The Wings of Daidalos: Procrastination in Greek and Latin

Our word ‘procrastination’ is pretty much a direct borrowing from Latin (first attested in English in 1548, according to the OED–we really delayed in adopting it!). There was also a brief-lived adaptation of Latin cunctatio (delay) in English cunctation, cunctatory, cunctatious (etc.) but, thankfully, that fell into disuse. Eventually.

Here are some Greek and Roman thoughts on delay:

From the Suda:

Ἀμβολία: ἡ ὑπέρθεσις: Hesitation: postponement
Ἀναβάλλειν: To Delay
Ἀνάθεσις: ἡ ὑπέρθεσις: A delay: postponement
Διαμέλλει: ἀναβολῇ χρῆται: He/she put something off: to employ procrastination.

A few proverbs from the Suda

“The wings of Daidalos”: used of those who employ delay because they lack a prosthetic.

Δαιδάλου πτερά: ἐπὶ τῶν δι’ ἀπορίαν προσθήκης χρωμένων παρελκύσει.

“The hedgehog would put off childbirth.” This proverb is applied to situations that become worse with delay”

Ἐχῖνος τὸν τόκον ἀναβάλλῃ: λέγεται ἐφ’ ὧν τὸ ἀναβάλλεσθαι πρὸς χείρονος γίνεται.

Image result for Medieval manuscript hedgehog

Terence, Andria 206

“Dave, this is no place for sluggishness or procrastination.”

Dave, nil locist segnitiae neque socordiae,

Propertius, 1.12

“Why can’t you stop flinging a charge of laziness at me—
The claim that Rome, Ponticus, is making me procrastinate?”

Quid mihi desidiae non cessas fingere crimen,
quod faciat nobis, Pontice, Roma moram?

Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 18

“For when beauty, wealth and sex converge upon you, you better not sit or procrastinate!”

κάλλος γὰρ καὶ πλοῦτος καὶ ἔρως εἰ συνῆλθον ἐπὶ σέ, οὐχ ἕδρας οὐδὲ ἀναβολῆς

Cicero, Letters (to Atticus) 10.9

“Fearing this, I fell into this delay. But I might achieve everything if I hurry—if I procrastinate, I lose.”

hoc verens in hanc tarditatem incidi. sed adsequar omnia si propero: si cunctor, amitto.

Thucydides, 2.18

“The Peloponnesians believed that when they arrived they would have captured everything outside still immediately, except for his procrastination…”

καὶ ἐδόκουν οἱ Πελοποννήσιοι ἐπελθόντες ἂν διὰ τάχους πάντα ἔτι ἔξω καταλαβεῖν, εἰ μὴ διὰ τὴν ἐκείνου μέλλησιν

Demosthenes, Second Olynthiac 23

“It is no surprise that Philip, when he goes on campaign himself, toiling and present at every event, overlooking no opportunity or season, outstrips us as we procrastinate, vote on things, and make official inquiries.”

οὐ δὴ θαυμαστόν ἐστιν, εἰ στρατευόμενος καὶ πονῶν ἐκεῖνος αὐτὸς καὶ παρὼν ἐφ᾿ ἅπασι καὶ μήτε καιρὸν μήθ᾿ ὥραν παραλείπων ἡμῶν μελλόντων καὶ ψηφιζομένων καὶ πυνθανομένων περιγίγνεται.

Plato, Critias 108d

“I need to do this already, I can’t procrastinate anymore!”

τοῦτ᾿ οὖν αὐτὸ ἤδη δραστέον, καὶ μελλητέον οὐδὲν ἔτι.

Minucius Felix, Octavius 13

“Shouldn’t everyone should respect and imitate the procrastination of the Simonides, the lyric poet? When he was asked by the tyrant Hiero what he thought about the nature of the gods, first he asked for a day to think about it. On the next day, he asked for two more days. And he requested another two when reminded again! Finally, when the tyrant asked the cause of so much delay, he responded that to him “the truth became as much more obscure as the time spent pursuing it”. To my taste, matters that are uncertain should be let as they are. When so many impressive minds disagree, decisions should not be made rashly or speedily for either side to avoid entertaining an old woman’s superstition or the loss of all religion.”

Simonidis Melici nonne admiranda omnibus et sectanda cunctatio? Qui Simonides, cum de eo, quid et quales arbitraretur deos, ab Hierone tyranno quaereretur, primo deliberationi diem petiit, postridie biduum prorogavit, mox alterum tantum admonitus adiunxit. Postremo, cum causas tantae morae tyrannus inquireret, respondit ille ‘quod sibi, quanto inquisitio tardior pergeret, tanto veritas fieret obscurior.’Mea quoque opinione quae sunt dubia, ut sunt, relinquenda sunt, nec, tot ac tantis viris deliberantibus, temere et audaciter in alteram partem ferenda sententia est, ne aut anilis inducatur superstitio aut omnis religio destruatur.”

Martial, 5.58

“Postumus, you always say that you will live tomorrow, tomorrow!
But that ‘tomorrow’ of yours – when does it ever come?
How far off is that ‘tomorrow’! Where is it, or where should it be sought?
Does it lie hidden among the Parthians, or the Armenians?
That ‘tomorrow’ is as old as Priam or Nestor.
For how much can ‘tomorrow’ be purchased?
You will live tomorrow, you say?
Postumus, even living today is too late;
he is the wise man, who lived yesterday.

Cras te uicturum, cras dicis, Postume, semper:
dic mihi, cras istud, Postume, quando uenit?
Quam longe cras istud! ubi est? aut unde petendum?
Numquid apud Parthos Armeniosque latet?
Iam cras istud habet Priami uel Nestoris annos.              5
Cras istud quanti, dic mihi, possit emi?
Cras uiues? Hodie iam uiuere, Postume, serum est:
ille sapit quisquis, Postume, uixit heri.

2 thoughts on “The Wings of Daidalos: Procrastination in Greek and Latin

  1. A student last year tried to argue with me about the existence of ‘cunctation’ in English. He was corrected without… delay.

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