December Debates on Gifts: Some Classical Warnings

Epigonoi Fr. 4 (From Clement of Alexandria)

“Many evils come to men from gifts”

ἐκ γὰρ δώρων πολλὰ κάκ’ ἀνθρώποισι πέλονται.

Ovid, Ars Amatoria 2.275

“Poems are certainly praised, but great gifts are what is sought.”

carmina laudantur sed munera magna petuntur.

Sophocles, Ajax, 664-5

“But the old saying is true: the gifts of enemies are no gifts, and sure to yield no profit.”

ἀλλ᾽ ἔστ᾽ ἀληθὴς ἡ βροτῶν παροιμία,
ἐχθρῶν ἄδωρα δῶρα κοὐκ ὀνήσιμα

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Aeschylus, fr. 279a2

“Alone of the gods, Death doesn’t long for gifts.”

μόνος θεῶν γὰρ Θάνατος οὐ δώρων ἐρᾶι·

 

Solon, 13.64

“The gifts of the gods must not be rejected”

δῶρα δ᾿ ἄφυκτα θεῶν γίγνεται ἀθανάτων

 

Nostoi, fr. 8.1

“Gifts debase the minds and actions of men”

δῶρα γὰρ ἀνθρώπων νόον ἤπαφεν ἠδὲ καὶ ἔργα

 

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 5.1430-1439

“The race of man, then, labors uselessly and in vain
as we always consume our time in empty concerns
because we don’t understand that there’s a limit to having—
and there’s an end to how far true pleasure can grow.
This has dragged life bit by bit into the deep sea
and has stirred at its bottom great blasts of war.
But the guardian of the earth turns around the great sky
and teaches men truly that the year’s seasons come full circle
and that all must be endured with a sure reason and order.”

Ergo hominum genus in cassum frustraque laborat
semper et [in] curis consumit inanibus aevom,
ni mirum quia non cognovit quae sit habendi
finis et omnino quoad crescat vera voluptas;
idque minutatim vitam provexit in altum
et belli magnos commovit funditus aestus.
at vigiles mundi magnum versatile templum
sol et luna suo lustrantes lumine circum
perdocuere homines annorum tempora verti
et certa ratione geri rem atque ordine certo.

Eunapius Throws Some Shade

Eunapius Lives of the Sophists, 494

Diophantos was also from Arabia and he pushed his way among the teachers of the craft of rhetoric. The same jealous belief of humankind established that man as competitor with Prohairesios, as if someone would make Callimachus Homer’s rival! But Prohairesious just laughed these things off along with human beings and whatever things occupied them. The writer of this work knew Diphantos and heard him speaking in public frequently. But it did not seem right to quote in this work anything which was said or which was mentioned by him—for this is a memoir of men worthy of account, not satire.

Nevertheless, people report that he gave a funeral speech for Prohairesios—since that man died before he did—and they record that he uttered something of this kind about Salamis and the Medes: “O Marathon and Salamis, now you are silenced! What kind of a trumpet of your trophies have you lost!” He left behind him two sons who were devoted to luxury and wealth.”

Καὶ Διόφαντος ἦν μὲν ἐξ Ἀραβίας, καὶ εἰς τοὺς τεχνικοὺς ἐβιάζετο· ἡ δὲ αὐτὴ δόξα τῶν ἀνθρώπων Προαιρεσίῳ κἀκεῖνον ἀντήγειρεν, ὡσεὶ Καλλίμαχον Ὁμήρῳ τις ἀναστήσειεν. ἀλλ᾿ ἐγέλα ταῦτα ὁ Προαιρέσιος, καὶ τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ὅ τι εἰσὶν ἐν διατριβῆς εἶχεν μέρει. τοῦτον ἐγίγνωσκεν ὁ συγγραφεύς, καὶ ἠκροάσατό γε πολλάκις δημοσίᾳ λέγοντος. παραθεῖναι δὲ τῇ γραφῇ τῶν λεχθέντων καὶ μνημονευθέντων οὐδὲν ἐδόκει καλῶς ἔχειν· μνήμη γάρ ἐστιν ἀξιολόγων ἀνδρῶν, οὐ χλευασμός, ἡ γραφή. ἀλλ᾿ ὅμως ἐπιτάφιόν γε εἰπεῖν τινα τοῦ Προαιρεσίου λέγεται (προαπῆλθε γὰρ ὁ Προαιρέσιος), καί τι τοιοῦτον ἐπιφθέγξασθαι διαμνημονεύουσιν ἐπὶ τῇ Σαλαμῖνι καὶ τοῖς Μηδικοῖς· “ὦ Μαραθὼν καὶ Σαλαμίν, νῦν σεσίγησθε. οἵαν σάλπιγγα τῶν ὑμετέρων τροπαίων ἀπολωλέκατε.” οὗτος ἀπέλιπε δύο παῖδας ἐπὶ τρυφὴν καὶ πλοῦτον ὁρμήσαντας.

