“The first act of the new emperors saw to it that the two Gordians be deified. Some however think that only one (the elder) was deified. But I remember that I read in the books which Iunius Cordus wrote at some length that both Gordians were borne aloft to the gods, even though the elder ended his life by hanging himself while the younger was taken away by war. The younger Gordian surely deserves more respect on account of the fact that war took him away.”
Prima igitur relatio principum fuit, ut duo Gordiani divi appellarentur. Aliqui autem unum putant appellatum, seniorem videlicet, sed ego libris, quos Iunius Cordus affatim scripsit, legisse memini ambos in deos relatos, si quidem senior laqueo vitam finivit, iunior autem in bello consumptus est, qui utique maiorem meretur reverentiam, quod eum bellum rapuit.
“This whole topic is handled here not merely to make oratory, which should move and flow, grow ancient because it must measure out each foot and weigh out each syllable. No, that is what miserable minds who are obsessed with minor things think about.
No one who throws himself into this concern completely will have any time for more important matters if, once the weight of the material is forgotten and polish itself is rejected, he constructs “mosaic work”, as Lucilius says, and works his words together in “vermiculate construction”. Won’t his fire cool down and his force diminish, the same way show-riders break the pace of their horses with a dancing gait?”
Totus vero hic locus non ideo tractatur a nobis ut oratio, quae ferri debet ac fluere, dimetiendis pedibus ac perpendendis syllabis consenescat: nam id cum miseri, tum in minimis occupati est: neque enim qui se totum in hac cura consumpserit potioribus vacabit, si quidem relicto rerum pondere ac nitore contempto ‘tesserulas’, ut ait Lucilius, struet et vermiculate inter se lexis committet. Nonne ergo refrigeretur sic calor et impetus pereat, ut equorum cursum delicati minutis passibus frangunt?
A post by the amazing Dr. Hannah Čulík-Baird, known to the twitter-verse as @opietasanimi.
Sententiae has been calling out fake quotations (particularly of Aristotle) for a while now, to the point where a citational typology has been developed. All of these quotations, real or otherwise, really make me wonder: why do we quote so much in the first place?
Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, incidentally, criticized the citational impulse, wrote: “All minds quote.” (Just to be clear, this one’s real: it appears in Quotation and Originality. And yes, I do realize the irony of quoting an authority in an essay which will, spoiler alert, ask that we don’t do this so much. There will be much irony.)
Back to “All minds quote”, then. We’re trained to do it, and there is also something instinctual about it. We want to situate ourselves. We want to be part of an intellectual framework. We want to show we know things!
Citation acknowledges both that we are not alone (others have felt this way, thought this way), and that we didn’t get here alone (others have done work that set the foundation; we stand on their shoulders). Sara Ahmed has written: “Citation is feminist memory. It is how we leave a trail of where we have been and who helped us along the way.” Marika Rose has stressed that citation is a form of “academic currency” which “has value, ascribes value.”
So, I get it. Citationality makes community, and without that community, and citational trust, scholarly work would be impossible. But what about these Aristotle “quotes”? One of the issues here is that some of the Aristotle sayings — the ones which aren’t completely fabricated, anyway — make their way into popular usage because they were excerpted and placed in a different context. “Memory is the scribe of the soul. — Aristotle” – which does, actually, seem to be fake – appears in several 19th century quotation books, either alongside witty phrases on the topic of “memory” attributed to other venerable writers; or as just one in a larger list of sayings attributed to Aristotle. Presenting Aristotle’s words (or not his words) in this way — as short, pithy sayings — removes much of the substance and flattens out the meaning, which will always depend on the context. And by placing pithy phrases in a list like this, the reader no longer views Aristotle as philosopher in the context of his time and intellectual environment, but as Aristotle the timeless authority.
Recently, I’ve been teaching Cicero and my students were considering a passage from De Officiis (1.113) which contains the phrase: id enim maxime quemque decet, quod est cuiusque maxime suum, i.e. something like: “What best suits each man is whatever is most his own.” In class, I remarked flippantly that this is the kind of thing which would appear on a mug in an etsy shop. “What suits us best is what’s most our own. — Cicero.”
Already wildly popular on etsy and elsewhere is Cicero’s “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need,” which comes from a short letter to Varro from 46 BCE (Ad Fam. 9.4.1). Although, Cicero says si hortum in biblioteca, “if you have a garden in your library,” which Shackleton Bailey, the famous editor of Cicero’s letters, considered “a rather obscure remark.” The editors before him, Tyrell and Purser, wrote: “Cicero may have been fond of flowers, as some commentators say, but why should the garden be in the library…” They go on to suggest that the text may have been hortum cum biliotheca, “a garden with a library”, which would get us closer to the etsy shop pillows and mugs.
