Amoral Romans

Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater:

There is not (I believe) in human society, under whatever form of civilisation, any trust or delegated duty which has more often been negligently or even perfidiously administered. In the days of classical Greece and Rome, my own private impression, founded on the collation of many incidental notices, is – that this, beyond all other forms of domestic authority, furnished to wholesale rapine and peculation the very amplest arena. The relation of father and son, as was that of patron and client, was generally, in the practice of life, cherished with religious fidelity: whereas the solemn duties of the tutor (i.e. the guardian) to his ward, which had their very root and origin in the tenderest adjurations of a dying friend, though subsequently refreshed by the hourly spectacle of helpless orphanage playing round the margins of pitfalls hidden by flowers, spoke but seldom to the sensibilities of a Roman through any language of oracular power. Few indeed, if any, were the obligations, in a proper sense moral, which pressed upon the Roman.


We Deserve More Praise For Our Latin

Gianfrancesco Pico, Letter to Pietro Bembo:

To be sure, both Greek and Latin were effectively innate to the ancients, but we must seek these languages from their books, and thus we should receive a greater accession of legitimate praise for learning them. For they, even if they were unwilling, spoke Greek in Greece and Latin in Italy; but we Italians who speak Latin (not to mention Greek) have earned and acquired that skill through our industry. Thus it will happen that, should our age happen to get a fair judge of these matters, those who now speak even in a fairly middling way will be justly preferred to those outstanding champions of old, since the men of today, having had commerce with the Goths, Vandals, and the Huns, yet retain that ancient mode of speech worn down by so many centuries, or at any rate they attempt to retain it through continual imitation, in which pursuit there is perchance a marvelous – nay, even excessive mental subtlety.

Detail from one of the graffiti images

Lingua certe veteribus illis cum Graeca tum Latina quasi nativa adfuit, quam ab eorum libris petere nos oportet, quibus maior ea de re legitimae laudis accesio. Illi enim vel nolentes et in Hellade Graece et in Italia Latine loquebantur; nobis Italis qui Latine loquamur, nedum Graece, id nostra est partum et elaboratum industria. Inde fiet aequum rerum aestimatorem si sortiatur nostra aetas, posse eos qui nunc mediocriter loquuntur praecipuis illis et antesignanis iure praeferri, qui scilicet inter Gothos, Vandalos, Hunnosque versati priscam illam et tot saeculis abolitam dicendi rationem aut teneant aut tenere conentur imitatione continua, qua etiam in re mira subtilitas et forte nimia.

Politian on Polishing Tully’s Turds

Politian, Letter to Paolo Cortesi

I am sending back the letters collected by your diligence, in reading which (if I may speak freely) I am ashamed to have wasted some good hours. For, excepting just a few of them, they are hardly worth being said to have been read by a learned person or collected by you. I won’t explain which I approve and which I find fault with. I do not wish for anyone to be satisfied with himself or displeased with himself in these because of me. Yet, there is something in the style in which I must dissent from you. For, you are not (as far as I can tell) accustomed to approve of anyone unless they copy out Cicero’s path. But to me, the face of the bull or the lion seems far nobler than that of the ape, which is yet closer to that of the human. Nor, as Seneca has suggested, are those who are thought to have held the chief place of eloquence similar to each other. Quintilian mocks those who think that they are the brothers of Cicero because they close every period with these words: esse videatur. Horace inveighs against imitators who do nothing but imitate. In my opinion, those who only compose from imitation seem similar to parrots or magpies, which repeat things which they do not understand. The things which those authors write lack strength and vitality; they lack action, emotion, talent; their writings lie down, sleep, and snore. Nothing in them is true, solid, or effective. Someone tells me, You don’t express Cicero. So what? I’m not Cicero. Nevertheless, as I think, I express myself.

El Humanista Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494) - Literatura

Remitto epistolas diligentia tua collectas, in quibus legendis, ut libere dicam, pudet bonas horas male collocasse. Nam praeter omnino paucas, minime dignae sunt quae vel a docto aliquo lectae vel a te collectae dicantur. Quas probem, quas rursus improbem, non explico. Nolo sibi quisquam vel placeat in his, auctore me, vel displiceat. Est in quo tamen a te dissentiam de stylo nonnihil. Non enim probare soles, ut accepi, nisi qui lineamenta Ciceronis effingat. Mihi vero longe honestior tauri facies aut item leonis quam simiae videtur, quae tamen homini similior est. Nec ii, qui principatum tenuisse creduntur eloquentiae, similes inter se, quod Seneca prodidit. Ridentur a Quintiliano qui se germanos Ciceronis putabant esse, quod his verbis periodum clauderent: esse videatur. Inclamat Horatius imitatores, ac nihil aliud quam imitatores. Mihi certe quicumque tantum componunt ex imitatione, similes esse vel psittaco vel picae videntur, proferentibus quae nec intelligunt. Carent enim quae scribunt isti viribus et vita; carent actu, carent affectu, carent indole, iacent, dormiunt, stertunt. Nihil ibi verum, nihil solidum, nihil efficax. Non exprimis, inquit aliquis, Ciceronem. Quid tum? non enim sum Cicero; me tamen, ut opinor, exprimo.

