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!

Sebastiano Ricci, “Sacrifice to Silenus” c. 1723

Dulce et Decorum Est To Live to Drink Another Day

Herodotus, Histories 5.95

“When they were waging war and many different kinds of things were happening in the battles, then indeed among them when the Athenians were winning, the poet Alcaeus went running and fled, but the Athenians captured his armor and dedicated it in the temple of Athena at Sigeion. Alcaeus wrote a poem about this and sent it to Mytilene where he explained his suffering to his best friend Melanippos. Peirander, Kypselos’ son, made peace between the Athenians and Mytileneans after they entrusted the affair to his judgment. He resolved it so that each side would keep what they previously possessed.”

Πολεμεόντων δὲ σφέων παντοῖα καὶ ἄλλα ἐγένετο ἐν τῇσι μάχῃσι, ἐν δὲ δὴ καὶ Ἀλκαῖος ὁ ποιητὴς συμβολῆς γενομένης καὶ νικώντων Ἀθηναίων αὐτὸς μὲν φεύγων ἐκφεύγει, τὰ δέ οἱ ὅπλα ἴσχουσι Ἀθηναῖοι, καί σφεα ἀνεκρέμασαν πρὸς τὸ Ἀθήναιον τὸ ἐν Σιγείῳ. ταῦτα δὲ Ἀλκαῖος ἐν μέλεϊ ποιήσας ἐπιτιθεῖ ἐς Μυτιλήνην, ἐξαγγελλόμενος τὸ ἑωυτοῦ πάθος Μελανίππῳ ἀνδρὶ ἑταίρῳ. Μυτιληναίους δὲ καὶ Ἀθηναίους κατήλλαξε Περίανδρος ὁ Κυψέλου· τούτῳ γὰρ διαιτητῇ ἐπετράποντο· κατήλλαξε δὲ ὧδε, νέμεσθαι ἑκατέρους τὴν ἔχουσι.

Plutarch, On the Malice of Herodotus 858ab

“What does Herodotus say about what happened at [the battle between the Athenians and Mytileneans]? Instead of mentioning the excellence of Pittakos, he narrates the flight of the poet Alkaios from battle, how he dropped his weapons. By not describing great deeds and by not passing over the shameful ones, he has taken the side of those who claim that envy and joy at someone else’s misfortune comes from the same weakness.”

 τί οὖν ὁ Ἡρόδοτος, κατὰ τὸν τόπον γενόμενος τοῦτον; ἀντὶ τῆς Πιττακοῦ ἀριστείας τὴν Ἀλκαίου διηγήσατο τοῦ ποιητοῦ φυγὴν ἐκ τῆς μάχης, τὰ ὅπλα ῥίψαντος, τῷ τὰ μὲν χρηστὰ μὴ γράψαι τὰ δ᾿ αἰσχρὰ μὴ παραλιπεῖν μαρτυρήσας τοῖς ἀπὸ μιᾶς κακίας καὶ τὸν φθόνον φύεσθαι καὶ τὴν ἐπιχαιρεκακίαν λέγουσαι.

Alcaeus, Fr. 38A (P. Oxy. 1233 fr. 1 ii 8–20 + 2166(b)1)

“Drink and get drunk with me, Melanippos.
Why would you say that once you cross the great eddying
River of Acheron you will see the pure light of the sun again?
Come on, don’t hope for great things.

For even the son of Aiolos, Sisyphos used to claim
He was better than death because he knew the most of men.
Even though he was so very wise, he crossed
The eddying river Acheron twice thanks to fate
And Kronos’ son granted that he would have toil
Beneath the dark earth. So don’t hope for these things.

As long as we are young, now is the time we must
Endure whatever of these things the god soon grants us to suffer.”

