A Reader’s Decline and Fall

Years ago, in the innocent haze of late youth, I lay in bed on a perfect, sun-lit spring afternoon, and drifted pleasantly to sleep as I read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. You may be surprised that this is by way of a recommendation of the book, and not chiefly for its soporific qualities. Our memories are hardly continuous or sequenced narratives. Rather, they are dotted constellations of individual events, and this event stands forth as one of my most charming and pleasant recollections. As I fell asleep, setting aside that narrative of imperial corruption, I thought “this is life.”

Of all Dickens’ novels, my favorite apart from The Pickwick Papers (but is it even a novel?) is Our Mutual Friend. This aesthetic preference can no doubt be reduced to my fondness for the scenes in which Silas Wegg reads The Decline and Fall to Mr. Boffin:

Mr Boffin seemed a little unprepared for this conclusion, but assented, with the remark, ‘You know better what it ought to be than I do, Wegg,’ and again shook hands with him upon it.

‘Could you begin to night, Wegg?’ he then demanded.

‘Yes, sir,’ said Mr Wegg, careful to leave all the eagerness to him. ‘I see no difficulty if you wish it. You are provided with the needful implement—a book, sir?’

‘Bought him at a sale,’ said Mr Boffin. ‘Eight wollumes. Red and gold. Purple ribbon in every wollume, to keep the place where you leave off. Do you know him?’

‘The book’s name, sir?’ inquired Silas.

‘I thought you might have know’d him without it,’ said Mr Boffin slightly disappointed. ‘His name is Decline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan-Empire.’ (Mr Boffin went over these stones slowly and with much caution.)

‘Ay indeed!’ said Mr Wegg, nodding his head with an air of friendly recognition.

‘You know him, Wegg?’

‘I haven’t been not to say right slap through him, very lately,’ Mr Wegg made answer, ‘having been otherways employed, Mr Boffin. But know him? Old familiar declining and falling off the Rooshan? Rather, sir! Ever since I was not so high as your stick. Ever since my eldest brother left our cottage to enlist into the army.’

Wegg and Boffin were familiar to me long before Gibbon was, and so I cannot help but wonder whether my general sense that this was an important book was set by casual reading as a teen.

My first experience of the book was an abridged Penguin Classics version which I held in my hands in the scene above. I saw a full (closely packed) set of the work for sale and purchased it in 2011, and made a few attempts at reading it through, but rarely found the time or hardihood to do it. Four summers ago, I cracked it open and gave it a fair amount of attention, but it was something of a struggle in my then-distracted state to get through all of it, but I at least finished. Last year, I found a deluxe version, edited by J.B. Bury with supplemental notes, maps, and indices (in seven volumes!) for only $50. A few weeks ago, I set out to read it, and – yes, dear reader – I gave it the heroic forced-march treatment, reading through all ~3,400 pages of it over the past three weeks. I don’t know why I decided to read through the book again, but it exercises over me something like the fascination of the ancient mariner’s eye, and I always find myself mysteriously drawn back to it.

The Decline and Fall is not fashionable today, and perhaps for good reason. Anyone who has read the book with a knowing eye can tell you that it is problematic in various ways. The treatment of various periods and figures is wildly uneven. Julian’s rise to power and brief tenure on the throne occupies a good chunk of a volume, while most of the Byzantine emperors after Heraclius are given the hyper epitome treatment in one chapter which does little more than provide the basic vice/virtue character sketch and the circumstances of their death. In some instances, the reasons for the imbalance are likely due to personal inclination (Gibbon’s fondness for Julian), but in others, it may simply reflect the availability of materials.

Gibbon’s style is also very much out of fashion. Clive James, though an omnivorous reader, nevertheless confessed that he could never read much of Gibbon because it was all style and too ‘rococo’. Indeed, it is interesting that Gibbon himself regularly inveighs against the rhetorical-sophistic prose of various ancient authors whom he himself suspects of being all style. But criticisms of Gibbon’s prose date back as far as Porson, who suggested that there was no better exercise for the young student than to turn a page of The Decline and Fall into English.

Yet, for all of that, I am an utterly unapologetic fan of Gibbon’s prose. Some of its quirks stem, I suspect, from the infusion of Gallic idiom dating to his years writing and thinking in French. His reckless abandon in the use of commas is pretty characteristic of 18th century English prose, and once can profitably compare Gibbon’s deployment of that workhorse of punctuation to Jane Austen’s. Perhaps the most admirable synthesis achieved by Gibbon is the admirable mixture of two classical modes: the sonorous periods of Cicero, and the pointed antitheses of Tacitus. Gibbon is not nearly as diffuse as Cicero, but his periods always manage to be perfectly balanced, and he cannot resist the temptation of a well-regulated tricolon. He hasn’t the clipped and telegraphic brevity of Tacitus, but he managed to imbibe that author’s utter cynicism, and he regularly employs that hallmark of Tacitean style, imputing in an entirely non-committal way the darkest designs and most sinister motives to almost every action.

