Cicero’s Cool – Aristotle Sucks

Montesquieu, Diverse Thoughts:

Cicero, in my opinion, is one of the greatest spirits who have ever lived: his soul was always beautiful when it wasn’t weak.

Two masterpieces: the death of Caesar in Plutarch, and that of Nero in Suetonius. In one, we begin to feel for the conspirators whom we see in danger, and then for Caesar, whom we see killed. In the death of Nero, one is astonished to see him obliged by degrees to kill himself, without any cause to restrict him, and yet in a way that he cannot avoid.

Vergil, inferior to Homer in variety and grandeur of his characters, is equally admirable for his invention, and for the beauty of his poetry.

A nice phrase of Seneca: Enjoy present pleasures in a way that doesn’t ruin future ones.

The same error of the Greeks saturates all of their philosophy: bad physics, bad morals, bad metaphysics. They don’t perceive the difference which exists between positive and relatives qualities. Aristotle fooled himself with his dry, his humid, his warm, his cold. Plato and Socrates fooled themselves with their beautiful, their good, their wise. It was a grand discovery that there was no positive quality.

The terms the beautiful, the good, the noble, the grand, the perfect, these are all attributes of objects, and are relative to the beings who consider them. One must set this principle firmly in one’s head. It is the sponge of nearly every prejudice. It is the scourge of ancient philosophy, of Aristotle’s physics, of Plato’s metaphysics. And if you read the dialogues of that philosopher, you would find that they are nothing but a tissue of sophisms made from ignorance of this principle. Malebranche was done in with a thousand sophisms for his ignorance of it.

Cicéron, selon moi, est un des plus grands esprits qui aient jamais été : l’âme toujours belle lorsqu’elle n’était pas faible.

Deux chefs-d’œuvre : la mort de César dans Plutarque, et celle de Néron dans Suétone. Dans l’une, on commence par avoir pitié des conjurés qu’on voit en péril, et ensuite de César qu’on voit assassiné. Dans celle de Néron, on est étonné de le voir obligé par degrés de se tuer, sans aucune cause qui l’y contraigne, et cependant de façon à ne pouvoir l’éviter.

Virgile, inférieur à Homère par la grandeur et la variété des caractères, par l’invention admirable, l’égale par la beauté de la poésie.

Belle parole de Sénèque : Sic prœsentibus utaris voluptatibus, ut futuris non noceas.

La même erreur des Grecs inondait toute leur philosophie : mauvaise physique, mauvaise morale, mauvaise métaphysique. C’est qu’ils ne sentaient pas la différence qu’il y a entre les qualités positives et les qualités relatives. Comme Aristote s’est trompé avec son sec, son humide, son chaud, son froid, Platon et Socrate se sont trompés avec leur beau, leur bon, leur sage : grande découverte qu’il n’y avait pas de qualité positive.

Les termes de beau, de bon, de noble, de grand, de parfait, sont des attributs des objets, lesquels sont relatifs aux êtres qui les considèrent. Il faut bien se mettre ce principe dans la tête ; il est l’éponge de presque tous les préjugés ; c’est le fléau de la philosophie ancienne, de la physique d’Aristote, de la métaphysique de Platon ; et si on lit les dialogues de ce philosophe, on trouvera qu’ils ne sont qu’un tissu de sophismes faits par l’ignorance de ce principe. Malebranche est tombé dans mille sophismes pour l’avoir ignoré

A+ for the Ancients

Montesquieu, Diverse Thoughts:

Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus first brought the genre of invention to the point that we have not since changed the rules which they have left us, something which they could not have done without perfect knowledge of nature and its passions.

I have had through my whole life a fixed taste for the works of the ancients. I have admired a number of critiques made against them, but I have always admired ancients authors. I have studied my taste, I have examined whether this was not one of those bad tastes on which one ought not to place any foundation. But the more I examined it, the more I perceived that I was right to feel as I felt.

The books of the ancients are for authors; modern books are for readers.

Plutarch always charms me: there are some circumstances attached to his characters, which produce great pleasure.

The fact that Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher, or that Plato was in the heart of Syracuse, this has nothing to do with their glory: the reputation of their philosophy has absorbed everything.

