Style as Substance in Ancient Philosophy

Fronto, to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus 162 AD?

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

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

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

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

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

Tricks with His Lips! Fronto on Why Seneca is Trash

Fronto to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (“On Speeches”, Ambr. 382)

“…I am going to add in some potentially inapt and unfair comments, for I plan to remind you of the experience of having me as a teacher…

Still, it would be better for you to neglect these things than to nurture them poorly. For when it comes to that confused in the combined type, grafted in part on Cato’s pine-nuts and Seneca’s soft and febrile plums, well I think it should be pulled up by the roots—no, to use a Plautine line, uprooted below the roots!

I am not ignorant that Seneca is a person fully stuffed and overflowing with ideas, but to be honest I see his sentences as trotting around, announcing their course with a full gallop, but stopping to fight nowhere and never striking the sublime. Like Laberius, he plays at wit-darts, or really just assembling sounds, rather than composing words worth repeating.

Do you believe that you would uncover graver sentiments on the same ideas in your Annaeus than in Sergius*? Ah, Sergius’ words don’t have the same rhythm or the same speed as Seneca’s, I admit. The sounds don’t sing the same, I won’t deny it.

But what if the same meal is offered to two people and the first picks up the olives on the table with his fingers, brings them to his mouth, puts them between his teeth to chew them in the right and proper way, while the other throws them up high and catches them with his mouth open and then shows them off once caught with his lips like a juggler? Really, children at school would applaud at what was done and the guest would be entertained, but one will have eaten lunch properly while the other did tricks with his lips.

So you say that some things are expressed cleverly and some with weight. But sometimes little silver coins are found in the sewer. Should we take over the job of cleaning the sewers too?”

…pauca subnectam fortasse inepta iniqua, nam rursus faxo magistrum me experiare….

Neglegas tamen vero potius censeo quam prave excolas. Confusam eam ego eloquentiam, catachannae ritu partim pineis nucibus Catonis partim Senecae mollibus et febriculosis prunulis insitam, subvertendam censeo radicitus, immo vero, Plautino ut utar verbo, exradicitus. Neque ignoro copiosum sententiis et redundantem hominem esse: verum sententias eius tolutares video nusquam quadripedo concitas cursu ten<d>ere, nusquam pugnare, nusquam maiestatem studere; ut Laberius dictabolaria, immo dicteria, potius eum quam dicta confingere.

Itane existimas graviores sententias et eadem de re apud Annaeum istum reperturum te quam apud Sergium? Sed non modulatas aeque: fateor;  neque ita| cordaces: ita est; neque ita tinnulas: non nego. Quid vero, si prandium utrique adponatur, adpositas oleas alter digitis prendat, ad os adferat, ut manducandi ius fasque est ita dentibus subiciat, alter autem oleas suas in altum iaciat, ore aperto excipiat, ut calculos praestigiator, primoribus labris ostentet? Ea re profecto pueri laudent, convivae delectentur; sed alter pudice pranderit, alter labellis gesticulatus erit.

At enim sunt quaedam in libris eius scite dicta, graviter quoque nonnulla. Etiam laminae interdum argentiolae cloacis inveniuntur; eane re cloacas purgandas redimemus?

*either Sergius Flavius or Plautus, an author reputed to have used harsh language

Marcus as a young boy

Chief Minister of Bullsh*t

Cicero, Letters to Atticus 92 (4.18) October or November 54

You may ask me “how are you handling these things?” By god, pretty damn well and I love myself for doing so. My friend, we have not only lost the marrow and blood of a just state, but we’ve lost its decoration and facade too.

There is no Republic where I might find happiness or comfort. You may ask, “Can you really take this well?” Yes. That’s it. I recall how well the state thrived when I was governing it and the gratitude it gave me. No grief touches me at all at seeing one person capable of everything. Those who were upset that I had any power are wrecked by it.

No, I have many things to bring me solace. But I do not move from where I am, instead I return to that way of life which is most natural, to my books and my research.”

Dices ‘tu ergo haec quo modo fers?’ belle mehercule et in eo me valde amo. amisimus, mi Pomponi, omnem non modo sucum ac sanguinem sed etiam colorem et speciem pristinae civitatis. nulla est res publica quae delectet, in qua acquiescam. ‘idne igitur’ inquies ‘facile fers?’ id ipsum. recordor enim quam bella paulisper nobis gubernantibus civitas fuerit, quae mihi gratia relata sit. nullus dolor me angit unum omnia posse; dirumpuntur ii qui me aliquid posse doluerunt. multa mihi dant solacia, nec tamen ego de meo statu demigro, quaeque vita maxime est ad naturam, ad eam me refero, ad litteras et studia nostra.

