Maybe Music Can Stop the Plague?

COVID is so 2020. Let’s add Monkeypox and Marburg virus to the anxiety pool.

Plutarch, On Music (Moralia 1146c-d)

“The degree to which the best governed states have dedicated themselves to fine music finds ample testimony, especially in the case of Terpander who brought an end to the civil strife that was ruining the Spartans.

There’s also Thaletas of Crete who people say listened to the Delphic oracle and went Sparta and returned people to health with music, saving Sparta from the Pandemic that was gripping the land, as Pratinas claims.

Homer too says that the Greeks stopped a plague with music, for he says that “sons of the Achaeans propitiated the god with song and dance all day long / singing the noble paean and praising the / far-shooter who took pleasure in hearing the song.”

I’ll leave those verses as the final words in my argument about music, good teacher, since you started this discussion by quoting them to us. In truth, music’s first and finest labor is to give thanks back to the gods, and after that comes a cleansing of the soul, sure tone, and sustained harmony.”

Ὅτι δὲ καὶ ταῖς εὐνομωτάταις τῶν πόλεων ἐπιμελὲς γεγένηται φροντίδα ποιεῖσθαι τῆς γενναίας μουσικῆς πολλὰ μὲν καὶ ἄλλα μαρτύρια παραθέσθαι ἐστίν, Τέρπανδρον δ᾿ ἄν τις παραλάβοι τὸν τὴν γενομένην ποτὲ παρὰ Λακεδαιμονίοις στάσιν καταλύσαντα, καὶ Θαλήταν6 τὸν Κρῆτα, ὅν φασι κατά τι πυθόχρηστον Λακεδαιμονίους παραγενόμενον διὰ μουσικῆς ἰάσασθαι ἀπαλλάξαι τε τοῦ κατασχόντος λοιμοῦ τὴν Σπάρτην, καθάπερ φησὶν Πρατίνας. ἀλλὰ γὰρ καὶ Ὅμηρος τὸν κατασχόντα λοιμὸν τοὺς Ἕλληνας παύσασθαι λέγει διὰ μουσικῆς· ἔφη γοῦν οἱ δὲ πανημέριοι μολπῇ θεὸν ἱλάσκοντο / καλὸν ἀείδοντες παιήονα, κοῦροι Ἀχαιῶν / μέλποντες ἑκάεργον· ὁ δὲ φρένα τέρπετ᾿ ἀκούων.

τούτους τοὺς στίχους, ἀγαθὲ διδάσκαλε, κολοφῶνα τῶν περὶ τῆς μουσικῆς λόγων πεποίημαι, ἐπεὶ φθάσας σὺ τὴν μουσικὴν δύναμιν διὰ τούτων προαπέφηνας ἡμῖν· τῷ γὰρ ὄντι τὸ πρῶτον αὐτῆς καὶ κάλλιστον ἔργον ἡ εἰς τοὺς θεοὺς εὐχάριστός ἐστιν ἀμοιβή, ἑπόμενον δὲ τούτῳ καὶ δεύτερον τὸ τῆς ψυχῆς καθάρσιον καὶ ἐμμελὲς καὶ ἐναρμόνιον σύστημα.”

The oldest picture of the Pied Piper copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hameln/Hamelin Germany (c.1300-1633)

Teaching the Mahabharata in a Time of War

When Russia invaded Ukraine—the day after my son’s birthday in Ukraine but on his actual birthday in Seattle (because of the time difference we had time for dinner but before the cake and the candles the news had come)—I was teaching one of my bread and butter classes, the Epic Tradition. I pack too much into the ten weeks of this course: we read the Gilgamesh, the Iliad, Táin Bó Cúailnge, and the Odyssey, all in their entirety, and then, at the end, R.K. Narayan’s very short retellings of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, supplemented by quotations from academic translations.

When the war started, we had reached the Mahabharata part of the course. Teaching the Mahabharata, in any form, at the beginning of this war is one of those teaching experiences I will not easily forget. The Mahabharata is many (many) things, but the main plot line is about the conflict between two sets of cousins—our heroes, the Pandavas, and our villains, the Kauravas—a conflict that ends in a cosmic and cataclysmic war. It all begins with delightfully complex lines of causality. The older prince is disqualified from ruling because he is blind, so the younger one becomes the king instead.

After a while, he resigns and then dies, so the older one becomes king after all. Whose son should inherit the kingdom? Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, is born before Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas—but Duryodhana’s mother becomes pregnant first. And so on. But as the action unfolds, the complexity, though it never disappears, becomes somehow less of a brainteaser and more of a background against which emerges something much starker, more tragic, more black-and-white. With an excessive, thought-experiment-like consistency Yudhishthira tries to avoid the war. What if I never contradict anyone? (Admittedly, he fails in that, but who wouldn’t?) What if I always completely obey my uncle’s orders? What if we accept half of the kingdom, the infertile lands? They do divide the kingdom, but it doesn’t help. At one point, he asks for just five villages, one for each of his brothers (To call Kauravas’ bluff or in earnest? What would he do if they agreed? We don’t get to find out).

But the war is not to be avoided, of course, as we all have known from the beginning. As in the Greek Epic Cycle, the war is caused by powers beyond mere humans, by the fundamental forces of the universe. It has to happen because the Earth is too burdened and she is shrugging off her load. And so Duryodhana says, in essence, “as long as the Pandavas have anything, I cannot live” and the war begins. Our heroes kill not only their cousins, but their grandfather and their teachers. The most brilliant of the Pandava children, Abhimanyu, is killed shortly after his wedding. Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandavas (yes, polyandry) loses all of her sons. In the end, the victory is won, but in the Mahabharata the moment when “the good prevails” feels terribly bitter and empty and full of grief.

And so here I was, trudging to class with my slides summarizing the battle books of the epic. I would wake up in the morning hoping that all that happened the day before was a bad dream, that it couldn’t be, or if it could then at least not to that extent—surely the awful, relentless cruelty of it was only a nightmare? But no, this was our new reality. I would feel as though, by the time I’d showered, my energy was spent. But what can you do? You go to class and pull up your slides. You read:

A loud wail went up in all the houses of the Kurus. The whole city, including the children, was riven with grief. Women whose lords had been killed were now in the gaze of common men—women whom not even the hosts of the Gods had ever seen! Having set their lovely tresses free to fly and taken off their ornaments, those women, clad only in simple shifts, ran to and fro helplessly. They emerged from houses that looked like snow-capped mountains, like does leaving secluded mountain valleys when the leader of their herd has been killed. Several groups of distraught women in the throes of grief ran about as if they were in the girls’ yard; and holding onto each others’ arms, they wept for their sons, brothers, and fathers—it was as if they were acting out the destruction of the world at the end of an Age. (Mahabharata 11.9.8, translated by James L. Fitzgerald)

I vividly remember the extreme fatigue of those first days. Was it just the cognitive effort of taking it in? Remarkable, if so.

I was born and grew up in Moscow, but my mother is from Ukraine. She grew up in Dnipro, a big city on Dnepr river, where, as a child, I spent many summer months with my grandparents. They were long, childhood summers— playing with a few local friends in the neighborhood playground, running around in the streets filled with cottonwood fluff, buying ice cream on the nearby leafy boulevard, staring forever at the swallows feeding chicks in their clay nests under cornices.

I remember using a magnet to gather pins from the carpet in my grandmother’s room, where she sewed elaborate dresses for clients (illegally, naturally, under Soviet law) and watching her bake, whipping egg whites by hand for what seemed like hours in front of the tv. I remember my grandfather repairing the clock, the tv, the sewing machine, tending, daily, his window-boxes of petunias and snapdragons. I remember the upheaval of the canning days (tomatoes, cucumbers, dill, shot glasses of vinegar, strictly following detailed instructions in an old notebook my grandmother called her “Talmud”). I remember reading all there was to read in the house, gorging on cherries and sprawling on the couch, through the afternoons.