Sophocle, Euripide, Eschyle, ont d’abord porté le genre d’invention au point que nous n’avons rien changé depuis aux règles qu’ils nous ont laissées, ce qu’ils n’ont pu faire sans une connaissance parfaite de la nature et des passions.

J’ai eu toute ma vie un goût décidé pour les ouvrages des anciens : j’ai admiré plusieurs critiques faites contre eux, mais j’ai toujours admiré les anciens. J’ai étudié mon goût, et j’ai examiné si ce n’était point un de ces goûts malades sur lesquels on ne doit faire aucun fond ; mais plus j’ai examiné, plus j’ai senti que j’avais raison d’avoir senti comme j’ai senti.

Les livres anciens sont pour les auteurs, les nouveaux pour les lecteurs.

Plutarque me charme toujours : il y a des circonstances attachées aux personnes, qui font grand plaisir.

Qu’Aristote ait été précepteur d’Alexandre, ou que Platon ait été à la cour de Syracuse, cela n’est rien pour leur gloire : la réputation de leur philosophie a absorbé tout.


Classical Learning Made Me Incompetent

Lord Chesterfield, Letters to His Son (149):

As I open myself, without the least reserve, whenever I think that my doing so can be of any use to you, I will give you a short account of myself. When I first came into the world, which was at the age you are of now, so that, by the way, you have got the start of me in that important article by two or three years at least,—at nineteen I left the University of Cambridge, where I was an absolute pedant; when I talked my best, I quoted Horace; when I aimed at being facetious, I quoted Martial; and when I had a mind to be a fine gentleman, I talked Ovid. I was convinced that none but the ancients had common sense; that the classics contained everything that was either necessary, useful, or ornamental to men; and I was not without thoughts of wearing the ‘toga virilis’ of the Romans, instead of the vulgar and illiberal dress of the moderns. With these excellent notions I went first to The Hague, where, by the help of several letters of recommendation, I was soon introduced into all the best company; and where I very soon discovered that I was totally mistaken in almost every one notion I had entertained.

Role-Playing Senecan Suicide

Nicolas Chamfort [Quoted in Maximes, Pensées, Caractères et Anecdotes, 1796]:

“In sum,” he added, “I was reminded of Seneca, and in honor of Seneca, I wanted to open my veins. But he was rich, that one. He had everything he wanted – a well-warmed bath, and in truth, every comfort available. But me, I am a poor devil, and I didn’t have any of that stuff. I hurt myself pretty badly, and here I am still. But I have the bullet in my head, that is the main thing. A little bit earlier, a little bit later – that would have done it!”

«Enfin, ajouta-t-il, je me suis souvenu de Sénèque, et en l’honneur de Sénèque j’ai voulu m’ouvrir les veines; mais il était riche, lui ; il avait tout à souhait, un bain bien chaud, enfin toutes ses aises; moi je suis un pauvre diable, je n’ai rien de tout cela : je me suis fait un mal horrible, & me voilà encore ; mais j’ai la balle dans la tête, c’est-là le principal. Un peu plus tôt, un peu plus tard, voilà tout. »

On the Linda Lindas, Gen X, and Classical Reception Studies

I am a Gen Xer, but I wasn’t always. As it turns out, the periodization of time is rather arbitrary and not always consistent. In my late teens or early 20s I read an article in Newsweek or Time that put the latest birth year of Generation X at 1976, one year before I was born. In my 30s and early 40s, media scrutiny shifted away from Gen X to Millennials, which often included those born in the late 70s, though many of us didn’t really identify as such. I briefly thought of myself as an Xennial, but I came to own my Gen-X-ness after reading an essay by writer Alex Pappademas that acknowledged and embraced the unremarkable forgottenness of our generation. Yes, I thought, this is my generation!

But a few days ago I heard a song that would make me rethink Generation X and its contributions. Four girls ranging in age from 10-16 belted out “Racist, Sexist Boy” from the stacks of the Los Angeles Public Library. Overnight, the Linda Lindas became a household name and ultimately scored a record deal. I was among the many for whom their sounds of righteous rage resonated, sounds that made me think of my early teen years in Seattle. A quick glance at their Twitter profile confirmed their riot grrrl influences.

