here are some:

Know the Present to Teach the Past

Thomas Arnold, The Use of the Classics:

“All this supposes, indeed, that classical instruction should be sensibly conducted ; it requires that a classical teacher should be fully acquainted with modern history and modern literature, no less than with those of Greece and Rome. What is, or perhaps what used to be, called a mere scholar, cannot possibly communicate to his pupils the main advantages of a classical education. The knowledge of the past is valuable, because without it our knowledge of the present and of the future must be scanty; but if the knowledge of the past be confined wholly to itself; if, instead of being made to bear upon things around us, it be totally isolated from them, and so disguised by vagueness and misapprehension as to appear incapable of illustrating them, then indeed it becomes little better than laborious trifling, and they who declaim against it may be fully forgiven.”

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Merely Playing with Words: Learning For School Not for Life

Seneca, Moral Epistle 106.11-12

“In sum, whatever we do we are compelled to do by either malice or virtue. What controls a body, is corporeal; what gives force to a body is a body. The good of a body is corporeal good; the good of a person is the good of a body—therefore it too is corporeal.

Since I have pursued this custom as you wanted, now I myself will say what I expect you to say: “we have been playing games!” Our wit is worn thing by silly things—they make us learned but not good. To be wise is a more obvious matter—it is much better to use literature to improve the mind, but we waste the rest of our time in empty matters, and so we waste philosophy itself. Just as in all things, so too we labor excessively over literature. We learn not for life but for school. Goodbye.”

Denique quidquid facimus, aut malitiae aut virtutis gerimus imperio. Quod imperat corpori, corpus est, quod vim corpori adfert, corpus. Bonum corporis corporalest,bonum hominis et corporis bonum est; itaque corporale est.

11Quoniam, ut voluisti, morem gessi tibi, nunc ipse dicam mihi, quod dicturum esse te video: latrunculis ludimus. In supervacuis subtilitas teritur; non faciunt bonos ista, sed doctos. Apertior res est sapere, immo simpliciter satius est ad mentem bonam uti litteris, sed nos ut cetera in supervacuum diffundimus, ita philosophiam ipsam. Quemadmodum omnium rerum, sic litterarum quoque intemperantia laboramus; non vitae sed scholae discimus. Vale.

Dirc van Delf | Table of Christian Faith | Illuminated by the Masters of Dirc van Delft | ca. 1405–10 | The Morgan Library & Museum

Dirc van Delf, Table of Christian Faith, in Dutch, The Netherlands, Utrecht(?), ca. 1405-10, Illuminated by the Masters of Dirc van Delft (from pinterest)

 

1/10 Will Die Today!

In my typically discursive and unplanned way, I talked to my students today about the Roman practice of decimation. I gave them a typically general run-down on it, but tomorrow I will have some actual sources for them:

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities IX.50:

“Afterward, the centurions whose men had fled, and the standard-bearers who had lost their standards either had their heads cut off at the neck, or were beaten to death with clubs. Of the rest of the army, one man of every ten was selected by lot and killed in front of the others. This is for the Romans the typical punishment given to those who broke their ranks or abandoned their standards.”

καὶ μετὰ τοῦθ᾽ οἱ λοχαγοί τε, ὧν οἱ λόχοι ἔφυγον, καὶ οἱ πρόμαχοι τῶν σημείων, ὅσοι τὰ σημεῖα ἀπολωλέκεσαν, οἱ μὲν πελέκει τοὺς αὐχένας ἀπεκόπησαν, οἱ δὲ ξύλοις παιόμενοι διεφθάρησαν: ἐκ δὲ τοῦ ἄλλου πλήθους ἀπὸ δεκάδος ἑκάστης εἷς ἀνὴρ ὁ λαχὼν κλήρῳ πρὸ τῶν ἄλλων ἀπέθνησκεν. αὕτη Ῥωμαίοις πάτριός ἐστι κατὰ τῶν λιπόντων τὰς τάξεις ἢ προεμένων τὰς σημαίας ἡ κόλασις

Livy, ab Urbe Condita 2.59

“Finally the consul (Appius Claudius), once the men had been collected from the disorderly retreat, and after he had followed his own soldiers and called them back in vain, placed his camp in the now peaceful field. He called a meeting and rightly railed on against the army which he called the betrayer of military discipline and the deserter of the standards. He kept asking individual soldiers where their standards and weapons were. He marshalled the offending standard bearers, centurions, and the double-paid soldiers who had abandoned their lines; he had them beaten with switches and he then killed them with an axe. Of the rest of the army, each tenth man was selected by lot to be executed.”

