Fronto’s Writing Advice to Aurelius: One Thought Should Follow Through to the Next

Fronto Laudes Fumi et Pulveris [Ambr 249 Caesari suo Fronto. [139 a.d.]]

“Many of my readers may perhaps hate my subject from the title because it is impossible for anything serious to be made of smoke and dust. But you, thanks to your outstanding intelligence, will judge whether these words are wasted or put well.

The subject does, however, seem to ask for a few things to be written about the logic of its composition, since nothing written of this kind of thing noble enough in the Roman tongue exists except for what poets touch in comedies or farces. Anyone who tests himself at writing of this kind will select a mass of ideas and put them together closely, joining them cleverly, but without including many useless and doubled words and then make sure to end each sentence with clarity and skill.

In legal speeches, however, it goes differently because we often pay special attention to sentences ending harshly and artlessly. In this matter, we must labor differently so that nothing is left rude and out of place, instead making sure that everything is interconnected as in a robe with clear borders and ornate edges. Finally, just as the final verses in epigrams should have some kind of shine to them, a sentence should be ended with some kind of a clasp or brooch.

Pleasing the audience, however, should pursued among the first goals. For this kind of address is not composed for defense in a capital trial nor to advocate for the passing of a law, nor to exhort an army, nor to enrage a mass of people, but for delights and pleasure. Nevertheless, we must speeches we do about serious and wonderful things—the small matters must be compared and equaled to great ones. And, finally, the greatest virtue in this kind of speech is the conceit of seriousness. Stories of the gods or heroes should be interwoven where they fit. At he same time, lines of poetry which pertain applicable proverbs, and even clever fictions, as long as the fiction is added by some kind of clever argument.

The chief challenge, then, is to order the materials so that their presentation has a logical connection. This is what Plato faults Lysias for in the Phaedrus, that he has combined his thoughts so carelessly that the first one could be exchanged with the last without any kind of loss. We can only escape this danger if we organize our thoughts in categories so that we do not mix them in an indiscriminate and disordered way like those mixed dishes, but instead arrange it so that the preceding idea reaches into the next one and then shares its boundary, where the second thought begins where the first one has ended, and a sequence emerges in this way, so that we seem to step rather than jump along our way.”

Plerique legentium forsan rem de titulo contemnant, nihil <enim> serium , potuisse fieri de fumo et pulvere: tu pro tuo excellenti ingenio profecto existimabis lusa sit opera4ista an locata. 2. Sed res poscere videtur de ratione scribendi pauca praefari, quod nullum huiuscemodi scriptum Romana lingua extat satis nobile, nisi quod poetae in comoediis vel atellanis adtigerunt. Qui se eiusmodi rebus scribendis exercebit, crebras sententias conquiret, easque dense conlocabit et subtiliter coniunget, Ambr. neque verba multa geminata supervacanea | in-ferciet; tum omnem sententiam breviter et scite concludet. Aliter in orationibus iudiciariis, ubi sedulo curamus ut pleraeque sententiae durius interdum et incautius1finiantur. Sed contra istic laborandum est, ne quid inconcinnum et hiulcum relinquatur, quin omnia ut in tenui veste oris detexta et revimentis sint cincta. Postremo, ut novissimos in epigrammatis versus habere oportet aliquid luminis, sententia clavo aliquo vel fibula terminanda est.

In primis autem sectanda est suavitas. Namque hoc genus orationis non capitis defendendi nec suadendae legis nec exercitus hortandi nec inflammandae contionis scribitur, sed facetiarum et voluptatis.Ubique vero ut de re ampla et magnifica loquendum, parvaeque res magnis adsimilandae comparandaeque. Summa denique in hoc genere orationis virtus est adseveratio. Fabulae deum vel heroum tempestive inserendae; item versus congruenteset proverbia accommodata et non inficete conficta mendacia, dum id mendacium argumento aliquo lepido iuvetur.

Ambr 247 4. Cum primis autem difficile est argumenta ita disponere ut sit ordo eorum rite connexus. Quod Ambr.ille | Plato Lysiam culpat in Phaedro, sententiarum ordinem ab eo ita temere permixtum, ut sine ullo detrimento prima in novissimum locum transferantur, et novissima in primum, eam culpam ita devitabimus, si divisa generatim argumenta nectemus, non sparsa nec sine discrimine aggerata, ut ea quae per saturam feruntur, sed ut praecedens sententia in sequentem laciniam aliquam porrigat et oram praetendat; ubi prior sit finita sententia, inde ut sequens ordiatur; ita enim transgredi potius videmur quam transilire.