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‘Initial B: David Playing the Harp for Saul and David and Goliath’ J. Paul Getty Museum

December Debates: Should We Accept Gifts from Bad People?

Seneca, De Beneficiis 1.14

“Indeed, I think that we should not look for an advantage from any person whose public esteem is low. Why? Shouldn’t what Claudius offered have been accepted? It should have been, but just as something given by chance which you know might immediately turn bad.

Why do we distinguish between these two instances just combined? A gift is not beneficial when its best part is missing—when it is given because of high esteem. A lot of money, if it is not given rightly or freely, is no more beneficial than a warehouse. There are many gifts which should be accepted but create no obligations.”

Ego vero nullius puto expetendum esse beneficium, cuius vile iudicium est. Quid ergo? Non erat accipiendum a Claudio, quod dabatur? Erat, sed sicut a fortuna, quam scires posse statim malam fieri. Quid ista inter se mixta dividimus? Non est beneficium, cui deest pars optima, datum esse iudicio: alioqui pecunia ingens, si non ratione nec recta voluntate donata est, non magis beneficium est quam thesaurus. Multa sunt autem, quae oportet accipere nec debere.

 

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Bishop Engilmar Celebrating Mass, benedictional, Regensburg, about 1030-40

Silver For Gold: Strategic Gift Exchange for the Holiday Season

Julian, Letter 63 (To Hecebolus)

“…but the story is from ancient men. If, then, I were to give to you silver as swap of equal worth when you sent me gold, do not value the favor less nor, as Glaukos did, believe that the exchange is harmful, since not even Diomedes would switch silver armor for gold since the former is much more practical than the latter in the way of lead that is shaped for the ends of spears.

I am joking with you! I have assumed a certain freedom of speech based on the example you have written yourself. But, if in truth you want to send me gifts worth more than gold, write and don’t ever stop writing to me! For even a brief note from you is more dear to me than anything someone else might consider good.”

ἀλλὰ παλαιῶν ἀνδρῶν ὁ λόγος ἐστίν. εἰ δέ σοι τοῦ πεμφθέντος ὑπὸ σοῦ χρυσοῦ νομίσματος εἰς τὸ ἴσον τῆς τιμῆς ἕτερον ἀργύρεον ἀντιδίδομεν, μὴ κρίνῃς ἥττω τὴν χάριν, μηδὲ ὥσπερ τῷ Γλαύκῳ πρὸς τὸ ἔλαττον οἰηθῇς εἶναι τὴν ἀντίδοσιν, ἐπεὶ μηδὲ ὁ Διομήδης ἴσως ἀργυρᾶ χρυσῶν ἀντέδωκεν ἄν,1 ἅτε δὴ πολλῷ τῶν ἑτέρων ὄντα χρησιμώτερα καὶ τὰς αἰχμὰς οἱονεὶ μολίβδου δίκην ἐκτρέπειν εἰδότα. ταῦτά σοι προσπαίζομεν, ἀφ᾿ ὧν αὐτὸς γράφεις τὸ ἐνδόσιμον εἰς σὲ τῆς παρρησίας λαμβάνοντες. σὺ δὲ εἰ τῷ ὄντι χρυσοῦ τιμιώτερα ἡμῖν δῶρα ἐθέλεις ἐκπέμπειν, γράφε, καὶ μὴ λῆγε συνεχῶς τοῦτο πράττων· ἐμοὶ γὰρ καὶ γράμμα παρὰ σοῦ μικρὸν ὅτου περ ἂν εἴπῃ τις ἀγαθοῦ κάλλιον εἶναι κρίνεται.