But the earlier part of Cicero’s letter to Varro is banter about philosophical gibberish, which may suggest a more specific meaning here, unknown to us (again: context). Some think that the garden in question is a reference to Epicureanism (Epicurus famously had a garden at Athens).
Anyway, it turns out that the phrase from Cicero’s De Officiis (1.113) was in fact also excerpted as gnomic wisdom in the 19th century. In 1889, it was included in Francis Henry King’s “Classical and Foreign Quotations: Law Terms and Maxims, Proverbs, Mottoes, Phrases, and Expressions in French, German, Greek, Italian, Latin, Spanish, and Portuguese. With Translations, References, Explanatory Notes, and Indexes” (!). It is the 2007th quotation:
The title page of King’s Classical and Foreign Quotations contains the epigraph: “A Quotation without a reference is like a geological specimen of unknown locality,” attributed (with a page number and everything) to Prof. Skeat i.e. the British philologist Walter William Skeat, who produced An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language.
In the introduction, King quotes Skeat more fully: “I protest, for about the hundredth time, against the slipshod method of quoting a mere author’s name, without any indication of the work of that author in which the alleged quotation may be found. Let us have accurate quotations and exact references, wherever such are to be found. A quotation without reference is like a geological specimen of unknown locality.”
Evidently, there was some frustration with the contemporary practice of quoting ancient and modern authors without reference (which is not quite context). A practice which, as the many posts here on Sententiae have shown, is the intellectual precursor to Aristotle’s prominence on pinterest.
I’m still bothered by the question of why we quote. It is clear that ancient texts have traditionally been mined for their nuggets of wisdom, and that often this kind of mining disrupts meaning. The idea that there is something universal in ancient texts can make us blind to the things in them which are specifically not universal; the peculiarities, the details which connect to, and are sustained by, the broader cultural environment which produced them. The details which don’t actually make sense out of context. Details in text which refer to parts of a culture which are now lost, even though the text remains.
When we quote “blah blah blah — Aristotle” or “blah blah blah — Cicero”, we present something very flat indeed. The context and the meaning of the text recedes from view, and is replaced, instead, with authority. It reminds me of what James Boswell recorded about Samuel Johnson’s response to the accusation that classical quotation was pedantry: “No, Sir, it is a good thing; there is a community of mind in it. Classical quotation is the parole of literary men all over the world.” In this context, quotation is essentially a class signifier. A way for elites to communicate.
There’s a famous passage in Cicero’s De Natura Deorum (1.10) that faces this problem head on. (Again, I’m aware of the irony of citing Cicero as an authority here).
qui autem requirunt quid quaque de re ipsi sentiamus, curiosius id faciunt quam necesse est; non enim tam auctoritatis in disputando quam rationis momenta quaerenda sunt. quin etiam obest plerumque iis qui discere volunt auctoritas eorum qui se docere profitentur; desinunt enim suum iudicium adhibere, id habent ratum quod ab eo quem probant iudicatum vident. nec vero probare soleo id quod de Pythagoreis accepimus, quos ferunt, si quid adfirmarent in disputando, cum ex eis quaereretur quare ita esset, respondere solitos “ipse dixit”; “ipse” autem erat Pythagoras: tantum opinio praeiudicata poterat, ut etiam sine ratione valeret auctoritas.
‘Those who seek my personal views on each issue are being unnecessarily inquisitive, for when we engage in argument we must look to the weight of reason rather than authority. Indeed, students who are keen to learn often find the authority of those who claim to be teachers to be an obstacle, for they cease to apply their own judgement and regard as definitive the solution offered by the mentor of whom they approve. I myself tend to disapprove of the alleged practice of the Pythagoreans: the story goes that if they were maintaining some position in argument, and were asked why, they would reply: “The master said so,” the master being Pythagoras. Prior judgement exercised such sway that authority prevailed even when unsupported by reason.’ Translated by P. G. Walsh (2008).
Cicero’s claim here is that over-dependence on the citation of authority is not a healthy intellectual practice. His view is informed by the Academic philosophical stance, which, instead of putting forward positive views rather refined intellectual understanding via refutation and argumentation.
Argumentation is the emphasis. If someone asks you why you think something, you should be able to explain why. In such a context, Cicero derides the members of particular philosophical schools who, from his perspective at least, rely not on argumentation but instead simply invoke authority. The Pythagoreans respond: ipse dixit, “he himself said so.”
Cicero also characterizes Epicurean philosophy as overly dependent on authority. In the De Natura Deorum, the Academic character says to the Epicurean: ista enim a vobis quasi dictata redduntur, quae Epicurus oscitans halucinatus est, “your responses are like your school lessons, gibberish spouted by Epicurus while he fell asleep” (ND 1.72). In the In Pisonem, Cicero takes on the persona of an Epicurean to mock their reverent, citational invocation: ut noster divinus ille dixit Epicurus, “as our divine Epicurus himself said…” (Pis. 59).
