Stay Home, Philocomus!

Alciphron (ca. 170-220 CE) wrote fictional prose letters depicting scenes from the lives of ordinary people. Like the epigrams on which they were modeled, the letters offer snapshots of experience, portraits of vivid emotions. They are pictures rather than meditations. 

I’ve paired Alciphron’s letter about a rural youth’s desire to travel to the city with a letter from an 18th century epistolary novel about an urban youth’s move to the country. Alciphron’s letter is a portrait of naive yearning; and Goethe’s, a portrait of sober reflection. 

Alciphron: Letter 2.28

From Philocomus to Astyllus

Since I’ve never yet gone into town, I don’t know what this thing called “a city” is. I so want to see the fresh spectacle of people living close together, as if in a web; and I want to learn the many other ways city and country life differ. If you should have occasion to go into town, do go, and take me along this time. I’ll surely experience to the full what it has to offer. After all, my first beard is coming out! And really, is there anyone more qualified to introduce me to the multitude of city things than you, one who wanders about inside its gates?

Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther June 21

Dear Wilhelm,

I have thought over all kinds of things: about man’s desire to spread himself, make new discoveries, wander about. And then also about his inner impulse to willingly surrender himself to his limitations, to continue on with the same habits, and not to worry about what’s to his left or right . . . O, distance is like the future! Something enormous and dark rises before our soul, our emotions become blurred, and our eyes too . . . And alas! When we hurry to it, when the “there” becomes “here,” everything is just as before, and we stand there in our poverty, in our limitation, and our soul thirsts for an elusive balm.

Alciphron, Φιλόκωμος Ἀστύλλῳ

Οὐπώποτε εἰς ἄστυ καταβὰς οὐδὲ εἰδὼς ὅ τί ποτε ἐστὶν ἡ λεγομένη πόλις, ποθῶ τὸ καινὸν τοῦτο θέαμα ἰδεῖν, ὑφʼ ἐνὶ περιβόλῳ κατοικοῦντας ἀνθρώπους, καὶ τἆλλα ὅσα διαφέρει πόλις ἀγροικίας μαθεῖν. εἰ οὖν σοι πρόφασις ὁδοῦ ἄστυδε γένοιτο, ἧκε ἀπάξων νῦν κἀμέ. καὶ γὰρ ἔγωγε ἄγειν οἶμαι τοῦ πλέον τι μαθεῖν, ἤδη μοι βρύειν θριξὶ τῆς ὑπήνης ἀρχομένης. τίς οὖν δή με τἀκεῖθι μυσταγωγεῖν ἐπιτηδειό<τερο>ς ἢ σὺ ὁ τὰ πολλὰ εἴσω πυλῶν ἀλινδούμενος;

Goethe, Am 21. Junius.

Lieber Wilhelm, ich habe allerlei nachgedacht, über die Begier im Menschen, sich auszubreiten, neue Entdeckungen zu machen, herumzuschweifen; und dann wieder über den inneren Trieb, sich der Einschränkung willig zu ergeben, in dem Gleise der Gewohnheit so hinzufahren und sich weder um Rechts noch um Links zu bekümmern . . . O es ist mit der Ferne wie mit der Zukunft! Ein großes dämmerndes Ganze ruht vor unserer Seele, unsere Empfindung verschwimmt darin wie unser Auge . . . und ach! Wenn wir hinzueilen, wenn das Dort nun Hier wird, ist alles vor wie nach, und wir stehen in unserer Armut, in unserer Eingeschränktheit, und unsere Seele lechzt nach entschlüpftem Labsale.

The Acropolis and surrounding area, Athens.
Neil Beer/Getty Images

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.