Elections and the Good Life

Seneca, De Vita Beata 2

“Now, in truth, the people stand against reason as champion of their own wickedness. And this happens as in elections when, the flitting breeze has changed direction and the very people who chose their candidates are amazed that these candidates were selected. We approve the same thing one moment and hate it another. This is the product of every decision which is dependent upon the majority’s opinion.

When what is debated is the good life, it is useless for you to respond to me “This side seems to be in the majority. For this is likely the worse side. Humanity is not so well governed that the better ways please the majority of people. The crowd is proof of the worst choice.”

Nunc vero stat contra rationem defensor mali sui populus. Itaque id evenit quod in comitiis, in quibus eos factos esse praetores idem qui fecere mirantur, cum se mobilis favor circumegit. Eadem probamus, eadem reprehendimus; hic exitus est omnis iudicii, in quo secundum plures datur.

Cum de beata vita agetur, non est quod mihi illud discessionum more respondeas: “Haec pars maior esse videtur.” Ideo enim peior est. Non tam bene cum rebus humanis agitur, ut meliora pluribus placeant; argumentum pessimi turba est.

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Seneca here echoes some anti-democratic opinion that was popular among ancient thinkers from Plato on. Similar prejudices against majority rule are emerging here and there in response to current events. Such sneering dismissal of the wishes of the majority is likely also a result of a disengagement from the needs of the majority. Blithe confidence–if not satisfaction–in one’s superior taste and sense in respect to the majority serves only to preserve the exclusivity of one’s claims to superiority. It does little to serve the common good. But, hey, some people don’t even believe that there is such a thing as the common good!

Porson: Critic, Librarian, DRUNKARD

Porsoniana:

“A man of such habits as Porson was little fitted for the office of Librarian to the London Institution. He was very irregular in his attendance there; he never troubled himself about the purchase of books which ought to have been added to the library; and he would frequently come home dead-drunk long after midnight. I have good reason to believe that, had he lived, he would have been requested to give up the office in other words, he would have been dismissed. I once read a letter which he received from the Directors of the Institution, and which contained, among other severe things, this cutting remark: ‘We only know that you are our Librarian by seeing your name attached to the receipts for your salary.’ His intimate friend, Dr. Raine, was one of those who signed that letter; and Raine, speaking of it to me, said, ‘Person well deserved it.’ As Librarian to the Institution, he had 200l. a-year, apartments rent-free, and the use of a servant. Yet he was eternally railing at the Directors, calling them ‘mercantile and mean beyond merchandize and meanness.’

During the two last years of his life I could perceive that he was not a little shaken; and it is really wonderful, when we consider his drinking, and his total disregard of hours, that he lived so long as he did. He told me that he had had an affection of the lungs from his boyhood.”

A.E. Housman, Speech at University College 03/29/1911:

“This great College, of this ancient University, has seen some strange sights. It has seen Wordsworth drunk and Porson sober. And here am I, a better poet than Porson, and a better scholar than Wordsworth, [somewhere] betwixt and between.”

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Hanging Out in the Garden

Jacques de Vitry, Exempla:

“I heard about another guy who had in his garden a tree from which two of his wives had hung themselves. One of his neighbors said to him, ‘My god, that’s a lucky tree, and it has a good omen. You know, I have the most awful wife. I beg you, could you give me a shoot off of your tree, so that I can plant it in my garden?'”

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De Arbore in Qua Se Suspendebant Mulieres

De quodam alio audivi, qui habebat arborem in horto suo, in qua duae eius uxores suspenderant semetipsas. Cui quidam eius vicinus ait: “Valde fortunata est arbor illa et bonum omen habet. Habeo autem uxorem pessimam; rogo te, da mihi surculum ex ea, ut plantem in horto meo.”

Light Reading for the Brothel

Antonio Beccadelli, The Hermaphrodite 2.2:

TO CHASTE GIRLS:

“I warn you again, chaste maidens, don’t learn these lascivious poems as my mouth sings them. There is no legitimate business between you and me – go honor serious poets. But let charming Thais read me in the middle of the brothel.”