For all of the care and attention which he has given his subject, he cannot but approach it with a sense of contempt and disgust. As he himself writes, “History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” Yet he also indulges in a dangerous inclination to see a more distant past as a kind of idyllic utopia of good character and good government. Famously, he assigns the happiest period of the entire history of the world to the period under the adoptive and Antonine emperors. Throughout the history, later Italians and Greeks are conceived as semi-barbaric and wholly unworthy successors to their “manly” and “virtuous” ancestors.

The standard trope seems to be: perfection on a grand scale was achieved in the past through virtue, but it insensibly (Gibbonian style!) gave way to vice, and the declining state of the world reflected that; there is an inevitability to the collapse, but the decline can be slowed by virtuous (or effective) individuals. This explains why, for example, the western empire fell much sooner than the eastern: the west was overrun by barbarians, but the east was propped up by the heroics of Justinian and Belisarius, whose exploits helped the system to coast for a while longer. When scrutinized, this view is simplistic, but it does at any rate make for a fun and engaging narrative.

Gibbon’s original intent in writing The Decline and Fall was much more narrowly circumscribed by the limits of the city Rome itself, but it quickly expanded outward to include more or less everything with some bearing on any of the lands once controlled by the Romans. But Gibbon is only as good as his guides. For example, his narrative of the period between Commodus and Constantine is pretty faithful to the Historia Augusta, going so far as to incorporate the moral censures included in that work. (Of course, Gibbon did not know that it was an elaborate forgery.) Yet, once he reaches the end of the reign of Justinian, Gibbon goes off the rails a bit. His panoptic survey takes in a lot of eastern history, but for all of this, he relies on an admixture of Byzantine authors and later treatments by European scholars (since he did not know Arabic, Farsi, etc. himself). The separation from primary sources for the latter half of the work, combined with Gibbon’s manifest contempt for the Byzantine intellectual in general, result in a narrative that can be tedious, confusing, and in many instances requiring substantial correction. Added to this is the casual racism and contemptuous xenophobia of the 18th century Englishman. One can readily see why almost no one reads the work in full, and why abridgements generally summarize most of what happened following the reign of Justinian.

Yet, for all of the problems which the work manifests, it is nevertheless an incredible monument to heroic reading. In his Memoirs, Gibbon downplays the time which he spent reading and working in earnest in any given day, but surely this is just the awkward affectation of an English gentleman’s sprezzatura. A survey of Gibbon’s footnotes is enough to assure us that he was always reading. Everywhere we hear that one can read more about such and such a topic in x number of thick folio volumes or dense octavos. A.E. Housman once remarked that being a scholar involved countless hours reading what was not really worth reading, and this seems to have been the case with Gibbon. As noted before, he has more or less just synthesized what he read in various ancient and secondary sources. (Though it’s true that this is more or less what writing history is.)

We should not be surprised if we find the book riddled with faults, given that it spans a tremendous temporal and geographical expanse and was one of the first real attempts at a scholarly but engaging narrative history in English. That is, it may fall short by today’s standards of scholarship, but as a work of popular history, it still holds up pretty well. Gibbon was allowed the leisure to read and write so much because he was, though not rich, at least a gentleman of sufficient means, but one must bear in mind that he was also in modern parlance a college dropout. Having left Oxford during his brief conversion to Catholicism, he never returned to take his degree. Yet he certainly read more widely than many of the formally-trained scholars of his time and ours.

In sum, I know that Gibbon is problematic, and likely to become more and more unfashionable with time, but I find something entirely irresistible in his work. Perhaps the most shocking confession I could make to my friends and peers is that Gibbon’s collected works would be my “desert island book.” (Does that make it my favorite? I don’t even know.) Unlike most fanboys, I am not willfully ignorant of its faults, and I can definitely see why people hate The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But goddammit, I love it.

The only way to read a book like this.

The Fall of Rome: A Lesson for All

Poggio Bracciolini, Historiae de Varietate Fortunae:

“When we ascended the Capitoline, Antonius being tired from riding and seeking some rest, we got off of our horses and sat down on the very ruins of the Tarpeian citadel, behind which was a huge marble threshold of the gate of a certain temple (as I think), and several broken columns, from a great part of which the prospect of the city lay open. Here, Antonius, when he had aimed his glance here and there, was breathing hard and looked stupefied. ‘O Poggio,’ he said, ‘how much this capitol differs from that which our Vergil sang about,

Now golden, once bristling with sylvan brambles

This verse could well be rendered: Once golden, but now squalid with thickets and packed with thorns. The story of the famous Marius came into my mind. Rome’s power once stood because of him, but he was driven from his home, a needy exile, and they say that when he had come to Africa, he sat among the ruins of Carthage and wept as he compared the fortunes of each city, hesitating to declare which of them produced a greater spectacle of Fortune. For my part, I can compare the destruction of this city to no other, so much does the calamity of this city exceed that of all others, whether brought about by nature or human hands. You can read through all the histories, you can pore over all of the monuments of literature, you can scrutinize all the annals of human affairs, but Fortune has produced no greater examples of its own mutability than the city of Rome, once the most beautiful and most magnificent of all cities which ever were or ever will be, and called not a city, but almost a certain part of heaven by Lucian, that most learned Greek author, as he was writing to a friend who wanted to see Rome.”

