Send Me Something Good to Read

Marcus Antoninus to Fronto, 161 CE

“…I have read just a little bit from Coelius and from a speech of Cicero, but pretty much in secret and only in bits. One worry trips over another so much that meanwhile my sole respite is to take a book to hand. For our young daughters are staying in town with Matidia—therefore they cannot come to visit me in the evening because of the sharpness of the air….[ …]

Send me something which seems to you to be particularly well-written so I may read it, either your own or someone from Cato, Cicero, Salust, Gracchus, or from some other poet—for I need a rest—and especially that kind of reading which will raise my spirit and shake me from the worries which have fallen over me. Also, if you have any excerpts from Lucretius or Ennius—euphonious lines or those which give a good sense of character.”

…<legi ex Coe>|lio paululum et ex Ciceronis oratione, sed quasi furtim, certe quidem raptim: tantum instat aliud ex alio curarum, quom interim requies una librum in manus sumere. Nam parvolae nostrae nunc apud Matidiam in oppido hospitantur: igitur vespera ad me ventitare non possunt propter aurae rigorem…

Mitte mihi aliquid quod tibi disertissimum videatur, quod legam, vel tuum aut Catonis aut Ciceronis aut Sallustii aut Gracchi aut poetae alicuius, χρῄζω γὰρ ἀναπαύλης, et maxime hoc genus, quae me lectio extollat et diffundat ἐκ τῶν κατειληφυιῶν φροντίδων; etiam si qua Lucretii aut Ennii excerpta habes εὔφωνα <στίχι>α1et sicubi ἤθους ἐμϕάσεις.

Opening of the 1483 manuscript copy of De rerum natura by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris

Listeners and Readers Have Different Needs

Quintilian Institutio Oratoria, 10.1

“Indeed, some things are useful for listeners and others are good for readers. A speaking narrator causes excitement with his energy and feeds our attention not only with vivid images but with the material itself. Everything comes alive and is moved and we feed on new ideas as if they are just born in charm and worry. We are hand not just on the fate of the plot but on the danger faced by those who narrate it. In addition, the voice itself, proper movement, and performance shaped as each segment will demand are the most powerful aspects of recitation and, as I may say, teacheverything equally.

When it comes to reading, the audience’s judgment can be more certain since a listener’s prejudice often turns either by their own taste or by the shouting of those who are responding to the performance. Disagreement makes us feel shame and our unacknowledged humility keeps us from trusting our own responses even though pretty terrible stuff is pleasing to the majority of people. A summoned audience, moreover, will even applaud for things they don’t like. The opposite occurs too: poor taste often can’t tell when something has been finely put.

Reading is private—it does not move through us with the force of live performance and you’re allowed to re-read often just in case you are uncertain or want to memorize it. We may return to the text and work it again the way we let our food be chewed and worked because we swallow it for easier digestion. In this way, our reading is not raw but it is ready for memory through repeated softening and preparation.”

Alia vero audientis, alia legentis magis adiuvant. Excitat qui dicit spiritu ipso, nec imagine tantum rerum sed rebus incendit. Vivunt omnia enim et moventur, excipimusque nova illa velut nascentia cum favore ac sollicitudine: nec fortuna modo iudicii sed etiam ipsorum qui orant periculo adficimur. Praeter haec vox, actio decora, accommodata ut quisque locus postulabit pronuntiandi vel potentissima in dicendo ratio, et, ut semel dicam, pariter omnia docent. In lectione certius iudicium, quod audienti frequenter aut suus cuique favor aut ille laudantium clamor extorquet. Pudet enim dissentire, et velut tacita quadam verecundia inhibemur plus nobis credere, cum interim et vitiosa pluribus placent, et a conrogatis laudantur etiam quae non placent. Sed e contrario quoque accidit ut optime dictis gratiam prava iudicia non referant.

Lectio libera est nec ut actionis impetu transcurrit, sed repetere saepius licet, sive dubites sive memoriae penitus adfigere velis. Repetamus autem et tractemus et, ut cibos mansos ac prope liquefactos demittimus quo facilius digerantur, ita lectio non cruda sed multa iteratione mollita et velut confecta memoriae imitationique tradatur.