A confession: I wasn’t actually part of that scene or any other that made the Pacific Northwest distinctive in the 1990s. I had plenty of rage (and still do), but I was nowhere near cool enough to be not-cool (i.e., alternative), nor did I have the means or inclination to acquire the accoutrements and soundtrack of that culture. I was and am bland. I did have ears, though, and enough friends or acquaintances who were part of that scene to be reminded of it when I heard the Linda Lindas’ song and then their whole set.

After I watched it, I fell down a rabbit hole trying to learn more about this band that struck such a chord with me (pun intended). I watched a movie they were in, Moxie, which is full of nostalgia for a cultural moment of the 1990s, a moment when some women expressed their rage specifically through punk. After watching Moxie I listened to Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl,” and I recalled the rage I had felt in my adolescence, though I had not expressed it in the same manner. I never intentionally listened to 1990s alternative rock during the actual 1990s—it’s only some thirty years later that I am now engaging with that cultural moment, and only thanks to the Linda Lindas, whose members are young enough to be my children (my oldest is the same age as their youngest). But their music transported me to an era of “girl power,” exemplified by bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy long before the Spice Girls screamed it from a double-decker London bus.

It wasn’t their sound alone that arrested me. It was the combination of their Asian American identity and their music that took me to that moment in the past and carved out a place for me in it. The group is half Latinx too, but it was their Asian half that I saw myself in. These girls were shredding the racist stereotype of the “model minority,” and I was here for it as a Korean American with more than a little rage at the particular blend of racism and misogyny experienced by Asian women in the United States. A young girl-band of the 2020s brought me home to my 1990s youth, their Asian Americanness situating me comfortably in that youth three decades after the fact.

As a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman literature, I turned to my academic training to find the interpretive tools for understanding this circular journey. Specifically, I looked to classical reception studies, the study of how the cultural artefacts of ancient Greece and Rome have been depicted and adapted in their transmission from antiquity. In reception studies, it’s often the ancient text that is used to illuminate the later one; Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, might be mined for traces of ancient Greek or Roman epic to explain where the later English epic drew its inspiration. But the illuminative effect is reciprocal; that is to say, the later text—and specifically the way the later text pays homage to but varies from the earlier one—can shed new light on its source. Case in point: Luis Alfaro’s Mojada reimagines Euripides’ Medea as an immigrant story, which helps situate the title character and her experience in a modern American context. But Alfaro’s adaptation also helps us see the strains of otherness that permeate Medea’s story in Euripides’ play, which come to light as we consider the two works together. Plenty of people have made this point about the reciprocity between modern and ancient revealed through reception studies; I’ll direct attention to just a few (see here and here).

Though we are not dealing with ancient Greek and Roman texts here, the intertwinings of the Linda Lindas with the sounds of my adolescence gave me a concrete example of the cyclically illuminative power of reception studies. The Linda Lindas directed me to a 1990s subculture that inspired them. Listening to the original riot grrrl bands deepened my understanding of the Linda Lindas, who in turn added an antiracist layer that made the 1990s more meaningful and inhabitable for me personally. Both cultural experiences exist together in my 43-year old Asian American female consciousness, entwined and inseparable, their differences and similarities meshed together yet still perceptible. I can’t fully appreciate or even fathom the one without the other now.

Portrait of the author in 8th grade

I no longer think of Gen X as forgettable or unaccomplished since at the very least it gave rise to a feminist punk rock movement that would influence the strong, self-assured voices of the Linda Lindas thirty years later. Gen X didn’t give us the Linda Lindas. But it did give us a sound that inspired them, and it’s through them that I connect with my teenaged past. The Linda Lindas link my present with my past, and give me, in my middle age, a soundtrack to my adolescence. They translate the music of my Pacific Northwest youth into an updated version, a 2021 renovation of its 1990s architecture. I suppose we can think of reception as a form of time travel, a way of converging past and present through creation and adaptation.

A teenaged girl-band of the 2020s helped me fully appreciate my Gen X roots and inhabit that identity, but I don’t want to idealize the past or overcredit it. I’m still with Pappademas when he says, “let us be the first generation to opt out of building monuments to our rightness. Let’s build no monuments at all. Let’s lord nothing over anyone. Let’s expend no energy explaining ourselves and what we stood for to younger people who could not care less.” It’s just that I now recognize the potential of Gen X’s cultural contributions, but it’s potential that wasn’t fully realized (for me) until the Linda Lindas’ adaptation and renewal. In causing me to look back, the Linda Lindas have pushed me forward, by articulating and reincarnating the righteous and necessary anger of my youth.