Image result for roman ruins capitoline

Quum autem conscendissemus aliquando Capitolinum collem, Antonius obequitando paulum fessus, cum quietem appeteret, descendentes ex equis consedimus in ipsis Tarpeiae arcis ruinis, pone ingens portae cuiusdam, ut puto, temple marmoreum limen, plurimasque passim confractas columnas, unde magna ex parte prospectus Urbis patet. Hic Antonius, cum aliquantum huc illuc oculos circumtulisset, suspirans stupentique similis: O quantum, inquit, Poggi, haec capitolia ab illis distant, quae noster Maro cecinit,

Aurea nunc, olim silvestribus horrida dumis

Ut quidem is versus merito possit converti: Aurea quondam, nunc squallida spinetis vepribusque referta. Venit in mentem Marii illius, per quem olim Urbis imperium stetit, quem pulsum patria, profugum atque egentem, quum in Africam appulisset, supra Carthaginis ruinas insedisse ferunt, admirantem sui et Carthaginis vicem, simulque fortunam utriusque conferentem, addubitantemque utrius fortunae maius spectaculum extitisset. Ego vero immensam huius Urbis stragem nulli alteri possum conferre, ita caeterarum omnium, vel quas natura tulit rerum, vel quas manus hominum conflavit, haec una exsuperat calamitatem. Evolvas licet historias omnes, omnia scriptorium monumenta pertractes, omnes gestarum rerum annals scruteris, nulla umquam exempla mutationis suae maiora fortuna protulit, quam urbem Romam, pulcherrimam olim et magnificintessimam omnium, quae aut fuere, aut futurae sunt, et ab Luciano doctissimo Graeco auctore, cum ad amicum suum scriberet Romam videre cupientem, non urbem, sed quasi quondam caeli partem appellatam.

The Future of the Past

In the final book of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Death’s End, when faced with an unstoppable extinction-level event, Cheng Xin and Ai AA go to the distant edge of the solar system to try to preserve some artifacts of human existence from the encroachment of two-dimensional space. When they reach the isolated moon bunker where many of the objects are stored, they come upon miles of inscriptions in the surface rock. Previous plans to preserve human knowledge had included etching human history and knowledge into the stone. Teams of scientists and data specialists could devise no method which ensured as long a future as the multilingual inscriptions in space.

Any system of encoding and preserving knowledge—whether we are talking of raw, binary data or language—relies upon two challenges for legibility in the future. The first is a ‘key’—some type of instruction that might indicate to readers unfamiliar with language or code how to make meaning out of signs. The second challenge is medium—how do the materials which encode the information respond to the passage of time and elements.

Encrypted digital data in every form faces the danger of significant loss under even the best of conditions; changing software and computational paradigms can make accessing extant data even more difficult. The decryption of preserved digital data relies on the end-user being able to access functional hardware and manipulate the same original data protocol. Despite the ability to extend human life centuries through hibernation and the technology to create space ships which traveled at the speed of light, the humans of Cixin’s universe can find no better way to preserve the past than cold, alien stone.

The survival of the past into the future is something of a motif in science fiction, thanks to its longue durée perspective. Just in the past year, I have read of the ‘classicist’ in Adrian Tchaikovksy’s Children of Time series, a figure whose knowledge of the past and ability to use ancient programs makes him central to the survival of the human race. In many cases, such as the works of Isaac Asimov, the Earth we know and the past we cherish is entirely forgotten or mostly unsalvageable. But for every novel that imagines the preservation of knowledge over time—like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem—we have the more stark reality to deal with of strange re-uses of our reconstructed past as in Ada Palmer’s Terra Incognota series or generations of lost knowledge over time, as in Walter Miller Jr.’s classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz.

“The prophecy which was given to the Thessalians was ordering them to consider “the hearing of a deaf man; the sight of the blind.”

ὁ μὲν γὰρ Θετταλοῖς περὶ Ἄρνης δοθεὶς χρησμὸς ἐκέλευε φράζειν: “κωφοῦ τ᾿ ἀκοὴν τυφλοῖό τε δέρξιν”  Plutarch, Obsolesence Of Oracles (Moralia 432)

A widely linked recent article alleges that the human race has around 30 years left, that by 2050 climate change will create a systems collapse that will end human civilization as we currently know it. Similar reports diverge at whether the extinction event that is the Anthropocene will also eradicate the human species or just result in a cruel, apocalyptic contraction. Even if we find the political will to radically change our behavior over the next few years, we are looking at the almost certain probability of widespread government collapses, severe famine and death in the ‘global south’, and widespread conflicts over resources.

For the sake of argument (and acceding to science), let’s say that we should be preparing for one of the worst-case scenarios. While it would be great if all of us consumed less, recycled more, and gave up internal combustion engines, the fact is that late-stage capitalism is an out of control freight train which no single government or group of governments appears to have the will or the resources to slow down. The vast majority of all world carbon pollution is perpetrated not by billions of human beings making bad decisions each day, but by the profit-driven interests of a hundred corporations. We are not going to stop this with anything short of massive collective and revolutionary action.

