Sophomore Sophistry

Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson:

The truth, however, is, that he loved to display his ingenuity in argument; and therefore would sometimes in conversation maintain opinions which he was sensible were wrong, but in supporting which, his reasoning and wit would be most conspicuous. He would begin thus: ‘Why, Sir, as to the good or evil of card-playing—’ ‘Now, (said Garrick,) he is thinking which side he shall take.’ He appeared to have a pleasure in contradiction, especially when any opinion whatever was delivered with an air of confidence; so that there was hardly any topick, if not one of the great truths of Religion and Morality, that he might not have been incited to argue, either for or against.

Flavio Biondo, On the Words of Roman Speech, (I):

There is a great dispute among the learned people of our time, and a contention in which I have often been involved, whether it is the maternal and as it were, among the rude and unlettered mass in our age vulgar idiom, or by the use of grammatical art, which we call Latin, that the Romans were accustomed to employ as their established mode of speaking.

Arguments are not lacking to those who either impugn or defend one side or the other of this debate. If I were to draw them into the fray, it would become apparent on what foundations each side rests, and there will be material for this dispute so tossed before the eyes of all that any fool ignorant of the laws of speaking, or, as the Florentines are in the habit of calling him, a market-stall judge, would not hesitate to bring forth his opinion easily and ex tempore.

Which I would yet maintain must be born by the judgment of the learned and most knowledgeable in Roman things if for no other reason than so that, when you and many others, the ornaments of the age in judgment, seem to dissent in turn, I alone, in a situation where such great men either entertain contradictions or feel uncertainly, would dare to affirm it for sure.

Magna est apud doctos aetatis nostrae homines altercatio, et cui saepenumero interfuerim contentio, maternone et passim apud rudem indoctamque multitudinem aetate nostra vulgato idiomate, an grammaticae artis usu, quod latinum appellamus, instituto loquendi more Romani orare fuerint soliti.

Nec desunt argumenta utramque vel impugnantibus vel defendentibus partem; quae si in medium adduxero, qualibus utrique nitantur fundamentis apparebit; eritque omnium oculis adeo subiecta huiusce disceptationis materies, ut quilibet iurisdicundi ignarus, sive, ut dicere Florentini solent, iudex emporinus, faciliter et ex tempore sententiam ferre non dubitet.

Quam tamen et docti et rerum romanarum callentissimi iudicio vel ea ratione servaverim ferendam, ne, cum tu pluresque alii, omnium iudicio saeculi ornamenta, invicem dissentire videamini, ego unus, in quo tales viri vel contraria sentiant vel addubitent, id ausim affirmare.

Career Choice: War Criminal or Man of Letters?

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 10.105:

Not undeservedly was Cicero said by his contemporaries to be king in the courts, and he maintained that among his posterity such that ‘Cicero’ seems like a word for eloquence, and not the name of a man. Let us then look at him, and let it be placed as an example before us that one may know that they have achieved knowledge when they find much pleasure in Cicero.

There is a lot of invention in Asinius Pollio, and even so much attention to detail that some think it seems excessive; there is also enough of consideration and mind in him. He is so far from the resplendence and pleasantness of Cicero that he could seem to be from a previous generation. But Messala is resplendent and shining and in a certain way making a pretense of his nobility in speaking, though possessed of lesser powers.

If only Gaius Caesar had stayed away from the forum, there would have been no one else whose name could be set against Cicero’s. There was such great force in him, such acumen, such quickness, that he appears to have spoken with the same vigor with which he waged war. Yet he decorated all of what he wrote with a marvelous elegance of speech, of to which he was rightly devoted.

“Should have stuck to your books!”

Quare non inmerito ab hominibus aetatis suae regnare in iudiciis dictus est, apud posteros vero id consecutus ut Cicero iam non hominis nomen sed eloquentiae habeatur. hunc igitur spectemus, hoc propositum nobis sit exemplum, ille se profecisse sciat cui Cicero valde placebit. Multa in Asinio Pollione inventio, summa diligentia, adeo ut quibusdam etiam nimia videatur, et consilii et animi satis: a nitore et iucunditate Ciceronis ita longe abest ut videri possit saeculo prior. At Messala nitidus et candidus et quodam modo praeferens in dicendo nobilitatem suam, viribus minor. C. vero Caesar si foro tantum vacasset, non alius ex nostris contra Ciceronem nominaretur: tanta in eo vis est, id acumen, ea concitatio, ut illum eodem animo dixisse quo bellavit appareat; exornat tamen haec omnia mira sermonis, cuius proprie studiosus fuit, elegantia.