*Thanks to Sarah Bond, Kinitra Brooks, and Dawn Hamilton for reading and commenting on drafts of this.

Arum Park is an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Arizona and a new co-chair of the Asian and Asian American Classical Caucus. Her interests run the gamut and now include 21st century Asian American receptions of 1990s riot grrrl music. Follow her on Twitter @ProfArumPark.


Epic Bad Taste

Lord Chesterfield, Letters to His Son (180):

In this disposition of mind, judge whether I can read all Homer through ‘tout de suite’. I admire its beauties; but, to tell you the truth, when he slumbers, I sleep. Virgil, I confess, is all sense, and therefore I like him better than his model; but he is often languid, especially in his five or six last books, during which I am obliged to take a good deal of snuff. Besides, I profess myself an ally of Turnus against the pious AEneas, who, like many ‘soi-disant’ pious people, does the most flagrant injustice and violence in order to execute what they impudently call the will of Heaven. But what will you say, when I tell you truly, that I cannot possibly read our countryman Milton through? I acknowledge him to have some most sublime passages, some prodigious flashes of light; but then you must acknowledge that light is often followed by darkness visible, to use his own expression. Besides, not having the honor to be acquainted with any of the parties in this poem, except the Man and the Woman, the characters and speeches of a dozen or two of angels and of as many devils, are as much above my reach as my entertainment. Keep this secret for me: for if it should be known, I should be abused by every tasteless pedant, and every solid divine in England.

Forget Latin and Get Some Greek!

Lord Chesterfield, Letters to His Son (122):

You cannot study much in the Academy; but you may study usefully there, if you are an economist of your time, and bestow only upon good books those quarters and halves of hours, which occur to everybody in the course of almost every day; and which, at the year’s end, amount to a very considerable sum of time. Let Greek, without fail, share some part of every day; I do not mean the Greek poets, the catches of Anacreon, or the tender complaints of Theocritus, or even the porter-like language of Homer’s heroes; of whom all smatterers in Greek know a little, quote often, and talk of always; but I mean Plato, Aristoteles, Demosthenes, and Thucydides, whom none but adepts know. It is Greek that must distinguish you in the learned world, Latin alone will not: and Greek must be sought to be retained, for it never occurs like Latin. When you read history or other books of amusement, let every language you are master of have its turn, so that you may not only retain, but improve in everyone.

Renaissance Stagecoach Verse

Coleridge, Biographia Literaria  (XVI):

Not otherwise is it with the more polished poets of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially those of Italy. The imagery is almost always general: sun, moon, flowers, breezes, murmuring streams, warbling songsters, delicious shades, lovely damsels cruel as fair, nymphs, naiads, and goddesses, are the materials which are common to all, and which each shaped and arranged according to his judgment or fancy, little solicitous to add or to particularize. If we make an honourable exception in favour of some English poets, the thoughts too are as little novel as the images; and the fable of their narrative poems, for the most part drawn from mythology, or sources of equal notoriety, derive their chief attractions from the manner of treating them; from impassioned flow, or picturesque arrangement.

In opposition to the present age, and perhaps in as faulty an extreme, they placed the essence of poetry in the art. The excellence, at which they aimed, consisted in the exquisite polish of the diction, combined with perfect simplicity. This their prime object they attained by the avoidance of every word, which a gentleman would not use in dignified conversation, and of every word and phrase, which none but a learned man would use; by the studied position of words and phrases, so that not only each part should be melodious in itself, but contribute to the harmony of the whole, each note referring and conducting to the melody of all the foregoing and following words of the same period or stanza; and lastly with equal labour, the greater because unbetrayed, by the variation and various harmonies of their metrical movement.