MS Additional 11639, f. 116r, France, 1277-1286 — From Here

Great Authors Err Too

Quintilian, Inst. Orat. 10.1.24-26

“Let the reader not be persuaded as a matter of course that everything the best authors said is perfect. For they slip at times, they give in to their burdens, and they delight in the pleasure of their own abilities. They do not always pay attention; and they often grow tired. Demosthenes seems to doze to Cicero; Homer naps for Horace. Truly, they are great, but they are still mortals and it happens that those who believe that whatever appears in these authors should be laws for speaking often imitate their lesser parts, since this is easier—and they believe they are enough like them if they emulate the faults of great authors.

Still, one must pass judgment on these men with modesty and care to avoid what often happens when people condemn what they do not understand. If it is necessary to err in either part, I would prefer readers to enjoy everything in these authors rather than dismiss much.”

Neque id statim legenti persuasum sit, omnia quae summi auctores dixerint utique esse perfecta. Nam et labuntur aliquando et oneri cedunt et indulgent ingeniorum suorum voluptati, nec semper intendunt animum, nonnumquam fatigantur, cum Ciceroni dormitare interim Demosthenes, Horatio vero etiam Homerus ipse videatur.  Summi enim sunt, homines tamen, acciditque iis qui quidquid apud illos reppererunt dicendi legem putant ut deteriora imitentur (id enim est facilius), ac se abunde similes putent si vitia magnorum consequantur. Modesto tamen et circumspecto iudicio de tantis viris pronuntiandum est, ne, quod plerisque accidit, damnent quae non intellegunt. Ac si necesse est in alteram errare partem, omnia eorum legentibus placere quam multa displicere maluerim.

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Contact High from Greek Literature

Cicero, Oratore II 14 (Cicero is not the speaker here…)

“What, then? There is something else still, I will admit, that, as when I walk in the sun—even if I am doing so for some other reason—I still grow darker by nature. Something similar happens when I eagerly read those books at Misenum—for Rome scarcely allows it. I sense that my own speaking takes own a new appearance from this contact. But, so that this does not seem too general to you, I understand only those things contained within Greek works which their very authors conceded the common people to understand.

When by chance I come upon your philosophers, led astray by the titles of their books which are titled with common and famous names—on virtue, justice, goodness, pleasure—I do not understand any word: they are so bound up in precise and abbreviated argumentation. I don’t even try to manage the Greek poets at all since they speak an entirely different language. No, I lose myself, as I have said, with those who write histories or present speeches which they wrote, or who speak in a what that they don’t seem to wish that we be the most well educated men, but merely conversant.”

Quid ergo? Est, fatebor, aliquid tamen: ut, cum in sole ambulem, etiamsi aliam ob causam ambulem, fieri natura tamen, ut colorer: sic, cum istos libros ad Misenum (nam Romae vix licet) studiosius legerim, sentio illorum tactu orationem meam quasi colorari. Sed ne latius hoc vobis patere videatur, haec duntaxat in Graecis intellego, quae ipsi, qui scripserunt, voluerunt vulgo intellegi. In philosophos vestros si quando incidi, deceptus indicibus librorum, quod sunt fere inscripti de rebus notis et illustribus, de virtute, de iustitia, de honestate, de voluptate, verbum prorsus nullum intellego: ita sunt angustis et concisis disputationibus illigati. Poetas omnino, quasi alia quadam lingua locutos, non conor attingere: cum his me (ut dixi) oblecto, qui res gestas, aut qui orationes scripserunt suas, aut qui ita loquuntur, ut videantur voluisse nobis, qui non sumus eruditissimi, esse familiars…

 

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A Good Exercise for Debate: Reading Aloud

Plutarch, “Advice on Keeping Well”, Moralia  130 C-D

“This is why we need to make ourselves accustomed to this exercise and practiced for it by speaking at length. But if there is some worry that our body is lacking or is worn out, then we can read aloud or recite. For reading has the same relation to debate that a ride in a wagon has to exercise—it moves softly on the carriage of another’s words and bears the voice in different direction. But debate provides in addition struggle and strength, since the mind enters into the affair with the body. We should be wary, however, of extremely emotional or spasmodic shouting.”