πῶνε [καὶ μέθυ᾿ ὦ] Μελάνιππ᾿ ἄμ᾿ ἔμοι· τί [φαῖς †
ὄταμε[. . . .]διννάεντ᾿ † Ἀχέροντα μέγ[αν πόρον
ζάβαι[ς ἀ]ελίω κόθαρον φάος [ἄψερον
ὄψεσθ᾿; ἀλλ᾿ ἄγι μὴ μεγάλων ἐπ[ιβάλλεο·
καὶ γὰρ Σίσυφος Αἰολίδαις βασίλευς [ἔφα
ἄνδρων πλεῖστα νοησάμενος [θανάτω κρέτην·
ἀλλὰ καὶ πολύιδρις ἔων ὐπὰ κᾶρι [δὶς
δ̣ιννάεντ᾿ Ἀχέροντ᾿ ἐπέραισε, μ[έμηδε δ᾿ ὦν
αὔτῳ μόχθον ἔχην Κρονίδαις βα [σίλευς κάτω
ελαίνας χθόνος· ἀλλ᾿ ἄγι μὴ τά[δ᾿ ἐπέλπεο·
θᾶς] τ᾿ ἀβάσομεν αἴ ποτα κἄλλοτα ν [ῦν χρέων
φέρ]ην ὄττινα τῶνδε πάθην τά[χα δῷ θέος.

Image result for medieval manuscript acheron
Dante Being rowed across Acheron, 5th c, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 6r. B.L.

Some of us can’t say this any more…

Silly Mortals, Lifetimes Are Plenty Long!

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae I

“A great number of mortals, Paul, grumble about nature’s cruelty–that we are born to a short life and that this time rushes by so quickly and surprisingly through its granted span that, with the exception of only a few, life’s end comes just when we’re ready to truly live. And it isn’t just a complaint of the public and the uninformed masses: this feeling brings the same quarrel from famous people too–this prompted the shout from the most famous doctors, that “life is short, art is everlasting.”

This also caused Aristotle to express a charge ill fit to a wise person when he was hypothesizing about Nature that when it comes to lifespan she has granted so much to animals that they live five or ten lives when so little has been given to human beings who achieve so much more! We don’t have too little time, but we do waste much of it.

Life is long enough and it has been granted sufficiently for finishing great things as long as the whole time is dedicated to them. Yet when life is wasted in luxury and recklessness or when it is devoted to nothing good, we are forced by the last moment to understand that life has left us before we understood it was going. So it goes–we don’t get a short life, but make it so; and it isn’t limited, we just waste it.”

Maior pars mortalium, Pauline, de naturae malignitate conqueritur, quod in exiguum aevi gignamur, quod haec tam velociter, tam rapide dati nobis temporis spatia decurrant, adeo ut exceptis admodum paucis ceteros in ipso vitae apparatu vita destituat. Nec huic publico, ut opinantur, malo turba tantum et imprudens1 volgus ingemuit; clarorum quoque virorum hic affectus querellas evocavit. Inde illa maximi medicorum exclamatio est: ‘vitam brevem  esse, longam artem’; inde Aristotelis cum rerum natura exigentis minime conveniens sapienti viro lis: ‘aetatis illam animalibus tantum indulsisse, ut quina aut dena saecula educerent, homini in tam multa ac magna genito tanto citeriorem terminum  stare.’ 

Non exiguum temporis habemus, sed multum perdimus. Satis longa vita et in maximarum rerum consummationem large data est, si tota bene collocaretur; sed ubi per luxum ac neglegentiam diffluit, ubi nulli bonae rei impenditur, ultima demum necessitate cogente quam ire non intelleximus  transisse sentimus. Ita est: non accipimus brevem vitam, sed facimus, nec inopes eius sed prodigi sumus.

Tower clock at the south side of the Schwabentor with the painting “Kosmos” by Carl Roesch, Vorstadt 69, Schaffhausen, Switzerland

How We Spend Our Days–Do Nothing Rather Than Something Useless

Pliny, Letters 9 To Minucius Fundanus

“It is amazing how the schedule is or seems on individual days in the city when they all blend together. If you ask anyone “what did you do today?” He may say, “I went to a toga-ceremony, an engagement, or a marriage. I was the witness at a will-signing, or at court as a witness or supporter.” These things which you do seem necessary on the day that you do them but empty if you remember that you have done the same kind of things every day and they seem even sillier if you consider them when you are away.

Then the realization comes over you: “How many days have I wasted in trivial pursuits!” This occurs to me whenever I am reading or writing or taking some time to exercise, to keep my mind fit for my work, at my Laurentum. I hear nothing and I say nothing which later on it hurts me that I said or heard. No one troubles me with evil rumors. I find no one to blame but myself when I write with too little ease. I am troubled by no hope, no fear; I am disrupted by no gossip. I speak only with myself and my little books.

