“Cancel-Culture” is Unfair to Philosophy!

Lucian, The Dead Come to Life, 32

“Hey Philosophy, this was especially striking to me: if people saw someone doing something wicked or improper, or just gross, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t blame Philosophy herself and then Chrysippos or Plato or Pythagoras or whatever name you gave to that person who started all the mistakes and whose arguments were being imitated.

People make terribly unfair judgments about you who have been dead for so long thanks to this guy living his life so badly! He can’t be compared to you because you’re not alive. But you were not there and they all saw him clearly pursuing terrible and unholy habits with the result that you were caught in the open with him and got wrapped up in the same slander!”

Ὃ δὲ μάλιστά μοι δεινόν, ὦ Φιλοσοφία, κατεφαίνετο, τοῦτο ἦν· οἱ γὰρ ἄνθρωποι εἴ τινα τούτων ἑώρων πονηρὸν ἢ ἄσχημον ἢ ἀσελγές τι ἐπιτηδεύοντα, οὐκ ἔστιν ὅστις οὐ Φιλοσοφίαν αὐτὴν ᾐτιᾶτο καὶ τὸν Χρύσιππον εὐθὺς ἢ Πλάτωνα ἢ Πυθαγόραν ἢ ὅτου ἐπώνυμον αὑτὸν ὁ διαμαρτάνων ἐκεῖνος ἐποιεῖτο καὶ οὗ τοὺς λόγους ἐμιμεῖτο· καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ κακῶς βιοῦντος πονηρὰ περὶ ὑμῶν εἴκαζον τῶν πρὸ πολλοῦ τεθνηκότων· οὐ γὰρ παρὰ ζῶντας ὑμᾶς ἡ ἐξέτασις αὐτοῦ ἐγίγνετο, ἀλλ᾿ ὑμεῖς μὲν ἐκποδών, ἐκεῖνον δὲ ἑώρων σαφῶς ἅπαντες δεινὰ καὶ ἄσεμνα ἐπιτηδεύοντα, ὥστε ἐρήμην ἡλίσκεσθε μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐπὶ τὴν ὁμοίαν διαβολὴν συγκατεσπᾶσθε.’’

“Hell” by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch

Polysymphony: Interpreting and Translating Homer

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Orchards and Trees, using them as a metaphor to think about he development of Homeric poetry and its promulgation. Metaphors, of course, are not the things themselves! While one comparison can help us see a truth of a thing, several can help us get a better understanding of the things day-to-day language and thinking have trouble grasping.

The metaphor of the tree is at its core, a visual one. It may call to mind things and how we use them (ships and wood) or roots and branches, as in the stemmata of textual traditions. Homeric poems developed in a song culture, an aural landscape. Aural memory and oral performance inspire different qualia. And it is difficult–if not mistaken–to try to transfer an aural understanding to a visual one. As Epicurus observes, our senses do not translate from one domain to another. What does it mean to feel a smell?

Venetus A - Wikipedia

So, try this one now.  Imagine a supremely complex symphony: as you listen, melodies rise and fall over time, movements come and go and they return again, sometimes changed, sometimes syncopated, sometimes just an echo of what they once were. But some three or four note sequences are more insistent than othersthey press through the sound and are emphasized first by this instrument and then by those.

Early 16th-century manuscript in mensural notation, containing a Kyrie by J. Barbireau. I have always been jealous of the talented musicians who can ‘see’ songs

The problem is that there are many of these sequences and some repeat intensely only to be lost and never to return, while others burst back through the rising wall of music to take over when they are least expected.

The music is beautiful but terrifyingly hard to follow: when you pause, however briefly, you realize you’ve been listening to one line of song when there were three or four others going on at the same time.  It is hard to start again because you don’t want to lose track of the one you just heard. But you are already thinking about that brief gasp of song that escaped you.

The 16 thousand lines of the Iliad and 12 thousand lines of the Odyssey are like 24 and 20 hours of polyphonic music, played by musicians in separate rooms who can’t really hear each other but are somehow working in concert. The audience stands someplace apart. If we relax and let the composition fall over us, we can get some idea of the whole. But when we listen closely, we can get lost in the depth of each passing strain. 