From Roman de la Rose

Philosophers, Spectators at the Game of Life?

Diogenes Laertius, Pythagoras 8.3

“Sôsikrates, in his Successions, says that when Pythagoras was asked by Leon, the tyrant of the Phliasians, who he was, he said, “a philosopher,” and that he said life was like the Great Games. Some people go there to compete, others go to make money, and the best people go to watch. For in life, some people have a slavish nature and they hunt for glory or profit, while philosophers search for the truth.”

Σωσικράτης δ᾿ ἐν Διαδοχαῖς φησιν αὐτὸν ἐρωτηθέντα ὑπὸ Λέοντος τοῦ Φλιασίων τυράννου τίς εἴη, φιλόσοφος, εἰπεῖν. καὶ τὸν βίον ἐοικέναι πανηγύρει· ὡς οὖν εἰς ταύτην οἱ μὲν ἀγωνιούμενοι, οἱ δὲ κατ᾿ ἐμπορίαν, οἱ δέ γε βέλτιστοι ἔρχονται θεαταί, οὕτως ἐν τῷ βίῳ οἱ μὲν ἀνδραποδώδεις, ἔφη, φύονται δόξης καὶ πλεονεξίας θηραταί, οἱ δὲ φιλόσοφοι τῆς ἀληθείας.

Plato compares life to a game too, just a different one….

Plutarch, De Tranquilitate Animi 467b

“Plato likened life to a dice-game in which we need both to throw what is advantageous and to use the dice well after we’ve thrown them. And when we are subject to chance, if we take good advice, this is our task: though we cannot control the toss, we can accept the outcome luck gives us properly and allot to each event a place in which what is good for us helps the most and what was unplanned aggrieves the least.”

Κυβείᾳ γὰρ ὁ Πλάτων (Resp. 604c) τὸν βίον ἀπείκασεν, ἐν ᾧ καὶ βάλλειν δεῖ τὰ πρόσφορα, καὶ βαλόντα χρῆσθαι καλῶς τοῖς πεσοῦσι. τούτων δὲ τὸ μὲν βάλλειν οὐκ ἐφ’ ἡμῖν, τὸ δὲ προσηκόντως δέχεσθαι τὰ γινόμενα παρὰ τῆς τύχης καὶ νέμειν ἑκάστῳ τόπον, ἐν ᾧ καὶ τὸ οἰκεῖον ὠφελήσει μάλιστα καὶ τὸ ἀβούλητον ἥκιστα λυπήσει τοὺς ἐπιτυγχάνοντας, ἡμέτερον ἔργον ἐστίν, ἂν εὖ φρονῶμεν.

And here is the passage Plutarch is drawing on from the tenth book of the Republic (Plato, Republic 604c-d)

“The best way to deliberate about what has happened is just as we might in the fall of dice: to order our affairs in reference to how the dice have fallen where reason dictates the best place would be, and not to stumble forward like children shocked at the outcome wasting time with crying. Instead, we should always prepare our mind towards addressing what has happened as quickly as possible and to redress what has fallen and what ails, erasing lament [lit. threnody] with treatment*.”

Τῷ βουλεύεσθαι, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ, περὶ τὸ γεγονὸς καὶ ὥσπερ ἐν πτώσει κύβων πρὸς τὰ πεπτωκότα τίθεσθαι τὰ αὑτοῦ πράγματα, ὅπῃ ὁ λόγος αἱρεῖ βέλτιστ’ ἂν ἔχειν, ἀλλὰ μὴ προσπταίσαντας καθάπερ παῖδας ἐχομένους τοῦ πληγέντος ἐν τῷ βοᾶν διατρίβειν, ἀλλ’ ἀεὶ ἐθίζειν τὴν ψυχὴν ὅτι τάχιστα γίγνεσθαι πρὸς τὸ ἰᾶσθαί τε καὶ ἐπανορθοῦν τὸ πεσόν τε καὶ νοσῆσαν, ἰατρικῇ θρηνῳδίαν ἀφανίζοντα.

*ἰατρικῇ: lit. “art of medicine”; some translations use “therapy”.

