Nothing To Write about: Cicero Gives Up

Cicero to Atticus, 129 (VII.6) Formiae, ca. 18 December 50 (Full Latin text on the Scaife Viewer)

“There’s clearly nothing for me to write to you about. You know everything worth knowing and I have nothing to expect from you. Still, let me keep up our practice so that we don’t let anyone travel near you without a letter.

I am really afraid for our country. I have barely found anyone who doesn’t think we should give Caesar what he wants, rather than fighting with him.”

Plane deest quid ad te scribam. nota omnia tibi sunt, nec ipse habeo a te quod exspectem. tantum igitur nostrum illud sollemne servemus, ut ne quem istuc euntem sine litteris dimittamus.

De re publica valde timeo, nec adhuc fere inveni qui non concedendum putaret Caesari quod postularet potius quam depugnandum.

I Made Your Poems Worse: You’re Welcome!

Pliny, Letters, 4.18

“To Arrius Antonius, My friend:

Is there any way I can prove myself to you beyond the work I have put in to your Greek epigrams, which I have tried to match in Latin translation? It’s still a turn for the worse: the cause is the weakness of my own genius followed by the inadequacy of what Lucretius calls the “poverty of our country’s language.” But, if these Latin translations of mine seem to you to possess any bit of charm, then you know how much pleasure I have in the originals you made in Greek. Farewell.”

Plinius Arrio Antonino Suo S.

Quemadmodum magis adprobare tibi possum, quanto opere mirer epigrammata tua Graeca, quam quod quaedam Latine aemulari et exprimere temptavi? in deterius tamen. Accidit hoc primum imbecillitate ingenii mei, deinde inopia ac potius, ut Lucretius ait, egestate patrii sermonis. Quodsi haec, quae sunt et Latina et mea, habere tibi aliquid venustatis videbuntur, quantum putas inesse iis gratiae, quae et a te et Graece proferuntur! Vale.

Greek Epigram by Sopater

Collective Madness and False Beliefs

Seneca, Moral Epistles 94.17

“This part of precepts should be tossed away because it can’t give to everyone what it guarantees to a small few. Wisdom, however, welcomes all. There’s no difference, really, between the popular madness in general and the kind that requires medical treatment except that the individual suffers from a disease and the masses are afflicted by false opinions. For one, the symptoms of insanity develop from poor health, the other arises from sick minds.

If one offers maxims to a madman about how to speak, or walk, or how to act in public and private, they’d prove to be crazier than the one they’re advising. Someone really needs to treat their black bile and remove the initial cause of the affliction. This is what is required for a diseased mind too. The madness needs to be shed first, otherwise all your words of warning are useless.”

“Ergo ista praeceptiva pars summovenda est, quia quod paucis promittit, praestare omnibus non potest; sapientia autem omnes tenet. Inter insaniam publicamet hanc, quae medicis traditur, nihil interest nisi quod haec morbo laborat, illa opinionibus falsis. Altera causas furoris traxit ex valitudine, altera animi mala valitudo est. Si quis furioso praecepta det, quomodo loqui debeat, quomodo procedere, quomodo in publico se gerere, quomodo in privato, erit ipso, quem monebit, insanior. Ei bilis1 nigra curanda est et ipsa furoris causa removenda. Idem in hoc alio animi furore faciendum est. Ipse discuti debet; alioqui abibunt in vanum monentium verba.”


Detail from The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch depicting trepanation (c.1488–1516).

Loving Flesh, Fearing Violence

Seneca, Moral Episitles 14

“I admit that we all have an innate love for our body; I admit that we manage its safety. I don’t deny that it should be indulged, but that it must not be our master. Whoever serves their body will have many masters–one who fears too much for it, who judges everything by what the body needs. We should make our decisions not as if we live for the body but as if we could not live without it. Too great a love for the flesh troubles us with fear, weighs us down with worry, and makes us exposed to insult. Virtue is cheap for one who holds the body too dear. We should care for our bodies as much as we can, but we should be ready to surrender them to flames when reason, respect, or duty demand it.