This is how I explain why it is so hard to translate epic or even to interpret it well. Each line has melodies full of resonant meaning that echo differently based on who you are and what you’ve heard before. When someone tells you the Iliad is about this or the Odyssey is about that they are following one repeated series of notes for their movement and resolution, and necessarily leaving others aside.

The total density of the soundscape of the poems and the generations of meaning’s potential within them makes them impossible to understand or explain in ‘real time’. When I hear someone talking about what epic means, sometimes it is like hearing a different poem talked about altogether. I have been listening to other movements, contemplating different themes.

The individual lines of Homer break into three units—segments scholars from Milman Parry and Albert Lord to John Miles Foley and Egbert Bakker have seen as units of composition (intonation units) or what we might even think of as ‘measures’. The ‘formulae’ are repeated patterns in a bounded soundscape. They are not simple building blocks, they are merely the observable repetitions of a system with clear limits: words and rhythm are part of the form of expression, not something imposed upon it.

We make meaning differently based on our sensory inputs and our cultures of performance and reception. There’s a strange prejudice Walter Ong identifies (explored more by Foley too) that visual cultures and literary productions are in some way more sophisticated and elaborate in both creation and reception than others. This ‘primitive’ pose is an outcropping of colonialism, yes, but it is also a simple observer bias. Even literary Greeks like Aristotle saw ‘writers’ in Homer where he should have found song.

Oral-formulaic theory helps break down our own cultural prejudices by revealing what is instrumentally possible for composition in performance. This is on the side of production; theories like J. M. Foley’s “traditional referentialtiy” or Barbara Graziosi’s and Johannes Haubold’s “resonance”. Each in part also draws on reader response theory, centering how audiences hear and respond to poems. If we try, we can intellectually grasp how intricate songs emerge in performance and how audiences dynamically receive them.

From Song to Translations

All this leaves aside how the epics moved from living song to the fossils we piece together on the page. This runs through the problems of performance, text, and reperformance. I emphasize song and aurality here because Homeric epic developed and flourished outside the constraints of a page. When a translator or interpreter tries to make sense of what they see on the page, it is like a conductor looking at a score for a symphony written in a different system of notation with many sections unclear.

The role of some instruments is left undesignated; some sounds cannot be made anymore; and some sequences just don’t make sense to a modern ear. As Casey Dué notes, Greg Nagy proposes a movement from performance, to transcript, to script, to scripture in the stabilization of the narrative: a translator has to move backward through these stages, yet abandon none

Because of the polyphony of Greek epic it is charged with meaning: the lines of song exist through time and carry many meanings at once. A translator listens to the whole song as it echoes and picks the melodies that ring strongest now.

Each of us is to an extent a translator of Homer and those of us who read the Greek but teach in another language are constantly moving from one domain to another. If Homer is a langue each of us has our own Homeric parole. In my first semester teaching as a professor, I gave a full lecture on the mythic, even Iliadic “plan of Zeus” (Dios d’eteleieto boulê), going so far as to have the students recite the line in the Greek. At the end of the class, a kind and forgiving student came up to me and said, “that was really cool, but there’s no plan of Zeus in my Iliad.”

I had assigned Stanley Lombardo’s fine translation. He writes about “Zeus’ Will” (as many others do). I hadn’t checked the translation and sounded as if I were speaking of a poem none of the students had read.

The way we each create our own Homer is in part why I have such trouble reading any version other than the Greek. This is why for even the best translations the fairest reaction is to crib from Richard Bentley’s response to Pope’s Iliad:  “a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” Here’s another quick example of this danger from Emily Wilson’s successful Odyssey translation.

Let’s start with my simple translations and the Greek. In the Odyssey’s proem, the narrator says of Odysseus:

“But he didn’t save his companions even though he wanted to.
They perished because of their own recklessness”
The fools! They ate up the cattle of Hyperion’s son Helios
And he deprived them of their homecoming day.”

ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς ἑτάρους ἐρρύσατο, ἱέμενός περ·
αὐτῶν γὰρ σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὄλοντο,
νήπιοι, οἳ κατὰ βοῦς ῾Υπερίονος ᾿Ηελίοιο
ἤσθιον· αὐτὰρ ὁ τοῖσιν ἀφείλετο νόστιμον ἦμαρ.

The line σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν (their own recklessness/stupidity) echoes through the poem as a theme that connects Odysseus’ companions, the suitors, and the hero too.

It comes again a mere 20 lines later as Zeus complains

“Friends, how mortals are always blaming the gods!
They say that evils come from us. But they themselves
Have pain beyond their fate because of their own recklessness.
So now Aigisthus too [suffered] beyond his fate…”

“ὢ πόποι, οἷον δή νυ θεοὺς βροτοὶ αἰτιόωνται.
ἐξ ἡμέων γάρ φασι κάκ’ ἔμμεναι· οἱ δὲ καὶ αὐτοὶ
σφῇσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὑπὲρ μόρον ἄλγε’ ἔχουσιν,
ὡς καὶ νῦν Αἴγισθος ὑπὲρ μόρον ᾿Ατρεΐδαο

This is one of those four-note sequences, a melody earlier scholars would have called a formula that follows, indexes and guides the interpretation of the poem. When I read/teach the Odyssey I point to these passages as inviting us to see the world and its actors in a particular frame

In Wilson’s translation, σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν disappears from the proem altogether, yielding the following.

“…He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
They ate the Sun God’s Cattle, and the god
Kept them from home…”

And soon after, σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν is rendered simply as “By folly.”

“This is absurd,
That mortals blame the gods They say we cause
Their suffering, but they themselves increase it
By folly. So Aegisthus overstepped:”

These choices limit the repetition and play down the theme of responsibility and recklessness that is central to the poem (from my reading). “Folly’ also disambiguates the complexity of atasthalia, which evokes foolishness, rashness, arrogance, and blindness. Of course, this is not an oversight Wilson commits alone: Lombardo translates the first example as “recklessness” and the second as “witlessness”

To be clear, Wilson and Lombardo have to make some choices; no language conveys the same semantic ambiguities of another. Translators perform hermeneutic magic, moving things from one realm to another.  Some moments dazzle, others are imperfect illusions.

This takes us  back to the symphony played in separate rooms heard only in parts. When people ask me why Homer is different, I sputter about its bigness and depth and land on the layers and power. Like translation itself, analogy and metaphor only take us so far.

 

There are several works cited above, but for the atasthalia theme see my recent Many Minded Man or these better books:

Erwin Cook, The Odyssey in Athens. 1995. passim.

Egbert Bakker The Meaning of Meat. 2013. 96–119

Writing Advice from Demetrius: Leave Some Details Out!

Demetrius, On Style  222

“Believability resides in these things, then, as in what Theophrastus says, that you should not go through everything in precise detail, but instead leave some things out for your audience to imagine and to figure out for themselves. This is because when someone imagines what you have left out, they turn out to be not only your audience but your witness too and becomes more favorably disposed for this reason.

For, thanks to you, he seems to be intelligent through your action, since you have provided him the chance to show his intelligence. Telling an audience everything as if they are stupid makes it seem like you think they are.”

(222) ἐν τούτοις τε οὖν τὸ πιθανόν, καὶ ἐν ᾧ Θεόφραστός φησιν, ὅτι οὐ πάντα ἐπ᾿ ἀκριβείας δεῖ μακρηγορεῖν, ἀλλ᾿ ἔνια καταλιπεῖν καὶ τῷ ἀκροατῇ συνιέναι καὶ λογίζεσθαι ἐξ αὑτοῦ· συνεὶς γὰρ τὸ ἐλλειφθὲν ὑπὸ σοῦ οὐκ ἀκροατὴς μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ μάρτυς σου γίνεται, καὶ ἅμα εὐμενέστερος. συνετὸς γὰρ ἑαυτῷ δοκεῖ διὰ σὲ τὸν ἀφορμὴν παρεσχηκότα αὐτῷ τοῦ συνιέναι, τὸ δὲ πάντα ὡς ἀνοήτῳ λέγειν καταγινώσκοντι ἔοικεν τοῦ ἀκροατοῦ.

