Ipse dixit: Citation and Authority

A post by the amazing Dr. Hannah Čulík-Baird, known to the twitter-verse as @opietasanimi.

Sententiae has been calling out fake quotations (particularly of Aristotle) for a while now, to the point where a citational typology has been developed. All of these quotations, real or otherwise, really make me wonder: why do we quote so much in the first place?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, incidentally, criticized the citational impulse, wrote: “All minds quote.” (Just to be clear, this one’s real: it appears in Quotation and Originality. And yes, I do realize the irony of quoting an authority in an essay which will, spoiler alert, ask that we don’t do this so much. There will be much irony.)


Back to “All minds quote”, then. We’re trained to do it, and there is also something instinctual about it. We want to situate ourselves. We want to be part of an intellectual framework. We want to show we know things!

Citation acknowledges both that we are not alone (others have felt this way, thought this way), and that we didn’t get here alone (others have done work that set the foundation; we stand on their shoulders). Sara Ahmed has written: “Citation is feminist memory. It is how we leave a trail of where we have been and who helped us along the way.” Marika Rose has stressed that citation is a form of “academic currency” which “has value, ascribes value.”

So, I get it. Citationality makes community, and without that community, and citational trust, scholarly work would be impossible. But what about these Aristotle “quotes”? One of the issues here is that some of the Aristotle sayings — the ones which aren’t completely fabricated, anyway — make their way into popular usage because they were excerpted and placed in a different context. “Memory is the scribe of the soul. — Aristotle” – which does, actually, seem to be fake – appears in several 19th century quotation books, either alongside witty phrases on the topic of “memory” attributed to other venerable writers; or as just one in a larger list of sayings attributed to Aristotle. Presenting Aristotle’s words (or not his words) in this way — as short, pithy sayings — removes much of the substance and flattens out the meaning, which will always depend on the context. And by placing pithy phrases in a list like this, the reader no longer views Aristotle as philosopher in the context of his time and intellectual environment, but as Aristotle the timeless authority.

Recently, I’ve been teaching Cicero and my students were considering a passage from De Officiis (1.113) which contains the phrase: id enim maxime quemque decet, quod est cuiusque maxime suum, i.e. something like: “What best suits each man is whatever is most his own.” In class, I remarked flippantly that this is the kind of thing which would appear on a mug in an etsy shop. “What suits us best is what’s most our own. — Cicero.”

Already wildly popular on etsy and elsewhere is Cicero’s “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need,” which comes from a short letter to Varro from 46 BCE (Ad Fam. 9.4.1). Although, Cicero says si hortum in biblioteca, “if you have a garden in your library,” which Shackleton Bailey, the famous editor of Cicero’s letters, considered “a rather obscure remark.” The editors before him, Tyrell and Purser, wrote: “Cicero may have been fond of flowers, as some commentators say, but why should the garden be in the library…” They go on to suggest that the text may have been hortum cum biliotheca, “a garden with a library”, which would get us closer to the etsy shop pillows and mugs.

But the earlier part of Cicero’s letter to Varro is banter about philosophical gibberish, which may suggest a more specific meaning here, unknown to us (again: context). Some think that the garden in question is a reference to Epicureanism (Epicurus famously had a garden at Athens).

Anyway, it turns out that the phrase from Cicero’s De Officiis (1.113) was in fact also excerpted as gnomic wisdom in the 19th century. In 1889, it was included in Francis Henry King’s “Classical and Foreign Quotations: Law Terms and Maxims, Proverbs, Mottoes, Phrases, and Expressions in French, German, Greek, Italian, Latin, Spanish, and Portuguese. With Translations, References, Explanatory Notes, and Indexes” (!). It is the 2007th quotation:


The title page of King’s Classical and Foreign Quotations contains the epigraph: “A Quotation without a reference is like a geological specimen of unknown locality,” attributed (with a page number and everything) to Prof. Skeat i.e. the British philologist Walter William Skeat, who produced An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language.

In the introduction, King quotes Skeat more fully: “I protest, for about the hundredth time, against the slipshod method of quoting a mere author’s name, without any indication of the work of that author in which the alleged quotation may be found. Let us have accurate quotations and exact references, wherever such are to be found. A quotation without reference is like a geological specimen of unknown locality.”

Evidently, there was some frustration with the contemporary practice of quoting ancient and modern authors without reference (which is not quite context). A practice which, as the many posts here on Sententiae have shown, is the intellectual precursor to Aristotle’s prominence on pinterest.


I’m still bothered by the question of why we quote. It is clear that ancient texts have traditionally been mined for their nuggets of wisdom, and that often this kind of mining disrupts meaning. The idea that there is something universal in ancient texts can make us blind to the things in them which are specifically not universal; the peculiarities, the details which connect to, and are sustained by, the broader cultural environment which produced them. The details which don’t actually make sense out of context. Details in text which refer to parts of a culture which are now lost, even though the text remains.

