Porson: Critic, Librarian, DRUNKARD


“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:


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

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

Political Correctness: A Response

We received this message earlier on Twitter:

“Best to avoid political tweets. At least half your audience doesn’t share this PC dogma, remember.”

How dare you? Brushing aside the epistemological question of how one reader could speak for half of the audience, it is necessarily true that large portions of any audience will disagree with something which is presented to it. Is it our responsibility simply to provide a comforting echo to each reader’s full collection of thoughts, opinions, and feelings? Impossible. Almost all of the internet is resolutely indifferent to Classics, yet we do not on that account feel compelled to shut down the operation for fear of boring people with ancient quotations. I could easily start a heated debate and earn the disapproval of more than half of the audience with the claim that I think the Odyssey superior to the Iliad, yet I would not on that account be afraid to say so. In such matters, one may resort to the old principle de gustibus non disputandum, but politics affects our lives in far more tangible ways than aesthetic preferences. It would be base cowardice to refrain from even commenting upon injustice, and I would sooner lose all of our audience than appear to condone reactionary barbarism.

“Political correctness” is a vacuous and insipid term, but it is a potent ideological weapon, used in an attempt to denigrate any potentially civilizing viewpoints. Not infrequently, expressions of support for human rights, cosmopolitanism, and cultural sensitivity are dismissed as politically correct. Yet, it also seems that the time for this phrase has long since past; it is not clear that any form of sensitivity is politically correct in a time when Trumpian disregard for civilization itself has managed not only to clutch all of the levers of political power in this country, but also to obtrude itself upon our consciousness so forcibly that we now run the risk of normalizing puerile hatred and pettiness as accepted modes of civic discourse.

The main purpose of this site is not political, but there is no denying that Classics has become one of many battlefields in a heated and horrifying ideological war. I would not flatter myself into thinking that it is central to the political debate, but when I see that a field of study which I care about is being weaponized against the civic values which I believe in, I will not silently refrain from comment in a vain hope to retain an audience. Just as many cities in antiquity claimed Homer as their own, so too many cultures, and even many ideologies, claim the study of ancient Greece and Rome as a part of their personal heritage. I will not pretend to be surprised that unregenerate reactionaries find something to admire in the Classics, which, for all of their civilization, are yet saturated with barbarism throughout. But one could easily impose any political ideology from far left to far right onto the template which the ancient world provides. The power of selective citation is that it can be used to lend a grave authority to any viewpoint. Yet, as I have written before, the ancient world should be an object for study, not revivification. I have spent more than a decade of my modern life thinking about antiquity, but I’ll be damned if I have ever felt a desire to experience it first hand and “live with the Romans.” We must learn from history, but only the most vile reactionary would take pleasure in a recrudescence of the “ancient ways”, and modeling one’s behavior on some dimly-understood precedent from thousands of years ago is craven in the extreme.

In the opening of his Politics, Aristotle claims that “all people do everything which they do for the sake of what they think is good.” (τοῦ γὰρ εἶναι δοκοῦντος ἀγαθοῦ χάριν πάντα πράττουσι πάντες.) This site does not exist for the purpose of promoting good or social justice, but it should be understood that we believe in universal human rights, free expression, and multiculturalism. (Anyone who studies Classics is necessarily committed to this last, in that they find themselves at the intersection of a bare minimum of three distinct cultures.) We will not refrain from commenting on politics at the behest of one or even thousands of idle charges of “political correctness,” which will be received with all the lip-curling exertion of a contemptuous sneer.