Who knew that the popular Christmas song was inspired by Julian the Apostate?

Julian is referring to the famous scene of exchange between Diomedes and Glaukos in the Iliad (6.230-236)

“Let’s exchange armor with one another so that even these people
May know that we claim to be guest-friends from our fathers’ lines.”

So they spoke and leapt down from their horses,
Took one another’s hands and made their pledge.
Then Kronos’s son Zeus stole away Glaukos’ wits,
For he traded to Diomedes golden arms in exchange for bronze,
weapons worth one hundred oxen traded for those worth nine.”

τεύχεα δ’ ἀλλήλοις ἐπαμείψομεν, ὄφρα καὶ οἷδε
γνῶσιν ὅτι ξεῖνοι πατρώϊοι εὐχόμεθ’ εἶναι.
῝Ως ἄρα φωνήσαντε καθ’ ἵππων ἀΐξαντε
χεῖράς τ’ ἀλλήλων λαβέτην καὶ πιστώσαντο·
ἔνθ’ αὖτε Γλαύκῳ Κρονίδης φρένας ἐξέλετο Ζεύς,
ὃς πρὸς Τυδεΐδην Διομήδεα τεύχε’ ἄμειβε
χρύσεα χαλκείων, ἑκατόμβοι’ ἐννεαβοίων.

Schol. ad. Il. 6.234b ex.

“Kronos’ son Zeus took Glaukos’ wits away”. Because he was adorning him among his allies with more conspicuous weapons. Or, because they were made by Hephaistos. Or, as Pios claims, so that [the poet?] might amplify the Greek since they do not make an equal exchange—a thing which would be sweet to the audience.

Or, perhaps he credits him more, that he was adorned with conspicuous arms among his own and his allies. For, wherever these arms are, it is a likely place for an enemy attack.”

ex. ἔνθ’ αὖτε Γλαύκῳ <Κρονίδης> φρένας ἐξέλετο: ὅτι κατὰ τῶν συμμάχων ἐκόσμει λαμπροτέροις αὐτὸν ὅπλοις. ἢ ὡς ῾Ηφαιστότευκτα. ἢ, ὡς Πῖος (fr. 2 H.), ἵνα κἀν τούτῳ αὐξήσῃ τὸν ῞Ελληνα μὴ ἐξ ἴσου ἀπηλ<λ>αγμένον, ὅπερ ἡδὺ τοῖς ἀκούουσιν. T
ἢ μᾶλλον αἰτιᾶται αὐτόν, ὅτι λαμπροῖς ὅπλοις ἐκοσμεῖτο κατὰ ἑαυτοῦ καὶ τῶν συμμάχων· ὅπου γὰρ ταῦτα, εὔκαιρος ἡ τῶν πολεμίων ὁρμή. b(BE3E4)

I always thought that Glaukos got a raw deal from interpreters here. Prior to the stories Diomedes and Glaukos tell each other, Diomedes was just murdering everyone in his path. Glaukos—who already knew who Diomedes was before he addressed him—tells a great tale, gives Diomedes his golden weapons, and actually lives to the end of the poem. I think this is far from a witless move. And, if the armor is especially conspicuous, maybe the plan-within-a-plan is to put a golden target on Diomedes’ back.

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Advice on Buying Gifts from Seneca

Seneca, De Beneficiis 1.11-12

“Let’s imagine what might be worth the greatest pleasure after it has been given—what would greet the recipient’s eye frequently and make him think of us whenever he sees it. Each time let us be wary not to send useless gifts, such as hunting implements to a woman or an old man, books to a simpleton or fishing nets to someone dedicated to literature. However, we should be equally mindful that, although we want to send welcome gifts, we do not send things which will reprove someone for a failing, such as sending wine to a drunk or medicine to a healthy man. For something which uncovers a fault in the recipient turns out to be an insult not a gift.

If the choice of the gift is our choice, we should think especially of things which will endure, that the gift may last as long as possible. For there are truly few people so grateful that they will think about what they have received when they do not see it. But memory revives for the ungrateful with the gift itself when it is in front of them and it will not allow them to be forgetful. And we should seek gifts which endure even more for the fact that we ought not to ever remind people: let the things themselves prompt a fading memory.

