Milking the He-Goat: The Only Proverb You Need for a Thursday

Polybius, Book 33 16a fragmenta incertae sedis

“20. As soon as the masses are compelled to love or hate people excessively, every excuse is sufficient for them to complete their plans.

21 But I worry that I might overlook the fact that the oft-cited saying applies to me: “who is the greater fool, the one who milks a male-goat or the one who holds the bucket* to catch it?”

For, I also seem, in reporting what is agreed upon as a lie and in dragging out the process to do something very similar. For this reason, it is pointless to talk about these things, unless someone also wants to write down dreams and examine the fantasies of someone who is awake.”

*koskinos here actually means “sieve”, which makes the whole process even more futile. I simplified to “bucket” to make it easier to understand…

20. Ὅτι ὅταν ἅπαξ οἱ πολλοὶ σχῶσιν ὁρμὴν πρὸς τὸ φιλεῖν ἢ μισεῖν τινας ὑπερβαλλόντως, πᾶσα πρόφασις ἱκανὴ γίνεται πρὸς τὸ συντελεῖν τὰς αὑτῶν προθέσεις.

21. Ἀλλὰ γὰρ ὀκνῶ μή ποτ᾿ εἰς τὸ περιφερόμενον ἐμπεσὼν λάθω, πότερον ὁ τὸν τράγον ἀμέλγων ἀφρονέστερος ἢ ὁ τὸ κόσκινον ὑπέχων· δοκῶ γὰρ δὴ κἀγὼ πρὸς ὁμολογουμένην ψευδολογίαν ἀκριβολογούμενος καὶ τὸν ἐπιμετροῦντα λόγον εἰσφέρων παραπλήσιόν τι ποιεῖν. διὸ καὶ μάτην τελέως περὶ τούτων λέγειν, εἰ μή τις καὶ γράφειν ἐνύπνια βούλεται καὶ θεωρεῖν ἐγρηγορότος ἐνύπνια.

Diogenianus writes on this proverb (Centuria 95.3; Cf. Mantissa Proverb., 2.68)

“Who is the greater fool, the one who milks a male-goat or the one who holds the bucket to catch it? You should say the [one who milks] the male-goat”

Πότερον ὁ τὸν τράγον ἀμέλγων ἀφρονέστερος, ἢ ὁ τὸ κόσκινον ὑποτιθείς; εἴποις, ὁ τὸν τράγον:

Arsenius, Centuria 17 41a7

“To milk a he-goat”: this is applied to those who do something incongruous and ignorant. From this we also get the saying from Diogenianus: “Who is the greater fool, the one who milks a male-goat or the one who holds the bucket to catch it?”

“Τράγον ἀμέλγειν: ἐπὶ τῶν ἀνάρμοστόν τι ποιούντων καὶ ἀνόητον. ὅθεν καὶ Διογενιανός· πότερον ὁ τὸν τράγον ἀμέλγων ἢ ὁ τὸ κόσκινον ὑποτιθεὶς ἀφρονέστερος;

From Medieval Bestiary: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 6838B, Folio 15r

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.

 

A Strange, Instructive Proverb

The following is inspired by current events and by enthusiasm for an earlier post about Greek excrement

Hesychius

“Shitting in the Pythian temple”: Peisistratos built the temple to Pythian Apollo. But when some Athenians were present and they hated him and had nothing else to do, some pissed on the enclosure and shat near the building, effectively annoying the people who were working on it…”

ἐν Πυθίῳ χέσαι· Πεισίστρατος ᾠκοδόμει τὸν ἐν Πυθίῳ ναόν·τῶν δὲ ᾿Αθηναίων παριόντων <καὶ> μισούντων αὐτὸν …, οὐδὲν ἐχόντων ποιεῖν, ἐνίους προσουρεῖν τῷ περιφράγματικαὶ πλησίον ἀφοδεύειν τῆς οἰκοδομῆς, ὥστε διοχλεῖσθαι τοὺς ἐργαζομένους

Michael Apostolios, 7.17

“Shitting in the Pythian Temple”: this means to risk danger. For the tyrant Peisistratos, when he was building the temple, discovered some resident alien shitting there, and drove him off. For he posted that no one could shit there.”