Forget Latin and Get Some Greek!

Lord Chesterfield, Letters to His Son (122):

You cannot study much in the Academy; but you may study usefully there, if you are an economist of your time, and bestow only upon good books those quarters and halves of hours, which occur to everybody in the course of almost every day; and which, at the year’s end, amount to a very considerable sum of time. Let Greek, without fail, share some part of every day; I do not mean the Greek poets, the catches of Anacreon, or the tender complaints of Theocritus, or even the porter-like language of Homer’s heroes; of whom all smatterers in Greek know a little, quote often, and talk of always; but I mean Plato, Aristoteles, Demosthenes, and Thucydides, whom none but adepts know. It is Greek that must distinguish you in the learned world, Latin alone will not: and Greek must be sought to be retained, for it never occurs like Latin. When you read history or other books of amusement, let every language you are master of have its turn, so that you may not only retain, but improve in everyone.

Whacking Off Wards Off War

Dio Chrysostom, Discourse VI: Diogenes (17-20):

Diogenes said that the wealthy were like newly-born babies because they always needed swaddling clothes. The thing over which people had the greatest hassles and spent the most money, for which many cities were ruined and for the sake of which many of their peoples have been miserably wasted – to him, it was the least troublesome of all things, and certainly the cheapest. For he did not need to go anywhere for the sake venereal delights. Jokingly, he said that Aphrodite attended upon him straightaway in all placed, and that the poets slandered the goddess through their own licentiousness when they called her ‘golden’. Since a lot of people did not believe this, he jerked off in the open with everyone watching.

And he said that if all men did this, Troy would never have been taken, nor would Priam, king of the Phrygians and a descendant of Zeus, had been slain at that god’s altar. He added that the Achaeans were so stupid that they thought that even dead men still lusted for women, and killed Polyxena at the tomb of Achilles. He said that fish seemed a hell of a lot smarter than people: when they needed to blow a wad of sperm, they went out and rubbed themselves on something rough.

Indeed, he wondered that people wouldn’t pay a piece of silver to have their foot, or their hand, or any other part of their body rubbed, and even the very rich wouldn’t lose a drachma in this way. But that one part often cost whole talents of silver, and some people even wagered their lives for it. He joked that masturbation was the discovery of Pan. When he lusted after Echo but could not have her and wandered night and day through the mountains, Hermes took pity on his predicament and, since Pan was his son, taught him how to do it. When Pan had learned this, he was spared a lot of suffering, and shepherds learned how to do it from him.

“Wanna see a trick?”

