Happiness is Thinking…About Things Aristotle Didn’t Say

Ah, on Psychology Today you can learn that Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” It will probably not come as a great surprise that Aristotle did not say this particular thing, even though it is in the range of the kinds of things he might say in a parallel universe.

fake aristotle


While Reddit is probably right that this is a riffing on the Nicomachean Ethics. (Unlike some other fake Aristotle quotes, this one does not have a very storied history: it seems to have started circulating around 10 years ago). The problem is that part of the point of the Nicomachean Ethics is that people don’t agree on what happiness is and therefore it is almost useless to make such anodyne statements as “the meaning of life is the pursuit of happiness”.

And Aristotle says as much when he concedes, after defining haponnes as “the goal of all actions” (πρακτῶν οὖσα τέλος), “perhaps saying that happiness is best seems to be [merely saying] something which is already agreed” (Ἀλλ᾿ ἴσως τὴν μὲν εὐδαιμονίαν τὸ ἄριστον λέγειν ὁμολογούμενόν τι φαίνεται, 1097b 22). So, he continues to explore the definition from the question of what a human being is for (εἰ ληφθείη τὸ ἔργον τοῦ ἀνθρώπου).

If we translate Greek eudaimonia as “happiness”, which many do, Aristotle says some things that are easily alterable for different cultural contexts. For example, “Hence, happiness is the best, most beautiful, and sweetest thing…” (ἄριστον ἄρα καὶ κάλλιστον καὶ ἥδιστον ἡ εὐδαιμονία, 1099a25)

There are many problems with even this translation. What does it mean for thing to be “best”? “Most beautiful” could also be “noblest” and, in close pairing with ariston, it could actually be a gloss on kalos k’agathos, an aristocratic statement of values that may be devoid of any meaningful content for the study of modern happiness.

Near the end of the Nicomachean Ethics (1176b5 vii) Aristotle concludes,

“But if happiness is intentional action in line with virtue, it is a good argument to say that it is so in accordance with the most potent virtue. This would be from the best part. Whether this is from the mind or any other thing which seems to govern and lead us according to our nature, and also to have understanding of beautiful and divine matters and whether that is also divine itself or is the most divine thing we possess, it is intentional activity in line with this nature particular to human beings which is the perfect happiness.

And this is, what we have said before, the process of contemplation. This conclusion would seem to agree both with what we have said previously and the truth. For [the act of contemplation] is the most powerful intentional activity because the mind is also the most powerful thing we possess along with the things which can be known, the matters of the mind.”

Εἰ δ᾿ ἐστὶν ἡ εὐδαιμονία κατ᾿ ἀρετὴν ἐνέργεια, εὔλογον κατὰ τὴν κρατίστην· αὕτη δ᾿ ἂν εἴη τοῦ ἀρίστου. εἴτε δὴ νοῦς τοῦτο εἴτε ἄλλο τι, ὃ δὴ κατὰ φύσιν δοκεῖ ἄρχειν καὶ ἡγεῖσθαι καὶ ἔννοιαν15 ἔχειν περὶ καλῶν καὶ θείων, εἴτε θεῖον ὂν καὶ αὐτὸ εἴτε τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν τὸ θειότατον, ἡ τούτου ἐνέργεια κατὰ τὴν οἰκείαν ἀρετὴν εἴη ἂν ἡ τελεία εὐδαιμονία· 2ὅτι δ᾿ ἐστὶ θεωρητική, εἴρηται. ὁμολογούμενον δὲ τοῦτ᾿ ἂν δόξειεν εἶναι καὶ τοῖς πρότερον καὶ τῷ ἀληθεῖ. κρατίστη τε γὰρ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐνέργεια (καὶ γὰρ ὁ νοῦς τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ τῶν γνωστῶν, περὶ ἃ ὁ νοῦς)·

Let’s be honest: “The meaning of life is happiness, and happiness is thinking real hard” does not make for a great motivational poster.