᾿Εν Πυθίου χέσαι: οἷον κινδυνεῦσαι. Πεισίστρατος γὰρ ὁ τύραννος ποιῶν νεὼν, εὑρών τινα ἀποπατοῦντα μέτοικον, ἀπήγαγε· προσέγραψε γὰρ μηδένα ἀποπατῆσαι.

Aristophanes, Ecclesiazuae 832

“By Poseidon, I hope she doesn’t piss on me”

νὴ τὸν Ποσειδῶ, μὴ κατουρήσωσί μου.

Suda, s.v. Pythagoras

“Do not urinate when turned to the sun”

πρὸς ἥλιον τετραμμένον μὴ ὀμιχεῖν

“Do not urinate or stand on clipped nails or cut hair”

ἀπονυχίσμασι καὶ κουραῖς μὴ ἐπουρεῖν μηδὲ ἐφίστασθαι

Image result for The temple of the Pythian Apollo

The Proverbial Wisdom of Envy and Pity

Pindar, Pyth. 1.85

“Envy is stronger than pity

κρέσσον γὰρ οἰκτιρμοῦ φθόνος

This line is something I bounce around twitter every few months or so. As with many of our tweets, it is divorced from its context and takes on a new meaning in our own time (one, I think, which is less than positive since people are motivated more by an acquisitive, begrudging impulse than one of empathy).

A twitter correspondent (@History_Twerp) noted that this line was echoed in Herodotus.

Herodotus 3.52

Periander speaks to his son and says “since you have learned how much being envied is better than being pitied, and also what it is like to be angry at your parents and your betters, come home…”

Σὺ δὲ μαθὼν ὅσῳ φθονέεσθαι κρέσσον ἐστὶ ἢ οἰκτίρεσθαι, ἅμα τε ὁκοῖόν τι ἐς τοὺς τοκέας καὶ ἐς τοὺς κρέσσονας τεθυμῶσθαι, ἄπιθι ἐς τὰ οἰκία.» Περίανδρος

The notes on Perseus for Pindar’s Pythian 1 refer to the passage from Herodotus as “proverbial” without any additional evidence. The passages do seem proverbial since they use the same basic lexical items to express the same basic idea. Nevertheless, there is not additional evidence for a proverb. Instead, I think we probably have evidence of a general cultural value immanent among aristocratic classes during the early Classical period.

Here’s a fuller context for Pindar, Pyth. 1.84-86

“Satiety reshapes
Fast and easy expectations—
And the citizens’ secret witness grows especially burdened over foreign wealth.
But still, since envy is stronger than pity,
Do not overlook noble things, but guide the people
With a just rudder. Make your tongue
Bronze on an truthful anvil.”

….ἀπὸ γὰρ κόρος ἀμβλύνει
αἰανὴς ταχείας ἐλπίδας:
ἀστῶν δ᾽ ἀκοὰ κρύφιον θυμὸν βαρύνει μάλιστ᾽ ἐσλοῖσιν ἐπ᾽ ἀλλοτρίοις.
ἀλλ’ ὅμως, κρέσσον γὰρ οἰκτιρμοῦ φθόνος,
μὴ παρίει καλά. νώμα δικαίῳ
πηδαλίῳ στρατόν· ἀψευ-
δεῖ δὲ πρὸς ἄκμονι χάλκευε γλῶσσαν.

In the context of the Pythian ode, the brevity of the statement along with the epexegetical γὰρ gives the impression of a proverb drawn from elsewhere. But it is my sense, from reading through a lot of Pindar and Bacchylides, that the epinician genre is in the business of sounding proverbial  (it lends itself towards gnomic utterances because of the lyric brevity of expression, lack of epic-style repetition, and limited syntax). The trick of epinician poetry is to sound old and authoritative without actually being so.