Image result for medieval manuscript reading aloud
Image from Here

Writing Advice from Demetrius: Leave Some Details Out!

Demetrius, On Style  222

“Believability resides in these things, then, as in what Theophrastus says, that you should not go through everything in precise detail, but instead leave some things out for your audience to imagine and to figure out for themselves. This is because when someone imagines what you have left out, they turn out to be not only your audience but your witness too and becomes more favorably disposed for this reason.

For, thanks to you, he seems to be intelligent through your action, since you have provided him the chance to show his intelligence. Telling an audience everything as if they are stupid makes it seem like you think they are.”

(222) ἐν τούτοις τε οὖν τὸ πιθανόν, καὶ ἐν ᾧ Θεόφραστός φησιν, ὅτι οὐ πάντα ἐπ᾿ ἀκριβείας δεῖ μακρηγορεῖν, ἀλλ᾿ ἔνια καταλιπεῖν καὶ τῷ ἀκροατῇ συνιέναι καὶ λογίζεσθαι ἐξ αὑτοῦ· συνεὶς γὰρ τὸ ἐλλειφθὲν ὑπὸ σοῦ οὐκ ἀκροατὴς μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ μάρτυς σου γίνεται, καὶ ἅμα εὐμενέστερος. συνετὸς γὰρ ἑαυτῷ δοκεῖ διὰ σὲ τὸν ἀφορμὴν παρεσχηκότα αὐτῷ τοῦ συνιέναι, τὸ δὲ πάντα ὡς ἀνοήτῳ λέγειν καταγινώσκοντι ἔοικεν τοῦ ἀκροατοῦ.

Image result for medieval manuscript reading aloud
Image from Here

Terence on His Haters

Terence, The Woman of Andros Prologue 15-23

“These people attack the poem and deny
That it is proper to ruin stories in this way.
But aren’t they showing that they understand nothing in being so clever?
When they criticize me, they accuse Naevius, Plautus and Ennius,
Those authorities I hold as my my own,
Since it is better to take their negligence as a model
Than to copy the pedantic diligence of those fools.
I warn them to be quiet from now on and stop
Talking shit unless they want to own up to their own failings.”

id isti vituperant factum atque in eo disputant
contaminari non decere fabulas.
faciuntne intellegendo ut nil intellegant?
qui quom hunc accusant, Naevium, Plautum, Ennium
accusant, quos hic noster auctores habet,
quorum aemulari exoptat neglegentiam
potius quam istorum obscuram diligentiam.
dehinc ut quiescant porro moneo et desinant
maledicere, malefacta ne noscant sua.

 

No, Virginia…There is No Tragic Flaw

Aristotle, Poetics 1452e34-1453a9

“Since it is right that the structure of the best tragedy not be simple but be complex instead and evoking both fearful and pitiful emotions—for that is the particular power of this kind of artistic representation—as an initial principle, it is clear that decent men should not be  be shown undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune, for that is repugnant rather than pitiful or fearful. And it is also not right for depraved people to enjoy a change from bad fortune to good fortune, because that is the least tragic notion of all and has none of the necessary qualities. Such a plot does not create empathy and fails to produce pity or fear.

[Tragedy] should also not show an especially bad person falling from good fortune to bad—for this might engender empathy but without pity or fear since the first is felt for someone who is unworthy of bad fortune and the second is for someone who is similar [to us] (pity is for someone unworthy of suffering; fear is for someone like us suffering). The response to [a wicked person] falling is not pitiful or fearful. What remains [for tragedy] is the person in between. A person like this is not impeccable in terms of justice nor for his wickedness and evil, but he falls into misfortune because of some kind of mistake. This kind of person is from those well-known families, like Oedipus or Thyestes.”

