Wild Etymology of the Night

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Genealogy of the Pagan Gods, 1.9:

“The fact that Night is clothed in a painted coat clearly indicates that she is the very decoration of the sky, by which the sky is covered. Night (nox) however, as Papias says, is so called ‘because she harms (noceat) the eyes’; for she takes away their power of sight, since we see nothing at night. Night is harmful, further, in that she is well-suited to evil-doers, since we say ‘one who does evil hates the light’ – from this it follows that the evil-doer loves the shadows because they are more suited to the evil work. Even Juvenal says, ‘Thieves rise at night to cut the throats of others.’ Furthermore, Homer calls her the subduer of the gods in the Iliad, by which we may understand that since great-spirited people turn over important matters in their hearts at night, nevertheless night (not being suited to such things at all) oppresses their overflowing spirits, and overpowers them, subdued, all the way until the light.”

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Quod autem picta palla amicta sit, facile videri potest illam celi ornatum significare quo tegitur. Nox autem, ut ait Papias, ideo dicitur quia noceat oculis; aufert enim illis videndi officium, cum nil nocte cernamus. Nocet insuper quia male agentibus apta est, cum legamus: Qui male agit odit lucem; exquo sequitur ut tenebras amet tanquam malo operi aptiores. Et dicit etiam Iuvenalis: Ut iugulent homines surgunt de nocte latrones. Omerus preterea in Yliade eam domitricem deorum vocitat, ut sentiamus quoniam nocte magnanimes ingentia pectoribus versant, tamen nox minime talibus apta ebullientes opprimit spiritus, eosque tanquam domitos in lucem usque coercet.

The Preservation of Ancient Studies

Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Introduction to Wilamowitz-Moellendorff’s History of Classical Scholarship:

“The monuments of ancient literature and art are such as to appeal powerfully to some people in every generation, whatever the prevailing fashion; and so long as historical studies of any kind continue, the history of the world of classical antiquity, the direct ancestor of our own, can hardly suffer a complete neglect. Scholars cannot give up the noble conception of the study of the ancient world as a whole. They must guard perpetually against the danger of dryness, both the dryness that comes from an excessive concentration on technique and the dryness that comes from the adoption of too narrowly historical a standpoint. They do not maintain that the classics offer an ideal pattern for imitation. Nor indeed can the classicists of the Renaissance or the age of Goethe justly be reproached with this; the idea of imitation of an ideal pattern hardly suffices to explain the relation of a Michelangelo or of a Goethe to the ancient artists from whom they drew inspiration. The study of ancient civilization presents us not with patterns to be copied but with working models of possible beliefs and methods, which if intelligently and unsentimentally presented can save us from the provincialism of those who only know their own period. The ancients saw no reason to suppose that human nature was likely to change much, whatever social and historical circumstances might prevail; their art and literature dealt with what is constant rather than what is ephemeral; and that makes their literature, art and history particularly likely to provide experiences that may be useful, together with other experiences, in our own practice. The value of that experience, over and above whatever value may be assigned to the maintenance of the tradition that links us with antiquity, must be held to justify the continuance of these studies, so long as any historical and literary studies are thought to be justified.”

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Grammar, the Driest and Deathliest of All Disciplines

Basil Gildersleeve, Hellas and Hesperia

“According to the conditions of the Foundation, the lecturer is to speak of that which lies within the range of his special studies, and it is a sad fact that most of those who know me at all, know me, first, as the author of a Latin Grammar, and next, as a professor of Greek — Greek, which they tell me is doomed, and grammar which is damned already. Some years ago I had a new shudder, as Victor Hugo calls it, when I found that in some schools there are classes in Gildersleeve as there are classes in Conic Sections. ‘Grammar,’ says an eminent academic authority, himself a Hellenist, ‘is to the average healthy human being the driest and deathliest of all the disciplines;’ and grammarians have not been looked on with much favor in either ancient or modern times, at best as a higher type of hedge schoolmaster. Such a hedge schoolmaster figures in the Greek Anthology. His name has an aristocratic ring and recalls the great Arcadian seeress who taught Socrates the secret of true love. But Diotimus had come down in the world, and the mocking anthologist sings :