Image from Wikipedia

Cicero and Caesar: Destroyers of Latin Education

Edmund Wilson, Reflections on the Teaching of Latin:

It is still possible for a student to- day, as it was forty years ago, to have been through four or five years of Latin and yet, as I have recently had a chance to note, not to have learned, for example, the words for the commonest colors and animals, the parts of the body and the seasons of the year. Why?

The answer is: Caesar and Cicero – the military vocabulary of the one, the highfalutin rhetoric of the other. And what is the reason for prescribing these writers? The answer to this is that Caesar, at some now remote point of the past, was selected as the only example of classical Latin prose that was simple and straight-forward enough for a schoolboy to make his way through, and that Cicero represented the ideal of Latin diction at a time when it was thought essential for every educated man to write Latin. And why the years of grinding at grammar at the expense of learning to read? This is a part of the ancient tradition of abstract intellectual discipline. The justification for it is the same as the justification for piling problems of algebra on students who have no mathematical interests and will never have occasion to use algebra. Both at worst have a minimum of practical use. Latin syntax does give us some training in the relation of words in a sentence, as algebra gives us some idea of what is involved in mathematical method; but there is nevertheless a fallacy in this old ideal. It strikes us as rather monstrous when we read about how Karl Marx, that intellectual prodigy, used to exercise his mental muscles by committing to memory whole pages of languages he did not understand; yet actually our teaching of Latin inflicts something not very different. The student is made to memorize pages of declensions, conjugations, and rules for grammatical constructions that mean little or nothing to him as language.

Does the minimum of real Latin that he acquires in this way serve any useful purpose in later life? The lawyer hardly needs this instruction to pick up the Latin phrases of the law; the student in most scientific fields can learn the terminology of his subject without worrying about Cicero and Caesar.

Caesar, Cicero and 'The Best and Most Vigilant Consulship' « The ...

Drink Your Vergil!

Pietro Bembo, Letter to Pico della Mirandola (1530)

We cannot say the same thing about Vergil, namely, that he is fit to be emulated by everyone who takes pleasure in his poems. For those who write elegies or lyric poems, or those who are held by an enthusiasm for writing comedies or tragedies, will find very little help from the Vergilian structure, meter, or poetic program. Rather, they should imitate those whom they consider to be the chief poets in each individual genre of writing, and should give themselves wholly to the project of following them and even overcoming them. To be sure, I myself have done this. In writing my elegies, I imitated the poet who seemed to me to be the best in that genre. But for the poet who commits himself to heroic verse, then surely Vergil is to be learned, drunk in, and expressed as much as possible, as I had once personally told you was my opinion on the matter.

Pietro Bembo - Wikipedia

De Virgilio vero non idem possumus dicere, ut idoneus sit, quem, qui carminibus delectantur, imitari omnes queant. Neque enim qui aut elegos aut lyricos conficiunt versus, quique vel comoediarum vel tragoediarum scribendarum studio detinentur, horum ullos Virgiliana carminum structura, numerus, ratio ipsa multum iuvabit. Sed imitentur ii quidem eos quos habent principes singulis in scriptorum generibus singulos atque illis assequendis superandisque dedant. Quod profecto nos aliquando fecimus, ut in elegis pangendis, qui optimus eo in genere poematis nobis visus est, eum imitaremur. Heroicis autem conscribendis carminibus qui se dederit, huic certe erit Virgilius ediscendus, ebibendus et quam maxime fieri poterit exprimendus, quemadmodum coram tibi dixeram mihi videri.

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.

In Praise of Old Heads

Lionel Trilling, On the Teaching of Modern Literature:

In one of his poems, Yeats mocks the literary scholars, the “bald heads forgetful of their sins,” the “old, learned, respectable bald heads,” who edit the poems of the fierce and passionate young men.

Lord, what would they say

Did their Catullus walk this way?