Carved bust of Cicero 

Since You’re Stuck At Home, You Can Read My Book!

Cicero, Letters 12.17 (to Cornificius, September 46)

“I’ll have you know that in your absence I have taken the opportunity and the freedom, as it is, to write rather boldly and some of them are the kinds of things you might even accept! Now I have most recently written about the best style of speaking, a topic on which I imagine your judgment is often far from mine, as it often goes when a learned man differs a bit in opinion from one who is not unlearned.

I really hope you take the book to heart if only to make me happy. I will ask your servants to please copy it and send it to you. I truly think that even if you are less approving of the material, you will still find whatever I write welcome in your current isolation.”

Me <s>cito, dum tu absis, quasi occasionem quandam et licentiam nactum scribere audacius, et cetera quidem fortasse quae etiam tu concederes, sed proxime scripsi de optimo genere dicendi; in quo saepe suspicatus sum te a iudicio nostro, sic scilicet ut doctum hominem ab non indocto, paulum dissidere. huic tu libro maxime velim ex animo, si minus, gratiae causa suffragere. dicam tuis ut eum, si velint, describant ad teque mittant. puto enim, etiam si rem minus probabis, tamen in ista solitudine quicquid a me profectum sit iucundum tibi fore.

Fresco from Herculaneum

A Slave Revolt in the Bath

Pliny describes an attack by slaves with little empathy and comes to a dehumanizing conclusion. Here is some excellent advice on how to teach and write about slavery  from P. Gabrielle Foreman (@profgabrielle). I have not followed all of the advice in the translation in an effort to convey Pliny’s tone.

Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.14

“This terrible news deserves more than just a letter: Lucius Macedo, a former praetor has been overcome by his own slaves. He was an arrogant and harsh slave owner, one who remembered too little—or maybe too much—that his own father was enslaved. He was bathing in his Formian villa. Suddenly, the slaves stood around him. One attacked his throat; another beat his face; others struck his chest, gut, and—foul to report—they also struck his genitals.

When they believed he was dead, they left him to lie out cooking on the pavement just to see if he was alive or not. Whether he was conscious or not or just pretending not to be, he stayed there without moving, making them confident that he was completely dead. At that point he was taken out as if he were overcome by the heat. His more faithful slaves took him as his concubines rushed around with screaming and wailing. He was revived by such voices and perhaps the cooler place, and then seemed to believe it was safe to show he was alive with a glance of the eyes or some movement of the body.

The slaves fled and a great number of them have been caught while the others are being actively sought. Macedo himself was resuscitated for a few days and only with great labor. But he did not die without the comfort of vengeance, since he lived with the punishment meted out as if they had murdered him. You see here how many dangers and insults we are exposed to. There is no one who can feel safe just because he is gentle or restrained: slave owners are murdered not because of reason but because of an inclination toward crime.”

1 Rem atrocem nec tantum epistula dignam Larcius Macedo vir praetorius a servis suis passus est, superbus alioqui dominus et saevus, et qui servisse patrem suum parum, immo nimium meminisset. 2 Lavabatur in villa Formiana. Repente eum servi circumsistunt. Alius fauces invadit, alius os verberat, alius pectus et ventrem, atque etiam (foedum dictu) verenda contundit; et cum exanimem putarent, abiciunt in fervens pavimentum, ut experirentur an viveret. Ille sive quia non sentiebat, sive quia se non sentire simulabat, immobilis et extentus fidem 3 peractae mortis implevit. Tum demum quasi aestu solutus effertur; excipiunt servi fideliores, concubinae cum ululatu et clamore concurrunt. Ita et vocibus excitatus et recreatus loci frigore sublatis oculis agitatoque corpore vivere se (et iam tutum erat) confitetur.
Diffugiunt servi; quorum magna pars comprehensa est, ceteri requiruntur. Ipse paucis diebus aegre focilatus non sine ultionis solacio decessit 5ita vivus vindicatus, ut occisi solent. Vides quot periculis quot contumeliis quot ludibriis simus obnoxii; nec est quod quisquam possit esse securus, quia sit remissus et mitis; non enim iudicio domini sed scelere perimuntur.