The positive valence attributed to envy over pity is present as well in Hesiod’s Works and Days where two types of Strife are distinguished in order to mark one type of human conflict as good and one type as bad.

Hesiod, Works and Days, 26-7

“And a potter is angry with a potter, and a carpenter with a carpenter;
Even a beggar will envy a beggar and a singer a singer.”

καὶ κεραμεὺς κεραμεῖ κοτέει καὶ τέκτονι τέκτων,
καὶ πτωχὸς πτωχῷ φθονέει καὶ ἀοιδὸς ἀοιδῷ.

So the general attitude projected by Herodotus’ Periander and Pindar is harmonious with the Archaic Greek notion that ‘envy’ produces a type of rivalry that has positive effects. It is better than pity because pity is something which people in a stronger position have over those in a weaker position (and who wants to be in the weaker position?). For Pindar, envy is better because it imbues Hiero’s people with a spirit of rivalry; for Periander, who uses the statement in an attempt to get his son to come home, it is an attempt to convince him to give up the ways of a mendicant and return the palace. Interestingly, according to Herodotus, Periander fails.

The relationship between pity and envy appears in Diogenes as well.

Diogenes Laertius, Life of Zeno of Citium 7.111

“[they claim] that grief is an irrational reaction. Its variations include: pity, envy, jealousy, rivalry, annoyance, bitterness, anger, and distraction. Pity is pain for someone who suffers evil unworthily; envy is grief over someone else’s good fortunes; jealousy is pain over what another possesses when you want it yourself; and rivalry is pain over what another has and which you possess too…”

Καὶ τὴν μὲν λύπην εἶναι συστολὴν ἄλογον· εἴδη δ’ αὐτῆς ἔλεον, φθόνον, ζῆλον, ζηλοτυπίαν, ἄχθος, ἐνόχλησιν, ἀνίαν, ὀδύνην, σύγχυσιν. ἔλεον μὲν οὖν εἶναι λύπην ὡς ἐπ’ ἀναξίως κακοπαθοῦντι, φθόνον δὲ λύπην ἐπ’ ἀλλοτρίοις ἀγαθοῖς, ζῆλον δὲ λύπην ἐπὶ τῷ ἄλλῳ παρεῖναι ὧν αὐτὸς ἐπιθυμεῖ, ζηλοτυπίαν δὲ λύπην ἐπὶ τῷ καὶ ἄλλῳ παρεῖναι ἃ καὶ αὐτὸς ἔχει, ἄχθος δὲ λύπην

At first sight, there is little value judgment in this summary. But pity and envy are collocated as emotional or unreasoning impulses distinguished by their frames of reference but united by the fact that both are a type of pain. The comparison between pity and envy, does not seem otherwise common in Greek literature. (But this conclusion is extremely tentative. Please let me know of any other passages.)

A fragment of Plutarch (quoted in Stobaeus) established what turns out to be somewhat proverbial, that envious people risk two sources of pain.

Πλουτάρχου ἐκ τοῦ διαβάλλειν (Plut. fr. 155a = Hippias fr. 16).

Hippias says that there are two types of envy. One is just, whenever someone envies evil men who have been honored. The other is unjust, whenever someone envies good people who are honored. Men who envy suffer twice as much as others; for they are troubled not only by their own evils, but by others’ good fortunes.”

῾Ιππίας λέγει δύο εἶναι φθόνους· τὸν μὲν δίκαιον, ὅταν τις τοῖς κακοῖς φθονῇ τιμωμένοις· τὸν δὲ ἄδικον, ὅταν τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς. καὶ διπλᾶ τῶν ἄλλων οἱ φθονεροὶ κακοῦνται· οὐ γὰρ μόνον τοῖς ἰδίοις κακοῖς ἄχθονται, ὥσπερ ἐκεῖνοι, ἀλλὰ καὶ τοῖς ἀλλοτρίοις ἀγαθοῖς.