Yeats, of course, is thinking of his own future fate, and no doubt there is all the radical and comical discrepancy that he sees between the poet’s passions and the scholars’ close-eyed concentration on the text. Yet for my own part, when I think of Catullus, I am moved to praise the tact of all those old heads, from Heinsius and Bentley to Munro and Postgate, who worked on Codex G and Codex O and drew conclusions about the lost Codex V – for doing only this and for not trying to realize and demonstrate the true intensity and the true quality and the true cultural meaning of Catullus’s passion and managing to bring it somehow into eventual accord with their respectability and baldness. Nowadays we who deal with books in universities live in fear that the World, which we imagine to be a vital, palpitating, reality-loving World, will think of us as old, respectable, and bald, and we see to it that in our dealings with Yeats (to take him as the example) his wild cry of rage and sexuality is heard by our students and quite thoroughly understood by them as – what is it that we usually call it? – a significant expression of our culture. The exasperation of Lawrence and the subversiveness of Gide, by the time we have dealt with them boldly, and straightforwardly, are notable instances of the alienation of modern man as exemplified by the artist.

Lyres vs. Liars

Strabo, Geography 1.2.3:

Eratosthenes says that the poet aims entirely at persuasion, not at education. On the other hand, the ancients said that poetry was originally a kind of philosophy, leading us to life from childhood and teaching us character, emotion, and deeds through the pleasure it gave us. But people of our time say that the poet is the only wise person. For this reason, the cities of the Greeks educated their children through poetry first, not for the sake of the pleasant amusement to be gained from it, but for the sake of moral instruction. Even the musicians teaching them to play the harp or lyre or flute pretend to be involved in this virtue: for they say that they are educational and instructive of character.

ποιητὴν γὰρ ἔφη πάντα στοχάζεσθαι ψυχαγωγίας, οὐ διδασκαλίας. τοὐναντίον δ᾽ οἱ παλαιοὶ φιλοσοφίαν τινὰ λέγουσι πρώτην τὴν ποιητικήν, εἰσάγουσαν εἰς τὸν βίον ἡμᾶς ἐκ νέων καὶ διδάσκουσαν ἤθη καὶ πάθη καὶ πράξεις μεθ᾽ ἡδονῆς: οἱ δ᾽ ἡμέτεροι καὶ μόνον ποιητὴν ἔφασαν εἶναι τὸν σοφόν. διὰ τοῦτο καὶ τοὺς παῖδας αἱ τῶν Ἑλλήνων πόλεις πρώτιστα διὰ τῆς ποιητικῆς παιδεύουσιν, οὐ ψυχαγωγίας χάριν δήπουθεν ψιλῆς, ἀλλὰ σωφρονισμοῦ: ὅπου γε καὶ οἱ μουσικοὶ ψάλλειν καὶ λυρίζειν καὶ αὐλεῖν διδάσκοντες μεταποιοῦνται τῆς ἀρετῆς ταύτης: παιδευτικοὶ γὰρ εἶναί φασι καὶ ἐπανορθωτικοὶ τῶν ἠθῶν..

The Tantalus of the Library

Isaac Casaubon, Letter to Claude Saumaise (DXLIII)

“I received your letters, and the ancient epigrams which you added. How can I show my gratitude for these? To be sure, you can guess how grateful I am from my almost shameless petition for them. So, I’m ashamed of myself for giving you so much vexation. I do not understand the method and aim of your studies. And so, believe me, I am concerned about you and your health – I think of you as a brother. I exceed you in age, but you have outstripped me with the miraculous gifts which instilled in me long ago a marvelous expectation for you. Just spare your intellect, have some concern for your health, enjoy the joy of your age and preserve yourself in this, your youth, so that you can when you are older complete those studies which cannot be completed except by you.

I seem to see you like Tantalus in the middle of the water, for you cannot enjoy all of the riches of the Palatine Library. I can sense your avidity from your letters, and I also know with what violent force you are driven on to your studies. This makes me fear for your little body. Otherwise, I will write at another time about the poems which you sent – now I am extremely busy. If you see the [???] of Bongars, you will know from it what my cares are. For I have set aside my Polybius for the meantime. Farewell, my dearest friend.”

Casaubon543 (1).png

 

Students without Teaching

Plato, Phaedrus 274e-275a (go here for the full dialogue)

Socrates is telling a story of the invention of writing in Egypt

“When it came to the written letters, Theuth said, ‘This training, King, will make Egyptians wiser and will give them stronger memories: for it is a drug for memory and wisdom!’ But the king replied, “Most inventive Theuth, one man is able to create technology, but another judges how much harm and benefit it brings to those who use it. Just so now you, who are father of letters, declare the opposite of what they are capable because of your enthusiasm.