When we quote “blah blah blah — Aristotle” or “blah blah blah — Cicero”, we present something very flat indeed. The context and the meaning of the text recedes from view, and is replaced, instead, with authority. It reminds me of what James Boswell recorded about Samuel Johnson’s response to the accusation that classical quotation was pedantry: “No, Sir, it is a good thing; there is a community of mind in it. Classical quotation is the parole of literary men all over the world.” In this context, quotation is essentially a class signifier. A way for elites to communicate.

There’s a famous passage in Cicero’s De Natura Deorum (1.10) that faces this problem head on. (Again, I’m aware of the irony of citing Cicero as an authority here).

qui autem requirunt quid quaque de re ipsi sentiamus, curiosius id faciunt quam necesse est; non enim tam auctoritatis in disputando quam rationis momenta quaerenda sunt. quin etiam obest plerumque iis qui discere volunt auctoritas eorum qui se docere profitentur; desinunt enim suum iudicium adhibere, id habent ratum quod ab eo quem probant iudicatum vident. nec vero probare soleo id quod de Pythagoreis accepimus, quos ferunt, si quid adfirmarent in disputando, cum ex eis quaereretur quare ita esset, respondere solitos “ipse dixit”; “ipse” autem erat Pythagoras: tantum opinio praeiudicata poterat, ut etiam sine ratione valeret auctoritas.

‘Those who seek my personal views on each issue are being unnecessarily inquisitive, for when we engage in argument we must look to the weight of reason rather than authority. Indeed, students who are keen to learn often find the authority of those who claim to be teachers to be an obstacle, for they cease to apply their own judgement and regard as definitive the solution offered by the mentor of whom they approve. I myself tend to disapprove of the alleged practice of the Pythagoreans: the story goes that if they were maintaining some position in argument, and were asked why, they would reply: “The master said so,” the master being Pythagoras. Prior judgement exercised such sway that authority prevailed even when unsupported by reason.’ Translated by P. G. Walsh (2008).

Cicero’s claim here is that over-dependence on the citation of authority is not a healthy intellectual practice. His view is informed by the Academic philosophical stance, which, instead of putting forward positive views rather refined intellectual understanding via refutation and argumentation.

Argumentation is the emphasis. If someone asks you why you think something, you should be able to explain why. In such a context, Cicero derides the members of particular philosophical schools who, from his perspective at least, rely not on argumentation but instead simply invoke authority. The Pythagoreans respond: ipse dixit, “he himself said so.”

Cicero also characterizes Epicurean philosophy as overly dependent on authority. In the De Natura Deorum, the Academic character says to the Epicurean: ista enim a vobis quasi dictata redduntur, quae Epicurus oscitans halucinatus est, “your responses are like your school lessons, gibberish spouted by Epicurus while he fell asleep” (ND 1.72). In the In Pisonem, Cicero takes on the persona of an Epicurean to mock their reverent, citational invocation: ut noster divinus ille dixit Epicurus, “as our divine Epicurus himself said…” (Pis. 59).

In the De Natura Deorum passage, Cicero is aware that an authoritative presence in the classroom can be damaging to student growth if it gives the students the sense that they cannot make their own judgments, but instead must defer to the opinions of their teachers. Cicero rejects the overly inquisitive who want to know what he thinks about the nature of the gods on the grounds that they might run around spouting Cicero dixit – “Cicero said so” – instead of achieving some mastery of the philosophical argumentations contained within this book. But there is artificiality to this that comes from Cicero’s temporary pedagogical stance.

In his political and literary life Cicero, of course, did want to be quoted, because this was a measure of his influence, and his legacy. And, of course, Cicero himself also quoted and invoked authorities all the time: noster Ennius (Arch. 18); noster Plato (Leg. 3.5), etc. etc.

Skeat was frustrated with quotation without reference. But what I want to see is quotation with context. It happens time and again that a nice turn of phrase from an ancient author which sounds fine and maybe somehow inspirational in its disembodied, decontextualized state, turns out to be not so great when you see its original purpose. Quotation basically always changes the nature of the words cited. A quotation takes on a new function in its new context, and it’s worth being aware of that. Sometimes, citation is deliberately designed to change how the original text is viewed.

The Fates: What Was, What is, What Will Be

Hesiod, Theogony 904-906

“Klôthô, Lakhesis, and Atropos, who grant to mortals
Their share of both evil and good.”

Κλωθώ τε Λάχεσίν τε καὶ ῎Ατροπον, αἵ τε διδοῦσι
θνητοῖς ἀνθρώποισιν ἔχειν ἀγαθόν τε κακόν τε.

Plato, Republic 617a

“There were another three who sat equally apart in a circle, each on her own seat, the Fates, those daughters of necessity, dressed in white clothes with fillets on their heads: Lachesis, Klotho, and Atropos, all joining the hymn with the chorus of Sirens. Lachesis sings what was; Klotho sings what is, and Atropos sings what will be.”