Yet, we should live as much as possible to avoid discomfort and danger and to retreat to safe-ground by always thinking of how we can ward off fear. Unless I am in error, there are three causes of this. We fear poverty, sickness, and the dangers that come from a stronger person’s violence. Of these, nothing shakes us as much as someone else having power over us. This comes with a great shout and trouble. But the natural troubles of poverty and sickness sneak up on us quietly and suddenly, giving no warning fright to eyes or ears.”

Fateor insitam esse nobis corporis nostri caritatem; fateor nos huius gerere tutelam. Non nego indulgendum illi; serviendum nego. Multis enim serviet, qui corpori servit, qui pro illo nimium timet, qui ad illud omnia refert. Sic gerere nos debemus, non tamquam propter corpus vivere debeamus, sed tamquam non possimus sine corpore. Huius nos nimius amor timoribus inquietat, sollicitudinibus onerat, contumeliis obicit. Honestum ei vile est, cui corpus nimis carum est. Agatur eius diligentissime cura, ita tamen, ut cum exiget ratio, cum dignitas, cum fides, mittendum in ignes sit.

Nihilominus, quantum possumus, evitemus incommoda quoque, non tantum pericula, et in tutum nos reducamus excogitantes subinde, quibus possint timenda depelli. Quorum tria, nisi fallor, genera sunt: timetur inopia, timentur morbi, timentur quae per vim potentioris eveniunt. Ex his omnibus nihil nos magis concutit, quam quod ex aliena potentia inpendet. Magno enim strepitu et tumultu venit. Naturalia mala quae rettuli, inopia atque morbus, silentio subeunt nec oculis nec auribus quicquam terroris incutiunt. Ingens alterius mali pompa est.

Bust of Seneca, Italian c.1700, Albertinum, Dresden

I Hope this Finds You With Nothing to Write About

Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 128 (VII.5)

 “Right now I simply have nothing to write to you about. Certainly not politics, since we know the same things and we also know each other’s domestic matters. Jokes are all that remain, if that guy will allow it.

I am one who thinks that it is better to give in to his demands than start a war. It is too late for us to resist someone we’ve been raising against us for ten years!

What’s my strategy? Nothing unless by your judgment and nothing before I’ve completed my own affairs or given them up. Take care of yourself!”

Iam plane mihi deest quid ad te scribam; nec enim de re publica, quod uterque nostrum scit eadem, et domestica nota sunt ambobus. reliquum est iocari, si hic sinat; nam ego is sum qui illi concedi putem utilius esse quod postulat quam signa conferri; sero enim resistimus ei quem per annos decem aluimus contra nos. ‘quid senti<e>s4 igitur?’ inquis. nihil scilicet nisi de sententia tua, nec prius quidem quam nostrum negotium aut confecerimus aut deposuerimus. cura igitur ut valeas…

Top third of a surviving 4th-century Roman letter, from Vitalis to his dominus Achillio, from Franz Steffens’ Lateinische Paläographie (1903), table 13. The letter is reported to be Latin papyrus “Argent 1”, at Strassbourg.

Paul’s Divided Self

Paul, Letter to the Romans, 7.14-25.

We know that the law is spiritual, but I am flesh sold under sin.

I don’t understand the things I do: for I don’t do what I want, but what I hate. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I’m acknowledging that the law is good. Then it’s no longer I who am responsible, but sin that dwells in me.

I know that the good does not dwell in me (in my flesh, that is), since I have the capacity to want the good, but I can’t actually do what is right. I don’t do the good I want to do; I do the evil I don’t want to do. And if I’m doing what I don’t want to be doing, it’s no longer I who am responsible, but sin that dwells in me.

With that, I arrive at this law: when I want to do good, evil is at hand. I rejoice in God’s law in my core, but I see another law in my limbs, one which wages war against the law of my mind, and I see myself captured by the law of sin which dwells in my limbs.

I am a miserable man! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our lord!

I am a slave to God’s law with my mind but a slave to the law of sin with my flesh.