This sentiment is rather similar to one attributed to Anacharsis the Skythian by the Gnomologium Vaticanum:

“When asked by someone why envious men are always in pain, he said “because not only do their own evils bite them, but the good fortunes of those near them cause them grief too…”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθεὶς ὑπό τινος, διὰ τί οἱ φθονεροὶ ἄνθρωποι ἀεὶ λυποῦνται, ἔφη· „ὅτι οὐ μόνον τὰ ἑαυτῶν αὐτοὺς κακὰ δάκνει, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὰ τῶν πέλας ἀγαθὰ λυπεῖ”.

Plato in the Timaeus detracts from envy a little too (29e) when discussing the attributes of a creating deity.

“He was good. And no envy ever develops in a good man about anything.

᾿Αγαθὸς ἦν· ἀγαθῷ δὲ οὐδεὶς περὶ οὐδενὸς οὐδέποτε ἐγγίνεται φθόνος.

Later paroemiographers do record some proverbs on envy, with an interesting variation.

Arsenius, Cent. 6.1a1

“Democritus says that envy is a wound from the truth”

Δημόκριτος τὸν φθόνον εἶπεν ἕλκος εἶναι τῆς ἀληθείας.

Stobaeus 3.38

“Socrates says that envy is a wound from the soul”

Σωκράτης τὸν φθόνον εἶπεν ἕλκος εἶναι τῆς ψυχῆς.

File:Giotto di Bondone - No. 48 The Seven Vices - Envy - WGA09275.jpg
A 14th Century Fresco from Padua illustrating the deadly sin of Eny

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

Out of the Smoke, Into the Fire: Some More Greek Proverbs

This week lots of people are graduating. Here are some proverbs for life changes and mistakes.

Diogenianus, 8.45

“When I fled the smoke, I fell into the fire”:  [this proverb is applied] to those who flee rather minor troubles only to fall upon greater ones.

Τὸν καπνὸν φεύγων, εἰς τὸ πῦρ ἐνέπεσον: ἐπὶ τῶν τὰ μικρὰ τῶν δεινῶν φευγόντων, καὶ εἰς μείζονα δεινὰ ἐμπιπτόντων.

 

Arsenius 4.23f

“It is strange that one who pursues honors avoids the hard work honors come from”

῎Ατοπόν ἐστι διώκοντα τὰς τιμὰς φεύγειν τοὺς πόνους, δι’ ὧν αἱ τιμαί.

 

Michael Apostolios, 11.15

“You ate some lotus”: [this proverb is applied to those] who are forgetful of things in the household and are slow in matters of hospitality. It is based on the lotus which imbues one who eats it with forgetfulness.”

Λωτοῦ ἔφαγες: ἐπὶ τῶν σχόντων λήθην τῶν οἴκοι, καὶ βραδυνόντων ἐπὶ ξένης. ἔστι δὲ πόα τὸ λωτὸν, λήθην ἐμποιοῦν τῷ φαγόντι.

 

Arsenius 3.19a

“The man who flees will also fight again”: [this proverb is applied] to those who face a doubtful victory.

᾿Ανὴρ ὁ φεύγων καὶ πάλιν μαχήσεται: ἐπὶ τῶν ἑτεραλκεῖ νίκῃ χρωμένων ταχθείη.

 

Michael Apostolios 1.26

“Agamemnon’s sacrifice”: [a proverb] applied to the difficult to persuade and the stubborn. For when Agamemnon was making a sacrifice, the bull was scarcely caught after it fled.” Or, it is because Agamemnon wanted to sacrifice his daughter. And she fled.”

᾿Αγαμέμνονος θυσία: ἐπὶ τῶν δυσπειθῶν καὶ σκληρῶν. θύοντος γὰρ ᾿Αγαμέμνονος ὁ βοῦς φυγὼν μόλις ἐλήφθη. ῍Η ὅτι τὴν ἑαυτοῦ ἐβούλετο ᾿Αγαμέμνων θυσιάσαι θυγατέρα· ἣ δ’ ἔφυγε.