ἄλλας δὲ καθημένας πέριξ δι᾽ ἴσου τρεῖς, ἐν θρόνῳ ἑκάστην, θυγατέρας τῆς ἀνάγκης, Μοίρας, λευχειμονούσας, στέμματα ἐπὶ τῶν κεφαλῶν ἐχούσας, Λάχεσίν τε καὶ Κλωθὼ καὶ Ἄτροπον, ὑμνεῖν πρὸς τὴν τῶν Σειρήνων ἁρμονίαν, Λάχεσιν μὲν τὰ γεγονότα, Κλωθὼ δὲ τὰ ὄντα, Ἄτροπον δὲ τὰ μέλλοντα.

Aristotle assigns the Moirai to different stages

Aristotle, On the Universe, 401b16-23

“There are three Fates—one allotted to different times—and part of the wool of their spindle is already spun, some still needs to be, and some is currently being worked. One of the Moirai is for the past—Atropos—because all things which are behind us cannot be altered (atrepta); the future, then, is Lakhesis, because that which is allotted [lêksis] by nature awaits everything; and the present belongs to Klôthô who decides what is proper for each as she spins (klôthein). That’s how the myth ends and not improperly.”

τρεῖς μὲν γὰρ αἱ Μοῖραι, κατὰ τοὺς χρόνους μεμερισμέναι, νῆμα δὲ ἀτράκτου τὸ μὲν ἐξειργασμένον, τὸ δὲ μέλλον, τὸ δὲ περιστρεφόμενον· τέτακται δὲ κατὰ μὲν τὸ γεγονὸς μία τῶν Μοιρῶν, Ἄτροπος, ἐπεὶ τὰ παρελθόντα πάντα ἄτρεπτά ἐστι, κατὰ δὲ τὸ μέλλον Λάχεσις—[εἰς] πάντα γὰρ ἡ κατὰ φύσιν μένει λῆξις—κατὰ δὲ τὸ ἐνεστὸς Κλωθώ, συμπεραίνουσά τε καὶ κλώθουσα ἑκάστῳ τὰ οἰκεῖα. περαίνεται δὲ καὶ ὁ μῦθος οὐκ ἀτάκτως.

Inspired by this tweet


Horrible Things Happen to Heraclitus on the Internet

This quotation appears

page 237

It is marked as misattributed on wikiquote (where its original attestation seems to be Gabriel Suarez’s The Tactical Rifle, which assigns it to a certain Hericletus [sic]); Reddit has also marked it as a misquotation, although it assigns it to the apocryphal “Cynic Epistles” which were attributed to Heraclitus (this text is not available online as far as I can find; I have ordered it).

It is disturbing how popular this is as a meme: you can find it on quotefancy, pinterest, and way too many other places (it is of particular importance on sites that glorify firearms and snipers). Oh, it has also made the leap to popular history books, appearing in Paul B Bardunias’ and Fred Ray’s “Hoplites at War.”

To anyone who has read any of the extant fragments from Heraclitus, this is clearly not even remotely his style (here’s a cool site where you can find his fragments in Greek and translation). While it may be a bit too much to expect the internet to be familiar with Heraclitean obscurity, this passage sounds thoroughly and depressingly modern. It is not, of course, out of the character of Greek poetry to idolize a promakhos (the person who fights in front for his community), but phrasing and the “bring the others back” denouement is against the basic aesthetics of Greek martial poetry (see, for example, Callinus or Tyrtaeus). Of course, since all we have from Heraclitus is fragmentary, we are, as it were, in the dark.

Here’s one fragment that might work as inspiration:

Fr. 49 (103)

“One person is ten thousand to me, if he is the best.”

Εἷς ἐμοὶ μύριοι, ἐὰν ἄριστος ᾖ.

And here are a few more if we are looking for bellicose Pre-socratic quotations:

the best

Fr. 53 (44)

“War is father and king of everything. War proves some to be gods and others human beings; it makes some slaves and others free.”

Πόλεμος πάντων μὲν πατήρ ἐστι πάντων δὲ βασιλεύς, καὶ τοὺς μὲν θεοὺς ἔδειξε τοὺς δὲ ἀνθρώπους, τοὺς μὲν δούλους ἐποίησε τοὺς δὲ ἐλευθέρους.

Fr. 80 (72)

“One must know that war is common, that justice is strife, and that all things happen through strife by necessity”

εἰδέναι δὲ χρὴ τὸν πόλεμον ἐόντα ξυνόν, καὶ δίκην ἔριν, καὶ γινόμενα πάντα κατ’ ἔριν καὶ χρεών.

The text is problematic here, another version: Εἰδέναι χρὴ τὸν πόλεμον ἐόντα ξυνόν, καὶ δίκην ἔριν· καὶ γινόμενα πάντα κατ᾿ ἔριν καὶ †χρεώμενα†.

Fr. 48 (66)

“The bow’s name is life but its work is death.”

Τοῦ βιοῦ οὔνομα βίος, ἔργον δὲ θάνατος.

This version keeps the wordplay between biós (“bow”) and bíos (“life”). Another version obscures this punning:

βίος: τῶι οὖν τόξωι ὄνομα βίος, ἔργον δὲ θάνατος.