On the way to this, he argues that pleasure and other things are not the goals of happiness. My translation has issues of course. Based on the arguments of the Nicomachean Ethics, I have translated ἐνέργεια (energeia) as “intentional action”); as with most translations of Aristotle, we also have the challenge of aretê which here is “virtue” but can also be translated as “excellence”.

Even in English the difference between the two can be daunting: one seems innate (especially from a Christian perspective) while the other seems achieved (which would be temporary). In Aristotle, the notion of “intentional activity in accordance with virtue” is, I think, about pursuing a line of action that is guided by an externally extant ideal. For this reason, I have tried to emphasize process over product in this translation, which, I think, is part of the point of the Nicomachean Ethics.

In an earlier post, I created an already problematic rating system for fake quotes. (Yes, most quotes don’t fit easily into one category; the point of the struct categorization is to make us think about the nature of each quotation anew.)

Here it is again. I think this one is a Cylon-Helen.

    1. The Real Deal: A quotation from an ancient text which is extant.
    2. Aegis Real: Like the head of the Gorgon Medusa, these quotations have been decontextualized and passed down embedded in some other ancient author. They have been attributed to the same author for a long time, but who really knows.
    3. Delphian Graffiti: A quote of real antiquity, but whose attribution has been shifted for different valence in modern contexts (e.g., “know thyself” has been attributed to almost everyone)
    4. Rhetorica ad Fictum Fake: (with thanks to Hannah Čulík-Baird) Aristotle and Quintilian think it is just fine to make up quotations for persuasive reasons. This actually undermines many of the attributions we have from antiquity. So, this is the kind of fake that is really old and may just be too good to be true.
    5. Cylon-Helen: Just as Herodotus and Stesichorus report that ‘real’ Helen was replaced with a near-exact copy for the ten years of the Trojan War, so too some quotations are transformed through translation (Latin into Greek, Greek into Latin; or into Modern languages). The intervention of an outside force changes the cultural status of the words.
    6. Peisistratos Fake: A quote that is not misattributed or transformed, but merely just dressed up and falsely claimed as antique for political reasons (the tyrant Peisistratos pulled some pretty crazy stunts to get into power). These quotations have no sources in antiquity and are used to enforce modern points of view.
    7. Racist Fake: Quotations of the Peisistratus type but with the particular intention of enforcing a racist world view.

A new inspirational poster for you.

Cat Philosopher

And if you want to read more fake Aristotle, I have a page for that



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;
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

Epic Fabrication! Creating and Curating Fragmentary Traditions

About a month ago Hannah Čulík-Baird wrote a blog post about citation of authority and the quotation of fake or misrepresented quotations (among other themes). Now, perhaps it is in part guilt for this site’s own participation in the quotation-economy that drives my interest, but I have been at times obsessed over the past year with false attributions to Aristotle and with coming up with some kind of a scale for the general fakeness of a quotation. But, as I found out at a workshop at MIT organized by Stephanie Frampton, it is not just the ‘vulgar mob’ that is misappropriating the past—no, we professionals have been actively selecting, shaping, and fabricating it for a long time.

Some ways in which we do this are simple, and understated, as in the editing of a text where we apply inconsistent, unfair, or unclear criteria in choosing one form or variant over another. But some things we do are quite bolder. And this brings me to something I love (and Hannah does too): fragments.

I think that there is a misconception—which I once had—that fragments of lost poems and texts are exactly what they sound like—lines that exist on scraps of manuscript, stone, metal, and papyrus. While this is true for a few, the vast majority of the things we call fragments are actually embedded in other places and we have been excising them from the parent text and recreating them as something else since at least the Renaissance. (Florilegia, essentially quote books, and miscellany texts going back even further are another topic too).

Let’s look at two examples of fragmentary epic poets to make some sense of how we are actively engaged in the creation of the past, Creophylus and Peisander. Creophylus of Samos is dated to the Archaic period and is said by some to be Homer’s friend or even son-in-law. He is said to be the author of an epic “Capture of Oikhalia”. The best testimonia (“witnesses”) for this are a combination of imperial Greek (i.e. “second sophistic”) and later, although a passage from the Hellenistic period is embedded in Strabo (Strabo 14.1.18 including Call. Epigram 6 PF; Proclus Life of Homer 5; Hesychius Miletus, Life of Homer 6, Suda k 2376 [drawn from Hesychius]. Also: schol. ad Plato’s Republic, 600b; Photius, s.v. Creophylus).