This craft will engender forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn it from the disuse of the memory since they will trust external writing struck by others, no longer recalling their own thoughts within them. You have discovered a drug for reminding, not one for memory; you will offer students the reputation of wisdom but not the true thing. For many who become students without instruction will seem to know a lot when they are mostly ignorant and difficult to be around, since they have become wise for appearance instead of wise in truth.’

Ph. Socrates, you can easily make up any story about Egypt that you want to…”

ἐπειδὴ δ’ ἐπὶ τοῖς γράμμασιν ἦν, Τοῦτο δέ, ὦ βασιλεῦ, τὸ μάθημα, ἔφη ὁ Θεύθ,

σοφωτέρους Αἰγυπτίους καὶ μνημονικωτέρους παρέξει, μνήμης τε γὰρ καὶ σοφίας φάρμακον εὑρέθη. ῾Ο δ’ εἶπεν, ῏Ω τεχνικώτατε Θεύθ, ἄλλος μὲν δυνατὸς τεκεῖν τὰ τέχνης, ἄλλος δὲ κρῖναι, τίν’ ἔχει μοῖραν βλάβης τε καὶ ὠφελείας τοῖς μέλλουσι χρῆσθαι. Καὶ νῦν σὺ πατὴρ ὢν γραμμάτων δι’ εὔνοιαν τοὐναντίον εἶπες ἢ δύναται. Τοῦτο γὰρ τῶν μαθόντων λήθην μὲν ἐν ψυχαῖς παρέξει, μνήμης ἀμελετησίᾳ, ἅτε διὰ πίστιν γραφῆς ἔξωθεν ὑπ’ ἀλλοτρίων τύπων, οὐκ ἔνδοθεν αὐτοὺς ὑφ’ αὑτῶν ἀναμιμνησκομένους. Οὐκοῦν οὐ μνήμης ἀλλ’ ὑπομνήσεως φάρμακον εὗρες, σοφίας δὲ τοῖς μαθηταῖς δόξαν οὐκ ἀλήθειαν πορίζεις. πολυήκοοι γάρ σοι γενόμενοι ἄνευ διδαχῆς πολυγνώμονες εἶναι δόξουσιν, ἀγνώμονες ὡς ἐπὶ πλῆθος ὄντες καὶ χαλεποὶ ξυνεῖναι, δοξόσοφοι γεγονότες ἀντὶ σοφῶν.

ὦ Σώκρατες, ῥᾳδίως σὺ Αἰγυπτίους καὶ ὁποδαποὺς ἂν ἐθέλῃς λόγους ποιεῖς.

Image result for Ancient Egyptian writing

Fathers, Children, and a Story’s End

“To remember the past, you tell a story about it. And in recalling the memory, you tell the story again. It is not always the same story, as the person telling it does not always want the same things….As children become better storytellers, they become better rememberers. But their memory system also becomes more susceptible to distortion.”

Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light, 98

He was like someone speaking many lies similar to the truth.”

ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα· Homer, Odyssey 19.203

When Odysseus returns to Ithaca in the second half of the Odyssey, he spends seven books in disguise. Part of the motivation for this is to give him the ability to test the loyalty of the people in Ithaca and justify the murder of the suitors and the slaughter of the handmaids at the end. But another part is that Odysseus explores who he is by reflecting on others’ stories. He uses his narratives in the second half of the epic to negotiate different parts of identity, to imagine different lives for himself, and to distance himself from the trauma of war and wandering.

In studying memory Martin Conway suggests that there are two forces in human recall: correspondence, which is about equivalence between details of ‘reality’ (or experience) and details of a story and coherence, which means that details make sense together in a narrative. When we tell stories about ourselves, we are not repeating a one-to-one correspondence between what happened and what we say about it. Instead we are engaging in the creation of autobiographical memory to create a coherent sense of ourselves.

The problem with seeing Odysseus as doing this in the second half of the Odyssey, of course, is that his stories are only obliquely about himself. They are mostly lies and they change depending on who he talks to: he shifts in narratives from Eumaios, to the suitors, and to his father at the epic’s end. His lies say something about him, certainly; but they also say something about how he views others.

The stories he tells lets him mirror and then use others. And he uses them to complete the hardest (and most violent) parts of his homecoming.

“I don’t know. No one ever knows his own father himself.”