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AD PUELLAS CASTAS

Vos iterum moneo, castae nolite puellae
Discere lascivos ore canente modos.

Nil mihi vobiscum est. Vates celebrate severos.
Me Thais medio fornice blanda legat.

Utilitatis Aliquid: A Literary Syllabus for Eloquence and Erudition

Quintilian 1.8

“For comedy—which can provide a great deal to eloquence since it works through every character and feeling—I will explain soon what purpose I think it serves for students in its own place. For, once characters are safely formed, comedy is among the most important things to read. I am speaking of Menander, but I will not bar the others, for the Latin authors also provide some utility.

Students must first read texts which especially nourish the intelligence and strengthen the character. A long life will give them time for the rest of the works which are good mainly for intellectual reasons. The older Latin poets, moreover, who are mostly effective for their innate ability rather than their skill, can offer a lot—especially for building a great vocabulary. One can find a seriousness in their tragedies and in their comedies an elegance and a certain Attic nature. Their compositions are more considered, too, than modern authors who think that the only virtue of writing is its “quotability”. A high register and, if I may say, a kind of power must be found in these authors since we have now stumbled into the vices of pleasure in our manner of speaking too. And, finally, we should lean on the best orators who take from the poems of the ancients to strengthen their claims or decorate their speaking”

Comoediae, quae plurimum conferre ad eloquentiam potest, cum per omnis et personas et adfectus eat, quem usum in pueris putem paulo post suo loco dicam: nam cum mores in tuto fuerint, inter praecipua legenda erit. De Menandro loquor, nec tamen excluserim alios, nam Latini quoque auctores adferent utilitatis aliquid; sed pueris quae maxime ingenium alant atque animum augeant praelegenda: ceteris, quae ad eruditionem modo pertinent, longa aetas spatium dabit. Multum autem veteres etiam Latini conferunt, quamquam plerique plus ingenio quam arte valuerunt, in primis copiam verborum: quorum in tragoediis gravitas, in comoediis elegantia et quidam velut atticismos inveniri potest. Oeconomia quoque in iis diligentior quam in plerisque novorum erit, qui omnium operum solam virtutem sententias putaverunt. Sanctitas certe et, ut sic dicam, virilitas ab iis petenda est, quando nos in omnia deliciarum vitia dicendi quoque ratione defluximus. Denique credamus summis oratoribus, qui veterum poemata vel ad fidem causarum vel ad ornamentum eloquentiae adsumunt.

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Portrait of Matthaeus Platearius d.c.1161 writing “The Book of Simple Medicines”, c.1470 (Wikimedia Commons)

Falling from Pegasos: Or, What’s a Heaven For (Pindar, Browning,Gilbert and Friends)

This is a repost. But I never get sick of these poems. And many of my students and colleagues might need some inspiration this time of year.

Pindar, Isthmian 7.40-49

“Seeking whatever pleasure each day gives
I will arrive at a peaceful old age and my allotted end.
For we all die the same, though
Our luck is unequal. If someone gazes
Too far, we are too small to reach the bronze threshold of the gods.
This is why winged Pegasos dropped his master
When he wanted to ascend the terraces of the sky.
When Bellerophon reached for Zeus’ assembly.
The bitterest end lies in wait
however sweet the injustice.”

ὅτι τερπνὸν ἐφάμερον διώκων
ἕκαλος ἔπειμι γῆρας ἔς τε τὸν μόρσιμον
αἰῶνα. θνᾴσκομεν γὰρ ὁμῶς ἅπαντες•
δαίμων δ’ ἄϊσος• τὰ μακρὰ δ’ εἴ τις
παπταίνει, βραχὺς ἐξικέσθαι χαλκόπεδον θεῶν
ἕδραν• ὅ τοι πτερόεις ἔρριψε Πάγασος
δεσπόταν ἐθέλοντ’ ἐς οὐρανοῦ σταθμούς
ἐλθεῖν μεθ’ ὁμάγυριν Βελλεροφόνταν
Ζηνός. τὸ δὲ πὰρ δίκαν
γλυκὺ πικροτάτα μένει τελευτά.

