Reading Poems at the End of the World

I have been taking the end of the world seriously, but not really that seriously, for a while now. Last fall, I wrote an essay on Nicola Gardini’s Long Live Latin, called “Loving Latin at the End of the World“. Last Spring, I tried to think about the fate of Classical Studies in some kind of an apocalypse, sketching out ideas for “The Future of the Past.” Eidolon has had the market cornered on Classics and the end of the world, with Nandini Pandey’s article “Classics in a time of Quarantine” hard on the heels of their End of the World Edition. But, then things jumped off the screen into the real.

For the past few weeks the best adjective I can use to describe my general feelings is “elegiac”—and  I mean this in the rather modern reception of the word which emphasizes its funereal tone, its use in epitaphs, rather than its metrical/generic use. Being part of a slow-motion disaster, a horrendous and at times horrifying transformation of our human communities, is in some ways indescribable, ineffable. In emails and with others I find myself trying to calm with the same phrases we all use about being in “unchartered territory” and how we need to be patient and reserve judgment for later.

But the refrain in my head is this:

T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

As I have talked about on Scott Lepisto’s Itinera podcast, my formative years were spent reading, in the isolation that living in a rural area before the dawn of the internet can bring you. I started graduate school at NYU a few weeks before 9/11 and my primary coping strategy—apart from drinking too much—was throwing myself into Homer.  And for this disaster, I am a professor. 

So, in a way, I should be really well-prepared emotionally for COVID-19’s brand of slow-motion destruction. I think this is probably true, on an intellectual level; on an emotional one, however, I am probably a wreck. And part of my particular brand of being a wreck is (1) I sleep even less well than usual and (2) fragments of poems fill my waking hours and sleep.

These are not fragments of my own, but poems ancient and modern that have been part of my life, either in education or from reading. I have engaged with the world through written words for nearly as long as I can remember—they are comfort, paradigms for guidance, distraction, etc. But poetry has a special place in my heart. Long before I poorly translated Latin and Greek for twitter, I spent time trying to write poetry (and was quite limited at it). These years gave me practice reading, memorizing, and keeping poetry close to heart.

And in the heart, there’s no timeline, there’s no catalog to separate things. So, when Langston Hughes jumps to mind with his Advice:

Folks, I’m telling you,
birthing is hard
and dying is mean-
so get yourself
a little loving
in between.

I can’t help but thinking of Catullus’ Vivamus mea Lesbia (Carm. 5) and his “We must sleep a lonely endless night” (nox est perpetua una dormienda) summoning to mind 11th grade’s Andrew Marvell’s great beginning, from To His Coy Mistress “Had we but world enough and time” eventually receding into what I still find ridiculous in his “vegetable love should grow.” Poems join me when, like Billy Pilgrim, I come unstuck in time.

There’s no shortage of poems exhorting us to live. There’s Ashurbanipal’s famous epitaph, dishing out the wisdom straight: “Know well that you are mortal: fill your heart / By delighting in the feasts: nothing is useful to you when you’re dead.” (εὖ εἰδὼς ὅτι θνητὸς ἔφυς σὸν θυμὸν ἄεξε,/ τερπόμενος θαλίῃσι· θανόντι σοι οὔτις ὄνησις). For every serious injunction to memento mori or carpe diem with Horace there are humorous ones too, like Martial’s poem 5.58 which ends, “Postumus, even living today is too late; / he is the wise man, who lived yesterday” (Cras uiues? Hodie iam uiuere, Postume, serum est: / ille sapit quisquis, Postume, uixit heri.)

Is that toilet paper or a manuscript in his hand? Smiling skeleton, from Ars bene moriendi, France, 1470-1480

Ending the World in a Poem

The problem is that I don’t know many poems about the end of the world. There is not too much about the world ending in the modern sense in ancient Greek and Roman texts that I know of prior to the period that gives us the Biblical Revelation. Greek and Roman Cosmogony tends towards the cyclical and not the epoch-ending stuff we see in Norse Ragnarok. There are certainly a lot of disasters and they tend to reflect natural disasters like the flood which appears inset in the Gilgamesh Narrative, as part of the Sumerian Atrahasis, in the Biblical Genesis, or in the tales we have of the Greek Deucalion who survived a flood too. 

Ovid’s version of this flood in the Metamorphoses is an unmaking of the creation that begins his poem. In the creation, everything which before was all mixed together and “compressed because of its own weight” (et pressa est gravitate sua, 1.30) is reorganized when ‘some god’ “separated the mass and apportioned the portion into parts” (congeriem secuit sectamque in membra redegit, 1.33). In anger over Lykaon’s sacrifice of human flesh, Zeus attacks the land until “the land and sea were showing no difference” (Iamque mare et tellus nullum discrimen habebant, 1.291). Of course, humans and their cities rise again, under the threat/promise that destruction is always imminent for hubristic and impious souls.

