“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.”
“I confess indeed that I am obsessed with studying literature. Let this fact shame others who do not know how to make use of their books so that they can’t provide anything from their reading to common profit or to make their benefit clear in sight.
Why, moreover, should I be ashamed when I have lived so many years in such a way that my hobby never prevented me from being useful to anyone at any time and its pleasure or sleepiness never distracted me or slowed me down? In what way, then, can anyone criticize me or censure me if if I am discovered to have spent that very same amount of time in pursuing these studies as others do without blame in pursuing profit, or in celebrating festivals or games, in seeking the pleasure and rest of the body and mind, or dragging out hours in dining, gambling or ballgames?”
Ego vero fateor me his studiis esse deditum: ceteros pudeat, si qui se ita litteris abdiderunt, ut nihil possint ex his neque ad communem adferre fructum neque in aspectum lucemque proferre: me autem quid pudeat, qui tot annos ita vivo, iudices, ut a nullius umquam me tempore aut commodo aut otium meum abstraxerit aut voluptas avocarit aut denique somnus retardarit? Qua re quis tandem me reprehendat aut quis mihi iure suscenseat, si, quantum ceteris ad suas res obeundas, quantum ad festos dies ludorum celebrandos, quantum ad alias voluptates et ad ipsam requiem animi et corporis conceditur temporum, quantum alii tribuunt tempestivis conviviis, quantum denique alveolo, quantum pilae, tantum mihi egomet ad haec studia recolenda sumpsero?
Cicero, Pro Archia 16
“But if this clear profit [of studying literature] is not clear and if entertainment alone should be sought from these pursuits, I still believe that you would judge them the most humanizing and enlightening exercise of the mind.
For other activities do not partake in all times, all ages, and all places—reading literature sharpens us in youth and comforts us in old age. It brings adornment to our successes and solace to our failures. It delights when we are at home and creates no obstacle for us out in the world. It is our companion through long nights, long journeys, and months in rural retreats.”
Quod si non hic tantus fructus ostenderetur et si ex his studiis delectatio sola peteretur, tamen, ut opinor, hanc animi adversionem humanissimam ac liberalissimam iudicaretis. Nam ceterae neque temporum sunt neque aetatum omnium neque locorum: haec studia adolescentiam acuunt,1 senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur.
“There are many other examples which provide proof for this, but the clearest one of all is that from reading. In this case, if someone sets a person who is illiterate and unaccustomed to reading but not a fool and then place next to him a child who can read, give the child a book and order them to read what is written, it is clear that the man would not be able to believe that while reading one must first understand the image of each letter, then the value of its sound, and then the possible combinations with other letters, all things that require a great deal of time.
When he sees the child reading without pausing seven or five lines, he will not easily be able to believe that the child has not read the book before. He will straight out deny it if the reader observes the rhythm, the pauses, the rough breathings and the smooth breathings too. We should not bar for ourselves, then, anything which is useful because it appears to be difficult at first. No, we must use the force of habit, the means by which humans achieve all good things and even more so when it concerns the matters upon which our very safety depends.”
“And so, life passes. Each day, something is read or is written. Then, since I owe something to my friends, I eat with them–not beyond the law, as if anything is these days, but just a little short of it and clearly so. You don’t need to fear my visit at all. You’ll find a guest who eats little, but has many jokes.”
Sic igitur vivitur. cottidie aliquid legitur aut scribitur. dein, ne amicis nihil tribuamus, epulamur una non modo non contra legem, si ulla nunc lex est, sed etiam intra legem, et quidem aliquanto. qua re nihil est quod adventum nostrum extimescas. non multi cibi hospitem accipies, multi ioci.
Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 281 (XII.40)
“Well, you write that you fear that my reputation and my respect is depleted because of my mourning and I don’t understand what people are criticizing or what they expect. That I not feel grief? How’s that possible? Should I not be laid out because of it? Who was ever less paralyzed than me? When your home was lifting me up, who did I refuse? Who came and was offended?
I left from you for Astura. These pleasant folks who criticize me can’t even read the number of pages I have written. How well they would do it is another matter, but it is the kind of writing that no one with a truly depressed spirit could accomplish. So, I spend thirty days at “the garden”. Did anyone go lacking seeing me or enjoying my easy conversation?
Right now I am reading things, I am writing things even as those who are with me are managing leisure worse than I handle work. If anyone asks why I’m not at Rome it’s because it’s vacation.”