The images of war are always shocking, but I have to admit that they are much more shocking when the building, the streets, the people, look and sound so achingly familiar. On the BBC news site a woman, tears and despair and rage in her voice, described how she went into the bathroom in her apartment to help her small child and came out to one of those pictures in which the outer walls are gone and the now naked domestic things—cupboards and couches and children’s cribs—hang askance over the void. I felt as if I’d heard her before, knew her somehow. In another video Ukrainian women howl over their dead son and grandson, their voices both familiar in their inflexions and alien in their beyond-human grief. I would wake up suddenly in the middle of the night, sit up in bed and feel as if my head were an empty echoing cupola reverberating with those voices, those animal howls, and nothing else. The next day I would stand in front of my class and read:

The earth seems to be crammed with fallen heads, hands, and every sort of limb mixed with every other and put into heaps. And thrilling with horror upon seeing headless bodies and bodiless heads, the women, unaccustomed to these things, are bewildered. After joining a head to a body they stare at it blankly, and then they are pained to realize, “This is not his,” but do not see another one in that place. And these over here, joining arms, thighs, feet, and other pieces cut off by arrows, are overwhelmed by the misery of it and faint over and over again. Some of the Bharata women see other decapitated bodies which the birds and beasts have eaten and which they fail to recognize as their husbands. Some beat their heads with their hands when they lay eyes upon their brothers, fathers, sons, and husbands killed by the enemy, swords still in their hands, earrings still on their ears.  (Mahabharata 11.81.16, translated by James L. Fitzgerald)

Well, I didn’t read this, actually—I pointed to the slide, briefly, and left it at that.

The students had to write short responses to the readings of the day. “My perspective on the matter is that Duryodhana and Yudhisthira’s conflict is a personal one and that involving soldiers and going to war over it is pointless. However, I understand that my perspective is warped because in modern times the leader of the government is not an all-ruling monarch, and perhaps it was more important in older days to consider who was in charge of the country” an excellent student wrote in response to a question about the war in the Mahabharata and whether Yudhishthira should have fought it. “In modern times the leader of the government is not an all-ruling monarch”…. “Not so in Russia,” I thought “not so in the country of my birth. Not so in the world you live in, even if you think that you live in a different, better, more reasonable, safer world. You think you live in a “modern” world. You think that you do. But you do not.” This I did say in class, in different words, to a hushed and surprised room.

One of the worst things about the beginning of the war was the expectation that we would all lose hope, a particular kind of hope. The hope that a country can emerge from the warped reality of the Soviet Union and not slide back, not be sucked back, as Russia inevitably is, into the same black hole. That something else is possible. I’ve always been very pessimistic about Russia, even in the early nineties, when many had visions of a different future for it. I just didn’t see it (and still do not). But Ukraine was different, it had a chance. Now, I thought as the war began, Russia would take that chance away. It would never change itself and it wouldn’t let Ukraine do that either: the hope would be lost as the world stood by.

Of course, that did not happen. The Ukrainians stood up and compelled the reluctant West to act. It felt as if, speaking from shelled and threatened Kiev, Zelenski shifted something big in the world. Types of weapons became household words around the dinner table in my family. Russia choked, and the prospect of its swallowing Ukraine whole evaporated.  People started talking about Russia’s defeat. I cheer every Ukrainian success and register, with some surprise, how much I want Russia to lose—not just to stop, but to lose. I listen to the Ukrainian political commentator and presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych as he speaks (with admiration) of Western values and envisages Ukraine as a frontline defender of these values, calling on all of us to remember what they are.

Such hope. Western values…. In some ways, in appealing to those values, the Ukrainians remind me of Black people in the US who took the “Declaration of Independence” seriously when their white compatriots would not: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” —so let’s act that way. Ukraine too is calling on the West to walk the walk. But there is also a way in which Russia actually embodies, if not Western values exactly, then something else very centrally Western: the colonial worldview.  Also, the concomitant notion of some “destined” way the world has to be. The Russian state is profoundly, quintessentially, colonial and does not have any other ways of being. It is even internally colonial, colonial towards Russians who live in places that have been Russian for as long as this word made sense. The treatment of indigenous peoples amounts to an attempted erasure. And now the worse version of that worldview is used to rationalize the aggression against Ukraine. What a perfect expression of colonialism—to tell a people that they do not exist. The whole world should hope that Russia is defeated, and decisively so. There is no other way of stopping it—or changing it.

But if it is defeated—how much will change? I have my doubts. And in the meanwhile, the Mahabharata is still on my mind, long after my course has ended.  I wonder why that is so. Because of a war between cousins? Perhaps, although in many ways the cousin part actually does not resonate all that much with Ukraine. In the Mahabharata, there are long negotiations and attempts to avert the war, expressions of friendship and affection across the divide, hesitations on everyone’s part—except for Duryodhana, that is. The war begins in a ritual-like way, with mutual respect among most of the opponents. The invasion of Ukraine, by contrast, was a shock not only to the Ukrainians, but also, initially, to the Russian troops who were told that they would do military exercises near the border and then go home—but crossed the border instead. Nor was there any polite and honorable fighting to start with: Russian soldiers seem to have entered this war pre-brutalized, pre-decomposed, ready for genocide.

India, Kangra, circa 1800
Depicting a battle scene with the central figures on horse-drawn chariots with bows and arrows, with numerous figures on horseback and elephants engaging, supported by foot soldiers above and below, the noblemen depicted wearing crowns and with individualized facial features, many identified with inscriptions

And so, no, it is something else, not the superficial similarly of a “war between cousins.” It is the way the war in the Mahabharata is simultaneously completely useless, senseless, and—you would think—easily avoidable, and yet also somehow inevitable. It has to happen because the Earth is burdened—and it isn’t hard to arrange. No matter how many wise and sensible and peace-loving people are involved, one Duryodhana at the right time and in the right place is apparently all it takes, and by the time the war begins the causes are piled up sky-high: disputed lands, mistreatment of Draupadi, the divine machinations. How can you be a Yudhishthira if you share a world with Duryodhanas? Is there any way— apart from fighting a catastrophic war you never wanted? Not in the Mahabharata.

Now, as I write this, new rows of freshly dug graves stand ready in Dnipro at the edge of a growing cemetery filled with flowers and flags and freshly poured earth. It is strange to see it on the BBC website and know that this exists in a city of my childhood, the one with acacia trees along boulevards, and walnut trees whose green fruit stains your fingers brown, and a busy market, and the skins of sunflower seeds always mixed in with the dust.

The city, also, where my great grandparents lie in a mass grave, killed by the Nazis in a mass execution of the Jews of Dnipro on October 13, 1941. I hope for Ukraine’s resounding victory fervently. Will the West really walk the walk? Will there be enough help for a victory? And after this victory, I hope Ukraine gets a chance to play its new role in the world, to live its new life, bereft though it will be of all those already lost and still to be lost in this war.

Except: will Ukraine have the time for this new life? How much CO2 is emitted when a tank battalion is destroyed? Or in the process of transporting hundreds of howitzers? Or when you burn and level an entire city? Or when you rebuild it? Will the Earth’s patience hold long enough for any new order to emerge? Will she hold out a little longer, for Ukraine?

As the war stretches indefinitely, I cannot get the Mahabharata out of my head. This war is so clear, so black and white. Ukraine’s is the just fight. They didn’t ask for it, they didn’t have a choice, this was brought upon them because of one man’s delusion and one country’s murderous system of statehood. What choice do they have but to fight? What choice do we all have but to hope that this war will be “the end of an Age” only in some good sense and not in any terrible one?

Below the hope lies horror at the stark insanity of this war, any war, now, when daily we hear of new climate disasters, droughts and starvation and devastating floods, when you need only to open your eyes to see “the end of an Age”—of our age— rolling our way. The Earth must be burdened with us. So very burdened.