There are three fragments attributed to Creophylos. They might all be bogus. The first fragment [ὦ γύναι, <αὐτὴ> ταῦτά γ᾿ ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὅρηαι, fr. 1] is from the Epimerismi Homerici  dated to the early Byzantine period. This line can be justified as an entry in an hexameter poem. But there is nothing about it that makes it necessarily appropriate for a poem by Creophylus about the sack of Oikhalia by Herakles. It could be “To the woman complaining that there was nothing to eat, I said, / “Woman, you see these things in front of your eyes at least…” Or many, many other possibilities. None of which necessarily have to be about Herakles.

Kreo Fr 1
From West’s 2003 Loeb

The second “fragment” as it is listed in West 2003 is not fairly a fragment at all but two late testimonies to content. The first part is from Strabo 9.5.17 and the second is Pausanias 4.2.3. Both use a reference to Creophylus to or a poem attributed to him to discuss the location of the mythical Oikhalia.

It is, I think, somewhat distortive to even group these together. In Strabo, we get a reference to the “Author of the Capture of Oikhalia” (ὁ ποιήσας τὴν Οἰχαλίας ἅλωσιν) while in Pausanias Creophylus is credited with a Heraklea which told the story set in Oikhalia. Neither “fragment” presents any clear language from a poem. It is debatable, as well, that these references are to the same poem and poet rather than using a brief reference to the past as evidence for the authority of an assertion. The use of these ‘fragments’ says much more about the people whose opinions are being reported, the methods of the authors doing the reporting, and cultural ideas about authority and antiquity than they can possibly say about a legendary lost poem.

Kreo fr 2

The third fragment is also a summary of content and not a citation of actually lines. It comes from the Scholia to Sophocles’ Trachiniae and presents three different numbers of the sons of Eurytus. This detail has been selected for the purpose of showing the range of options and depth of research. It has been selected in service as well of elucidating another text from a different genre and it too says very little about any poem.

There is a circuity in what we say about figures like Creophylus as well. Compare Joachim Latacz’s entry on Creophylus in Brill’s New Pauly to the entry in the Suda:

Kreo Pauly 1

Here’s the Suda. From what I can see, our official “modern entry” adds the testimonia from above and some details from the Suda with little critical engagement with either.

“Kreophylos, the son of Astukles, a Chian or a Samian. An epic poet. Some say that he was homer’s son-in-law through his daughter. Others claim that he was only Homer’s friend and that after he welcomed Homer he received from him the poem “The Sack of Oikhalia

Κρεώφυλος, ᾿Αστυκλέους, Χῖος ἢ Σάμιος, ἐποποιός. τινὲς δὲ αὐτὸν ἱστόρησαν ῾Ομήρου γαμβρὸν ἐπὶ θυγατρί. οἱ δὲ φίλον μόνον γεγονέναι αὐτὸν ῾Ομήρου λέγουσι καὶ ὑποδεξάμενον ῞Ομηρον λαβεῖν παρ’ αὐτοῦ τὸ ποίημα τὴν τῆς Οἰχαλίας ἅλωσιν.

Let’s do this again briefly with with Peisander. According to the Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda (s.v. Peisandros), Peisander of Rhodes wrote about the “deeds of Herakles” in two books in the 7th Century BCE (and Herakles was also prominent in narrative lyric poetry like that of Stesichorus)— but his earliest testimony goes back to the Hellenistic period as well, in an epigram ascribed to Theocritus. But the rest of the testimonia are later: another collection of Strabo, Quintilian, Clement, and more. Almost all of his ‘so-called’ fragments consist of other authors claiming that Peisander gave some version of known tales about Herakles. Here’s a list:

  1. The Nemean Lion: Peisander, fr. 1 (Ps. Eratosthenes, Catast.12)
  2. Learnean Hydra: Peisander, fr. 2 (=Pausanias, 2.37.4); Panyasis, fr. 6
  3. Cerynian Hind: Peisander, fr. 3 (= Scholia to Pindar. Ol. 3.50b)
  4. Stymphalian Birds: Peisander, fr. 4 (=Pausanias 8.22.4)
  5. Sailed Across the Ocean in a Cup: Peisander fr. 5 (Athenaeus, 469c)
  6. Antaeus: Peisander, fr 6 (=Schol ad Pind, Pyth 9.185a) [giant wrestled on way to Hesperides]
  7. Conflict with Centaurs: Peisander, fr. 9 (=Hesychius nu 683)
  8. Sacking of Troy with Telamon: Peisander, fr. 10 (=Athenaus 783c)

Fragment 7 (preserved by the schol. To Aristophanes’ Clouds) has “Athena the grey-eyed goddess made a warm bath for him at Thermopylae along the shore of the sea.” (τῶι δ᾿ ἐν Θερμοπύληισι θεὰ γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη / ποίει θερμὰ λοετρὰ παρὰ ῥηγμῖνι θαλάσσης.) In typical late antique style, something about this is repeated at several other places (Cf. Zenob. vulg. 6.49; Diogenian. 5.7; Harpocr. Θ 11.) indicating a proverbial status for the lines or a common source. Other than the contextual information and the tradition that Athena helped Herakles (and other heroes) there is little here that makes a certain part of a poem about Herakles by Peisander.

Fragment 2 is a line with no context from Stobaeus: “There’s no reason to criticize saying even a lie to save a life.” (οὐ νέμεσις καὶ ψεῦδος ὑπὲρ ψυχῆς ἀγορεύειν.). This is another proverbial utterance with nothing particularly Heraklean about it as is fragment 9 (“there’s no thought in Centaurs” νοῦς οὐ παρὰ Κενταύροισι) cited by Hesychius.

So, again, as with Creophylus, Peisander’s ‘fragments’ are for the most part distorted quotations and receptions which are willfully presented as evidence of a lost poem when they are more fairly evidence for the way that ancient authors in the post-Hellenistic period constructed authority or explored variation and multiform myth in their own research and retelling. To be clear: I am not saying that these passages are not worthy of study or that they have nothing to tell us about the past. I am saying that the way we treat them is far from transparent and probably not that useful.

As discrete entries in collections of fragments and encyclopediae about the past, these details seem rather anodyne, but once you really think about them, the patterns they represent should give us some concern about the degree to which we fabricate and stitch together elements of the past to our liking. Once these ‘fragments’ enter scholarly texts—as they do in Davies 1988, Benarbé 1996, and West 2003—they become re-canonized as evidence for lost poems and mythical traditions. The last decade or so has seen an uptick in research and publishing on the fragments of the so-called epic cycle with insufficient acknowledgement for the contribution of this scholarly enterprise—all the way back to the Hellenistic period—in fabricating both the concept and its content.

Such thin evidence is then re-presented as concrete blocks upon which we build intricate arguments. And the level of knowledge, patience and time it takes to evaluate the veracity of these constructions is increasingly available only to a select few. And even those of us who have the time and training to understand that this house of cards is really a sculpture of broken toothpicks and tissue paper are too habituated to the claiming of these textual artifacts as fragments that we are unable or unwilling to call them something else.



For the standard version of the fragments and testimonies see


Benarbé, A. 1996. Poetorum Epicorum Graecorum. Leipzig.

Davies, M. 1988. Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Göttingen

West, M.L. 2003. Epic Fragments. Loeb Classical Library.


For More:

Burgess J. S. 2001. The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle. Baltimore.

Davies, M. 1989. The Greek Epic Cycle. London. [a moderate reconstruction]

Fantuzzi, M. and Tsagalis, C. (eds). 2014. The Greek Epic Cycle and its Ancient Reception. Cambridge: 213–25. [collection of essays from somewhat different expectations]

West, M. L. 2013.The Epic Cycle. Oxford. [the most extreme of the reconstructions]



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.