In the De Natura Deorum passage, Cicero is aware that an authoritative presence in the classroom can be damaging to student growth if it gives the students the sense that they cannot make their own judgments, but instead must defer to the opinions of their teachers. Cicero rejects the overly inquisitive who want to know what he thinks about the nature of the gods on the grounds that they might run around spouting Cicero dixit – “Cicero said so” – instead of achieving some mastery of the philosophical argumentations contained within this book. But there is artificiality to this that comes from Cicero’s temporary pedagogical stance.
In his political and literary life Cicero, of course, did want to be quoted, because this was a measure of his influence, and his legacy. And, of course, Cicero himself also quoted and invoked authorities all the time: noster Ennius (Arch. 18);noster Plato (Leg. 3.5), etc. etc.
Skeat was frustrated with quotation without reference. But what I want to see is quotation with context. It happens time and again that a nice turn of phrase from an ancient author which sounds fine and maybe somehow inspirational in its disembodied, decontextualized state, turns out to be not so great when you see its original purpose. Quotation basically always changes the nature of the words cited. A quotation takes on a new function in its new context, and it’s worth being aware of that. Sometimes, citation is deliberately designed to change how the original text is viewed.
“In the fourth book of the Aeneid, describing the death of Dido, Vergil says that a lock of her hair was cut away in these verses:
Proserpina had not yet cut away the tawny lock from her and condemned her head to Stygian Orcus.
Then Iris, sent by Juno, cut away Dido’s hair and brought it to Orcus. Vergil has not contrived this story out of nothing, as that otherwise very learned man Cornutus supposes when he adds this commentary to the verse:
Whence came this story that hair must be taken away from the dying is unknown; but Vergil is accustomed to invent things now and then in the old poetic fashion, as he did with the golden bough.
Thus writes Cornutus. But I am ashamed that such a great man, though steeped in Greek literature, did not know that most remarkable play of Euripides, the Alcestis. For in that play, Orcus is brought onto the scene bearing a sword to cut the hair of Alcestis, and he speaks thus:
This woman then will go to the home of Hades.
I proceed to her, so that I may begin the rite with my sword.
For one is sacred to the god below ground
Once this blade has consecrated the hair of their head.
So it is clear, I think, whom Vergil followed in introducing the part about cutting the hair. But the Greeks mean by ἁγνίσαι to consecrate to the gods, whence your poet says in the character of Iris,
Ordered by Juno, I bear this sacred hair to Dis, and loose you from your body.
In libro quarto in describenda Elissae morte ait quod ei crinis abscisus esset his versibus:
Nondum illi flavum Proserpina vertice crinem
Abstulerat, Stygioque caput damnaverat Orco.
Deinde Iris a Iunone missa abscidit ei crinem et ad Orcum refert. Hanc Virgilius non de nihilo fabulam fingit, sicut vir alias doctissimus Cornutus existimat, qui annotationem eiusmodi adposuit his versibus: Unde haec historia, ut crinis auferendus sit morientibus, ignoratur: sed adsuevit poetico more aliqua fingere, ut de aureo ramo. Haec Cornutus. Sed me pudet quod tantus vir, Graecarum etiam doctissimus litterarum, ignoravit Euripidis nobilissimam fabulam Alcestim. In hac enim fabula in scenam Orcus inducitur gladium gestans quo crinem abscidat Alcestidis, et sic loquitur,
“He used to say that no plague is more fatal than the bodily pleasure which has been given to human beings by nature. Zealous lusts for this kind of pleasure compel people toward pursuing them insanely and without any control. From this source springs treason against our country, coups against the legitimate government, and from here secret meetings with enemies are born.”
Nullam capitaliorem pestem quam voluptatem corporis hominibus dicebat a natura datam, cuius voluptatis avidae libidines temere et ecfrenate ad potiendum incitarentur. Hinc patriae proditiones, hinc rerum publicarum eversiones, hinc cum hostibus clandestina colloquia nasci
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.
From the Twelve Tables
“The Law of the Twelve Tables commands that anyone who has conspired with an enemy against the state or handed a citizen to a public enemy, should suffer capital punishment.”
Marcianus, ap. Dig., XLVIII, 4, 3: Lex XII Tabularum iubet eum qui hostem concitaverit quive civem hosti tradiderit capite puniri.
Tacitus Histories 3. 57
“How much power the audacity of single individuals can have during civil discord! Claudius Flaventinus, a centurion dismissed by Galba in shame, made the fleet at Misenum revolt with forged letters from Vespasian promising a reward for treason. Claudius Apollinaris, a man neither exceptional for his loyalty nor dedicated in his betrayal, was in charge of the fleet; and Apinius Tiro, an ex-praetor who was by chance at Minturnae then, put himself forth as the leader of the defectors.”