Their measures, however, were not indebted for their variety to the introduction of new metres, such as have been attempted of late in the Alonzo and Imogen, and others borrowed from the German, having in their very mechanism a specific overpowering tune, to which the generous reader humours his voice and emphasis, with more indulgence to the author than attention to the meaning or quantity of the words; but which, to an ear familiar with the numerous sounds of the Greek and Roman poets, has an effect not unlike that of galloping over a paved road in a German stage-waggon without springs. On the contrary, the elder bards both of Italy and England produced a far greater as well as more charming variety by countless modifications, and subtle balances of sound in the common metres of their country. A lasting and enviable reputation awaits that man of genius, who should attempt and realize a union;—who should recall the high finish, the appropriateness, the facility, the delicate proportion, and above all, the perfusive and omnipresent grace, which have preserved, as in a shrine of precious amber, the Sparrow of Catullus, the Swallow, the Grasshopper, and all the other little loves of Anacreon; and which, with bright, though diminished glories, revisited the youth and early manhood of Christian Europe, in the vales of Arno, and the groves of Isis and of Cam; and who with these should combine the keener interest, deeper pathos, manlier reflection, and the fresher and more various imagery, which give a value and a name that will not pass away to the poets who have done honour to our own times, and to those of our immediate predecessors.

Coleridge in 1795

Latin for the Crappin

Lord Chesterfield, Letters to His Son (December 15, 1747):

I knew a gentleman, who was so good a manager of his time, that he would not even lose that small portion of it, which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets, in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained; and I recommend you to follow his example. It is better than only doing what you cannot help doing at those moments; and it will made any book, which you shall read in that manner, very present in your mind. Books of science, and of a grave sort, must be read with continuity; but there are very many, and even very useful ones, which may be read with advantage by snatches, and unconnectedly; such are all the good Latin poets, except Virgil in his “Aeneid”: and such are most of the modern poets, in which you will find many pieces worth reading, that will not take up above seven or eight minutes. Bayle’s, Moreri’s, and other dictionaries, are proper books to take and shut up for the little intervals of (otherwise) idle time, that everybody has in the course of the day, between either their studies or their pleasures. Good night.

How many of these have been lost to Cloacal sacrifice?

For Those In the Know

Anonymous Epigram (Greek Anthology 7.128)

I am Heraclitus. Why do you buffoons
Wrestle with me? It was not for you
I labored, but for those in the know.
To me, one man is worth thirty thousand,
And an infinite number not worth one man.
This I would say even in Persephone’s house.

For those in the know, here are some fragments of Heraclitus to wrestle with:

If all that exists should become smoke, nostrils would pick out one thing from the other.

A man in the night kindles a light in himself after his sight is extinguished. A living man, but he engages with a dead man when he sleeps. And when he wakes, he understands sleeping man.

For souls, it’s death to become water, and for water, it’s death to become earth. But from earth water is born, and from water, a soul.

In any event, the name of the bow is life but its work is death

The exchange: all things for fire and fire for all things; and in like manner, goods for gold and gold for goods.

Epigram 7.128
Ἡράκλειτος ἐγώ: τί μ᾽ ἄνω κάτω ἕλκετ᾽ ἄμουσοι;
οὐχ ὑμῖν ἐπόνουν, τοῖς δ᾽ ἔμ᾽ ἐπισταμένοις.
εἷς ἐμοὶ ἄνθρωπος τρισμύριοι, οἱ δ᾽ ἀνάριθμοι
οὐδείς. ταῦτ᾽ αὐδῶ καὶ παρὰ Περσεφόνῃ.

εἰ πάντα τὰ ὄντα καπνὸς γένοιτο, ῥῖνες ἂν διαγνοῖεν

ἄνθρωπος ἐν εὐφρόνῃ φάος ἅπτεται ἑαυτῷ ἀποσβεσθείς ὄψεις, ζῶν δὲ ἅπτεται τεθνεῶτος εὕδων, ἐγρηγορὼς ἅπτεται εὕδοντος.

ψυχῇσιν θάνατος ὕδωρ γενέσθαι, ὕδατι δὲ θάνατος γῆν γενέσθαι, ἐκ γῆς δὲ ὕδωρ γίνεται, ἐξ ὕδατος δὲ ψυχή

τῷ οὖν τόξῳ ὄνομα βίος, ἔργον δὲ θάνατος

πυρός τε ἀνταμοιβὴ τὰ πάντα καὶ πῦρ ἁπάντων ὅκωσπερ χρυσοῦ χρήματα καὶ χρημάτων χρυσός.

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