The Parthenon

Frederic Edwin Church, The Parthenon

Light Verse for Serious Writers

Pliny, Epistulae 5.3:

“I occasionally write some verses which are lacking in severity – indeed, I do. I listen to comedies, watch mimes, read lyric poems, and even understand the poetry of Sotades. Occasionally I laugh, joke, and play, and if I wanted to encapsulate all of the occupations of my harmless leisure, I would say I am human. I am not much bothered by the opinion of my habits which is formed by those fools who marvel at my writing because they do not know that the most learned, most serious, and most holy men have written such trifles in their day, too. But I am confident that those who are in the know concerning what great authors I follow will readily permit me to go astray with those authorities, seeing that it is laudable to imitate their more playful works as well as their serious writings. Yet I fear – and I will not name anyone living, lest I appear to descend into mere adulation – yet I fear that what well suited Cicero, Gaius Calvus, Asinius Pollio, Marcus Messala, Quintus Hortensius, Marcus Brutus, Lucius Sulla, Quintus Catulus, Quintus Scaevola, Servius Sulpicius, Varro, Torquatus (nay, both Torquati), Gaius Memmius, Lentulus Gaetulicus, Annaeus Seneca, and even Verginius Rufus may not well suit me. If those private examples were unsufficient, I could add the examples of Iulius Caesar, Augustus, Nerva, and Tiberius. I pass over Nero, though I am well aware that things are not made worse because occasionally practiced by bad men, though those things remain honorable which are quite often done by good people. Among these, perhaps the chief are Vergil, Cornelius Nepos, and earlier Accius and Ennius.”

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facio non numquam versiculos severos parum, facio; nam et comoedias audio et specto mimos et lyricos lego et Sotadicos intellego; aliquando praeterea rideo iocor ludo, utque omnia innoxiae remissionis genera breviter amplectar, homo sum. 3 Nec vero moleste fero hanc esse de moribus meis existimationem, ut qui nesciunt talia doctissimos gravissimos sanctissimos homines scriptitasse, me scribere mirentur. 4 Ab illis autem quibus notum est, quos quantosque auctores sequar, facile impetrari posse confido, ut errare me sed cum illis sinant, quorum non seria modo verum etiam lusus exprimere laudabile est. 5 An ego verear — neminem viventium, ne quam in speciem adulationis incidam, nominabo -, sed ego verear ne me non satis deceat, quod decuit M. Tullium, C. Calvum, Asinium Pollionem, M. Messalam, Q. Hortensium, M. Brutum, L. Sullam, Q. Catulum, Q. Scaevolam, Servium Sulpicium, Varronem, Torquatum, immo Torquatos, C. Memmium, Lentulum Gaetulicum, Annaeum Senecam et proxime Verginium Rufum et, si non sufficiunt exempla privata, Divum Iulium, Divum Augustum, Divum Nervam, Tiberium Caesarem? 6 Neronem enim transeo, quamvis sciam non corrumpi in deterius quae aliquando etiam a malis, sed honesta manere quae saepius a bonis fiunt. Inter quos vel praecipue numerandus est P. Vergilius, Cornelius Nepos et prius Accius Enniusque. Non quidem hi senatores, sed sanctitas morum non distat ordinibus.

Most Men Are Rather Stupid

A.E. Housman, The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism

“Most men are rather stupid, and most of those who are not stupid are, consequently, rather vain; and it hardly possible to step aside from the pursuit of truth without falling a victim either to your stupidity or else to your vanity. Stupidity will then attach you to received opinions, and you will stick in the mud; or vanity will set you hunting for novelty, and you will find mare’s-nests. Added to these snares and hindrances there are the various forms of partisanship: sectarianism, which handcuffs you to your own school and teachers and associates, and patriotism, which handcuffs you to your own country. Patriotism has a great name as a virtue, and in civic matters, at the present stage of the world’s history, it possibly still does more good than harm; but in the sphere of intellect it is an unmitigated nuisance.”

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Digital Viagra, or Rectal Erection Correction

Antonio Beccadelli, The Hermaphrodite 1.22:

“Quinctius, you get an erection for women you don’t like, but cannot get it up for the ladies who please you. One who wishes to get it up should stick some fingers up his own ass. They say that this is how Paris prepared for Helen.”

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Ad non dilectas, Quincti, tibi mentula tenta est;
Si tibi jucunda est, non potes arrigere.
Qui vult posse, suum digitos intrudat in anum
Sic perhibent Helenae consuevisse Parim.