Sed classem Misenensem (tantum civilibus discordiis etiam singulorum audacia valet) Claudius Faventinus centurio per ignominiam a Galba dimissus ad defectionem traxit, fictis Vespasiani epistulis pretium proditionis ostentans. Praeerat classi Claudius Apollinaris, neque fidei constans neque strenuus in perfidia; et Apinius Tiro praetura functus ac tum forte Minturnis agens ducem se defectoribus obtulit.
“Must we beg Caesar to handle us no worse than
His other slaves? Have your generals’ lives been begged?
Our safety will never be the price and bribe for foul treason.”
Utque habeat famulos nullo discrimine Caesar,
Exorandus erit? ducibus quoque vita petita est?
Numquam nostra salus pretium mercesque nefandae
“Whoever wants to find a perjurer should go to the public assembly”
qui periurum conuenire uolt hominem ito in comitium
From the Suda
“Dêmadês: He was king in Thebes after Antipater. A son of Dêmeas the sailor, he was also a sailor, a shipbuilder, and a ferry-operator. He gave up these occupations to enter politics and turned out to be a traitor—he grew very wealthy from this and obtained, as a bribe from Philip, property in Boiotia.”
“Don’t you understand that while, in other cases, it is necessary to impose a penalty on those who have committed crimes after examining the matter precisely and uncovering the truth over time, but for instances of clear and agreed-upon treason, we must yield first to anger and what comes from it? Don’t you think that this man would betray any of the things most crucial to the state, once you made him in charge of it?”
“It is right that punishments for other crimes come after them, but punishment for treason should precede the dissolution of the state. If you miss that opportune moment when those men are about to do something treacherous against their state, it is not possible for you to obtain justice from the men who did wrong: for they become stronger than the punishment possible from those who have been wronged.”
“After that point, Suillius was persistent and brutal in pursuing his affairs and in his boldness for finding a mass of rivals. For the union of laws and wealth of offices gathered in one person furnished abundant opportunities for theft. And there was nothing in public so much for sale as the corruption of the advocates. It was so bad that Samius, a rather distinguished Roman knight, after he paid four hundred thousand sesterces to Suillius and once the collusion was revealed, laid down on his sword in his own house.
Therefore, when Gaius Silius was taking the lead of the elected consul—a man whose power and fall I will discuss in the appropriate time, the senators came together and asked for the Cincian law which carried the ancient warning that no one should receive money or a gift for pleading a case.”
Continuus inde et saevus accusandis reis Suillius multique audaciae eius aemuli; nam cuncta legum et magistratuum munia in se trahens princeps materiam praedandi patefecerat. Nec quicquam publicae mercis tam venale fuit quam advocatorum perfidia, adeo ut Samius, insignis eques Romanus, quadringentis nummorum milibus Suillio datis et cognita praevaricatione ferro in domo eius incubuerit. Igitur incipiente C. Silio consule designato, cuius de potentia et exitio in tempore memorabo, consurgunt patres legemque Cinciam flagitant, qua cavetur antiquitus, ne quis ob causam orandam pecuniam donumve accipiat.
CICERO TO ATTICUS 92 (IV.18 Rome, between 24 October and 2 November 54)
“By what means was he acquitted? The beginning and the end of it was the incredible ineptitude of the prosecutors, specifically that of Lucius Lentulus the younger whom everyone yelled was colluding. Add to this the wondrous work of Pompeii and a crooked jury. Even with this there were 32 guilt votes and 38 for acquittal. Remaining cases are waiting for him. He is not yet clearly unimpeded.”
quo modo ergo absolutus? omnino πρῷρα πρύμνα accusatorum incredibilis infantia, id est L. Lentuli L. f., quem fremunt omnes praevaricatum, deinde Pompei mira contentio, iudicum sordes. Ac tamen xxxii condemnarunt, xxxviii absolverunt. iudicia reliqua impendent. nondum est plane expeditus.
“Let us make all of our time our own! Yet this cannot happen unless we first begin to belong to ourselves. When will it happen that one can despise either fortune? When will it happen that one could, with all their feelings suppressed and subjected to their will, say ‘I have conquered’? You ask whom I have conquered? Not the Persians, not the farthest boundaries of the Medes, nor any warlike people who lie beyond the Dahae – no, I have conquered avarice, ambition, and the fear of death which has itself defeated the victors of nations.”
Id agamus ut nostrum omne tempus sit; non erit autem, nisi prius nos nostri esse coeperimus. Quando continget contemnere utramque fortunam, quando continget omnibus oppressis affectibus et sub arbitrium suum adductis hanc vocem emittere ‘vici’? Quem vicerim quaeris? Non Persas nec extrema Medorum nec si quid ultra Dahas bellicosum iacet, sed avaritiam, sed ambitionem, sed metum mortis, qui victores gentium vicit.