Men Quote When They Have Nothing to Say

This quotation is huge online. But, like most things that look big on the internet, its actual size leaves something to be desired. I started poking around (by which I mean googling) and found pretty quickly that this line has already been called into doubt. It seems to have entered the popular discourse through the usual route, a quote book from the 19th century (1891). The sentiment appears in different collections with some intensity a decade later in 1901, 1903, and 1904.

Proverbial wisdom that uses knowing when to speak as the distinction between wise people and fools is pretty common: check out quoteinvestigator’s overview of the ubiquitous “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt” attributed apocryphally to both Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln.

Based on my own new rating system, this quotation is Peisistratos Fake: it draws on ancient ideas, but has no real antiquity to it.

Discerning when to be silent and when to speak is also a regular trope in ancient literature (which is alive and well in the Renaissance too, with entries on this from Piccolomini and Vergerio). Plutarch models Odysseus as the type of sage who shows his wisdom by selecting the right moments for speech (and Aulus Gellius says something similar and Macrobius too). It is also very common to use the figures of the fool and the wise person in antithesis

Gnomologia Vaticanum

58 “When Aristotle was asked what the most burdensome thing in life is he said “staying silent.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθείς, τί δυσκολώτατόν ἐστιν ἐν βίῳ, εἶπε· „τὸ σιωπᾶν”.

[Psst: the quotation I just provided falls somewhere between Rhetorica ad Fictum and Cylon-Helen]

Emerson Admirable
Ralph Waldo Emerson. H/T to Hannah Čulík-Baird for quoting this so I could quote it

Fake Aristotle Fakely Rails Against Fighting Inequality

Want to read about more fake Aristotle quotes? We have a post for that….

So, I came across the following in a random Aristotle hashtag search. it is, indubitably, a fake. This is Peisistratos and Racist Level Fake:

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

This has already been judged a “misattribution” by wikiquotes, but it has a life of its own as a meme that is used to justify inequality. What more a noble pursuit than the counterfeiting of ancient philosophical quotes in the service of upholding injustice!

This little horror shows up in the mid-seventies and has gained new life in the last decade or so. It seems that this is ‘inspired’ (to stretch the meaning of the word) by a segment from the Politics, which, by my reading, provides a very different sentiment from that purveyed by the meme:

Aristotle, Politics 3, 1280a 8-17

“First we must establish what people claim as the definitive boundaries of oligarchy and democracy and what principle of justice characterizes oligarchy and democracy in turn. For all people lay claim to some kind of justice, but they only pursue it up to a point and they do not define justice in its proper entirety.

For example, equality seems to be just and it is, but not to everyone, only to those who are equal to begin with. And so, inequality seems to be just, and, indeed, it is, but not for all people, only those who are not equal. But those people deprive [the concept of the meaning] in respect to those [whom it concerns] and render a bad judgment. The fault behind this is that the judgment is over something that concerns the people [making the judgment] themselves! Nearly all people are poor judges on matters that interest them.”

Ληπτέον δὲ πρῶτον τίνας ὅρους λέγουσι τῆς ὀλιγαρχίας καὶ δημοκρατίας, καὶ τί τὸ δίκαιον τό τε ὀλιγαρχικὸν καὶ δημοκρατικόν. πάντες γὰρ ἅπτονται δικαίου τινός, ἀλλὰ μέχρι τινὸς προέρχονται, καὶ λέγουσιν οὐ πᾶν τὸ κυρίως δίκαιον. οἷον δοκεῖ ἴσον τὸ δίκαιον εἶναι, καὶ ἔστιν, ἀλλ᾿ οὐ πᾶσιν ἀλλὰ τοῖς ἴσοις· καὶ τὸ ἄνισον δοκεῖ δίκαιον εἶναι, καὶ γάρ ἐστιν, ἀλλ᾿ οὐ πᾶσιν ἀλλὰ τοῖς ἀνίσοις· οἱ δὲ τοῦτ᾿ ἀφαιροῦσι, τὸ οἷς, καὶ κρίνουσι κακῶς. τὸ δ᾿ αἴτιον ὅτι περὶ αὑτῶν ἡ κρίσις, σχεδὸν δ᾿ οἱ πλεῖστοι φαῦλοι κριταὶ περὶ τῶν οἰκείων.