Everything Good Comes From Athens

Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster:

Athens, by this discipline and good ordering of yougthe, did breede vp, within the circute of that one Citie, within the compas of one hondred yeare, within the memorie of one mans life, so manie notable Capitaines in warre, for worthinesse, wisdome and learning, as be scarse matchable no not in the state of Rome, in the compas of those seauen hondred yeares, whan it florished moste.

And bicause, I will not onelie saie it, but also proue it, the names of them be these. Miltiades, Themistocles, Xantippus, Pericles, Cymon, Alcybiades, Thrasybulus, Conon, Iphicrates, Xenophon, Timotheus, Theopompus, Demetrius, and diuers other mo: of which euerie one, maie iustelie be spoken that worthie praise, which was geuen toScipio Africanus, who, Cicero douteth, whether he were, more noble Capitaine in warre, or more eloquent and wise councelor in peace. And if ye beleue not me, read diligentlie, Aemilius Probus in Latin, and Plutarche in Greke, which two, had no cause either to flatter or lie vpon anie of those which I haue recited.

And beside nobilitie in warre, for excellent and matchles masters in all maner of learninge, in that one Citie, in memorie of one aige, were mo learned men, and that in a maner altogether, than all tyme doth remember, than all place doth affourde, than all other tonges do conteine. And I do not meene of those Authors, which, by iniurie of tyme, by negligence of men, by crueltie of fier and sworde, be lost, but euen of those, which by Goddes grace, are left yet vnto us: of which I thank God, euen my poore studie lacketh not one. As, in Philosophie, Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Euclide and Theophrast: In eloquens and Ciuill lawe, Demosthenes, Aeschines, Lycurgus, Dinarchus, Demades, Isocrates, Isaeus, Lysias, Antisthenes, Andocides: In histories, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon: and which we lacke, to our great losse, Theopompus and Ephorus: In Poetrie Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and somwhat of Menander, Demosthenes sister sonne.

      Now, let Italian, and Latin it self, Spanishe, French, Douch, and Englishe bring forth their lerning, and recite their Authors, Cicero onelie excepted, and one or two moe in Latin, they be all patched cloutes and ragges, in comparison of faire wouen broade clothes. And trewelie, if there be any good in them, it is either lerned, borowed, or stolne, from some one of those worthie wittes of Athens.

Intelligence & The Golden Mean

Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster

But it is notable and trewe, that Socrates saith in Plato to his frende Crito. That, that number of men is fewest, which far excede, either in good or ill, in wisdom of folie, but the meane betwixt both, be the greatest number: which he proueth trewe in diuerse other thinges: as in greyhoundes, emonges which fewe are found, exceding greate, or exceding litle, exceding swift, or exceding slowe: And therfore I speaking of quick and hard wittes, I ment, the common number of quicke and hard wittes, emonges the which, for the most parte, the hard witte, proueth manie times, the better learned, wiser and honester man: and therfore, do I the more lament, that soch wittes commonlie be either kepte from learning, by fond fathers, or bet from learning by lewde scholemasters.

Breaks and Games in Education

Quintilian  1.3

“Everyone still needs some kind of break, not only because there is no material which can endure endless labor—and even those things which lack perception or life must be guarded in turns of rest in order to protect their strength—but also because studying requires a desire to learn which cannot be compelled.

Once renewed and made fresh, students who often bristle at what is compulsory bring a greater intensity and a sharper mind to learning. Games do not bother me in young students—for this is also a sign of an excited mind—and I do not hope that a sad and always downcast child will come to studies with a sharp mind when the natural energy customary to that age is missing.

But, still, there should be a reasonable balance to breaks so students might not hate their studies when breaks are denied nor get too accustomed to leisure. There are even some games which are helpful for sharpening the wits of students—such as when they compete by asking each other little questions of any kind. Characters also unveil themselves more simply during games. But, no age seems to be so infirm that it cannot learn immediately what is right and wrong and the age especially good for shaping a character is before children know how to dissimulate and still yield to their teachers most easily. For it is faster to break things that have hardened into evil than it is to correct them.”

