A Pig Teaches Minerva

Erasmus, Adages 1.40:

A Pig…Minerva

The saddest adage among Latin authors is Ὗς τὴν Ἀθηνᾶν, that is, ‘A pig…Minerva’, where ‘advises’ or ‘teaches’ must be understood as the verb. It is typically said whenever someone uneducated or lacking in wit tries to teach someone from whom they should rather be taught. To use the words of Pompeius Festus, it is when someone teaches another that of which they themselves are ignorant. This is because the guardianship of the arts and the intellect is attributed to Minerva by the poets, as we have said. Further, there is no other animal more brutish or filthy than the big, either because it takes immeasurable delight in shit, which comes about because of the size of its liver, which is the seat of lust and desire, or because of the thickness of its nose and its blunt sense of smell, from which it occurs that it is not offended by the filth. Further, it is so prone and given to food that if by chance it is compelled to look upward, it suddenly falls into a stuporous silence because of the novelty, as Alexander Aphrodiseus tells us. Nor is there anything less capable of instruction, and seems not to be of any use (as some other animals are), but rather to have been given to us by nature simply for feasts. Pliny, in Book VIII Chapter 51 of his Natural History, attests to this when he says, Of all the animals, the pig is especially brutish and is thought, not unwittily, to have received a soul as salt. Varro, in the second book of On Agricultural Affairs says the same thing: They say that the swinish herd was given by nature for feasting. And so, they were given souls in place of salt, to preserve the meat. Indeed, in the fifth book of On the Ends of Good and Evil, Cicero explains what these words mean:

For of all things, which nature creates and guards, which are either lacking mind or not far from it, the highest good lies in their body, as it seems not unwisely said of the pig that a mind was given to that flock in place of salt, so that it would not rot. There are however beasts in which there is something similar to virtue, as for example in lions, in dogs, in horses, in which we see not only some motions in their bodies (as is the case in pigs), but even in some part of their minds.

Aristotle, in his Physiognomics, writes that people with a small forehead are incapable of instruction and unsuited for learning, and seem to belong to their own race, as if they were the farthest removed of all from docility and human arts. For the rest seem full of docility, from which now too we are accustomed commonly to call those who are lacking intelligence and born as if for their guts and stomachs alone ‘pigs’.

Nay, even Suetonius in his catalogue of illustrious grammarians relates that Palaemon was endowed with such arrogance that he called Marcus Varro a pig, and said that his letters were born with and would die with him. Further, if we wish to signify anything uneducated or illiterate, we say that it came from the pig sty, as Cicero says in Against Piso: Brought forth from the sty, not from the school. From this, then, comes the adage a pig Minerva. Luciius Caesar in Cicero’s second book of The Orator says, Thus I, as Crassus listens, will speak first about jokes and I the pig will teach him, the orator of whom, when Catulus had recently heard him, said that the rest might as well eat hay. Cicero also says in the first book of his Academic Questions: For even if it is not a case of the pig teaching Minerva, as they say, nevertheless whoever ineptly teaches Minerva…

Jerome says, in Against Rufinus: I pass over the Greeks, the knowledge of whom you toss about, and while you run after foreign things, you have almost entirely forgotten your speech, lest according to the old adage a pig seems to teach Minerva. Jerome also uses this phrase with different wording in a letter to Marcella, the beginning of which is Charity does not have measure.

Marcus Varro and Euhemerus refer the saying to fables, which can be conjectured from the words of Pompeius Festus, who says, They preferred to involve this thing, placed in the middle, with inept stories rather than relating it simply. The joke of Demosthenes is celebrated; when Demades was crying out to him Δημοσθένης ἐμὲ βούλεται διορθοῦν, ἡ ὗς τὴν Ἀθηνᾶν, that is, Demosthenes wants to correct me, like a pig correcting Minerva, Demosthenes responded, Αὕτη μέντοι πέρυσιν ἡ Ἀθηνᾶ μοιχεύουσα εἰλήφθη, that is, And indeed, this Minerva was recently caught out in adultery. The saying alluded to Minerva the virgin.