I will give silver which is sculpted rather than money and I give statues more freely than clothing or things which will deteriorate after brief use. Gratitude lasts among few longer than the objects themselves. Greater is the number among whom gifts remain in mind no longer than they are in use. So I, if it is possible, do not want my gift to be used up. Let it last, let it stick fast to my friend. Let it live alongside him.”

Videamus, quid oblatum maxime voluptati futurum sit, quid frequenter occursurum habenti, ut totiens nobiscum quotiens cum illo sit. Utique cavebimus, ne munera supervacua mittamus, ut feminae aut seni arma venatoria, ut rustico libros, ut studiis ac litteris dedito retia. Aeque ex contrario circumspiciemus,ne, dum grata mittere volumus, suum cuique morbum exprobratura mittamus, sicut ebrioso vina et valetudinario medicamenta. Maledictum enim incipit esse, non munus, in quo vitium accipientis adgnoscitur.

Si arbitrium dandi penes nos est, praecipue mansura quaeremus, ut quam minime mortale munus sit. Pauci enim sunt tam grati, ut, quid acceperint, etiam si non vident, cogitent. Ingratos quoque memoria cum ipso munere incurrit, ubi ante oculos est et oblivisci sui non sinit, sed auctorem suum ingerit et inculcat. Eo quidem magis duratura quaeramus, quia numquam admonere debemus; ipsa res evanescentem memoriam excitet. Libentius donabo argentum factum quam signatum; libentius statuas quam vestem et quod usus brevis deterat. Apud paucos post rem manet gratia; plures sunt, apud quos non diutius in animo sunt donata, quam in usu. Ego, si fieri potest, consumi munus meum nolo; extet, haereat amico meo, convivat.

 

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Food, Love, and Horace

It was just over ten years ago that I first the door of a garish green building on the outskirts of San Antonio’s Medical Center. I hate this part of town, but I was after that day to be drawn back to it countless times as the spot became a central point in the geography of my physical and emotional world. I entered into a dimly-lit dining room, an enveloping fold of hot, garlic-infused air, through which were conveyed the sounds of Indian pop music. There was the buffet, which promised unlimited sensual delight in exchange for ten dollars and a willingness to wallow in one’s own crapulence for hours afterward. This was Bombay Hall.

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My girlfriend at that time one decade ago was craving Indian food, and whether by chance or by fate, we chose this place. We were promptly seated at one of the tables whose glass tops served as frames for the glamorous posters of Indian pop and film stars. Early in the meal, I began coughing violently. One of the two owners, who was to become a familiar face over the subsequent period of my life, mistook this as an amateur’s response to spicy food (to which I am no stranger), and offered me a sugar packet to cut the heat. It seemed that it would be churlish in the face of such generosity to save face by noting that I was simply choking and not overwhelmed by the curry, so I obligingly consumed the sugar packet which had been so kindly proffered. We enjoyed our meal thoroughly, and though I did not stay in touch with my partner in that first excursion, the memory of that meal left an indelible mark upon my heart which our relationship never did.

After receiving the news that Bombay Hall had been closed, I began to engage in that most salutary of human activities: nostalgic retrospective. In the course of this, I could see through the roseate lenses of my retrospectacles that almost everyone who matters most to me in life had been there at Bombay Hall with me.

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This small and unassuming Indian restaurant has an emotional resonance for me which no other place can even approximate. Bombay Hall was the site of the last meal that I shared with my father. It was here that Joel used to bring his students for a celebratory lunch following final exams; in the early days of our collaboration, he used to invite me to these lunches, where I saw what it meant for a teacher to be a member of a real community and not simply an extension of bureaucratic power. My brother and I made something of a ritual out of much-too-frequent visits to what we affectionately called ‘B-Hall.’ One month, I was aghast to see that after a month in which I made twenty visits there, I had spent over $400 in addition to the physical and psychic toll of my postprandial discomfort. One year, my sole contribution to Thanksgiving dinner was a large order of samosas, which introduced the rest of my family to B-Hall’s gustatory siren song.