Olga Levaniouk is a Professor of Classics at the University of Washington and the author of Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19 (2011). Her work has focused on Homer, laments and wedding songs, and the comparative study of myth and culture. Her latest article (“Seeking Agariste,” 2022) is an example of a comparative analysis involving ancient Greece and modern India.

Escape Politics and Have Lunch on Your Own Time

Plutarch, On Exile 604d

“There’s that quote of Diogenes when he said, “Aristotle has lunch on Philip’s schedule, but Diogenes does when he wants to,” since there’s no political affair or officer, or leader to trouble the daily habits of his life.

For this reason, you will discover that few of the wisest and most thoughtful people have been buried in their own countries–and that most of them did this by choice, raising an anchor on their own and finding a new safe harbor for their lives, either leaving Athens or retreating there.”

τὸ τοῦ Διογένους “Ἀριστοτέλης ἀριστᾷ ὅταν δοκῇ Φιλίππῳ, Διογένης, ὅταν Διογένει,” μήτε πραγματείας, μήτε ἄρχοντος, μήτε ἡγεμόνος τὴν συνήθη δίαιταν περισπῶντος.

Διὰ τοῦτο τῶν φρονιμωτάτων καὶ σοφωτάτων ὀλίγους ἂν εὕροις ἐν ταῖς ἑαυτῶν πατρίσι κεκηδευμένους, οἱ δὲ πλεῖστοι, μηδενὸς ἀναγκάζοντος, αὐτοὶ τὸ ἀγκύριον5 ἀράμενοι, μεθωρμίσαντο τοὺς βίους καὶ μετέστησαν οἱ μὲν εἰς Ἀθήνας, οἱ δὲ ἐξ Ἀθηνῶν.

Bonaventura Peeters the Elder, “Dutch Ferry Boats in a Fresh Breeze”

The Proverb Behind Silenus’ Wisdom

According to Plutarch, this conversation is taken from a lost dialogue ascribed to Aristotle, entitled, On the Soul. This passage also shows up in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy chapter 3.

Plutarch Consolation to Apollonius [Moralia, 115a-c]

“There is also the saying you know has been passed around the mouth of many humans over the years.” “what is that?” he asked. The other one, interrupted, “that it is best of all not to exist and then second it is better to die than to live. This has been demonstrated by many examples from the divine.

For certainly they say this concerning Midas after the hunt when he caught Silenus and was asking him and finding out from him what is best for mortals and what should be most preferred. But Silenus was willing to say nothing, but remained stubbornly silent.

After he tried nearly every kind of approach, he persuaded him to provide some answer—so compelled, he said, “brief-lived offspring of a laboring god and harsh fate, why do you force me to tell you what it is better not to know? A life lived in ignorance of your most intimate griefs is the least painful.

But for humans it is not at all possible to have the best thing of all or to have any share of the best nature—since the best thing for all men and women is not to be born. But the second best thing after this and the first available to mortals, is to die as soon as possible after being born.” It is clear that he said this because the way that exists in death is better than the one in life.”

τὸ διὰ στόματος ὂν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις ὁρᾷς ὡς ἐκ πολλῶν ἐτῶν περιφέρεται θρυλούμενον.” “τί τοῦτ᾿;” ἔφη. κἀκεῖνος ὑπολαβών “ὡς ἄρα μὴ γενέσθαι μέν,” ἔφη, “ἄριστον πάντων, τὸ δὲ τεθνάναι τοῦ ζῆν ἐστι κρεῖττον. καὶ πολλοῖς οὕτω παρὰ τοῦ δαιμονίου μεμαρτύρηται. τοῦτο μὲν ἐκείνῳ τῷ Μίδᾳ λέγουσι δήπου μετὰ τὴν θήραν ὡς ἔλαβε τὸν Σειληνὸν διερωτῶντι καὶ πυνθανομένῳ τί ποτ᾿ ἐστὶ τὸ βέλτιστοντοῖς ἀνθρώποις καὶ τί τὸ πάντων αἱρετώτατον, τὸ μὲν πρῶτον οὐδὲν ἐθέλειν εἰπεῖν ἀλλὰ σιωπᾶν ἀρρήτως· ἐπειδὴ δέ ποτε μόγις πᾶσαν μηχανὴν μηχανώμενος προσηγάγετο φθέγξασθαί τι πρὸς αὐτόν, οὕτως ἀναγκαζόμενον εἰπεῖν, ‘δαίμονος ἐπιπόνου καὶ τύχης χαλεπῆς ἐφήμερον σπέρμα, τί με βιάζεσθε λέγειν ἃ ὑμῖν ἄρειον μὴ γνῶναι; μετ᾿ ἀγνοίας γὰρ τῶν οἰκείων κακῶν ἀλυπότατος ὁ βίος. ἀνθρώποις δὲ πάμπαν οὐκ ἔστι γενέσθαι τὸ πάντων ἄριστον οὐδὲ μετασχεῖν τῆς τοῦ βελτίστου φύσεως (ἄριστον γὰρ πᾶσι καὶ πάσαις τὸ μὴ γενέσθαι)· τὸ μέντοι μετὰ τοῦτο καὶ πρῶτον τῶν ἀνθρώπῳ ἀνυστῶν, δεύτερον δέ, τὸ γενομένους ἀποθανεῖν ὡς τάχιστα.’ δῆλον οὖν ὡς οὔσης κρείττονος τῆς ἐν τῷ τεθνάναι διαγωγῆς ἢ τῆς ἐν τῷ ζῆν, οὕτως ἀπεφήνατο.”

This comment seems proverbial–split in similar attributions in hexameter and elegiac poetry.

In the Contest of Homer and Hesiod

“Son of Meles, Homer who knows the mysteries of the gods,
Tell me foremost what is best for mortals?”
Homer answered:

“First, it is best for mortals to not be born.
If born, to pass through Hades’ gates as soon as possible.”

ἀρ υἱὲ Μέλητος ῞Ομηρε θεῶν ἄπο μήδεα εἰδὼς
εἴπ’ ἄγε μοι πάμπρωτα τί φέρτατόν ἐστι βροτοῖσιν;
ἀρχὴν μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον,
φύντα δ’ ὅμως ὤκιστα πύλας ᾿Αίδαο περῆσαι.

The passage floats around some. Stobaeus (4.52.22) attributes it to Alcidamas’ Mousaion but the most widely cited source is Theognis. It is listed without attribution by the paroemiographer Michael Apostolos, with the explanation that this is a proverb “[attributed] to people living in misfortune”  (ἐπὶ τῶν δυστυχῶς βιούντων, 3.85.3)

Theognis, 425-428

“First, it is best for mortals to not be born.
Not to see the rays of the piercing sun
If born, to pass through Hades’ gates as soon as possible.
And to lie with a great pile of earth heaped above you.

πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον,
μηδ᾿ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου,
φύντα δ᾿ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περῆσαι
καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.

The Loeb note to this passage suggest that Theognis is merely adding to the hexameter lines, since the pentameter lines add nothing. But I think this is problematic. Consider the similar doublet to the first 2 lines above in Bacchylides.

Bacchylides 5.159–161

“And answering him, he said:
“It is best for mortals not to be born
Nor to see the sun.”

καί νιν ἀμειβόμενος
τᾶδ᾿ ἔφα· ‘θνατοῖσι μὴ φῦναι φέριστον
μηδ᾿ ἀελίου προσιδεῖν

Note how Bacchylides acknowledges the proverbial–or at least ‘other’–status of these lines by putting it into the mouths of one of his characters. Notice the stability of the infinitive construction μὴ φῦναι with the mobility of the dative θνατοῖσι and the lexical variations of θνατοῖσι instead of ἐπιχθονίοισιν and φέριστον instead of ἄριστον.

Sophocles, Oedipus Colonos 1225–1227

“Not being born conquers
every argument. But, then, if someone does emerge,
to return where you came from as fast as possible
is second best by far.”