Aristotle on Whether Young People Should Use Maxims (An Ironic Quotation)

Many books and websites quote Aristotle as saying “It is unbecoming for a young man to use maxims”. Aristotle kind of says this, but why he says it and what he means by a maxim is not understood clearly from the way this quotation is applied as a meme. This is ironic because the quotation is a maxim but it violates the very reason Aristotle says the young should not use maxims (because they don’t have the experience to know what they’re talking about).

Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.1395a

“Using maxims is appropriate for those who are older in age [when uttered] about things for which they have some experience. Using maxims before one is this age lacks propriety as does story-telling: [to speak] about what one has no experience in is foolish and uneducated. A sufficient sign of this is that bumpkins especially tend to make up maxims and they easily show them off.”

 ἁρμόττει δὲ γνωμολογεῖν ἡλικίᾳ μὲν πρεσβυτέροις, περὶ δὲ τούτων ὧν ἔμπειρός τις ἐστί, ὡς τὸ μὲν μὴ τηλικοῦτον ὄντα γνωμολογεῖν ἀπρεπὲς ὥσπερ καὶ τὸ μυθολογεῖν, περὶ δ᾿ ὧν ἄπειρος, ἠλίθιον καὶ ἀπαίδευτον. σημεῖον δ᾿ ἱκανόν· οἱ γὰρ ἀγροῖκοι μάλιστα γνωμοτύποι εἰσὶ καὶ ῥᾳδίως ἀποφαίνονται.

Something else this usage misses is how Aristotle defines a maxim. Oh, and there is also the fact that this comes from the Rhetoric. Aristotle is not claiming that it is unseemly for the young to use maxims because it is amoral or unethical, but rather that because of their youth and lack of experience they will not be persuasive by doing so.


“A maxim is a statement which does not concern specifics about each thing—as in what kind of a person Iphikrates was—but it is general. Nevertheless, it does not aim at all general things—such as the fact that straight is the opposite of crooked—but about however so many things are the goals of actions and what should be selected or avoided in acting.

And where the enthymeme is pretty much the syllogism for these things, maxims are the outcomes of the enthymeme or the starting principles without the syllogism’s completion. Here’s an example: ‘It isn’t right that any sensible man have his children educated to be excessively wise’ [Eur. Medea 296]. This is a maxim; should the cause and the explanation be added, it would be an enthymeme.”

ἔστι δὲ γνώμη ἀπόφανσις, οὐ μέντοι περὶ τῶν καθ᾿ ἕκαστον, οἷον ποῖός τις Ἰφικράτης, ἀλλὰ καθόλου· καὶ οὐ περὶ πάντων καθόλου, οἷον ὅτι τὸ εὐθὺ τῷ καμπύλῳ ἐναντίον, ἀλλὰ περὶ ὅσων αἱ πράξεις εἰσί, καὶ αἱρετὰ ἢ φευκτά ἐστι πρὸς τὸ πράττειν. ὥστ᾿ ἐπεὶ τὰ ἐνθυμήματα ὁ περὶ τούτων συλλογισμός ἐστι σχεδόν, τά τε συμπεράσματα τῶν ἐνθυμημάτων καὶ αἱ ἀρχαὶ ἀφαιρεθέντος τοῦ συλλογισμοῦ γνῶμαί εἰσι, οἷον

χρὴ δ᾿ οὔ ποθ᾿, ὅς τις ἀρτίφρων πέφυκ᾿ ἀνήρ, / παῖδας περισσῶς ἐκδιδάσκεσθαι σοφούς.

τοῦτο μὲν οὖν γνώμη· προστεθείσης δὲ τῆς αἰτίας καὶ τοῦ διὰ τί, ἐνθύμημά ἐστι τὸ ἅπαν

Image result for It is unbecoming for young men to utter maxims
Ugh. Why mountains?

Meme Police: A Collection of things Aristotle Did Not Say

This is likely to be an ongoing list. If you have any additions, explanations, or counterclaims, leave a comment and we will integrate it. The Kiwi Hellenist has started a blog for some other authors.

1. “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it”

This is probably a willful twisting of something from the Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1, 1094a24-1095a

“It is right that we ask [people] to accept each of the things which are said in the same way: for it is the mark of an educated person to search for the same kind of clarity in each topic to the extent that the nature of the matter accepts it. For it is similar to expect a mathematician to speak persuasively or for an orator to furnish clear proofs!

Each person judges well what they know and is thus a good critic of those things. For each thing in specific, someone must be educated [to be a critic]; to [be a critic in general] one must be educated about everything.”

τὸν αὐτὸν δὴ τρόπον καὶ ἀποδέχεσθαι χρεὼν ἕκαστα τῶν λεγομένων· πεπαιδευομένου γάρ ἐστιν ἐπὶ τοσοῦτον τἀκριβὲς ἐπιζητεῖν καθ’ ἕκαστον γένος, ἐφ’ ὅσον ἡ τοῦ πράγματος φύσις ἐπιδέχεται· παραπλήσιον γὰρ φαίνεται μαθηματικοῦ τε πιθανολογοῦντος ἀποδέχεσθαι καὶ ῥητορικὸν ἀποδείξεις ἀπαιτεῖν. ἕκαστος δὲ κρίνει καλῶς ἃ γινώσκει, καὶ τούτων ἐστὶν ἀγαθὸς κριτής. καθ’ ἕκαστον μὲν ἄρα ὁ πεπαιδευμένος, ἁπλῶς δ’ ὁ περὶ πᾶν πεπαιδευμένος.