What a fine and sincere life! What sweet and honest leisure, finer than nearly any business at all. The sea, the beach, my own true and private museum—how much you discover for me, how much you have told me!

Take the first chance you can to leave that noise, the empty conversation, and so many useless tasks and dedicate yourself to studies or relaxing. For our friend Atilius put it most elegantly and intelligently when he said “it is better to do engage in leisure than to do nothing.”

Plinius Minicio Fundano Suo S.

1Mirum est quam singulis diebus in urbe ratio aut constet aut constare videatur, pluribus iunctisque

Nam si quem interroges “Hodie quid egisti?,” respondeat: “Officio togae virilis interfui, sponsalia aut nuptias frequentavi, ille me ad signandum testamentum, ille in advocationem, ille in 3 consilium rogavit.” Haec quo die feceris, necessaria, eadem, si cotidie fecisse te reputes, inania videntur, multo magis cum secesseris. Tunc enim subit recordatio: “Quot dies quam frigidis rebus absumpsi!” 4 Quod evenit mihi, postquam in Laurentino meo aut lego aliquid aut scribo aut etiam corpori vaco, cuius fulturis animus sustinetur. Nihil audio quod audisse, nihil dico quod dixisse paeniteat; nemo apud me quemquam sinistris sermonibus carpit, neminem ipse reprehendo, nisi tamen me cum parum commode scribo; nulla spe nullo timore sollicitor, nullis rumoribus inquietor: mecum tantum et cum libellis loquor. O rectam sinceramque vitam! O dulce otium honestumque ac paene omni negotio pulchrius! O mare, o litus, verum secretumque μουσεῖον, quam multa invenitis, quam multa dictatis! 7 Proinde tu quoque strepitum istum inanemque discursum et multum ineptos labores, ut primum fuerit occasio, relinque teque studiis vel otio trade. 8 Satius est enim, ut Atilius noster eruditissime simul et facetissime dixit, otiosum esse quam nihil agere. Vale.

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)

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)

Image result for Cornelius Nepos

Fortunate Is the One Who Is Happy Today

Euripides Bacchae, Fourth Chorus (862-912)

“Will I ever lift my white foot
As I dance along
In the all night chorus—
Shaking my head at the dewy sky
Like the fawn who plays
In a meadow’s pale pleasures
When she has fled the frightful hunt
Beyond the well-woven nets of the guard—
With a holler, the hunter
Recalls the rush of his hounds
And she leaps
With the swift-raced lust of the winds
Across the riverbounded plain,
Taking pleasure in the places free
Of mortals and in the tender shoots
Of the shadow grove?

What’s cleverness for? Is there any nobler prize
Mortals can receive from the gods
Than to hold your hand over the heads
Of your enemies?
Whatever is noble is always dear.

Scarcely, but still surely,
The divine moves its strength
It brings mortals low
When they honor foolishness
And do not worship the gods
Because of some insane belief
They skillfully hide
The long step of time
As they hunt down the irreverent.
For it is never right
To think or practice stronger
Than the laws.
For it is a light price
To believe that these have strength—
Whatever the divine force truly is
And whatever has been customary for so long,
This will always be, by nature.

What’s cleverness for? Is there any nobler prize
Mortals can receive from the gods
Than to hold your hand over the heads
Of your enemies?
Whatever is noble is always dear.

Fortunate is the one who flees
The swell of the sea and returns to harbor.
Fortunate is the one who survives through troubles
One is greater than another in different things,
He surpasses in fortune and power—
But in numberless hearts still
Are numberless hopes: some result
In good fortune, but other mortal dreams
Just disappear.

Whoever has a happy life to-day,
I consider fortunate.