Ah, don’t overreach! Yet, methinks Robert Browning might object (Andrea Del Sarto, Called “The Faultless Painter”):

“I, painting from myself and to myself, 90
Know what I do, am unmoved by men’s blame
Or their praise either. Somebody remarks
Morello’s outline there is wrongly traced,
His hue mistaken; what of that? or else,
Rightly traced and well ordered; what of that? 95
Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
All is silver-gray
Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!

In one of my favorite modern pieces, the poet Jack Gilbert explores the theme of flying and falling in “Failing And Flying” (from 2005’s wonderful Refusing Heaven) where he begins and ends with a meditation on Icarus. The sentiments seem apt (the text comes from poetryfoundation.org):

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
The passage above from Pindar assumes some basic knowledge on the part of its audience, for instance: the connection between Bellerophon and Pegasos and how the former was in a position to fall from the latter. It is clear from the use of the figure as a negative example that the story had both broad currency and a typical understanding. A Scholiast in writing on Pindar’s 13th Olympian ode elaborates on the details of the fall (Schol. In Pindar Ol. 13.130c).

 

“For it is reported that when he planned to fly up on Pegasos and put himself in danger on high, he fell when Pegasos was bitten by a fly according to Zeus’ plan and he was crippled. So Homer says that he wandered crippled on the Alêion plain (Il. 6.201).

λέγεται γὰρ ὅτι ἀναπτῆναι βουληθεὶς τῷ Πηγάσῳ, κούφως παρακινδυνεύσας, κατὰ βούλησιν τοῦ Διὸς οἰστρωθέντος τοῦ Πηγάσου ἐκπίπτει καὶ χωλοῦται•
καὶ ἐπλανᾶτο κατὰ τὸ ᾿Αλήιον χωλός. καὶ ῞Ομηρός φησιν (Ζ 201).

The story of Bellerophon’s exile, told in Homer, is clarified or re-envisioned with the story of his downfall as articulated as a moral in Pindar. In Athenian Tragedy, Bellerophon became a popular figure (we have fragmentary plays by Sophocles and Euripides). Bellerophon’s eventual vengeance upon Sthenboia (an alternative for Anteia, Proitios’ wife) is the man story in Euripides’ play of that name that starts with a rumination on the trouble women cause for men:


Euripides, Stheneboia Fr. 661-662

“There is no man who is lucky in all things.
Either a man born noble has no livelihood
Or the baseborn ploughs fertile fields.
And many who boast of their wealth or birth
Are shamed by a foolish woman in their homes.”

Οὐκ ἔστιν ὅστις πάντ’ ἀνὴρ εὐδαιμονεῖ•
ἢ γὰρ πεφυκὼς ἐσθλὸς οὐκ ἔχει βίον,
ἢ δυσγενὴς ὢν πλουσίαν ἀροῖ πλάκα.
πολλοὺς δὲ πλούτῳ καὶ γένει γαυρουμένους
γυνὴ κατῄσχυν’ ἐν δόμοισι νηπία.

Just as Pindar uses Bellerophon as a vehicle to deliver a moralizing message, so too Euripides uses the hero to voice general concerns. In a second play on Bellerophon, Euripides returns to the moral content of Pindar’s complaint but, rather than simply portraying an instance of hubris, he offers a hero challenging the nature of divinity.

Here are two fragments from the lost Euripidean Bellerophon in which the eponymous hero denies that the gods exist. He does not seem to say that there are no gods at all, but his complaints are like those of Xenophanes who complains about the misbehavior of Homer’s gods.

