Clever Enough Things to Report

Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table:

The lecture at the Temple of Mercury, last evening, was well attended by the élite of our great city.  Two hundred thousand sestertia were thought to have been represented in the house.  The doors were besieged by a mob of shabby fellows, (illotum vulgus,) who were at length quieted after two or three had been somewhat roughly handled (gladio jugulati).  The speaker was the well-known Mark Tully, Eq.,—the subject Old Age.  Mr. T. has a lean and scraggy person, with a very unpleasant excrescence upon his nasal feature, from which his nickname of chick-pea (Cicero) is said by some to be derived.  As a lecturer is public property, we may remark, that his outer garment (toga) was of cheap stuff and somewhat worn, and that his general style and appearance of dress and manner (habitus, vestitusque) were somewhat provincial.

The lecture consisted of an imaginary dialogue between Cato and Lælius.  We found the first portion rather heavy, and retired a few moments for refreshment (pocula quædam vini).—All want to reach old age, says Cato, and grumble when they get it; therefore they are donkeys.—The lecturer will allow us to say that he is the donkey; we know we shall grumble at old age, but we want to live through youth and manhood, in spite of the troubles we shall groan over.—There was considerable prosing as to what old age can do and can’t.—True, but not new.  Certainly, old folks can’t jump,—break the necks of their thigh-bones, (femorum cervices,) if they do; can’t crack nuts with their teeth; can’t climb a greased pole (malum inunctum scandere non possunt); but they can tell old stories and give you good advice; if they know what you have made up your mind to do when you ask them.—All this is well enough, but won’t set the Tiber on fire (Tiberim accendere nequaquam potest.)

There were some clever things enough, (dicta hand inepta,) a few of which are worth reporting.—Old people are accused of being forgetful; but they never forget where they have put their money.—Nobody is so old he doesn’t think he can live a year.—The lecturer quoted an ancient maxim,—Grow old early, if you would be old long,—but disputed it.—Authority, he thought, was the chief privilege of age.—It is not great to have money, but fine to govern those that have it.—Old age begins at forty-six years, according to the common opinion.—It is not every kind of old age or of wine that grows sour with time.—Some excellent remarks were made on immortality, but mainly borrowed from and credited to Plato.—Several pleasing anecdotes were told.—Old Milo, champion of the heavy weights in his day, looked at his arms and whimpered, “They are dead.”  Not so dead as you, you old fool,—says Cato;—you never were good for anything but for your shoulders and flanks.—Pisistratus asked Solon what made him dare to be so obstinate.  Old age, said Solon.

The lecture was on the whole acceptable, and a credit to our culture and civilization.—The reporter goes on to state that there will be no lecture next week, on account of the expected combat between the bear and the barbarian.  Betting (sponsio) two to one (duo ad unum) on the bear.

Holmes c. 1879

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