Αἰάζω Διότιμον ὃς ἐν πέτραισι κάθηται
Γαργαρέων παισὶν βῆτα καὶ ἄλφα λέγων

or, if he had lived to-day, and been utterly desperate, would perhaps have sung :

Diotimus, poor grammarian!
If my heart hath pitied e’er a one,
It is he.
Who, an almost centenarian,
Perched upon a ‘peak in Darien,’
Teaches little Jack and Mary Ann

In the same anthology, a grammarian of a somewhat better class is ridiculed, a university
professor, who is supposed to say:

Χαίρετ’ Ἀριστείδου τοῦ ῥήτορος ἑπτὰ μαθηταί
τέσσαρες οἱ τοῖχοι καὶ τρία συψέλια

which is being interpreted:

I’m a success, sir, I’m a success, sir,
Seven steady students are at each lecture.
Count if you please, sir, four walls and three desks, sir.

Now if these things were done in the green wood of antiquity, what is to be expected of the dry wood of modern times ? All literature is full of absurd grammarians, Dominie Sampsons, and Doctor Panglosses, and Doctor Syntaxes; and though I am a great stickler for the honor of the guild to which I belong, still I must say again that I should not like to have my individuality merged in my Latin Grammar, and this sensible warm motion to become the kneaded clod of a crabbed textbook. To be sure, in Browning’s Grammarian’s Funeral, the poet has done something to redeem the craft, and I welcome the vindication; for whilst Browning and his commentators do not fail to tell us that the technical grammarian of the present day was not meant so much as the grammarian of the Renascence — the student of antique literature — still the man who ‘properly based oun, dead from the waist down,’ belongs to our guild. He belongs to the ‘corner-hummers’ and ‘monosyllablers’ of the old epigram.



Breaking the Chains of the Mind, Shaking Off the Chains of the Past

Gilbert Murray, Religio Grammatici

“On these lines we see that the scholar’s special duty is to turn the written signs in which old poetry or philosophy is now enshrined back into living thought or feeling. He must so understand as to re-live. And here he is met at the present day by a direct frontal criticism. ‘Suppose, after great toil and the expenditure of much subtlety of intellect, you succeed in re-living the best works of the past, is that a desirable end? Surely our business is with the future and present, not with the past. If there is any progress in the world or any hope for struggling humanity, does it not lie precisely in shaking off the chains of the past and looking steadily forward?’ How shall we meet this question ?

First, we may say, the chains of the mind are not broken by any form of ignorance. The chains of the mind are broken by understanding. And so far as men are unduly enslaved by the past, it is by understanding the past that they may hope to be freed. But, secondly, it is never really the past — the true past — that enslaves us ; it is always the present. It is not the conventions of the seventeenth or eighteenth century that now make men conventional. It is the conventions of our own age, though, of course, I would not deny that in any age there are always fragments of the uncomprehended past still floating like dead things pretending to be alive. What one always needs for freedom is some sort of escape from the thing that now holds him. A man who is the slave of theories must get outside them and see facts; a man who is the slave of his own desires and prejudices must widen the range of his experience and imagination. But the thing that enslaves us most, narrows the range of our thought, cramps our capacities, and lowers our standards, is the mere present — the present that is all round us, accepted and taken for granted, as we in London accept the grit in the air and the dirt on our hands and faces. The material present, the thing that is omnipotent over us, not because it is either good or evil, but just because it happens to be here, is the great jailer and imprisoner of man’s mind; and the only true method of escape from him is the contemplation of things that are not present. Of the future ? Yes ; but you cannot study the future. You can only make
conjectures about it, and the conjectures will not be much good unless you have in some way studied other places and other ages. There has been hardly any great forward movement of humanity which did not draw inspiration from the knowledge or the idealization of the past.