ἔφη δὲ τοὺς πλουσίους ὁμοίους εἶναι τοῖς νεογνοῖς βρέφεσι· δεῖσθαι γὰρ ἀεί ποτε σπαργάνων. ὑπὲρ οὗ δὲ πλεῖστα μὲν πράγματα ἔχουσιν ἄνθρωποι, πλεῖστα δὲ χρήματα ἀναλίσκουσι, πολλαὶ δὲ ἀνάστατοι πόλεις διὰ ταῦτα γεγόνασι, πολλὰ δὲ ἔθνη τούτων ἕνεκεν οἰκτρῶς ἀπόλωλεν, ἁπάντων ἐκείνῳ χρημάτων ἀπονώτατον ἦν καὶ ἀδαπανώτατον. οὐ γὰρ ἔδει αὐτὸν οὐδαμόσε ἐλθεῖν ἀφροδισίων ἕνεκεν, ἀλλὰ παίζων ἔλεγεν ἁπανταχοῦ παρεῖναι αὐτῷ τὴν᾿Αφροδίτην προῖκα· τοὺς δὲ ποιητὰς καταψεύδεσθαι τῆς θεοῦ διὰ τὴν αὑτῶν ἀκρασίαν, πολύχρυσον καλοῦντας. ἐπεὶ δὲ πολλοὶ τοῦτο ἠπίστουν, ἐν τῷ φανερῷ ἐχρῆτο καὶ πάντων ὁρώντων· καὶ ἔλεγεν ὡς εἴπερ οἱ ἄνθρωποι οὕτως εἶχον, οὐκ ἂν ἑάλω ποτὲ ἡΤροία, οὐδ’ ἂν ὁ Πρίαμος ὁ Φρυγῶν βασιλεύς, ἀπὸ Διὸς γεγονώς, ἐπὶ τῷ βωμῷ τοῦ Διὸς ἐσφάγη. τοὺς δὲ ᾿Αχαιοὺς οὕτως εἶναι ἄφρονας ὥστε καὶ τοὺς νεκροὺς νομίζειν προσδεῖσθαι γυναικῶνκαὶ τὴν Πολυξένην σφάττειν ἐπὶ τῷ τάφῳ τοῦ ᾿Αχιλλέως. ἔφη δὲ τοὺς ἰχθύας σχεδόν τι φρονιμωτέρους φαίνεσθαι τῶν ἀνθρώπων· ὅταν γὰρ δέωνται τὸ σπέρμα ἀποβαλεῖν, ἰόντας ἔξω προσκνᾶσθαι πρὸς τὸ τραχύ. θαυμάζειν δὲ τῶν ἀνθρώπων τὸ τὸν μὲν πόδα μὴ θέλειν ἀργυρίου κνᾶσθαι μηδὲ τὴν χεῖρα μηδὲ ἄλλο μηδὲν τοῦ σώματος, μηδὲ τοὺς πάνυ πλουσίους ἀναλῶσαι ἂν μηδεμίαν ὑπὲρ τούτου δραχμήν· ἓν δὲ ἐκεῖνο τὸ μέρος πολλάκις πολλῶν ταλάντων, τοὺς δέ τινας ἤδη καὶ τῇ ψυχῇ παραβαλλομένους.ἔλεγε δὲ παίζων τὴν συνουσίαν ταύτην εὕρεμα εἶναι τοῦ Πανός, ὅτε τῆς ᾿Ηχοῦς ἐρασθεὶς οὐκ ἐδύνατο λαβεῖν, ἀλλ’ ἐπλανᾶτο ἐν τοῖς ὄρεσι νύκτα καὶ ἡμέραν, τότε οὖν τὸν ῾Ερμῆν διδάξαι αὐτόν, οἰκτείραντα τῆς ἀπορίας, ἅτε υἱὸν αὐτοῦ. καὶ τόν, ἐπεὶ ἔμαθε, παύσασθαι τῆς πολλῆς ταλαιπωρίας· ἀπ’ ἐκείνου δὲ τοὺς ποιμένας χρῆσθαι μαθόντας.

Platonic Despotism

John Addington Symonds,

Renaissance in Italy: The Age of the Despots (Chp. 3)

What I have said about Italian despotism is no mere fancy picture. The actual details of Milanese history, the innumerable tragedies of Lombardy, Romagna, and the Marches of Ancona, during the ascendency of despotic families, are far more terrible than any fiction; nor would it be easy for the imagination to invent so perplexing a mixture of savage barbarism with modern refinement. Savonarola’s denunciations and Villani’s descriptions of a despot read like passages from Plato’s Republic, like the most pregnant of Aristotle’s criticisms upon tyranny. The prologue to the sixth book of Matteo Villani’s Chronicle may be cited as a fair specimen of the judgment passed by contemporary Italian thinkers upon their princes (Libro Sesto, cap. i.): ‘The crimes of despots always hinder and often neutralize the virtues of good men. Their pleasures are at variance with morality. By them the riches of their subjects are swallowed up. They are foes to men who grow in wisdom and in greatness of soul in their dominions. They diminish by their imposts the wealth of the peoples ruled by them. Their unbridled lust is never satiated, but their subjects have to suffer such outrages and insults as their fancy may from time to time suggest. But inasmuch as the violence of tyranny is manifested to all eyes by these and many other atrocities, we need not enumerate them afresh. It is enough to select one feature, strange in appearance but familiar in fact; for what can be more extraordinary than to see princes of ancient and illustrious lineage bowing to the service of despots, men of high descent and time-honored nobility frequenting their tables and accepting their bounties? Yet if we consider the end of all this, the glory of tyrants often turns to misery and ruin. Who can exaggerate their wretchedness? They know not where to place their confidence; and their courtiers are always on the lookout for the despot’s fall, gladly lending their influence and best endeavors to undo him in spite of previous servility. This does not happen to hereditary kings, because their conduct toward their subjects, as well as their good qualities and all their circumstances, are of a nature contrary to that of tyrants. Therefore the very causes which produce and fortify and augment tyrannies, conceal and nourish in themselves the sources of their overthrow and ruin. This indeed is the greatest wretchedness of tyrants.’