“What is worst from bygone days provides the best safeguard for the future.”

ὃ γάρ ἐστι χείριστον αὐτῶν ἐκ τοῦ παρεληλυθότος χρόνου, τοῦτο πρὸς τὰ μέλλοντα βέλτιστον ὑπάρχει, Demosthenes, Philippic 1.2

In the meantime, maybe some of us should be looking past that destructive horizon to what comes next. I don’t do this cynically—there is a part of me that thinks the neo-fascist maniacs who are creating concentration camps and clamoring for border control now are rehearsing for the inevitable migrations caused by climate change and attempting to habituate an American populace to the murder and carnage needed to survive in that apocalyptic contraction scenario. By pursuing an insane set of policies, the very actors who deny climate change is happening are actively bringing it about. Yes, I do suspect there are those who would rather dehumanize and slaughter other human beings rather than make difficult decisions and sacrifice a standard of living now.

(And, truth be told, a disturbing number of Americans seem ok with this).

“if you find good luck in the time that is left
Perhaps it will be solace for the things in the past”

εἰ καὶ τὰ λοιπὰ τῆς τύχης εὐδαίμονος
τύχοιτε, πρὸς τὰ πρόσθεν ἀρκέσειεν ἄν.

Euripides, Helen 698-699

My question is: what are we of learned societies doing to plan for the collapse of the social and political infrastructure that has produced the deepest learning for the broadest number of people in the history of humankind? For those who study the ancient world and the way that earlier societies have dealt with change, we must ask ourselves what is the future of the past and what ability do we still have to shape it.

Asking this question, of course, leads to a series of ancillary concerns which in themselves are likely useful to debate. With only a little scrutiny, it is clear that this coming challenge is unlike anything we have faced before (with the exception, perhaps, of the Late Bronze Age Collapse as some have imagined it). To the contrary of popular imagination, antiquity never fell: instead, it went through a period of transformations, stalled cultural developments, geographical shifts, and technological change under the influence of new religions, mass migrations, social senescence and, perhaps, even climate change.

Indeed, to think about the “future of the past” we need to consider the “past” of the past and its present status. We have spent nearly 700 years ‘reconstructing’ a past that never actually existed. Take, for instance, the textual wealth contained within the Loeb Classical Library: no figure or library ever possessed all of this collective knowledge in one place prior to the 20th century. In fact, I would be hard pressed to imagine that there were more than a handful of individuals in the ancient world who had access to 20% of it.

As Classicists we often can be found lamenting everything we don’t have, the imagined texts we have lost and whose titles alone give some indication of their promise. But we do not often enough stop to consider how remarkable it is that we have as much as we do and how much we have intervened and produced since the Renaissance to create what we now consider Classical knowledge. Contemplating and then gaming out how to preserve the past we have now can help us better understand the processes that occurred over the past 1000 years and the extent to which they have created a tremendously biased if not mostly fictionalized view of the past.

“It is undoubtedly foolish to be unhappy today simply because you may be unhappy in the future.”

est sine dubio stultum, quia quandoque sis futurus miser, esse iam miserum, Seneca EM 3.3

There are, then, important differences between earlier epochal shifts and this. First, the “loss” of antiquity that occurred from the building of the first Museion at Alexandria, through its multiple burnings, civil wars in Rome, sacks of the city, the ‘decline and fall’ of the empire, and the sack of Byzantium by Christian crusaders, was a slow attrition and loss by neglect. If there were more texts and art works available in 200 CE than there were in 1200 CE, it is because (1) of what we are counting as mattering and (2) a generally higher standard of living and access to resources to a non-religious leisure class in the earlier period.

An unvarnished examination of the recovery of Classical knowledge must acknowledge that the Renaissance was not a recuperation of all of antiquity, but a selective curation of its remains. What we face with the next possible civilizational collapse is the loss of the knowledge that has been reconstructed and the tremendous body of work we have produced since then. Where a 15th Century humanist had but a handful of manuscripts of Homer to worry about, we have dozens plus the papyri fragments, plus the commentaries, original and edited scholia introductions, monographs, articles, and edited texts with critical apparatus we have created over centuries.

And that’s just Homer. I am not saying that I am turning full doomsday prepper on you, but I am saying that we should take the threat of civilizational collapse seriously and that it is not just within our remit as academic classicists to make some plans for how the material of the past might survive to benefit future generations and to provide a record of what came before our era, but it is our responsibility to be having these conversations now.

“I think that it is clear to everyone that it is not in our nature to predict the future”

Οἶμαι γὰρ ἅπασιν εἶναι φανερὸν ὅτι τὰ μέλλοντα προγιγνώσκειν οὐ τῆς ἡμετέρας φύσεώς ἐστιν, Isocrates, Against the Sophists 13.2

If we don’t, none of the scenarios look great. In many cases, 12th century CE Byzantine manuscripts and papyri (still buried) have a far better chance of surviving than the rapidly degrading and poorly printed books of the past 50 years. If we are to imagine that someone else might make these plans, we must consider who will do it instead. Should we leave it up to silicon valley disrupters? What works would they choose to preserve? Should individual universities be responsible? Will governments and libraries do the work? Should we hope that religious organizations will do this again? What choices would modern Christian sects make?

