Only Blockheads Would Ban Poetry

Leonardo Bruni, de Studiis et Litteris (§26)

“I would readily ask of one of those who persecute the poets, ‘For what reason do you think that the poets should not be read?’ Though they plainly have nothing which they could impute to them, they will nevertheless say that it is because love and debauchery can be found in their poetry. Yet, I would dare to affirm that in no authors could such examples of modesty and good things more generally be found than in the poets. Consider the most faithful chastity of Penelope for Ulysses, and the unbelievable virtue which Aclestis showed for Admetus, and the admirable constancy which each showed toward their husbands in their absences and calamities. Many of these sorts of things can be read in the poets – the greatest documents of wifely discipline.

If occasionally the poets describe loves like that of Apollo for Daphne, or the affair of Vulcan and Venus, who is so obtuse that he would not understand that these are fictions which represent one thing metaphorically for another? Further, there are very few things which you condemn, but there are very many which are of the highest quality and at any rate certainly worth reading, as I have above shown in my discussion of Homer and Vergil. It is unjust in the extreme to forget those things which deserve true praise while remembering those which offer up a handle for reproach.

A severe critic says to me, ‘Don’t let those things get mixed up! I would sooner abandon the good from fear of evil than I would run into evil from hope for the good. Therefore, I will not read the poets, nor will I permit others to do so.’ But hey, Plato and Aristotle themselves read poetry!”


Fateful Etymology

Giovanni Boccaccio, Genealogy of the Pagan Gods (1.5):

“Proper names have already been discussed, so we must speak now of common names. Cicero calls the Fates the Parcae, through antiphrasis as I believe, because they would spare (parcant) no one. They admit no exceptions for any persons, and God alone is able to change their power and order. The name Fatum or Fata is, however, derived from the verb for fari [=to speak], as if the people who imposed the name on them wished to indicate that what they do is irrevocable, as if spoken or preordained by God. We can see this readily enough in the words of Boethius, and even Augustine seems to agree in his City of God. But he holds back from using the word itself, advising us that if anyone should wish to call the will or power of God by the name of Fate, they should hold their opinion and bridle their tongue.”

Marco Bigio, The Three Parcae (1550)

De nominibus propriis predictum est, de appellativis dicendum. Vocat igitur has Tullius Parcas, ut reor per antiphrasin, quia nemini parcant; nulla enim apud eas est acceptio personarum, solus deus potest pervertere earum vires et ordinem. Fatum autem aut Fata a for faris tractum nomen est, quasi velint, qui id imposuere nomen, quod ab eis agitur a deo quasi irrevocabile dictum sit seu previsum, ut per verba Boetii satis assumitur, et etiam sentire videtur Augustinus, ubi De civitate dei. Sed abhorret ipse vocabulum admonens, ut si quisquam voluntatem dei seu potestatem nomine Fati appellet, sententiam teneat, linguam coerceat.

The Invention of New Words

Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, de Puerorum Educatione:

“‘Ordinary words’ are those which are worn out by common use, and we can use these safely. Cicero said that those words which were formerly hard are softened by use – in his own time, people needed no great store of boldness to say ‘urbane’ nor, in Quintillian’s lifetime, to say ‘piratical.’ Who among the ancients would have said, ‘scandal’ or ‘Hell’? But reading the Gospel has given us these. That saying of Horace has been proven,

‘Many words which have now fallen out of use will be reborn, and those which now occupy a place of honor will fall if it should be so decreed by common use, in whose power lie the judgment, law, and norm of speaking.’

‘Invented’ words are those which someone coins for himself, as we find in Horace ‘he enemies cities,’ that is to say, ‘he makes cities enemies.’ He seems also to have invented a word in another place, ‘he retarded the wings of flying fate,’ which means he delayed them. Servius says that it was formerly the custom of priests to be ‘emasculated’ so that they could no longer have sex. This word is formed from ‘ex masculo.’ But it is not for just anyone to invent new words. As Horace says,

‘It has been and always will be allowed to pull out a name with present fame. As the forests with their leaves fall away into the next year, and the first words fall, so the old use of words perishes and in the manner of youth, possess a certain bloom and vigor when they are new.’