Χο. ἆρ’ ἐν παννυχίοις χοροῖς
θήσω ποτὲ λευκὸν
πόδ’ ἀναβακχεύουσα, δέραν
αἰθέρ’ ἐς δροσερὸν ῥίπτουσ’,
ὡς νεβρὸς χλοεραῖς ἐμπαί-
ζουσα λείμακος ἡδοναῖς,
ἁνίκ’ ἂν φοβερὰν φύγηι
θήραν ἔξω φυλακᾶς
εὐπλέκτων ὑπὲρ ἀρκύων,
θωύσσων δὲ κυναγέτας
συντείνηι δράμημα κυνῶν,
μόχθοις δ’ ὠκυδρόμοις ἀελ-
λὰς θρώισκηι πεδίον
παραποτάμιον, ἡδομένα
βροτῶν ἐρημίαις σκιαρο-
κόμοιό τ’ ἔρνεσιν ὕλας;
†τί τὸ σοφόν, ἢ τί τὸ κάλλιον†
παρὰ θεῶν γέρας ἐν βροτοῖς
ἢ χεῖρ’ ὑπὲρ κορυφᾶς
τῶν ἐχθρῶν κρείσσω κατέχειν;
ὅτι καλὸν φίλον αἰεί.
ὁρμᾶται μόλις, ἀλλ’ ὅμως
πιστόν <τι> τὸ θεῖον
σθένος· ἀπευθύνει δὲ βροτῶν
τούς τ’ ἀγνωμοσύναν τιμῶν-
τας καὶ μὴ τὰ θεῶν αὔξον-
τας σὺν μαινομέναι δόξαι.
κρυπτεύουσι δὲ ποικίλως
δαρὸν χρόνου πόδα καὶ
θηρῶσιν τὸν ἄσεπτον· οὐ
γὰρ κρεῖσσόν ποτε τῶν νόμων
γιγνώσκειν χρὴ καὶ μελετᾶν.
κούφα γὰρ δαπάνα νομί-
ζειν ἰσχὺν τόδ’ ἔχειν,
ὅτι ποτ’ ἄρα τὸ δαιμόνιον,
τό τ’ ἐν χρόνωι μακρῶι νόμιμον
ἀεὶ φύσει τε πεφυκός.
†τί τὸ σοφόν, ἢ τί τὸ κάλλιον†
παρὰ θεῶν γέρας ἐν βροτοῖς
ἢ χεῖρ’ ὑπὲρ κορυφᾶς
τῶν ἐχθρῶν κρείσσω κατέχειν;
ὅτι καλὸν φίλον αἰεί.
εὐδαίμων μὲν ὃς ἐκ θαλάσσας
ἔφυγε χεῖμα, λιμένα δ’ ἔκιχεν·
εὐδαίμων δ’ ὃς ὕπερθε μόχθων
ἐγένεθ’· ἕτερα δ’ ἕτερος ἕτερον
ὄλβωι καὶ δυνάμει παρῆλθεν.
μυρίαι δ’ ἔτι μυρίοις
εἰσὶν ἐλπίδες· αἱ μὲν
τελευτῶσιν ἐν ὄλβωι
βροτοῖς, αἱ δ’ ἀπέβασαν·
τὸ δὲ κατ’ ἦμαρ ὅτωι βίοτος
εὐδαίμων, μακαρίζω.

Image result for ancient greek good fortune
Cornucopia

The Body as A Cloak for the Soul

Plato, Phaedo 89b-e

“Why, therefore, the reasoning would go, do you still not believe it when you see that the weaker part still exists after the person has died? Doesn’t it seem to you necessary that the part which lasts long should be preserved still in this time? Think about this when you consider what I am saying. Like Simmias, I guess, I need some kind of an analogy.

It seems to me as if someone is saying similar things when he makes the comparison of an old weaver who has died. He claims that the man is not dead, but is still somewhere safe somehow because he can provide as proof a cloak which the man wove himself and was wearing and is still safe and has not perished. And if someone were skeptical at this, he would ask whether a human being lives longer than a cloak which was used and worn and the when he answered that human beings last longer than cloaks in general, he would think he had proved that the person remains sound since the shorter-lived thing had not withered.

This, Simmias, I do not think is true. Think about what I am saying. Everyone would imagine that it is stupid when someone says this. For this weaver, although he has worn out and then woven many of these kinds of cloaks, died and disappeared long after they did when there were many of them. But he did not before the last one. Even in this the person is no weaker or less complex than the cloak.

