Ignoring the Yoke on Our Necks

Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.11

“You see how much care comes from a slave to the highest of the gods. From whence comes such a great and vain loathing for slaves, as though they did not stem from and receive their nourishment from the same elements as you, and as though they did not draw the same breath from the same source? Would you think about those whom you call slaves – that they, born from the same seed, enjoy the same sky, and live and die just as you? They are slaves, you say? No, they are people! They are slaves, you say? No, they are fellow slaves, if you would but consider that Fortune may employ the same license against you as it does against them. You can see him free just as soon as he might see you a slave. Do you not know at what age Hecuba, Croesus, the mother of Darius, Diogenes, and even Plato himself all began to be slaves? Finally, why do we fear the name of slavery?

Sure, he’s a slave – but by compulsion, and perhaps he is a slave with a free soul. This will harm him, if you can show who is not a slave. One person may serve desire, another avarice, another ambition – all of us are slaves to hope, all of us are slaves to fear. And to be sure, there is no slavery more abject than slavery which we have chosen for ourselves. But here we trample underfoot a man lying under the yoke which Fortune has thrown upon him as though he were wretched and worthless, yet we do not allow the yoke which we have accepted for ourselves to be criticized.”

Servitus Carnis (1610/20 - Engraving) - Egbert van Panderen

Vides, quanta de servo ad deorum summum cura pervenerit. Tibi autem unde in servos tantum et tam inane fastidium, quasi non ex isdem tibi et constent et alantur elementis eundemque spiritum ab eodem principio carpant? Vis tu cogitare eos quos ius tuum vocas isdem seminibus ortos eodem frui caelo, aeque vivere aeque mori? Servi sunt? immo homines. Servi sunt? immo conservi, si cogitaveris tantundem in utrosque licere fortunae. Tam tu illum videre liberum potes, quam ille te servum. Nescis, qua aetate Hecuba servire coeperit, qua Croesus, qua Darei mater, qua Diogenes, qua Plato ipse?  Postremo quid ita nomen servitutis horremus? Servus est quidem: sed necessitate, sed fortasse libero animo servus est. Hoc illi nocebit, si ostenderis quis non sit. Alius libidini servit, alius avaritiae, alius ambitioni, omnes spei, omnes timori. Et certe nulla servitus turpior quam voluntaria. At nos iugo a fortuna inposito subiacentem tamquam miserum vilemque calcamus: quod vero nos nostris cervicibus inserimus non patimur reprehendi.

For the Love of…A Goose?

Everyone has heard about Leda and the swan. But have you heard about Amphilokhos and his gift-giving goose?

Aelian, De Natura Animalium 5.29

“In Aigion, in Akhaia, a goose was in love with a handsome boy, an Ôlenian named Amphilokhos. Theophrastus tells this story. The boy was under guard with the Olenian exiles in Aigion—there, the goose used to bring him gifts. In Khios, too, there was an especially beautiful woman named Glaukê, a harp player, and many men lusted after her—which is nothing big. But a ram and a goose loved her too, as I have heard.”

Ἐν Αἰγίῳ τῆς Ἀχαίας ὡραίου παιδός, Ὠλενίου τὸ γένος, ὄνομα Ἀμφιλόχου, ἤρα χήν. Θεόφραστος λέγει τοῦτο. σὺν τοῖς Ὠλενίων δὲ φυγάσιν ἐφρουρεῖτο ἐν Αἰγίῳ ὁ παῖς. οὐκοῦν ὁ χὴν αὐτῷ δῶρα ἔφερε. καὶ ἐν Χίῳ Γλαύκης τῆς κιθαρῳδοῦ ὡραιοτάτης οὔσης εἰ μὲν ἤρων ἄνθρωποι, μέγα οὐδέπω· ἠράσθησαν δὲ καὶ κριὸς καὶ χήν, ὡς ἀκούω, τῆς αὐτῆς.

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Italian Hours: Notes on Venice

Henry James, Italian Hours 

The Grand Canal:

“Venetian life, in the large old sense, has long since come to an end, and the essential present character of the most melancholy of cities resides simply in its being the most beautiful of tombs. Nowhere else has the past been laid to rest with such tenderness, such a sadness of resignation and remembrance. Nowhere else is the present so alien, so discontinuous, so like a crowd in a cemetery without garlands for the graves.”

“However, we ourselves are looking away from St. Mark’s—we must blind our eyes to that dazzle; without it indeed there are brightnesses and fascinations enough. We see them in abundance even while we look away from the shady steps of the Salute. These steps are cool in the morning, yet I don’t know that I can justify my excessive fondness for them any better than I can explain a hundred of the other vague infatuations with which  Venice sophisticates the spirit. Under such an influence fortunately one need n’t explain—it keeps account of nothing but perceptions and affections.”


Venice: An Early Impression

“The charm of certain vacant grassy spaces, in Italy, overfrowned by masses of brickwork that are honeycombed by the suns of centuries, is something that I hereby renounce once for all the attempt to express; but you may be sure that whenever I mention such a spot enchantment lurks in it.”

“You get from Tintoret’s work the impression that he felt, pictorially, the great, beautiful, terrible spectacle of human life very much as Shakespeare felt it poetically—with a heart that never ceased to beat a passionate accompaniment to every stroke of his brush. Thanks to this fact his works are signally grave, and their almost universal and rapidly increasing decay doesn’t relieve their gloom. Nothing indeed can well be sadder than the great collection of Tintorets at San Rocco. Incurable blackness is settling fast upon all of them, and they frown at you across the sombre splendour of their great chambers like gaunt twilight phantoms of pictures. To our children’s children Tintoret, as things are going, can be hardly more than a name; and such of them as shall miss the tragic beauty, already so dimmed and stained, of the great “Bearing of the Cross” in that temple of his spirit will live and die without knowing the largest eloquence of art.”

“There are other things in Verona to make it a liberal education to be born there, though that it is one for the contemporary Veronese I don’t pretend to say. The Tombs of the Scaligers, with their soaring pinnacles, their high-poised canopies, their exquisite refinement and concentration of the Gothic idea, I can’t profess, even after much worshipful gazing, to have fully comprehended and enjoyed.”

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John Singer Sargent, “San Giuseppe di Castello, Venice”

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 World’s Saddest Book: A Review

No book, ancient or modern, serves as an apt comparison to Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, a literary monster which not only defies summary or explanation, but is also nearly impossible to read in a traditional sense. There are two viable methods for approaching Burton’s work: one (and this is perhaps the sane and sensible method) involves simply flipping it open from time to time and perusing it for anything of interest. You may open to a random page; you may consult the index; you may find your way into this literary labyrinth anyway you like, knowing that you may extract yourself any time at your leisure. The other method – sure to induce melancholy, if you were not already in its grip – is to make the heroic effort to plough through the book from cover to cover. I have tried both methods over the years, yet I found myself wholly unable to make substantial headway on it. This literary mass, this rudis indigestaque moles has been beckoning me for years, and so – being a wholly unreasonable person – I committed to setting myself about the plough, and for the past ten days have devoted all of my reading time to Burton. In one sense, I have spent a week and a half reading one book; in another, I have spent a week and a half reading everything that Burton ever read, at least in summary format. Burton himself freely acknowledges that his work is likely to cause a certain amount of cognitive and spiritual strain: “After a harsh and unpleasing discourse of melancholy, which hath hitherto molested your patience, and tired the author…” []

The Anatomy of Melancholy is a reader’s book, a writer’s book, a scholar’s book. Though I suspect that the material contained between its rather distantly-spaced covers is sufficiently broad that any reader would, perusing it long enough, find something which addressed their interests, it nevertheless remains true that the true bookworm – the helluo librorum – is the reader most likely to appreciate Burton’s approach. Burton is, through and through, a reader. There are moments at which his prose is worked up rather nicely (in particular in the lengthy prefatory section Democritus to the Reader), but substantial chunks of the book are little more than quotations or (what is still more frustrating now that many of Burton’s sources are not only out of print but perhaps even lost entirely) bare citations of works in rapid succession. These do not make for the most enlivening reading, especially if the book has begun to tax your mental stamina. Samuel Johnson famously claimed of The Anatomy of Melancholy that it was the only book which compelled him to wake up two hours early every morning to read it. Given Johnson’s own confession to reading books in an unsystematic and discursive way, in conjunction with his advice against reading a book for which you do not feel an immediate inclination, I suspect that Johnson went in for the purple passages more than anything.