A Giant’s Strength for Editing Athenaeus

Mark Pattison, Diary of Casaubon:

“Those who suppose that to edit a classic is among the easiest of literary toils, and only a fit occupation for laborious dulness, can form no conception of what Casaubon accomplished. Those only who know that a perfectly good edition of a classic is among the rarest of triumphs which the literary Fasti have to record; that for the last three centuries we have been incessantly labouring at the Greek and Latin remains, and yet that the number which have been satisfactorily edited is fewer than some of the most popular of ancient authors who have been attempted the oftenest, as e.g. Horace, still awaits a competent expositor – those only can measure what a giant’s strength was required to cope with Athenaeus, in the state in which his remains existed in the time of Casaubon.”

Did We Become Stoics or Assholes?

Giovanni Pico, Letter to Angelo Poliziano:

But what should I say about the humor of your Epictetus? A delightful thing, and worthy of Catonian laughter! He was hardly in the threshold, when he opened his cloak and said ‘Behold these obeloi, behold these arrows if you do not know Greek! Behold me ready to strike if any of you is feeling bold.’ Who could have held back their laughter to hear a Stoic joke so pleasantly? We abstained from our weapons, to be sure, both because he had threatened that he would repay the injury and because his skin had grown so hard that it would not be affected by such light blows. We thus received the old man with the veneration which was appropriate.

As soon as he sat down next to us, he began to philosophize about character, and did so in Latin not so much because he was among Latins (because there were in that conference those who knew Greek), but more because he could make his wisdom shine more clearly in Latin thanks to you. He did not waste his labor, because he no sooner ceased to speak than he converted us from Peripatetics to Stoics, and we all approved his apathy. Now it is possible to see people who were a little earlier of the most delicate constitutions and are now the most tolerant of suffering; we who used to be harmed by others are now only harmed by ourselves; now we never fight against fate, and we wish those things which are not ours to turn out as the gods would have them, and we never blame or accuse the gods for anything; we feel no pain, we complain about nothing, we know neither to be slaves nor to be conquered; we philosophize not in word but in deed.


Reading to No Purpose

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy:

Yet thus much I will say of myself, and that I hope without all suspicion of pride, or self-conceit, I have lived a silent, sedentary, solitary, private life, mihi et musis in the University, as long almost as Xenocrates in Athens, ad senectam fere to learn wisdom as he did, penned up most part in my study. For I have been brought up a student in the most flourishing college of Europe, augustissimo collegio, and can brag with Jovius, almost, in ea luce domicilii Vacicani, totius orbis celeberrimi, per 37 annos multa opportunaque didici; for thirty years I have continued (having the use of as good libraries as ever he had) a scholar, and would be therefore loath, either by living as a drone, to be an unprofitable or unworthy member of so learned and noble a society, or to write that which should be any way dishonourable to such a royal and ample foundation.

Something I have done, though by my profession a divine, yet turbine raptus ingenii, as he said, out of a running wit, an unconstant, unsettled mind, I had a great desire (not able to attain to a superficial skill in any) to have some smattering in all, to be aliquis in omnibus, nullus in singulis, which Plato commends, out of him Lipsius approves and furthers, “as fit to be imprinted in all curious wits, not to be a slave of one science, or dwell altogether in one subject, as most do, but to rove abroad, centum puer artium, to have an oar in every man’s boat, to taste of every dish, and sip of every cup,” which, saith Montaigne, was well performed by Aristotle, and his learned countryman Adrian Turnebus.

This roving humour (though not with like success) I have ever had, and like a ranging spaniel, that barks at every bird he sees, leaving his game, I have followed all, saving that which I should, and may justly complain, and truly, qui ubique est, nusquam est, which Gesner did in modesty, that I have read many books, but to little purpose, for want of good method; I have confusedly tumbled over divers authors in our libraries, with small profit, for want of art, order, memory, judgment.