Instead, Bellerophon’s complaints are based on the fact that since the world seems unjust and the gods are supposed to ensure justice, therefore they must not exist (either totally or in the form man makes them).

Euripides, fr.286.1-7 (Bellerophon)

“Is there anyone who thinks there are gods in heaven?
There are not. There are not, for any man who wishes
Not to be a fool and trust some ancient story.
Look at it yourselves, don’t make up your mind
Because of my words. I think that tyranny
Kills so many men and steals their possessions
And that men break their oaths by sacking cities.
But the men who do such things are more fortunate
Than those who live each die piously, at peace.
I know that small cities honor the gods,
Cities that obey stronger more impious men
Because they are overpowered by the strength of their arms.”

φησίν τις εἶναι δῆτ’ ἐν οὐρανῷ θεούς;
οὐκ εἰσίν, οὐκ εἴσ’, εἴ τις ἀνθρώπων θέλει
μὴ τῷ παλαιῷ μῶρος ὢν χρῆσθαι λόγῳ.
σκέψασθε δ’ αὐτοί, μὴ ἐπὶ τοῖς ἐμοῖς λόγοις
γνώμην ἔχοντες. φήμ’ ἐγὼ τυραννίδα
κτείνειν τε πλείστους κτημάτων τ’ ἀποστερεῖν
ὅρκους τε παραβαίνοντας ἐκπορθεῖν πόλεις•
καὶ ταῦτα δρῶντες μᾶλλόν εἰσ’ εὐδαίμονες
τῶν εὐσεβούντων ἡσυχῇ καθ’ ἡμέραν.
πόλεις τε μικρὰς οἶδα τιμώσας θεούς,
αἳ μειζόνων κλύουσι δυσσεβεστέρων
λόγχης ἀριθμῷ πλείονος κρατούμεναι.

Euripides, fr. 292.6 (Bellerophon)

“If the gods do a shameful thing, they are not gods.”

εἰ θεοί τι δρῶσιν αἰσχρόν, οὐκ εἰσὶν θεοί.

Keep It Simple! Quintilian on Textbooks and Teaching

Quintilian, Inst. Orat. 8.1-3

“The order of the material which was collected in the previous five books introduces the concepts of Invention and Disposition. While it is necessary to understand these completely and deeply to obtain the highest level of learning, it is advantageous for those just beginning to be exposed to them rather briefly and directly.

Beginners are often deterred by the difficulty of such a complex and perplexing course of study or, at the very moment when their intelligences require nourishing and cultivation with some indulgence, they are exhausted by the handling of rather obscure material. They also may think they if they have learned these things enough they can consider themselves prepared for eloquence or, because they are addicted to some other fast rules of speaking, they resist any new attempt.

This is why it is the case that those who are the best writers of textbooks diverge the most from eloquence. Beginners need a path to guide them, but it should be clearly laid out, walkable, and easy to see. The talented teacher, then, should choose the best things from all sources and convey those things in the present which are effective without introducing delay by disputing contrary views.”

His fere, quae in proximos quinque libros conlata sunt, ratio inveniendi atque inventa disponendi continetur, quam ut per omnis numeros penitus cognoscere ad summam scientiae necessarium est, ita incipientibus brevius ac simplicius tradi magis convenit. Aut enim difficultate institutionis tam numerosae atque perplexae deterreri solent, aut eo tempore quo praecipue alenda ingenia atque indulgentia quadam enutrienda sunt asperiorum tractatu rerum atteruntur, aut si haec sola didicerunt satis se ad eloquentiam instructos arbitrantur, aut quasi ad certas quasdam dicendi leges alligati conatum omnem reformidant. Unde existimant accidisse ut qui diligentissimi artium scriptores extiterint ab eloquentia longissime fuerint. Via tamen opus est incipientibus, sed ea plana et cum ad ingrediendum tum ad demonstrandum expedita. Eligat itaque peritus ille praeceptor ex omnibus optima et tradat ea demum in praesentia quae placet, remota refutandi cetera mora.

 

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