οἴδαμεν γὰρ ὅτι ὁ νόμος πνευματικός ἐστιν: ἐγὼ δὲ σάρκινός εἰμι,πεπραμένος ὑπὸ τὴν ἁμαρτίαν. ὃ γὰρ κατεργάζομαι οὐ γινώσκω: οὐ γὰρ ὃ θέλω τοῦτο πράσσω, ἀλλ᾽ ὃμισῶ τοῦτο ποιῶ. εἰ δὲ ὃ οὐ θέλω τοῦτο ποιῶ, σύνφημι τῷ νόμῳ ὅτι καλός. Νυνὶ δὲ οὐκέτι ἐγὼ κατεργάζομαι αὐτὸ ἀλλὰ ἡ ἐνοικοῦσα ἐν ἐμοὶἁμαρτία. οἶδα γὰρ ὅτι οὐκ οἰκεῖ ἐν ἐμοί, τοῦτ᾽ ἔστιν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου, ἀγαθόν: τὸγὰρ θέλειν παράκειταί μοι, τὸ δὲ κατεργάζεσθαι τὸ καλὸν οὔ: οὐ γὰρ ὃ θέλω ποιῶ ἀγαθόν, ἀλλὰ ὃ οὐ θέλω κακὸν τοῦτο πράσσω. εἰ δὲ ὃ οὐ θέλω τοῦτο ποιῶ, οὐκέτι ἐγὼ κατεργάζομαι αὐτὸ ἀλλὰ ἡοἰκοῦσα ἐν ἐμοὶ ἁμαρτία. Εὑρίσκω ἄρα τὸν νόμον τῷ θέλοντι ἐμοὶ ποιεῖν τὸ καλὸν ὅτι ἐμοὶ τὸκακὸν παράκειται: συνήδομαι γὰρ τῷ νόμῳ τοῦ θεοῦ κατὰ τὸν ἔσω ἄνθρωπον, βλέπω δὲ ἕτερον νόμον ἐν τοῖς μέλεσίν μου ἀντιστρατευόμενον τῷ νόμῳτοῦ νοός μου καὶ αἰχμαλωτίζοντά με [ἐν] τῷ νόμῳ τῆς ἁμαρτίας τῷ ὄντι ἐντοῖς μέλεσίν μου. ταλαίπωρος ἐγὼ ἄνθρωπος: τίς με ῥύσεται ἐκ τοῦ σώματος τοῦ θανάτου τούτου; χάρις δὲ τῷ θεῷ διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν. ἄρα οὖν αὐτὸςἐγὼ τῷ μὲν νοῒ δουλεύω νόμῳ θεοῦ, τῇ δὲ σαρκὶ νόμῳ ἁμαρτίας.

a marble statue of a man in robes , set in a sconce.
Statute of Saint Paul. 1420-30.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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

I Am Dedicating My Life to Philosophy. Please Send Me Some Gossip From Rome

Cicero, Letters to Atticus (25; II.5)

“I am waiting for your letters on those events [in Rome]: what is Arrius saying and what is is opinion about being overthrown. Which consuls are being prepared—is it Pompey and Crassus as people claim or, as was just written to me, is it Servius Sulpicius with Gabinius. Are there new laws? Is there anything worthy of news at all? Or, who, since Nepos has left, is going to be nominated as Augur? (and this is the one thing I might be captured with by those people—look at how easy I am!)

Why do I ask these things when I want to put them aside and pursue philosophy with all my focus? This, I say, is what is in my mind. I wish I had pursued this from the start. But now when I have learned that everything which I thought was precious is empty, I am planning to dedicate myself to all the Muses.

Nevertheless, please do tell me in your reply about ?Tutius? and whether they have readied someone for his place and also what has become of Publius Clodius. Write me about everything, as you promised, at leisure. And also tell me on what day you think you will leave Rome so that I may tell you more certainly where I will be then? Please send me a letter right away on the things I have written you about. I am deeply awaiting your letter.”

De istis rebus exspecto tuas litteras, quid Arrius narret, quo animo se destitutum ferat, et qui consules parentur, utrum, ut populi sermo, Pompeius et Crassus, an, ut mihi scribitur, cum Gabinio Ser. Sulpicius, et num quae novae leges et num quid novi omnino, et, quoniam Nepos proficiscitur, cuinam auguratus deferatur, quo quidem uno ego ab istis capi possum—vide levitatem meam! sed quid ego haec, quae cupio deponere et toto animo atque omni cura ϕιλοσοϕεῖν? sic, inquam, in animo est; vellem ab initio, nunc vero, quoniam quae putavi esse praeclara expertus sum quam essent inania, cum omnibus Musis rationem habere cogito.