Danda est tamen omnibus aliqua remissio, non solum quia nulla res est quae perferre possit continuum laborem, atque ea quoque quae sensu et anima carent ut servare vim suam possint velut quiete alterna retenduntur, sed quod studium discendi voluntate, quae cogi non potest, constat. Itaque et virium plus adferunt ad discendum renovati ac recentes et acriorem animum, qui fere necessitatibus repugnat. Nec me offenderit lusus in pueris (est et hoc signum alacritatis), neque illum tristem semperque demissum sperare possim erectae circa studia mentis fore, cum in hoc quoque maxime naturali aetatibus illis impetu iaceat. Modus tamen sit remissionibus, ne aut odium studiorum faciant negatae aut otii consuetudinem nimiae. Sunt etiam nonnulli acuendis puerorum ingeniis non inutiles lusus, cum positis invicem cuiusque generis quaestiunculis aemulantur. Mores quoque se inter ludendum simplicius detegunt: modo nulla videatur aetas tam infirma quae non protinus quid rectum pravumque sit discat, tum vel maxime formanda cum simulandi nescia est et praecipientibus facillime cedit; frangas enim citius quam corrigas quae in pravum induruerunt.

Image result for medieval manuscript student and teachers
From the British Library

Scholarship vs. Skill

Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater:

I return to my own inaugural examination. On this day, memorable to myself, as furnishing the starting- point for so long a series of days, saddened by haughty obstinacy on one side, made effective by folly on the other, no sooner had my guardian retired, than Mr. Lawson produced from his desk a volume of the Spectator, and instructed me to throw into as good Latin as I could some paper of Steele’s — not the whole, but perhaps a third part. No better exercise could have been devised for testing the extent of my skill as a Latinist.

And here I ought to make an explanation. In the previous edition of these Confessions, writing sometimes too rapidly, and with little precision in cases of little importance, I conveyed an impression which I had not designed, with regard to the true nature of my pretensions as a Grecian; and something of the same correction will apply to that narrower accomplishment which was the subject of my present examination.

Neither in Greek nor in Latin was my knowledge very extensive; my age made that impossible; and especially because in those days there were no decent guides through the thorny jungles of the Latin language, far less of the Greek. When I mention that the Port Royal Greek Grammar translated by Dr. Nugent was about the best key extant in English to the innumerable perplexities of Greek diction; and that, for the res metrica, Moreli’s valuable Thesaurus, having then never been reprinted, was rarely to be seen, the reader will conclude that a schoolboy’s knowledge of Greek could not be other than slender. Slender indeed was mine. Yet stop! What was slender? Simply my knowledge of Greek; for that knowledge stretches by tendency to the infinite; but not therefore my command of Greek. The knowledge of Greek must always hold some gross proportion to the time spent upon it, probably, therefore, to the age of the student; but the command over a language, the power of adapting it plastically to the expression of your own thoughts, is almost exclusively a gift of nature, and has very little connection with time.

Take the supreme trinity of Greek scholars that flourished between the English Revolution of 1688 and the beginning of the nineteenth century — which trinity I suppose to be confessedly, Bentley, Valckenaer, and Porson — such are the men, it will be generally fancied, whose aid should be invoked, in the event of our needing some eloquent Greek inscription on a public monument. I am of a different opinion. The greatest scholars have usually proved to be the poorest composers in either of the classic languages. Sixty years ago, we had, from four separate doctors, four separate Greek versions of Gray’s Elegy all unworthy of the national scholarship. Yet one of these doctors was actually Porson’s predecessor in the Greek chair at Cambridge. But as he (Dr. Cooke) was an obscure man, take an undeniable Grecian, of punctilious precision — viz., Richard Dawes, the well-known author of the  Miscellanea Critica. This man, a very martinet in the delicacies of Greek composition, — and who should have been a Greek scholar of some mark, since often enough he flew at the throat of Richard Bentley, — wrote and published a specimen of a Greek Paradise Lost, and also two most sycophantic idyls addressed to George II on the death of his ‘august’ papa. It is difficult to imagine anything meaner in conception or more childish in expression than these attempts. Now, against them I will stake in competition a copy of iambic verses by a boy, who died, I believe, at sixteen — viz., a son of Mr. Pitt’s tutor, Tomline, Bishop of Winchester. Universally I contend that the faculty of clothing the thoughts in a Greek dress is a function of natural sensibility, in a great degree disconnected from the extent or the accuracy of the writer’s grammatical skill in Greek.