It is not that ancient authors are not concerned with death, but rather not with species death, with the eradication of humans as we know them. Perhaps this is because such an act prior to our anthropocene era of extinction was unthinkable, beyond the ken of the ancients. Perhaps, it is really too big for most of us to handle. (Which helps to explain our rapid, even if wildly imperfect, response to COVID-19 and our absurd denial about climate change.)

The end of a single life functions as easily as a metaphor for the end of humankind as the end of humankind does for the end of an individual life. (And this later function, I think, is important in popular, modern eschatology which uses civilization ending narratives to force us to think about mortality.) Mediterranean thought does show some evidence of the metaphor of one life as all of humankind, Philo sees the death of the individual as of no consequence to art “unless unless we believe that the death of one individual person in turn visits ruin upon humankind” (εἰ μὴ καὶ ἀνθρώπου τινὸς τῶν ἐν μέρει θάνατον φθορὰν ἐργάσασθαι φήσομεν ἀνθρωπότητι, The Worse Attack the Better 206). In this, he echoes lines in the Qu’ran and the Talmud making similar interrelational claims.

 

Living and Dying in Poems

My point is that while the ancients do not talk about civilization-ending plagues, they do talk a lot about death, and that is, for better or worse, part of what has drawn me to ancient poetry. In modern poetry on death, we get ruminations like Hektor’s in the Iliad: just as he says “may I not die ingloriously,” so too Mary Oliver writes (in When Death Comes):

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world

I first read Oliver with the poet Olga Broumas when I was an undergraduate at Brandeis. Olga encouraged us to read a book of poetry a week and I kept that up through my first semester of graduate school until Hektor took over completely.

Is there any reason for poetry to exist beyond the contemplation of life and death? I am sure there is, but many days I might be unable to hear it, searching instead in its words for that reflection of what I fear and seek myself. Modern poetry can differ from the major themes of ancient death in contemplating in how it communicates its stark simplicity: poets like Ibykos and Mimnermus acknowledge death is all around us while a modern talent like Gwendolyn Brooks turns our ear to the deaths of the unknown in The Boy Died in my Alley:

Without my having known.
Policeman said, next morning,
“Apparently died alone.”
“You heard a shot?” Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the dead.

Greek poetry often celebrates the infamous and the famous alike, leaving forgotten the passing of most. (Although there are memorials of even minor figures if you look hard enough.) Brooks remarks on the momentous deaths that fail even to bring us pause. (And in this I shudder to think of the humanitarian disaster being prepared in our American prisons and on the streets for the homeless and unknown.) 

But many poems home in on our personal relationship with death. Death’s coming is unexpected, as Pablo Neruda writes in Nothing But Death  “Death arrives among all that sound / like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it.” Yet, of all things in life it should be fully expected, fully anticipated. We know it is coming: we can prepare.

Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps the end of the life of an individual is ultimately unthinkable. We cannot see our way out of our bodies because they are all we have and no matter how many times we read Plato’s Phaedo the basic assertion—that because we think and exist now we must always have existed and just don’t remember it—does not square with the intuitive knowledge that I did not exist before so I will not exist again. Sometimes, we can embrace this, or at least make it more concrete as F. G. Lorca does in Gacela of the Dark Death, when expanding on the image of death as sleep:

  I want to sleep the sleep of the apples,
I want to get far away from the busyness of the cemeteries.
I want to sleep the sleep of that child
who longed to cut his heart open far out at sea.

But this peace, this sense of surrender is beyond me. When wading into the news these days, I am too often reminded of the words Dylan Thomas wrote for his father in is final years:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Rage in/Against Poems

Can a Homerist think of rage without thinking of Achilles? If I think back to the notion of the death of the individual as a metaphor for humankind (and the reverse), the Iliad itself is something different for me Everyone knows that Achilles has two choices: he can live a long life, without fame; or he can die young with glory.  But the choice he does not have at all is about whether or not he has to die.

The Rage the poem sings from line 1 is variously anger over Agamemnon’s slight to his honor or his anger at Patroklos’ death. This second cause is his more famous rage, that which kills Hektor and drives much of the action of the poem. On the other side of that rage, as my friend Emily Austin emphasizes in her work, is longing, a desire for what is lost in the form of Patroklos. And Patroklos, like Enkidu for Gilgamesh, is a stand in for the hero himself.

There are 16 books of the Iliad before Patroklos dies. Perhaps a unifying feature of Achilles’ rage is anger over death and life itself? When we find Achilles in book 9, contemplating his own life, he insists “The coward and the noble man are held in the same honor / the lazy man and the one who does a lot die the same.” (ἐν δὲ ἰῇ τιμῇ ἠμὲν κακὸς ἠδὲ καὶ ἐσθλός· / κάτθαν’ ὁμῶς ὅ τ’ ἀεργὸς ἀνὴρ ὅ τε πολλὰ ἐοργώς, Il. 9.320-321). This is typically taken as indicating Achilles’ existential issue with the “heroic code” or Achaean society. But if we take the Achilles from the Odyssey more seriously, the one who tells Odysseus not to  “sweet-talk me about death” (μὴ δή μοι θάνατόν γε παραύδα, 11.488), Achilles’ rage is more like Thomas’. It is that deep, fundamental incredulity that I who am now alive must one day be dead.

