Only Blockheads Would Ban Poetry

Leonardo Bruni, de Studiis et Litteris (§26)

“I would readily ask of one of those who persecute the poets, ‘For what reason do you think that the poets should not be read?’ Though they plainly have nothing which they could impute to them, they will nevertheless say that it is because love and debauchery can be found in their poetry. Yet, I would dare to affirm that in no authors could such examples of modesty and good things more generally be found than in the poets. Consider the most faithful chastity of Penelope for Ulysses, and the unbelievable virtue which Aclestis showed for Admetus, and the admirable constancy which each showed toward their husbands in their absences and calamities. Many of these sorts of things can be read in the poets – the greatest documents of wifely discipline.

If occasionally the poets describe loves like that of Apollo for Daphne, or the affair of Vulcan and Venus, who is so obtuse that he would not understand that these are fictions which represent one thing metaphorically for another? Further, there are very few things which you condemn, but there are very many which are of the highest quality and at any rate certainly worth reading, as I have above shown in my discussion of Homer and Vergil. It is unjust in the extreme to forget those things which deserve true praise while remembering those which offer up a handle for reproach.

A severe critic says to me, ‘Don’t let those things get mixed up! I would sooner abandon the good from fear of evil than I would run into evil from hope for the good. Therefore, I will not read the poets, nor will I permit others to do so.’ But hey, Plato and Aristotle themselves read poetry!”

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Cowardice, Education,Socrates

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers – Aristippus 71

“When Aristippus was sailing to Corinth and caught in a storm, he found himself frightened. In response to someone who said, ‘We common people feel no fear, but you philosophers are whining like cowards,’ he replied, ‘We are not worried about lives of the same value.’

Another time, when someone was boasting about his polymathy, Aristippus responded, ‘Just as those who eat and exercise the most do not enjoy better health than those who do only as much as necessary, so too a serious person is not one who has learned much, but one who has learned what is profitable.

A lawyer spoke and won a case against him, and subsequently asked, ‘What good did Socrates do you?’ Aristippus replied, ‘This: that all of the words which you spoke about me are true.’”

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Εἰς Κόρινθον αὐτῷ πλέοντί ποτε καὶ χειμαζομένῳ συνέβη ταραχθῆναι. πρὸς οὖν τὸν εἰπόντα, “ἡμεῖς μὲν οἱ ἰδιῶται οὐ δεδοίκαμεν, ὑμεῖς δ’ οἱ φιλόσοφοι δειλιᾶτε,” “οὐ γὰρ περὶ ὁμοίας,” ἔφη, “ψυχῆς ἀγωνιῶμεν ἕκαστοι.” σεμνυνομένου τινὸς ἐπὶ πολυμαθείᾳ ἔφη, “ὥσπερ οὐχ οἱ τὰ πλεῖστα ἐσθίοντες καὶ γυμναζόμενοι ὑγιαίνουσι μᾶλλον τῶν τὰ δέοντα προσφερομένων, οὕτως οὐδὲ οἱ πολλὰ ἀλλ’ οἱ χρήσιμα ἀναγινώσκοντές εἰσι σπουδαῖοι.” πρὸς τὸν ὑπὲρ αὐτοῦ λογογράφον δίκην εἰπόντα καὶ νικήσαντα, ἔπειτα φάσκοντα πρὸς αὐτόν, “τί σε ὤνησε Σωκράτης;”, ἔφη, “τοῦτο, τοὺς λόγους, οὓς εἶπας ὑπὲρ ἐμοῦ, ἀληθεῖς εἶναι.”

More Cyrenaic Wisdom

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers – Aristippus (70)

“When someone proposed a riddle to Aristippus and asked him to solve it, Aristippus responded, ‘You idle fool, you want this solved, even though it offers us plenty of trouble in its unsolved state?’

He said that it was better to be a beggar than to be uneducated, for a beggar is lacking money, but the uneducated person is lacking humanity.

One time, when upbraided, he ran away. When someone pursued him, asking why he fled, he responded, ‘Because you have the power of talking trash, and I have the power of not listening.’