Μὴ φῦναι τὸν ἅπαντα νι-
κᾷ λόγον· τὸ δ’, ἐπεὶ φανῇ,
βῆναι κεῖθεν ὅθεν περ ἥ-
κει, πολὺ δεύτερον, ὡς τάχιστα.

Sextus Empiricus (Outlines of Pyrrhonism 3.230–231) compares the Theognis passage to this fragment from Euripides (fr. 449)

“We should have a gathering to mourn
Someone when they are born, when they come to so many evils
And when someone has died and found a break from evils,
We should be happy and bless them as we carry them from their homes.”

ἐχρῆν γὰρ ἡμᾶς σύλλογον ποιουμένους
τὸν φύντα θρηνεῖν, εἰς ὅσ᾿ ἔρχεται κακά,
τὸν δ᾿ αὖ θανόντα καὶ κακῶν πεπαυμένον
χαίροντας εὐφημοῦντας ἐκπέμπειν δόμων.

Valerius Maximus claimed that Thracians actually did mourn births and celebrate funerals.

A clearer reflection on the proverb is Euripides fr. 235 (from Bellerophon):

“I agree with the thing reported everywhere,
That it is best for a mortal not to be born.”

ἐγὼ τὸ μὲν δὴ πανταχοῦ θρυλούμενον
κράτιστον εἶναι φημὶ μὴ φῦναι βροτῷ·

Note the different superlative at the beginning of the phrase and the singular βροτῷ. Based on the flexibility of the expression and the riffing on it, I would suggest that this is a broadly dispersed cultural idea that has proverbial status at a very early period. Note how Euripides, in another fragment, toys with the more broadly used phrase:

Euripides, fr. 908

“Not existing is better for mortals than being born.”

Τὸ μὴ γενέσθαι κρεῖσσον ἢ φῦναι βροτοῖς.

Epicurus (Diogenes Laertius, 10.127) thinks that anyone who believes this and says it is a fool since “if he says it because he believes it, how is it he does not just stop living? For this is ready for him to do, if it is completely believed by him.” (εἰ μὲν γὰρ πεποιθὼς τοῦτό φησι, πῶς οὐκ ἀπέρχεται τοῦ ζῆν; ἐν ἑτοίμῳ γὰρ αὐτῷ τοῦτ᾿ ἔστιν, εἴπερ ἦν βεβουλευμένον αὐτῷ βεβαίως).

And there is, of course, the Ancient Near Eastern context to consider!

Sebastiano Ricci, “Sacrifice to Silenus” c. 1723

Likemindedness and Trees: An Excerpt from a Wedding Homily for Valentine’s Day

Late in 2021, I had the great honor of being asked to preside over the wedding of a former student and friend, Zach as he married his long time partner, Molly. In the midst of COVID19 still and all the chaos in the world, it was a moment of respite and celebration and a sign that life continues on. Here’s the better part of it to mark a commercial holiday with all the meaning that we make of it.

Welcome friends, family, and all of you who gather today to celebrate Molly and Zack. After nearly two years of uncertainty and fear, there are few things more life affirming and hopeful than this–two people confirming their love for each other and asking their community to stand with them to recognize that in a shifting and unsettled world, this is something to count on.

As a sage once said, how did we get here? When Zach first asked me before the Pandemic to officiate I said yes without hesitation–not because I have any authority or experience in doing so, but because I can think of an honor no greater than this, to stand here and help Molly and Zach speak into existence something they made for themselves, something to shape, define and comfort them for the rest of their lives. 

As is the custom with these things, I am in a position to offer some reflection and advice to the soon to be wed couple on what marriage means. Three short stories; three things to think about: politics, passion, and age.

I was Zach’s teacher in the Department of Brandeis University in the Department of Classical Studies. I used to joke to Zach that the nicest thing said about marriage in all of classical literature comes in Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus, naked and bedraggled, gives a blessing to the young princess Nausikaa

“May the gods grant as much as you desire in your thoughts,
A husband and home, and may they give you fine likemindness,
For nothing is better and stronger than this
When two people who are likeminded in their thoughts share a home,
A man and a wife—this brings many pains for their enemies
And joys to their friends. And the gods listen to them especially”

σοὶ δὲ θεοὶ τόσα δοῖεν ὅσα φρεσὶ σῇσι μενοινᾷς,
ἄνδρα τε καὶ οἶκον, καὶ ὁμοφροσύνην ὀπάσειαν
ἐσθλήν: οὐ μὲν γὰρ τοῦ γε κρεῖσσον καὶ ἄρειον,
ἢ ὅθ᾽ ὁμοφρονέοντε νοήμασιν οἶκον ἔχητον
ἀνὴρ ἠδὲ γυνή: πόλλ᾽ ἄλγεα δυσμενέεσσι,
185χάρματα δ᾽ εὐμενέτῃσι, μάλιστα δέ τ᾽ ἔκλυον αὐτοί. 6. Od. 180-185

Doesn’t this sound great! The  lesson here, it’s a political one, the promise of the married couple working as a team to achieve their goals and punish all those who oppose them.  But there’s a limit too-a close reading shows that homophrosyne, likemindedness, means having shared aims and plans, but it really looks externally, to surviving the world outside the home.

If the Odyssey tells us about the politics of marriage, and dominating your neighbors, another famous story is about passion. Ovid’s Metamorphoses gives us the Babylonian Pyramus and Thisbe. Two young lovers, forbidden to be with each other, housed right next door. When they sneak out to meet, Thisbe runs from a lioness and leaves her veil behind only to have Pyramus arrive to see what he thinks is a predator with a bloody grin. The two end up taking their own lives in sorrow and inspiring tales like Romeo and Juliet. 

Pyramus and Thisbe, House of Dionysus

This story is in a way an warning allegory about passion and excess–it reflects the kind of love that burns bright and then fades. The frantic love of youth is a memory. It inflames, but is hard to sustain.

The one story from the ancient world that has always seemed to me to understand love the most is Baucis and Philemon, also told by Ovid. They were an aging couple in a wicked city and when the gods came to test them, they were the only ones who offered strangers hospitality. In thanks, Hermes and Zeus turned their home into a temple and when they died, they turned into two trees, rooted near each other, and over time they grew so intertwined that you couldn’t tell where one started and the other ended but you could still clearly see the wood and character of each tree.

Jan van den Hoecke, “Peasants Philemon and Baucis visited by Jupiter and Mercury.”

This too is an allegory for love: the way people grow together and change, shaping and shaped in turn, creating a life and story that is so intertwined that you cannot remember where one starts and the other ends. As I have learned in spending more than half my life with my partner, few gifts are more comforting and sustaining, to be part of something bigger while still yet becoming yourself. Passion inspires us to love; life requires us to team up and face the daily struggle, age and the passage of time brings this great, unexpected gift: becoming more than yourself by loving someone else.

May you bring joy to your friends and eliminate your enemies, may you feel the passion of youth for as long as it burns, and may you grow so close and strong together that no power on earth can move you apart.


I am presiding over another wedding this spring (!) and will have to come up with new stories to tell. 

Reading Lucilian Satire in the Age of Twitter

Dealing with the fragmentary nature of the evidence for the ancient world is frustrating to say the least. Take for example the so-called inventor of satire Gaius Lucilius. Out of the thirty books of his satires we have a mere few hundred lines.

Most of these books are filled with seemingly random one-liners such as “et mercedimerae legiones,” which means “and wage-earning legions.” After reading several lines that were similar to this one, I struggled to appreciate Lucilius’ art. And even after digesting massive amounts of secondary scholarship on the satirist I found myself lost. I wrestled to figure out what was it that made reading Lucilius so frustrating. The answer was so obvious. He is in fragments. Perhaps if I understood the context of “ut iure peritus (like one skilled in law),” it would not have given me such a headache. And while not all of Lucilius’ satires are this obscure a large chunk of them are.

