A Conspiracy of Heroes and Gods

The following comes from a section where Socrates Scholasticus is discrediting Greek polytheism by reporting on the corruptibility of the oracles

Socrates Scholasticus, 3.23.155-170

“The oracle claims that it is Attis, the one who killed himself because of sex madness, and Adonis, and Dionysus. When Alexander the King of the Macedonians was crossing to Asia, the Amphictiones were trying to please him and the Pythian oracle reported these things:

Zeus, highest of the gods, and Athena Tritogeneia
Honor them, and the lord hidden in a thundrous body,
The one whom Zeus sowed on his noble knees
A helper of Good-law to mortals, Alexander the King!

The divine authority at Pythia prophesied these things. And in this, it used to even flatter powerful people by making gods. For perhaps it it did this for flattery. For why would the oracle say, as it did when apotheosizing the boxer Kleomedes, these things about him:

The last of the Heroes, Kleomêdes the Astupaliean,
Honor him with sacrifices, because he is no longer a mortal.

Because of this oracle, Diogenes the Cynic and Oinomaos the philosopher condemned Pythian Apollo.”

῾Ο μὲν δὴ χρησμὸς ῎Αττιν, τὸν ἐκ μανίας ἐρωτικῆς ἑαυτὸν ἀποκόψαντα, τὸν ῎Αδωνιν καὶ Διόνυσον εἶναι φησί. Τοῦ δὲ Μακεδόνων βασιλέως ᾿Αλεξάνδρου ἐπὶ τὴν ᾿Ασίαν διαβαίνοντος, οἱ ᾿Αμφικτύονες ᾿Αλεξάνδρῳ ἐχαρίζοντο, καὶ ἀνεῖλεν ἡ Πυθία τάδε·

Ζᾶνα θεῶν ὕπατον, καὶ ᾿Αθηνᾶν Τριτογένειαν
Τιμᾶτε, βροτέῳ τ’ ἐν σώματι κρυπτὸν ἄνακτα,
῝Ον Ζεὺς ἀρίσταις γοναῖς ἔσπειρεν, ἀρωγὸν
Εὐνομίης θνητοῖσιν ᾿Αλέξανδρον βασιλῆα.

Ταῦτα τὸ ἐν Πυθοῖ δαιμόνιον ἐχρημάτισεν· ὃ καὶ αὐτὸ τοὺς δυνάστας κολακεῦον ἐθεοποίει· καὶ τοῦτο μὲν ἴσως κολακείᾳ ἐποίει. Τί δ’ ἂν εἴποι τις, ὡς Κλεομήδην τὸν πύκτην ἀποθεώσαντες, ἔχρησαν περὶ αὐτοῦ τάδε;

῞Υστατος ἡρώων Κλεομήδης ᾿Αστυπαλιεύς·
῝Ον θυσίαις τιμᾶθ’, ὡς μηκέτι θνητὸν ἐόντα.
Διὰ μὲν οὖν τὸν χρησμὸν τόνδε Διογένης ὁ Κύων καὶ Οἰνόμαος ὁ φιλόσοφος κατέγνωσαν τοῦ Πυθίου ᾿Απόλλωνος.

File:Oracle of Delphi, red-figure kylix, 440-430 BC, Kodros Painter, Berlin F 2538, 141666.jpg
Oracle of Delphi, red-figure kylix, 440-430 BC, Kodros Painter, Berlin F 2538


Attracting the Greatest Numbers of Students with the Least Truth

Isocrates, Against the Sophists 9-10

“We must rebuke not only those sophists but also those who promise to teach political oratory—for these guys don’t care at all about the truth but instead think that it is an art because they get the greatest number of students thanks to the small size of their fee and the greatness of their pronouncements and then they get something from them.

They are so imperceptive and imagine everyone else to be that even though they write speeches worse than some of the untrained masses compose, they still guarantee that they will make their students the kinds of politicians who never leave out any of the possibilities in a matter.

Even worse, they don’t derive any of that power from their experiences or the talent of a student, but they say that they can train the knowledge of speaking as they would basic literacy—in reality, each of them believe that because of the insanity of their promises they will be objects of wonder and that people will think that training in their discipline is worth more than it is. In this, they have not even considered that the people who make arts great are not those who dare to boast about them, but those who have the ability to discover what the power of each art is on its own.”