2. “A Whole is greater than the sum of its parts”

This really popular misattribution may be a poor translation of the Metaphysics

Aristotle, Metaphysics 8.6 [=1045a]

“For however many things have a plurality of parts and are not merely a complete aggregate but instead some kind of a whole beyond its parts, there is some cause of it since even in bodies, for some the fact that the there is contact is the cause of a unity/oneness while for others there is viscosity or some other characteristic of this sort.

πάντων γὰρ ὅσα πλείω μέρη ἔχει καὶ μή ἐστιν οἷον σωρὸς τὸ πᾶν ἀλλ᾿ ἔστι τι τὸ ὅλον παρὰ τὰ μόρια, ἔστι τι αἴτιον, ἐπεὶ καὶ ἐν τοῖς σώμασι τοῖς μὲν ἁφὴ αἰτία τοῦ ἓν εἶναι, τοῖς δὲ γλισχρότης ἤ τι πάθος ἕτερον τοιοῦτον.

3. “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” [and many variations thereof]

This one has absolutely no basis. Aristotle says many things about education, this just ain’t one of them.

4. “We are What we repeatedly do. Excellence is an act, not a habit.”

This one is has likely slipped into the Internet Aristotle Quotarium from Will Durant’s misconstruing of the Nicomachean Ethics. Indeed, this has been debunked more than a few times. Here’s another version: “Excellence is not a singular act but a habit. You are what you do repeatedly.” there are many variants

Here’s the closest Aristotle actually gets:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1105b

“It is therefore well said that a person becomes just by doing just things and prudent from practicing wisdom. And, no one could ever approach being good without doing these things. But many who do not practice them flee to argument and believe that they are practicing philosophy and that they will become serious men in this way. They act the way sick people do who listen to their doctors seriously and then do nothing of what they were prescribed. Just as these patients will not end up healthy from treating their body in this way, so most people won’t change their soul with such philosophy.”

εὖ οὖν λέγεται ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ τὰ δίκαια πράττειν ὁ δίκαιος γίνεται καὶ ἐκ τοῦ τὰ σώφρονα ὁ σώφρων· ἐκ δὲ τοῦ μὴ πράττειν ταῦτα οὐδεὶς ἂν οὐδὲ μελλήσειε γίνεσθαι ἀγαθός. ἀλλ’ οἱ πολλοὶ ταῦτα μὲν οὐ πράττουσιν, ἐπὶ δὲ τὸν λόγον καταφεύγοντες οἴονται φιλοσοφεῖν καὶ οὕτως ἔσεσθαι σπουδαῖοι, ὅμοιόν τι ποιοῦντες τοῖς κάμνουσιν, οἳ τῶν ἰατρῶν ἀκούουσι μὲν ἐπιμελῶς, ποιοῦσι δ’ οὐδὲν τῶν προσταττομένων. ὥσπερ οὖν οὐδ’ ἐκεῖνοι εὖ ἕξουσι τὸ σῶμα οὕτω θεραπευόμενοι, οὐδ’ οὗτοι τὴν ψυχὴν οὕτω φιλοσοφοῦντες.

5. “Knowing Yourself is the Beginning of all Wisdom”

No. I don’t even need to look this up. No. No. No. This is a version of the Delphic Oracles “know thyself” Γνῶθι σαυτόν. At least attribute it to Plato or Aristotle something. Or do what Diogenes Laertius does at give it to Pittakos (1.79.10)

6. “Whosoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wild beast or a god.”

This is almost Aristotle. It is mostly Francis Bacon (‘Essays’, XXVII “On Friendship” (1612, rewritten 1625). Aristotle said something not to far off, but still not this

Aristotle, Politics 1.2 1253a25–30

“It is clear that the state is naturally prior to each individual person. If each person when separated is not sufficient on his own, just as other parts are to the whole while a person who is incapable of joining commonwealth or does not need any part of a state because of self-sufficiency is either a beast or a god.”

ὅτι μὲν οὖν ἡ πόλις καὶ φύσει πρότερον ἢ ἕκαστος, δῆλον. εἰ γὰρ μὴ αὐτάρκης ἕκαστος χωρισθείς, ὁμοίως τοῖς ἄλλοις μέρεσιν ἕξει πρὸς τὸ ὅλον, ὁ δὲ μὴ δυνάμενος κοινωνεῖν ἢ μηθὲν δεόμενος δι᾿ αὐτάρκειαν οὐθὲν μέρος πόλεως, ὥστε ἢ θηρίον ἢ θεός.

7. “Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.”

This is totally super-capitalist, corporate double-speak nonsense. It does not even remotely sound like Aristotle. I am not sure where it comes from and I cannot find it debunked, but I will keep looking.