The frustration and puzzlement I felt reminded me of how I feel when I read a politician’s twitter. Like Lucilius, tweets can often be confusing. For example, on February 10th, 2013 Sean Spicer tweeted “whomever just unfollowed me- show yourself you coward.” I remember my high school teacher at the time sharing this in class and having more questions than I did answers. Besides the fact that I did not know who Sean Spicer was at the time. I was confused by the nature of the tweet itself.

Sean had over 400,000 followers on twitter and he could have been unfollowed by anyone of them. Apparently, Sean was not being sarcastic at the time and was legitimately upset by losing a follower. Similarly, Lucillius could have been referring to any number of wage-earning legions. Even scholars with an impressively dense breadth of knowledge on the context in which Lucilius wrote have scrambled trying to understand lines like this. In fact, it is unlikely that we will ever know Lucilius’ merry band of money-hungry legions. And poor Sean will probably never know who unfollowed him.

In Book 14 of his satires Lucilius writes that, “nemo est halicarius posterior te,” which means “No wheat-grinder is second to you.” There are a few things that frustrate the reader here. One, who is the worst miller of all time that Lucilius is referring to here? Two, it appears as though Lucilius disagrees with the common spelling of alicarius, which scholars debated over. However, the correct spelling is alicarius. So, was Lucilius just trying to be funny? Did he not know any better? The sad truth is, we will never know.

On May 31st, 2017 Donald J. Trump tweeted “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.” He later claimed that this was an intentional mistake, but the truth was that he fell asleep while tweeting. It is obvious that he meant to say conference not covfefe. However, regardless of the spelling error there is still a problem with this tweet that puzzles the reader. Let us imagine that Trump had tweeted out “Despite the constant negative press conference.” There is still a lack of context that leaves the reader guessing. What happened as a result? Was he successful in some business deal? Did his approval rating go up? Did he pass a new bill? The questions that come to one’s mind are endless.

Another issue is the matter of invective. Twitter seems to be a great place for such things these days. If you scroll through Twitter at any time during the day, there is guaranteed to be some post where someone is putting someone else on blast. This is not unlike Roman satire. Lucilius for example makes a satire out of a legal despute between a certain Albicius and a man named Scaevola. In fact, this seems to be the longest fragment of Lucilius that we have recovered thus far. It reads (Lucilius 87-93). :

Graecum te, Albuci, quam Romanum atque Sabinum, municipem Ponti, Tritani,
centurionum, praeclarorum hominum ac primorum signiferumque, maluisti dici. Graece
ergo praetor Athenis, id quod maluisti, te, cum ad me accedis, saluto: ‘chaere’, inquam,
‘Tite’. lictores, turma omnis chorusque [cohorsque Manutius]: ‘chaere, Tite’. hinc hostis
mi Albucius, hinc inimicus (Lucilius 87-93).

Albucius, you wanted to be called a Greek instead of a Roman and a Sabine, a citizen of
Pontius and Tritanus, of centurions, of illustrious and first men and of standard-bearers.
Therefore, I as a praetor salute you at Athens in Greek, when you get to me, as you
wanted “Hey, Titus,” I said. The lictors, all of the squadron and the chorus, said “Hey
Titus.” (My translation).

While reading Lucilius is frustrating, because there is so much missing, it is also addicting. I kept reading line after line for the slim chance that I would better understand the poet and his satires. On the other hand, understanding tweets like the ones I mentioned above do not require nearly as much effort. One can simply google “why did Trump say the following?” or “why did Sean Spicer freak out on Twitter?” Even if at first these tweets leave the reader confused, they can quickly find an adequate answer. Unfortunately, Lucilius and many other authors that are left in fragments will most likely remain mysterious.

If someone were to google “why did Lucilius say the following?” or “why did Lucilius insult this miller?” There would probably be tons of suggested reading that would pop up which ask similar questions. Studying the ancient world can be frustrating. Especially when dealing with authors like Lucilius who are severely fragmented. If we want to know about what is going on in today’s world, we simply have to open a browser and ask away. Though, that in itself is a tricky process.


Javal A. Coleman was born and raised in Fort Worth Texas. After receiving his Bachelors in History with a minor in Latin and Classical Studies at the University of North Texas, he married his wife who he met at UNT and  moved to Austin to pursue a Phd in Classics at the University of Texas. Javal is primarily interested in the history of enslavement and more generally disenfranchised people and how law and gender contributed to their lived experience. In his free time he loves to read, play video games, and spend time with his wife and their beautiful daughter. 

Learning, Recollection, and Babies Laughing in their Sleep

Plutarch, Moralia: other Fragments 217

“A summary of different arguments by Plutarch of Charoneia showing that learning is recollection

    1. Do we think one thing because of another thing? Not unless it was known beforehand. This is a Platonic argument.
    2. Do we supplement ideas that are missing things? This is also Platonic
    3. Are children better at learning because they are nearer to the period before life when memory is preserved? This is an obvious approach.
    4. Are different people more capable for different kinds of learning?
    5. Have many people taught themselves entire art forms?
    6. Do babies laugh while they’re sleeping when they don’t while they are awake? Indeed, many speak when asleep even though they have not yet otherwise.
    7. Are some people frightened of silly things even though they are brave, like someone afraid of a weasel, or a rooster for no clear reason?
    8. Is discovery not attainable otherwise? For no one would seek what we know nor for what we never knew previously and we couldn’t find what we do not know.
    9. Is truth conversant with reality once forgetfulness has been removed? An argument based on diction.
    10. Is Memory the mother of the Muses, since unclear memory is the reason for our examinations.”

Ἐπιχειρημάτων διαφόρων συναγωγὴ δεικνύντων ἀναμνήσεις εἶναι τὰς μαθήσεις ἐκ τῶν τοῦ Χαιρωνέως Πλουτάρχου·

(a) Εἰ ἀφ᾿ ἑτέρου ἕτερον ἐννοοῦμεν. οὐκ ἂν εἰ μὴ προέγνωστο. τὸ ἐπιχείρημα Πλατωνικόν.

(b) Εἰ προστίθεμεν τὸ ἐλλεῖπον τοῖς αἰσθητοῖς· καὶ αὐτὸ Πλατωνικόν.

(c) Εἰ παῖδες εὐμαθέστεροι, ὡς ἐγγίους τῆς προβιοτῆς, ἐν  ἡ μνήμη ἐσῴζετο. ἐπιπόλαιος ὁ λόγος.

(d) Εἰ ἄλλοι πρὸς ἄλλο μάθημα ἐπιτηδειότεροι.

(e) Εἰ πολλοὶ αὐτοδίδακτοι ὅλων τεχνῶν.

(f) Εἰ πολλὰ παιδία ὑπνώττοντα γελᾷ, ὕπαρ δ᾿ οὔπω· πολλὰ δὲ καὶ ὄναρ2 ἐφθέγξατο, ἄλλως οὔπω φθεγγόμενα.

(g) Εἰ ἔνιοι καὶ ἀνδρεῖοι ὄντες ὅμως φοβοῦνται φαῦλ᾿ ἄττα, οἷον γαλῆν ἢ ἀλεκτρυόνα, ἀπ᾿ οὐδεμιᾶς φανερᾶς αἰτίας.

(h) Εἰ μὴ ἔστιν ἄλλως εὑρίσκειν. οὔτε γὰρ ἃ ἴσμεν ζητήσειεν ἄν τις, οὔτε ἃ μηδαμῶς ἴσμεν πρότερον, ἀλλ᾿ οὐδ᾿ ἂν εὕροιμεν ἃ μὴ ἴσμεν.

(i) Εἰ ἡ ἀλήθεια κατ᾿ ἀφαίρεσιν τῆς λήθης ἔντευξις τοῦ ὄντος ἐστί. λογικὴ ἡ ἐπιχείρησις.

(j) Εἰ ἡ μήτηρ τῶν Μουσῶν Μνημοσύνη, ὡς ἡ ἀδιάρθρωτος μνήμη τῶν ζητήσεων αἰτία.

New Mexico Recollections by Marsden Hartley (,_Columbus_Museum_of_Art.jpg)

Maybe Music Can Stop the Plague?

