A Debate for the Panopticon: Live Unknown or Out-loud

Ancient philosophy offers what might be a surprising defense of living life publicly (i.e. through social media)

Plutarch, “On Whether Living Unknown is a Wise Precept”

1128a “But isn’t this very thing somehow evil—“living unknown” is like tomb-robbing, no? But living is a shameful thing, so that we should all be ignorant about it? I would say instead don’t even live badly in secret, but be known, be advised, and change! If you have virtue, don’t be useless; if you have weakness, don’t go without help.”

Ἀλλὰ τοῦτο μὲν αὐτὸ τὸ πρᾶγμα πῶς οὐ πονηρόν· λάθε βιώσας—ὡς τυμβωρυχήσας; ἀλλ᾿ αἰσχρόν ἐστι τὸ ζῆν, ἵνα ἀγνοῶμεν πάντες; ἐγὼ δ᾿ ἂν εἴποιμι μηδὲ κακῶς βιώσας λάθε, ἀλλὰ γνώσθητι, σωφρονίσθητι, μετανόησον· εἴτε ἀρετὴν ἔχεις, μὴ γένῃ ἄχρηστος, εἴτε κακίαν, μὴ μείνῃς ἀθεράπευτος.

1129b

“If you take public knowledge away from your life just as you might remove light from a drinking party—to make it possible to pursue every pleasure in secret—then “live unknown” indeed.

Εἰ δὲ ἐκ τοῦ βίου καθάπερ ἐκ συμποσίου φῶς ἀναιρεῖς τὴν γνῶσιν, ὡς πάντα ποιεῖν πρὸς ἡδονὴν ἐξῇ λανθάνουσιν, “λάθε βιώσας.”

The saying “live unknown” was attributed in antiquity to Epicurus. It had reached proverbial status by the Byzantine era (from the Suda):

λάθε βιώσας· “Live unknown”: This is said customarily in a proverb but enacted by deed. “Live unknown so that I might expect no one living or dead to understand what I say”

Λάθε βιώσας: τοῦ τε ἐν παροιμίᾳ λέγεσθαι εἰωθότος, ἔργῳ βεβαιωθέντος ὑπ’ ἐκείνου, τοῦ λάθε βιώσας: ὥστε οὐδένα τῶν τότε ζώντων ἀνθρώπων οὔτε τῶν πρεσβυτέρων ἐλπίσαιμ’ ἂν εἰδέναι οἷον λέγω.

“Neokles, an Athenian philosopher and Epicurus’ brother. He wrote a book defending his own choice [of discipline]. The saying “Live unknown” is his.

Νεοκλῆς, ᾿Αθηναῖος, φιλόσοφος, ἀδελφὸς ᾿Επικούρου. ὑπὲρ τῆς ἰδίας αἱρέσεως. ὅτι Νεοκλέους ἐστὶ τό, λάθε βιώσας.

 

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