Tritissimum apud Latinos autores adagium Ὗς τὴν Ἀθηνᾶν, id est Sus Mineruam, subaudiendum ‘docet’ aut ‘monet’, dici solitum, quoties indoctus quispiam atque insulsus eum docere conatur, a quo sit ipse magis docendus aut, vt Festi Pompeii verbis vtar, cum quis id docet alterum, cuius ipse est inscius. Propterea quod Mineruae artium et ingeniorum, vt diximus, tutela tribuitur a poetis. Porro sue nullum aliud animal magis brutum magisque sordidum, vt quod stercoribus impense gaudeat vel ob iecoris magnitudinem, quae sedes est concupiscentiae ac libidinis, vel ob narium crassitudinem et olfactum hebetem, vnde fit vt non offendatur foetore; tum adeo pronum ciboque deditum, vt si forte sursum aspicere cogatur, protinus stupore sileat ob insolentiam, vt tradit Alexander Aphrodiseus. Nec est aliud magis indocile, proinde non ad vsum aliquem, quemadmodum pecudes nonnullae, sed ad epulas duntaxat a natura donatum videtur. Cui rei testis est Plinius lib. viii., cap. li. Animalium, inquit, hoc maxime brutum animamque ei pro sale datam, non illepide existimabatur. Idem affirmat Varro libro De re rustica secundo, Suillum, inquit, pecus donatum a natura dicunt ad epulandum. Itaque his animam datam pro sale, quae seruaret carnem. Atque haec quidem verba quid sibi velint, explicat M. Tullius libro De finibus bonorum quinto,

Etenim omnium rerum, inquit, quas et creat natura et tuetur, quae aut sine animo sunt aut non multo secus, eorum summum bonum in corpore est, vt non inscite illud dictum videatur in suem, animum illi pecudi datum pro sale, ne putresceret. Sunt autem bestiae, in quibus inest aliquid simile virtutis vt in leonibus, vt in canibus, vt in equis, in quibus non corporum solum vt in suibus, sed etiam animorum aliqua ex parte motus aliquos videmus.

Aristoteles in Physiognomicis scribit exigua fronte homines indociles et ad disciplinas ineptos videri atque ad suum genus pertinere, tanquam a docilitate humanisque artibus longe omnium alienissimum. Nam reliqua ferme docilitatis esse capacia, vnde nunc quoque vulgo insipidos istos et quasi ventri atque abdomini natos sues appellare consueuimus.

Quin et Suetonius in catalogo illustrium grammaticorum refert Palaemonem arrogantia tanta fuisse, vt M. Varronem porcum appellaret, secum et natas et morituras literas. Praeterea si quid indoctum atque illiteratum significare volumus, id ex hara profectum dicimus. Quemadmodum M. Tullius in

Pisonem: Ex hara productae, non schola. Hinc igitur natum adagium Sus Mineruam. L. Caesar apud Ciceronem libro De oratore secundo, Sic ego, inquit, Crasso audiente primum loquar de facetiis et docebo sus, vt aiunt, oratorem eum, quem cum Catulus nuper audisset, foenum alios aiebat esse oportere. Idem Cicero libro de

Academicis quaestionibus primo: Nam etsi non sus Mineruam, vt aiunt, tamen inepte quisquis Mineruam docet.

Hieronymus in Rufinum: Praetermitto Graecos, quorum tu iactas scientiam, et dum peregrina sectaris, pene tui sermonis oblitus es, ne vetere prouerbio sus Mineruam docere videatur. Vsurpat idem verbis commutatis in epistola ad Marcellam, cuius initium Mensuram charitas non habet.

Varro et Euemerus adagium ad fabulas retulerunt, id quod ex Pompeii verbis licet coniicere. Quam rem, inquit, in medio, quod aiunt, positam ineptis μύθους inuoluere maluerunt, quam simpliciter referre. Celebratur a multis Demosthenis scomma, qui cum Demades vociferaretur in eum: Δημοσθένης ἐμὲ βούλεται διορθοῦν, ἡ ὗς τὴν Ἀθηνᾶν, id est Demosthenes vult me corrigere, sus Mineruam, respondit: Αὕτη μέντοι πέρυσιν ἡ Ἀθηνᾶ μοιχεύουσα εἰλήφθη, id est Atqui nuper haec Minerua in adulterio fuit deprehensa. Dictum allusit ad Mineruam virginem.


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