8. “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”

This one is likely a mistranslation or an attribution of a lost saying by Seneca in On Tranquility of mind. But I can’t really justify that by what I have found in the Seneca. Regardless, this is more neo-capitalist nonsense. I have a hard time believing this is anywhere in Aristotle.

A few twitter correspondents responded that this sounds a little bit like the end of the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle writes “pleasure brings completion to an activity” ( τελειοῖ δὲ τὴν ἐνέργειαν ἡδονή, 1174b). I will not claim that this sounds nothing like the apocryphal translation above, but I will insist that in its context, Aristotle’s comment has nothing to do with “work” in the way it is construed, but instead this is about aesthetic pleasure. The worst version of this meme is this terrible, no-good, evil version:

Note the double emphasis on work? This is the kind of poster a middle manager puts up to ‘motivate’ his underpaid minions before he drives home in his Porsche….

9. “Well-begun is half done”

This is not really Aristotle. The idea is proverbial even when it is kind of quoted by Aristotle. But these words belong to someone else. Here is as close as Aristotle gets:

Aristotle, Politics 5, 1303b

“For the mistake happens in the beginning and the beginning is said to be half of the whole, so that even a minor mistake at the beginning is equal to those made at different stages.”

ἐν ἀρχῇ γὰρ γίγνεται τὸ ἁμάρτημα, ἡ δ᾿ ἀρχὴ λέγεται ἥμισυ εἶναι παντός, ὥστε καὶ τὸ ἐν αὐτῇ μικρὸν ἁμάρτημα ἀνάλογόν ἐστι πρὸς τὰ ἐν τοῖς ἄλλοις μέρεσιν.

This particular quotation comes from the Benjamin Jowett translation and is replicated on the wikiquote site. Aristotle in phrasing this as “it is said” (λέγεται) is marking the line as a proverb. Horace’s “The one who has begun has completed half the task.” dimidium facti, qui coepit, habet (Epistle 1.2) is closer to the popular version. Hesiod has “fool does not know that half is greater than the whole” ( Νήπιοι οὐδ’ ἴσασιν ὅσῳ πλέον ἥμισυ παντός)

10. “The more you know the more you know you don’t know”

(yes, Pinterest). This is clearly a retread of Plato’s Apology 21d: “I think that I am wiser by this very small bit: I don’t pretend to know what I don’t know.” ἔοικα γοῦν τούτου γε σμικρῷ τινι αὐτῷ τούτῳ σοφώτερος εἶναι, ὅτι ἃ μὴ οἶδα οὐδὲ οἴομαι εἰδέναι.

11. “To write well, express yourself like common people, but think like a wise man. Or, think as wise men do, but speak as the common people do.” 

This shows up a lot in business oriented and inspirational self-help tomes. This does not sound like Aristotle at all. I can’t find anything remotely close to this. Any challengers? (see also the shortened “Think like a wise man, Talk like the common people.”

Image result for To write well, express yourself like common people, but think like a wise man. Or, think as wise men do, but speak as the common people do." ~ Aristotle

12. “No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness”

This is another indirect attribution that probably comes from Seneca De Tranquilitate Animi 10 (“or [believe] Aristotle that there was never any great genius without a tincture of insanity”. sive Aristoteli nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementiae fuit). So, it is almost Aristotle, except that we do not have it in any of Aristotle’s extant works (and ancient authors like Seneca, Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius are not beyond making quotes up or misattributing them).

Aristotle does talk about poetry and madness in the Poetics and in his Problems.

Image result for "No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness. aristotle

  1. “Memory is the scribe of the soul”

Ugh. “scribe”? Soul? This one sounds like it a misunderstanding or a fabrication made to sound old-fashioned.

This seems to become really popular at the end of the 19th century where it makes its way into quotation books (Pearls of Thought by Martin Ballou, 1892; Pensnylvania School Journal 42; James Wood, Dictionary of Quotations 1899). This seems off to me and I cannot find a passage to match it. Since there is no work or passage attached to any version of this quotation and there is not even a discussion of it on places like wikiquote, I feel pretty confident calling this one false until someone tells me otherwise.

14. “It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”

I really did not need to look this one up. The tone of self-help encouragement motivating this quote is really not Aristotelian. I think this might be one of the clearest offenders. But, its essential badness made me google it. This line is often misattributed to Buddha–but it is often attributed to Aristotle…Onassis. So this meme is a new variation on an old virus. I fear we might already be too late

15“Tolerance and apathy are the last virtues of a dying society”

The character of this quotation is alien to Aristotle and ancient Greek ideas including using “tolerance” in this way and “dying society” (see the quora discussion). I poked around a bit through Aristotle, changing some of the ideas (an ancient Greek might think of “sick” or “corrupt” society”) but there is nothing close to this.

While searching, I found the variation “Tolerance is the last virtue of a depraved society” attributed to Dr. James Kennedy (an Evangelical preacher) and then Hutton Gibson (father of Mel Gibson and Holocaust Denier). Some of the mis-translations and fake translations can be found in quote books from the 19th century. This one does not appear in any books older than a decade or so and mostly in self-published racist texts whose titles and authors I will not print.