(Sidebar: when I was in elementary school we viewed the full series of Tomes & Talismans during library time each week. The central characters were librarians with a bookmobile; the threat were an alien species in a post-apocalyptic earth who were trying to wipe out accumulated human knowledge. They were called “The Wipers”.)

I think that it is probably best for professional organizations across linguistic and geographical territory to start to have this conversation. Most of our current output is currently stored in digital form across myriad platforms, with little concern for data degradation or recuperability. Not only are our blogs, tweets, open access articles, and personal correspondence at risk, but the very texts we have worked so hard to preserve, establish, and edit, are mostly in cheap, glue-bound paper versions. And this does not even begin to touch the challenges presented by material culture in a changing climate. Should we continue to excavate when climate change and geo-political stability threaten anything not under the earth? How does the possibility of future collapse change museum studies?

We need to talk about what will be preserved, how we will preserve it, who makes these decisions, and what aid we can store up for the historians of the future. We need to talk about the overlapping responsibility of universities, professional organizations, and governments to work together to preserve what we have won. And we need to make sure that voices from different backgrounds and experiences are central to this conversation

“Prudently the god covers the outcome of the future in dark night”

prudens futuri temporis exitum
caliginosa nocte premit deus, Horace Ars Poetica 25

Years ago, I used to teach a course called “Classical Myth and Literature”, which I think was originally designed as a bridge between straight up myth courses and more focused literature in translation offerings. I used it as a means to trouble the definitions of both myth and literature. One of the final essay questions asked students to imagine a flight from planet earth under the threat of alien invasion and to explain the choice of preserving either the corpus of 1990s pop songs or early Greek poetry (usually, specifically the Homeric Hymns). It was a fascinating assignment because students had to justify their answers using examples from the corpora. And, let me tell you, the pop songs were preserved nearly as frequently as the Hymns.

We are at a unique albeit horrifying moment in history. Perhaps the younger among us or the less thoroughly institutionalized will find ways to fight or forestall coming events. Those of us who are committed for better or worse to the study of the past even as the present crumbles around us need to start having hard conversations now before it is too late.

“For, it is right, Athenians, to use prior events as a guide about what will happen in the future.”

χρὴ γάρ, ὦ Ἀθηναῖοι, τεκμηρίοις χρῆσθαι τοῖς πρότερον γενομένοις περὶ τῶν μελλόντων ἔσεσθαι, Andocides, On the Peace with Sparta 2


Tomes and Talismans (1986)
Tomes & Talismans Still Shots from IMDB

Aristotle’s Hymn to Excellence Isn’t Completely Bad

Aristotle’s Hymn [D. L. 5.1.6]

“His hymn goes like this…”

“Excellence, very-hard-work for mortal races,
The finest catch in life
For your beautiful form, Maiden,
it is an enviable fate to die in Greece
and to suffer hard, relentless toils.

This is the kind of bravery you
Toss in the heart, an immortal thing better than gold,
Or parents, or soft-glancing sleep.

Isn’t it for you that Zeus’ Herakles and the sons of Leda
Labored in their deeds,
Trying to gather up your power?

Because of longing for you, Achilles
And Ajax came to Hades’ home.
For your love and beauty too,

The child of Atarneous lost the light of the sun.
For this reason the deeds get a song and the Muses,
Memory’s daughters, will make it immortal,
Shouting out the glory of Zeus the god of hospitality
And the gift of trustworthy friendship.”

Ὁ δὲ ὕμνος ἔχει τοῦτον τὸν τρόπον·
ἀρετά, πολύμοχθε γένει βροτείῳ,
θήραμα κάλλιστον βίῳ,
σᾶς πέρι, παρθένε, μορφᾶς
καὶ θανεῖν ζαλωτὸς ἐν Ἑλλάδι πότμος
καὶ πόνους τλῆναι μαλεροὺς ἀκάμαντας·
τοῖον ἐπὶ φρένα βάλλεις
κάρτος ἀθάνατον χρυσοῦ τε κρεῖσσον
καὶ γονέων μαλακαυγήτοιό θ᾿ ὕπνου.
σεῦ δ᾿ ἕνεχ᾿ οὑκ Διὸς Ἡρακλέης Λήδας τε κοῦροι
πόλλ᾿ ἀνέτλασαν ἔργοις
σὰν ἀγρεύοντες δύναμιν.
σοῖς δὲ πόθοις Ἀχιλεὺς
Αἴας τ᾿ Ἀΐδαο δόμους ἦλθον·
σᾶς δ᾿ ἕνεκεν φιλίου μορφᾶς καὶ Ἀταρνέος
ἔντροφος ἀελίου χήρωσεν αὐγάς.
τοιγὰρ ἀοίδιμος ἔργοις, ἀθάνατόν τε μιν αὐξήσουσι
Μναμοσύνας θύγατρες, Διὸς ξενίου σέβας αὔξουσαι
φιλίας τε γέρας βεβαίου.