And in giving in to rage, Achilles lost much of the time he would have had to be alive—this, is, perhaps one of the lessons of the Odyssey. Perhaps Achilles would have benefited from reading Audre Lorde’s A Litany for Survival:

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.

 

Creating Something with Poems

One of the more amusing memes to circulate over the past few weeks has been about the accomplishment of some famous people during plagues. Newton invented Gravity! Shakespeare wrote King Lear! The least we can do is put on pants!

The call to use this time of isolation well is predictably met by the objection that such expectations are a little bit unreasonable. (And also conditioned by some of the very dysfunctional aspects of capitalism central to our problems.) The desire to read something long and complex is understandable, but the reality is that our attention spans are fragmented. Why not start small? Why not read a poem?

Now, for me, a ‘poem’ is an expansive term: a song is a poem.  This is especially true in Ancient Greece where song culture was a pervasive part of all life. No one ‘read’ Homer and Sappho in early Greece: they listened, they recited, they returned to it. (So listening is equal to if not better than reading in some ways). Modern high and low culture distinctions have obscured this; they too often deny the title “poem” to creations that do what poems do.

A poem should be defined not by some external aesthetics but by the internally sensed impact of what a poem does in the world: it creates. Our word poem comes from Greek poiêma, related to the verb poieô, “to make”. The Greek noun poiêtês, then, can be seen as “maker, creator”. This is an important meaning to me because poetry creates space, it creates worlds. A poem’s space is that of communion between its audience and others; it helps us see ourselves in humanity through that Aristotelian “identification” and it helps us develop humanity in ourselves, by seeing the world through other perspectives. Poetry should invite us, challenge us, and encourage us to see more than ourselves. And this, for me, is the goal of all reading, to bridge the gaps between our subjective consciousnesses, to help us see others as real and worthy of our attention, worthy of our regard, and worthy of our love.

Poetry in this sense is an act of creation, a reaffirmation of creation, by constituting and then providing access to the commonwealth of human understanding. My favorite metaphor for this from the ancient world is that passage from Plato’s Ion where Socrates describes poetic inspiration as being like a magnet imbuing successive links of metal with its force. The last link in the chain is the audience, the middle link is the performer/medium, the penultimate is the poet/creator and the source is “god/the muses”. For me, that source, that deity, is the human collective, the grand and sometimes random total sum of our shared memory (the Muses!), the shared wisdom and experience that helps us to define ourselves, to situate ourselves within a larger whole.

So I guess what I’m saying is that you should read a poem. Feel something, remember it. Share it with others. Carry it around in your head, in your heart. In these days of uncertainty and isolation, this is one way to be less alone. Or, in a way, even when alone, to be more together.

Aelian, Fragment 187/190 (from Stobaeus 3.29.58)

“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”

Σόλων ὁ ᾿Αθηναῖος ᾿Εξηκεστίδου παρὰ πότον τοῦ ἀδελφιδοῦ αὐτοῦ μέλος τι Σαπφοῦς ᾄσαντος, ἥσθη τῷ μέλει καὶ προσέταξε τῷ μειρακίῳ διδάξει αὐτόν. ἐρωτήσαντος δέ τινος διὰ ποίαν αἰτίαν τοῦτο σπουδάσειεν, ὃ δὲ ἔφη ‘ἵνα μαθὼν αὐτὸ ἀποθάνω.’

We will be putting up a call in the next few days for people to send in their own passages, favorite poems, and even posts for the site during the next few weeks. In the meantime, if you want something posted or would like to write a guest post, email me or Erik.

A random list of poets whose work was in earlier versions of this:

Franz Wright, James Wright, Nikki Giovanni, Mark Strand, Linda Gregg, Jack Gilbert, Maya Angelou, Rainer Maria Rilke, W. S. Merwin, Louise Gluck, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, e. e. cummings, Adrienne Rich. At some point I just started keeping only American poets of the 20th century, ignoring way too much from the rest of the world but, for what it’s worth, keeping true to my own education. Happy to have further suggestions.

Also, Patrick Stewart is reading sonnets online:

Reader Suggested Poems:

William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makaris

 

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;
῞Ομηρος·
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!

Statue of Silenus

Debt, Asylum, Slavery, and Freedom

Plutarch, On Borrowing 828 e

“But because we are perhaps ashamed to be self-sufficient, we make loans and mortgages our masters even though we should stick only to what is necessary and sustain ourselves by selling what is useless and excessive and establish a temple of freedom for our selves, our children, and our wives.

Artemis in Ephesus gives asylum to debtors when they flee into her temple and provides shelter from their debts. For the asylum and refuge of restraint is open to wise people everywhere and it provides them a pleasant and honorable vastness of great leisure.”