16“There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”

This one is easy. Wikiquote has already debunked it. But the content of the quote as well as its form should be a warning anyway. The final triplet is not really Aristotelian, but it is almost imaginably Greek. This is alleged to come from Elbert Hubbard’s Little Journeys to the Houses of American Statesmen, but that provides only the second half.

17. “The end of labor is to gain leisure.”

This shows up in Tyron Edwards’ A Dictionary of Thoughts in 1909, Century Illustrated Magazine, also from 1909. And then it just keeps on keeping on. This may be Aristotelian, but as far as I can find, it is not really Aristotle.

There are ideas that seem akin to this in Aristotle: in Nicomachean Ethics, for example, he says “[because], happiness seems to reside in leisure, we labor [sacrifice leisure] so that we may have leisure” δοκεῖ τε ἡ εὐδαιμονία ἐν τῇ σχολῇ εἶναι, ἀσχολούμεθα γὰρ ἵνα σχολάζωμεν (1177b). And Aristotle talks a lot about leisure as being desirable and “although leisure and business are both necessary, leisure is more fully an end than business” (εἰ γὰρ ἄμφω μὲν δεῖ, μᾶλλον δὲ αἱρετὸν τὸ σχολάζειν τῆς ἀσχολίας καὶ τέλος, 1337b33-35). Earlier, he repeats the phrase that “business is for the sake of leisure” (ἀσχολίαν δὲ σχολῆς), in a series of nearly Orwellian paradoxes: “war is for the sake of peace, business for the sake of leisure, and necessary and useful things are for the sake of the good.” (πόλεμον μὲν εἰρήνης χάριν, ἀσχολίαν δὲ σχολῆς, τὰ δ᾿ ἀναγκαῖα καὶ χρήσιμα τῶν καλῶν ἕνεκεν,1333c35-37).

So, for this one, I think we have a bit of an elaborated translation of an essentially Aristotelian idea. But, still, he didn’t really say this—Aristotle is perfectly capable of saying that the telos (“end, Goal”) of a thing is another thing. Where he mentions telos in conjunction with leisure, he writes that leisure itself is an end on its own more than business [read: ‘labor’] is. This is a rather different notion than saying that one is the end of the other.

18. “It is unbecoming for a young man to use maxims.”

Eh, yeah. He kind of said this. But what he meant was…ugh.

Image result for aristotle sad bust
Why? Why?

19. “To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand out in the cold.”

This is another one of those lines that is so clearly Un-Aristolelian to anyone who has read a little bit of Aristotle that it seems absurd someone would attribute it to the Stagirite. But, spend a little time lurking on pinterest and inspirational meme-o-ramas, and you’ll find Aristotle and Plato carrying a lot of weight.

This one was attributed to ‘anonymous’ only as recently as last year. Let’s all work together to try to make it stop. Right. Now.

20. “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self

There is some actual Greek for this one (“Aνδρειότερος εἶναι μοί δοκεῖ ὂ τῶν ἐπιθυμῶν ἢ τῶν πολεμίων κρατῶν καὶ γὰρ χαλεπώτατόν ἐστι τὸ ἑαυτόν νικῆσαι) but the manuscript tradition is a little crazy. Basically, this is from multiple levels of quotebook traditions and is probably not Aristotle. It is, also, not really Aristotelian. The short story? It was added to one edition of Stobaeus’ Florilegium because it sounded a little like a quotation from Democritus. I have the story here.

21. “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal”

This popular meme has its roots in the deep past…of the 1970s (that’s CE, just to clear up any confusion). Wikiquote suggests it is a mistaken summary or expansion of a section of the Politics but I think it is just modern partisan posturing.

22. “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim of human existence.”

I mean, this is kind of the whole aim and purpose of the Nicomachean Ethics, but this is not a quotation of a translation of it. It is just the kind of vanilla summary that an English Professor might give of the text in some lecture just before the world ends on the SyFy network. This is Helen-Cylon level fake.

23. “The antidote for fifty enemies is one friend.

So, this sounds nice, but would you really want to go against 50 people with one ally? This is motivational poster fake. Its earliest appearance is in self-help quotation books in the 1980s. Figures.

24. “Those that know do, those that understand, teach.” 

This variation on the put down “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach” does not seem to appear before the last decade or so. But there may be something to its sense. In the Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle explores how some people are good at things without understanding them and that “those people will succeed even though they are witless and without reason, just as some people sing well enough even though they cannot teach others how to sing” (οὗτοι κατορθώσουσι κἂν τύχωσιν ἄφρονες ὄντες καὶ ἄλογοι, ὥσπερ καὶ εὖ ᾄσονται οὐ διδασκαλικοὶ ὄντες, 1247b). Peisistratos Level Fake.

25. “Character is made by many acts: it may be lost by a single one

This is a misattribution made only rather recently online from a Methodist Minister’s writings in the 1800s. It is a very Christian and rather un-Aristotelian notion. This is all about sin. It may be riffing on Aristotelian notions of practice and character, but it is Peisistratos Level Fake.


Nope, Aristotle Did Not Say, “It Is the Mark of an Educated Mind to Entertain a Thought Without….”