The task is to be delegated to those who have already made a great name for themselves in speaking and writing, like Terence, who first wrote ‘obsequium’ and Messala, who invented ‘reatus,’ and Augustus, who thought up ‘munerarii.’ Those who are endowed with a more middling intellect will need, not to invent new words, but to use the old ones. Yet in all words, whether they be new or ancient, ours or foreign, direct or metaphorical, there will be no honor or praise unless they are well suited to the subject.”

‘Usitata’ sunt verba, quae communi teruntur usu et his tutius uti possumus. Cicero dicit, quae primo dura fuerunt, usu molliri, nec tempore suo satis audacter ‘urbanum’ dicebant, nec vivo Quintiliano ‘piraticam;’ at haec hodie trita sunt. Quis antiquorum vel ‘scandalum’ vel ‘gehennam’ dixisset? Sed ista nobis evangelica lectio tradidit. Hinc illud Horatii verum traditur:

Multa renascentur, quae iam ceciderunt, cadentque
Quae nunc sunt in honore vocabula, si volet usus
Quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi.

‘Ficta’ vocabula sunt, quae sibi quisque noviter fingit, ut apud Horatium, ‘inimicat urbes,’ hoc est, ‘inimicas facit.’ Idem quoque verbum fingere videtur alio loco, ‘volucrisque fati tardavit alas,’ hoc est ‘distulit.’ Servius ait quibusdam herbis olim sacerdotes ‘emasculari’ fuisse moris, ut amplius coire non possent. Verbum est ‘ex masculo’ fictum. Sed non licet omnibus nova fingere verba. Quod enim ait Flaccus:

Licuit semperque licebit
Signatum praesente nota producere nomen.
Ut silvae foliis pronos mutantur in annos,
Prima cadunt: ita verborum vetus interit usus
Et iuvenum ritu florent modo nata vigentque.

Ad eos referendum est, qui iam orando atque scribendo magnum sibi nomen fecerunt, sicut Terentius, qui primus dixit ‘obsequium’ et ‘reatus’ inventor Messala, ac ‘munerarii’ excogitator Augustus. Qui mediocri sunt ingenio non invenire vocabula, sed inventis uti debebunt. In omnibus autem verbis, sive nova sint sive antiqua, sive nostra sive aliena, sive propria sive translata, nullus honos fuerit nullaque laus, nisi bene rebus accomodentur. Cumque duo sunt tantundem significantia, eo uti praestat, quod melius sonet et facilius intelligatur, ut ‘beatitudinem’ quam ‘beatitem’ potius dicas.

Classics and Theory: A Monday Rant

This is a slightly adapted and expanded edition of my #classicsandtheoryrant from twitter

One of the things I love about social media is that it has allowed me to connect with people who love the Classics and know a lot about it all over the world. Some of these people have ‘credentials’ and experiences similar to mine, but many do not. Across the board, I try to ignore these conventional markers of intellectual authority on twitter etc. and just listen to what people say. And, really, I have learned a lot.

But one thing that has been increasingly frustrating  over the past year is a small but insistent chorus of voices who insist that Classics is being ruined by “post-modern theory”. Generally, these voices come from outside the traditional academy or from more conventional corners within them. But most often they represent ‘threatened constituents’ of the modern world–by which I mean people who also object to ‘diversity’, ‘political correctness’ and a whole bunch of buzzwords and phrases that are popular media shorthand for a world that is not dominated by traditional, male, Eurocentric perspectives. (And, you know, white supremacists. This does not mean that all anti-theory people are white supremacists, so, dude, chill.)

This is in part frustrating because I thought we were past this. I know this is naïve and I know that Classics is way behind other disciplines in the aggregate when it comes to using critical theory, but we have long had a small and influential group of people pushing our field to respond to the modern world and engage with new ideas.

But it is also infuriating because it attests to an essential fragility (also, read this if the term is upsetting). Is our confidence in the way we have received the past so shaky that it can brook no challenge? Often, the knee-jerk or even committed aversion to theory is really a desire to exclude others. I almost respect those supremacists more because they at least admit it. (But let me be clear, I really, really don’t like ethnonationalists and white supremacists.)