Image result for aristotle hymn
Want to go to an open mic with me?

“Don’t Sail Away from Me”

For other views of the Sirens’ origin, the Homeric Scholia are interesting (see also below)

Philodemos, On Piety (ed. Gompertz), 92, 24; p. 43

“Epimenides also says that the Sirens were born from Okeanos and Gê. He adds that Proteus once prophesied to them that if anyone was not enchanted by them, then it would be their death. When Odysseus sailed past them, they threw themselves from a cliff and died.”

ἔ[τι δ᾽ Ἐπι
μενίδη[ς ἐξ Ὠκεα
νοῦ καὶ Γ[ῆς γεννή
τ᾽ εἶναι, Ï[ρωτέα δὲ λό
γιον αὐ[ταῖς ποτε
δοῦ]ναί φ[ησιν, ἐάν
τις ὑπ᾽ [αὐτῶν μὴ
θελχ[θῇ, τελευτή
σειν αὐτά[ς. ἐπεὶ δ᾽
Ὀδυσσεὺ[ς παρέ
πλευσεν [κατακρη
μνισθῆν[αι κἀποθα
νεῖν καθ[


Image result for odysseus and the sirens vase
Odysseus and Sirens, British Museum (480-470 BCE)
Attic Black Figure, Altes Museum Berlin, c. 525 BCE (Carole Raddato on Flickr)
Image result for odysseus and the sirens vase
Corinthian Aryballos, MFA Boston, C. 525 BCE (Dan Diffendale on Flikr)
Image result for Odysseus & Sirens | Paestan red figure vase painting
Odysseus and Sirens, Antikensammlung Berlin c. 340 BCE

From the Suda, s.v. Seirênas

“The Sirens were some Greek women with beautiful voices in ancient Greek myth who sat on some island and so delighted passers-by with their euphony that they stayed there until death.  From the chest up they had the shape of sparrows but their lower halves were woman.

The mythographers claim that they were small birds with female faces who deceived passers-by, beguiling the ears of those who heard them with pornographic songs. And the song of pleasure has no end that is good, only death.

But the true story is this: there are certain places in the sea, narrowed between hills, which release a high song when the water is compressed into them. When people who sail by hear them they entrust their souls to the water’s swell and they die along with their ships.

The creatures who are called Sirens and Donkey-centaurs in Isaiah are some kind of demons who are foretold for abandoned cities which fall under divine wrath. The Syrians say they are swans. For after swans bathe, they fly from the water and sing a sweet melody in the air. This is why Job says, “I have become the Sirens’ brother, the companion of ostriches. This means that I sing my sufferings just like the ostriches.”

He calls the Sirens strouthoi, but he means what we call ostriches [strouthokamêmlos: “sparrow-camel”]. This is a bird which has the feet and neck of a donkey. There is a saying in the Epigrams “that chatter is sweeter than the Sirens’”. The Sirens were named Thelksiepeia, Peisinoê, and Ligeia. The Island they inhabited was called Anthemousa.”

Σειρῆνας: γυναῖκάς τινας εὐφώνους γεγενῆσθαι μῦθος πρὶν ῾Ελληνικός, αἵ τινες ἐν νησίῳ καθεζόμεναι οὕτως ἔτερπον τοὺς παραπλέοντας διὰ τῆς εὐφωνίας, ὥστε κατέχειν ἐκεῖ μέχρι θανάτου. εἶχον δὲ ἀπὸ μὲν τοῦ θώρακος καὶ ἄνω εἶδος στρουθῶν, τὰ δὲ κάτω γυναικῶν.

οἱ μυθολόγοι Σειρῆνας φασὶ θηλυπρόσωπά τινα ὀρνίθια εἶναι, ἀπατῶντα τοὺς παραπλέοντας, ᾄσμασί τισι πορνικοῖς κηλοῦντα τὰς ἀκοὰς τῶν ἀκροωμένων. καὶ τέλος ἔχει τῆς ἡδονῆς ἡ ᾠδὴ ἕτερον μὲν οὐδὲν χρηστόν, θάνατον δὲ μόνον. ὁ δὲ ἀληθὴς λόγος τοῦτο βούλεται, εἶναι τόπους τινὰς θαλαττίους, ὄρεσί τισιν ἐστενω-μένους, ἐν οἷς θλιβόμενον τὸ ῥεῖθρον λιγυράν τινα φωνὴν ἀποδίδωσιν· ἧς ἐπακούοντες οἱ παραπλέοντες ἐμπιστεύουσι τὰς ἑαυτῶν ψυχὰς τῷ ῥεύματι καὶ αὔτανδροι σὺν ταῖς ναυσὶν ἀπόλλυνται.