Just because this sentiment does not belong to Aristotle, does not mean that someone in the ancient world didn’t express (something like) it. H/T to Andrew Riggsby (@AntiqueThought) and John Ma (@Nakhthor) for pointing out these passages.

Cicero Republic 1.43

“But the people have too little participation in common justice and deliberation in monarchies; in aristocracies, the populace is incapable of having the smallest part of freedom since they lack access from any shared governance and power. When all the power is exercised by the people, even if it is done justly and moderately, the equality itself is not equal since it provides for no gradations in honor.”

Sed et in regnis nimis expertes sunt ceteri communis iuris et consilii, et in optimatium dominatu vix particeps libertatis potest esse multitudo, cum omni consilio communi ac potestate careat, et cum omnia per populum geruntur quamvis iustum atque moderatum, tamen ipsa aequabilitas est iniqua, cum habet nullos gradus dignitatis.


Pliny the Younger, Letters 9.5

 “You stand very far away from this mistake, I know well, but I cannot keep myself from seeming to warn you when praising the way you maintain differences of class and honor. If these things are mixed up and confused, nothing is more unequal than that kind of equality. Goodbye!”

A quo vitio tu longe recessisti, scio, sed temperare mihi non possum quominus laudem similis monenti, quod eum modum tenes ut discrimina ordinum dignitatumque custodias; quae si confusa turbata permixta sunt, nihil est ipsa aequalitate inaequalius. Vale.

Pliny the Younger, Letters 2.12.5

“But this is judged by the majority—their views are counted but they are not weighed. Nothing else can happen in public decision making in which there is nothing as unequal as this kind of equality. This persists because the right is everyone’s equally even though wisdom is unequally distributed.”

 Sed hoc pluribus visum est. Numerantur enim sententiae, non ponderantur; nec aliud in publico consilio potest fieri, in quo nihil est tam inaequale quam aequalitas ipsa. Nam cum sit impar prudentia, par omnium ius est.

Fake Aristotle

On Falling in Love in Old Age

87 Plato Parmen. 137a and Ibykos fr. 287

“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”

καίτοι δοκῶ μοι τὸ τοῦ Ἰβυκείου ἵππου πεπονθέναι ᾧ ἐκεῖνος ἀθλητῇ ὄντι καὶ πρεσβυτέρῳ ὑφ᾿ ἅρματι μέλλοντι ἀγωνιεῖσθαι καὶ δι᾿ ἐμπειρίαν τρέμοντι τὸ μέλλον ἑαυτὸν ἀπεικάζων ἄκων ἔφη καὶ αὐτὸς οὕτω πρεσβευτὴς ὢν εἰς τὸν ἔρωτα ἀναγκάζεσθαι ἰέναι.

schol. ad loc. 

[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.”

Ἔρος αὖτέ με κυανέοισιν ὑπὸ
βλεφάροις τακέρ᾿ ὄμμασι δερκόμενος
κηλήμασι παντοδαποῖς ἐς ἀπειρα
δίκτυα Κύπριδος ἐσβάλλει·
ἦ μὰν τρομέω νιν ἐπερχόμενον,
ὥστε φερέζυγος ἵππος ἀεθλοφόρος ποτὶ γήρᾳ
ἀέκων σὺν ὄχεσφι θοοῖς ἐς ἅμιλλαν ἔβα

Greek Anthology, 5.26

“If I saw you shining with dark hair
Or at another time with blond locks, mistress,
The same grace would gleam from both.
Love will make its home in your hair even when it’s gray.”

Εἴτε σε κυανέῃσιν ἀποστίλβουσαν ἐθείραις,
εἴτε πάλιν ξανθαῖς εἶδον, ἄνασσα, κόμαις,
ἴση ἀπ’ ἀμφοτέρων λάμπει χάρις. ἦ ῥά γε ταύταις
θριξὶ συνοικήσει καὶ πολιῇσιν ῎Ερως.

Image result for ancient greek chariot horse
A force of nature