“Custom, the king of everything,
Of mortals and immortal alike,
Guides them with the final hand
To the most violent kinds of justice.
I’ll prove this
With the deeds of Herakles
Since he drove the cattle of Geryon
To the Cyclopean gates of Eurystheus
Unpunished and unpaid.
“But when a person comes around with sufficient nature, he shakes off and shatters all these things [laws], escaping them. He tramples all over our precedents and edicts, our pronouncements and all the laws that a contrary to his nature, and our slave rises up to become our master and clearly shows the justice of nature. This is what Pindar seems to indicate in that song when he says…”
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
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers 9.11 on Pyrrho
“But Philo the Athenian, who was his friend, used to say that he often called to mind Democritus and then Homer, wondering at him and constantly saying “just as the generation of leaves so are the generations of men”. And he liked the fact that Homer compared human beings to wasps, flies and birds. He also used to add these lines: “But, friend, die too: why do you mourn like this? / Patroklos also died and he was much better than you.” He would recite that along with all the passages which attested to the uncertain and empty pursuits, the childish simplicity of humankind.
Poseidonios also passes down a certain story like this about him. When his shipmates were exceedingly anxious because of a storm, he was calm and unshaken in his spirit. After he pointed to a piglet on the boat who was eating, he said that it was right for a wise person to settle into such an untroubled state.”
“And I certainly seem to be experiencing the fate of Ibykos’ horse, a prize-winner who, even though old, was about to compete in the chariot race and was trembling because of experience at what was about to happen. Ibykos compared himself to him when he said that he too was old and was being compelled to move towards lust”
[Scholiast] Here is the saying of Ibykos the lyric poet:
τὸ τοῦ μελοποιοῦ Ἰβύκου ῥητόν·
“Love again, gazing up from under dark lashes,
Throws me down with every kind of spell
Into the Cyprian’s endless nets.
In truth, I tremble at this arrival,
Just as a prize-winning horse on the yoke in old age
Goes into the contest with his swift wheels, but not willingly.”
This often ridiculous site and its associated twitter feed turn 10 years-old this Thursday (October, 21). In typically self-indulgent style, I will run a post on the history of the site then, but I wanted to start with a kind of gift/curse to the world: the SA Tweetbook.
What in all that is sacred is a Tweetbook? It is a collection of tweets! Is it a real book? No, just a somewhat edited, collection of some of @sentantiq’s most common tweets from 2011-2020. This document is a cleaned up version of my tweet rotation document (cleverly titled “tweetmaster”).
“The state which belongs to one man is no state at all.”
πόλις γὰρ οὐκ ἔσθ᾽ ἥτις ἀνδρός ἐσθ᾽ ἑνός.
And there are 450 pages in between.
Most of the passages appear in some form or another on this website. The translations in this collection will not perfectly match those that have been shared over time. Our views about using non-binary and gender-neutral language have evolved over the past decade. Where, due to our rather conventional classical training, we were pedantically strict concerning the number and gender represented in Greek and Latin, we have seen the value in offering more inclusive translations. (And the internet has presented us with countless instances to illustrate the closemindedness of pedantry.) We have retained clear gender where the context or meaning seems to demand it in some way.
Ok, but what is a tweetbook? This document’s pages contain over 2000 passages drawn from over 2000 years of Greek and Latin. The quotations below are not exhaustive, broadly representative, or ordered in any systematic or pleasing fashion. Instead, the order is more or less chronological in terms of first appearance on the website or the twitter feed. Thanks to the editorial assistance of Julia Greig, the tweets have been presented with their citations in a more-or-less correct and consistent fashion. (If there are inconsistencies, their fault lies not with Julia, whose work was exemplary, but with my incessant meddling.)
But Why a tweetbook? Over the years, several people have asked for a document with our favorite lines. I have considered assembling a kind of coffee-table quote book at times, but my interest in doing this is on the other side of tepid. So, as a compromise I have used the occasion of our website’s tenth anniversary to share this strange fruit of our labors with the world. I don’t know what the next ten years may bring, but this is a version of a document I keep called “tweets master” from which I schedule daily tweets.
This ‘book’, then, gives you, dear reader, the power to become your own ancient tweetbot. Someday, there may be no twitter. Perhaps this document will be the source of a quote-feed in some future communal space. Perhaps it will just me something you search (through reading or ctrl+f) for words to match to your feeling or time. Perhaps you want to take these lines into new worlds, to boldly conquer instagram or some other social media we have not heard of. Or, maybe you just want to start up your own twitter feed. Whatever the case, I let this rather unpolished collection into the world and give it and you my best wishes. Re-use at will. But reuse for good, where possible.
“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.
Don’t google this to see how people use it, because it will be upsetting. A reddit user did point to the Loeb translation of Politics:
“Also difference of race is a cause of faction, until harmony of spirit is reached; for just as any chance multitude of people does not form a state, so a state is not formed in any chance period of time. ” (Politics Book 5 section 1303a)
Aristotle, Politics 1303a27-30
“Not being of the same tribe is a cause of strife until they “breathe in sync” [breathe together? Sumpneusê], for just as a state does not develop from an accidental mob, so too it does not come together at an accidental time.”
It is easy to take this passage as supporting a racist point of view; I think that it probably is kind of racist, but it connects more with the Greek political idea of homophrosune or homonoia, that a unifying feature of a multiple people must be shared beliefs or aims. Also, rather than focusing on the first clause (the same tribe thing) note the trouble focus on “accident”: states cannot just happen. They need planning, work and a reason to be.
(Also, homonoia is not unproblematic, but at least it leaves open the idea that people who look different can join together in common cause. Maybe that is a pretty low bar, but it is as far from the texts using this fake quote as Olympos is from Tartaros.)