γον, ἐφεξῆς ἂν εἴη λεκτέον τοῖς νῦν εἰρημένοις. ἐπειδὴ οὖν δεῖ τὴν σύνθεσιν εἶναι τῆς καλλίστης τραγῳδίας μὴ ἁπλῆν ἀλλὰ πεπλεγμένην καὶ ταύτην φοβερῶν καὶ ἐλεεινῶν εἶναι μιμητικήν (τοῦτο γὰρ ἴδιον τῆς τοιαύτης μιμήσεώς ἐστιν), πρῶτον μὲν δῆλον ὅτι οὔτε τοὺς ἐπιεικεῖς ἄνδρας δεῖ μεταβάλλοντας φαίνεσθαι ἐξ εὐτυχίας εἰς δυστυχίαν, οὐ γὰρ φοβερὸν οὐδὲ ἐλεεινὸν τοῦτο ἀλλὰ μιαρόν ἐστιν· οὔτε τοὺς μοχθηροὺς ἐξ ἀτυχίας εἰς εὐτυχίαν, ἀτραγῳδότατον γὰρ τοῦτ’ ἐστὶ πάντων, οὐδὲν γὰρ ἔχει ὧν δεῖ, οὔτε γὰρ φιλάνθρωπον οὔτε ἐλεεινὸν οὔτε φοβερόν ἐστιν· οὐδ’ αὖ τὸν σφόδρα πονηρὸν συμβαῖνον. ὁ μεταξὺ ἄρα τούτων λοιπός. ἔστι δὲ τοιοῦτος ὁ μήτε ἀρετῇ διαφέρων καὶ δικαιοσύνῃ μήτε διὰ κακίαν καὶ μοχθηρίαν μεταβάλλων εἰς τὴν δυστυχίαν ἀλλὰ δι’ ἁμαρτίαν τινά, τῶν ἐν μεγάλῃ δόξῃ ὄντων καὶ εὐτυχίᾳ, οἷον Οἰδίπους καὶ Θυέστης καὶ οἱ ἐκ τῶν τοιούτων γενῶν ἐπιφανεῖς ἄνδρες.

This passage (and a few others) have been misread since the rise of Christianity to mean that the tragic protagonist “suffers a fall because of a tragic flaw”. This is essentially bogus for lexicographical and contextual reasons. In early Greek, hamartia means to make a mistake: it comes from an archery metaphor and is related to the verb hamartanô, which means “to miss the mark”. This is a mistake that is not connected to an essential character goodness or badness.

from Beekes 2010

hamartano

The Christian use of hamartia is “sin”, which, as we all know from our Sunday School, is innate and a sign of our essential badness. Wanting to have sex with people is a sin; driving badly and hitting someone from inattention is an accident. In my understanding of tragedy, hamartia means the latter. Yes, one might be distractable and an essentially bad driver and we may see this as in some way a flaw, but this is a cultural perspective that mixes determinism and responsibility in a strange way.

Contextually, Aristotle makes the specific point that the tragic hero should not be essentially wicked. If one is essentially wicked, the audience cannot make the key identification necessary to feel pity or fear. Now, one could argue that in a Christian context where everyone is flawed because of sin, the doctrine might still be said to apply. But this is not the Aristotelian context and this is not what Aristotle had in mind.

[The Wikipedia article is pretty good on this]

C6668-05a
MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 68v

Terence on His Haters

Terence, The Woman of Andros Prologue 15-23

“These people attack the poem and deny
That it is proper to ruin stories in this way.
But aren’t they showing that they understand nothing in being so clever?
When they criticize me, they accuse Naevius, Plautus and Ennius,
Those authorities I hold as my my own,
Since it is better to take their negligence as a model
Than to copy the pedantic diligence of those fools.
I warn them to be quiet from now on and stop
Talking shit unless they want to own up to their own failings.”

id isti vituperant factum atque in eo disputant
contaminari non decere fabulas.
faciuntne intellegendo ut nil intellegant?
qui quom hunc accusant, Naevium, Plautum, Ennium
accusant, quos hic noster auctores habet,
quorum aemulari exoptat neglegentiam
potius quam istorum obscuram diligentiam.
dehinc ut quiescant porro moneo et desinant
maledicere, malefacta ne noscant sua.