When someone said that he always saw philosophers at the doorways of the rich, Aristippus replied, ‘So too you always find doctors at the doorways of the sick. But one would not on that account choose rather to be sick than to be a doctor.”

Aristippus

Αἴνιγμά τινος αὐτῷ προτείναντος καὶ εἰπόντος, “λῦσον,” “τί, ὦ μάταιε,” ἔφη, “λῦσαι θέλεις ὃ καὶ δεδεμένον ἡμῖν πράγματα παρέχει;” ἄμεινον ἔφη ἐπαιτεῖν ἢ ἀπαίδευτον εἶναι· οἱ μὲν γὰρ χρημάτων, οἱ δ’ ἀνθρωπισμοῦ δέονται. λοιδορούμενός ποτε ἀνεχώρει· τοῦ δ’ ἐπιδιώκοντος εἰπόντος, “τί φεύγεις;”, “ὅτι,” φησί, “τοῦ μὲν κακῶς λέγειν σὺ τὴν ἐξουσίαν ἔχεις, τοῦ δὲ μὴ ἀκούειν ἐγώ.” εἰπόντος τινὸς ὡς ἀεὶ τοὺς φιλοσόφους βλέποι παρὰ ταῖς τῶν πλουσίων θύραις, “καὶ γὰρ οἱ ἰατροί,” φησί, “παρὰ ταῖς τῶν νοσούντων· ἀλλ’ οὐ παρὰ τοῦτό τις ἂν ἕλοιτο νοσεῖν ἢ ἰατρεύειν.”

Classics and Theory: A Monday Rant

This is a slightly adapted and expanded edition of my #classicsandtheoryrant from twitter

One of the things I love about social media is that it has allowed me to connect with people who love the Classics and know a lot about it all over the world. Some of these people have ‘credentials’ and experiences similar to mine, but many do not. Across the board, I try to ignore these conventional markers of intellectual authority on twitter etc. and just listen to what people say. And, really, I have learned a lot.

But one thing that has been increasingly frustrating  over the past year is a small but insistent chorus of voices who insist that Classics is being ruined by “post-modern theory”. Generally, these voices come from outside the traditional academy or from more conventional corners within them. But most often they represent ‘threatened constituents’ of the modern world–by which I mean people who also object to ‘diversity’, ‘political correctness’ and a whole bunch of buzzwords and phrases that are popular media shorthand for a world that is not dominated by traditional, male, Eurocentric perspectives. (And, you know, white supremacists. This does not mean that all anti-theory people are white supremacists, so, dude, chill.)

This is in part frustrating because I thought we were past this. I know this is naïve and I know that Classics is way behind other disciplines in the aggregate when it comes to using critical theory, but we have long had a small and influential group of people pushing our field to respond to the modern world and engage with new ideas.

But it is also infuriating because it attests to an essential fragility (also, read this if the term is upsetting). Is our confidence in the way we have received the past so shaky that it can brook no challenge? Often, the knee-jerk or even committed aversion to theory is really a desire to exclude others. I almost respect those supremacists more because they at least admit it. (But let me be clear, I really, really don’t like ethnonationalists and white supremacists.)

Engagement with theory is critical because it acknowledges that as interpreters we are subjects who are shaped by our experiences and the narratives and discourse through which culture shapes us based on our gender, sexual identity, race, (dis)abilities, age, etc. Our bodies are not instruments we drive through the world, they are part of us and mediate our experience of everything. The world treats us differently based on the bodies we inhabit. These two facts shape the way we respond to everything.

Acknowledging the primacy of subjectivity is only one part of modern theory which is dismissed. I won’t even bother listing all of the theoretical approaches that have helped us understand the ancient world better. It is a type of retrograde derangement not to use new tools to look at old things. Imagine if people were railing against the use of spectral imaging in archaeology or the application of new chemical testing or any one of a range of technologies that have developed over the past generation. We would all be incredulous.