On the topic of Johnson, it appears that the expression given to his aversion to nautical travel in Boswell’s Life may owe something to his reading of Burton. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, we read, “What is a ship but a prison?” [Part] Johnson, according to Boswell, claimed, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” To be sure, the parallel may be purely coincidental, but approaching Burton after having read through Boswell’s Life three times, I felt in some ill-defined way a continuity from Burton’s thought to Johnson’s.

Johnson’s primary criticism of the book, that “It is, perhaps, overloaded with quotation,” hits on exactly that part of the work which is most likely to trouble modern readers, while simultaneously being one of the work’s primary charms. Johnson’s assertion that “there is great spirit and great power in what Burton says, when he writes from his own mind,” seems true enough, but Burton’s original writing constitutes only a small portion of the total unwieldy mass of the book.

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And here it is that it becomes clear that the book’s primary appeal will be to other bookish types: there is something undeniably fascinating about the amount which Burton read, digested, and organized. He seems less a man than a machine. The book is divided into three overarching partitions, each of which is meticulously divided into sections, membra, subsections, and so on. This is all organized in that hyper systematized mode which was very much the fashi in the 17th century. The quotations are not simply a disordered mass; each of them is specifically and intentionally marshalled to illustrate some particular point. Burton has translated many of the Greek quotations into Latin, and has occasionally either modified the Latin quotations or slipped when citing them from memory.

No one could doubt the man’s Classical attainments, yet it is his general approach toward Classical quotation which fascinated me. Burton was the true polymath, and gathered together ancient, Medieval, and contemporary sources without explicitly or consciously discriminating between them. Burton’s polymathy cuts across time and disciplines, and the panoptic view of all subjects within The Anatomy reminds us just how silly the rigorous demarcation of intellectual disciplines can be. Burton had an admirable command of Classical literature which would shame many a Classicist today. One could use his book as a “crammer” for many of the most famous and well-loved of Classical references and quotations, and if it were not so hard, it could serve as a Classical education in miniature. But The Anatomy shares something in common with another monstrous work of English prose: Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. When reading Gibbon, one must already be thoroughly steeped in ancient and medieval history and geography to fully appreciate much of the narrative. Similarly, much of The Anatomy is best appreciated if you have at least some grounding in Latin, and the Classical quotations are perhaps best appreciated when you recognize them, even if you find that you are no longer able to place them immediately.

Burton’s book is not simply a storehouse of quotation, but when asked what I was reading, I found that I had considerable difficulty describing the book, as it defies any attempt at non-pretentious summary. “You see, it is a book about everything and nothing…” Perhaps the simplest way to describe it is as a loose collection of about five or six thoughts on various topics, which are qualified by 1,200 pages of footnotes. Or perhaps it makes more sense to say that The Anatomy is a highly-systematized commonplace book, in which Burton occasionally adds commentary in his own voice. It contains little of what could be deemed original thought, yet it is very much sui generis and feels far more creative than it should.

The Anatomy is also Burton’s autobiography. He is the archetypal umbraticus doctor [cloistered pedant], who has lived his life ass to chair, elbows to desk, eyes to codex. He freely admits to having done nothing beyond study. Indeed, though he expatiates at some length on the topic of love, and adopts a rather polemical tone toward travel writers (claiming that he would set all of their geography straight if he had undertaken their voyages), he freely admits that he has never sampled from the gardens of Venus or ventured far beyond the library. Despite that apparent limitation, he bestrides the world of learning like a colossus, and seems to have become a man of the world without experience.

Burton does not always quote uncritically, and on occasion shows touches of a more progressive, humanistic understanding. In the early pages of his third partition, dealing with melancholy brought on by love, we read page after page of distilled misogyny from ancient to contemporary sources, focusing chiefly with what are perceived to be the manifest dangers and deformities of women. Yet, after collecting all of this together, Burton asks the reader not to impute misogyny to him – he claims that he is a mere compiler, and invites the reader to substitute “him” for “her” in all of his quoted passages, arguing that they would all be equally true with pronouns replaced, as reminders of how degraded all of humanity really is. But Burton certainly lapses into the prejudices of his time and place in the final portion of his book, in which he cites a heap of anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-Muslim sources in his discussion of Religious Melancholy. The third partition is in many ways the least enjoyable, in part because it gives us a more reactionary, more ossified, more myopic and narrowly prejudicial Burton than the humorous cynic whom we encounter in the first. Our scholar is on far firmer footing when discussing such subjects as The Miseries of Scholars than when wading into the pangs of despised love, and in general his commentary on books reads far better than his commentary on life itself.