I think that the soul responds to the same analogy and anyone who said the same things about it would seem sensible to me. The soul is longer-lived, and the body is weaker and has less time. But if you were to say that each soul wears out many bodies, or something else if it has many years—since the body wears out and could be ruined while the person still lives, but the soul could always reweave what gets worn out—whenever the soul perishes, it would the be necessary for it to have taken on its final garment and to perish before only this one. Once the soul dies then, the body would display the nature of its weakness and disappear by rotting quickly.”

 τί οὖν, ἂν φαίη ὁ λόγος, ἔτι ἀπιστεῖς, ἐπειδὴ ὁρᾷς ἀποθανόντος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου τό γε ἀσθενέστερον ἔτι ὄν; τὸ δὲ πολυχρονιώτερον οὐ δοκεῖ σοι ἀναγκαῖον εἶναι ἔτι σῴζεσθαι ἐν τούτῳ τῷ χρόνῳ; πρὸς δὴ τοῦτο τόδε ἐπίσκεψαι, εἴ τι λέγω· εἰκόνος γάρ τινος, ὡς ἔοικεν, κἀγὼ ὥσπερ Σιμμίας δέομαι. ἐμοὶ γὰρ δοκεῖ ὁμοίως λέγεσθαι | ταῦτα ὥσπερ ἄν τις περὶ ἀνθρώπου ὑφάντου πρεσβύτου ἀποθανόντος λέγοι τοῦτον τὸν λόγον, ὅτι οὐκ ἀπόλωλεν ὁ ἄνθρωπος ἀλλ’ ἔστι που σῶς, τεκμήριον δὲ παρέχοιτο θοιμάτιον ὃ ἠμπείχετο αὐτὸς ὑφηνάμενος ὅτι ἐστὶ σῶν καὶ οὐκ ἀπόλωλεν, καὶ εἴ τις ἀπιστοίη αὐτῷ, ἀνερωτῴη πότερον πολυχρονιώτερόν ἐστι τὸ γένος ἀνθρώπου ἢ ἱματίου ἐν χρείᾳ τε ὄντος καὶ φορουμένου, ἀποκριναμένου δή ὅτι πολὺ τὸ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, οἴοιτο ἀποδεδεῖχθαι ὅτι παντὸς ἄρα μᾶλλον ὅ γε ἄνθρωπος σῶς ἐστιν, | ἐπειδὴ τό γε ὀλιγοχρονιώτερον οὐκ ἀπόλωλεν. τὸ δ’ οἶμαι, ὦ Σιμμία, οὐχ οὕτως ἔχει· σκόπει γὰρ καὶ σὺ ἃ λέγω. πᾶς ἂν ὑπολάβοι ὅτι εὔηθες λέγει ὁ τοῦτο λέγων· ὁ γὰρ ὑφάντης οὗτος πολλὰ κατατρίψας τοιαῦτα ἱμάτια καὶ ὑφηνάμενος ἐκείνων μὲν ὕστερος ἀπόλωλεν πολλῶν ὄντων, τοῦ δὲ τελευταίου οἶμαι πρότερος, καὶ οὐδέν τι μᾶλλον τούτου ἕνεκα ἄνθρωπός ἐστιν ἱματίου φαυλότερον οὐδ’ ἀσθενέστερον. τὴν αὐτὴν δὲ ταύτην οἶμαι εἰκόνα δέξαιτ’ ἂν ψυχὴ πρὸς σῶμα, καί τις λέγων αὐτὰ ταῦτα περὶ αὐτῶν μέτρι’ ἄν μοι φαίνοιτο λέγειν, | ὡς ἡ μὲν ψυχὴ πολυχρόνιόν ἐστι, τὸ δὲ σῶμα ἀσθενέστερον καὶ ὀλιγοχρονιώτερον· ἀλλὰ γὰρ ἂν φαίη ἑκάστην τῶν ψυχῶν πολλὰ σώματα κατατρίβειν, ἄλλως τε κἂν πολλὰ ἔτη βιῷ—εἰ γὰρ ῥέοι τὸ σῶμα καὶ ἀπολλύοιτο ἔτι ζῶντος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, ἀλλ’ ἡ ψυχὴ ἀεὶ τὸ κατατριβόμενον ἀνυφαίνοι—ἀναγκαῖον μεντἂν εἴη, ὁπότε ἀπολλύοιτο ἡ ψυχή, τὸ τελευταῖον ὕφασμα τυχεῖν αὐτὴν ἔχουσαν καὶ τούτου μόνου προτέραν ἀπόλλυσθαι, ἀπολομένης δὲ τῆς ψυχῆς τότ’ ἤδη τὴν φύσιν τῆς ἀσθενείας ἐπιδεικνύοι | τὸ σῶμα καὶ ταχὺ σαπὲν διοίχοιτο.