But, don’t fear, I am not going to defend Aristotle here. He can be plenty hateful. The point is, he did not say this stupid thing. And, further, there’s plenty of material he actually did say which is reprehensible. So, why be so lazy and recycle some nonsense from an American preacher?
Here’s another decontextualize gem from Seneca popular online
” For love of bustle is not industry,—it is only the restlessness of a hunted mind.”
This sounds like a Dale Carnegie line or some sententious dollop in dialogue written now for a movie set in the 1930s. To be fair, the translation is copyrighted to 1917 by Richard M. Gummere (the Loeb translation).
Here’s the Latin:
Nam illa tumultu gaudens non est industria, sed exagitatae mentis concursatio
In the translation above, there’s no sense of what the demonstrative Illa is doing, and there is definitely something off about the “hunted” for exagitatae, which I think is something closer to “thoroughly bothered/distracted/agitated.” To my taste it is something closer to:
“Taking pleasure in that chaos is not diligence, but the anxiety/movement of a thoroughly troubled mind”
This is decidedly less quotable than the passage above. And it is so because it needs the larger context, which actually, as usual, tells a more complicated, and I think richer, story.
Seneca, Moral Epistle 3.4-6
“There are certain kinds of people who tell things which ought to be entrusted only to friends to anyone they meet and they unload on just any ears whatever has bothered them. Another group of people in turn hesitates at trusting their most dear friends and, if they could, would suppress every secret inside because they do not trust themselves.
But we should do neither thing. It is a mistake both to trust everyone and no one. The first mistake, however, I think is more honest while the second is safer. So, you should criticize both types in this way, those who are always boisterous and those who are always reserved.
For taking pleasure in such disturbance is not diligence, but the anxiety of a troubled mind. And it is not peace to believe that every movement is annoying, but lethargy and apathy. For this, commend to mind this line I have read in Pomponius: “Some people retreat so far into the shadows that they think they are in darkness when in the light.”
People need to mix these habits and one who is resting should move and one who is moving should rest! Take this up with the nature of things: she will explain that she made both the daytime and night. Goodbye!”
Quidam quae tantum amicis committenda sunt, obviis narrant et in quaslibet aures, quicquid illos urserit, exonerant. Quidam rursus etiam carissimorum conscientiam reformidant, et si possent, ne sibi quidem credituri interius premunt omne secretum. Neutrum faciendum est. Utrumque enim vitium est, et omnibus credere et nulli. Sed alterum honestius dixerim vitium, alterum tutius: sic utrosque reprehendas, et eos qui semper inquieti sunt, et eos qui semper quiescunt. Nam illa tumultu gaudens non est industria, sed exagitatae mentis concursatio. Et haec non est quies, quae motum omnem molestiam iudicat, sed dissolutio et languor. Itaque hoc, quod apud Pomponium legi, animo mandabitur: “quidam adeo in latebras refugerunt, ut putent in turbido esse, quicquid in luce est.” Inter se ista miscenda sunt, et quiescenti agendum et agenti quiescendum est. Cum rerum natura delibera; illa dicet tibi et diem fecisse se et noctem. Vale.
I totally understand why people select parts of ancient works to excerpt. I mean, that’s kind of what we do on this blog every day. But the line quoted out of context above completely subverts Seneca’s meaning in service of a modern flat and unsophisticated understanding of Stoicism. It is ok to be busy and troubled, just not all the time! It is no better to be completely withdrawn! For each quality Seneca discusses above in its extreme form, there is an extreme opposite which is no better.
μωρολογία: properly, “stupid-talking” or “the talk of fools”. But why not: “the science of stupidity”?
Sophocles, fr. 924
“Stupidity is a terrible opponent to wrestle”
ὡς δυσπάλαιστόν <ἐστιν> ἀμαθία κακόν
Terence, Phormio, 659-660
“Whether I claim he does this because of stupidity or
malice—whether this is a knowing plot, or incompetence, I am unsure.”
utrum stultitia facere ego hunc an malitia
dicam, scientem an imprudentem, incertu’ sum.
Sophocles, fr. 925
“Stupidity really is evil’s sibling”
ἡ δὲ μωρία
μάλιστ᾿ ἀδελφὴ τῆς πονηρίας ἔφυ
Suetonius, Divus Claudius 38
“But he did not stay quiet even about his own stupidity: but claimed that he had faked it on purpose under Gaius because he would have not escaped and advanced to his eventual position otherwise—and that this was supported by certain oracles. But he persuaded no one. And after a brief time, a book was published with the title “The Ascension of Fools” which posited that no one can pretend stupidity.”
Ac ne stultitiam quidem suam reticuit simulatamque a se ex industria sub Gaio, quod aliter evasurus perventurusque ad susceptam stationem non fuerit, quibusdam oratiunculis testatus est; nec tamen49 persuasit, cum intra breve tempus liber editus sit, cui index erat μωρῶν ἐπανάστασις, argumentum autem stultitiam neminem fingere.
Plutarch, Rational Beasts 998a
“Note that a lack of intelligence or stupidity in some animals emerges in contrast with the abilities and sharpness of others as you might compare an ass or a sheep with a fox, a wolf or a bee. It would be the same if you would compare Polyphemos or that idiot Koroibos to your grandfather Autolykos. For I do not think that there is so great a difference between beasts as there is between individual people in thinking, using reason, and in memory.”
“These men must be the dumbest of all people or they are the most inimical to the state. If they believe that it is also better for their private affairs when the state does well, then they are complete fools in pursuing something opposite to their own advantage right now. If they do not believe that they share common interests with you, then they must be enemies of the state”