Rescuing a Man of Defensive Humor

Seneca, EM 29.4-8

“I am not yet in despair about our companion Marcellinus. He can be saved even now, but only if a hand be given to him quickly. There certainly is a risk that he will drag his rescuer down with him—there is a great force of intelligence in the man, even though it is already leaning towards depravity. Nevertheless, I will face this danger and dare to show him his mistakes.

He will do what he usually does—he will call up his wittiness which can elicit laughter even from mourners and joke first about himself and then about me. He will oppose everything I plan to say. He will scrutinize our philosophical beliefs and complain that philosophers took handouts, had girlfriends, and were gluttons. He will tell me about some philosopher who is caught in adultery, another who hangs out at bars, another found in court. He will tell me about Aristo, Marcus Lepidus’ philosopher who used to have conversations while he was riding around in his carriage (since that was the time he had set aside for editing his work) so that Scaurus gossiped about him, “Well, he’s not one of the Walking Doctors, at least.” Julius Graecinus, when asked about the same person, said “I can’t tell you, for I don’t know what he can do on foot!” as if he were asked about a charioteer.

He will mock these types of cavalrymen, men I think would have been better to have ignored philosophy than sell it. But I am resolved to tolerate the insults. Let him try to move my laughter and I, perhaps, will move him to tears. Or, if he persists telling jokes, I will still take some joy in these sufferings, since he’s touched by a humorous kind of madness. This type of humor is not long-lived. Look carefully and you will see that people like this laugh intemperately and then rage intemperately in a short span of time.”

Marcellinum nostrum ego nondum despero. Etiamnunc servari potest, sed si cito illi manus porrigitur. Est quidem periculum, ne porrigentem trahat; magna in illo ingenii vis est, sed iam tendentis in pravum. Nihilominus adibo hoc periculum et audebo illi mala sua ostendere. Faciet quod solet; advocabit illas facetias, quae risum evocare lugentibus possunt, et in se primum, deinde in nos iocabitur. Omnia, quae dicturus sum, occupabit. Scrutabitur scholas nostras et obiciet philosophis congiaria, amicas, gulam. Ostendet mihi alium in adulterio, alium in popina, alium in aula. Ostendet mihi M. Lepidi philosophum Aristonem, qui in gestatione disserebat. Hoc enim ad edendas operas tempus acceperat. De cuius secta cum quaereretur, Scaurus ait: “Utique Peripateticus non est.” De eodem cum consuleretur Iulius Graecinus, vir egregius, quid sentiret, “Non possum,” inquit, “tibi dicere; nescio enim, quid de gradu faciat,” tamquam de essedario interrogaretur. Hos mihi circulatores, qui philosophiam honestius neglexissent quam vendunt, in faciem ingeret. Constitui tamen contumelias perpeti; moveat ille mihi risum, ego fortasse illi lacrimas movebo, aut si ridere perseverabit, gaudebo tamquam in malis, quod illi genus insaniae hilare contigerit. Sed non est ista hilaritas longa. Observa; videbis eosdem intra exiguum 8tempus acerrime ridere et acerrime rabere.

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BL Add_ms_49622_f193v

An Untold Number of Gods and the Path to Eternal Fame

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 2.5 16–18

“This is the reason it is possible to estimate a greater number of divinities than there are humans: individuals make a number of gods equal to their number by adopting their own Junos and Genii. Indeed, some peoples have animals, even horrible ones, for gods and many others too shameful to report, such as swearing by rotten food or other similar things.

Believing in marriage among the gods but without anyone being born from them for such a great span of time or that some are always old and graying while others are eternally young even children, or that some gods are dark-colored, winged, crippled born from eggs, or dying and living on alternating days, these beliefs are like childhood delusions. But it is beyond every kind of shame to imagine adultery among them, then strife and hatred, and that there are powers of thieves and criminals. “God” is a person helping another person; this is the path to eternal fame.”

quamobrem maior caelitum populus etiam quam hominum intellegi potest, cum singuli quoque ex semetipsis totidem deos faciant Iunones Geniosque adoptando sibi, gentes vero quaedam animalia et aliqua etiam obscena pro dis habeant ac multa dictu magis pudenda, per fetidos cibos et alia similia iurantes. matrimonia quidem inter deos credi tantoque aevo ex eis neminem nasci, et alios esse grandaevos semper canosque, alios iuvenes atque pueros, atricolores, aligeros, claudos, ovo editos et alternis diebus viventes morientesque, puerilium prope deliramentorum est; sed super omnem inpudentiam adulteria inter ipsos fingi, mox iurgia et odia, atque etiam furtorum esse et scelerum numina. deus est mortali iuvare mortalem, et haec ad aeternam gloriam via.

File:Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Florence, Plut. 82.4.jpg
Pliny the Elder, Natural History in ms. Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 82.4, fol. 3r.

The Magic Words of Healing

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 28.21-22

“It is not easy to explain whether foreign and unrepeatable words undermine our confidence more than uncommon Latin ones which our mind makes seem ridiculous since it is always casting about for something  huge and strong enough to move a god, that is, something to force the mind’s will on divine power.

Homer claims that Ulysses, when he was wounded in the thigh, stopped the flow of blood with a song; Theophrastus says there is a verse to heal sciatica; Cato has passed down a song to help dislocated limbs; Marcus Varro has one for gout. It is reported that the dictator Caesar, after a single severe accident to his vehicle, would, as soon as he took his seat, repeat three times a song for a safe journey—a thing which we know many people do now.”

neque est facile dictu externa verba atque ineffabilia abrogent fidem validius an Latina inopinata et quae inridicula videri cogit animus semper aliquid inmensum exspectans ac dignum deo movendo, immo vero quod numini imperet. dixit Homerus profluvium sanguinis vulnerato femine Ulixen inhibuisse carmine, Theophrastus ischiadicos sanari, Cato prodidit luxatis membris carmen auxiliare, M. Varro podagris. Caesarem dictatorem post unum ancipitem vehiculi casum ferunt semper ut primum consedisset, id quod plerosque nunc facere scimus, carmine ter repetito securitatem itinerum aucupari solitum.

 

 

This reminds me of the tradition that granted Pythagoras’ songs healing power:

Porphyry, On the Life of Pythagoras

30. “[Pythagoras] healed psychic and bodily sufferings with rhythm, songs, and incantations. He adapted these treatments to his companions, while he himself heard the harmony of everything because he could understand the unity of the spheres and the harmonies of the stars moving with them. It is not our nature to hear this in the least.”

30. κατεκήλει δὲ ῥυθμοῖς καὶ μέλεσι καὶ ἐπῳδαῖς τὰ ψυχικὰ πάθη καὶ τὰ σωματικά. καὶ τοῖς μὲν ἑταίροις ἡρμόζετο ταῦτα, αὐτὸς δὲ τῆς τοῦ παντὸς ἁρμονίας ἠκροᾶτο συνιεὶς τῆς καθολικῆς τῶν σφαιρῶν καὶ τῶν κατ’ αὐτὰς κινουμένων ἀστέρων ἁρμονίας, ἧς ἡμᾶς μὴ ἀκούειν διὰ σμικρότητα τῆς φύσεως.

32. “Diogenes says that Pythagoras encouraged all men to avoid ambition and lust for fame, because they especially inculcate envy, and also to stay away from large crowds. He used to convene gatherings at his house at dawn himself, accompanying his singing to the lyre and singing some ancient songs of Thales. And he also sang the songs of Hesiod and Homer, as many as appeared to calm his spirit. He would also dance some dances which he believed brought good mobility and health to the body. He used to take walks himself but not with a crowd, taking only two or three companions to shrines or groves, finding the most peaceful and beautiful places.”