Hieronymous Bosch, “Christ in Limbo”

Drink To Rest and Refresh the Weary Mind

Aulus Gellius 15.2

“But Plato in the first and second book of Laws did not—as was opined by a fool—praise that most shameful drunkenness which weakens and diminishes people’s minds; but he did not dismiss that kinder and a bit friendlier embrace of wine which may come under the influence of good judges and masters of banquets. For he believed that minds were renewed by proper and moderate refreshments for the purpose of carrying out the duties of sobriety and, further, that people were bit by bit made happier and rendered better prepared for pursuing their plans again.

At the same time, if there are any deep  mistakes of desire or affection with in them which a proper sense of shame usually concealed, than these could all be revealed without serious danger and in this be made readier for alteration and treatment.”

Sed enim Plato in primo et secundo De Legibus non, ut ille nebulo opinabatur, ebrietatem istam turpissimam quae labefacere et inminuere hominum mentes solet laudavit, sed hanc largiorem paulo iucundioremque vini invitationem, quae fieret sub quibusdam quasi arbitris et magistris conviviorum sobriis, non inprobavit. Nam et modicis honestisque inter bibendum remissionibus refici integrarique animos ad instauranda sobrietatis officia existumavit reddique eos sensim laetiores atque ad intentiones rursum capiendas fieri habiliores, et simul, si qui penitus in his adfectionum cupiditatumque errores inessent, quos aliquis pudor reverens concelaret, ea omnia sine gravi periculo, libertate per vinum data detegi et ad corrigendum medendumque fieri oportuniora.

Macrobius Records the same bit as Gellius above and then adds:

Macrobius 2.8.7

Plato also said this in the same passage, that we ought not to avoid practices of this sort for struggling against the violence of wine and that there is no one who has ever seemed so constant and controlled that his life would not be tested in these very dangers of mistakes and in the illicit traps of pleasure.”

atque hoc etiam Plato ibidem dicit, non defugiendas esse huiusce modi exercitationes adversum propulsandam vini violentiam, neque ullum umquam continentem prorsum aut temperantem satis fideliter visum esse cui vita non inter ipsa errorum pericula et in mediis voluptatum inlecebris explorata sit.

We can get a bit more explicit:

From Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists (1.41.16-36)

“Mnestheus of Athens also insists that the Pythia commanded the Athenians to honor Dionysus as a doctor. So Alcaeus the Mitylenaean poet says:

Wet your lungs with wine, for the dog-star is rising.
The season is rough: everything thirsts in this heat.

And elsewhere he says: “Let’s drink, for the dog star is rising.” Eupolis says that Callias is compelled to drink by Pythagoras so that “he may cleanse his lung before the dog star’s rise.” And it is not only the lung that gets dry, but the heart runs the same risk. That’s why Antiphanes says:

Tell me, why do we live?
I say that it is to drink.*
See how many trees alongside rushing streams
Drink constantly throughout the day and night
And how big and beautiful they grow.
Those that abstain
Wilt from the root up.

*A twitter correspondent has suggested that this really means “what is living, it is drinking”. This is definitely closer to the Greek idea; but I kept mine because I think it is punchier in English. Get it, punchier?

drinking

καὶ Μνησίθεος δ’ ὁ ᾿Αθηναῖος Διόνυσον ἰατρόν φησι τὴν Πυθίαν χρῆσαι τιμᾶν ᾿Αθηναίοις. φησὶ δὲ καὶ ᾿Αλκαῖος ὁ Μιτυληναῖος ποιητής (fr. 39 B4)·

τέγγε πνεύμονα οἴνῳ· τὸ γὰρ ἄστρον περιτέλλεται·
ἡ δ’ ὥρη χαλεπή· πάντα δὲ δίψαισ’ ὑπὸ καύματος.
καὶ ἀλλαχοῦ (fr. 40)·

πίνωμεν, τὸ γὰρ ἄστρον περιτέλλεται.