No : to search the past is not to go into prison. It is to escape out of prison, because it compels us to compare the ways of our own age with other ways. And as to progress, it is no doubt a real fact. To many of us it is a truth that lies somewhere near the roots of our religion. But it is never a straight march forward ; it is never a result that happens of its own accord . It is only a name for the mass of accumulated human effort, successful here, baffled there, misdirected and driven astray in a third region, but on the whole and in the main producing some cumulative result. I believe this difficulty about progress, this fear that in studying the great teachers of the past we are in some sense wantonly sitting at the feet of savages, causes real trouble of mind to many keen students. The full answer to it would take us beyond the limits of this paper and beyond my own range of knowledge . But the main lines of the answer seem to me clear. There are in life two elements, one transitory and progressive, the other comparatively, if not absolutely, non-progressive and eternal, and the soul of man is chiefly concerned with the second. Try to compare our inventions, our material civilization, our stores of accumulated knowledge with those of the age of Aeschylus or Aristotle or St. Francis, and the comparison is absurd. Our superiority is beyond question and beyond measure. But compare any chosen poet of our age with Aeschylus, any philosopher with Aristotle, any saintly preacher with St. Francis, and the result is totally different. I do not wish to argue that we have fallen below the standard of those past ages ; but it is clear that we are not definitely above them. The things of the spirit depend on will, on effort, on aspiration, on the quality of the individual soul, and not on discoveries and material advances which can be accumulated and added up.”

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Learning, Poetry, and Madness

Petrarch, Secretum Book 3:

“What good has it been to know many things if you never learned how to accommodate them to your needs? For my part, I admired your error more in pursuing solitude, because you knew what the best authors among the ancients said against it, and you even added new ones. You complained often that solitude could do you no good, which you said in many places, especially in that poem which you wrote about your own condition. Meanwhile, as you sang, I was delighted by the sweetness of the song, and I was astounded because such a sweet sounding song sprang from your insane mouth in the middle of your spiritual storms, or I was astounded at what love could kept the Muses from fleeing from their accustomed house when they were assailed by such whirlwinds and such an alienation of their host. For, as Plato says, ‘one who is sane knocks on the doors of poetry in vain’, and as his successor Aristotle has it, ‘there is no great talent without some mixture of insanity.’ But these quotations apply to a different kind of insanity than yours; we shall discuss this later.”


Translators: The Saddest Pack of Rogues in the World

Alexander Pope, Letter to the Earl of Burlington (1716)

“Pray, Mr. Lintot (said I), now you talk of translators, what is your method of managing them? ‘Sir (replied he), they are the saddest pack of rogues in the world: in a hungry fit, they’ll swear they understand all the languages in the universe. I have known one of them take down a Greek book upon my counter, Oh, this is Hebrew, I must read it from the latter end. By G—d, I can never be sure of these fellows, for I neither understand Greek, Latin, French, nor Italian myself. But this is my way; I agree with them for ten shillings a sheet, with a proviso, that I will have their writings corrected by whom I please; so by one or other they are led at last to the true sense of an author; my judgment giving the negative to all my translators.’ But how are you secure those correctors may not all impose upon you? ‘Why, I get any civil gentleman (especially any Scotchman) that comes into my shop, to read the original to me in English; by this I know whether my first translator be deficient, and whether my corrector merits his money or not.

‘I’ll tell you what happened to me last month. I bargained with S. for a new version of Lucretius to publish against Tonson’s, agreeing to pay the author so many shillings on his producing so many lines. He made a great progress in a very short time, and I gave it to the corrector to compare with the Latin; but he went directly to Creech’s translation and found it the same word for word, all but the first page. Now, what do you think I did? I arrested the translator for a cheat; nay, and I stopped the corrector’s pay too, upon this proof that he had made use of Creech instead of the original.’”

Latin Exercises, No Literature

C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy:

“The school, as I first knew it, consisted of some eight or nine boarders and about as many day-boys. Organised games, except for endless rounders in the flinty playground, had long been moribund and were finally abandoned not very long after my arrival. There was no bathing except one’s weekly bath in the bathroom. I was already doing Latin exercises (as taught by my mother) when I went there in 1908, and I was still doing Latin exercises when I left there in 1910; I had never got in sight of a Roman author. The only stimulating element in the teaching consisted of a few well-used canes which hung on the green iron chimney-piece of the single schoolroom. The teaching staff consisted of the headmaster and proprietor (we called him Oldie), his grown-up son (Wee Wee), and an usher. The ushers succeeded one another with great rapidity; one lasted for less than a week. Another was dismissed in the presence of the boys, with a rider from Oldie to the effect that if he were not in Holy Orders he would kick him downstairs. This curious scene took place in the dormitory, though I cannot remember why. All these ushers (except the one who stayed less than a week) were obviously as much in awe of Oldie as we. But there came a time when there were no more ushers, and Oldie’s youngest daughter taught the junior pupils. By that time there were only five boarders, and Oldie finally gave up his school and sought a cure of souls. I was one of the last survivors, and left the ship only when she went down under us.”