Ultimately, it is hard to determine how to approach and read The Anatomy. At times, the entire project seems like a ridiculous satire of itself, a monument to the absurdity not only of bookish learning, but of the whole of life. Burton wrote the book to work through his own melancholy, and yet, after well over 1,000 pages of modern text, no real progress seems to have been made toward understanding or treating it, even in a strictly theoretical way. It is as though Burton, in the character of Democritus Junior, winks at us from the pages and says, “Behold, dear reader, how I have wasted my life. Read this book, and know that yours has been wasted too.”

The Anatomy of Melancholy is torture to read from cover to cover, but it is exquisite torture, not without its gratifications. I confess that I feel that it took something from me to finish it all. Yet, having finished a cover-to-cover reading, I look forward to enjoying it for the rest of my life by flipping through it at random for scraps of erudition and delight. It is a wholly incomparable book, an entire liberal education in and of itself; and though it may actually induce melancholy or madness in the reader, no literary experience will ever rival this stupendous monument to the wonder, the thrill, and the vanity of scholarship.

Monstrous Monday: Another Horror to Fear from Antiquity

Paradoxographus Vaticanus 2

2 “Daliôn says in the first book of his Ethiopian Matters that there is an animal in Ethiopia called a krokotta. When that creature goes near backyards it hears people chattering, and especially the words/names of children. But when it goes out at night, it speaks words/names and the children who come out are devoured by it”

Δαλίων φησίν, ἐν τῇ πρώτῃ τῶν Αἰθιοπικῶν ἐν τῇ Αἰθιοπίᾳ θηρίον γίνεσθαι κροκότταν καλούμενον· τοῦτο ἐρχόμενον πρὸς τὰς ἐπαύλεις κατακούειν τῶν λαλουμένων, καὶ μάλιστα τὰ ὀνόματα τῶν παιδίων. νυκτὸς δὲ ἐρχόμενον λαλεῖ τὰ ὀνόματα καὶ ἐξερχόμενα τὰ παιδία καταβιβρώσκονται ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ.

Photios adds the following horror:

“[We should note the fact that] there is a creature in Ethiopia which is named krokottas which is like a combination of wolf and a dog, but it is more savage than both and is heavier in its face and at the end of its feet. It is also amazing for its boldness, and it is extremely capable compared to the rest in its teeth and its belly. For they also tear to pieces easily every type of bone and whatever they take up is consumed easily and their digestion is indescribable. In addition, while some of them have been described as imitating human language, we don’t believe it. Nevertheless, some have added that they call out people by name at night—and that they try to use a human voice in doing this—and then they gobble up whoever comes out as they fall upon them.”

     ῞Οτι ὁ κατὰ τὴν Αἰθιοπίαν ὀνομαζόμενος κροκόττας ἐστὶ μὲν ὡς ἐκ λύκου καὶ κυνὸς σύνθετον, ἀμφοῖν δὲ ἀγριώτερον καὶ πολλῷ βαρύτερον ἀπό τε τοῦ προσώπου καὶ τῶν ἄκρων ποδῶν, ἀλκῇ δὲ θαυμαστόν, ὀδοῦσι δὲ καὶ κοιλίᾳ δυνατώτατον τῶν ἄλλων. Καὶ γὰρ κατάγνυσιν εὐπόρως πᾶν ὀστοῦ γένος, καὶ τὸ διαιρεθὲν εὐθέως δεδαπάνηται, καὶ περὶ τὰς πέψεις ἀδιήγητον. Τοῦτο δὲ καὶ μιμεῖσθαί τινες τὴν ἀνθρωπίνην διάλεκτον διηγούμενοι ἡμᾶς μὲν οὐ πείθουσιν· ἐκεῖνοι δὲ καὶ τοῦτο προστιθέασιν, ὡς καὶ ἐξ ὀνόματος κατὰ τὰς νύκτας καλοῦντες, τοὺς δὲ ὡς ἐπ’ ἀνθρώπου φωνῇ προσιόντας, οἱ δὲ ἀθρόον ἐπεισπίπτοντες κατεσθίουσιν.