Εὔπολίς τε τὸν Καλλίαν φησὶν ἀναγκάζεσθαι ὑπὸ Πρωταγόρου πίνειν, ἵνα (I 297 K)·
πρὸ τοῦ κυνὸς τὸν πνεύμον’ ἔκλυτον φορῇ. ἡμῖν δ’ οὐ μόνον ὁ πνεύμων ἀπεξήρανται, κινδυνεύει δὲ καὶ ἡ καρδία. καίτοι ᾿Αντιφάνης λέγει (II 112 K)·

τὸ δὲ ζῆν, εἰπέ μοι,
τί ἐστι; τὸ πίνειν φήμ’ ἐγώ.
ὁρᾷς παρὰ ῥείθροισι χειμάρροις ὅσα
δένδρων ἀεὶ τὴν νύκτα καὶ τὴν ἡμέραν
βρέχεται, μέγεθος καὶ κάλλος οἷα γίνεται,
τὰ δ’ ἀντιτείνοντ’ [οἱονεὶ δίψαν τινὰ
ἢ ξηρασίαν ἔχοντ’] αὐτόπρεμν’ ἀπόλλυται.

And I am a fan of this one too:

Baton, the Comic Poet (fr. 3.1-11, preserved in Athenaeus Deipn. 4.163b)

“I am calling the prudent philosophers here,
Those who never allow themselves anything good,
Those who seek a thoughtful man in every walk
And in their discussions as if he were a fugitive slave.
Wretched person, why are you sober if you have money?
Why do you dishonor the gods this much?
Why do you think money is worth more than you are?
Does it have some intrinsic worth?
If you drink water, you’re useless to the city.
You hurt the farmer and the trader at the same time.
But I make them wealthier by getting drunk.”

τῶν φιλοσόφων τοὺς σώφρονας ἐνταυθοῖ καλῶ,
τοὺς ἀγαθὸν αὑτοῖς οὐ διδόντας οὐδὲ ἕν,
τοὺς τὸν φρόνιμον ζητοῦντας ἐν τοῖς περιπάτοις
καὶ ταῖς διατριβαῖς ὥσπερ ἀποδεδρακότα.
ἄνθρωπ’ ἀλάστωρ, διὰ τί συμβολὰς ἔχων
νήφεις; τί τηλικοῦτον ἀδικεῖς τοὺς θεούς;
τί τἀργύριον, ἄνθρωπε, τιμιώτερον
σαυτοῦ τέθεικας ἢ πέφυκε τῇ φύσει;
ἀλυσιτελὴς εἶ τῇ πόλει πίνων ὕδωρ·
τὸν γὰρ γεωργὸν καὶ τὸν ἔμπορον κακοῖς.
ἐγὼ δὲ τὰς προσόδους μεθύων καλὰς ποιῶ.

 

“To live in Flight”: ‘Carpe Diem’ is Too Cautious

Seneca, Consolation ad Marciam 10.5

“The spirit must be warned that it loves things which will one day leave—no, they are already leaving. Whatever is granted to you by fortune, take it as if it has no guaranty. Seize up the pleasures of your children and allow your children to enjoy you in turn. And drink down every bit of joy without stopping.

Nothing is promised to you for this evening—I have granted too much a pledge—nothing is promised for this hour. You must hurry, we are being chased from behind. Soon this friend will be elsewhere, soon these friendships will be lost lost when the battle’s cry is raised. In truth, everything is stolen away. Poor are you fools who do not know how to live in flight.”

Saepe admonendus est animus, amet ut recessura, immo tamquam recedentia. Quicquid a fortuna datum est, tamquam exempto auctore possideas. Rapite ex liberis voluptates, fruendos vos in vicem liberis date et sine dilatione omne gaudium haurite; nihil de hodierna nocte promittitur—nimis magnam advocationem dedi—, nihil de hac hora. Festinandum est, instatur a tergo. Iam disicietur iste comitatus, iam contubernia ista sublato clamore solventur. Rapina verum omnium est; miseri nescitis in fuga vivere!

It's #MorbidMonday and here comes death riding a skeletal horse @BLMedieval Yates Thompson 6 f. 137
@BLMedieval Yates Thompson 6 f. 137