Listen to the letter read aloud here on librivox  (h/t to Dr. Liv Yarrow, @profyarrow,  for that tip)

Thanks to @wophugus for bringing up this passage when discussing Dani Bostick’s essay on Slave Auctions and the Junior Classical League

Here’s another Letter from Pliny to show how his causal discussion of purchasing an enslaved person:

Pliny, Letters 1.21: To Plinius Paternus

“I place the highest value on the judgment of your mind and eyes, not just because—and don’t primp about this—it is great, but because it is as full of insight as mine is!

All jokes aside, I think the slaves whom I would buy at your advice look pretty good, but whether they are worthwhile remains to be seen: When it comes to a slave’s worth, it is better judged by the ears than the eyes. Goodbye!”

Plinius Plinio Paterno Suo S.

Ut animi tui iudicio sic oculorum plurimum tribuo, non quia multum (ne tibi placeas) sed quia tantum quantum ego sapis; quamquam hoc quoque multum est. Omissis iocis credo decentes esse servos, qui sunt empti mihi ex consilio tuo. Superest ut frugi sint, quod de venalibus melius auribus quam oculis iudicatur. Vale.

https://twitter.com/wophugus/status/1189285330974924801?s=20

File:Roman collared slaves - Ashmolean Museum.jpg
Roman collared slaves, Ashmolean museum

Wounds Healed Just in Time

Ovid, Ex Ponto 1.3 83-94

“While I should tell all the tales, in no age
Has anyone been sent to a more horrible place so far from their home.
For this reason, let your wisdom overlook someone in sorrow
Who does not do so much of what you ask in your words.

I still confess that if my wounds could heal
Then they could heal only with your orders.
But I fear that you pointlessly labor to help me
And that your aid will not heal my sick ruin.

I do not claim these things because I have special wisdom,
But I am more familiar with myself than a doctor.
Despite all this, your willing kindness has come to me
Just when I needed something good.”

persequar ut cunctos, nulli datus omnibus aevis
tam procul a patria est horridiorve locus.
quo magis ignoscat sapientia vestra dolenti
qui facit ex dictis, non ita multa, tuis.
nec tamen infitior, si possint nostra coire
vulnera, praeceptis posse coire tuis.
sed vereor ne me frustra servare labores
nec iuver admota perditus aeger ope.
nec loquor haec, quia sit maior prudentia nobis,
sed sum quam medico notior ipse mihi.
ut tamen hoc ita sit, munus tua grande voluntas
ad me pervenit consuliturque boni.

More from Hieronymus Bosch

The Epidemic’s Over, We’re Fine

Cicero, Letters to Friends, to Terentia 8 (14.1)

“When it comes to my family, I will do what you report seems right to our friends. Concerning where I am currently, the epidemic is certainly already over and, even though it lasted a while, it didn’t touch me. Plancius, the most dutiful man, longs to keep me with him and detains me here.

I was hoping to stay in some deserted place in Epirus where Piso and his soldiers would never come, but Plancius holds me here. He posts that it will turn out to be possible for him to leave for Italy with me. Should I see that day and return to your embrace and my families and get you and myself back again, I will judge that a great profit of your commitment and mine.”

De familia, quo modo placuisse scribis amicis faciemus. de loco, nunc quidem iam abiit pestilentia, sed quam diu fuit me non attigit. Plancius, homo officiosissimus, me cupit esse secum et adhuc retinet. ego volebam loco magis deserto esse in Epiro, quo neque Piso veniret nec milites, sed adhuc Plancius me retinet; sperat posse fieri ut mecum in Italiam decedat. quem ego diem si videro et si in vestrum complexum venero ac si et vos et me ipsum reciperaro, satis magnum mihi fructum videbor percepisse et vestrae pietatis et meae.

Cicero Very Fine

We Fled the Plague. Remember Good Handwriting?

Libanius, Letters 25

“I can reproach you for writing to me like that and complain not about getting letters too infrequently but that they aren’t long enough. So that a great war will not be set ablaze from a minor spark and cause us attack one another with words rather than enjoying letters, let it be given that you revere the Spartan model of speech and that I would rebuke you incorrectly. Enjoy this victory since I was happily defeated.

It is my duty to remind you of the books you promised me and yours to confess you did not give them. As I was fleeing from the plague in the great city, I was reading a speech to you, a work of praise on Strategios’ daughter. We were both amazed in looking on an ancient book written in a beautiful hand. And we remarked that once handwriting was beautiful, but it is not now.”