οὐκ οἶδ’· οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον αὐτὸς ἀνέγνω. Homer, Odyssey 1.201

There are a series of days each year when my father’s memory presses upon me: father’s day, his birthday, the day(s) he died, and holidays. I miss him deeply; but I also spend the years pondering the questions I don’t have answers to, wondering how much of what he was shapes me still.

When my father died, it was a shock both for its suddenness and then for the series of minor mysteries that followed. The first was the uncertainty of what happened. He died at 61 after a sudden bout with pneumonia. The autopsy revealed his lungs were filled with sawdust from years of fiddling around with woodworking, mask-less in a garage with no circulation. He also had Lyme disease. And years of smoking and drug use had made his breathing weaker and his sense of his own health attenuated.

Image

We search out he causes of things but often find no clear answer. So, often, we choose a simple answer to help us get by. How and why he died suddenly gave way to a series of mundane, pressing questions: funeral arrangements, financial concerns. Packing up a life is never easy; the secrets left behind are entangled in ways the living didn’t imagine and the dead will never learn.

After my father’s death, I expected some trouble. He was a man who shifted easily between lives. He had a rich fantasy life—always dreaming that he would accomplish something great, that he would end up someone different. As the oldest of three, it fell to me to try to make sense of the mess: years of unpaid taxes; a maze of debt and collection bureaus; accounts tied to strange addresses; unopened summonses and bills.

At one point, I had to log in into my father’s email account, at first to contact some business associates who owed him money, and later to sift through his last few weeks of correspondence to try to figure out whether or not he knew how sick he was. (He did. Forty-eight hours before his death he sent an email to his older sister, writing “This is the sickest I have ever been.” He still waited another 36 hours to go to the doctor.)

There was a strange type of voyeurism in the process. I suspected some of what I would find, but not everything. Infidelity, I knew about. Debt and delinquency? This had been the story of our lives. But during the process of arranging for my father’s funeral, writing a eulogy, and trying to make an initial reckoning of his accounts, I started emailing with one of my father’s business associates, a man I will call Felix.

“There is one universal law among mortals
And one that is right to the gods, I believe truly—
And to all animals as well: to love the children we bear.
In everything else, we follow different laws.”

εἷς γάρ τις ἔστι κοινὸς ἀνθρώποις νόμος
καὶ θεοῖσι τοῦτο δόξαν, ὡς σαφῶς λέγω,
θηρσίν τε πᾶσι, τέκνα τίκτουσιν φιλεῖν·
τὰ δ’ ἄλλα χωρὶς χρώμεθ’ ἀλλήλων νόμοις. Euripides

Upon his return to Ithaca, Odysseus spends a significant amount of time enjoying hospitality of his enslaved swineherd, Eumaios. He tells Eumaios some terrific stories: he was a warrior from Crete who made the wrong decision to go to war and after years of suffering and betrayal he ended up enslaved and sold. Part of that story is true, of course; and the enslavement can function as a metaphor for his pains at sea and how he was subject to cruel fate. But the story also serves to endear Odysseus to Eumaios by anticipating Eumaios’ own story: how he was kidnapped as a child by a devious nurse and sold off to slavers who brought him to Ithaca.

When we meet new people, we eagerly find common ground through personal stories: we grew up in the same/similar place; we went to school in the same city; we worked in similar industries, etc. But as relationships deepen, we share those harder stories. Sometimes, to identify with people, or even to upstage them, we embellish or reshape our stories.

Even false tales can arise from real pain. Life leaves physical markers on us as literal as Odysseus’ scar. But the marks that define us are more often than not unseen. Just as the year’s calendar eventually becomes a catalog of days for the lost and gone, so too can our memories become a latticework of scars and open wounds. The facts of the stories we tell can be less meaningful than the truth they are trying to convey.

Odysseus and his father

My father’s colleague Felix confided in me that my dad had become a close friend, in part because of his empathy regarding Felix’s daughter. His daughter had suffered from an “unknown progressive neuro-muscular disorder causing severe dystonia” and the pain she endured alongside the uncertainty of her diagnosis (which seemed to indicate a shortened life) wracked him and his family with the kind of suffering that only parents can imagine.

Felix made it clear that my father changed his life because he was always there just to listen and because he inspired him with his love of his family and his expressions of religious faith. He also inspired him, he revealed, because he shared with him his own story of loss, the loss of his daughter Rachel.