 

Style as Substance in Ancient Philosophy

Fronto, to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus 162 AD?

“When it comes to poets, who is ignorant that Lucilius has some grace, Albucius to rather dry, Lucretius is sublime, and Pacuvius just average, while Accius’ work is uneven and Ennius is protean? Sallust has also written history in a structured way while Pictor is random, Claudius writes charmingly, and Antias is unpleasant; Sisenna writes too long, Cato has many words in tandem and Caelius leaves them unconnected. When it comes to polemic, Cato rages, Cicero chortles, Gracchus attacks, Calbus picks fights.

Perhaps you don’t think much of these examples. Why? Don’t philosophers use different manners of speaking? Zeno is the most expansive in illustration; Socrates is the most contrary in his arguments; Diogenes is super fast at criticizing; Heraclitus was obscure to the point of clouding up everything; Pythagoras was amazing at making everything sacred with mysterious symbols; Clitomachus so agnostic as to doubt everything. What would these wisest of wise guys do if they were forced away from their individual style and method? What if Socrates could’t argue, if Zeno wouldn’t expatiate, if Diogenes couldn’t carp, if Pythagoras couldn’t make anything sacred, if Heraclitus was forbidden to obfuscate and Clitomachus had to make up his mind?”

In poetis autem quis ignorat ut gracilis sit Lucilius, Albucius aridus, sublimis Lucretius, mediocris Pacuvius, inaequalis Accius, Ennius multiformis? Historiam quoque scripsere Sallustius structe Pictor incondite, Claudius lepide Antias invenuste, Sisenna longinque, verbis Cato multiiugis Caelius singulis. Contionatur autem Cato infeste, Gracchus turbulente, Tullius copiose. Iam in iudiciis saevit idem Cato, triumphat Cicero, tumultuatur Gracchus, Calvus rixatur.

Sed haec exempla fortasse contemnas. Quid? philosophi ipsi nonne diverso genere orationis usi sunt? Zeno ad docendum plenissimus, Socrates ad coarguendum captiosissimus, Diogenes ad | exprobrandum promptissimus, Heraclitus obscurus involvere omnia, Pythagoras mirificus clandestinis signis sancire omnia, Clitomachus anceps in dubium vocare omnia. Quidnam igitur agerent isti ipsi sapientissimi viri, si de suo quisque more atque instituto deducerentur? Socrates ne coargueret, Zeno ne disceptaret, Diogenes ne increparet, ne quid Pythagoras sanciret, ne quid Heraclitus absconderet, ne quid Clitomachus ambigeret?

“This means something”.  from Raphael’s “School of Athens”

“Cancel-Culture” is Unfair to Philosophy!

Lucian, The Dead Come to Life, 32

“Hey Philosophy, this was especially striking to me: if people saw someone doing something wicked or improper, or just gross, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t blame Philosophy herself and then Chrysippos or Plato or Pythagoras or whatever name you gave to that person who started all the mistakes and whose arguments were being imitated.

People make terribly unfair judgments about you who have been dead for so long thanks to this guy living his life so badly! He can’t be compared to you because you’re not alive. But you were not there and they all saw him clearly pursuing terrible and unholy habits with the result that you were caught in the open with him and got wrapped up in the same slander!”