αἱ δὲ παρὰ τῷ ᾿Ησαΐᾳ εἰρημέναι Σειρῆνες καὶ ᾿Ονοκένταυροι δαίμονές τινές εἰσιν, οὕτω χρηματιζόμενοι ἐπ’ ἐρημίᾳ πόλεως, ἥτις χόλῳ θεοῦ γίνεται. οἱ δὲ Σύροι τοὺς κύκνους φασὶν εἶναι. καὶ γὰρ οὗτοι λουσάμενοι καὶ ἀναπτάντες ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος καὶ τοῦ ἀέρος ἡδύ τι μέλος ᾄδουσιν. ὁ  οὖν ᾿Ιὼβ λέγει, ἀδελφὸς γέγονα Σειρήνων, ἑταῖρος δὲ στρουθῶν. τουτέστιν ᾄδω τὰς ἐμαυτοῦ συμφοράς, ὥσπερ Σειρῆνες.

στρουθοὺς δὲ λέγει, ὃν ἡμεῖς στρουθοκάμηλον λέγομεν, ὄρνεον μὲν ὄντα, πόδας δὲ καὶ τράχηλον ὄνου κεκτημένον. καὶ ἐν ᾿Επιγράμμασι· καὶ τὸ λάλημα κεῖνο τὸ Σειρήνων γλυκύτερον. ὀνόματα Σειρήνων· Θελξιέπεια, Πεισινόη, Λιγεία· ἡ δὲ νῆσος ἣν κατῴκουν ᾿Ανθεμοῦσα.

Schol. B ad. Od. 12.39

“The Sirens were either loud-voiced birds on the shore or bewitching and deceptive women; or this is flattery. For they bewitched, deceived, and drove many to death.”

αἱ Σειρῆνες ἢ ὄρνιθες κέλαδοι ἦσαν ἐν λειμῶνι, ἢ γυναῖκες θελκτικαὶ καὶ ἀπατητικαὶ, ἢ αὐτὴ ἡ κολακεία. πολλοὺς γὰρ θέλγει καὶ ἀπατᾷ καὶ ὡσανεὶ θανατοῖ. B.

Happiness is Thinking…About Things Aristotle Didn’t Say

Ah, on Psychology Today you can learn that Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” It will probably not come as a great surprise that Aristotle did not say this particular thing, even though it is in the range of the kinds of things he might say in a parallel universe.

fake aristotle


While Reddit is probably right that this is a riffing on the Nicomachean Ethics. (Unlike some other fake Aristotle quotes, this one does not have a very storied history: it seems to have started circulating around 10 years ago). The problem is that part of the point of the Nicomachean Ethics is that people don’t agree on what happiness is and therefore it is almost useless to make such anodyne statements as “the meaning of life is the pursuit of happiness”.

And Aristotle says as much when he concedes, after defining haponnes as “the goal of all actions” (πρακτῶν οὖσα τέλος), “perhaps saying that happiness is best seems to be [merely saying] something which is already agreed” (Ἀλλ᾿ ἴσως τὴν μὲν εὐδαιμονίαν τὸ ἄριστον λέγειν ὁμολογούμενόν τι φαίνεται, 1097b 22). So, he continues to explore the definition from the question of what a human being is for (εἰ ληφθείη τὸ ἔργον τοῦ ἀνθρώπου).

If we translate Greek eudaimonia as “happiness”, which many do, Aristotle says some things that are easily alterable for different cultural contexts. For example, “Hence, happiness is the best, most beautiful, and sweetest thing…” (ἄριστον ἄρα καὶ κάλλιστον καὶ ἥδιστον ἡ εὐδαιμονία, 1099a25)

There are many problems with even this translation. What does it mean for thing to be “best”? “Most beautiful” could also be “noblest” and, in close pairing with ariston, it could actually be a gloss on kalos k’agathos, an aristocratic statement of values that may be devoid of any meaningful content for the study of modern happiness.

Near the end of the Nicomachean Ethics (1176b5 vii) Aristotle concludes,

“But if happiness is intentional action in line with virtue, it is a good argument to say that it is so in accordance with the most potent virtue. This would be from the best part. Whether this is from the mind or any other thing which seems to govern and lead us according to our nature, and also to have understanding of beautiful and divine matters and whether that is also divine itself or is the most divine thing we possess, it is intentional activity in line with this nature particular to human beings which is the perfect happiness.

And this is, what we have said before, the process of contemplation. This conclusion would seem to agree both with what we have said previously and the truth. For [the act of contemplation] is the most powerful intentional activity because the mind is also the most powerful thing we possess along with the things which can be known, the matters of the mind.”

Εἰ δ᾿ ἐστὶν ἡ εὐδαιμονία κατ᾿ ἀρετὴν ἐνέργεια, εὔλογον κατὰ τὴν κρατίστην· αὕτη δ᾿ ἂν εἴη τοῦ ἀρίστου. εἴτε δὴ νοῦς τοῦτο εἴτε ἄλλο τι, ὃ δὴ κατὰ φύσιν δοκεῖ ἄρχειν καὶ ἡγεῖσθαι καὶ ἔννοιαν15 ἔχειν περὶ καλῶν καὶ θείων, εἴτε θεῖον ὂν καὶ αὐτὸ εἴτε τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν τὸ θειότατον, ἡ τούτου ἐνέργεια κατὰ τὴν οἰκείαν ἀρετὴν εἴη ἂν ἡ τελεία εὐδαιμονία· 2ὅτι δ᾿ ἐστὶ θεωρητική, εἴρηται. ὁμολογούμενον δὲ τοῦτ᾿ ἂν δόξειεν εἶναι καὶ τοῖς πρότερον καὶ τῷ ἀληθεῖ. κρατίστη τε γὰρ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐνέργεια (καὶ γὰρ ὁ νοῦς τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ τῶν γνωστῶν, περὶ ἃ ὁ νοῦς)·

Let’s be honest: “The meaning of life is happiness, and happiness is thinking real hard” does not make for a great motivational poster.