Many of the same people, however, who champion what aDNA testing might tell us about ancient peoples, also deny the validity of applying new tests to ancient literature and culture which have been developed in respectable fields like anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, English, sociology, and others. The reason for this is clear: the process tells different stories about the past than many of us were raised with. This is uncomfortable.

If art does not make us uncomfortable or question the past at all, then it is merely entertainment. Scholarship that merely repeats or reinforces what we already know is essentially masturbatory.

The argument over who gets to interpret the past and how is political. “Post-modern” is a catch-all phrase for many different approaches which are dismissed by conservative traditionalists. This argument raged through the field in the 1980s as Eric Adler documents well.  There was another major flare up with the Who Killed Homer? nonsense. I think we might have missed a renewal of these complaints in the late 2000s because of the severe economic downturn.

But this debate is all about power: The power to interpret and possess meaning; The power to have meaning in the world; The power to be a full and equal subject in a flawed society. Such striving has been going on since some literary theorists had the gall to imagine that texts were more than pristine aesthetic objects with timeless secrets for the properly initiated to unlock.

I have a few simple points to make in closing. The first is that scholarship is not a zero-sum game. Applying new theoretical frames does not wipe out the old ones or render them useless. If we apply the analogy of biodiversity to ideas, then the more voices and ideas we can explore within a productive system, the more variety and understanding we can get out of it. This is destined to be chaotic and painful, but it is creative and exciting.

New ideas build upon older ones. Some gain purchase for more than a few years become part of the tradition. Some ideas are as Glaukos says like leaves on the tree which grow for a brief time and then wither and die. Others somehow become evergreen, in the moment we cannot know. We can argue for what we believe and push back against other ideas—but we need to acknowledge that sometimes our need to push back against other ideas is driven by a desire to exclude people not the ideas.

A second point which is by no means original is that you can love something and see that it might be bad for something or need to change. E.g. chocolate cake is delicious, but it can kill you. Cigarettes are delightful, but they will give you cancer. Anything made by humans is imperfect because we are not perfect. Saying the Homeric epics are misogynistic or using Marxist theory to show how they (re-)produce structural oppression does not erase their beauty or their impact. Instead, it shows that their beauty may also have a harmful impact. It helps us understand how they work and how we work as human communities.

And if you cannot love something flawed, you simply cannot love. Let go of the Platonic nonsense of perfection in the mind of a distant god. Real, human love embraces the ways in which we are flawed and celebrates that despite the horror, baseness, and temporariness which is our inheritance, we are still capable of beauty.

A third point is also not original: all methods of interpretation are ideological and have a theory. If the theory is not explicit, that does not mean it is not there. It means it is naïve and unquestioned. Philology is a means not an end. We classicists are trained in philology so we don’t make basic mistakes and we can distinguish good arguments from bad ones. But we are at a point in the production of knowledge that no one can learn everything which is required to understand the ancient world. We need to work together. We need polymathy and polyphony.

The practice of classics as developed in Europe around the enlightenment is ideologically connected to a particular time, a set of bodies and languages, and a cultural apparatus distinct from ancient Greece and Rome. The ‘Classics’ created by the Renaissance and Enlightenment is not coterminous with the beliefs, practices, and texts of actual Greece and Rome. In a way, to emulate a 19th century German classicist in everything is little different from strapping on some leather armor and LARPing at a Renaissance Faire. Both are fun and can require a lot of expertise. But both are still play-acting.

It is not ‘authentic’ or ‘correct’ to treat ancient texts in this way any more or less than it was authentic and correct for Plotinus and Porphyry to say the Odyssey is an elaborate allegory for the mind.

All reading is reception. All interpretation is ideological. Being explicit about our ideological receptions helps us communicate better with each other and through the generations.

When we allow new perspectives and viewpoints, we enrich our reception of the past. Some of this enrichment might turn out be misleading or start out as bewildering; indeed, it might be only temporarily insightful. But striving to make new sense of the old, to try to surpass those who have already labored, is better than sucking on the marrow of corpses and wallowing in mute ash.