The crocotta shows up elsewhere as well (Pliny, Aelian, etc).

In Defense of Obscenity

Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo

“I will fuck you guys in the ass and make you suck my cock…”

So Catullus begins his infamous sixteenth poem, which may stand scrutiny to this day as the most terse and elegant defense of aesthetic obscenity ever penned. The general purport of the poem is this: Two censorious critics, Furius and Aurelius, have upbraided Catullus for the lascivious nature of his verses. Catullus responds by playfully bandying about obscene threats, and notes that “it is fitting that a poet be chaste, but his verses need not be so,” adding further that they are rendered all the more charming by their very obscenity. Catullus urges us not to be blockheads or amateur readers – he urges us to separate the author from his work.

Surely, this is a sentiment which even modern readers can readily appreciate. Stern Catos, begone! The Culture Wars may still rage on in this country, but the warm embrace offered by Evangelicals and other cultural conservatives in America to a man who resembles a rotten apricot, oozing the putrescent slime of every 1980’s porn fantasy, suggests that they never cared about culture (or at any rate, certainly not about prurience or obscenity) in the first place. As so often happens, a prudish and censorious attitude has served as little more than a pose taken to lend a veneer of moral respectability to the overarching project of gaining power over the human body. Thus, ostensibly conservative critics may in fact feel very little cognitive dissonance between their stated views on the morality of explicitly sexual content in art and their support of a man so eager to commit sexual violence.

One might think that, of all subjects, ancient literature would surely have little to do with this moral and intellectual conflict. Many people whom I meet are surprised that anyone still reads ancient texts at all, and seem wholly unaware of the fact that many of the texts which are deemed ‘canonical’ contain substantial amounts of material ranging from the moderately raunchy to the most blatant smut. Young students of the Classics are often wholly taken aback when they are first exposed to the more prurient side of ancient literature. I recall entertaining a vague notion in those benighted days of my youth that Greek and Latin poetry were lofty and elevated, sublime and beautiful. And so they can be. Yet, there is also a certain artistry in the perfectly executed bawdy joke or sexual epigram. You may consider tossing out Aristotle and Longinus, because Martial – an actual poet – has given us the final word on poetics:

“Cornelius, you complain that I write poems which are not serious enough, and which a teacher would not read in school: but my poems, just like a husband with his wife, cannot please without a penis.”

Versus scribere me parum seueros
nec quos praelegat in schola magister,
Corneli, quereris: sed hi libelli,
tamquam coniugibus suis mariti,
non possunt sine mentula placere.

[Martial, 1.35]

Poems which a teacher would not read in school? If this was true in Martial’s time, how much more perilous is it in an age still influenced by the dark vestiges of our Puritan past? I would not dare to let my students read Catullus 16 or indeed any of my favorite ribald and raunchy writings of antiquity because I would, if at all possible, like to remain employed. And yet, I know that exposure to such poems was one of my most thrilling intellectual experiences as an undergraduate. And yet, I know that these students already hear far worse in their various entertainments. And yet, it is absurd to pretend that there is something fundamentally wrong or immoral about obscenity, whether it simply be puerile bathroom humor, or prurient sexual jokes. Indeed, I conjecture that obscenity ought to be introduced to the young as alcohol should – under guidance and supervision, to ensure the development of respectful and responsible use. We have all known the friend in college who, upon first letting the sweet gift of Bacchus touch their lips, was then wholly unable to enjoy alcohol temperately. Yet, we also know those who learned a sense of discretion and moderation by being taught how to drink. Similarly, if our cultural critics have noticed a descent into base, crass, immoderate obscenity, it may be because the subject is never discussed with our children in any reasonable or intellectualized light; it is, rather, entirely forbidden to them, until they expose themselves to the cheap and pre-fabricated obscenity available everywhere. Martial understood that a form of refined and polite obscenity was characteristic of the urbane and educated reader:

“You who are too stern a reader can go away now; I have written this for the sophisticated Roman.”