Ὃ δὲ μάλιστά μοι δεινόν, ὦ Φιλοσοφία, κατεφαίνετο, τοῦτο ἦν· οἱ γὰρ ἄνθρωποι εἴ τινα τούτων ἑώρων πονηρὸν ἢ ἄσχημον ἢ ἀσελγές τι ἐπιτηδεύοντα, οὐκ ἔστιν ὅστις οὐ Φιλοσοφίαν αὐτὴν ᾐτιᾶτο καὶ τὸν Χρύσιππον εὐθὺς ἢ Πλάτωνα ἢ Πυθαγόραν ἢ ὅτου ἐπώνυμον αὑτὸν ὁ διαμαρτάνων ἐκεῖνος ἐποιεῖτο καὶ οὗ τοὺς λόγους ἐμιμεῖτο· καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ κακῶς βιοῦντος πονηρὰ περὶ ὑμῶν εἴκαζον τῶν πρὸ πολλοῦ τεθνηκότων· οὐ γὰρ παρὰ ζῶντας ὑμᾶς ἡ ἐξέτασις αὐτοῦ ἐγίγνετο, ἀλλ᾿ ὑμεῖς μὲν ἐκποδών, ἐκεῖνον δὲ ἑώρων σαφῶς ἅπαντες δεινὰ καὶ ἄσεμνα ἐπιτηδεύοντα, ὥστε ἐρήμην ἡλίσκεσθε μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐπὶ τὴν ὁμοίαν διαβολὴν συγκατεσπᾶσθε.’’

“Hell” by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch

A Man Who Does Only What Must Not Be Done

Pliny, Letters 4.2

To My Dear Friend Attius Clementius,

“Regulus lost his son, a single suffering he did not merit but I don’t know if he considered it a bad thing. The boy was clever but of an unreliable nature who still could have turned out well if he had not favored his father. Regulus freed the boy so he could stand as a heir for his mother’s estate. Once the boy was freed—as they commonly say thanks to the man’s habits—his father enchanted him with the foul pretense of indulgence which is not customary to parents.

It is hard to believe, but look at Regulus. He mourns the lost boy madly. The child used to keep many ponies for riding and driving, and he used to have big and small dogs along with nightingales, parrots, and blackbirds. Regulus slaughtered them all around his son’s pyre.This is not grief but a show of grief. There’s also a sudden, miraculous celebrity to him. Everyone despises, hates him, but they rush, even crowd him as if they approve of him, admire him. In short, if I may put it in a phrase, they rival Regulus in Regulus’ way.

He stays in his gardens across the Tiber, a place where he has covered a huge area with giant porticos and covered the bank with his own statues, because he is as luxuriant in his greed as he is effulgent in his severe infamy. In this way, he troubles the whole city at an unhealthy time of year and he thinks it is some solace that he annoys people.

He claims that he wants to take another wife, which is as perverse as everything else he does. You will hear soon enough of the marriage of the mourning old man. Too early for one, too late for the other. How can I predict this, you ask? It is not anything the man said—nothing is more likely a lie than that—but because it is a sure thing that Regulus will do whatever should not be done. Good bye.”

C. Plinius Attio Clementi Suo S.
1Regulus filium amisit, hoc uno malo indignus, quod nescio an malum putet. Erat puer acris ingenii sed ambigui, qui tamen posset recta sectari, si patrem non referret. Hunc Regulus emancipavit, ut heres matris exsisteret; mancipatum (ita vulgo ex moribus hominis loquebantur) foeda et insolita parentibus indulgentiae simulatione captabat. Incredibile, sed Regulum cogita. Amissum tamen luget insane. Habebat puer mannulos multos et iunctos et solutos, habebat canes maiores minoresque, habebat luscinias psittacos merulas: omnes Regulus circa rogum trucidavit. Nec dolor erat ille, sed ostentatio doloris. Convenitur ad eum mira celebritate. Cuncti detestantur oderunt, et quasi probent quasi diligant, cursant frequentant, utque breviter quod sentio enuntiem, in Regulo demerendo Regulum imitantur. Tenet se trans Tiberim in hortis, in quibus latissimum solum porticibus immensis, ripam statuis suis occupavit, ut est in summa avaritia sumptuosus, in summa infamia gloriosus. Vexat ergo civitatem insaluberrimo tempore et, quod vexat, solacium putat. Dicit se velle ducere uxorem, hoc quoque sicut alia perverse. Audies brevi nuptias lugentis nuptias senis; quorum alterum immaturum alterum serum est. Unde hoc augurer quaeris? Non quia adfirmat ipse, quo mendacius nihil est, sed quia certum est Regulum esse facturum, quidquid fieri non oportet. Vale.

Relief from a Roman Sarcophagus