Philologists Account for Antiquity’s Errors

John Ruskin, Queen of the Air (1.1):

“I will not ask your pardon for endeavoring to interest you in the subject of Greek Mythology; but I must ask your permission to approach it in a temper differing from that in which it is frequently treated. We cannot justly interpret the religion of any people, unless we are prepared to admit that we ourselves, as well as they, are liable to error in matters of faith; and that the convictions of others, however singular, may in some points have been well founded, while our own, however reasonable, may be in some particulars mistaken. You must forgive me, therefore, for not always distinctively calling the creeds of the past ‘superstition,’ and the creeds of the present day ‘religion;’ as well as for assuming that a faith now confessed may sometimes be superficial, and that a faith long forgotten may once have been sincere. It is the task of the Divine to condemn the errors of antiquity, and of the philologists to account for them; I will only pray you to read, with patience, and human sympathy, the thoughts of men who lived without blame in a darkness they could not dispel; and to remember that, whatever charge of folly may justly attach to the saying, ‘There is no God,’ the folly is prouder, deeper, and less pardonable, in saying, ‘There is no God but for me.'”

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Plato is Boring

Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (trans. Anthony Ludovici)

“I am not indebted to the Greeks for anything like such strong impressions; and, to speak frankly, they cannot be to us what the Romans are. One cannot learn from the Greeks—their style is too strange, it is also too fluid, to be imperative or to have the effect of a classic. Who would ever have learnt writing from a Greek! Who would ever have learned it without the Romans!… Do not let anyone suggest Plato to me. In regard to Plato I am a thorough sceptic, and have never been able to agree to the admiration of Plato the artist, which is traditional among scholars. And after all, in this matter, the most refined judges of taste in antiquity are on my side. In my opinion Plato bundles all the forms of style pell-mell together, in this respect he is one of the first decadents of style: he has something similar on his conscience to that which the Cynics had who invented the satura Menippea. For the Platonic dialogue—this revoltingly self-complacent and childish kind of dialectics—to exercise any charm over you, you must never have read any good French authors,—Fontenelle for instance. Plato is boring. In reality my distrust of Plato is fundamental. I find him so very much astray from all the deepest instincts of the Hellenes, so steeped in moral prejudices, so pre-existently Christian—the concept ‘good’ is already the highest value with him,—that rather than use any other expression I would prefer to designate the whole phenomenon Plato with the hard word ‘superior bunkum,’ or, if you would like it better, ‘idealism.’ Humanity has had to pay dearly for this Athenian having gone to school among the Egyptians (—or among the Jews in Egypt?…) In the great fatality of Christianity, Plato is that double-faced fascination called the “ideal,” which made it possible for the more noble natures of antiquity to misunderstand themselves and to tread the bridge which led to the ‘cross.’ And what an amount of Plato is still to be found in the concept ‘church,’ and in the construction, the system and the practice of the church!—My recreation, my predilection, my cure, after all Platonism, has always been Thucydides. Thucydides and perhaps Machiavelli’s principe are most closely related to me owing to the absolute determination which they show of refusing to deceive themselves and of seeing reason in reality,—not in ‘rationality,’ and still less in ‘morality.’

There is no more radical cure than Thucydides for the lamentably rose-coloured idealisation of the Greeks which the ‘classically-cultured’ stripling bears with him into life, as a reward for his public school training. His writings must be carefully studied line by line, and his unuttered thoughts must be read as distinctly as what he actually says. There are few thinkers so rich in unuttered thoughts. In him the culture ‘of the Sophists’—that is to say, the culture of realism, receives its most perfect expression: this inestimable movement in the midst of the moral and idealistic knavery of the Socratic Schools which was then breaking out in all directions. Greek philosophy is the decadence of the Greek instinct: Thucydides is the great summing up, the final manifestation of that strong, severe positivism which lay in the instincts of the ancient Hellene. After all, it is courage in the face of reality that distinguishes such natures as Thucydides from Plato: Plato is a coward in the face of reality—consequently he takes refuge in the ideal: Thucydides is master of himself,—consequently he is able to master life.”

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Let Us Be Noble Examples!

Seneca, Epistulae Morales (98)

“Say to yourself that of those things which seem terrible to you, none is insuperable. Many people have overcome them individually: Mucius overcame fire, Regulus survived torture, Socrates took his poison, Rutilius made it through exile, and Cato suffered the death which he undertook by the dagger. Let us overcome something too. Again, those pleasant and happy things which attract the common people have been scorned often by many. Fabricius the general rejected wealth, and noted them as censor. Tubero thought that poverty was fitting both for him and for the Capitoline, when by using earthenware cups in a public dinner he showed that humans ought to be content with those things which the gods use even now. Sextius, who was born in such a state that he ought to take the republic in hand, refused honors, and did not accept the broad purple band when Caesar offered it to him, because he knew that what could be given could also be taken away. We, too, should do something with spirit! Let us be among the examples!”