Οὐ μόνον δὲ τούτοις ἀλλὰ καὶ τοῖς τοὺς πολιτικοὺς λόγους ὑπισχνουμένοις ἄξιον ἐπιτιμῆσαι καὶ γὰρ ἐκεῖνοι τῆς μὲν ἀληθείας οὐδὲν φροντίζουσιν, ἡγοῦνται δὲ τοῦτ᾿ εἶναι τὴν τέχνην, ἢν ὡς πλείστους τῇ μικρότητι τῶν μισθῶν καὶ τῷ μεγέθει τῶν ἐπαγγελμάτων προσαγάγωνται καὶ λαβεῖν τι παρ᾿ αὐτῶν δυνηθῶσιν· οὕτω δ᾿ ἀναισθήτως αὐτοί τε διάκεινται καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους ἔχειν ὑπειλήφασιν, ὥστε χεῖρον γράφοντες τοὺς λόγους ἢ τῶν ἰδιωτῶν τινες αὐτοσχεδιάζουσιν, ὅμως ὑπισχνοῦνται τοιούτους ῥήτορας τοὺς συνόντας ποιήσειν ὥστε μηδὲν τῶν ἐνόντων ἐν τοῖς πράγμασι παραλιπεῖν. καὶ ταύτης τῆς δυνάμεως οὐδὲν [293]οὔτε ταῖς ἐμπειρίαις οὔτε τῇ φύσει τῇ τοῦ μαθητοῦ μεταδιδόασιν, ἀλλά φασιν ὁμοίως τὴν τῶν λόγων ἐπιστήμην ὥσπερ τὴν τῶν γραμμάτων παραδώσειν, ὡς μὲν ἔχει τούτων ἑκάτερον, οὐκ ἐξετάσαντες, οἰόμενοι δὲ διὰ τὰς ὑπερβολὰς τῶν ἐπαγγελμάτων αὐτοί τε θαυμασθήσεσθαι καὶ τὴν παίδευσιν τὴν τῶν λόγων πλέονος ἀξίαν δόξειν εἶναι, κακῶς εἰδότες ὅτι μεγάλας ποιοῦσι τὰς τέχνας οὐχ οἱ τολμῶντες ἀλαζονεύεσθαι περὶ αὐτῶν, ἀλλ᾿ οἵτινες ἄν, ὅσον ἔνεστιν ἐν ἑκάστῃ, τοῦτ᾿ ἐξευρεῖν δυνηθῶσιν.

Vaticanus Graecus, 65. 121v Public Domain


You Haven’t Read Enough!

“Reading is not an amusement filling the languid pauses between the hours of action; it is the one pursuit engrossing all the hours and the whole mind.”

Mark Pattison

I never went to graduate school, and yet it happens that I am badly afflicted with grad student syndrome – the compulsion to read more before putting anything of my own down on paper. Perhaps the best literary exemplar of this tendency is the figure of Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, whose Key to All Mythologies remained until his death in the note-taking phase, despite its having been his entire life’s work. I have read a reasonable amount in my life, but there is something about the authorial voice which dupes me like the most naïve of tyros every time. I always believe that the author is in full command of everything at once, despite the fact that I know full well from experience that all long form written work is assembled piecemeal – a process which the stately linear progression of a finished book does much to disguise.

Since the publication of Middlemarch, debate has raged about whether the Casaubon of the book was modeled on Mark Pattison, the Rector of Lincoln College, whose chief production was his biography Isaac Casaubon. Pattison’s biography of Casaubon paints the picture of a morose and tortured scholar who wanted nothing more than to be left alone with his books:

But over and above Casaubon’s constitutional fretfulness, we must make allowance for the irritability engendered by a life of hard reading against time. Casaubon thought every moment lost in which he was not acquiring knowledge. He resented intrusion as a cruel injury. To take up his time was to rob him of his only property. Casaubon’s imagination was impressed in a painful degree with the truth of the dictum ‘ars longa, vita brevis.’ [Isaac Casaubon, pp.28-29]

Casaubon was in many ways the perfect subject for Pattison, given his own approach to reading and study. Pattison’s Memoirs abound in the type of reflections observed in Casaubon’s diary about the need for systematic reading, and the race against death to master it all. One anecdote about Pattison reveals that he scared a young scholar away from a chosen project by revealing his own method of work:

He suggested that I should edit Selden’s Table Talk. The preparation was to be, first to get the contents practically by heart, then to read the whole printed literature of Selden’s day, and of the generation before him. In twenty years he promised me that I should be prepared for the work. He put the thing before me in so unattractive a way that I never did it or anything else worth doing. I consider the ruin of my misspent life very largely due to that conversation. [Tollemarche, Recollections of Pattison]

Surely, dear readers, any of you who write can feel a certain inner Pattisonian voice making the same claim against your starting to write today: first you must read more! I have countless little essays and other written projects which I would love to pen, but alas, that hateful little voice springs forth and says, “Stay! You have not read enough!”

This same impulse seems to underlie the projects of systematic reading which, if Johnson and Gibbon may be taken as exemplars of their age, were so fashionable in the 18th century. Each of them, at least once in their lives, drew up programs of systematic chronological reading of ancient authors. Gibbon had far more success with this (as his Decline and Fall shows), but although Johnson would joke about his aversion to reading books all the way through, it does appear to have caused him some distress that he was unable to follow through on his plans to read systematically for intellectual gain. Occasionally I will feel like drafting an essay on ancient philosophy, but then (and here comes Pattison), I feel that I must start by reading all of the fragments of Presocratic philosophers, then read all of Plato, then all of Aristotle, and proceed thus through Plotinus. This is of course such an appalling prospect that the project has never gotten off the ground.

This kind of rabid study-oriented bibliomania seems to have affected people in antiquity, too. Who can forget how Pliny the Elder felt compelled to read against the clock like Casaubon:

Once he returned home, he gave the rest of his time up to study. Often, after eating (which, in the ancient way, was always light and sparing) he would lie in the summer sun if he had the leisure, and read a book which he annotated and excerpted from. He never read anything without at least making some notes: he was in the habit of saying that no book was so bad that it was not useful in at least some way. After the sun, he would wash in cold water, then eat and sleep a little bit; soon, as if it were a new day already, he would study again until dinnertime. While eating dinner, he would read and take notes in a cursory fashion. I remember that he was once reading out loud, and was asked by one of his friends to repeat what he had just recited; to this man, my uncle said, ‘Surely, you understood the meaning?’ When the friend said that he had, my uncle responded, ‘Why then did you ask me to repeat it? I have lost the time for reading ten more verses because of your interruption.’ Such was his parsimony of his time. [Pliny the Younger, Letters 3.5]

When I was younger, reading was just a simple pleasure. I remember devouring the Goosebumps books in 2nd grade with such ungentlemanly haste that the excitement of a Saturday morning purchase at the bookstore quickly turned into a bored perception of the emptiness of life by Saturday night. Back then, I appreciated each book as a clear end in itself – reading them gave me a kind of uncomplicated joy. When I was about 15, I began reading “serious” books: philosophy, science, and capital L Literature. In those early days, it was still an uncomplicated process, but something happened after I went to college. If nothing else, college teaches you how little you know. Every fresh accession of knowledge comes with the realization that there are vast frontiers of untrodden territory, each of which would take you a lifetime to master. It is in college, too, that you really begin to pay attention to bibliography, and learn that the process of reading is exponentially expansive. Every time I read a really good book, I find that it suggests at least five others to my mind, and though it is a good problem to have, books can be purchased far faster than they can be read.

But the most insidious part about college is the way in which reading gets reframed as a kind of professional and moral obligation. When I was twenty, a professor referenced John Updike, and when I was naïve enough to confess that I had not read any of his books, I was asked, “What do they even teach you in school now?” Twelve years later, I still haven’t read any Updike, but I do feel a sense of dread that I will find myself in a conversation which hinges upon some piece of important or ‘canonical’ reading, and be brought up short as a fraud or an intellectual poser. This has given to my reading a sense of frenzied, greedy acquisitiveness. To be sure, I still love the act of reading, and if I had my way, I would devote a solid ten hours a day to it. But it is no longer a simple, entirely unadulterated pleasure. When I read, I read with a kind of vain and pretentious instrumentality in the back of my mind. The literary canon, as a concept, can be weaponized as an instrument of exclusion, but in an even more trivial way, it ruins reading by turning it into another one of our many dreary extra-professional chores, like exercise. Sure, I enjoy activity, but I only exercise every day because I know that I’m supposed to.

Over the past few years, I have begun to keep track of what I have read through the course of each year by placing every finished book onto a separate “completed” bookshelf. Some years are better than others, but I have been averaging about 100 books a year. Compared to the prodigious rate at which some people read, this may not be impressive; compared to my aspirations for reading when I buy five books on Friday night and dream that I could finish them all by Sunday, it falls far short. And yet, even at the rate of 100 a year, I will look at the shelf and realize that I don’t even remember reading some of the books on there.

Maybe this is sheer careless reading or inattentiveness, but maybe it is true of life more generally. Some reading has stayed with me through years, but I have forgotten the great bulk of everything I have ever read. It is a sad reflection, made sadder when I realize that the same is true of my life more generally. Most of my experiences and feelings have also slipped away from my memory, but at least I can go back and re-read a book – those parts of my life are lost forever.

Reading is a way of accessing a kind of permanent collective memory available to everyone. Ancient authors were conscious of achieving a kind of immortality through their written works, which would be transmitted through ages long after physical monuments had decayed. Reading can help us to cope with and even defy mortality by expanding our temporal horizons. While it has been complicated by a kind of deontological creep which ruins everything you enjoyed in childhood, reading remains my favorite activity, and one which I wish that I could spend my whole life on. And yet, if I knew that I would die tomorrow, I would not spend a second of today reading. Most likely, I would go on a frenzied quest for various sorts of sensual pleasure, which I suspect would be less enjoyable with the prospect of death looming so near. There is a curious paradox in wanting to spend one’s life on an activity which would suddenly seem so pointless at the very end of that life, when carpe librum becomes carpe diem with all of its pressing force. Such sad reflections can only drive me to one place: back to my books.

“Traveler, you have not yet read enough!”

The Effect of the Classics on Young and Old

John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent:

“Let us consider, too, how differently young and old are affected by the words of some classic author, such as Homer or Horace. Passages, which to a boy are but rhetorical common-places, neither better nor worse than a hundred others which any clever writer might supply, which he gets by heart and thinks very fine, and imitates, as he thinks, successfully, in his own flowing versification, at length come home to him, when long years have passed, and he has had experience of life, and pierce him, as if he had never before known them, with their sad earnestness and vivid exactness. Then he comes to understand how it is that lines, the birth of some chance morning or evening at an Ionian festival, or among the Sabine hills, have lasted generation after generation, for thousands of years, with a power over the mind, and a charm, which the current literature of his own day, with all its obvious advantages, is utterly unable to rival.”

Image result for j.h. newman

Lacedaemon? More Like LaceDUMBon!

Aelian, Historia Varia 3.50:

The Spartans kept themselves wholly ignorant of the arts, for they cared about exercise and arms. If they ever needed something derived from the Muses, either because they were sick or ailing in the mind or suffering some other public problem, they would send for foreigners – either doctors, or exorcists in accordance with an oracle. They sent for Terpander, and Thales, and Tyrtaeus, and Nymphaeus of Cydonia, and Alcman. Thucydides agrees that they had no enthusiasm for education in the part of his book where he talks about Brasidas, and says that he was unable to speak, just like a Spartan.

Image result for spartan painting

Λακεδαιμόνιοι μουσικῆς ἀπείρως εἶχον· ἔμελε γὰρ αὐτοῖς γυμνασίων καὶ ὅπλων. εἰ δέ ποτε ἐδεήθησαν τῆς ἐκ Μουσῶν ἐπικουρίας ἢ νοσήσαντες ἢ παραφρονήσαντες ἢ ἄλλο τι τοιοῦτον δημοσίᾳ παθόντες, μετεπέμποντο ξένους ἄνδρας οἷον ἰατροὺς ἢ καθαρτὰς κατὰ πυθόχρηστον. μετεπέμψαντό γε μὴν Τέρπανδρον καὶ Θάλητα καὶ Τυρταῖον καὶ τὸν Κυδωνιάτην Νυμφαῖον καὶ ᾿Αλκμᾶνα. καὶ Θουκυδίδης δὲ ὁμολογεῖ ὅτι μὴ ἐσπουδασμένως περὶ παιδείαν εἶχον, ἐν οἷς λέγει περὶ Βρασίδου. λέγει γοῦν ὅτι ἦν οὐ δὲ ἀδύνατος εἰπεῖν, ὡς Λακεδαιμόνιος.

How to Kindle the Love of Virtue Itself

Vergerio, de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis, VI:

“The first proofs of a liberal mind are being excited by the pursuit of praise and being inflamed by a love of glory, from whence arises that envy which is in some way noble, and a contention, lacking hate, for praise and goodness. The next sign is willing obedience to one’s elders and a lack of obstinate resistance to good advisors. For, just as those horses are considered best for war which can easily be controlled by the hand, and which leap forth with pricked-up ears at the sound of the trumpets, so too those youths who listen well to their advisors and, when praised, are goaded on to the pursuit of the good, appear to hold out before them the promise of a rich harvest. For, since those who are not yet educated cannot by force of reason embrace the good itself and the appearance of virtue and nobility – which, could it be seen by the eyes (so says Plato, and so does Cicero note) would excite the most marvelous passions for wisdom – the next step is that they, through their zeal for praise and glory, form the desire of striving for the noblest ends.”

Omnino autem liberalis ingenii primum argumentum est studio laudis excitari incendique amore gloriae, unde oritur generosa quaedam invidia et sine odio de laude probitateque contentio. Proximum vero, parere libenter maioribus nec esse bene monentibus contumaces. Nam ut equi meliores ad pugnam habentur qui faciles sunt manu regi et ad tubarum clangorem arrectis auribus exsultant, ita qui iuvenum bene audiunt monitoribus et laudati excitantur ad bonum, uberis spem frugis ferre prae se videntur. Cum enim bonum ipsum virtutis honestatisque faciem inexperti rerum complecti ratione non possunt – quae si posset oculis videri, mirabiles ad sapientiam (un inquit Plato et Cicero meminit) de se amores excitaret – proximum est ab hoc gradu ut gloriae laudisque studio ad optima conari velint.

Hey Poindexter, You Don’t Know Sh*t!

Petrarch, On His Own Ignorance (32):

“I don’t say these things in an effort to avoid their judgment, but so that they who are ignorant may feel some shame (if they are capable of it) in making their judgment. For, on this subject, I do not just embrace the opinion of friendly jealousy, but even the judgment of hostile hatred, and in sum, if someone pronounces that I am ignorant, I agree with him! When I myself think over how many things are lacking to me, toward which my mind, eager for knowledge, exerts itself, I sadly and silently recognize my own ignorance. But in the meantime, while the end of my present exile is near, at which point this imperfection (from whence our knowledge derives) will be terminated, I am consoled by the thought of our shared nature. I think that it happens to all good and modest minds, that they learn about themselves and derive consolation therefrom. For those who get hold of great knowledge (I am speaking according to the standards of human learning), it is always small when considered in itself, but it becomes great in light of the narrow circumstances from which it is derived, and certainly looks great when compared to others. Otherwise, I ask you, how small and insignificant is the knowledge granted to one mind? Nay, how much like nothing is the knowledge of any one person, whoever they be, when it is compared not just to the knowledge of God, but to one’s own fund of ignorance?”


Non hec dico, ut declinem forum, sed ut pudeat, siquis est pudor, iudicasse qui nesciunt. Ego etenim de hac re non modo sententiam amicabilis amplector invidie, sed hostilis odii, et ad summam, quisquis ignarum me pronuntiat, mecum sentit. Nam et ego ipse recogitans quam multa michi desint ad id quo sciendi avida mens suspirat, ignorantiam meam dolens ac tacitus recognosco. Sed me interim, dum presentis exilii finis adest, quo nostra hec imperfectio terminetur, qua ex parte nunc scimus, nature communis extimatione consolor. Idque omnibus bonis ac modestis ingeniis evenire arbitror, ut agnoscant se pariter ac solentur; his etiam quibus ingens obtigit scientia — secundum humane scientie morem loquor — que in se semper exigua, pro angustiis quibus excipitur, et collata aliis ingens fit. Alioquin quantulum, queso, est, quantumcunque est, quod nosse uni ingenio datum est? Imo quam nichil est scire hominis, quisquis sit, si non dicam scientie Dei, sed sui ipsius ignorantie comparetur?