Tandem conlectis ex dissipato cursu militibus consul, cum revocando nequiquam suos persecutus esset, in pacato agro castra posuit; advocataque contione invectus haud falso in proditorem exercitum militaris disciplinae, desertorem signorum, ubi signa, ubi arma essent singulos rogitans, inermes milites, signo amisso signiferos, ad hoc centuriones duplicariosque qui reliquerant ordines, virgis caesos securi percussit: cetera multitudo sorte decimus quisque ad supplicium lecti.

Plutarch, Crassus 10:

“Many men fell in the battle, but many were saved by abandoning their weapons and fleeing. Crassus received Mummius himself harshly. He armed his soldiers again, making them swear to maintain their arms. He then took five hundred of the first and most cowardly, and dividing them into fifty groups of ten he killed one out of each group selected by lot, thus renewing an ancient military punishment which had been unused for many years.”

καὶ πολλοὶ μὲν ἔπεσον, πολλοὶ δὲ ἄνευ τῶν ὅπλων φεύγοντες ἐσώθησαν. ὁ δὲ Κράσσος αὐτόν τε τὸν Μόμμιον ἐδέξατο τραχέως, καὶ τοὺς στρατιώτας ὁπλίζων αὖθις ἐγγυητὰς ᾔτει τῶν ὅπλων, ὅτι φυλάξουσι, πεντακοσίους δὲ τοὺς πρώτους, καὶ μάλιστα τοὺς τρέσαντας, εἰς πεντήκοντα διανείμας δεκάδας ἀφ᾽ ἑκάστης ἀπέκτεινεν ἕνα τὸν κλήρῳ λαχόντα, πάτριόν τι τοῦτο διὰ πολλῶν χρόνων κόλασμα τοῖς στρατιώταις ἐπαγαγών.

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“This is Not My Beautiful House…”: Classics, Class and Identity

“This is Not My Beautiful House…”: Classics, Class and Identity

How did I get here?

When Telemachus invites Athena-in-disguise to sit in his hall at the beginning of the Odyssey and he has already complained to her about the suitors, he asks, “Who are you and from where among men? Where is your city and your parents?” (τίς πόθεν εἰς ἀνδρῶν; πόθι τοι πόλις ἠδὲ τοκῆες; 1.170). This line is repeated on several occasions during the Odyssey and forms of it echo throughout Greek literature. It even shows up in Roman literature as a bit of a proverb: Seneca has Herakles use this line to hail the dead Claudius when he arrives on Olympus (Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 5). My friend Justin Arft is working on the poetics of this line, exploring how it engages with larger poetic traditions and functions as an authoritative marker for speech. It elicits a particular type of story and signals a special kind of world view.

For me, this line has always also functioned metonymically for social hierarchy. It is an indexing question to establish the addressee’s cultural position. The initial “who” of “who are you” turns out to be a mere introduction, signaling an insufficient framework. The subsequent questions flesh out acceptable parameters for defining this particular “who”: a generic person, a tis, requires a geographical origin (invoking tribal connections as much as spatial associations), a civic entity (the city here is certainly a type of state), and a family. And, given the importance of genealogy in myth and the flexibility of place and state, I think we have a rhetorical structure of increasing importance: space, state, and family. The last question, in epic at least, is about fame and noble birth.

During the past few years, I have been thinking about this question when I find myself out and about in the world, asking and being asked who I am. How we elicit information about people tells us something about how we organize the world in our minds. And how we answer these questions tells us something else about how we view ourselves and our comfort with this view. Social context alters the meaning of deceptively simple words. For instance, when people ask addressees of color where they are from, it often is a coded or subconscious attempt to establish an ‘ethnic identity’ or some hierarchy of citizenship. Who are you and where are you from is always potentially a probe to evaluate political status and social cache.

The functional question that communicates our modern values and social structures is that ubiquitous “What do you do?” This innocuous conversation starter (or staller) is a metonym for our capitalist values: we are defined by what we contribute to society, by what we produce, by how we may be commodified. Of course, we can put this another way: in a ‘post-aristocratic’ world, we are allowed to define ourselves by how we spend our time—what we decide to dedicate our lives to communicates our values. (This second take assumes that we have the power and resources to make these choices in such a way that there is a meaningful correlation between our activity in the world and our values; and, secondly, that vocation and avocation may necessarily overlap.)

Even though the Odyssey is a narrative of disguises and forestalled recognitions, it is one in which the question “who are you, where are you from” also points to established and accepted social boundaries (even if they are eventually transgressed or subverted). When we ask “what do you do”, it seeks to instantiate social relationships. I have spent so much time thinking about this because my life’s work is in a field where the boundary between life and work is blurred to the point of there being almost no distinction. And, although we live in a period where the answer to “what do you do” is more fluid than in the previous generation, the line between the workaday doing and the non-work living is less clear. (And, to be fair, for the working poor and a great number of people throughout the world, the whole notion of such a boundary to begin with is one of incredible privilege.)