Engagement with theory is critical because it acknowledges that as interpreters we are subjects who are shaped by our experiences and the narratives and discourse through which culture shapes us based on our gender, sexual identity, race, (dis)abilities, age, etc. Our bodies are not instruments we drive through the world, they are part of us and mediate our experience of everything. The world treats us differently based on the bodies we inhabit. These two facts shape the way we respond to everything.

Acknowledging the primacy of subjectivity is only one part of modern theory which is dismissed. I won’t even bother listing all of the theoretical approaches that have helped us understand the ancient world better. It is a type of retrograde derangement not to use new tools to look at old things. Imagine if people were railing against the use of spectral imaging in archaeology or the application of new chemical testing or any one of a range of technologies that have developed over the past generation. We would all be incredulous.

Many of the same people, however, who champion what aDNA testing might tell us about ancient peoples, also deny the validity of applying new tests to ancient literature and culture which have been developed in respectable fields like anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, English, sociology, and others. The reason for this is clear: the process tells different stories about the past than many of us were raised with. This is uncomfortable.

If art does not make us uncomfortable or question the past at all, then it is merely entertainment. Scholarship that merely repeats or reinforces what we already know is essentially masturbatory.

The argument over who gets to interpret the past and how is political. “Post-modern” is a catch-all phrase for many different approaches which are dismissed by conservative traditionalists. This argument raged through the field in the 1980s as Eric Adler documents well.  There was another major flare up with the Who Killed Homer? nonsense. I think we might have missed a renewal of these complaints in the late 2000s because of the severe economic downturn.

But this debate is all about power: The power to interpret and possess meaning; The power to have meaning in the world; The power to be a full and equal subject in a flawed society. Such striving has been going on since some literary theorists had the gall to imagine that texts were more than pristine aesthetic objects with timeless secrets for the properly initiated to unlock.

I have a few simple points to make in closing. The first is that scholarship is not a zero-sum game. Applying new theoretical frames does not wipe out the old ones or render them useless. If we apply the analogy of biodiversity to ideas, then the more voices and ideas we can explore within a productive system, the more variety and understanding we can get out of it. This is destined to be chaotic and painful, but it is creative and exciting.

New ideas build upon older ones. Some gain purchase for more than a few years become part of the tradition. Some ideas are as Glaukos says like leaves on the tree which grow for a brief time and then wither and die. Others somehow become evergreen, in the moment we cannot know. We can argue for what we believe and push back against other ideas—but we need to acknowledge that sometimes our need to push back against other ideas is driven by a desire to exclude people not the ideas.

A second point which is by no means original is that you can love something and see that it might be bad for something or need to change. E.g. chocolate cake is delicious, but it can kill you. Cigarettes are delightful, but they will give you cancer. Anything made by humans is imperfect because we are not perfect. Saying the Homeric epics are misogynistic or using Marxist theory to show how they (re-)produce structural oppression does not erase their beauty or their impact. Instead, it shows that their beauty may also have a harmful impact. It helps us understand how they work and how we work as human communities.

And if you cannot love something flawed, you simply cannot love. Let go of the Platonic nonsense of perfection in the mind of a distant god. Real, human love embraces the ways in which we are flawed and celebrates that despite the horror, baseness, and temporariness which is our inheritance, we are still capable of beauty.

A third point is also not original: all methods of interpretation are ideological and have a theory. If the theory is not explicit, that does not mean it is not there. It means it is naïve and unquestioned. Philology is a means not an end. We classicists are trained in philology so we don’t make basic mistakes and we can distinguish good arguments from bad ones. But we are at a point in the production of knowledge that no one can learn everything which is required to understand the ancient world. We need to work together. We need polymathy and polyphony.

The practice of classics as developed in Europe around the enlightenment is ideologically connected to a particular time, a set of bodies and languages, and a cultural apparatus distinct from ancient Greece and Rome. The ‘Classics’ created by the Renaissance and Enlightenment is not coterminous with the beliefs, practices, and texts of actual Greece and Rome. In a way, to emulate a 19th century German classicist in everything is little different from strapping on some leather armor and LARPing at a Renaissance Faire. Both are fun and can require a lot of expertise. But both are still play-acting.

It is not ‘authentic’ or ‘correct’ to treat ancient texts in this way any more or less than it was authentic and correct for Plotinus and Porphyry to say the Odyssey is an elaborate allegory for the mind.

