“But, am I not a scholar? Why do you pursue scholarship? Servant, do you do this to be content? Do you do it to be safe? Do you do it to grasp nature and live in accordance with it? What stops you when you’re sick from having your principle align with nature? This is the test of the matter, the crucible for any philosopher. This is also a part of life, like a stroll, a voyage, a trip, the fever too! Do you read while walking? No! And you don’t read while having a fever. But if you walk well, you deliver the promise of one who walks.
If you have a fever, then do what one who has a fever should do. What does it mean to be sick well? Don’t blame god, or man. Don’t be undone by the things that happen. Await death bravely and correctly, and do what is given to you.”
“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”
I'm on my deathbed and you deny me a last wish 🙂 Well, in that case, I'd go back to the beginning to reflect upon our most primal desire, to win over death and live forever, and close my eyes with Homer. #deathandclassics
Here are the tweets I sent to try to contextualize the question:
I ask the #deathandclassics question in all seriousness because it is a question I actually consider often (1/8)
I actually have been memorizing the opening lines of the #Odyssey to recite to myself in times of agitation. And I think, if I know I am going to die, I will recite it to myself. (2/8)
Why the #Odyssey? I think the #Iliad is the poem of death and the Odyssey is the poem of life. Both poems are at some level about what it means to be a person, but the Odyssey is about how life is lived. #deathandclassics (3/8)
In a way, it will be like a replaying of my life through a story I have read many times. There is also the ancient allegorical tradition that the Odyssey is about the transition from one realm to the next, the movement of a soul from one plane to another #deathandclassics (4/8)
Even without the allegory, the Odyssey is about the journey of a person and the journey that IS the person. #deathandclassics (5/8)
I think that this might be nice to think about in the final moments—that even though I individual am passing on, I am drifting away on words that have moved through a thousand years #deathandclassics (6/8)
Yesterday I quoted a bit from Plutarch’s essay On Exile and received a bit of feedback about the fact that Plutarch was not the first to claim that we are all citizens of the same country. He wasn’t even the first to assign the remark to Socrates! As far as I can tell, there is no clear articulation of this idea in Plato or Xenophon. The first person to have said such a thing was Diogenes the Cynic.
Diogenes Laertius, 6.63, on Diogenes the Cynic (4th Century BCE)
“When asked where he was from, he said “I am a world-citizen.”
ἐρωτηθεὶς πόθεν εἴη, “κοσμοπολίτης,” ἔφη.
Cicero is one of the earliest sources attributing the sentiment to Socrates.
Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.108
“Socrates, when he was asked what state was his, used to say “the world”. For he judged himself an inhabitant and citizen of the whole world.”
Socrates cum rogaretur, cujatem se esse diceret, Mundanum, inquit. Totius enim mundi se incolam et civem arbitrabatur.”
Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius articulate different versions of what becomes a central part of Stoic philosophy.
Seneca, De vita beata, 20.5
“I know that my country is the world and that the gods are guardians, those judges of my deeds and words above and beyond me.”
Patriam meam esse mundum sciam et praesides deos, hos supra circaque me stare factorum dictorumque censores.
Seneca, De Otio, 4.1
“We encounter two republics with our mind–one is great and truly public, by which gods and men are contained and in which we may not gaze upon this corner or that one, but we measure the boundaries of our state with the sun; the other we enter by the fact of being born. This will be the state of Athens or Carthage or of any other city at all. It does not extend to all people but to certain ones. Some people serve the good of both republics at the same time, the greater and the lesser, some serve only the lesser or only the greater.”
Duas res publicas animo complectamur, alteram magnam et vere publicam, qua dii atque homines continentur, in qua non ad hunc angulum respicimus aut ad illum, sed terminos civitatis nostrae cum sole metimur; alteram, cui nos adscripsit condicio nascendi. Haec aut Atheniensium erit aut Carthaginiensium,aut alterius alicuius urbis, quae non ad omnis pertineat homines sed ad certos. Quidam eodem tempore utrique rei publicae dant operam, maiori minorique, quidam tantum minori, quidam tantum maiori.
Epictetus, Dissertationes 1.9.1
“If what is said about the kinship of humans and god by the philosopher is true, what is left for all people other than that advice of Socrates never to say when someone asks where you are from that you are Athenian or Corinthian but that you are a citizen of the world?”
“Nothing is as productive of an expansive mind than to consider truly and as completely as possibly everything you encounter in life and always to look at things so that you realize what the nature of the universe is, what each thing is used for, and what worth it has in relation to the whole, and how it relates to man, who is a citizen of the highest city, within which the rest of the cities are like houses. Think: what is it, and where is it from, and how long has it endured which now makes this impact on me.
And: what are the demands of virtue from me because of it? Gentleness, bravery, fidelity, simplicity, self-sufficiency and others. This is why at every opportunity we must say that this comes from god, this is according to the serendipity and spinning of allotment and this is from the same chance, while this is from the same character and family in common, even when one is ignore about what is his because of nature. But I am not ignorant. This is why I treat each person according to the natural law of the commonwealth, kindly and justly, just as at the same time, when dealing with indifferent things, I try to assign them their true value.”
“If the power of thought is common then our reason is also shared, through which we are rational beings. If this is true, then we also share the assignment of what to do or not to do according to reason. If that is true, than law is shared. If this is the case, we are fellow citizens. And if that is true, we shared some state. If we share a state, the world resembles a city. For what other state could claim to contain the whole human race?…”
On using twitter and the internet to trace the history of a cherished proverb; or, on the birth of a t-shirt.
Last fall, I noticed the Paul Holdengraber‘s 7-word autobiography from brainpickings.org.: “Mother always said: Two Ears, One mouth.” The phrase bounced around in my head a bit–it has that aphoristic perfection of brevity and familiarity. So, I reached out to Paul over twitter and told him it sounded like something from a Greek philosopher like Heraclitus.