Oh, Internet, why do you abuse Aristotle so?

This has been bouncing around lately with the hashtag #Aristotle

Like many of the fake-istotle quotes, this one can be googled out of existence in about 5 seconds. According to wikiquote, this was first attributed to Aristotle by Lowell L. Bennion in his Religion and the Pursuit of Truth 1989, 52). They suggest that it is a misunderstanding of Nicomachean Ethics 1094b24. The density of the passage provides some grounds for why it may have been (over)simplified. But since it stands so early at the beginning of the Ethics, I suspect that there was a kind of smash and run search for an authoritative sounding quotation. As a side note, there is an interesting–by which I mean crazy–discussion of what this fake quote might mean on Quora. Some of the content there is interesting and accurate (about the idea of the fake quotation, not the actual bit); other parts are like Ancient Aliens crazy.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1 1094a24-1095a

“It is right that we ask [people] to accept each of the things which are said in the same way: for it is the mark of an educated person to search for the same kind of clarity in each topic to the extent that the nature of the matter accepts it. For it is similar to expect a mathematician to speak persuasively or for an orator to furnish clear proofs!

Each person judges well what they know and is thus a good critic of those things. For each thing in specific, someone must be educated [to be a critic]; to [be a critic in general] one must be educated about everything.”

τὸν αὐτὸν δὴ τρόπον καὶ ἀποδέχεσθαι χρεὼν ἕκαστα τῶν λεγομένων· πεπαιδευομένου γάρ ἐστιν ἐπὶ τοσοῦτον τἀκριβὲς ἐπιζητεῖν καθ’ ἕκαστον γένος, ἐφ’ ὅσον ἡ τοῦ πράγματος φύσις ἐπιδέχεται· παραπλήσιον γὰρ φαίνεται μαθηματικοῦ τε πιθανολογοῦντος ἀποδέχεσθαι καὶ ῥητορικὸν ἀποδείξεις ἀπαιτεῖν. ἕκαστος δὲ κρίνει καλῶς ἃ γινώσκει, καὶ τούτων ἐστὶν ἀγαθὸς κριτής. καθ’ ἕκαστον μὲν ἄρα ὁ πεπαιδευμένος, ἁπλῶς δ’ ὁ περὶ πᾶν πεπαιδευμένος.

Poets, Fishmongers and Memes

Are memes “viruses of the mind?”

Luke, 5.37

“No one puts new wine into old containers…”

 καὶ οὐδεὶς βάλλει οἶνον νέον εἰς ἀσκοὺς παλαιούς

Xenarchus’ Porphyra fr. 7 (preserved in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists, 6. 224-225)

“Poets are ridiculous. They never invent
anything new—each one of them simply
remixes the same things again and again.
But there is no race more creative or profane
than the fish-sellers!
Since it is no longer permitted to them to dampen
Their fish, a practice forbidden by the law,
When some man completely hateful to the gods
Saw that his fish were drying, well,
He started a brawl among them quite intentionally
There were punches; he acted as if he were hit hard,
Fell to the ground pretending to pass out lying
Among his fish. Someone shouted “water, water”!
And a different guy grabbed a pitcher and poured it out—
A little on the man, but the rest on the fish!
You would have claimed they’d just been caught!”

Fish Vase
Google “Ancient Greek Fish Vase”

οἱ μὲν ποιηταὶ (φησὶ) λῆρός εἰσιν· οὐδὲ ἓν
καινὸν γὰρ εὑρίσκουσιν, ἀλλὰ μεταφέρει
ἕκαστος αὐτῶν ταὔτ’ ἄνω τε καὶ κάτω.
τῶν δ’ ἰχθυοπωλῶν φιλοσοφώτερον γένος
οὐκ ἔστιν οὐδὲν οὐδὲ μᾶλλον ἀνόσιον.
ἐπεὶ γὰρ αὐτοῖς οὐκέτ’ ἔστ’ ἐξουσία
ῥαίνειν, ἀπείρηται δὲ τοῦτο τῷ νόμῳ,
εἷς τις θεοῖσιν ἐχθρὸς ἄνθρωπος πάνυ
ξηραινομένους ὡς εἶδε τοὺς ἰχθῦς, μάχην
ἐποίησ’ ἐν αὐτοῖς ἐξεπίτηδες εὖ πάνυ.
ἦσαν δὲ πληγαί, καιρίαν δ’ εἰληφέναι
δόξας καταπίπτει καὶ λιποψυχεῖν δοκῶν
ἔκειτο μετὰ τῶν ἰχθύων. βοᾷ δέ τις
‘ὕδωρ <ὕδωρ.>’ ὃ δ’ εὐθὺς ἐξάρας πρόχουν
τῶν ὁμοτέχνων τις τοῦ μὲν ἀκαρῆ παντελῶς
κατέχει, κατὰ δὲ τῶν ἰχθύων ἁπαξάπαν.
εἴποις γ’ ἂν αὐτοὺς ἀρτίως ἡλωκέναι.


From Twitter today:

Media preview

Iliad 1 english