Joel once observed that, though it was not the best food one could get, it was always consistently excellent and delivered with a certain comforting familiarity. Yet, as much as I remember and still crave the food itself, it is the personal element which makes it my all-time favorite restaurant. My lunches with Joel and dinners with my brother are tokens of the love I feel for the people who have meant most to me in life, and somehow these disparate experiences are linked together in the physical space of one dining room. Just over four years ago, I was accepted to a graduate program, and knew that I would be leaving this city behind. No one laments the loss of the buildings, the roads, or the city government. I wept when I thought of the people whom I would leave behind, consigned for the foreseeable future to the department of memory and correspondence – and then I took my brother to B-Hall.

I could have left the city, but a job offer here combined with my own anxiety about the oft-discussed disappointments of post-graduate life brought me to do something which I now (from the comfortable perch of relative economic security) cannot believe: I turned down my dream of graduate study, and stayed here.

I received a text from my brother last night indicating that Bombay Hall was permanently closed. This came as the greatest shock to me, in part because it had always seemed to be a perennial institution, and perhaps even more so because I had dreamt about just such a calamity the night before. Had I left the city, the possibility of returning and reforging the old link would have still remained. Had I been gone, I don’t think that B-Hall’s closing would have affected me so from a distance. Yet, now that it is closed, that physical link has slipped away forever in the devouring sands of time. To be sure, other rituals and other spaces may give continuity and connection to my emotional life, but they can never do what B-Hall did: Joel is now gone, my brother and I have far less free time than before, and the heady air of romance and excitement of my early 20’s could never be duplicated and imprinted upon a physical spot. Leaving B-Hall, I always felt that my stomach would explode, but the discomfort would invariably subside – now, my heart is bursting with these happy memories of times and experiences which are just as lost to me as is each bite of the food I ate there.

“As we speak, hateful time will have escaped us.”

Dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas

We teach Horace to kids, but perhaps it’s true that one can only truly appreciate him in middle age and beyond. I knew my Horace then, and could readily explain in an abstract way the importance of seizing the day, but it is only the sense of loss – the day which is gone whether seized or not – which gives one a real appreciation of just how sad our happiness can make us.

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Reading for Deep Erudition

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1.20):

“I have imposed this penance upon the lady, neither out of wantonness nor cruelty; but from the best of motives; and therefore shall make her no apology for it when she returns back:—’Tis to rebuke a vicious taste, which has crept into thousands besides herself,—of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart with them—The mind should be accustomed to make wise reflections, and draw curious conclusions as it goes along; the habitude of which made Pliny the younger affirm, ‘That he never read a book so bad, but he drew some profit from it.’ The stories of Greece and Rome, run over without this turn and application,—do less service, I affirm it, than the history of Parismus and Parismenus, or of the Seven Champions of England, read with it.”

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Science and Humanity

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I was tempted to begin my response to this question by saying that this debate has been raging for some time, but in reality it is a debate which very much belongs exclusively to the 20th and 21st centuries. Throughout much of intellectual history, students and scholars demonstrated an admirable inclination to polymathy which is hard to recreate in an age of academic hyperspecialization and unwieldy disciplinary expansion. If it seemed that someone like Descartes or Newton knew about everything, it bears remembering that the sum total of digestible human knowledge was at that time much smaller. Yet, though many brilliant people throughout history have expressed preferences for particular fields of study, I cannot recall an instance in which they bragged about the difficulty of one branch of study over others as a peculiar form of merit. Yet, for all of that, I cannot remember a time in my own life when students and even professionals did not debate the relative ‘difficulty’ of different modes of study, usually with an eye to justifying their own choice of college major or career. One may in these discussions be inclined to conclude that life is but a latrine, so prevalent are its pissing contests.

In antiquity, philosophers freely traversed a range of topics from mathematics to rhetoric, and saw no conflict in feeling ardent enthusiasm for and dedicating substantial intellectual resources to several wholly disparate modes of study. Many, at least as far back as Gibbon, date the decline of learning in the west to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Yet a more sensitive analysis may suggest that the decline of learning in the west can be attributed to the cultural values of the Romans themselves. Their own hard-headed emphasis on instrumentalized learning left little room for the free-wheeling intellectual play which was more congenial to the Greeks. I teach Latin professionally, and I love Latin literature, but I would be hard pressed to think of much Latin that I actually enjoy reading outside of the standard Golden/Silver age syllabus packers and the literature of the Renaissance. To be sure, Rome’s physical and political dominion in the Mediterranean lasted for centuries, but the period during which Roman intellectual life flourished is embarrassingly small, and even the most ardent enthusiast for Latin literature would have to concede that Rome’s literary fame rests upon a canon far less diverse and protracted through time than that of Greece.