3Tu tamen de †Tutio†1 ad me rescribe certius et num quis in eius locum paretur, et quid de P. Clodio fiat, et omnia, quem ad modum polliceris, ἐπὶ σχολῆς scribe. et quo die Roma te exiturum putes velim ad me scribas, ut certiorem te faciam quibus in locis futurus sim, epistulamque statim des de iis rebus de quibus ad te scripsi. valde enim exspecto tuas litteras.

Письменные принадлежности и аксессуары – 308 photos
Chroniques de Hainaut (vers 1470)

Infants, Trees, and Knowledge of the Good

Seneca, EM 125 7-9

“We say that being happy is what follows nature. And, moreover, what is according to nature is clear and obvious just as something that is complete is. That which is according to nature, what we touch at birth, I say is not the good but the beginning of the good. 

You attribute the highest good–pleasure–to infants so that at the moment of birth a baby starts where the perfected adult should end. You place the branch in the root’s position! If anyone should claim that that child, hidden in the maternal womb, with unclear gender, tender, incomplete, and unshaped, that this child is already in some true good, then they  would clearly seem to be lost in their ideas.

And yet how small is the difference between one who has just entered life and one who is still a hidden burden to their mother’s womb! They are equally knowing of the good and equally mature; An infant is no more conscious of the Good than a tree or any other speechless creature.”

Dicimus beata esse, quae secundum naturam sint, Quid autem secundum naturam sit, palam et protinus apparet, sicut quid sit integrum. Quod secundum naturam est, quod contigit protinus nato, non dico bonum, sed initium boni. Tu summum bonum, voluptatem, infantiae donas, ut inde incipiat nascens, quo consummatus homo pervenit. 

Cacumen radicis loco ponis. Si quis diceret illum in materno utero latentem, sexus quoque incerti,tenerum et inperfectum et informem iam in aliquo bono esse, aperte videretur errare. Atqui quantulum interest inter eum, qui cum1 maxime vitam accipit, et illum, qui maternorum viscerum latens onus est? Uterque, quantum ad intellectum boni ac mali, aeque maturus est, et non magis infans adhuc boni capax est quam arbor aut mutum aliquod animal.

Infant and Skull, Medieval, Louvre

The Best People Sickness Can Make

Pliny The Younger, Letters, 7.26

“A friend’s sickness has lately reminded me that we are the best people when we are sick. Does greed or lust ever bother a sick person? They are not controlled by their desires or their love of honors. They don’t care about wealth and think whatever little bit they have is enough, because they will leave it behind! The sick remember the gods and realize they are mortal. They don’t feel envy or awe or contempt for other people. Slander doesn’t attract or encourage the sick and all they dream of are baths and fountains.

These are the end of their concerns, the object of their prayers. And they promise that will be enough if they are lucky to survive. I can now say briefly and clearly what the philosophers try to convey in so many endless words: When we’re healthy we should strive to be the kind of people we promised to be when we were sick. Goodbye!”

Nuper me cuiusdam amici languor admonuit, optimos esse nos dum infirmi sumus. Quem enim infirmum aut avaritia aut libido sollicitat? Non amoribus servit, non adpetit honores, opes neglegit et quantulumcumque, ut relicturus, satis habet. Tunc deos tunc hominem esse se meminit, invidet nemini, neminem miratur neminem despicit, ac ne sermonibus quidem malignis aut attendit aut alitur: balinea imaginatur et fontes.

Haec summa curarum, summa votorum mollemque in posterum et pingue destinat vitam. Possum ergo quod plurimis verbis plurimis etiam voluminibus philosophi docere conantur, ipse breviter tibi mihique praecipere, ut tales esse sani perseveremus, quales nos futuros profitemur infirmi. Vale.