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Read Like the Bees

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, de Puerorum Educatione:

“We do not advise people to read all the poets by the way and to affix their minds entirely to them. For, since many of these are amatory verses and full of vice, attention ought not to be paid to all of the things which are said by them, just as neither all theologians nor all philosophers should be heard. But when they commemorate the sayings or deeds of excellent men, then the reader ought to be moved and inflamed in all his mind and try himself to be such as they were. But when they happen upon mention of wicked people, they ought to flee their example. Listen to Basilius, the most sanctified and experienced man: ‘We praise the poets, not when they relate chastisements, nor when they imitate lovers or drunks or chatty people, nor when they define happiness by the rich man’s table and dissolute singing; we praise them least of all when they say something about the gods, especially when they suggest that they are many and discordant among themselves.’ And a little later, ‘These same things should be said of other writers, and then especially when they are read for pleasure.’ And again, ‘But now most of all we embrace orators, when they either extol virtue or fulminate against vices.’ In our readings of poets and other writers, we ought to imitate bees. For, as some take nothing from flowers except the odor and the color, bees know how to take honey out of them; thus, those who follow not only the pleasure of the words are able to derive some profit. Nor, further, do all bees approach flowers equally, nor do they completely consume those which they approach, but rather, they take that which is needed for their work, and they leave the rest behind.”


Poets, Philosophers, Fools

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, de Puerorum Educatione:

“What should I say about theologians? What error in faith has not stemmed from them? Who brought about the Arrian insanity, who separated the Greeks from the church, who seduced the Bohemians, if not theologians? At one time, the Romans expelled every kind of doctor from the city because they were guilty of all sorts of crimes; once the guilty had been punished, they allowed the innocent to return to the city. What about orators? Does Cicero not say that many cities were razed to the very ground because of the eloquence of evil people? But just as neither all orators nor all doctors nor all theologians nor all philosophers ought to be rejected on account of a few bad apples, similarly, we ought not to shrink from all poets on account of the vices of a few. Otherwise, even Plato himself should have been ejected from the city which he formed, since he was given to tragedy and Macrobius relates some of his poems which prove that he was a poet. Nor would Cicero have remained in that city, since he was not only the greatest cultivator of poets, but even wrote out three books On His Own Times in verse, in the old poetic fashion. Boethius’ objection merits laughter rather than a response. For who could hold back a laugh when it is said that a poet is condemning poetry? Is Boethius not a poet in all ways? For in his work, Philosophy (who speaks with him) goes on in verse and fiction. How many stories are found there? How many types of meters? Boethius seems similar to that guy who used to swear that no one should swear. But let us not impute what those others think to Boethius, who was both a philosopher and a poet. Let us suppose that he had something else in mind, which it would be tedious to discuss right now.”


Portrait of a Patient Reader

Rudolf Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship 1300-1850 (Chp. IX)

“Casaubon was a scholar of a highly individual kind; not being an outstanding grammarian and critic, he did not become in the first place an editor of critical texts, and not having an inventive imagination, he made no historical reconstructions. He was a patient reader and collector; and his genius, if the word is allowable in this connection, was for untiring mental effort. His aim was to amass exhaustive knowledge through extensive reading of all possible sources, and then to construct a picture of the ancient world by putting together what he had learnt. He was always in a state of despondency, because he was for ever finding new texts and new books and was afraid that time would not allow him to perfect his knowledge. His mission was to write commentaries, of which the most important were those on the Geographica of Strabo (1587, second edition 1620), on Theophrastus’ Characters (1592, second edition 1599, third 1612, and many thereafter), on Suetonius (1595), and on Athenaeus. His Animadversiones on the last of these were written with groaning and sighing, day and night, through more than three years. Nobody since Casaubon has possessed self-denial enough for making commentaries on texts like Strabo or even Athenaeus.”

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