Plutarch, On Music (Moralia 1146c-d)

“The degree to which the best governed states have dedicated themselves to fine music finds ample testimony, especially in the case of Terpander who brought an end to the civil strife that was ruining the Spartans.

There’s also Thaletas of Crete who people say listened to the Delphic oracle and went Sparta and returned people to health with music, saving Sparta from the Pandemic that was gripping the land, as Pratinas claims.

Homer too says that the Greeks stopped a plague with music, for he says that “sons of the Achaeans propitiated the god with song and dance all day long / singing the noble paean and praising the / far-shooter who took pleasure in hearing the song.”

I’ll leave those verses as the final words in my argument about music, good teacher, since you started this discussion by quoting them to us. In truth, music’s first and finest labor is to give thanks back to the gods, and after that comes a cleansing of the soul, sure tone, and sustained harmony.”

Ὅτι δὲ καὶ ταῖς εὐνομωτάταις τῶν πόλεων ἐπιμελὲς γεγένηται φροντίδα ποιεῖσθαι τῆς γενναίας μουσικῆς πολλὰ μὲν καὶ ἄλλα μαρτύρια παραθέσθαι ἐστίν, Τέρπανδρον δ᾿ ἄν τις παραλάβοι τὸν τὴν γενομένην ποτὲ παρὰ Λακεδαιμονίοις στάσιν καταλύσαντα, καὶ Θαλήταν6 τὸν Κρῆτα, ὅν φασι κατά τι πυθόχρηστον Λακεδαιμονίους παραγενόμενον διὰ μουσικῆς ἰάσασθαι ἀπαλλάξαι τε τοῦ κατασχόντος λοιμοῦ τὴν Σπάρτην, καθάπερ φησὶν Πρατίνας. ἀλλὰ γὰρ καὶ Ὅμηρος τὸν κατασχόντα λοιμὸν τοὺς Ἕλληνας παύσασθαι λέγει διὰ μουσικῆς· ἔφη γοῦν οἱ δὲ πανημέριοι μολπῇ θεὸν ἱλάσκοντο / καλὸν ἀείδοντες παιήονα, κοῦροι Ἀχαιῶν / μέλποντες ἑκάεργον· ὁ δὲ φρένα τέρπετ᾿ ἀκούων.

τούτους τοὺς στίχους, ἀγαθὲ διδάσκαλε, κολοφῶνα τῶν περὶ τῆς μουσικῆς λόγων πεποίημαι, ἐπεὶ φθάσας σὺ τὴν μουσικὴν δύναμιν διὰ τούτων προαπέφηνας ἡμῖν· τῷ γὰρ ὄντι τὸ πρῶτον αὐτῆς καὶ κάλλιστον ἔργον ἡ εἰς τοὺς θεοὺς εὐχάριστός ἐστιν ἀμοιβή, ἑπόμενον δὲ τούτῳ καὶ δεύτερον τὸ τῆς ψυχῆς καθάρσιον καὶ ἐμμελὲς καὶ ἐναρμόνιον σύστημα.”

The oldest picture of the Pied Piper copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hameln/Hamelin Germany (c.1300-1633)

The Art of Reading Slowly


I. Meaning in Literature: Saying Something Without Saying It

In Book Nine of the Iliad three ambassadors from the Greek army—Odysseus, Aias, and Phoinix—go to visit Achilles to appeal to him to rejoin the battle. He offers them hospitality in the proper manner:

αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ᾽ ὤπτησε καὶ εἰν ἐλεοῖσιν ἔχευε,
Πάτροκλος μὲν σῖτον ἑλὼν ἐπένειμε τραπέζῃ
καλοῖς ἐν κανέοισιν, ἀτὰρ κρέα νεῖμεν Ἀχιλλεύς. (Il.9.215–17)

But when he had roasted [the meat] and put it on the platters,
Patroklos took the bread and set it out on a table
in beautiful baskets, but Achilles served the meat.

Patroklos, of course, is Achilles’ closest friend and companion. He and Achilles share the duties of hospitality, and no doubt Achilles, as the official host, has the more important task of serving the meat, while Patroklos has the less honorary task of serving the bread.

In Book Twenty-four of the Iliad, Priam comes to Achilles’ hut to ask for the body of his son, Hektor, who has been killed by Achilles because he killed Patroklos. Achilles offers him the same kind of hospitality he offered to the three ambassadors:

ὤπτηςάν τε περιφραδέως, ἐρύσαντο τε πάντα.
Αὐτομέδων δ᾽ἄρα σῖτον ἑλὼν ἐπένειμε τραπέζῃ
καλοῖς ἐν κανέοισιν, ἀτὰρ κρέα νεῖμεν Ἀχιλλεύς. (Il.24.624–26)

And he roasted [the meat] carefully, and pulled it all off [the spits]
And Automedon took the bread and set it out on a table
in beautiful baskets, but Achilles served the meat.

Lines 9.216–17 and lines 24.625–26 are identical, except for the name of the person serving the bread. Patroklos clearly can’t serve the bread because he has been killed by Hektor, whose father has come to ask for his body. The substitution of the name Automedon for the name Patroklos is a stark reminder of why Priam has come to Achilles, and a reminder of what Achilles has lost because of Hektor. The substitution carries with it all the grief and anger felt by Achilles and all the implicit threat of violence that Priam faces. The change of name signifies the absence of Patroklos and the reason for his absence. These lines, I would suggest, show the power of narrative to say something without explicitly saying it.

These lines are probably formulaic; that is, they probably belong to the stock of lines the poet has available to assist in the process of oral composition by improvisation. (I don’t mean to suggest that there was a complete set of fixed lines stored in the poet’s memory— formulaic composition was flexible and varied—but that’s another discussion.) Situations or actions which are likely to be happen with some frequency were likely to accumulate formulaic expressions—sacrifice, arming, preparing a ship for sailing, and so on. Offering hospitality no doubt occurred many times in oral epic, and it’s not surprising if there were formulas to express it. One might argue that this repetition of lines from Book Nine to Book Twenty-four is simply a consequence of the formulaic technique and therefore without any particular meaning. It is perhaps hard to imagine that the audience of oral epic performance would make the connection between these two passages. It is possible that the Homeric epics were usually performed in sections on different occasions; if so, it might seem even more unlikely that the audience would note the varied repetition of these two lines.

I am not persuaded by this argument. My reading of the epics tells me that Homer—the person or the tradition we call Homer, again that’s another discussion—was a skilled and subtle poet and psychologist. The epics are full of cross-references that come to their full meaning only if we allow ourselves to grant the poet the respect due to a great artist, a great composer of verse and narrative.

Most scholars, I believe, would agree that Books One and Twenty-four of the Iliad show a remarkable pattern of correspondences. We can identify a number of events in Book One which are then repeated in reverse order in Book Twenty-four; for instance, (A) Chryses’ appeal for the return of his daughter (1.10–42) corresponds to Priam’s appeal for the return of Hektor’s body (24.471–688); (B) the conversation between Thetis and Achilles (1.351–427) corresponds to another conversation between Thetis and Achilles (24.126–58); (C) the conversation between Thetis and Zeus (1.500–530) corresponds to another conversation between Thetis and Zeus (24.100–119); and (D) the gathering of the gods at the end of Book One (1.533–611) corresponds to the gathering of the gods at the beginning of Book Twenty-four ((24.32–76). Thus events ABCD in Book One are matched by events DCBA in Book Twenty-four. If Homer expected his audience to remember the events of Book One when they heard Book Twenty-four, he could have expected them to remember Book Nine as well.

The correspondence of events at the beginning and ending of the Iliad is an instance of what is called Ring Composition. This kind of ring can create an Invitation to Compare; here, for example, we are invited to compare Agamemnon’s rude dismissal of Chryses with Achilles’ gracious, if reluctant, acceptance of Priam.