ἡμεῖς δὲ τὴν αὐτάρκειαν αἰσχυνόμενοι καταδουλοῦμεν ἑαυτοὺς ὑποθήκαις καὶ συμβολαίοις, δέον εἰς αὐτὰ τὰ χρήσιμα συσταλέντας καὶ συσπειραθέντας ἐκ τῶν ἀχρήστων καὶ περιττῶν κατακοπέντων ἢ πραθέντων ἐλευθερίας αὑτοῖς ἱερὸν ἱδρύσασθαι καὶ τέκνοις καὶ γυναιξίν. ἡ μὲν γὰρ Ἄρτεμις ἡ ἐν Ἐφέσῳ τοῖς χρεώσταις, ὅταν καταφύγωσιν εἰς τὸ ἱερὸν αὐτῆς, ἀσυλίαν παρέχει καὶ ἄδειαν ἀπὸ τῶν δανείων· τὸ δὲ τῆς εὐτελείας καὶ ἄσυλον καὶ ἄβατον πανταχοῦ τοῖς σώφροσιν ἀναπέπταται, πολλῆς σχολῆς εὐρυχωρίαν παρέχον ἱλαρὰν καὶ ἐπίτιμον.

Demosthenes, Exordia 4

“Perhaps it is fated for these people to never think clearly when they’re doing well. It is nevertheless proper for you, because of who you are and because of what has been done by the state, to be eager to show to all people that we choose to pursue just acts now and always as we did before, while others accuse their fellow citizens before us because they want to enslave them.”

οὐ μὴν ἀλλ᾿ ἴσως τούτοις μὲν εἵμαρται μηδέποτ᾿ εὖ πράττουσιν εὖ φρονῆσαι· ἡμῖν δὲ προσήκει καὶ δι᾿ ἡμᾶς αὐτοὺς καὶ διὰ τἆλλ᾿ ἃ πέπρακται τῇ πόλει, σπουδάσαι δεῖξαι πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις ὅτι καὶ πρότερον καὶ νῦν καὶ ἀεὶ ἡμεῖς τὰ δίκαια προαιρούμεθα πράττειν, ἕτεροι δέ τινες καταδουλοῦσθαι βουλόμενοι τοὺς αὑτῶν πολίτας διαβάλλουσι πρὸς ἡμᾶς.

Image result for artemis in ephesus
Statue of the type of the Artemis of Ephesus

Vacation: Putting the Skholê back into Scholarship

Dio Chrysostom, On Retirement 3

“No, these guys are obviously running away and going AWOL. They have no excuse and could expect no pardon for this kind of vacation and desertion.”

ἀλλ᾿ οὗτοι μὲν δῆλον ὅτι φεύγουσί τε καὶ δραπετεύουσι, καὶ οὐκ ἂν εἴη πρόφασις αὐτοῖς οὐδὲ συγγνώμη τῆς τοιαύτης σχολῆς τε καὶ ἀποδράσεως.

scholar 2

As many people know, the word scholarship is somewhere in the past derived from the Ancient Greek skholê for “leisure” (since literary and linguistic studies were both the sorts of things people did in their leisure time and you had to be a person with leisure time to do them). This also happens to be the word that Woodhouse’s English-Greek Dictionary provides as the translation for English “vacation”.

(also, just ruminate on the Latin etymology of vacation for a minute, the implied emptiness…)

Vacation

One of the popular—and politically expedient—myths about people who teach (both at the college level and lower) is that we are people of leisure—we have too much idle time to engage in (1) not doing ‘real’ work or (2) brainwashing those naïve children society entrusts to us. The truth—especially for college faculty on contract or in contingent positions, for those early in their career or looking for jobs, or for anyone who teaches elementary through high school—is that the past generation has seen the slow but steady erosion of the boundary between leisure and work.

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 7

“When will this year end?” One man gives games and even though he set a great worth on being able to do so, now says, “When will I flee them?” Another lawyer is praised over the whole forum and attracts a great crowd extending farther than they can hear, yet he complains, “When will I get a break?”

Everyone hurries life on and suffers a desire for the future and a weariness from the present. But the one who dedicates all his time to his own use, who orders every day as if it is the last one, neither desires nor fears tomorrow.”

“Quando hic annus praeteribit?” Facit ille ludos, quorum sortem sibi optingere magno aestimavit: “Quando,” inquit, “istos effugiam?” Diripitur ille toto foro patronus et magno concursu omnia ultra, quam audiri potest, complet: “Quando,” inquit, “res proferentur?” Praecipitat quisque vitam suam et futuri desiderio laborat, praesentium taedio. At ille qui nullum non tempus in usus suos confert, qui omnem diem tamquam ultimum ordinat, nec optat crastinum nec timet.

This boundary has moved not in our favor but in the direction of creating an environment in which teachers and academics never stop working. This is true for many fields where technology and the unholy god of efficiency has extended work hours and expected employees to take work home and to answer work communication at all hours. But it is especially damaging for mental health in higher ed and high school where we buy in to the idea of the life of the mind and willingly submit to the elision between our personal and professional selves.