Миниатюры.: philologist

f. 305v. The Fouquet Missal. Bourges, c.1470-1475

Seneca Moral Epistle 108

But some error comes thanks to our teachers who instruct us how to argue but not how to live; some error too comes from students, who bring themselves to teachers not for the nourishing of the soul, but the cultivation of our wit. Thus what was philosophy has been turned into philology.”

Sed aliquid praecipientium vitio peccatur, qui nos docent disputare, non vivere, aliquid discentium, qui propositum adferunt ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium. Itaque quae philosophia fuit, facta philologia est.

Boccaccio’s Early Renaissance Hermeneutics

Giovanni Boccaccio, Genealogia Deorum Gentilium 1.3

“It is to be understood that there is not one simple meaning to these fictions; rather, this may be called polisenum, that is to say ‘of many meanings.’ The first sense may be considered through the outer surface of the fiction, and this is called the literal sense. Other senses are those which are signified through the surface, and these are said to be allegorical.

To make my point clearer, I will provide an example. Perseus, by a figment of the poetic imagination, was the son of Zeus who killed the Gorgon and then, victorious, flew away into the air. While this is read literally, the historical sense is offered up to us. If one were to search for the moral sense of the tale, it is a depiction of wisdom’s victory over vice and the approach to real virtue. But if we wanted to take the tale allegorically, it signifies the elevation of a pious mind to the celestial heights after it has spurned all worldly pleasures. Further, an anagogical interpretation would have it that the story represents the ascent of Christ to God the Father after overcoming the ruler of this world.

Even though these approaches may be called by different names, they can all be called allegory, as it often happens. The word allegory is derived from the Greek allon, which means alienum or diversum (different or diverse), and on that account, however many interpretations may be diverse in the historical or literal modes, they may all rightly be called allegory. Yet, I hardly have a mind to explain the stories which I present according to all of their particular senses or interpretations, since I imagine that it is enough to explicate one of many different senses, though on occasion perhaps more senses will be brought to the fore.”

 

sciendum est his fictionibus non esse tantum unicum intellectum, quin imo dici potest potius polisenum, hoc est moltiplicium sensum. Nam sensus primus habetur per corticem, et hic licteralis vocatus est; alii per significata per corticem, et hi allegorici nuncupantur.

Et ut quid velim facilius assummatur, ponemus exemplum. Perseus Iovis filius figmento poetico occidit Gorgonem, et victor evolavit in ethera. Hoc dum legitur per licteram hystorialis sensus prestatur. Si moralis ex hac lictera queritur intellectus, victoria ostenditur prudentis in vicium, et ad virtutem accessio. Allegorice autem si velimus assummere, pie mentis spretis mundanis deliciis ad celestia elevatio designatur. Preterea posset et anagogice dici per fabulam Christi ascensum ad patrem mundi principe superato figurari.

Qui tamen sensus etsi variis nuncupentur nominibus, possunt tamen omnes allegorici appellari, quod ut plurimum fit. Nam allegoria dicitur ab allon, quod alienum latine significat, sive diversum, et ideo quot diversi ab hystoriali seu licterali sint sensu, allegorici possunt, ut dictum est, merito vocitari. Verumtamen non est animus michi secundum omnes sensus enucleare fabulas que sequuntur, cum satis arbitrer unum ex pluribus explicasse, esto aliquando apponentur fortasse plures.

The Limits of Pedantry

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship, Vol. III – Lessing:

“The services rendered by Winckelmann, in bringing the old Greek world into connexion with modern life, were continued in a still larger measure by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729 1781). His father was curate of Kamenz, a small town N.E. of Dresden. At the age of five, when it was proposed to paint his portrait with a bird-cage beside him, the future scholar vehemently protested: ‘you must paint me with a great, great heap of books, or I won’t be painted at all’. At thirteen, he was sent to the famous school of St Afra at Meissen, N.W. of Dresden. The education there given was mainly classical, and the boy’s private reading included Anacreon and the Characters of Theophrastus, as well as Plautus and Terence. He was only seventeen when he entered the university of Leipzig, where J. F. Christ was already lecturing on ancient art, and on Plautus and Horace, and Ernesti was ‘extraordinary professor of Eloquence’, while Kastner, the young professor of mathematics, was soon to give proof of his special interest in literature, and in Lessing. At Leipzig the young student became convinced that ‘books might make him learned, but could never make him a man’, and it was there that he produced his earliest play, a satire on the conceited self-complacency of a youthful pedant. The author had just become conscious of his own pedantry, his horizon had been widened, and the spirit of modern ‘enlightenment ‘ had breathed life into the dry bones of scholarship.”