Ring composition in various forms is very common in the Homeric epics and in classical literature generally. It is also common in modern literature, but less often noted by critics. Near the beginning of Orwell’s 1984, for instance, Winston Smith sees the three failed revolutionaries (Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford) sitting at the Chestnut Tree Café; at the very end of the novel, Smith himself, broken by interrogation, is sitting at the Chestnut Tree Café. A number of specific repetitions mark the ring: “It was the lonely hour of fifteen” (77 and 287); the song “Under the spreading chestnut tree (77 and 293); the chessboard (77 and 288). This ring is clearly an invitation to compare Smith to the earlier failed revolutionaries.

Rings can come in various lengths and have various functions. Flashbacks are often marked as rings. In the Odyssey, the famous passage which explains the scar of Odysseus is a ring, marked by the repetition of the words “scar” (οὐλήν at 19.393 and 19.464) and “recognized” (ἔγνω at 19.392 and γνῶ at 19.468). This flashback, like many others, is a folding back of time on itself, and a reminder that the past leaves its mark in the present. Each ring has to be interpreted in its own context.

All of these instances of Ring Composition, and the hundreds more that it would be easy to add to the list, are examples of Saying Something Without Saying It. These meanings typically don’t translate very well into explicit propositions. A joke loses its point if it has to be explained, and literary meanings are attenuated when they are stated as explicit themes.

Brygos Painter500 BC – 480 BC, ANSA IV 3710 Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien

II. Philology: The Art of Reading Slowly

All my life I’ve been fascinated by words, by the way words form phrases and sentences, and the way sentences form poems and stories. The technical term for this fascination is philology—the love of language. Friedrich Nietzsche defined philology as the art of reading slowly. For about six months I’ve been publishing a blog titled “The Art of Reading Slowly: A Blog about Language and Literature”, in which I post little essays on philological topics that catch my fancy. Here’s the link: )

As I see it, philology has four major components, all of which work together. These components are (1) historical linguistics, (2) the editing of texts, (3) the interpretation of meaning in context, and (4) literary criticism with a particular attention to language. I’m interested in all of these, and I post on all of them, but my own work lies primarily in the third and fourth areas. I created this blog as an invitation for anyone who has a passion for language and literature—readers and writers of all sorts. I would like to think of it as one part of a conversation among people who share an interest in the way language works and the way it turns into art.

My own training is in classical philology, ancient Greek and Latin literature, but my blog is mostly about the English language and modern literature. Here are some titles of the blogs I’ve published: “Lost in a Book” (about the experience of reading); “Plangent, Ostiole, and Winze” (about the vocabulary of Malcolm Lowrey’s Under the Volcano); “A Heap of Words” (about the rhetorical figure called congeries); “Rhetorical Figures in Ellen Glasgow’s The Romantic Comedians”; “Philology in the Future” (about editing texts); “Etymology and Entomology” (one of several posts on historical linguistics and etymology); and most recently “Verbish Nouns and Nounish Verbs” (about the parts of speech in English).

I have no particular plan for what comes next, though I think I will continue the discussion of parts of speech for another post or two, and I’m sure I will continue to talk about rhetorical figures, but anything that catches my eye when I’m reading might start me going. Several readers have contributed fascinating comments to the blog, and I encourage conversation; I’m also open to guest columns, and I was very pleased to publish a column, “Trauma and Reading Homer”, by Joel Christensen, the author/editor of sententiae antiquae and the author of the recent book about Odysseus, The Many-Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic. If you think you might be interested in the blog, I invite you to take a look at it. Here’s the link again:

Image result for priam and achilles vase ransom of hector
Athens, ca 510 BC, Sackler Museum (Harvard U.)

Less Human Apart: Isolation and Civilization in Myth, Science Fiction and RL

I am reposting this entry from early in the pandemic in honor of the panel “The Powers and Perils of Solitude in Greek Literature” at the SCS Annual Meeting. My paper “Being Human, Being Alone: Isolation and Heroic Exceptionality in the Odyssey” draws on it.

Here’s the roster of talks

The Post


Iliad, 2.721–723

“Philoktetes lies there on the island suffering harsh pains
In holy Lemnos where the sons of the Achaeans left him
suffering with an evil wound from a murderous watersnake.”

ἀλλ’ ὃ μὲν ἐν νήσῳ κεῖτο κρατέρ’ ἄλγεα πάσχων
Λήμνῳ ἐν ἠγαθέῃ, ὅθι μιν λίπον υἷες ᾿Αχαιῶν
ἕλκεϊ μοχθίζοντα κακῷ ὀλοόφρονος ὕδρου

Odyssey 5.13–15

“He lies there on the island suffering harsh pains
In the halls of Calypso the nymph who holds him
under compulsion. He is not capable of returning to his paternal land.”

ἀλλ’ ὁ μὲν ἐν νήσῳ κεῖται κρατέρ’ ἄλγεα πάσχων
νύμφης ἐν μεγάροισι Καλυψοῦς, ἥ μιν ἀνάγκῃ
ἴσχει· ὁ δ’ οὐ δύναται ἣν πατρίδα γαῖαν ἱκέσθαι

Isolation. “Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos,” By Jean Germain Drouais

The figure of the isolated hero in ancient Greek myth and poetry is one who is set apart, on an island, separated from other humans and, by extension, from human culture. The impact of isolation is often communicated through the heroic body, even if it is offered in some way as a cause: Philoktetes’ dehumanization is reflected in the wound whose antisocial attributes cause him to be abandoned (described like a disease in Sophocles’ play). Odysseus seems arguably less human insofar as he is stripped of agency and, until Hermes comes to move him, clearly more an object of interest than a subject of his own.

Indeed, the Odyssey has deep ethnographic concerns, focusing on how people make their livings and how they live their lives. When Odysseus describes the island of the Cyclopes, he remarks on how it might be a good place to live, but the Cyclopes themselves are “arrogant and lawless” (ὑπερφιάλων ἀθεμίστων, 9.106). They aren’t human because of the  way they live (they do not cultivate the land, 108-111). And they are less than human because of how they organize their lives (Odyssey 9.112–115):

 “They don’t have council-bearing assemblies or laws,
But instead they inhabit homes on high hills
In hollow caves, and each one makes laws
For his children and wives—they do not have concern for one another.”

τοῖσιν δ’ οὔτ’ ἀγοραὶ βουληφόροι οὔτε θέμιστες,
ἀλλ’ οἵ γ’ ὑψηλῶν ὀρέων ναίουσι κάρηνα
ἐν σπέεσι γλαφυροῖσι, θεμιστεύει δὲ ἕκαστος
παίδων ἠδ’ ἀλόχων, οὐδ’ ἀλλήλων ἀλέγουσι.

In a way, Odysseus anticipates here the later Greek use of the term idiotês for the person who fails to understand that the commonwealth directly impacts individual possessions—indeed, it makes possible the existence of individual goods. The ancient idiot, in this political sense, is a kind of naïve libertarian who is incapable of conceiving of shared human society as the very thing that makes life possible and also worth living.

*          *          *          *

Current events are forcing us to explore some of the same tensions: inasmuch as some are aghast that we are not willing to die to preserve the economy, the rest of us remain horror stricken at how much our public health and collective good have been sacrificed to prop up the wealth of a very few. Even though my training directs my thoughts consistently to the past for parallels to cope with the present, my own reading history and proclivity for speculative fiction keep taking me to narrative futures. In my impatience to be done with the now, I am busy manufacturing anxieties about what will become of us later.

In Isaac Asimov’s Robot novel The Naked Sun (1957), the detective Elijah Bailey is dispatched to one of the “spacer” worlds to investigate a murder. In Asimov’s world, humankind lives in a mixed future where billions are crowded into cities on earth while a select elite escape to fifty “Spacer” worlds. Over time, the antagonism between Spacer and Earther expands as the former use their greater resources and technology to dominate the latter. And Earthers suffer from a fear of the outside, a reluctance to leave the comfort of their cities.