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Dic tibi ex istis quae terribilia videntur nihil est invictum’. Singula vicere iam multi, ignem Mucius, crucem Regulus, venenum Socrates, exilium Rutilius, mortem ferro adactam Cato: et nos vincamus aliquid. Rursus ista quae ut speciosa et felicia trahunt vulgum a multis et saepe contempta sunt. Fabricius divitias imperator reiecit, censor notavit; Tubero paupertatem et se dignam et Capitolio iudicavit, cum fictilibus in publica cena usus ostendit debere iis hominem esse contentum quibus di etiamnunc uterentur. Honores reppulit pater Sextius, qui ita natus ut rem publicam deberet capessere, latum clavum divo Iulio dante non recepit; intellegebat enim quod dari posset et eripi posse. Nos quoque aliquid et ipsi faciamus animose; simus inter exempla.


F**k Donatus, Shakespeare’s Got Talent

John Williams, Stoner (Chp. 9): 

“Charles Walker fiddled for a moment with the sheaf of papers on the desk before him and allowed the remoteness to creep back into his face. He tapped the forefinger of his right hand on his manuscript and looked toward the corner of the room away from where Stoner and Katherine Driscoll sat, as if he were waiting for something. Then, glancing every now and then at the sheaf of papers on the desk, he began.

‘Confronted as we are by the mystery of literature, and by its inenarrable power, we are behooved to discover the source of the power and mystery. And yet, finally, what can avail? The work of literature throws before us a profound veil which we cannot plumb. And we are but votaries before it, helpless in its sway. Who would have the temerity to lift that veil aside, to discover the undiscoverable, to reach the unreachable? The strongest of us are but the puniest weaklings, are but tinkling cymbals and sounding brass, before the eternal mystery.’

His voice rose and fell, his right hand went out with its fingers curled supplicatingly upward, and his body swayed to the rhythm of his words; his eyes rolled slightly upward, as if he were making an invocation. There was something grotesquely familiar in what he said and did. And suddenly Stoner knew what it was. This was Hollis Lomax—or, rather, a broad caricature of him, which came unsuspected from the caricaturer, a gesture not of contempt or dislike, but of respect and love.

Walker’s voice dropped to a conversational level, and he addressed the back wall of the room in a tone that was calm and equable with reason. ‘Recently we have heard a paper that, to the mind of academe, must be accounted most excellent. These remarks that follow are remarks that are not personal. I wish to exemplify a point. We have heard, in this paper, an account that purports to be an explanation of the mystery and soaring lyricism of Shakespeare’s art. Well, I say to you’—and he thrust a forefinger at his audience as if he would impale them— ‘I say to you, it is not true.’ He leaned back in his chair and consulted the papers on the desk. ‘We are asked to believe that one Donatus—an obscure Roman grammarian of the fourth century A.D.— we are asked to believe that such a man, a pedant, had sufficient power to determine the work of one of the greatest geniuses in all of the history of art. May we not suspect, on the face of it, such a theory? Must we not suspect it?’

Anger, simple and dull, rose within Stoner, overwhelming the complexity of feeling he had had at the beginning of the paper. His immediate impulse was to rise, to cut short the farce that was developing; he knew that if he did not stop Walker at once he would have to let him go on for as long as he wanted to talk. His head turned slightly so that he could see Katherine Driscoll’s face; it was serene and without any expression, save one of polite and detached interest; the dark eyes regarded Walker with an unconcern that was like boredom. Covertly, Stoner looked at her for several moments; he found himself wondering what she was feeling and what she wished him to do. When he finally shifted his gaze away from her he had to realize that his decision was made. He had waited too long to interrupt, and Walker was rushing impetuously through what he had to say.

‘ … the monumental edifice that is Renaissance literature, that edifice which is the cornerstone of the great poetry of the nineteenth century. The question of proof, endemic to the dull course of scholarship as distinguished from criticism, is also sadly at lack. What proof is offered that Shakespeare even read this obscure Roman grammarian? We must remember it was Ben Jonson’—he hesitated for a brief moment—’it was Ben Jonson himself, Shakespeare’s friend and contemporary, who said he had little Latin and less Greek. And certainly Jonson, who idolized Shakespeare this side of idolatry, did not impute to his great friend any lack. On the contrary, he wished to suggest, as do I, that the soaring lyricism of Shakespeare was not attributable to the burning of the midnight oil, but to a genius natural and supreme to rule and mundane law. Unlike lesser poets, Shakespeare was not born to blush unseen and waste his sweetness on the desert air; partaking of that mysterious source to whence all poets go for their sustenance, what need had the immortal bard of such stultifying rules as are to be found in a mere grammar? What would Donatus be to him, even if he had read him? Genius, unique and a law unto itself, needs not the support of such a ‘tradition’ as has been described to us, whether it be generically Latin or Donatan or whatever. Genius, soaring and free, must …’

After he became used to his anger Stoner found a reluctant and perverse admiration stealing over him. However florid and imprecise, the man’s powers of rhetoric and invention were dismayingly impressive; and however grotesque, his presence was real. There was something cold and calculating and watchful in his eyes, something  needlessly reckless and yet desperately cautious. Stoner became aware that he was in the presence of a bluff so colossal and bold that he had no ready means of dealing with it.”