Image result for medieval manuscript frying pan
Illuminated Manuscript – The Hague, KB, 76 F 13, f. 12v, XIV cent., France

A Mother’s Day Reminder: We Have Two Ears, but one Mouth

In honor of mother’s day and missed parents everywhere, a repost inspired by Paul’s Mom. 

“To a youth talking nonsense, he said “We have two ears, but one mouth so that we may hear more but speak less.”

πρὸς τὸ φλυαροῦν μειράκιον, “διὰ τοῦτο,” εἶπε, “δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν, ἵνα πλείονα μὲν ἀκούωμεν, ἥττονα δὲ λέγωμεν.”

A few years ago now I noticed the Paul Holdengraber‘s 7-word autobiography from brainpickings.org.: “Mother always said: Two Ears, One mouth.” The phrase bounced around in my head a bit–it has that aphoristic perfection of brevity and familiarity. So, I reached out to Paul over twitter and told him it sounded like something from a Greek philosopher like Heraclitus.

Proverbs have a special place in language and society cross-culturally–they strike a promise of insight that demands  contemplation or explanation. They also have an air of authority and antiquity, even when they actually possess neither. And, unlike longer, less anonymized forms of language, they are repeated, borrowed, and stolen without end.

My late father was a great aphorist–perhaps missing him is part of why Paul’s tweet stuck with me. Most of my father’s words, however, were far more Archie Bunker than Aristotle. Those I can repeat were likely taken from his own father, a Master Sargent in WW2 who died a decade before I was born. The tendency to inherit and pass down proverbs is something I only really noticed when I had children and found myself ‘quoting’ (or becoming?) my father (“if you take care of your equipment it will take care of you”) or my grandmother (cribbing Oscar Wilde: “Only boring people get bored”).

So, when Paul thought it would be a gas if we actually translated his mother’s words into ancient Greek (and eventually Latin), I was ready. I got help from some great Classicists too. We came up with a few versions.

First, I went with classical rhetoric, a close antithesis: μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα μὲν δύο, ἕν δὲ στόμα. But our friend the Fantastic Festus argued that Heraclitus or Hesiod would not use use μὲν and δὲ so, so he suggested losing them for something like this:

μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα δύο, ἕν στόμα [“mother always used to say two ears, one mouth”]

This gave us Paul’s mother’s advice in seven Greek words and his mother’s advice. But this didn’t get us out of trouble. The critic, author and Classicist Daniel Mendelsohn suggested hexameters and from across the Atlantic the extraordinary Armand D’Angour obliged with a composition of his own:

ῥᾴδιόν ἐστι Λόγον τε νοεῖν ξυνετόν τε ποιῆσαι·
τοῦτο γάρ ἐστι βροτῶν, ἓν στόμα τ᾽, ὦτα δύο.

[Literally, this is “it is easy to know the Logos and make it understood: Mortals have this [character]: one mouth and two ears” Go to the full post for all the compositional glory and an appearance from Salman Rushdie].

At this point, I felt like I had entertained myself on a Saturday morning, involved my internet friends in a silly, though somewhat academic caper, and done a favor for a new friend to please the spirits of parents no longer with us. But the world wide web had a a plot twist I should have thought of.

Ancient Greek and Roman authors and scholars loved proverbs. Writers like Zenobius and Photius made collections and interpretations of them. The Byzantine Encyclopedia, the Suda, uses the word for proverb (in Greek paroimia) over 600 times and presents nearly as many distinct proverbs. (Many of which are wonderful.) And in the modern world, we have an entire academic field dedicated to the study of proverbial sayings: paroemiology. Let me tell you, we could have used en expert last fall.

While we were playing around with translations, one of our ‘players’, the grand Gerrit Kloss, let us know we were, to use a proverbial saying, reinventing the wheel. Zeno, the Cynic philosopher, was credited with this saying over two thousand years ago:

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