“There is a good time for lies and god honors it”

ψευδῶν δὲ καιρὸν ἔσθ’ ὅπου τιμᾷ θεός #Aeschylus

I never had a sibling named Rachel. But I didn’t say this to Felix because he had forwarded me an email where my father wrote:

“Every day I wake up thinking of my daughter –Rachel – go to bed thinking of Rachel. We had 4 children – now 3 but the blessings and gifts they have brought blow my mind […] but always Rachel is the background- never goes away- but I have still have joy and overwhelmed with blessings.”

Felix assured me that he had never mentioned this email to anyone. Even as I type this now I can smell the stale smoke in my father’s office where I read this for the first time. I remember calling my wife in to read it. Under the pall of our grief, we couldn’t process this, we couldn’t make sense of what it meant or whether it was possible. Soon, like my father, I was waking up and thinking about Rachel.

“If I tell the truth, I won’t make you happy.
But if I am to make you happy, I will say nothing true.”

εἰς μὲν φράσω τἀληθές, οὐχί σ’ εὐφρανῶ·
εἰ δ’ εὐφρανῶ τί σ’, οὐχὶ τἀληθὲς φράσω. #Agathon

There’s a scholarly tradition of dismissing the end of the Odyssey. Ancient scholars complain that the Odyssey ended properly with the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope, while the Archbishop of Thessaloniki, Eustathius, observed that book 24 is full of really important things, like “the recognition scene between Odysseus and Laertes.” Odysseus’ reunions take him through the major roles he plays in life as part of re-establishing an Ithakan identity. In book 24, he must reconcile with his community and his dad.

Infant and Skull, Medieval, Louvre

When I talk about the Odyssey publicly and I get to its end, I explain that I never really understood the reunion scene until I became a father and lost my father in the same year. Odysseus tests and teases his father cruelly, only to panic and give up the ruse when he makes Laertes cry. Odysseus’ scar is a necessary but insufficient proof of his identity to his father. To confirm their relationship, they rehearse the stories of the groves and trees they used to tend together when Odysseus was young.

My father spent a good deal of the last few decades of his life clearing and planting in the woods of southern Maine. His primary engagement with my brother and me was this land: planting grass, mowing the lawn, developing gardens, planning for the future. The land my mother and brother still live on is also a map of memory: the places where we played games; the trees we climbed; where we fought; where we buried pets. In my father’s absence, there was one fewer person in the world who could attest to the truth of our stories.

So I was left with new stories for this landscape. Eventually, I tried to make ‘Rachel’ cohere with reality. My mother had miscarriages before me and after me and, as family lore goes, was told she wasn’t able to have children. When I was younger and the whole family was more religious, they told me (the oldest) that they hadn’t had a child until they joined a new church and started to pray. I was baptized and confirmed in that church. The minister was my godfather. I have a picture of him holding my daughter.

But when I asked my mother, in a probably less than sensitive way, if there were any other children or if they had planned on naming one of the miscarriages Rachel, she thought it was absurd. It didn’t seem to me likely that my father had spent years brooding in secret over a lost child when he had three healthy children.

But as a recent father, I could imagine the possibility at least. From the moment I knew my wife was pregnant, I would feel a deep, gut-wrenching fear at even imagining the death of a child. In this I have found the ultimate failure of Stoic prior contemplation: I cannot conceive of a world where I knit myself back together after losing a child. Is that what happened with my father?

As we approached his funeral, I daydreamed a future story where I interviewed distant relatives and friends about may father’s past, the type of people who might know about a lost child, or about a baby born out of wedlock whose brief existence had been hidden from my mother. As the long hours past, I thought that maybe this was Rachel: a brief alternative life in the past whose loss had festered in my father as a metonym for all of the other lives he could have lived. Or, as that fourth child, that extra helping of happiness that might have tipped the scales in a middling life.