Qui gravis es nimium, potes hinc jam, lector, abire
quo libet: urbanae scripsimus ista togae [11.16]

Classics, like many Humanist disciplines, is steeped in the old Arnoldian tradition of citing the appeal of “sweetness and light” as a potential reward for countless laborious hours of nasal-codical union. Gentle reader, I invite you to recall your own mindset as a teenager, and consider whether loftiness and sublimity would have been appealing enough to goad you on to writing out declension charts; surely, conjugation would have proved far more interesting. I would not have students exposed to a constant barrage of obscenity, but given how much of the surviving corpus of ancient literature contains at least some prurient material, I would submit that we should avoid the opposite extreme exemplified by Fordyce’s “school friendly” edition of Catullus, which omitted 32 poems from the already exiguous collection of surviving work.

My students regularly ask whether I will teach them some “Latin swear words,” but I am forced to fall back upon the old expedient of telling them that they will simply have to comb through the dictionary if they want them. Perhaps there is some pedagogical merit in this – I remember scouring Webster’s Dictionary in third grade for the word boobs, which, as I reflect upon it, seems to have become a piece of wholly outmoded slang. Yet such, such were the joys! Though my nascent curiosity regarding sexual matters was hardly gratified by this memorable ramble through the groves of lexicography, I do recall adding to my store of knowledge an avian species and a variant word for ‘fool.’ This could hardly compensate for my disappointment at the time, hoping as I did that a definition bearing more upon mammaries would be attended by an illuminating illustration, but I suppose in retrospect that the experience was, on the whole, educational. Prurient interest here functions much like the honey which Lucretius likens to his verse – a sweetener to make the medicine less bitter. Nurses

“First encircle the rim of the cup with the sweet and tawny nectar of honey…”

prius oras pocula circum
contingunt mellis dulci flavoque liquore

[de Rerum Natura, 1.937-8]

Primarily on the basis of its infamous Nausikaa episode, James Joyce’s Ulysses was for some time banned in this country on the basis of its “obscenity.” To be sure, people were then, just as now, still masturbating, shitting, and fucking, but it all seemed somehow indecent to read about those things. The standard applied here was the Hicklin Test, which defined obscenity as anything which tended “to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.” Though it would no doubt appear otherwise to cultural conservatives, I am highly suspicious of the notion that art and literature more generally are capable of exerting a corrupting influence on the mind or morals, and would fall back upon a variant of the Catullan defense: just as one ought not confuse authors with their works, so too one ought not to suppose that “you are what you read.”

Granting the premise that exposure to obscenity might alter our characters, I would submit that it does so for the better. How many literary and artistic geniuses have dallied with filth? How many prurient censors have contributed anything meaninful to human civilization? Conjectural etymology suggests that Latin obscenus is derived from caenum, “filth.” Is filth not just as much a part of our human experience as the loftiness and sublimity of duty, honor, love, etc.? Cicero once wrote of Cato that he “gives his opinion as though he lives in Plato’s Republic, not in the shit-heap of Romulus.” [dicit enim tamquam in Platonis πολιτείᾳ , non tamquam in Romuli faece sententiam, ad Atticum 2.1.8]. I would side with Joyce over John Sumner, with Catullus over Cato, and with all of those who readily embrace the full range of human experience over those who would willfully ignore such an important and entertaining part of human life.

“Lucretia blushed and set aside my book in front of Brutus. But Brutus, go away – she will read it again!”

Erubuit posuitque meum Lucretia librum,
sed coram Bruto; Brute,recede: leget.

[Martial, 11.16]

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If You’re Sad and Have the Urge, Eat Hellebore and Take a Purge!

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy:

“Black hellebore, that most renowned plant, and famous purger of melancholy, which all antiquity so much used and admired, was first found out by Melanpodius a shepherd, as Pliny records, lib. 25. cap. 5 who, seeing it to purge his goats when they raved, practised it upon Elige and Calene, King Praetus’ daughters, that ruled in Arcadia, near the fountain Clitorius, and restored them to their former health. In Hippocrates’s time it was in only request, insomuch that he writ a book of it, a fragment of which remains yet.