32. Διογένης φησὶν ὡς ἅπασι μὲν παρηγγύα φιλοτιμίαν φεύγειν καὶ φιλοδοξίαν, ὥπερ μάλιστα φθόνον ἐργάζεσθαι, ἐκτρέπεσθαι δὲ τὰς μετὰ τῶν πολλῶν ὁμιλίας. τὰς γοῦν διατριβὰς καὶ αὐτὸς ἕωθεν μὲν ἐπὶ τῆς οἰκίας ἐποιεῖτο, ἁρμοζόμενος πρὸς λύραν τὴν ἑαυτοῦ φωνὴν καὶ ᾄδων παιᾶνας ἀρχαίους τινὰς τῶν Θάλητος. καὶ ἐπῇδε τῶν ῾Ομήρου καὶ ῾Ησιόδου ὅσα καθημεροῦν τὴν ψυχὴν ἐδόξαζε. καὶ ὀρχήσεις δέ τινας ὑπωρχεῖτο ὁπόσας εὐκινησίαν καὶ ὑγείαν τῷ σώματι παρασκευάζειν ᾤετο. τοὺς δὲ περιπάτους οὐδ’ αὐτὸς ἐπιφθόνως μετὰ πολλῶν ἐποιεῖτο, ἀλλὰ δεύτερος ἢ τρίτος ἐν ἱεροῖς ἢ ἄλσεσιν, ἐπιλεγόμενος τῶν χωρίων τὰ ἡσυχαίτατα καὶ περικαλλέστατα.

33. “He loved his friends overmuch and was the first to declare that friends possessions are common and that a friend is another self. When they were healthy, he always talked to them; when they were sick, he took care of their bodies. If they were mentally ill, he consoled them, as we said before, some with incantations and spells, others by music. He had songs and paeans for physical ailments: when he sang them, he relieved fatigue. He also could cause forgetfulness of grief, calming of anger, and redirection of desire.”

33.τοὺς δὲ φίλους ὑπερηγάπα, κοινὰ μὲν τὰ τῶν φίλων εἶναι πρῶτος ἀποφηνάμενος, τὸν δὲ φίλον ἄλλον ἑαυτόν. καὶ ὑγιαίνουσι μὲν αὐτοῖς ἀεὶ συνδιέτριβεν, κάμνοντας δὲ τὰ σώματα ἐθεράπευεν, καὶ τὰς ψυχὰς δὲ νοσοῦντας παρεμυθεῖτο, καθάπερ ἔφαμεν, τοὺς μὲν ἐπῳδαῖς καὶ μαγείαις τοὺς δὲ μουσικῇ. ἦν γὰρ αὐτῷ μέλη καὶ πρὸς νόσους σωμάτων παιώνια, ἃ ἐπᾴδων ἀνίστη τοὺς κάμνοντας. ἦν <δ’> ἃ καὶ λύπης λήθην εἰργάζετο καὶ ὀργὰς ἐπράυνε καὶ ἐπιθυμίας ἀτόπους ἐξῄρει.

British Library - Royal 6.E.vi,  f. 396v. - Detail of a historiated initial 'C'(onstellacio) of an astrologer observing the sky, and the devil in a circle.
Image from medievalists.net

Seneca Goes Stir-crazy On the Weekend

Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi 2

“Regret for work only begun grips them and then fear of starting again and then the anxiety of a mind that can find no end—because they can neither control their desires nor serve them, the hesitation of a life which cannot make its own way and the stillness of a soul growing dull among failed schemes. These traits grow worse when people flee toward leisure because of hatred of unsuccessful work, or they flee to private studies which a mind set on more public achievement cannot tolerate because it desires accomplishment and is restless by nature since it certainly has too little comfort in itself. Therefore, once the distractions are removed which vocations themselves offer those who run to them, the mind cannot endure home, quiet, or the walls of a room as it recoils unwillingly at being left to itself.

From this arises that boredom and displeasure and the volatility of mind that can rest nowhere—the sad and sickly tolerance of one’s own leisure. This especially is true when it is a matter of shame to admit the causes and embarrassment suppresses the torments deeper. Desires compressed in a narrow space without escape choke on one another.

This is the origin of mourning and depression and the endless fluctuations of an uncertain mind which hopes for work begun keep in suspense and the failure makes sorrowful. This is where that feeling that makes people despise their own leisure comes from and why they complain they have nothing to do; this also prompts their hateful envy of other’s success. Their sad lack of motion feeds jealousy and they want everyone to fail because they could not succeed themselves. Then from this dismissal of the success of others and their own despair, their mind is enraged against fortune—it complains of the era, and they retreat and ruminates over its trouble until it bores and shames itself. For the human mind is naturally agile and prone to motion. It welcomes every cause of excitement and for being distracting from itself—even more welcome to those worse types who are worn out more freely in pursuing them.”