 

True Philology That Brings Health to the Soul

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship, Vol. III – Barthold Georg Niebuhr

“In 1822 he [Niebuhr] addressed, to a young friend, a memorable letter, in which he sets forth a high ideal of a scholar’s life. The authors specially recommended for study are Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Pindar, with Herodotus, Thucydides, Demosthenes and Plutarch, and Cicero, Livy, Caesar, Sallust and Tacitus. All these were to be read with reverence, not with a view to making them the themes of aesthetic criticism, but with a resolve to assimilate their spirit. This (he declares) is the true ‘Philology’ that brings health to the soul, while learned investigations (in the case of such as attain to them) belong to a lower level.”

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Fruitful Latin Study Impossible Without Greek

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship Vol. III – Lucian Müller

“As a child, he [Lucian Müller] had lost the sight of one of his eyes, and was very short-sighted; as a boy, he repeatedly read through Zumpt’s larger Latin Grammar and made himself the best Latinist in his school. During his brief experience as a school-master, he proved an ineffective disciplinarian; his head-master, in the hope of improving the discipline of the boys, solemnly told them that they ‘did not deserve to be taught by so learned a master’, and repeated this remark to Lucian Müller, who replied, ‘Yes ! that is exactly what I have told them myself. He held that, for a great scholar, it was essential that he should have, not only wide learning and clear judgement, but also a strong power of concentration on a definite field of labour. It was this that led to his own success in the province of Latin poetry. But he was far from neglecting Greek, for he also held that, without Greek, a fruitful study of Latin was impossible. He was a skilful writer of Latin verse, and insisted on the practice of verse composition as a valuable aid towards the appreciation of the Latin poets. He was impressed with this fact during the preparation of his ‘History of Classical Philology in the Netherlands’ (1865), and he returned to the point in his biographical sketch of the life of Ritschl (1877-8), in the course of which he urged that it was, on the whole, more important for an eminent classical professor to train first-rate school-masters than to turn out classical specialists.”

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In Defense of Obscenity

Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo

“I will fuck you guys in the ass and make you suck my cock…”

So Catullus begins his infamous sixteenth poem, which may stand scrutiny to this day as the most terse and elegant defense of aesthetic obscenity ever penned. The general purport of the poem is this: Two censorious critics, Furius and Aurelius, have upbraided Catullus for the lascivious nature of his verses. Catullus responds by playfully bandying about obscene threats, and notes that “it is fitting that a poet be chaste, but his verses need not be so,” adding further that they are rendered all the more charming by their very obscenity. Catullus urges us not to be blockheads or amateur readers – he urges us to separate the author from his work.

Surely, this is a sentiment which even modern readers can readily appreciate. Stern Catos, begone! The Culture Wars may still rage on in this country, but the warm embrace offered by Evangelicals and other cultural conservatives in America to a man who resembles a rotten apricot, oozing the putrescent slime of every 1980’s porn fantasy, suggests that they never cared about culture (or at any rate, certainly not about prurience or obscenity) in the first place. As so often happens, a prudish and censorious attitude has served as little more than a pose taken to lend a veneer of moral respectability to the overarching project of gaining power over the human body. Thus, ostensibly conservative critics may in fact feel very little cognitive dissonance between their stated views on the morality of explicitly sexual content in art and their support of a man so eager to commit sexual violence.

