“Wine without children”: there are two proverbs, one is wine and truth and the other is “wine and true children”. This is applied to those who are being direct and telling the truth. The Interpretation of Dreams from Nikêphoros the Patriarch: “wine, when emptied from containers, stops grief. Bad wine accentuates much pain. Expect terrible battles if you take part in wine.”
“Wine and True Children”: This proverb is applied to people who are being direct and speaking the truth. Euandros says that among the Persians they don’t interrogate people using torture but instead while they are drunk.”
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
“One should flee, not seek a trial.” Alkibiades, when he was called into judgment by the Athenians from Sicily, hid himself after saying this. When someone else was saying “You will not trust your country about your trial?” he Said “Not even my mother, since she wouldn’t ignorantly throw the black stone instead of the white one.”
“The turn of an ostracon. [this proverb is applied] to those who rush to flight easily. Also, Plato has “when the shell falls upside down, he changes and rushes to flight” (Phaedrus 241b). But others claim that he proverb is applied to those who fall from strong positions to the opposite. It is a metaphor from dicing. For the ancients once used shells to throw, and often they lost or won based on their fall.”
“I know Simôn and Simôn knows me.” There were two leaders, Nikôn and Simôn. Simon overpowered him because he was a man of the worst ways and it is said that he erased all memory of Nikôn. This proverb is used for people who recognize the evil in one another.”
“Telkhines: evil gods. Or jealous and harmful humans. There were two Telkhines, Simôn and Nikôn. Nikôn overpowered and erase dthe memory of Simôn. So, there is the proverb, “I know Simon and Simon knows me. This is used for those who recognize evil in one another.”
“I know Simôn and Simôn knows me”: There were two leaders who were evil Telkhinians by birth—for they were making the land infertile by spraying it with water from the Styx. They were Simôn and Nikôn. Simon overpowered because he was the most evil in his ways with the result that he erased any memory of Nikôn. For this reason in the proverb they only name Simôn. The proverb is applied to those who recognize the evil in one another.”
“Simôn, Simonos: a proper name and also a proverb: “No one is more thieving than Simôn.” And Aristophanes adds that whenever [people] see Simôn, they immediately turn into wolves. He was a Sophist who took public property for his own. Simôn and Theoros and Kleonymos are perjurers. Aristophanes has, “if a thunderbolt hits perjurers, how did it not burn Simôn, or Kleônumos or Theôros?”
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:
So, the quote I thought sounded Greek, turned out to be Greek. According to Diogenes Laertius, Zeno said something powerfully similar (the full text is available on Perseus). And, honestly, without preening too much, I was happy that the version I settled on (μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα δύο, ἕν στόμα) wasn’t too different from the words attributed to Zeno: δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν).
And yet, the story was not over. Gerrit Floss was far from done with us–he found an even earlier Latin version of the line attributed to Apuleius.
“These are the sayings attributed to Pythagoras: don’t mix a fire with a knife; don’t step over a balance beam; don’t sit on a bushel; don’t eat your heart; don’t help with a burden but put it on; always make your bed; don’t put a god’s image on a ring; don’t leave the outline of a pan in ashes; don’t wipe up a mess with a torch; don’t piss towards the sun; don’t walk on the highway; don’t offer your right hand too easily; don’t share your roof with swallows; don’t keep clawed birds; don’t piss or stand on your cut nails and hair; turn sharp blades away from you; when abroad, don’t turn back at the border
This is what these sayings mean: “don’t mix a fire with a knife” means not inciting the rage or swollen anger of people in power. “Don’t step over a balance beam” means don’t transgress equality and justice. “Don’t sit on a bushel” means keep both today and the future in mind since a bushel is a daily ration. “Don’t eat your heart” clearly means not wearing away your mind with troubles and grief. By saying “Don’t turn around when going abroad” Pythagoras advises people when they are leaving life not to cling to it desperately nor to be overcome by its pleasures. The logic of the rest of the sayings are similar to this and would take a while to go through.”