Cornelius Celsus only remaining of the old Latins, lib. 3. cap. 23, extol and admire this excellent plant; and it was generally so much esteemed of the ancients for this disease amongst the rest, that they sent all such as were crazed, or that doted, to the Anticyrae, or to Phocis in Achaia, to be purged, where this plant was in abundance to be had. In Strabo’s time it was an ordinary voyage, Naviget Anticyras [let him sail to Anticyra]; a common proverb among the Greeks and Latins, to bid a dizzard or a mad man go take hellebore; as in Lucian, Menippus to Tantalus, Tantale desipis, helleboro epoto tibi opus est, eoque sane meraco, thou art out of thy little wit, O Tantalus, and must needs drink hellebore, and that without mixture. Aristophanes in Vespis, drink hellebore, &c. and Harpax in the Comoedian, told Simo and Ballio, two doting fellows, that they had need to be purged with this plant. When that proud Menacrates ὀ ζεὺς, had writ an arrogant letter to Philip of Macedon, he sent back no other answer but this, Consulo tibi ut ad Anticyram te conferas [I advise you to go to Anticyra], noting thereby that he was crazed, atque ellebore indigere, had much need of a good purge.”


The Greeks Were Poetic Thieves (or, Clement Doesn’t Get Poetry)

Clement of Alexandria was an early church father who wrote a book of miscellany entitled the Stromata (“turnings”). In book 6, he takes on Greek plagiarism.

Clement of Alexandria, Stromata book 6.2 (Go here for a full translation of this masterpiece)

“Come on, let us put forth the Greeks as witnesses against themselves for their theft. For when they steal their material from one another they show that they are thieves and they illustrate, even if unwillingly, how they secretly expropriate the truth from us to their own tribes. If they do not spare themselves, they will hardly spare us.

I will not mention the beliefs of philosophers, since they all agree  in writing—lest they appear ungrateful—that they have gathered the precepts of their beliefs from those that hold the greatest authority through Socrates.

Once I have offered a few testimonies of the authors most famous and most frequented among the greats and I have unveiled their thieving ways—and after I have done this through a few periods—I will turn to what remains.”

After Orpheus wrote “There is nothing more doglike and frightening than a woman” and Homer wrote in the same way “there is nothing more dreadful and doglike than a woman”. After Musaios wrote “Since craft is much better than strength”, Homer wrote “the woodcutter is much better by wit than by force”.

Again, after Musaios wrote:

In the same way that the fertile field grows plants,
Some fall from the ash-trees and in turn others grow.
So too the tribe and race of man twists and turns.

And then Homer wrote later

The wind makes some leaves fall to the ground and tree
Blooms and grows others, when the spring’s season comes
That’s the way it is with the race of men: one grows, another dies.

And after Homer said: “It ain’t right to boast over men who have been killed.” Arkhilokhos and Kratinos said, “it is not noble to brag over men who have died.”

φέρε μάρτυρας τῆς κλοπῆς αὐτοὺς καθ’ ἑαυτῶν παραστήσωμεν τοὺς ῞Ελληνας· οἱ γὰρ τὰ οἰκεῖα οὕτως ἄντικρυς παρ’ ἀλλήλων ὑφαιρούμενοι βεβαιοῦσι μὲν τὸ κλέπται εἶναι, σφετερίζεσθαι δ’ ὅμως καὶ ἄκοντες τὴν παρ’ ἡμῶν ἀλήθειαν εἰς τοὺς
ὁμοφύλους λάθρᾳ διαδείκνυνται. οἱ γὰρ μηδὲ ἑαυτῶν, σχολῇ γ’ ἂν τῶν ἡμετέρων ἀφέξονται. καὶ τὰ μὲν κατὰ φιλοσοφίαν σιωπήσομαι δόγματα, αὐτῶν ὁμολογούντων ἐγγράφως τῶν τὰς αἱρέσεις διανεμομένων, ὡς μὴ ἀχάριστοι ἐλεγχθεῖεν, παρὰ Σωκράτους εἰληφέναι τὰ κυριώτατα τῶν δογμάτων. ὀλίγοις δὲ τῶν καθωμιλημένων καὶ παρὰ τοῖς ῞Ελλησιν εὐδοκίμων ἀνδρῶν χρησάμενος μαρτυρίοις, τὸ κλεπτικὸν διελέγξας εἶδος αὐτῶν, ἀδιαφόρως τοῖς χρόνοις καταχρώμενος, ἐπὶ τὰ ἑξῆς τρέψομαι.