This means that high school teachers grade until 9 or 10 at night (on an early night) because they are with students until almost dinner time. This means that professors teaching adjunct courses still feel compelled to answer emails at 1 AM because they don’t want lower teaching evaluations. This means that early career professors in the tenure track put off having children or being in relationships for decades because they don’t have the time. This means that life passes us by because we are trying so hard to make the most out our lives.

A few years back in Facebook, Dr. S. Culpepper Stroup (a fantastic name of which I am very jealous) makes a great point about the difference between otium (leisure) and negotium (business) in Latin. The long-and-short of it is that the Roman lexicon reflects an inverse relationship between our work and vacation. But, here are her finer words (quoted with permission):

Speaking of *otium* (as I always do) and its centrality to the Roman intellectual sphere, consider its opposite: *negotium*. Latin instructors often team *otium* as “leisure” and *negotium* as “business,” both of which absolutely miss the train in terms of semantic designation.

(Leisure comes from the Latin *licet*, so it indicates a time when one is *allowed* to do a specific activity, which absolutely lacks the strong autonomous sense of *otium*.)

Anyway, *negotium* is—obviously—the privative of *otium* (early on we see it in Plautus as “nec otium mihi”). *Negotium* is the time when you are deprived of *otium*.

The English “vacation” completely reverses that, making work the “full” thing (full of work, that is), and vacation the privative.

I far prefer the Roman sense of *otium*, as a self-owned time that needed no apologies.

Euripides, Hippolytus 383-384

“Life has many pleasures
Long talks and leisure, a pleasant evil…”

… εἰσὶ δ’ ἡδοναὶ πολλαὶ βίου,
μακραὶ δὲ λέσχαι καὶ σχολὴ τερπνὸν κακόν.

Smarter and more well-informed people than I can make the argument about the evils of neo-liberal capitalism and the commodification of everything. They can point out the insidious culture that insists us to see our online persona as our actual selves and to envision the ‘life’ we pursue there as a never ending process of branding and re-branding to ensure that we will never be less than fully commodifiable. I can merely confess that the anxiety, workload, and self-identification has shaped me in such a way that it is really, really hard to take any time off.

I was grading exams the days both of my children were born (and I got reprimanded by my chair for not entering grades soon enough after). When my daughter was learning to walk, I cheered her on as I furiously finished a book and a few articles to ensure I received tenure. I took one week off when my father died suddenly. I have brought sick kids to class repeatedly. I took one day off when my grandmother died.. None of this is necessary, admirable, or worthy of praise; all of it is from guilt, pressure, and our toxic work culture. And I know I don’t have it particularly bad. I have tenure. I have a place in the world, job security, and safety.

But at this point, I am what I do and I do what I am. I take articles to read at the playground. I proof articles while my kids are at swimming lessons. I have dragged work to Italy, India, France, Germany. Somehow I have not totally ruined my relationship with my spouse by slinking out of bed regularly at 5 am or answering emails after the children are asleep. I have lived through my work and despite my work. And I worry about the long-term consequences.

But I keep going because I love my material, because I love my students and my institution, and because of the fear and guilt: I know there are many others who are smarter, who have worked harder, but who have not had some of the dumb luck I have (or the privilege to which I was born) to end up where I am.

Cicero, Pro Murena 28

“No one can be famous for being wise if it is concerning the type of knowledge which is worthless anywhere beyond Rome and even at Rome too during a vacation. No one can be an expert on something which everyone knows because there can’t be any disagreement on the matter. A subject cannot be considered difficult just because it exists in a very few and rather obscure documents.”

Sapiens existimari nemo potest in ea prudentia quae neque extra Romam usquam neque Romae rebus prolatis quicquam valet. Peritus ideo haberi nemo potest quod in eo quod sciunt omnes nullo modo possunt inter se discrepare. Difficilis autem res ideo non putatur quod et perpaucis et minime obscuris litteris continetur.

At the end of the day (and a life!), I cannot be sure that work that I do is worth the emotion I have put into it. But, of course, this does not mean I can or will stop. I can, however, try to reset definitions a bit and remember to enjoy life a little more and take time off.

So, I am not going to go all memento mori and carpe diem today. (My students already think I have some sort of death-obsessed insanity.) And I won’t claim to be especially unlucky when I know the opposite is true. But I will say that we have a problem in education, especially: we spend a lot of time claiming that we can teach about the value of human life even as we fail so terribly at honoring the worth of our own.

So, the next week of posts will be repeats, cleverly repackaged along with a few retrospective posts I threw together earlier. I am going to try not to do work for a week. Again.

Ok, wait, Screw it. We are ALL GOING TO DIE. Here’s some advice from Ashurbanipal:

“Know well that you are mortal: fill your heart
By delighting in the feasts: nothing is useful to you when you’re dead.
I am ash, though I ruled great Ninevah as king.
I keep whatever I ate, the insults I made, and the joy
I took from sex. My wealth and many blessings are gone.
[This is wise advice for life: I will never forget it.
Let anyone who wants to accumulate limitless gold.]