The Spacers, those libertarian techno-overlords, fear contagion and disease and contact with the human rabble left on earth. When Baily meets with the widow of the murdered scientist on her planet Solaria, Gladia, she will at first only see him through “viewing” (a video screen). Eventually she breaks Solarian taboo and comes to him in person and to help solve the crime. (No spoiler, but it wasn’t a robot.)

Many years later (in our world) Asimov returns to Solaria generations later in his Foundation and Earth (1986). In the intervening years, the Spacer planets were eclipsed by the rapid expansion of the population of Earth into the galaxy, fading quickly into obsolescence and obscurity. The Solaria found here is populated by a few human beings who intentionally developed hermaphroditic qualities so they would never have to encounter other human beings in person again. The Solarian world is expansive—each person lives on massive estates, engaging with others only through mediated viewing and using technology to ritualize isolation.

E. M. Forster in his short story “The Machine Stops” (1909, 1928) puts humankind in a sub-terrestrial, dystopic future. People must live in isolation, in basic rooms from which they engage in the world only through video conferencing. One of the main characters, Vashti, spends a great deal of her time broadcasting her ideas over this ersatz internet, recycling and repackaging ideas for consumption and replacing most human relationship with a distanced presentation of the ‘self’. The main plot of this tale, of course, is about the “machine” which supports all of this life collapsing, but the lingering sense it leaves is one of the panopticon in which the ability to broadcast, to send a message, is traded for being watched and people live separate from one another both out of fear and out of habit.

I have been thinking about both of these speculative narratives over the past few weeks as my work has converted online completely and my social life has blended into it. I “zoom” with colleagues, skype with friends, and merely text-message with my extended family. I watch as my children are habituated to the same kind of mediated existence. There is an hour each day when three of us are on zoom simultaneously, in the same house but in separate rooms, sometimes irked that the sound of another intrudes on our distanced engagement.

We have been living with some of the rapid consequences of these kinds of mediated communication networks for years. Is something as bizarre as pizza-gate possible without facebook or other online fora? Do these media ever produce anything but the strangest and saddest common denominator?

Modern science fiction is no stranger to this too. In his post-apocalpytic Seveneves, Neal Stephenson—an author a bit too libertarian and soft on techo-capitalists generally—puts a surviving remnant of humanity in space, isolated in a network of space capsules connected by a communication network dubbed “spacebook”. In order to survive, these clutches of life have to preserve resources and follow a very basic plan. But paranoia explodes in the social network: one week, a thought leader proposes that in space humans do not need legs, so they should cut them off and eat them to preserve the protein. Soon, a critical number of people depart with precious resources to try to make it to Mars because they convinced themselves in their echo chamber of madness that this was a good plan, despite every bit of evidence to the contrary.

Neal Stephenson's SEVENEVES — Dennis D. McDonald's Web Site

(they all die. A mere handful of people survive their stupidity.)

Of the many ways in which COVID-19 will change our lives, one is how it will accelerate our embrace of life online. Children are having playdates online: ours have had dance classes, piano lessons, and speech therapy in just the last week to go along with 2-3 ‘Montessori’ zoom lessons a day. Although I am deeply grateful to these teachers and instructors for bringing some sense of normalcy to our children’s days, I worry that this will be their baseline: no playgrounds, no playmates, but video-streamed encounters and mediated experiences. They will be open to the supercharged pathways of disinformation that propagate quack cures for plagues and easy arguments for denying collective action against global warming.

Asimov’s Solarians are independent-minded elitists whose fear of disease and love of long lives pushes them further and further apart; Forster’s subterraneans are addicted to the comfort of their regulated lives and distracted by the ability to be ‘experts’ and temporary celebrities in the global machine. Stephenson’s human race barely survives an apocalypse followed by human caused ruin thanks to individual heroics and fantastic evolutionary science. The Coronavirus won’t suddenly turn us into any of these groups, but it may make us just that much less human.

*          *          *          *

Modern studies in narrative emphasize how our identity develops from social relationships and studies in cognitive psychology show how isolation can have damaging effects on us emotionally and mentally. When separated from others we can experience an increase in fear and paranoia (See Andersen et al. 2000, 19.); studies in the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners demonstrate a marked increase in the development of psychopathology under the influence of isolation which can eventuate in neurobiological transformations. The brain of an isolated human being may demonstrate fewer neural connections and correlate with distortions in memory and a deterioration of language abilities. Isolation, to put it simply, can break down those very things that make people who they are. (see Ravindran 2014, Gilmore and Nanon 2014; Kaba et al. 2014)

Ancient Greek myth and poetry seems to communicate this through figures like Philoktetes—who languishes for a decade after being marooned on the island of Lemnos—and Odysseus, who suffers in quasi-isolation for seven years, weeping on the edge of the sea (but having sex with Calypso at night). Odysseus cannot return home directly from this. His journey home requires him to repeatedly tell stories about himself and to reaffirm his identity step-by-step through reunions with the important people in his life. It is Odysseus too who brings Philoktetes back into society in Sophocles’ play.

I think ancient audiences saw the sufferings of both figures as a result from their isolation, from their separation from communion with other human beings. Both Homer’s epic and Sophocles’ play emphasize political themes and social consequences: Odysseus and Philoktetes are at times calculating and full of rage, leaving characters in the poems (and audiences outside them) unsure of if or when they will lash out.

What each narrative emphasizes, however, is that the isolated figure needs fellowship and partnership to return to human society. Odysseus’ return home is not complete until he is recognized—and recognizes himself—in his son, spouse, and father. Philoktetes needs to be persuaded to return, to be cajoled and guided and distracted from the fact he is being used.

This is, perhaps, cold comfort for those of us isolated now. But it does remind us that having other people around us is important and that, when the time comes to reintegrate, it won’t be simple or easy. We will have to tell each other our stories and listen to who we confirm in each other we are.

And perhaps it will force us to think about the world we create for ourselves. The plot which drives Asimov’s Foundation and Earth is a choice about the future of life in the galaxy: whether it will continue on as it has, with everyone charting separate courses of self interest or it will change radically, adopting the life-form model of a planet called Gaia where all inhabitants shared consciousness and fate, yielding some sense of free will.

When I read this choice to its conclusion in the late 80s, I was horrified because it seemed (spoiler alert) that the protagonist was choosing communism! But it did not take many years for the wisdom of this choice to make a little more sense. At the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home and murders 108 suitors. The epic almost ends with a civil war but for the intervention of Athena and Zeus who declare an amnesty, insisting that the Ithakans and Odysseus need to live together (24.486, πλοῦτος δὲ καὶ εἰρήνη ἅλις ἔστω). In this, the individual leader is forced to change his ways; but the people have to submit to forgetting and forgetting the violence and malice which brought a generation to ruin.

What choices will we face? Which ones will we be able to make?

Some things to read

Andersen, H. S., Sestoft, D. D., Lillebæk, T. T., Gabrielsen, G. G., Hemmingsen, R. R., & Kramp, P. P. 2000. “A Longitudinal Study of Prisoners on Remand: Psychiatric Prevalence, Incidence and Psychopathology in Solitary vs. Non-Solitary Confinement.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 102:19.

Foundation and Earth (Foundation #5) by Isaac Asimov

Barker, E.T.E. and Christensen J. P. Homer’s Thebes. Washington, D.C. 2019.

Gilmore, Betty and Williams, Nanon M. 2014. The Darkest Hour: Shedding Light on the Impact of Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prisons. Dallas.

Kaba, Fatos et al. 2014. “Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm Among Jail Inmates.” American Journal of Public Health: March 2014, Vol. 104, No. 3, pp. 442–447.

Ravindran, Shruti 2014. “Twilight in the Box.” Aeon 27.

Shay, Jonathan. 2002. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. New York.

Thiher, Allen. 1999. Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature. Ann Arbor.

Underwood, Charles. 2018. Mythos and Voice: Displacement, Learning, and Agency in Odysseus’ World. Lanham: Lexington Books