Ἀρισταινέτῳ

Εἶχον μέν σε ἐλέγχειν ἐκείνως ἐπεσταλκότα καὶ οὐ τὸ μὴ πολλάκις λαβεῖν, ἀλλὰ τὸ μὴ μακρὰς αἰτιώμενον· ἵνα δὲ μὴ πόλεμος ἐκ μικροῦ σπινθῆρος ἁφθῇ καὶ βάλλωμεν ἀλλήλους γράμμασιν ἀντὶ τοῦ τέρπειν ἐπιστολαῖς, δεδόσθω σὲ μὲν τιμᾶν τὰ τῆς Λακεδαίμονος, ἐμὲ δὲ οὐκ ὀρθῶς ἐγκαλεῖν. καὶ νίκα τὴν νίκην ταύτην ἡττημένων ἡμῶν ἑκόντων.

βιβλία δὲ ὅτι μὲν ὑπέσχου μοι, ἐμὸν ἀναμνῆσαι, ὅτι δὲ οὐκ ἔδωκας, σὸν εἰπεῖν. ὅτε γὰρ ἐν τῇ Μεγάλῃ πόλει τὴν νόσον τὴν μεγάλην διαφυγὼν ἀνεγίνωσκόν σοι λόγον, ἔπαινον τῆς Στρατηγίου θυγατρός, βιβλίον τι παλαιὸν εἰς κάλλος γεγραμμένον ἐθαυμάσαμεν ἰδόντες καὶ διελέχθημεν ὡς ἦν ποτε κάλλος γραμμάτων, νῦν δὲ οὐκ ἔστιν.

Artemisia Papyrus
From the Handbook of Greek & Latin Palaeography

I’ll Come to Dinner, But Don’t Make Me Drink Too Much

Pliny, Letters 3.12, To Catilius Severus

I will come to dinner, but I am making request beforehand: it must be quick and sparse and it should only overflow in Socratic discussions. Let this be moderate too. There will be visitors early tomorrow, people not even Cato would be allowed to reject, even though Caesar praised him as much as he criticized him. For he describes the people Cato met were flushed with embarrassment when they realized who was drunk: “you would have imagined they were caught by Cato not that Cato was caught by them!”

Is it possible to pay a better tribute to Cato than to say he was still so venerable when drunk? But our meal needs a limit for preparation and cost as well as time. We are certainly not the types of people our enemies can’t fail to blame without praising us too!

    1. Plinius Catilio Severo Suo S.

Veniam ad cenam, sed iam nunc paciscor, sit expedita sit parca, Socraticis tantum sermonibus abundet, in his quoque teneat modum. Erunt officia antelucana, in quae incidere impune ne Catoni quidem licuit, quem tamen C. Caesar ita reprehendit ut laudet. Describit enim eos, quibus obvius fuerit,

cum caput ebrii retexissent, erubuisse; deinde adicit: “Putares non ab illis Catonem, sed illos a Catone deprehensos.” Potuitne plus auctoritatis tribui Catoni, quam si ebrius quoque tam venerabilis erat? 4Nostrae tamen cenae, ut adparatus et impendii, sic temporis modus constet. Neque enim ii sumus quos vituperare ne inimici quidem possint, nisi ut simul laudent. Vale.

Mosaic depicting the vintage (from Cherchell, present-day AlgeriaRoman Africa)

Skipping the Passive for the Straight-Up Aggressive

Pliny, Letters 2.1

“I am super mad and whether or not it is right I’m not sure but I’m super mad. You know how unfair love is frequently, often powerless always quick to be offended. But my reason is still serious whether I believe it’s right and I am as mad as I would be if it were right since I have had no letter from you for such a long time.

The only solution to this is if you write me many really long letters right now. This is the only way I will forgive you. Other things seem fake. I won’t even hear “I was in Rome” or “I was busy”. But Gods forbid you say, “I’ve been sick.”

I’ve been in my country-house enjoying my two delights that come from leisure: reading and resting. Bye!”

Plinius Paulino Suo S.

1Irascor, nec liquet mihi an debeam, sed irascor. Scis, quam sit amor iniquus interdum, impotens saepe μικραίτιος semper. Haec tamen causa magna est, nescio an iusta; sed ego, tamquam non minus iusta quam magna sit, graviter irascor, quod a te tam diu litterae nullae. Exorare me potes uno modo, si nunc saltem plurimas et longissimas miseris. Haec mihi sola excusatio vera, ceterae falsae videbuntur. Non sum auditurus “non eram Romae” uel “occupatior eram”; illud enim nec di sinant, ut “infirmior”. Ipse ad villam partim studiis partim desidia fruor, quorum utrumque ex otio nascitur. Vale.

File:Ancient Roman villa of Salar 012 (30512518878).jpg ...
This is a Villa. It is not Pliny’s.