εὖ εἰδὼς ὅτι θνητὸς ἔφυς σὸν θυμὸν ἄεξε,
τερπόμενος θαλίῃσι· θανόντι σοι οὔτις ὄνησις.
καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ σποδός εἰμι, Νίνου μεγάλης βασιλεύσας·
κεῖν’ ἔχω ὅσσ’ ἔφαγον καὶ ἐφύβρισα καὶ σὺν ἔρωτι
τέρπν’ ἔπαθον· τὰ δὲ πολλὰ καὶ ὄλβια πάντα λέλυνται.
[ἥδε σοφὴ βιότοιο παραίνεσις, οὐδέ ποτ’ αὐτῆς
λήσομαι· ἐκτήσθω δ’ ὁ θέλων τὸν ἀπείρονα χρυσόν.]

Image result for Ancient Greek Leisure
It is a race, but we all know where it ends.

Philosophers Need Life-Coaches

Cicero, Letter Fragments. Nepos to Cicero IIa

Nepos Cornelius also writes to the same Cicero thus: it is so far away from me thinking that philosophy is a teacher of life and the guardian of a happy life, that I do not believe that anyone needs teachers of living more than the many men who are dedicated to philosophical debate. I certainly see that a great number of those who rush into speeches about restraint and discipline in the classroom live amidst the desire for every kind of vice.”

Nepos quoque Cornelius ad eundem Ciceronem ita scribit: tantum abest ut ego magistram putem esse vitae philosophiam beataeque vitae perfectricem ut nullis magis existimem opus esse magistros vivendi quam plerisque qui in ea disputanda versantur. video enim magnam partem eorum qui in schola de pudore <et> continentia praecipiant argutissime eosdem in omnium libidinum cupiditatibus vivere. (Lactant. Div. inst. 3.5.10)

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Shadows and Breath: Lyrics on Human Life

A Repeated idea in classical Greek poetry

Aeschylus, fr. 399.1-2

“Humanity thinks only about temporary seeds,
Its pledge is nothing more than the shadow of smoke”

τὸ γὰρ βρότειον σπέρμ’ ἐφήμερα φρονεῖ,
καὶ πιστὸν οὐδὲν μᾶλλον ἢ καπνοῦ σκιά

Sophocles, fr. 13.

“Man is only breath and shadow.”

ἄνθρωπός ἐστι πνεῦμα καὶ σκιὰ μόνον

Pindar, Pythian 8.95

“Alive for a day: What is a person? What is not a person? Man is a dream of a shadow”
ἐπάμεροι· τί δέ τις; τί δ’ οὔ τις; σκιᾶς ὄναρ

Euripides, fr. 532

“Do good while people are alive; when each man dies
He is earth and shadow. What is nothing changes nothing.”

τοὺς ζῶντας εὖ δρᾶν• κατθανὼν δὲ πᾶς ἀνὴρ
γῆ καὶ σκιά• τὸ μηδὲν εἰς οὐδὲν ῥέπει.

fr. 509

“What else? An old man is voice and shadow.”

τί δ’ ἄλλο; φωνὴ καὶ σκιὰ γέρων ἀνήρ.

Tragic Adesp. Fr. 95

“I want to advise all mortals
To live our temporary life sweetly. For after you die,
You are nothing more than a shadow over the earth.”

πᾶσιν δὲ θνητοῖς βούλομαι παραινέσαι
τοὐφήμερον ζῆν ἡδέως· ὁ γὰρ θανὼν
τὸ μηδέν ἐστι καὶ σκιὰ κατὰ χθονός·

Sophocles, fr. 945 (suggested by twitter’s @equiprimordial)

“O wretched and mortal race of men:
We are nothing more than image of shadows,
Wandering back and forth, an excessive weight on the earth.

ὦ θνητὸν ἀνδρῶν καὶ ταλαίπωρον γένος,
ὡς οὐδέν ἐσμεν πλὴν σκιαῖς ἐοικότες,
βάρος περισσὸν γῆς ἀναστρωφώμενοι

Image result for Ancient Greek burial sites

Homer. Od. 10.495

“Persephone allowed him to have a mind, even though he is dead,
He alone is able to think. The others leap like shadows”

τῷ καὶ τεθνηῶτι νόον πόρε Περσεφόνεια
οἴῳ πεπνῦσθαι· τοὶ δὲ σκιαὶ ἀΐσσουσιν.’

The scholia have a few interesting things to add to this.