Proverbs have a special place in language and society cross-culturally–they strike a promise of insight that demands contemplation or explanation. They also have an air of authority and antiquity, even when they actually possess neither. And, unlike longer, less anonymized forms of language, they are repeated, borrowed, and stolen without end.
My late father was a great aphorist–perhaps missing him is part of why Paul’s tweet stuck with me. Most of my father’s words, however, were far more Archie Bunker than Aristotle. Those I can repeat were likely taken from his own father, a Master Sargent in WW2 who died a decade before I was born. The tendency to inherit and pass down proverbs is something I only really noticed when I had children and found myself ‘quoting’ (or becoming?) my father (“if you take care of your equipment it will take care of you”) or my grandmother (cribbing Oscar Wilde: “Only boring people get bored”).
So, when Paul thought it would be a gas if we actually translated his mother’s words into ancient Greek (and eventually Latin), I was ready. I got help from some great Classicists too. We came up with a few versions.
First, I went with classical rhetoric, a close antithesis: μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα μὲν δύο, ἕν δὲ στόμα. But our friend the Fantastic Festus argued that Heraclitus or Hesiod would not use use μὲν and δὲ so, so he suggested losing them for something like this:
μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα δύο, ἕν στόμα [“mother always used to say two ears, one mouth”]
This gave us Paul’s mother’s advice in seven Greek words and his mother’s advice. But this didn’t get us out of trouble. The critic, author and Classicist Daniel Mendelsohn suggested hexameters and from across the Atlantic the extraordinary Armand D’Angour obliged with a composition of his own:
At this point, I felt like I had entertained myself on a Saturday morning, involved my internet friends in a silly, though somewhat academic caper, and done a favor for a new friend to please the spirits of parents no longer with us. But the world wide web had a a plot twist I should have thought of.
Ancient Greek and Roman authors and scholars loved proverbs. Writers like Zenobius and Photius made collections and interpretations of them. The Byzantine Encyclopedia, the Suda, uses the word for proverb (in Greek paroimia) over 600 times and presents nearly as many distinct proverbs. (Many of which are wonderful.) And in the modern world, we have an entire academic field dedicated to the study of proverbial sayings: paroemiology. Let me tell you, we could have used en expert last fall.
While we were playing around with translations, one of our ‘players’, the grand Gerrit Kloss, let us know we were, to use a proverbial saying, reinventing the wheel. Zeno, the Cynic philosopher, was credited with this saying over two thousand years ago:
Epictetus, Treatises Collected by Arrian, 2.15: To those who cling to any judgments they have made tenaciously
“Whenever some men hear these words—that it is right to be consistent, that the moral man is free by nature and never compelled, while everything else may be hindered, forced, enslaved, subjected to others—they imagine that it is right that they maintain every judgment they have made without compromising at all. But the first issue is that the judgment should be a good one. For, if I wish to maintain the state of my body, it should be when it is healthy, well-exercised. If you show me that you have the tone of a crazy person and brag about it, I will say ‘Man, look for a therapist. This is not health, but sickness.’ “
Epictetus, Discourses Collected by Arrian, 2.21: On Inconsistency
“People admit some of their own faults easily, but not others. No one, for example, will agree that he is foolish or ignorant, but in complete contrast you will hear everyone saying that “I wish I were as lucky as I am prudent.” And they also easily accept that they are frightened when they say “I am rather timid, I agree, but you will not discover me to be a fool.” Someone will not admit he is powerless, completely unjust, envious or a busybody, but most will confess they feel pity.
What is the cause of this? The most powerful is inconsistency and a confusion of thought in matters concerning right and wrong, different faults to which different men will not admit whenever they sense they might be shameful. Being timid, for example, is something people believe is a mark of prudence; and pity is the same. But stupidity, well, men think that is a slave’s quality. Men will also never confess to sins against the common good.
In the case of most mistakes, men are comfortable with confessing to them because they believe that there is something involuntary in them, as in the case of timidity or pity. And if anyone does admit that he is powerless in his action, he offers lust as an explanation, proposing he should be pardoned as an involuntary actor.”
This is from Epictetus’ Dissertationes ad Arriano Digestae (“Treatises Collected and Edited by Arrian”)
Book 1.5 Against the Academics
“Epictetus said that if someone resists what is clearly true, then it is not easy to devise an argument to persuade him to change his mind. This is due neither to the man’s strength or the teacher’s weakness, but instead because once someone has been assailed and hardens to stone, how could anyone prevail upon him with reason?
Men are hardened to reason in two ways: one is the petrification of thought; the other comes from shame, whenever someone is deployed in battle to such a degree that he will not acknowledge what is obvious or depart from his fellow combatants. Most of us fear the necrosis of our bodies and we will do anything to avoid having this happen in anyway; but we don’t think at all about the mortification of our mind. By Zeus, if a man is disposed in such a way concerning the mind itself that he can’t follow any argument or understand anything, we believe that he is ill. But if shame or self-regard hardens a man, we still persist in calling this strength!
Do you sense that you are awake? “No”, he answers, “Not more than when I imagine that I am awake while I dream.” The fantasy of dreaming differs in no way from being awake? “Not at all.”
How do I have a conversation with this man? What kind of fire or iron can I take to him to make him perceive that he has turned to stone? Although he realizes it, he pretends he does not. He is even worse than a corpse. One man does not perceive the conflict—he is sick. The other perceives it and neither moves nor responds—he is even worse. His sense of shame and his self-regard have been amputated and his reason has not been excised but instead has been mutilated.
Should I call this strength? May it not be so, unless I should also it strength when perverts do and say everything that occurs to them in public.”