᾿Ορφέως τοίνυν ποιήσαντος·
ὣς οὐ κύντερον ἦν καὶ ῥίγιον ἄλλο γυναικός,
῞Ομηρος ἄντικρυς λέγει·
ὣς οὐκ αἰνότερον καὶ κύντερον ἄλλο γυναικός.
Γράψαντός τε Μουσαίου·
ὡς αἰεὶ τέχνη μέγ’ ἀμείνων ἰσχύος ἐστίν,
῞Ομηρος λέγει
μήτι τοι δρυτόμος περιγίνεται ἠὲ βίηφι.


Πάλιν τοῦ Μουσαίου ποιήσαντος·
ὡς δ’ αὔτως καὶ φύλλα φύει ζείδωρος ἄρουρα·
ἄλλα μὲν ἐν μελίῃσιν ἀποφθίνει, ἄλλα δὲ φύει·
ὣς δὲ καὶ ἀνθρώπων γενεὴν καὶ φῦλον ἑλίσσει.
῞Ομηρος μεταγράφει·
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ’ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ’ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ’ ἐπιγίνεται ὥρη·
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει, ἣ δ’ ἀπολήγει.
Πάλιν δ’ αὖ ῾Ομήρου εἰπόντος·
οὐχ ὁσίη κταμένοισιν ἐπ’ ἀνδράσιν εὐχετάασθαι,
᾿Αρχίλοχός τε καὶ Κρατῖνος γράφουσιν, ὃ μέν·
οὐ γὰρ ἐσθλὰ κατθανοῦσι κερτομεῖν ἐπ’ ἀνδράσιν,
Κρατῖνος δὲ ἐν τοῖς Λάκωσι·
φοβερὸν ἀνθρώποις τόδ’ αὖ,
κταμένοις ἐπ’ αἰζηοῖσι[ν] καυχᾶσθαι μέγα.
Αὖθίς τε ὁ ᾿Αρχίλοχος τὸ ῾Ομηρικὸν ἐκεῖνο μεταφέρων·
ἀασάμην, οὐδ’ αὐτὸς ἀναίνομαι· ἀντί νυ πολλῶν, ὧδέ πως γράφει·
ἤμβλακον, καί πού τινα ἄλλον ἥδ’ ἄτη κιχήσατο·

Well Enough to Read, Well Enough to Write?

A few more passages from Seneca on reading and writing, following up on Seneca’s injunction to alternate between the two.

Moral Epistle 45

“You complain that there’s a lack of books where you are. It is not how many books, but how many good ones you have that makes a difference. A short reading list has advantages; variety brings entertainment. One who reaches his desired place should follow one path and not go roam over many. This is not to travel, but to wander.”

Librorum istic inopiam esse quereris. Non refert, quam multos, sed quam bonos habeas; lectio certa prodest, varia delectat. Qui, quo destinavit, pervenire vult, unam sequatur viam, non per multas vagetur. Non ire istuc, sed errare est.

Moral Epistle 83

“Today has been whole: no one has stolen any part at all from me. The whole day was spent in reading and rest. There was a little bit given to exercise. For this nominal amount, I give thanks to old age. It is not a big deal for me: as soon as I have moved, I am tired.”

Hodiernus dies solidus est; nemo ex illo quicquam mihi eripuit. Totus inter stratum lectionemque divisus est. Minimum exercitationi corporis datum, et hoc nomine ago gratias senectuti: non magno mihi constat; cum me movi, lassus sum

Moral Epistle 65

“Yesterday I spent the day in poor health: it occupied me until noon. After noon, it gave in to me. So, first, I tested my mind with reading. Then, when I handled this, I dared to push myself, or perhaps indulge myself, more: I wrote something…”

Hesternum diem divisi cum mala valetudine; antemeridianum illa sibi vindicavit, postmeridiano mihi cessit. Itaque lectione primum temptavi animum. Deinde cum hanc recepisset, plus illi imperare ausus sum, immo permittere; aliquid scripsi

Hybrid eagle, holding open book | Book of Hours | France, Paris | ca. 1420-1425 | The Morgan Library & Museum

Hybrid eagle, holding open book | Book of Hours | France, Paris | ca. 1420-1425 | The Morgan Library & Museum

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