Tunc illos et paenitentia coepti tenet et incipiendi timor subrepitque illa animi iactatio non invenientis exitum, quia nec imperare cupiditatibus suis nec obsequi possunt, et cunctatio vitae parum se explicantis et inter destituta vota torpentis animi situs. Quae omnia graviora sunt, ubi odio infelicitatis operosae ad otium perfugerunt, ad secreta studia, quae pati non potest animus ad civilia erectus agendique cupidus et natura inquies, parum scilicet in se solaciorum habens; ideo detractis oblectationibus, quas ipsae occupationes discurrentibus praebent, domum, solitudinem, parietes non fert, invitus aspicit se sibi relictum.

Hinc illud est taedium et displicentia sui et nusquam residentis animi volutatio et otii sui tristis atque aegra patientia; utique ubi causas fateri pudet et tormenta introsus egit verecundia, in angusto inclusae cupiditates sine exitu se ipsae strangulant. Inde maeror marcorque et mille fluctus mentis incertae, quam spes inchoatae suspensam habent, deploratae tristem; inde ille adfectus otium suum detestantium querentiumque nihil ipsos habere, quod agant et alienis incrementis inimicissima invidia. Alit enim livorem infelix inertia et omnes destrui cupiunt, quia se non potuere provehere; ex hac deinde aversatione alienorum processuum et suorum desperatione obirascens fortunae animus et de saeculo querens et in angulos se retrahens et poenae incubans suae, dum illum taedet sui pigetque. Natura enim humanus animus agilis est et pronus ad motus. Grata omnis illi excitandi se abstrahendique materia est, gratior pessimis quibusque ingeniis, quae occupationibus libenter deteruntur.

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MS from Bodleian Library. (Found on Pinterest)

Merely Playing with Words: Learning For School Not for Life

Seneca, Moral Epistle 106.11-12

“In sum, whatever we do we are compelled to do by either malice or virtue. What controls a body, is corporeal; what gives force to a body is a body. The good of a body is corporeal good; the good of a person is the good of a body—therefore it too is corporeal.

Since I have pursued this custom as you wanted, now I myself will say what I expect you to say: “we have been playing games!” Our wit is worn thing by silly things—they make us learned but not good. To be wise is a more obvious matter—it is much better to use literature to improve the mind, but we waste the rest of our time in empty matters, and so we waste philosophy itself. Just as in all things, so too we labor excessively over literature. We learn not for life but for school. Goodbye.”

Denique quidquid facimus, aut malitiae aut virtutis gerimus imperio. Quod imperat corpori, corpus est, quod vim corpori adfert, corpus. Bonum corporis corporalest,bonum hominis et corporis bonum est; itaque corporale est.

11Quoniam, ut voluisti, morem gessi tibi, nunc ipse dicam mihi, quod dicturum esse te video: latrunculis ludimus. In supervacuis subtilitas teritur; non faciunt bonos ista, sed doctos. Apertior res est sapere, immo simpliciter satius est ad mentem bonam uti litteris, sed nos ut cetera in supervacuum diffundimus, ita philosophiam ipsam. Quemadmodum omnium rerum, sic litterarum quoque intemperantia laboramus; non vitae sed scholae discimus. Vale.

Dirc van Delf | Table of Christian Faith | Illuminated by the Masters of Dirc van Delft | ca. 1405–10 | The Morgan Library & Museum
Dirc van Delf, Table of Christian Faith, in Dutch, The Netherlands, Utrecht(?), ca. 1405-10, Illuminated by the Masters of Dirc van Delft (from pinterest)

 

When You Can, Live as You Should

Seneca, Moral Epistles 7.8-9

“Both habits, moreover, should be avoided. Don’t imitate bad people, because there are many of them, nor hate the many, because you aren’t like them. Take shelter in yourself, whenever you can. Spend time with people who will make you a better person. Embrace those whom you can make better. Such improvement is a partnership, for people learn while they teach.”