All of this is by way of suggesting that narrowly utilitarian education is excellent only in generating maximal utility, but it is likely to have a stultifying effect on the intellect more generally. The argument about whether STEM[1] disciplines are ‘harder’ than those in the humanities may be taken at face value as a simple attempt to extend the old urinary range, but underlying the claim that STEM fields are harder lurks the implicit claim that STEM fields are more worthy than the humanities. Worse still, the value accorded to STEM fields has a transitive effect: the STEM student, in light of the instrumental value which they are expected to produce for employers, is also more worthy as a citizen than the humanities student. Some people who cannot even draw a convincing stick figure are inclined to dismiss art degrees as idle self-indulgence, as though the artist does not work hard or even suffer inward torment for their craft. The psychic cost of a day at the canvas is surely as great as the psychic cost of a day in the lab. Yet, while the day in the lab may well produce something of value for the boardroom or the Pentagon, the day in front of the canvas is more likely than not to produce something which, in helping us to engage with and question our humanity, tends to be slightly subversive.

One could always find ways to make life harder for oneself. Even if it were possible to rank fields of study by reference to their difficulty, it would be a fundamentally useless exercise. To be sure, physics can be hard – but what about those who study physics and Greek? What if art and music were then added on top of it? One could endlessly add intellectual and creative pursuits to the schedule, and this would make life more difficult, but is there any value in difficulty qua difficulty? Labor saving devices have been developed precisely because humans are, as a rule, averse to imposed difficulties, though they are perfectly willing to take on difficult tasks as a part of the agonistic striving for superiority against their fellows. In this sense, the debate over academic difficulty is just an extension of our darkest desires for power, and the irresistible urge to validate ourselves as defined against others. In the brutal battle to subvert others and proclaim your own superiority, you must hope that you had enough to drink.

[1] I should note that I despise the acronym ‘STEM’, since it strikes me as an underhanded attempt on the part of industrial, corporate, and government interests to co-opt science and mathematics as a part of gadgets and gizmos production. The scientists and mathematicians I have met have been full of wonder and curiosity about the world, but I have met few engineers who were not wholly inconsiderate people focused exclusively on instrumentalization and utility.

The Tyranny of Ancient Thought

Few questions have as much staying power and contemporary relevance as those concerning the best form of governance, and few political assassinations have exercised as many minds as the slaying of Caesar. In 1400, Antonio of Aquila asked Coluccio Salutati whether he thought that Brutus and Cassius were traitors for slaying Caesar. The question possessed some immediate literary importance to both of these men, given that Florence’s poetic hero Dante had seen fit to punish Brutus and Cassius in the very inner circle of Hell. In the tradition of the times, Salutati composed a lengthy epistolary response to Antonio, beginning with an elaborately florid Florentine preface, followed by a carefully delineated set of topics: the definition of a tyrant, justifications for tyrannicide, whether Caesar was a tyrant, whether Caesar’s murder was justified, and (most important for the pedant) did Dante make the right choice in placing Brutus and Cassius in Hell? There is also an awkward appendix designed to answer the question whether Aeneas and Antenor were traitors to Troy, a question which Antonio had posed along with the apparently more salient one about Caesar’s murder.

Salutati’s tackles the definitional question in the initial section titled What Is a Tyrant and from What  is the Name Derived? by engaging in some amateur etymologizing. Salutati’s own etymologizing may not reflect the standard of scholarship achieved by men like Lorenzo Valla, but he does cite St. Gregory for what is effectively the proper definition of a tyrant:

“A tyrant is, properly speaking, one who reigns in a communal republic by something other than right.”

Proprie enim tyrannus dicitur qui in communi re publica non iure principatur.