One might think that, of all subjects, ancient literature would surely have little to do with this moral and intellectual conflict. Many people whom I meet are surprised that anyone still reads ancient texts at all, and seem wholly unaware of the fact that many of the texts which are deemed ‘canonical’ contain substantial amounts of material ranging from the moderately raunchy to the most blatant smut. Young students of the Classics are often wholly taken aback when they are first exposed to the more prurient side of ancient literature. I recall entertaining a vague notion in those benighted days of my youth that Greek and Latin poetry were lofty and elevated, sublime and beautiful. And so they can be. Yet, there is also a certain artistry in the perfectly executed bawdy joke or sexual epigram. You may consider tossing out Aristotle and Longinus, because Martial – an actual poet – has given us the final word on poetics:

“Cornelius, you complain that I write poems which are not serious enough, and which a teacher would not read in school: but my poems, just like a husband with his wife, cannot please without a penis.”

Versus scribere me parum seueros
nec quos praelegat in schola magister,
Corneli, quereris: sed hi libelli,
tamquam coniugibus suis mariti,
non possunt sine mentula placere.

[Martial, 1.35]

Poems which a teacher would not read in school? If this was true in Martial’s time, how much more perilous is it in an age still influenced by the dark vestiges of our Puritan past? I would not dare to let my students read Catullus 16 or indeed any of my favorite ribald and raunchy writings of antiquity because I would, if at all possible, like to remain employed. And yet, I know that exposure to such poems was one of my most thrilling intellectual experiences as an undergraduate. And yet, I know that these students already hear far worse in their various entertainments. And yet, it is absurd to pretend that there is something fundamentally wrong or immoral about obscenity, whether it simply be puerile bathroom humor, or prurient sexual jokes. Indeed, I conjecture that obscenity ought to be introduced to the young as alcohol should – under guidance and supervision, to ensure the development of respectful and responsible use. We have all known the friend in college who, upon first letting the sweet gift of Bacchus touch their lips, was then wholly unable to enjoy alcohol temperately. Yet, we also know those who learned a sense of discretion and moderation by being taught how to drink. Similarly, if our cultural critics have noticed a descent into base, crass, immoderate obscenity, it may be because the subject is never discussed with our children in any reasonable or intellectualized light; it is, rather, entirely forbidden to them, until they expose themselves to the cheap and pre-fabricated obscenity available everywhere. Martial understood that a form of refined and polite obscenity was characteristic of the urbane and educated reader:

“You who are too stern a reader can go away now; I have written this for the sophisticated Roman.”

Qui gravis es nimium, potes hinc jam, lector, abire
quo libet: urbanae scripsimus ista togae [11.16]

Classics, like many Humanist disciplines, is steeped in the old Arnoldian tradition of citing the appeal of “sweetness and light” as a potential reward for countless laborious hours of nasal-codical union. Gentle reader, I invite you to recall your own mindset as a teenager, and consider whether loftiness and sublimity would have been appealing enough to goad you on to writing out declension charts; surely, conjugation would have proved far more interesting. I would not have students exposed to a constant barrage of obscenity, but given how much of the surviving corpus of ancient literature contains at least some prurient material, I would submit that we should avoid the opposite extreme exemplified by Fordyce’s “school friendly” edition of Catullus, which omitted 32 poems from the already exiguous collection of surviving work.

My students regularly ask whether I will teach them some “Latin swear words,” but I am forced to fall back upon the old expedient of telling them that they will simply have to comb through the dictionary if they want them. Perhaps there is some pedagogical merit in this – I remember scouring Webster’s Dictionary in third grade for the word boobs, which, as I reflect upon it, seems to have become a piece of wholly outmoded slang. Yet such, such were the joys! Though my nascent curiosity regarding sexual matters was hardly gratified by this memorable ramble through the groves of lexicography, I do recall adding to my store of knowledge an avian species and a variant word for ‘fool.’ This could hardly compensate for my disappointment at the time, hoping as I did that a definition bearing more upon mammaries would be attended by an illuminating illustration, but I suppose in retrospect that the experience was, on the whole, educational. Prurient interest here functions much like the honey which Lucretius likens to his verse – a sweetener to make the medicine less bitter. Nurses