Utrumque autem devitandum est; neve similis malis fias, quia multi sunt, neve inimicus multis, quia dissimiles sunt. Recede in te ipsum, quantum potes. Cum his versare, qui te meliorem facturi sunt. Illos admitte, quos tu potes facere meliores. Mutuo ista fiunt, et homines, dum docent, discunt.

Seneca, De Beata Vita 17-18

“ ‘This is enough for me: to each day lose one of my vices and recognize my mistakes. I have not perfected my health, nor certainly will I. I hope to relieve my gout rather than cure it, happy if it comes less frequently and cause less pain. But when I compare myself to your feet, I am a sprinter even though crippled.’

I do not say these things for myself—since I am deep in every kind of vice—but for the person who has done something.

You say, “You talk one way but you live another.” This insult, most shameful and hateful friend, was thrown at Plato, tossed at Epicurus, and dropped on Zeno. For all these people were talking not about how they were living themselves but about how they should live. When it comes to virtue, I do not talk about myself, and my fight is with vices, but chiefly my own. When I can, I will live as I should.”

Hoc mihi satis est, cotidie aliquid ex vitiis meis demere et errores meos obiurgare. Non perveni ad sanitatem, ne perveniam quidem; delenimenta magis quam remedia podagrae meae compono, contentus, si rarius accedit et si minus verminatur; vestris quidem pedibus comparatus, debilis1 cursor sum.” Haec non pro me loquor—ego enim in alto vitiorum omnium sum—, sed pro illo, cui aliquid acti est.

 “Aliter,” inquis, “loqueris, aliter vivis.” Hoc, malignissima capita et optimo cuique inimicissima, Platoni obiectum est, obiectum Epicuro, obiectum Zenoni; omnes enim isti dicebant non quemadmodum ipsi viverent, sed quemadmodum esset ipsis vivendum. De virtute, non de me loquor, et cum vitiis convicium facio, in primis meis facio. 2Cum potuero, vivam quomodo oportet.

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Verdun, Bibl. mun., ms. 0070, f. 42v.

A Banquet of Learning; A Dinner No-Show

Cicero Topica V

“But because I have welcomed someone eager for a feast of learning, I shall prepare it so well that there will be some leftovers rather than allow you to leave still hungry for more….”

Sed quoniam avidum hominem ad has discendi epulas recepi, sic accipiam, ut reliquiarum sit potius aliquid quam te hinc patiar non satiatum discedere.

Pliny the Younger to Septimius Clarus (Letter 15)

“Who do you think you are?! You agree to come do dinner…but you don’t come? The judgment is passed: You must pay my cost to a penny, and this is not moderate. All was set out: a lettuce for each, three snails, two eggs, wine with honey chilled with snow—for you should include this too among the highest expense since it dissolves on the plate—and there were olives, beets, pickles, onions and countless other things no less neat.

You would have heard a comedy or a reader or a singer of all of them, given my generosity. But you went where I don’t know, preferring oysters, a sow’s belly, sea-urchins, and Spanish dancers. You will suffer for this, somehow, believe me. You did something bad to one of us, certainly to me, but perhaps to yourself too. How much we played, laughed, and studied! You might eat better food at many homes, but nowhere will you eat so enjoyably, simply, and freely. In sum: try me: and if later you don’t excuse yourself from another’s meal, you can always lie to me again. Goodbye!”

Plinius Septicio Claro Suo S.

Heus tu! promittis ad cenam, nec venis? Dicitur ius: ad assem impendium reddes, nec id modicum. Paratae erant lactucae singulae, cochleae ternae, ova bina, halica cum mulso et nive (nam hanc quoque computabis, immo hanc in primis quae perit in ferculo), olivae betacei cucurbitae bulbi, alia mille non minus lauta. Audisses comoedos vel lectorem vel lyristen vel (quae mea liberalitas) omnes. At tu apud nescio quem ostrea vulvas echinos Gaditanas maluisti. Dabis poenas, non dico quas. Dure fecisti: invidisti, nescio an tibi, certe mihi, sed tamen et tibi. Quantum nos lusissemus risissemus studuissemus! Potes adparatius cenare apud multos, nusquam hilarius simplicius incautius. In summa experire, et nisi postea te aliis potius excusaveris, mihi semper excusa. Vale.

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Fresco from Pompeii