Salutati cites Gregory again, this time displaying a Tacitean cynicism about human motives. In effect, Gregory believes that everyone is a tyrant in their own sphere, and will naturally seek to exercise as much power as they can:

“But we must recognize that every haughty person exercises tyranny in their own particular way. One person is the tyrant of a province, another of a city, another in his own house, and yet another – on account of his worthlessness – simply exercises tyranny in his mind. God is not concerned with how much evil someone can perpetrate, but only with how much they wish to perpetrate. When he is lacking causal power in the world, the tyrant is by himself, and his iniquity reigns supreme inside; because, even if he cannot afflict his neighbors outwardly, he yet harbors inwardly the desire to be able to afflict them.”

“Sed sciendum quia omnis superbus iuxta modum proprium tyrannidem exercet. Nam nonnumquam alius in provincia, alius in civitate, alius in domo propria, alius per latentem nequitiam hoc exercet apud se in cogitatione sua. Nec intuetur deus quantum quisque mali valeat facere, sed quantum velit. Et cum deest potestas foris, apud se tyrannus est, cui iniquitas dominatur intus; quia, et si exterius non affligat proximos, intrinsecus tamen habere potestatem appetit ut affligat.”

This line of thought, cited approvingly by Florentines during the Renaissance, was still popular centuries later and half a world away. Benjamin Rush, writing to John Adams, claimed that “Rulers become tyrants and butchers from instinct much oftener than from imitation.” Rome, Florence, and America are linked not only by their republican governments, but also by the cynical fear which served as the intellectual and emotional foundation of those republics. The generalized fear that any one person given sufficient latitude and power would subjugate the entire population to his will is often cited as the primary motivation for maintaining a republican (but not democratic) form of government.

Moving from his definition of tyranny to the question of tyrannicide, Salutati makes the general claim that because an individual would be justified in slaying another for violating his right to personal property, so too must it be lawful to slay one who invades the state, which is the property of all. Like Plato before him, Salutati engages himself in the pleasing error of confusing and conflating the individual and the state for the purpose of ethical reasoning.

Moral reasoning on classical principles would not be complete without the citation of ancient exempla, but Salutati makes a puzzling choice in his exemplum for justifying tyrannicide: the murder of Tiberius Gracchus. Through a curious inversion, Salutati reasons that Scipio Nasica was right to goad on the murder of Gracchus, a tribune of the people, because he was supposed by some sources to be aspiring to regal power. Salutati has let his own aristocratic bias overcome the apparently republican or demotic tone of an essay against tyranny, and has adopted the viewpoint of ancient aristocrats who likely saw Gracchus as a dangerous instrument of what they (or in modern times, someone like Mitch McConnell) would dismiss as “mob rule”.

But perhaps this is the problem with any republic – it is simply aristocracy under the guise of popular government. Perhaps that thin veneer of demotic sovereignty is just the political form of bread and circuses. When someone in America complains that the government is doing a poor job of representing the popular will, they are commonly treated to a curt civics lesson intended to remind them that this is a republic, not a democracy. Caesar was not killed for infringing the liberties of ‘the people’ more generally. Rather, in monopolizing power within the Roman state, Caesar offended the pride of other aristocrats who were denied access to the political power and prestige which they regarded as their rights. It is fashionable to dismiss the Augustan “restoration of the Republic” as a cynical PR sham, but (however much it may have later devolved into outright despotism) it is not clear that the reign of one man within a broadly constitutional framework differed substantially from the reign of a handful of traditional aristocratic families. Regardless of party, even America’s political elite are drawn almost exclusively from a class defined not by family lineage, but by access to one of a few prestigious universities (usually their law schools) which serve as bastions of privilege and entry points into the world of real and efficacious power within the political and corporate system. (This problem of elite “choke points” in the course of the rat race is similarly prevalent in academia.)

The third portion of Salutati’s essay, taken up with whether or not Caesar could be considered a tyrant, relies heavily on Cicero, whom Salutati affectionately refers to throughout as “our Cicero.” This is not wholly surprising, given that Cicero supplies the best contemporary documentary evidence for the period. Moreover, Cicero possessed for men like Salutati a kind of unparalleled authority, as is clear from the affectionate use of noster, “our” Cicero. Despite the fact that Cicero famously exulted over Caesar’s death, Salutati cites a number of Cicero’s letters and writings to prove, wholly on Cicero’s testimony, that Caesar was not a tyrant, but a popularly chosen (if supremely powerful) magistrate.

“Anyone who looks through Cicero’s writings diligently will find far greater praise than detraction of Caesar.”

Qui diligenter ipsius scripta perspexerit longe maiores Caesaris laudes invenerit quam detractiones.

Salutati rather naively or disingenuously takes the confirmation of Caesar’s political acts and appointments following his death as proof that even his enemies did not regard him as a tyrant. This may appear on the face of it to be mere idle fatuity on Salutati’s part, but he draws out a salient point: the conspirators objected to the man and the wounds which he inflicted upon their pride more than they objected to his political program.

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.” Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

In his dialogue with Cicero, Salutati argues that Caesar’s dictatorship was the logical and inevitable outcome of decades of simmering civil war. He then claims that Sulla’s dictatorship, though bloody, was nevertheless a stabilizing force for the Republic. At this point, it begins to seem that Salutati’s strongman theory of government depends in no small part on minute hair splitting about what exactly constitutes tyranny. Indeed, Sulla’s military seizure of the state, whether or not it was in crisis, is a perfect example of what the Greeks meant by tyranny.

Though Salutati and other Renaissance thinkers did much to throw off the shackles of scholasticism, some of the medieval schoolroom still stuck to his mind. He upbraids Cicero for forgetting his Aristotle. Salutati is only able to argue against an ancient authority by citing an even older and more august ancient authority. It is on this Aristotelian basis that Salutati makes his most appalling and dangerous claim: that nature herself fashioned some to rule and others to serve. As almost invariably happens, Greek political philosophy is being used to advocate for a reactionary aristocracy.

Salutati’s essay combines two of the most dangerous modes of classical reception and engagement: the practice of reasoning through uncritical dependence on historical exempla, and the citation of ancient philosophers as final intellectual authorities. Aristotle here represents the tyranny of auctoritas. The Enlightenment may have bequeathed to modernity its own set of intellectual horrors and stumbling blocks, but at least it helped to free the mind from this stifling tyranny of authority. As supporters of the classics, we should fear the prospect of lapsing back into this mode of reception. Indeed, the period in which classical learning suffered the most was not the 20th century decline classics courses in high schools and universities. Rather, it was the period of medieval scholasticism during which classical learning became ossified and inert – an instrument for justifying institutionalized power, a cudgel to be wielded against those without access to it.

Classical learning exhibits the most vitality when it is actively engaged – soaked in and fully digested, yes, but also thoroughly interrogated and wrangled with. Salutati attempts this kind of interrogation in his argument written directly against Cicero, but he fails in that he is only able to cite authority against authority. (If medieval and early Renaissance thought were a card game like Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon, the Plato and Aristotle cards would be so wildly overpowered as to render the game wholly unbalanced.)

Some readers of On the Tyrant have been surprised, perplexed, or disappointed with Salutati’s reasoning, perhaps especially with his ardent support for political strongmen. This is apparently at variance with his more general belief in republican government, but his thoughts on tyranny may seem less surprising when we consider more carefully the ways in which tyranny and republican government are not wholly dissimilar. If we understand a tyrant to be one who governs without securing popular consent, might this definition not clearly apply to a president who attained office without winning the popular vote? Is that not a form of constitutionally institutionalized tyranny? Any political or social thought which is not informed by but rather based upon ancient thinkers is bound to be reactionary and aristocratic, because this is what survives: endless talk of “liberty” but a generalized paranoia about both monarchic rule on one hand and democratic power on the other. The ancient partiality for “balance” and “moderation” – that peculiar fetish for the golden mean, the aurea mediocritas which certainly has a tendency to foster mediocrity – suggested strongly to ancient thinkers and their successors that aristocratic republics were the sensible middle ground between the monarch and the mob. Salutati concludes that Dante was right to place Brutus and Cassius in the deepest pit of hell – but now we’re the ones who are suffering.

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Splendid Ignorance

Ulrich Von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, History of Classical Scholarship (trans. Hugh Lloyd-Jones):

“Lachmann, by common consent, was already the greatest living master of textual criticism in the domain of early German literature, where his immortality is assured, and his Berlin friends appealed to him to deal with such exceptionally difficult texts as those of Gaius and the Agrimensores. He acquitted himself well, but the verdict of Mommsen, who once called him ‘the great master of language’ was: ‘His emendations are splendid – if only he had known something about the subject!’”

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