“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…
“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?”
“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…”
“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.”
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.
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…”
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
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.”
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.
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…”
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.
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.”
This reminds me of the wisdom of Silenus: the best thing for a human is to have never been born and the second best thing is for them to die immediately. Do you have this quote in your bank @sentantiq? I think it’s in Pseudo Plutarch and definitely in Oedipus at Colonus. https://t.co/Y7oMMYo4gN
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.”
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)
“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.”
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.
“And answering him, he said:
“It is best for mortals not to be born
Nor to see the sun.”
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.”
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.”
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!
"happier than either are those who have not yet come into being and have never witnessed the miseries that go on under the sun."– Ecc 4:3
“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.”
“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.”
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:
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: