On Classics, Madness, and Losing Everything

Editor’s note: The following essay is by Stefani Echeverria-Fenn, one of the founders of the Sportula. We are hosting it one year after the overt racism of the SCS Annual Meeting in San Diego.

When I was teaching Intro to Greek Literature, it was sometimes easy to tell the students who had lived a life of privilege, of safety. They were the ones who kept suggesting ways Oedipus could have averted his fate, bootstrap his way out of catastrophe if only he read the signs carefully enough. Not the ones who hated or judged Oedipus, but the ones who were genuinely confused, who kept earnestly suggesting better possible responses to the prophecy and all the devastation that would follow.

I imagine that some of these students might have the same deep bewilderment to see me now. Exactly one year ago, I was at the height of my fledgling career in Classics: I had just passed my penultimate PhD exam, founded the Sportula, and was heading down to San Diego to accept not one but two major awards for this work at the SCS/AIA Annual Meeting. More precious to me than both those awards was my hard won stability after a lifetime of mental illness. On the road trip down I sent a long euphoric email to a former undergraduate mentor: “Two of my grad friends from Berkeley invited me on a road trip there!” I wrote. “This is also so meaningful because….they’re the kinda ppl who i feel never would have invited the crazy/unpredictable me of three years ago to be in a car with them for many hours/days—so I feel like I’m finally gaining some trust from these years of good behavior.”

The very next day, my co-founder would be racially profiled and Sportula embroiled in “political scandal” and deluged by racist trolls. The very next day, I would write to that same undergraduate mentor: “Again, we’ll never be believed bc I didn’t catch the worst of it on video and god knows the word of two psychiatrically disabled POC isn’t enough for credibility…I’m killing myself on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall anyway.

I would spend the next six months destroying my relationships with my Sportula co-founder, that mentor, and everyone else around me. On the 50th anniversary of Stonewall that June, I would be publicly wrestled to the ground and thrown into psychiatric restraints in front of several fellow grad students, after the person I had road tripped to the SCS with called the cops on me and told them I was a danger to myself.

This sounds awfully sordid and dramatic, but really, the details are mundane. Mental illness runs on both sides of my family. I was going to Break the Cycle, go to therapy, get on meds. I pursued all that, but even as I say it to myself I’m struck with a memory of both my parents mouthing the same thing.

Isn’t that why I fell so hard for Classics to begin with? In a cultural moment of the new, the innovative, a hyper-individualistic notion of “choice” and “the self-made man” within neoliberalism, it was the old poems that spoke to me. The ones that acknowledged that we are who we are only in the context of community, lineage, the heavy weight of both personal and collective histories. How sometimes, we lose: profoundly and without recourse.

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François-Émile Ehrmann, Oedipe et le Sphinx

Continue reading “On Classics, Madness, and Losing Everything”

2019: A Year in Reading

Small talk follows predictable patterns and rarely veers off of script, and so people often ask me in casual conversation about my hobbies. These same people are generally either perplexed or disappointed when I tell them that a shortage of free time in general precludes the possibility of practicing a wide array of hobbies in earnest, but that I typically spend most of my spare time reading. Indeed, if I could find myself gainfully employed simply reading, analyzing, synthesizing, and commenting, I would achieve a pinnacle of happiness otherwise reserved only for the rich.

Perhaps I cannot account for what I accomplished in 2019 because all of it consisted simply of the perusal of books. And while it strikes me that this may appear insufferably vain as I type this, I have noticed that people tend to develop lists of their top recommendations for the year only at the end of the year (perhaps following the general thread of Solonian advice about not evaluating someone’s fortune in life until they are dead), and I have decided to follow suit by posting a set of recommendations from my bookshelf this year.


Released in 2019:

Anthony Grafton – Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship

Technically, this is a re-release, but the updated foreword and afterword constitute 2019 material. I would read anything by Anthony Grafton (and I’m dying to read his new book Inky Fingers in 2020), and anyone who is familiar with his work will know that he treats masses of erudition with a light and inviting style. Sure, it’s a serious and learned book, but it also lends itself to armchair reading with a coffee in hand. Perhaps the best insight to be gleaned from the book is the association between critical scholars and forgers – the tools necessary for each occupation being essentially the same.

Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror:

Ever since I read her article, The Repressive, Authoritarian Soul of “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends”, Jia Tolentino has been the only regular contributor to The New Yorker whose work I both look forward to and read through without fail. I recall reading somewhere that Zadie Smith thought that she was the perfect Millennial writer (or something to that effect), in that she managed to have a firm foothold in and understanding of the culture of my generation without it having ruined her. The essays which bookend the collection The I in Internet (about the elision of self and the commodification of identity in digital culture) and I Thee Dread (cynically romantic or romantically cynical reflections on marriage) were alone worth the price of the book.

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion: Tolentino, Jia

Daniel Mendelsohn, Ecstasy and Terror: From the Greeks to Game of Thrones

This was fortunately mercifully short on Game of Thrones material, because I find myself unable to come to terms with my former avid fondness for that show after its full-on commitment to wrapping up at the expense of making sense. Yet it was also less strictly Classical than I had anticipated, too. The book is a collection of Mendelsohn’s essays and criticism, and its range is wide and expansive. I took a particularly sick satisfaction in Mendelsohn’s brutal review of Stephen G. Kellman’s Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, for no other reason than the fact that Kellman once shot me a surly glare when I was an undergraduate and opened a door for him and his wife, poet and professor Wendy Barker.

Ecstasy and Terror

Guy Gavriel Kay, A Brightness Long Ago:

I tried to pick this up at the bookstore several times without any success because it had never occurred to me to look in the sci-fi/fantasy section. If either of those genres sounds unappealing to you, don’t worry: it is not really either of them. Kay’s work occupies a distinct space adjacent to historical fiction, or what I once heard him describe as a quarter-turn toward fantasy. All of the characters and settings are entirely fictional, yet it is set in what is clearly a fictionalized Renaissance Italy. Much of the narrative follows the central character Gudanio Cerra as he tries to keep himself alive amidst an ongoing conflict between two powerful condottieri, Folco Cino d’Acorsi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio. In addition to the wonderfully sad lyrical asides, the plot is constantly engaging throughout, and I was so involved that I read the book in a marathon session one Saturday.

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Older Books:

Zadie Smith, Feel Free:

This was released in 2018, and so qualifies as an “older book,” but I cannot recommend it enough. Feel Free is another one of those books which I ploughed through in a marathon session because it was so engaging. I had not read Zadie Smith before this collection, but I was so impressed that I went on a binge and read all of her novels afterward.

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Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Don’t @ me on this one. Despite all of Gibbon’s flaws and shortcomings, I feel the need every few years to read through the Decline and Fall in its entirety, and I’m afraid that it might be my desert island book. The edition by J.B. Bury lets you feel the satisfaction of seeing Gibbon’s factual errors as you read. Some of the later volumes are more of a slog than the first few, but I will still probably read straight through this again in a year or two.

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Herman Melville, Moby Dick:

A lovely trip to Nantucket’s whaling museum with Joel and his family this summer kindled the urge to read this bad boy for a third time, which did indeed prove to be the charm. Although I had read it twice before, I found this run through it to be the most engaging, and no book in my library is so thoroughly dog-eared throughout. A work of unparalleled genius, and definitely the most quotable book I’ve ever read.

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Historia Augusta:

How did I read all of the complaints about the gossipy and tawdry nature of this book for so many years without dipping into it? It may not be the most reliable history, or even a forgery, but it’s one of the most engaging Latin prose works we have outside of the Satyricon.

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Kristine Haugen, Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment

I wrote up a full review of this book here.


The Book I Wanted to Hate But Couldn’t:

Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading

Ezra Pound may have been a villain, and even in the narrow field of criticism he often goes off the rails pretty hard, but I blasted through this in one sitting because it was so utterly engaging throughout. Pound’s reflections on reading, and especially his thoughts on ancient poetry, are not bad. But his unwavering insistence on Chaucer and Provençal poets reminded me of the anecdote in Menelsohn’s collection about Mary Renault trying to push everyone into reading Thomas Malory.

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The Book I Wanted to Like But Couldn’t:

Herman Melville, Pierre:

One need look no further than the comparison between Pierre and Moby Dick to dispel the cult of genius. An author may be able to produce a work of genius, but they may have just the one. Pierre was criticized as one of the world’s most unreadable books, and I took up the challenge only to toss it aside about halfway through. The plot is unbearably absurd, and I found that I could not get past the stilted and affected archaism of the dialogue. This work alone made me wonder whether it is not for the best that so much of ancient literature has perished, allowing us to shower the surviving poets’ works with accolades while being spared the disappointment of reading some of their abortive attempts at art.

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Get Bent! (ley)

Dynamic and divisive figures like Bentley are apt to leave in their wake a mass of biographical recollection neatly divided into hagiography and hate. Though the average person may be surprised to learn that some of the most bitterly partisan divisions outside of politics can be found within the realm of scholarship, there is a long tradition of scholarly work serving as the basis of personal animus, and there are few scholars whose work ignited as much passionate controversy in the broader literary world as did Richard Bentley. While famous among Classical scholars, Bentley is largely forgotten to the broader intellectual world, except to those who recall him as the butt of the joke in Pope’s Dunciad and Swift’s Battle of the Books. Our man Bentley, a graduate of St. John’s College, Oxford, spent much of the 1680s in the household of Edward Stillingfleet before rolling on to the scholarly scene in the 1690s with two works which display what Gibbon would call “a stock of erudition which would have puzzled a doctor.”

Bentley’s Letter to Mill and Dissertations on the Epistles of Phalaris represent apparently epochal moments in the history of English Classical scholarship, and they were certainly important. Yet there is a temptation to regard Bentley’s work as wholly sui generis, if for no other reason than because his towering genius and the fame accruing to him for his polemical savagery place him so high in the pantheon of English scholarship that his predecessors have been largely effaced from memory. (Indeed, so strong is this tendency, that C.O. Brink’s volume on English Classical scholarship was entitled Bentley, Porson, Housman – not because there were no other English Classical scholars, but rather because these three are so manifestly preeminent as to force the rest into the unenviable position of ambient historical noise.) One may compare Bentley’s reputation with that of his contemporary, Isaac Newton. While Newton, too, was working within a tradition of scientific work laid out before him, the singularity of his individual achievement led to the elision of his predecessors.

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In her study Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment, Kristine Louise Haugen positions Bentley within a well-established set of scholarly work in 17th century England. A chapter on Restoration Cambridge lays the ground for understanding Bentley’s development by analyzing the work of Thomas Stanley, John Pearson, and Thomas Gale. Thomas Stanley’s History of Philosophy, a scholarly engagement with Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers, sought to augment and correct the biographies which Laertius wrote. Much of the value of this work is attributed to Stanley’s extensive compilation of chronological and biographical material supplemental to Diogenes. Stanley also produced the “first large-scale edition of a classical poet ever published” with his Aeschylus. Stanley was not endowed with the same keen power for textual criticism which characterized Bentley, and Haugen notes that it is his preoccupation with and commentary upon the more strictly literary qualities of the text which set him apart from Bentley, whose own process inclined toward commenting only upon textual problems in need of remedy.

While Thomas Stanley played the literary gentleman, John Pearson was the polemical scholar whose edition of the philosopher Hierocles dove into the weeds of commentary upon pseudo-Pythagorean verses with a hint of polemical fire. Haugen paints Pearson as something like a Mr. Casaubon (not the scholar, but the character from Middlemarch), who “evidently never hit on the reigning ideas that could have turned his masses of notes into a meaningful narrative or a decisive editorial procedure.” [p.30] Pearson was also the author of the Vindication of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, which set a precedent for Bentley in its striving to find a way to blend scholarship and polemic.

The methods of Thomas Gale approach more closely to the methodical rigor of Bentley. Gale composed a series of comments and notes upon the Library of Apollodorus. Haugen devotes some pages to explicating Gale’s methods by analyzing his approach to the corruptions at Apollodorus 1.9.26. Gale’s approach drew on comparative analysis between passages in Apollodorus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Hesychius, Strabo, and a scholiast in order to restore Apollodorus’ text. She notes the parallel between the method of comparative reading in Gale’s work and that in Bentley’s Horace of 1711, and demonstrates that Bentley’s approach, though it was both criticized and ridiculed, simply represented the employment of an established scholarly procedure. Bentley’s fault was in offending the sensibilities of 18th century literary gentlemen, for whom the received text was regarded as canon passed down to them from their school days, and reinforced through a series of endless and ostentatious quotations in periodical publication.

Bentley’s major works can be separated into roughly three periods: the polemical works on obscure books (Letter to Mill and Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris) in the 1690’s; the scholarly analysis of canonical literature (Horace, New Testament, Terence, and the discovery of digamma in the works of Homer); and his preoccupation with the figure of the meddling editor (in his edition of Manilius, and in the much maligned edition of Paradise Lost).

Bentley’s intellectual development was fostered by privileged patronage. For all that has been made about “Bentley’s idexes”, it is worth noting that one cannot embark profitably on the project of indexing unless one has access to books. In 1682, Bentley became the tutor to James Stillingfleet, the younger son of Edward Stillingfleet. This position involved more than simply educating young James. Bentley was a member of the household, and served as an all-purpose toady for Stillingfleet: amanuensis, ghost writer, and procurer of books. In this last function, it serves to note that Bentley was charged with purchasing volumes for Stillingfleet’s library, a task which on some occasions led to the acquisition of rare or useful classical books. Moreover, Bentley’s position also meant that he had access to the whole of Stillingfleet’s library, and it would be hard to overstate the effect which access to such a treasury would have had on Bentley’s later stock of erudition. Later, owing in part to the boost in life granted him by Stillingfleet’s patronage, Bentley was made Keeper of the Royal Library in 1693. We are perhaps liable now to underestimate the value of access to information in light of the relative cheapness of both books and information today. While Bentley was undoubtedly endowed with a remarkably acute intellect, one must concede that he would not have become the colossus of English classical scholarship were it not for the patronage of the rich and powerful.

Bentley rolled on to the public scholarly scene in 1691 with his Letter to Mill, which is ostensibly intended as commentary upon Mill’s edition of the Byzantine historian John Malalas. The story goes that Bentley wanted to see the edition before its publication, and Mill agreed to let him take a look in exchange for penning a commentary essay on it. The text of Malalas as it stood offered fertile ground for Bentley’s intellect, and what was supposed to be simply some “remarks” morphed into a full blown essay, focused in large part on Greek drama. Haugen judges that the “Letter to Mill was largely the work of an autodidact, with all of the freedoms and some of the deficiencies that this implies.” [p.82] Yet it is perhaps this very sense of freedom which makes Bentley’s scholarship so novel and invigorating.

The Battle of the Books (or The Quarrel Between Ancients and Moderns) has been forgotten by the public at large, perhaps because the debate has been so firmly settled on the side of modernity, but it was still capable of exciting tempers at the end of the 17th century, and served as the foundation for Bentley’s famous Dissertation Upon the Epistles of Phalaris. The epistles were literary forgeries (or playful literary exercises) written in the persona of Phalaris, the tyrant of Akragas, who cooked his enemies inside a brazen bull which he kept at his court. Many astute readers had long seen that the Epistles were not actually written by the tyrant himself, but that did not prevent Sir William Temple from blundering his way into citing them as proof for his claim that the achievements of antiquity far surpassed those of the modern world. Temple described the Epistles as having “more Race, more Spirit, more Force of Wit and Genius than any others I have ever seen, either antient or modern.” William Wotton, one of Bentley’s friends, penned a response to Temple arguing for the superiority of modern achievement, and published it along with the 78 page first edition of the Dissertation, composed by Bentley, which showed that the Epistles were neither original, nor as ancient as Temple had supposed. This led to a counterattack by Francis Atterbury, which in turn drove Bentley to publish a substantially enlarged, 540 page edition of the Dissertation. Unsurprisingly, the second edition of the Dissertation was far more diffuse and digressive than the first, and it does more than simply prove its point about the Epistles – it provides commentary upon and solutions to a wide range of textual and chronographic problems which are tangentially related to issues suggested by the Epistles themselves.

The expanded Dissertation makes for a tough read, but Haugen does an admirable job of summarizing the key arguments and conclusions, with helpful notes on Bentley’s method of scholarly exposition. It is unlikely that readers today would take sufficient interest in the controversy to read through Bentley’s work, and even a Classical scholar can be forgiven for feeling somewhat stupefied when confronted with the sheer mass of intimidating erudition which Bentley drew up for the book. Yet, the expanded edition was written and published with remarkable haste (released only one year after Atterbury’s attack), suggesting that this was all material which Bentley had ready in the chamber. Nevertheless, the literary world found the massive display of erudition distasteful, and served as the basis for the ridicule which Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope leveled against Bentley in The Battle of the Books and The Dunciad. Moreover, the 1699 publication of the Dissertation marks the end of Bentley’s publication in the realm of the rarefied and minutely obscure, as he ceased after this point to write on forgotten Greek works, and turned his attention to something a bit more canonical.

Bentley’s edition of Horace, published in 1712, exposed him to broader public notice than his earlier works on account of Horace’s widespread popularity as a gentleman’s reading material. The broad popularity and canonical status of that poet meant that many of Bentley’s contemporaries had learned Horace by heart in their school days. Thus, when Bentley produced a triple decker quarto edition of Horace consisting of over 700 pages (more than 400 of which were devoted to his notes and commentary), it is not surprising that Horace’s drawing room readers were disconcerted and even offended by Bentley’s apparent audacity. Much of the impetus for the publication came from Bentley’s position at the head of Cambridge University Press, which was busily engaged in the project of releasing ‘editions’ – that is, collected volumes of a single author’s work – in an effort to catch up with the rival Oxford University Press.

Haugen spends some time examining Bentley’s method in emending the text of Horace, which marked a departure from the scholarly practice of the Letter and the Dissertation. In each of those works, Bentley was offering broader scholarly commentary on particular issues, not trying to correct the problems of a single text. And so, where his previous publications relied heavily on the marshalling of masses of erudition, Bentley relied far more on his own innate critical and aesthetic genius to produce the conjectures in his edition of Horace. This could on occasion produce the right result, but Bentley’s enthusiasm for emendation (Haugen notes that nearly every page of Bentley’s text features some deviation from the received text) suggests that he got a bit carried away by his own critical spirit. As such, Bentley’s edition of Horace, while surely a work of critical genius in its own right, is nevertheless remembered today more for the interest of its methods and arguments than for its textual soundness.

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Bentley’s later work is still suffused with his characteristic critical acuity and deep erudition, but there is something less immediately gratifying about the metrical arcana of his edition of Terence, or the marked emphasis on manuscript work (as contrasted to conjectural enthusiasm in his Horace) found in his New Testament work. Haugen’s chapter Vi Commodavi provides a clear and readable account of Bentley’s metrical expertise and its bearing on his edition of Terence, but it is hard to imagine a reader waking up early to peruse these pages unless they are already captivated by the subject of meter. While the documentation and explication of Bentley’s later work are all just as thoroughgoing as in earlier chapters, it is Bentley’s work itself which lacks the potent polemical interest of the early publications. Perhaps it is because we see here Bentley the scholar, while the Letter and the Dissertation presented us with Bentley the bumptious genius.

Of course, no study of Bentley would be complete without a treatment of his most embarrassing mistake: his edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The publication of critical editions of English poets was not wholly unexampled, as is clear from Pope’s own critical edition of Shakespeare, but Bentley’s mangling of Milton was ill-conceived, and may be more responsible for the posthumous ridicule which he received than were the attacks leveled against him by Pope and Swift. Bentley thought that he detected errors in Milton’s epic which had been introduced intentionally by a shadowy and malicious figure known as the Editor. Having postulated the existence of this literary villain, Bentley could then frame his conjectural emendation of Paradise Lost as a restoration of Milton’s true intent, and not an attempt to correct Milton’s diction by the standards of Bentleian genius.

In her discussion of this colossal wreck of abortive scholarship, Haugen draws the connection between Bentley’s anti-editorial crusade in his Milton to a similar impulse characterizing his edition of the Roman astronomical poet, Manilius. Although he had begun his edition of Manilius decades before its publication in 1739, it is characterized more by the preoccupation with evil interpolators found in his Milton (1732) than it is with the broad scholarship which had interested him in the 1680s-1690s. “At the same time, it is quite possible that the Paradise Lost edition stood behind the final form of Bentley’s Manilius, centrally devoted as both editions were to exposing the work of spectacularly active interpolators.” [p.212]

Haugen’s study of Bentley is engaging, and one could easily spend months reading it to mine a full history of 17th and 18th century English scholarship from its pages. Certainly, it does not have the same racy and gossipy quality which can be found in Jebb’s or Monk’s biographies. The latter two gentlemen were certainly concerned with Bentley’s scholarship, and addressed the intellectual side of his life, but they were also far more keen to include extensive details about Bentley’s disastrously pugnacious life as the head of Trinity College. In eschewing the more gossipy (though exceptionally entertaining) bits of Bentley’s life and focusing in such detail both on the development of Bentley’s intellect and the history of his intellectual milieu stemming from the work of scholars in Restoration era Cambridge, Haugen has provided an essential volume for anyone who has anything more than a passing interest in the history of scholarship.


Some More Things Were Published

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 13

“It would be annoying to list all the people who spent their lives pursuing board games, ball games, or sunbathing. Men whose pleasures are so busy are not at leisure. For example, no one will be surprised that those occupied by useless literary studies work strenuously—and there is great band of these in Rome now too.

This sickness used to just afflict the Greeks, to discover the number of oarsmen Odysseus possessed, whether the Iliad was written before the Odyssey, whether the poems belong to the same author, and other matters like this which, if you keep them to yourself, cannot please your private mind; but if you publish them, you seem less learned than annoying.”

Persequi singulos longum est, quorum aut latrunculi aut pila aut excoquendi in sole corporis cura consumpsere vitam. Non sunt otiosi, quorum voluptates multum negotii habent. Nam de illis nemo dubitabit, quin operose nihil agant, qui litterarum inutilium studiis detinentur, quae iam apud Romanos quoque magna manus est. Graecorum iste morbus fuit quaerere, quem numerum Ulixes remigum habuisset, prior scripta esset Ilias an Odyssia, praeterea an eiusdem essent auctoris, alia deinceps huius notae, quae sive contineas, nihil tacitam conscientiam iuvant sive proferas, non doctior videaris sed molestior.

This year’s publications were not as numerous as last, but there was a book, some articles and some things. N.B. If you want a copy of anything, just email me.


E. T. E. Barker and Joel P. Christensen. Homer’s Thebes: Epic Rivalries and the Appropriation of Mythical Pasts Center for Hellenic Studies

Our “Frogs and Mice Book” came out in paperback, with corrections and a vastly improved price.

Joel P. Christensen and Erik Robinson. The Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice: Introduction, Translation and Commentary  Bloomsbury [Paperback, 2019]

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J. P. Christensen. “Revising Athena’s Rage: Kassandra and the Homeric Appropriation of Nostos.” YAGE  3: 88–116.

Becoming Powerful Through Compromise: Hesiod’s Zeus as Chairman of the Gods,” SAGE Business Cases, Ancient  Leadership


Book Reviews

Loving Latin at the end of the World” a Review of N. Gardini, Long Live Latin!  (2019), Boston Review

Review of M. Alden, Para-Narratives in the Odyssey (Oxford, 2017), CR  69.1

Pliny the Younger, Letters 1.2

“Clearly, something must be published – ah, it would be best if I could just publish what I have already finished! (You may hear in this the wish of laziness)”

Est enim plane aliquid edendum — atque utinam hoc potissimum quod paratum est! Audis desidiae votum

Online Things

with Erik Robinson, “VII Philosophies for the Modern Bro.” Eidolon, Apr. 1, 2019.

with Evan McDuff, “Pour Some Pepper on Me: the King of Spices in Greece and Rome.” Eidolon, Feb. 19, 2018.

On the Wings of Stolen Virtue

“My heart is wounded, when I see such virtue afflicted by the weight of such misfortunes.”

(Addison, Cato)

Following a brutal winter encamped at Valley Forge, George Washington decided to raise the spirits of his troops with a theatrical production. His choice of entertainment, Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy, may strike the contemporary reader as something less than an ideal choice. Though it enjoyed considerable popularity in the 18th century, Addison’s Cato is by now largely relegated to the inconspicuous curio cabinet of academic interest. The reasons for this are sufficiently plain to anyone who has read the text of the play: it consists largely of stilted and high-flown rhetorical exchanges which, while perfectly concordant with the Neoclassical taste of Addison’s day, strike a somewhat preening and pompous (not to mention boring) note today.

Set in Utica immediately after the Battle of Thapsus (46 BC), where the forces of Cato and his senatorial ally Scipio were defeated by the army of Julius Caesar, Cato and his surviving cronies are confronted with the choice of surrendering to their conqueror or attempting to sustain their fight against him. Among Cato’s counselors is the villainous Sempronius, who intends to betray Cato to Caesar in a ploy to take Cato’s daughter Marcia as a captive following her father’s defeat. Cato is supported by the Numidian king Juba, who also has his eyes on Marcia, but loves her for her virtue rather than her looks. Juba in turn has a treacherous counselor, the aged Syphax, who despises the Romans for their degenerate hypocrisy. Syphax hopes that Caesar, being less ideological and self-assuredly virtuous than Cato, will make a more favorable leader of the Roman state than Cato.

Addison’s Cato presents us with implausibly balanced moral antitheses in its dramatis personae. Juba and Marcia are both paragons of virtue, while Sempronius and Syphax are vice incarnate. (Indeed, the word virtue appears 46 times within the short span of the play.) Juba pronounces this encomium on the man he hopes to claim as his father-in-law:

Turn up thy eyes to Cato;

There may’st thou see to what a godlike height

The Roman virtues lift up mortal man.

While good, and just, and anxious for his friends,

He’s still severely bent against himself;

And when his fortune sets before him all

The pomps and pleasures that his soul can wish,

His rigid virtue will accept of none.

Witness, too, this exchange between Cato and Decius, as the latter attempts to convince Cato to accept terms from Caesar:

Cato. Nay, more, though Cato’s voice was ne’er employ’d

To clear the guilty, and to varnish crimes,

Myself will mount the rostrum in his favour,

And strive to gain his pardon from the people.

 Dec. A style like this becomes a conqueror.

 Cato. Decius, a style like this becomes a Roman.

 Dec. What is a Roman, that is Cæsar’s foe?

 Cato. Greater than Cæsar: he’s a friend to virtue.

 If one can see past the heavy handed rhetorical construction of the play, it becomes more apparent why it gained such popularity: as a convenient sourcebook for self-congratulatory quotes and tags. America’s founding generation provides clear examples of this. Nathan Hale’s famous line, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”, is a reference to Cato’s speech (Act IV Scene 4), “What a pity it is that we can die but once to serve our country.” In their letters, both John Adams and George Washington both quoted Portius’ line, “’Tis not in mortals to command success, but we’ll do more, Sempronius—we’ll deserve it.” (Act I Scene 1)

Conveniently for the reader or audience member who would pilfer the play for justificatory tags, Addison does not deal with the messy social and political details of Rome’s late Republican period. From a dispassionate historical perspective, one can see that Cato’s talk of preserving Roman liberty was colossally self-aggrandizing: he identified the cause of liberty with himself, and Caesar, who never appears as anything but an off-stage threat throughout the play, is simply a metonym for the enslavement of the Roman people and the death of the Roman state. Yet it is not clear that life for the average Roman not involved in the military conflict would have differed much had either side prevailed. Would it have mattered to the people in the street whether Rome were governed by one rich man instead of a few rich men? The talk of despotism is all very frightening, but when men like Cato spoke of being deprived of liberty, they meant that they were going to be deprived of the ability to keep their own hands on the levers of governmental power. Moreover, we can see in retrospect that Cato’s suicide, while earning him a posthumous reputation as a martyr for the republic, nevertheless precluded the possibility of his leading the senate following Caesar’s assassination two years later.

But Addison’s aims are limited, and he does not touch upon any of this. Consequently, his play is an empty mold of rhetorical antithesis into which one might inject their own favorite cause. Elizabeth Inchbald explained the play’s popularity with both Whigs and Tories:

The most fortunate of all occurrences took place, from the skill with which Addison drew this illustrious Roman—he gave him so much virtue, that both Whigs and Tories declared him of their party; and instead of any one, on either side, opposing his sentences in the cause of freedom, all strove which should the most honour him.

Both auditors and readers, since that noted period, much as they may praise this tragedy, complain that it wants the very first requisite of a dramatic work—power to affect the passions. This criticism shows, to the full extent, how men were impassioned, at that time, by their political sentiments. They brought their passions with them to the playhouse, fired on the subject of the play; and all the poet had to do was to extend the flame.

It is for this same reason that the bigwigs of the American Revolution could earnestly frame themselves as a group of virtuous Catonians struggling against the malice and the manacles of that Caesarian villain, George III. Similarly, it is why the Koch Brothers’ propaganda operation can be called, without a hint of irony, The Cato Institute – for some reason, The Self-Righteous Reactionary Oligarch Institute simply doesn’t have the same ring.

What accounts for all of this Catonian posturing? Is this virtue signaling? That phrase is typically directed from the right to the left as a pejorative meant to discredit a person’s statements or actions for being obnoxiously righteous and largely ineffective in the real world. Yet what better example of virtue signaling can one find than the suicide of Cato, which did little for “republican liberty,” but turned Cato into a celebrity paragon of libertarian virtue?

The term ‘virtue signaling’ is particularly noxious and loaded, in part because its aim is to discredit the notion that causes associated with ‘wokeness’ (most of them centered upon advocacy for empathy and social justice, i.e. basic human decency) are little more than bespoke ideology tags which can enhance the social prestige of their users, as would fashionable accessories or perfectly filtered and curated Instagram accounts. According to this cynical worldview, people cannot feel genuine moral outrage about deep systemic injustice in the world and simultaneously find themselves unable to do anything substantial about it. But this misses the point entirely, given that many of the world’s most egregious and imminent problems could largely be obviated if a few hundred of its obscenely rich and powerful citizens could simply stop being evil. Gibbon was able to describe history as little more than the record of the crimes and follies of mankind because human affairs have almost always been horribly mismanaged by the powerful, if for no other reason than because one has to be at least a little evil to gain such power in the first place. Lord Acton’s old line about absolute power corrupting absolutely had it entirely backwards: only an absolutely corrupt person gets hold of absolute power.

Amidst all of the talk of ‘virtue signaling’, we never hear of its opposite: vice dissimulation. Among the Roman emperors, those like Augustus, who managed to keep their vices largely private, were often respected far more than those like Commodus, who made an open display of their criminality. The Koch brothers put money into “libertarian think tanks,” because such institutions serve as a palatable and attractive front for pre-emptive criminal apologetics. Other billionaires pretend to donate apparently large sums (which represent insignificant fractions of their wealth) to charities (which are really just shell operations which they managed) in order to make themselves appear to be relatively benign and decent people, and to distract us from the fact that their own abuse of capital and power has ruined life for countless people on this planet now and in the future. Yet, when an ordinary citizen with no effectual power but their own voice and some minimal capital to spend upon small indulgences takes to complaining about the state of the world, it is deemed intolerably self-righteous.

Of course, the reactionary right has embraced the Trump era with such enthusiasm because he has almost single-handedly eliminated the need for vice dissimulation. Criminality is now front-and-center as an agenda item, and all of the suppurating evil of the Republican soul can be given a fresh airing. When he falls, Donny T. will be hailed by his acolytes as a modern Cato saving us from the Caesarian tyranny of Obama’s deep state. Dirty, fundamentally oligarchic power politics will proceed in their same corrupt fashion, and the continued onslaught against ‘virtue signaling,’ led by villainy’s chief propagandists, will attempt to deprive us of the only remaining powers we have: our voice and our conscience.

Charles Le Brun, Suicide of Cato the Younger

Annual Atopia: the Not-Top 10

Yesterday I posted a list of the top 10 posts on the site based on page-views. Sometimes we can guess which posts are going to generate some traffic; other times, we are surprised both by those that are popular and those.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite posts that didn’t make the top 10 (for comparison, last year’s list).

1. Brillionaire’s Club

An essay about the labor practices of academic publishing and the economics of exploitation. Also, I paean to open access.

2. An Unlikely Hybrid: Medusa, Miley Cyrus, and the Politics of the Female Tongue

Amy Lather’s post on the modern and ancient iconographies of the tongue

3. The Vanity of Virtue: Contemporary Pseudo-Stoicism

We mocked modern Stoics in an Eidolon piece, but this essay by Erik is less amused.

4. Shitizens United

When Erik gets on a roll, we all just want to tag along. One of a few essays on the curmudgeonly creep masquerading as a Classicist named Victor Hanson

5. A Hero Shot A Man, Just to…

So, one day we asked the question whether Odysseus or Achilles was more likely to “shoot a man in Reno /  just to watch him die”. Feelings happened.

6. The Aeneid‘s Pot Brownie, Commentary on 6.420

I just don’t know why this title alone did not win the Internet. Another fabulous piece by Dani Bostick

7. “Our Culture” Anatolian Edition

Ari Akkermans’ balanced and thorough overview of appropriations of Classical culture in Turkey.

8. Ipse Dixit: Citation and Authority

Hannah Čulík-Baird’s essay on quotation and authority–kind of her specialty.

9. Give Your Money to the Sportula

Just read the title and do it.

10. Aeriportus Virumque Cano: Trump’s Revolutionary War Airports

11. Emolument’s Claws

Please read this essay. It is really fucking smart (Joel said this. Erik wrote it)

12. Counting Matters: The National Latin Exam and the Politics of Record Keeping

Some of Dani Bostick’s great public work for Classical Studies.

13. The Future of the Past

People didn’t get into this essay on how we should be thinking about preserving our work for the coming civilization collapse. I wonder why?

14. A New Musical Papyrus

Christopher Brunelle’s “discovery” is hilarious and deeply learned. This should have broken the Internet. You know, if more people knew about papyri and ancient music…


Valentine's Fart

Thanks to our friends Deborah Beck, Christopher Brunelle, Amy Coker, Brandon Conley, Hannah Čulík-Baird, Ari Akkermans, Dani Bostick, Amy Lather, Alexandra Ratzlaff for making this year fabulous.

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!”