All reading is reception. All interpretation is ideological. Being explicit about our ideological receptions helps us communicate better with each other and through the generations.

When we allow new perspectives and viewpoints, we enrich our reception of the past. Some of this enrichment might turn out be misleading or start out as bewildering; indeed, it might be only temporarily insightful. But striving to make new sense of the old, to try to surpass those who have already labored, is better than sucking on the marrow of corpses and wallowing in mute ash.

Миниатюры.: philologist

f. 305v. The Fouquet Missal. Bourges, c.1470-1475

Seneca Moral Epistle 108

But some error comes thanks to our teachers who instruct us how to argue but not how to live; some error too comes from students, who bring themselves to teachers not for the nourishing of the soul, but the cultivation of our wit. Thus what was philosophy has been turned into philology.”

Sed aliquid praecipientium vitio peccatur, qui nos docent disputare, non vivere, aliquid discentium, qui propositum adferunt ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium. Itaque quae philosophia fuit, facta philologia est.

Boccaccio’s Early Renaissance Hermeneutics

Giovanni Boccaccio, Genealogia Deorum Gentilium 1.3

“It is to be understood that there is not one simple meaning to these fictions; rather, this may be called polisenum, that is to say ‘of many meanings.’ The first sense may be considered through the outer surface of the fiction, and this is called the literal sense. Other senses are those which are signified through the surface, and these are said to be allegorical.

To make my point clearer, I will provide an example. Perseus, by a figment of the poetic imagination, was the son of Zeus who killed the Gorgon and then, victorious, flew away into the air. While this is read literally, the historical sense is offered up to us. If one were to search for the moral sense of the tale, it is a depiction of wisdom’s victory over vice and the approach to real virtue. But if we wanted to take the tale allegorically, it signifies the elevation of a pious mind to the celestial heights after it has spurned all worldly pleasures. Further, an anagogical interpretation would have it that the story represents the ascent of Christ to God the Father after overcoming the ruler of this world.

Even though these approaches may be called by different names, they can all be called allegory, as it often happens. The word allegory is derived from the Greek allon, which means alienum or diversum (different or diverse), and on that account, however many interpretations may be diverse in the historical or literal modes, they may all rightly be called allegory. Yet, I hardly have a mind to explain the stories which I present according to all of their particular senses or interpretations, since I imagine that it is enough to explicate one of many different senses, though on occasion perhaps more senses will be brought to the fore.”


sciendum est his fictionibus non esse tantum unicum intellectum, quin imo dici potest potius polisenum, hoc est moltiplicium sensum. Nam sensus primus habetur per corticem, et hic licteralis vocatus est; alii per significata per corticem, et hi allegorici nuncupantur.

Et ut quid velim facilius assummatur, ponemus exemplum. Perseus Iovis filius figmento poetico occidit Gorgonem, et victor evolavit in ethera. Hoc dum legitur per licteram hystorialis sensus prestatur. Si moralis ex hac lictera queritur intellectus, victoria ostenditur prudentis in vicium, et ad virtutem accessio. Allegorice autem si velimus assummere, pie mentis spretis mundanis deliciis ad celestia elevatio designatur. Preterea posset et anagogice dici per fabulam Christi ascensum ad patrem mundi principe superato figurari.

Qui tamen sensus etsi variis nuncupentur nominibus, possunt tamen omnes allegorici appellari, quod ut plurimum fit. Nam allegoria dicitur ab allon, quod alienum latine significat, sive diversum, et ideo quot diversi ab hystoriali seu licterali sint sensu, allegorici possunt, ut dictum est, merito vocitari. Verumtamen non est animus michi secundum omnes sensus enucleare fabulas que sequuntur, cum satis arbitrer unum ex pluribus explicasse, esto aliquando apponentur fortasse plures.

Different Strokes for Different etc. etc.