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Prostitutes and Pelts

Varro, de Lingua Latina 7.84:

“In Terence we read:

He whores (scortatur), he drinks, he smells like perfume at my cost!

The verb to whore (scortari) means quite often to take a prostitute, which is so called from a pelt. For the ancients not only called a pelt a scortum, but even today we call those things which are made of hide and pelt scortea. In some sacred rites and sacrificial places we have it written:

Let not a prostitute (scortum) be admitted

meaning by this that nothing dead should be present. In Atellan farces one may observe that they brought home a little skin (pellicula) instead of a scortum.

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Apud Terentium:

Scortatur, potat, olet unguenta de meo.

Scortari est saepius meretriculam ducere, quae dicta a pelle: id enim non solum antiqui dicebant scortum, sed etiam nunc dicimus scortea ea quae e corio ac pellibus sunt facta; in aliquot sacris ac sacellis scriptum habemus:

Ne quod scorteum adhibeatur,

ideo ne morticinum quid adsit. In Atellanis licet animadvertere rusticos dicere se adduxisse pro scorto pelliculam.

Grammar, the Real Queen of Sciences

John Williams, Stoner (Chp.9)

“Stoner waited a few moments more, shuffling his papers; then he cleared his throat and began the class.

‘During our first meeting we discussed the scope of this seminar, and we decided that we should limit our study of the medieval Latin tradition to the first three of the seven liberal arts–that is, to grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic.’ He paused and watched the faces–tentative, curious, and masklike– focus upon him and what he said.

‘Such a limiting may seem foolishly rigorous to some of you; but I have no doubt that we shall find enough to keep us occupied even if we trace only superficially the course of the trivium upward into the sixteenth century. It is important that we realize that these arts of rhetoric, grammar, and dialectic meant something to a late medieval and early Renaissance man that we, today, can only dimly sense without an exercise of the historical imagination. To such a scholar, the art of grammar, for example, was not merely a mechanical disposition of the parts of speech. From late Hellenistic times through the Middle Ages, the study and practice of grammar included not only the ‘skill of letters’ mentioned by Plato and Aristotle; it included also, and this became very important, a study of poetry in its technical felicities, an exegesis of poetry both in form and substance, and nicety of style, insofar as that can be distinguished from rhetoric.’

He felt himself warming to his subject, and he was aware that several of the students had leaned forward and had stopped taking notes. He continued: ‘Moreover, if we in the twentieth century are asked which of these three arts is the most important, we might choose dialectic, or rhetoric–but we would be most unlikely to choose grammar. Yet the Roman and medieval scholar–and poet–would almost certainly consider grammar the most significant.'”

Grammar and Priscian, Munich Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm. 2599, f.102

Damn It Feels Good to be an Encyclopedist

Pliny, Natural History (Preface)

“Moreover, the path is not a road trod down by authors nor one on which the mind would seek to wander. There is no one among us who has attempted the same ting, no one among the Greeks who managed all of these studies alone. Most of us seek the pleasant parts of our studies: but those things, handled by others, are said to be of immense subtlety, and are pressed down by the dark shadows of the material. Before all, one must deal with what the Greeks call encyclopedic education, and yet they are either unknown or made uncertain by the great minds; other subjects have been published by so many that they have been led to the point of scorn.

It is a hard thing to give novelty to ancient things, authority to new things, splendor to the obsolete, light to the obscure, charm to the stale, trust to the doubtful, and indeed nature to all things and all things to their nature. And it is damn fine and magnificent to have wished to do so, even if one does not succeed.”

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Praeterea iter est non trita auctoribus via nec qua peregrinari animus expetat. nemo apud nos qui idem temptaverit, nemo apud Graecos, qui unus omnia ea tractaverit. magna pars studiorum amoenitates quaerimus; quae vero tractata ab aliis dicuntur inmensae subtilitatis, obscuris rerum tenebris premuntur. ante omnia attingenda quae Graeci τῆς ἐγκυκλίου παιδείας vocant, et tamen ignota aut incerta ingeniis facta; alia vero ita multis prodita, ut in fastidium sint adducta.

Res ardua vetustis novitatem dare, novis auctoritatem, obsoletis nitorem, obscuris lucem, fastiditis gratiam, dubiis fidem, omnibus vero naturam et naturae suae omnia. itaque etiam non assecutis voluisse abunde pulchrum atque magnificum est.