“I once lived in a house among men, a blessed man in a
wealthy house, and I used to give much to a wanderer”

καὶ γὰρ ἐγώ ποτε οἶκον ἐν ἀνθρώποισιν ἔναιον
ὄλβιος ἀφνειὸν καὶ πολλάκι δόσκον ἀλήτῃ 17.419–20

There is a cold empathy in Odysseus’ stories—he is a kind of predating narrator in echoing Eumaios’ greatest sorrow, his kidnapping and enslavement as a child. When Odysseus tells his lies to manipulate Eumaios or test the suitors, he instrumentalizes narrative. He plays upon their suspicions and experiences to put himself in a better position. But that’s an oversimplification of the story too. He also can be seen tracing out he story of his own life, exploring different ways of thinking about what happened to him. As the fugitive Cretan, he tells Eumaios that his men forced him to go to the Trojan War (14.261), he laments that he cared too much for war, and laments how cruel fate has been to him.

Lovis Corinth “Odysseus Fighting the Beggar” 1903

In my own narrative quest, I emailed a woman my father had an affair with and asked her directly if she knew anything about ‘Rachel’. She, who had known my father quite well for years, said she would have been shocked if there were or had been another child, that my father loved his children so much that it would be inconceivable that he would have never mentioned Rachel. And, then, she added enigmatically, “He did say last summer that he would have named your [daughter] Rachel, if it was up to him.”

After my father’s funeral, things spiraled downhill for my family. We eventually got most of the finances under control by writing off credit debt and paying federal and state taxes; two new grandchildren were born over the next year. I left the issue of Rachel quiet to protect my mother and the rest of us from the uncertainty. But I never really stopped thinking about it

“No other Odysseus will ever come home to you”

οὐ μὲν γάρ τοι ἔτ’ ἄλλος ἐλεύσεται ἐνθάδ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς Homer, Odyssey 16.204

When Telemachus first sees Odysseus revealed in the Odyssey, he refuses to believe it his father. Odysseus appears suddenly and he looks too good. There’s a slight delay before Odysseus gets angry, but then Telemachus accepts him, even though he has no proof. Penelope, however, delays acknowledging her husband to the point that when she knows who he is remains an interpretive knot of the poem. I like to imagine her suspecting from the beginning, but resisting seeing in this old, broken beggar the man who left her so many years ago. Even after the slaughter of the suitors—or perhaps, especially after it—she makes him wait, testing him first to see how he reacts when she claims to have moved the bed around which their home was built.

I eventually concluded that there were three possibilities: (1) that my father had emotionally connected with a miscarriage, naming it Rachel and keeping the pain to himself; (2) that he had fathered another child who died (or was estranged); or (3) that he had made up the child drawing on his experiences to empathize with Felix. Given the absence of any evidence for the first two options, I decided that the last was most likely.

When Odysseus lies to his father, crafting a tale that echoes the pain they have both gone through, it is a step too far. As his father cries, Odysseus breaks in and says, “I myself, I am the one about whom who you ask / I have come home in this twentieth year to my paternal land” (κεῖνος μὲν δὴ ὅδ’ αὐτὸς ἐγώ, πάτερ, ὃν σὺ μεταλλᾷς, / ἤλυθον εἰκοστῷ ἔτεϊ ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν, 24.321–22). But this is not enough for Laertes after so many lies: he asks for a clear sign (σῆμά τί μοι νῦν εἰπὲ ἀριφραδές, 329) and Odysseus shows him his scar and tells him the story of the trees his father described to him when he was a child (333–45). Laertes’ limbs give away as he “recognizes the signs” (σήματ’ ἀναγνόντος … ).

What does it mean to believe that your father was the kind of man who would fabricate a dead child in order to make a connection with someone? Is this even possible? What was the name Rachel to him and why did it recur in different contexts?

Sirens and Odysseus by Fracesco Primaticcio, 1560

My father was a man cut off from many people by his deafness and his aloofness (interconnected). He was also capable of long-term deceit (for self-defense) and short-term confabulation (to try to keep others happy). If he did manufacture the memory of a child, I am almost certain he did it with a full range of emotions drawn from the rest of his life and that part of him wanted to believe it. We make up stories all the time. We all bend the truth and introduce new details into old stories. If he invented a Rachel to console Felix, he did it because he wanted to feel with him, to be his friend, and through grief to be more fully human.

But perhaps this conclusion is still just more evidence of me creating the father I wanted to have rather than acknowledging the man he really was. To some, inventing a dead child might sound diabolical. But, given the other options, it speaks to me of someone who wanted to feel, of a man who into his last days was trying to be something real.

And this in turn is a lesson on the complexity of what makes each one of us who we are.

Many of the concepts in this entry come from this book

here is its dedication page