Giovanni Boccaccio, Genealogia Deorum Gentilium 1.3:

“Just as all people do not have the same appearance, so too are their judgments dissimilar. Achilles preferred war to peace, Aegisthus preferred idleness to war, and Plato pursued philosophy while neglecting everything else; Phidias sculpted statues with his chisel, and Apelles painted pictures with his brush. So, let me make no mention of other pursuits, a poet is delighted to veil the truth with fabrications. Macrobius, writing in his Dream of Scipio, seems to demonstrate the reason for the delight of the poetic art when he says,

I have already spoken about the other gods and about the spirit. Poets turn themselves to the fabulous not in vain and not so that they might offer delight, but because they know that an open exposition of everything everywhere is opposed to nature, which withdraws understanding of itself away from the vulgar senses of humans with a varied covering; so too she wished that her secrets should be handled by the knowledgeable through fables. Thus are the very mysteries of the fables are hidden away as in mines, but the nature of such things does not simply reveal herself naked to people who have attained even to this level; she reserves herself for the highest scholars who work with wisdom as a guide, who are conscious of the real secrets; everyone else must simply be content with less.

Thus writes Macrobius. Though much more could easily be said on the topic, it seems to me that this is a sufficient response.”

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uti non equa facies omnibus, sic nec animorum iudicia. Achilles arma preposuit ocio, Egisthus desidiam armis, Plato phylosophiam omissis ceteris secutus est, statuas celte sculpere Phydias, Apelles pinnaculo ymagines pingere. Sic ut reliqua hominum studia sinam, poeta delectatus est tegere fabulis veritatem, cuius delectionis Macrobius super Somnio Scipionis scribens satis apte causam videtur ostendere dum dicit: De diis autem dixi ceteris, et de anima non frustra se, nec ut oblectent ad fabulosa convertunt, sed quia sciunt inimicam esse nature apertam undique expositionem sui, que sicut vulgaribus hominum sensibus intellectum sui vario rerum tegmine operimento subtraxit, ita a prudentibus arcana sua voluit per fabulosa tractari. Sic ipsa misteria fabularum cuniculis operiuntur, ne vel hoc adeptis nudam rerum talium natura se prebeat, sed summatibus tantum viris sapientia interprete, veri archani consciis contenti sunt reliqui. Hec Macrobius, quibus etsi multo plura dici possent, satis responsum arbitror exquirentibus.

But What Does the Fool Say?

Erasmus, Adagia I.i.98:

“‘The fool says foolish things.”

Euripides, in his Bacchae, writes Μῶρα γὰρ μῶρος λέγει, that is the speech of the fool is foolish* [lit: for the fool says foolish things]. With just as many words, our prophet Esaias has produced the same sentiment. Seneca, in his letters to Lucilius, says that this became a proverb among the Greeks: ‘People’s speech was just as their life.’ It is not sufficiently clear of what sort this was, unless because a certain poem of this sort survives, celebrated by the Greeks:

Ἀνδρὸς χαρακτὴρ ἐκ λόγου γνωρίζεται,

that is,

a person’s character is revealed by their speech.

Democritus the philosopher (quoted in Diogenes Laertius) used to say that speech was εἴδωλον τοῦ βίου , that is, a miniature portrait of life, and was just like a certain shadow. Nothing more true than this could be said, because in no mirror is the figure of the body reflected better or more brightly refulgent than the image of the heart is represented in speech. Humans are distinguished by their speech not otherwise than bronze vessels are distinguished by the sound of their ring.”

*Note: The first rendering in Italics is the translation of Erasmus’ Latin translation of the Greek, and not a translation of the Greek itself; this is provided in the following brackets.


Stultus stulta loquitur. xcviii

Euripides in Bacchis, Μῶρα γὰρ μῶρος λέγει, id est Nam stulta stulti oratio est. Totidem verbis propheta noster Esaias eam sententiam extulit. Seneca ad Lucilium Apud Graecos, inquit, in proverbium cessit : Talis hominibus fuit oratio, qualis vita. Hoc cujusmodi fuerit parum liquet, nisi quod tale quoddam carmen extat, Graecis celebratum :

Ἀνδρὸς χαρακτὴρ ἐκ λόγου γνωρίζεται,

id est
Hominis figura oratione agnoscitur.

Democritus philosophus apud Laertium orationem εἴδωλον τοῦ βίου, id est vitae simulachrum, quandamque velut umbram esse dicebat. Qua quidem sententia nihil dici poterat verius. Nam nullo in speculo melius, expressiusque relucet figura corporis, quam in oratione pectoris imago repraesentatur. Neque secius homines ex sermone quam aerea vasa tinnitu dignoscuntur.