διὸ δεῖ μάλιστα ποιεῖν ἑαυτοὺς τούτῳ τῷ γυμνασίῳ συνήθεις καὶ συντρόφους ἐνδελεχῶς λέγοντας, ἂν δ᾿ ᾖ τις ὑποψία τοῦ σώματος ἐνδεέστερον ἢ κοπωδέστερον ἔχοντος, ἀναγιγνώσκοντας ἢ ἀναφωνοῦντας. ὅπερ γὰρ αἰώρα πρὸς γυμνάσιόν ἐστι, τοῦτο πρὸς διάλεξιν ἀνάγνωσις, ὥσπερ ἐπ᾿ ὀχήματος ἀλλοτρίου λόγου κινοῦσα μαλακῶς καὶ διαφοροῦσα πράως τὴν φωνήν. ἡ δὲ διάλεξις ἀγῶνα καὶ σφοδρότητα προστίθησιν, ἅμα τῆς Dψυχῆς τῷ σώματι συνεπιτιθεμένης. κραυγὰς μέντοι περιπαθεῖς καὶ σπαραγμώδεις εὐλαβητέον

 

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Fresco, Villa of the Mysteries (Pompeii)

Destroying Pentheus Only Once

Lucian, The Ignorant Book Collector 19

“When Demetrius the Cynic observed an uneducated person reading the most beautiful book in Korinth—and I think it was Euripides’ Bacchae near the spot where the messenger is narrating what happened to Pentheus and what Agave did—he grabbed the book and tore it up, saying, “It is better for me to shred Pentheus just once than for you to do it over and over again.”

Δημήτριος δὲ ὁ Κυνικὸς ἰδὼν ἐν Κορίνθῳ ἀπαίδευτόν τινα βιβλίον κάλλιστον ἀναγιγνώσκοντα —τὰς Βάκχας οἶμαι τοῦ Εὐριπίδου, κατὰ τὸν ἄγγελον δὲ ἦν τὸν διηγούμενον τὰ τοῦ Πενθέως πάθη καὶ τὸ τῆς Ἀγαύης ἔργον—ἁρπάσας διέσπασεν αὐτὸ εἰπών, “Ἄμεινόν ἐστι τῷ Πενθεῖ ἅπαξ σπαραχθῆναι ὑπ᾿ ἐμοῦ ἢ ὑπὸ σοῦ πολλάκις.”

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Roman Fresco: Pentheus Dies Each Time You Look At It

Select Only What You Like from The Ancients

St. Basil may have set some patterns that persist to this day.

Basil the Great, To Young Men 4

“Don’t be surprised if I have discovered something pretty profitable for those of you who go each day to teachers and the sayings of ancient men in the works they have left behind them. This is the very thing I have come for the purpose of telling you, that it is not necessary that you give up to these men for good the rudders of your understanding, the way you would a ship, to follow them wherever they lead. No, accept from them only as much as is useful and recognize what should be overlooked.”

Μὴ θαυμάζετε δὲ εἰ καὶ καθ᾿ ἑκάστην ἡμέραν εἰς διδασκάλους φοιτῶσι, καὶ τοῖς ἐλλογίμοις τῶν παλαιῶν ἀνδρῶν, δι᾿ ὧν καταλελοίπασι λόγων, συγγινομένοις ὑμῖν αὐτός τι παρ᾿ ἐμαυτοῦ λυσιτελέστερον ἐξευρηκέναι φημί. τοῦτο μὲν οὖν αὐτὸ καὶ ξυμβουλεύσων ἥκω, τὸ μὴ δεῖν εἰς ἅπαξ τοῖς ἀνδράσι τούτοις, ὥσπερ πλοίου, τὰ πηδάλια τῆς διανοίας ὑμῶν παραδόντας, ᾗπερ ἂν ἄγωσι, ταύτῃ συνέπεσθαι· ἀλλ᾿ ὅσον ἐστὶ χρήσιμον αὐτῶν δεχομένους, εἰδέναι τί χρὴ καὶ παριδεῖν.

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