My problem is not really with the impact of this fading boundary on me: one of the reasons I avoided pursuing other careers early on is I believed, correctly or not, that my current pursuit would not force some of the same stark choices as others—despite much evidence to the contrary, I still believe that my career as one where we are supposed to think about what life is for (even if we are not often encouraged to do so). My problem is with talking about what I do outside the academy, with naming it, with answering that question, what do you do?

*                                   *                                   *

Odyssey 19.203

“He was like someone speaking many lies similar to the truth.”

ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα·

Who are you and What do you do? I don’t come from a family of academics. I grew up in a lower middle class, rural area where most high school graduates did not go to college (and where high school graduates were only recently the majority). To say that I have class anxiety about being a Professor, much less a professor of Classics and one of Ancient Greek, is quite the understatement. I rarely use a title outside of work—my self-naming is so muted that when my son grabbed the mail one day and saw something addressed to “Dr. Christensen” he said “you’re a doctor?” To this I responded, “well, kind of.” In his consternation, he looked at the envelope, looked back at his mother—who is a dentist—and said, “wait, boys can be doctors?”

Where are you from? This is a question for people who are out of place, whose dislocation is clear enough as to be recognized before even hearing a name. How did I get here? Leaving home, getting a BA in the humanities, moving to New York and getting a PhD has separated me physically and ethically from all the people I grew up with and it has in many ways alienated me from my family. Anyone who has gone to graduate school knows that the process is intense and transformative intellectually; the part we don’t talk about enough is that it also constitutes a social metamorphosis: you are not only what you do, you are the people you engage with. ‘Who are your people’ and ‘where is your home’ are a critical part of Telemachus’ question—both communicate values and allegiances. Getting a PhD in the Classics complicates answers to both of those questions. The PhD changes the appearance and performance of social class; the rarefied air of that title “the Classics” makes us strangers even among our professorial peers.

The depth of my class and social anxiety is particularly felt in the way I change my answer to the question “what do you do”. When I go to birthday parties for my kids, while talking to other parents I almost always answer, “I am a teacher” and, more often than not, I consciously steer the conversation somewhere else. Part of the reason I do this is I don’t always handle the follow up question well.

True story: I was in a Starbucks in Milton, MA and I saw Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block. At my sister’s urging over text messages (she has seen NKOTB multiple times as an adult), I went and asked for a picture and had a fine conversation going until he asked what I do. I said, “I teach at Brandeis.” To the inevitable “what do you teach?” and the true answer (“Classics. Um, mostly Ancient Greek”) the response was a typical, awkward silence.

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I TOO AM AN EPICUREAN!

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, October 31, 1819:

“[….] As you say of yourself, I TOO AM AN EPICUREAN. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing every thing rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Epictetus, indeed, has given us what was good of the Stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines; in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice. The merit of his philosophy is in the beauties of his style. Diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious of their own invention. These they fathered blasphemously on Him whom they claimed as their Founder, but who would disclaim them with the indignation which their caricatures of His religion so justly excite. Of Socrates we have nothing genuine but in the Memorabilia of Xenophon; for Plato makes him one of his Collocutors merely to cover his own whimsies under the mantle of his name; a liberty of which we are told Socrates honestly complained. Seneca is indeed a fine moralist, disfiguring his work at times with some Stoicisms, and affecting too much antithesis and point, yet giving us on the whole a great deal of sound and practical morality. But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of His own country was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really Huis from the rubbish in which he is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of His biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man; outlines which it is lamentable He did not live to fill up. Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent Moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture which has resulted from artificial systems, invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by Him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind; but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of His life I have sometimes thought of translating Epictetus (for he has never been tolerably translated into English) by adding the genuine doctrines of Epicurus from the Syntagma of Gassendi, and an abstract from the Evangelists of whatever has the stamp of the eloquence and fine imagination of Jesus. The last I attempted too hastily some twelve or fifteen years ago. It was the work of two or three nights only, at Washington, after getting through the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day. But with one foot in the grave, these are now idle projects for me. My business is to beguile the wearisomeness of declining life, as I endeavor to do, by the delights of classical reading and of mathematical truths, and by the consolations of a sound philosophy, equally indifferent to hope and fear.

I take the liberty of observing that you are not a true disciple of our master Epicurus, in indulging the indolence to which you say you are yielding. One of his canons, you know, was that ‘that indulgence which presents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain, is to be avoided.’ Your love of repose will lead, in its progress, to a suspension of healthy exercise, a relaxation of mind, an indifference to everything around you, and finally to a debility of body, and hebetude of mind, the farthest of all things from the happiness which the well-regulated indulgences of Epicurus ensure; fortitude, you know, is one of his four cardinal virtues. That teaches us to meet and surmount difficulties; not to fly from them, like cowards; and to fly, too, in vain, for they will meet and arrest us at every turn of our road…”

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