Schol. ad Hom. Od. 10.495

“They leap like shadows”: The rest of the dead apart from Teiresias are shadows and they move like shadows, just like the shadows that follow men who are moving. This term is used instead of souls [psukhai]. Certainly the poet has the rest of the dead come forward for comparison in this, but the rest of the dead move like shadows”

τοὶ δὲ σκιαὶ ἀΐσσουσιν] οἱ δὲ ἄλλοι νεκροὶ πλὴν τοῦ Τειρεσίου σκιαί εἰσι καὶ ὡς σκιαὶ ὁρμῶσι, καθάπερ αὗται παρέπονται τοῖς κινουμένοις. Q. ἀντὶ τοῦ αἱ ψυχαί. ὁ μέντοι ποιητὴς πρὸς τοὺς ἄλλους νεκροὺς ποιεῖται τὴν σύγκρισιν ἐν τῷ, οἱ δὲ ἄλλοι νεκροὶ ὡς σκιαὶ ἀΐσσουσιν. B.Q.T.

Democritus, fr. B145

“A story is the shadow of the deed”

λόγος ἔργου σκιή

Arsenius, 6.33a

“The shadow of Doiduks”: A proverb applied to nothing.”

Δοίδυκος σκιά: ἐπὶ τοῦ μηδενός.

Michael Apostolios, 5.74

“Shadow instead of a body”: A Proverb applied to those who seem strong but have no power.”

Σκιὰ ἀντὶ τοῦ σώματος: ἐπὶ τῶν δοκούντων κρα-
τεῖν τι, οὐδὲν δ’ ὅμως κρατούντων.

The motif of man as ephemeral is prior to the classical period

Homer, Iliad 6.145-151

“Oh, you great-hearted son of Tydeus, why are you asking about pedigree?
The generations of men are just like leaves on a tree:
The wind blows some to the ground and then the forest
Grows lush with others when spring comes again.
In this way, the race of men grows and then dies in turn.
But if you are willing, learn about these things so you may know
My lineage well—many are the men who know me.”

Τυδεΐδη μεγάθυμε τί ἢ γενεὴν ἐρεείνεις;
οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν.
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ’ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ’ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ’ ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη·
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει ἣ δ’ ἀπολήγει.
εἰ δ’ ἐθέλεις καὶ ταῦτα δαήμεναι ὄφρ’ ἐὺ εἰδῇς
ἡμετέρην γενεήν, πολλοὶ δέ μιν ἄνδρες ἴσασιν

Stobaeus (1.49.54) in discussing shadows and death, notes that “if they meet their near and dear, they cannot see them nor can they converse with them, but they are walled off from aesthetic reality, they appear to them something like shadows”

Εἰ δὴ τοῖς οἰκείοις ἐντυγχάνοντες οὔτε ὁρῶσιν αὐτοὺς οὔτε προσδιαλέγονται, ἀνενέργητοι δέ εἰσιν αἰσθητικὴν ἐνέργειαν, πρὸς αὐτοὺς ἐοικότες εἶεν <ἂν> ταῖς σκιαῖς·

He also brings up the image of smoke evoked in the Iliad (23.100-101)

“He could not grasp him, but his soul went over the earth,
Twisted, just like smoke…”

οὐδ’ ἔλαβε· ψυχὴ δὲ κατὰ χθονὸς ἠΰτε καπνὸς
ᾤχετο τετριγυῖα…

An uplifting proverb to close:

Arsenius, 17.66

“Windblown dreams and shadows of glory”: A proverb applied to those hoping for things in vain.

῾Υπηνέμια ὀνείρατα καὶ ἐπαίνων σκιαί: ἐπὶ τῶν μάτην ἐλπιζόντων.

Life’s Sweetness, Our Weakness

A reminder before the new year that life offers many kinds of sweetness….

Hes. Frag. 273

“It is also sweet to know how many things the immortals
Have allotted for mortals, a clear sign of base and noble…”

ἡδὺ δὲ καὶ τὸ πυθέσθαι, ὅσα θνητοῖσιν ἔνειμαν
ἀθάνατοι, δειλῶν τε καὶ ἐσθλῶν τέκμαρ ἐναργές

Arsenius 3.60

“It is sweet to live in leisure. Life is long
And sacred, if lived among untroubled affairs.”

᾿Απραγμόνως ζῆν ἡδύ· μακάριος βίος
καὶ σεμνός, ἐὰν ᾖ μεθ’ ἑτέρων ἀπραγμόνων·

sweetmess

 

Arsenius 18.66f

“It is sweet for children to obey their father”

῾Ως ἡδὺ τῷ φύσαντι πείθεσθαι τέκνα [Attributed to Euripides, Agathon]

 

Heraclitus, fr. 111

“Sickness makes health sweet and good…”

νοῦσος ὑγιείην ἐποίησεν ἡδὺ καὶ ἀγαθόν

Arsenius 18.66p

“it is sweet for those who have done badly to forget
Their bygone troubles in a short time.”

῾Ως τοῖς κακῶς πράσσουσιν ἡδὺ καὶ βραχύν
χρόνον λαθέσθαι τῶν παρεστώτων κακῶν [Attributed to Sophocles]

18.66u

“It is sweet for slaves to obtain good masters”

῾Ως ἡδὺ δούλοις δεσπότας χρηστοὺς λαβεῖν, [Attributed to Euripides]

18.67c

“It is sweet for those who hate fools to be alone.”