“First encircle the rim of the cup with the sweet and tawny nectar of honey…”

prius oras pocula circum
contingunt mellis dulci flavoque liquore

[de Rerum Natura, 1.937-8]

Primarily on the basis of its infamous Nausikaa episode, James Joyce’s Ulysses was for some time banned in this country on the basis of its “obscenity.” To be sure, people were then, just as now, still masturbating, shitting, and fucking, but it all seemed somehow indecent to read about those things. The standard applied here was the Hicklin Test, which defined obscenity as anything which tended “to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.” Though it would no doubt appear otherwise to cultural conservatives, I am highly suspicious of the notion that art and literature more generally are capable of exerting a corrupting influence on the mind or morals, and would fall back upon a variant of the Catullan defense: just as one ought not confuse authors with their works, so too one ought not to suppose that “you are what you read.”

Granting the premise that exposure to obscenity might alter our characters, I would submit that it does so for the better. How many literary and artistic geniuses have dallied with filth? How many prurient censors have contributed anything meaninful to human civilization? Conjectural etymology suggests that Latin obscenus is derived from caenum, “filth.” Is filth not just as much a part of our human experience as the loftiness and sublimity of duty, honor, love, etc.? Cicero once wrote of Cato that he “gives his opinion as though he lives in Plato’s Republic, not in the shit-heap of Romulus.” [dicit enim tamquam in Platonis πολιτείᾳ , non tamquam in Romuli faece sententiam, ad Atticum 2.1.8]. I would side with Joyce over John Sumner, with Catullus over Cato, and with all of those who readily embrace the full range of human experience over those who would willfully ignore such an important and entertaining part of human life.

“Lucretia blushed and set aside my book in front of Brutus. But Brutus, go away – she will read it again!”

Erubuit posuitque meum Lucretia librum,
sed coram Bruto; Brute,recede: leget.

[Martial, 11.16]

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Alternative Careers: An Accidental Teacher and Scholar

Suetonius, Lives of the Grammarians 24

“Marcus Valerius Probus from Berytus tried to become a centurion for a while and then dedicated himself to study because of the waiting. He had read certain old books with his teacher in the provinces, since the memory of the ancient authors persists there and has not been completely lost as in Rome. Once he returned to these authors more carefully and then wanted to study others, he still pursued this plan even though he knew that everyone had contempt for them and those who studied them earned reproach instead of honor.

Once he obtained many copies, he took care to emend them, edit them, and provide notes for them and he committed himself to this beyond all other aspects of scholarship. Instead of students he had a few followers, for he did not teach in such away as to maintain the façade of a teacher. He used to welcome one or two, or sometimes three or four, in the afternoon hours and while reclining he could occasionally read some things among long and colloquial conversations. He published small number of short works on various minor little questions. But he also left a non insubstantial “Forest of Reflections on the Ancient Language.”

XXIV. M. Valerius Probus, Berytius, diu centuriatum petiit, donec taedio ad studia se contulit. Legerat in provincia quosdam veteres libellos apud grammatistam, durante adhuc ibi antiquorum memoria, necdum omnino abolita sicut Romae. Hos cum diligentius repeteret atque alios deinceps cognoscere cuperet, quamvis omnes contemni magisque opprobrio legentibus quam gloriae et fructui esse animadverteret, nihilo minus in proposito mansit; multaque exemplaria contracta emendare ac distinguere et annotare curavit, soli huic nec ulli praeterea grammatices parti deditus. Hic non tam discipulos quam sectatores aliquot habuit. Nunquam enim ita docuit ut magistri personam sustineret; unum et alterum, vel cum plurimos tres aut quattuor postmeridianis horis admittere solebat, cubansque inter longos ac vulgares sermones legere quaedam idque perraro. Nimis pauca et exigua de quibusdam minutis quaestiunculis edidit. Reliquit autem non mediocrem “Silvam Observationum Sermonis Antiqui.”

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