The Revival of Greek in Italy

Paolo Giovio, 

Elogia Doctorum Virorum: Chrysoloras

“Emanuel Chrysoloras, who first brought Greek literature back to Italy seven hundred years after it had been driven out by various barbarian invasions, was endowed with such humanity of liberal intellect in his teaching, that his famous image seems worthy of being placed first among the images of Greeks of exceptional merit, although no monuments of his weighty learning remain except some rules on the art of grammar. He was an indefatigable teacher, but he is open to the charge of having been lazy in writing, since the other part of the glory which we have chosen was sought by his useful profession.

He was sent from Byzantium by the emperor John to seek aid for Greece, which was on the verge of collapse, by pleading with all of the kings of Europe. He completed this task with such diligent traveling that he finally stopped in Italy when Greece was liberated from fear, since Tamerlane – the terror of the East – had captured alive near Mount Stella the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I (who had received the epithet of “Lightning” from the incredible swiftness of his movements). And so Chrysoloras, delighted that Greece had been freed from such an awful enemy, first in Venice, then in Florence, Rome, and finally in Pavia, which was under the rule of Giangaleazzo Visconti, managed to excite such a zeal for Greek literature that there sprang from his school minds worthy of the highest honor which on that account will never perish. Among these were Leonardo Bruni, Francesco Barbaro, Francesco Filelfo, Guarino Veronese, and Poggio Bracciolini. Later, when the synod which was called for resolving the controversy surrounding the pseudo-pontificate roused with desire to see such a spectacle, when Baldassare Cossa was deposed. Chrysoloras died in Constance. Poggio Bracciolini decorated his tomb with these lines:

‘Here lies Manuel Chrysoloras, the ornament of the Attic tongue, who came here to seek help for his afflicted country. Italy, this was a fortunate event for you, for he restored to you the grace of the Greek language, so long hidden. This was a fortunate event for you, Emanuel, for you found on Italian soil the honor which Greece never gave you – Greece, ruined in war.'”


The Trials of a Publisher

Aldus Manutius, 

Preface to ‘Theocritus, Hesiod, Theognis: Selected Works’

“Yet, if you read anything here which remains uncorrected, most learned teacher, then here just as in other books, which I take care to publish for the use of all scholars (for I do not deny that there are some), do not impute the faults to me, but to the exemplars which I had to hand. For I have not set myself about the task of emending texts – for some of them, an Oedipus would be required to make conjectural emendation! They are so mutilated and muddled that the original authors themselves, were they to be revived, could scarcely hope to emend them.

Yet, I will try with the utmost zeal to see that they are at least printed more correctly than the exemplars. We did this in the text of Apollonius the grammarian, and thus we did it in this book in those eclogues which we added, thinking it better to have something rare than to have nothing. If an error lies hidden in obscurity, it is rarely or rather never corrected. If, however, it issues forth into the public, there are many who will criticize it, especially over a long time. Thus we see that it happened with Quintilian, thus it happened with Pliny the younger, and thus in several others, who are every day being corrected, and every day approach closer to their ancient elegance and candor. But those who accuse me are unfair and ungrateful. I would ask nothing of them but that they try at some time to publish Greek books as I have. Then they would have a different set of ideas on the subject. But enough of this…”


Books and C*ck-Cutting: Another Tawdry Tuesday!

Antonio Beccadelli, Hermaphroditus 1.33:

Against the Tuscan Cocksucker Mamurianus:

“You are Tuscan, and of course cock has a certain charm for the Tuscan people. Mamurianus, my book is Tuscan too. Yet, I would cut the penis from my book – I would cut it out as soon as you asked. But I won’t cut if off unless you first promise that you don’t wish to suck it where the cock has been cut off.”

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33. in Mamurianum Tuscum penisuggium

Tuscus es, et populo iocunda est mentula tusco;
Tusculus et meus est, Mamuriane, liber.
Attamen e nostro praecidam codice penem,
Praecidam simulac, Mamuriane, iubes:
Nec prius abscindam, nisi tu prius ipse virilem
Promittas demptam suggere nolle notam.

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