Euricius Cordus (1486-1535); Fur die newe, hievor vnerhorte und erschrocklich todtliche Kranckheyt und schnellen todt, die English schweyee-sucht geant, Strassbourg: 1529.Early books on medicine..Published: 1928..Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Of Songs and Sigma Stigma

P. Oxy. 1604 (13, 1919) = Strabo 10.3.13 + Dion. Hal. de comp. verb. 14 + Athen. 10.455BC

“Pindar, in the Dithyramb that begins “in ancient times”, mentions other previous songs to Dionysus from ancient times and later, and then changes subjects. He says “Great mother, the crashing of tambourines are ready to start. And there are also castanets to sound, and torches underneath the pale pine trees.

Dionysus in his work On Literary Composition, comments “The sigma is neither charming nor euphonic and is super annoying when it is used too much. The hissing sound seems more like a wild, irrational animal’s voice than a rational one. For this reason, many ancient poets tried to use the sound infrequently and in a limited way. Indeed, there are some who used to compose entire odes without sigmas at all! Pindar says this when he continues:

Before that time the dithryamb
Song slid along a straight path and
People sensed the letter san as suspect

Athenaeus has “When it comes to Pindar’s asigmatic ode, Clearchus claims that he composed the following, putting it in some kind of a problem in lyric poetry, since many had mocked him for not avoiding the letter because it was difficult and it made him look bad. People should keep this in mind when they consider those who criticize the asigmatic Ode by Lasos of Hermione called Centaurs or the asigmatic hymn to Demeter of Hermione also by Lasos.

P. Oxy. 1604 (13, 1919). Strabo 10.3.13

Πίνδαρος ἐν τῷ διθυράμβῳ οὗ ἡ ἀρχή· πρὶν διθυράμβων, μνησθεὶς τῶν περὶ τὸν Διόνυσον ὕμνων τῶν τε παλαιῶν καὶ τῶν ὕστερον, μεταβὰς ἀπὸ τούτων φησί· σοὶ μὲν κατάρχειν, μᾶτερ μεγάλα, πάρα ῥόμβοι κυμβάλων· ἐν δὲ καχλάδων κρόταλ᾿, αἰθομένα τε δᾲς ὑπὸ ξανθαῖσι πεύκαις.

Dion. Hal. de comp. verb. 14 ἄχαρι δὲ καὶ ἀηδὲς τὸ σ καὶ πλεονάσαν σφόδρα λυπεῖ· θηριώδους γὰρ καὶ ἀλόγου μᾶλλον ἢ λογικῆς ἐφάπτεσθαι δοκεῖ φωνῆς ὁ συριγμός· τῶν γοῦν παλαιῶν τινες σπανίως ἐχρῶντο αὐτῷ καὶ πεφυλαγμένως, εἰσὶ δ᾿ οἳ καὶ ἀσίγμους ὅλας ᾠδὰς ἐποίουν· δηλοῖ δὲ τοῦτο καὶ Πίνδαρος ἐν οἷς φησι· μὲν ἀνθρώποι:

πρὶν μὲν εἷρπε σχοινοτένειά τ᾿ ἀοιδὰ διθυράμβω
καὶ τὸ σὰν κίβδηλον ἀνθρώποις.1.

Athen. 10.455BC Πίνδαρος δὲ πρὸς τὴν ἀσιγμοποιηθεῖσαν ᾠδήν, ὡς ὁ αὐτός φησι Κλέαρχος, οἱονεὶ γρίφου τινὸς ἐν μελοποιίᾳ προβληθέντος, ὡς πολλῶν τούτῳ προσκρουόντων διὰ τὸ ἀδύνατον εἶναι ἀποσχέσθαι τοῦ σίγμα καὶ διὰ τὸ μὴ δοκιμάζειν, ἐποίησε· πρὶν μὲν ἀνθρώποις. ταῦτα σημειώσαιτ᾿ ἄν τις πρὸς τοὺς νοθεύοντας Λάσου τοῦ Ἑρμιονέως τὴν ἄσιγμον ᾠδήν, ἥτις ἐπιγράφεται Κένταυροι. καὶ ὁ εἰς τὴν Δήμητρα δὲ τὴν ἐν Ἑρμιόνῃ ποιηθεὶς τῷ Λάσῳ ὕμνος ἄσιγμός ἐστιν.

black and white picture of a snake with an s shape
ssssserioussss problemsssss