῾Ως ἡδὺ τῷ μισοῦντι τοὺς φαύλους ἐρημία [Attributed to Menander]

Crates, fr. 23

“This is the case with erotic games: they’re sweet to play, but not nice to mention.”

καὶ μάλιστ᾿ ἀφροδισίοις ἀθύρμασιν. ἡδὺ γὰρ κἀκεῖνο τὸ δρᾶν, λέγεσθαι δ᾿ οὐ καλόν.

Euripides, Supp. 1101-2

“Nothing is sweeter to an old father than a daughter”

πατρὶ δ᾽ οὐδὲν †ἥδιον†

γέροντι θυγατρός

Aristotle [According to Diogenes Laertius 5.21]

“He said that the root of education is bitter but the fruit is sweet.”

Τῆς παιδείας ἔφη τὰς μὲν ῥίζας εἶναι πικράς, τὸν δὲ καρπὸν γλυκύν

Bias [According to Diogenes Laertius 1.86]

‘When someone asked what is sweet for people, he said “hope”.’

Ἐρωτηθεὶς τί γλυκὺ ἀνθρώποις, “ἐλπίς,” ἔφη.

Theognis, Uncertain Fragments

“Nothing, Kurnos, is sweeter than a good woman.
I am a witness to this, and you are witness to the truth”

Οὐδέν, Κύρν’, ἀγαθῆς γλυκερώτερόν ἐστι γυναικός.
μάρτυς ἐγώ, σὺ δ’ ἐμοὶ γίνου ἀληθοσύνης.

Sophocles, Philoktetes 81

“It is sweet to obtain the possession of victory.”

ἀλλ’ ἡδὺ γάρ τοι κτῆμα τῆς νίκης λαβεῖν

Euripides, Fr. 133

“It is certainly sweet to recall your struggles after you’ve been saved”

ἀλλ’ ἡδύ τοι σωθέντα μεμνῆσθαι πόνων.

Archippus fr. 45

“Mother, it is sweet to see the sea from the land
when you don’t have to sail any longer.”

ὡς ἡδὺ τὴν θάλατταν ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς ὁρᾶν
ὦ μῆτερ ἐστι, μὴ πλέοντα μηδαμοῦ

Euripides, fr. 358 (Erechtheus)

“Children have nothing sweeter than their mother.
Love your mother children, there is no kind of love anywhere
Sweeter than this one to love.”

οὐκ ἔστι μητρὸς οὐδὲν ἥδιον τέκνοις•
ἐρᾶτε μητρός, παῖδες, ὡς οὐκ ἔστ’ ἔρως
τοιοῦτος ἄλλος ὅστις ἡδίων ἐρᾶν.

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 688-89

“For the sick it is sweet to know clearly what pain remains”

τοῖς νοσοῦσί τοι γλυκὺ
τὸ λοιπὸν ἄλγος προυξεπίστασθαι τορῶς

Ananius, fr. 5.3

“It is sweet to eat the meat of a [locally-killed?] goat”

ἡδὺ δ’ ἐσθίειν χιμαίρης †φθινοπωρισμῶι κρέας·

Anaxandrides, fr. 24

“The home-fed son grows sweetly”

υἱὸς γὰρ οἰκόσιτος ἡδὺ γίνεται.

Theocritus, 3.20

“There is a sweet joy in empty little kisses.”

ἔστι καὶ ἐν κενεοῖσι φιλήμασιν ἁδέα τέρψις.

Menander, fr. 809

“It is sweet when brothers have a like-minded love”

ἡδύ γ’ ἐν ἀδελφοῖς ἐστιν ὁμονοίας ἔρως.

Menander fr. 814

“Sweet is the word of a friend for those in grief.”

ἡδύ γε φίλου λόγος ἐστὶ τοῖς λυπουμένοις.

Menander, fr 930

“It is sweet to die for the one who has not been permitted to live as he wished.”

ἡδύ γ’ ἀποθνῄσκειν ὅτῳ ζῆν μὴ πάρεσθ’ ὡς βούλεται.

Sophokles, Fr. 356 (Creusa)

“The most noble thing is to be just.
The best thing is to live without sickness; the sweetest is when
Someone has the ability to get what he wants each day.”

κάλλιστόν ἐστι τοὔνδικον πεφυκέναι,
λῷστον δὲ τὸ ζῆν ἄνοσον, ἥδιστον δ’ ὅτῳ
πάρεστι λῆψις ὧν ἐρᾷ καθ’ ἡμέραν

Democritus, fr. 69

“Truth and goodness are the same for all people. But what is sweet is different for different folks.”

ἀνθρώποις πᾶσι τωὐτὸν ἀγαθὸν καὶ ἀληθές· ἡδὺ δὲ ἄλλωι ἄλλο.