On the way to this, he argues that pleasure and other things are not the goals of happiness. My translation has issues of course. Based on the arguments of the Nicomachean Ethics, I have translated ἐνέργεια (energeia) as “intentional action”); as with most translations of Aristotle, we also have the challenge of aretê which here is “virtue” but can also be translated as “excellence”.

Even in English the difference between the two can be daunting: one seems innate (especially from a Christian perspective) while the other seems achieved (which would be temporary). In Aristotle, the notion of “intentional activity in accordance with virtue” is, I think, about pursuing a line of action that is guided by an externally extant ideal. For this reason, I have tried to emphasize process over product in this translation, which, I think, is part of the point of the Nicomachean Ethics.

In an earlier post, I created an already problematic rating system for fake quotes. (Yes, most quotes don’t fit easily into one category; the point of the struct categorization is to make us think about the nature of each quotation anew.)

Here it is again. I think this one is a Cylon-Helen.

    1. The Real Deal: A quotation from an ancient text which is extant.
    2. Aegis Real: Like the head of the Gorgon Medusa, these quotations have been decontextualized and passed down embedded in some other ancient author. They have been attributed to the same author for a long time, but who really knows.
    3. Delphian Graffiti: A quote of real antiquity, but whose attribution has been shifted for different valence in modern contexts (e.g., “know thyself” has been attributed to almost everyone)
    4. Rhetorica ad Fictum Fake: (with thanks to Hannah Čulík-Baird) Aristotle and Quintilian think it is just fine to make up quotations for persuasive reasons. This actually undermines many of the attributions we have from antiquity. So, this is the kind of fake that is really old and may just be too good to be true.
    5. Cylon-Helen: Just as Herodotus and Stesichorus report that ‘real’ Helen was replaced with a near-exact copy for the ten years of the Trojan War, so too some quotations are transformed through translation (Latin into Greek, Greek into Latin; or into Modern languages). The intervention of an outside force changes the cultural status of the words.
    6. Peisistratos Fake: A quote that is not misattributed or transformed, but merely just dressed up and falsely claimed as antique for political reasons (the tyrant Peisistratos pulled some pretty crazy stunts to get into power). These quotations have no sources in antiquity and are used to enforce modern points of view.
    7. Racist Fake: Quotations of the Peisistratus type but with the particular intention of enforcing a racist world view.

A new inspirational poster for you.

Cat Philosopher

And if you want to read more fake Aristotle, I have a page for that



Who’s Your Favorite Historian, and Why Is It Tacitus?

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (XVI):

“Notwithstanding it is probable that Tacitus was born some years before the fire of Rome, he could derive only from reading and conversation the knowledge of an event which happened during his infancy. Before he gave himself to the public, he calmly waited till his genius had attained its full maturity, and he was more than forty years of age, when a grateful regard for the memory of the virtuous Agricola extorted from him the most early of those historical compositions which will delight and instruct the most distant posterity. After making a trial of his strength in the life of Agricola and the description of Germany, he conceived, and at length executed, a more arduous work; the history of Rome, in thirty books, from the fall of Nero to the accession of Nerva. The administration of Nerva introduced an age of justice and propriety, which Tacitus had destined for the occupation of his old age; but when he took a nearer view of his subject, judging, perhaps, that it was a more honorable or a less invidious office to record the vices of past tyrants, than to celebrate the virtues of a reigning monarch, he chose rather to relate, under the form of annals, the actions of the four immediate successors of Augustus.

To collect, to dispose, and to adorn a series of fourscore years, in an immortal work, every sentence of which is pregnant with the deepest observations and the most lively images, was an undertaking sufficient to exercise the genius of Tacitus himself during the greatest part of his life. In the last years of the reign of Trajan, whilst the victorious monarch extended the power of Rome beyond its ancient limits, the historian was describing, in the second and fourth books of his annals, the tyranny of Tiberius; and the emperor Hadrian must have succeeded to the throne, before Tacitus, in the regular prosecution of his work, could relate the fire of the capital, and the cruelty of Nero towards the unfortunate Christians. At the distance of sixty years, it was the duty of the annalist to adopt the narratives of contemporaries; but it was natural for the philosopher to indulge himself in the description of the origin, the progress, and the character of the new sect, not so much according to the knowledge or prejudices of the age of Nero, as according to those of the time of Hadrian. Tacitus very frequently trusts to the curiosity or reflection of his readers to supply those intermediate circumstances and ideas, which, in his extreme conciseness, he has thought proper to suppress.”

Historical Wallpapers: Great Fire of Rome (Magnum ...