I never travelled but in map or card, in which mine unconfined thoughts have freely expatiated, as having ever been especially delighted with the study of Cosmography. Saturn was lord of my geniture, culminating, &c., and Mars principal significator of manners, in partile conjunction with my ascendant; both fortunate in their houses, &c. I am not poor, I am not rich; nihil est, nihil deest, I have little, I want nothing: all my treasure is in Minerva’s tower.


Pius II, Commentaries 1.8:

When Aeneas set out for Milan, he found a nobleman from the great house of the Landriani had, by the order of the duke, been called through that chapter to the directorship and been led to its possession. Aeneas compelled this man to yield to him – so much did both the prince and the curia favor him. But, having obtained the directorship, he fell to the sick bed after being taken by a great fever. The duke Filippo sent his own doctor, a learned and cheerful man named Filippo of Bologna (who later served Pope Nicholas) to him every day.

When in the course of this illness Aeneas had taken a medicine and it had no effect, the doctor prepared a second medicine to be taken the next night. At the very hour when the second medicine was to be administered, his bowels began to move and so irritated him that he had to get up ninety times. Out of his mind because of this he rushed almost to death’s door, as they say. If he had taken the second medicine, he would have been weakened and consumed, and would have finally given up the ghost. Recognizing this as a sure sign from God, although he was disturbed by the continuous burning of the fever for 75 days, he could nevertheless not be prevailed upon to listen to the quacks even when a man was brought in who was said to have recently cured two thousand men in Niccolo Piccinino’s camp. Instead, trusting to God, by whose help he had been preserved in life, he took to the road though still afflicted with fever, and, liberated from it through bouts of horse riding, he returned to Basel.

Can we get a toilet put in here?

At Aeneas Mediolanum profectus nobilem quendam ex magna domo Landrianorum iussu ducis per capitulum ad eam preposituram vocatum et in possessionem adductum invenit, quem sibi mox cedere compulit: tantum Aenee et princeps et curia favit. Sed obtenta prepositura lectum egritudinis incidit ingenti febre correptus; ad quem Philippus suum medicum, doctum et laetum virum, Philippum Bononiensem – qui postea Nicolao papae servivit – singulis diebus mittebat. In hac aegritudine cum farmacum accepisset, neque id quicquam operatum esset, potionemque alteram sequenti nocte sumendam medicus preparasset, ipsa hora, qua ministrari secundum farmacum debuit, moveri venter cepit atque adeo vexavit hominem, ut nonaginta vicibus assurgere cogeretur. Ob quam rem mente alienatus ad portas – ut aiunt – mortis usque cucurrit. Quod si potionem alteram ebibisset, animam procul dubio extenuatus atque consumptus exalasset. Quod certissimum Dei beneficium intelligens, quamvis quinque et septuaginta dies continuo febris ardore quateretur, nunquam tamen adduci potuit, ut incantatoribus auscultaret, quamvis homo ad se duceretur, quem novissime in castris Nicolai Picinini duo millia virorum ex febribus liberasse dicebant. Sed Deo fidens, cuius ope servatus in vita fuerat, adhuc febricitans iter accipiens inter equitandum liberatus Basileam reversus est.

Pius II Hates Scotland

Pius II, Commentaries 1.7:

After much of the night had passed, a great uproar was made by barking dogs and honking geese. Then all the women went forth in different directions, and even the guide of the journey took flight, and everything was a full-blown uproar as if enemies were at the gates. But to Aeneas, it seemed far better counsel to wait inside the bedroom (which was a stable) and expect the outcome there, fearing that if he were to run outside uncertain of the way, he would simply be giving himself up to be despoiled by whomever he came across first. Without delay, the women came back with the interpreter and said that there was nothing wrong, that it was friends and not enemies who had arrived. Aeneas reckoned that this was the reward of his firm resolve, and when day shone again, he commited himself to the road and arrived at Newcastle, which they say was founded by Caesar. There he saw once again the figure of the world and the habitable portion of the earth, for Scotland and the part of England closest to it have nothing at all like the land where we live – it is horrid, uncultivated, and not exposed to the winter sun.