Quod scribis te vereri ne et gratia et auctoritas nostra hoc meo maerore minuatur, ego quid homines aut reprehendant aut postulent nescio. ne doleam? qui potest? ne iaceam? quis umquam minus? dum tua me domus levabat, quis a me exclusus? quis venit qui offenderet? Asturam sum a te profectus. legere isti laeti qui me reprehendunt tam multa non possunt quam ego scripsi. quam bene, nihil ad rem; sed genus scribendi id fuit quod nemo abiecto animo facere posset. triginta dies in horto fui. quis aut congressum meum aut facilitatem sermonis desideravit? nunc ipsum ea lego, ea scribo ut hi qui mecum sunt difficilius otium ferant quam ego laborem. si quis requirit cur Romae non sim: quia discessus est
Note: this is a guest post and possible first of many from the amazing Deborah Beck.
“Whenever I hear a man discoursing on virtue, or on some other form of wisdom, who is a true man and worthy of the words he says, I am hugely delighted, admiring at the same time both the speaker and how the things being said are fitting and harmonious with each other.”
Several years ago, I taught an advanced undergraduate Greek class on Homer’s Odyssey. Many of my students were vociferously indignant about the poor quality, as writing, of much of the scholarship that I asked them to read. I was unable to disagree with them, as I often feel much the same way. I suspect most professional Classicists do, whether or not they are willing to admit it. Reading Sophocles, or Livy, or Galen, or Ovid, is usually more fun than reading our colleagues’ views on these authors. The rare exceptions to the generally disappointing quality of academic writing as prose can be easily identified by the lively enthusiasm with which a book reviewer comments on the writing style of a new publication.
The summation of the BMCR review of Mimetic Contagion, by the late Robert Germany (Oxford 2016), is the exception that proves the rule: “This impeccably produced book is unpretentiously erudite; as the saying goes, much more than the sum of its (very many, ancient and modern) parts, impressively documented and arranged: literary-philological analysis and performance criticism, art-historical and anthropological inquiry, sociocultural and intellectual history. Germany regularly deploys critical theory pedagogically judiciously, painlessly introducing uninitiated readers to Benjamin, Foucault, Frazer, Gell, and Irigaray, to name some. Ultimately, Germany’s sophisticated and dense analysis, masterfully delivered in clear, serene prose is a pleasure to read.”
How often do we encounter such praise of academic writing? Not often at all. My students’ annoyance about this was a wake-up call. Why, I wondered, do we put up with so much academic writing that is so lackluster as English prose? And what can be done about it?
Sententiae Antiquae is one answer. It has tens of thousands of enthusiastic readers in large part because it helps us to explore learned matters, and complex and challenging topics, by writing about them with engaging clarity and vigor. A post on Sententiae Antiquae always sounds like a real person speaking. This is a key reason that SA has been so successful in fostering substantive conversations about difficult issues in both Classical literature and current affairs. The writing styles of SA’s contributors put out a welcome mat for anyone interested in the subject under discussion. In fact, SA models for readers that writing style is important, because writing style makes an idea both more enjoyable and more persuasive to its audiences.
An ongoing complaint about the academy in recent decades, and about the Humanities in particular, is that our scholarship has become so specialized that no one outside of a small group of experts can understand it. Specialization in and of itself, in my view, is not the main problem. This way of framing the issue creates a false dichotomy between erudition and accessibility. It allows scholars to wiggle out of the problem by making the issue one of too little knowledge on the part of someone else, instead of taking responsibility for asking necessary questions about what “erudition” should look like. At a time when many Classicists are eager for ways to bring more people into our field, a meaningful yardstick for measuring erudition is the ability to create conversations about specialized ideas in which both the learned and the not-as-learned can participate with enjoyment.
This does not mean that scholarly writing needs to be “dumbed down” in order to be appealing to a wider audience. Nor am I suggesting that everyone now writing scholarly monographs for Oxford and Cambridge should instead write general interest books. My beef is not with scholarly writing and argument per se, but with the default understanding of what constitutes good scholarly writing. In my view, the clotted and wearisome “Academic-ese” writing style that we too often equate with erudition can also be seen as laziness. It’s hard to present a scholarly argument in a clear and straightforward way that can be understood by anyone familiar with the ancient evidence. It’s much easier to write the kind of “insider baseball” footnotes that remind knowledgeable readers of scholarship they have already read, while leaving everyone else frustrated and confused. It’s easier to dismiss calls for scholarship that any devoted reader of Homer can enjoy than it is to try to write such scholarship. But this is something that scholars should be thinking about, because “more accessible scholarly writing” is one answer to the question, “how can we make our field more welcoming to more different kinds of people?”
Learning to write in a more user-friendly way is an ongoing project. Whenever I am working on a new publication, I now ask myself whether those former students of mine would be aggrieved if they were asked to read my piece. If the answer is yes, I’ve done it wrong and I should try again. If you’re not sure if you’re one of Those Writers, who are writing in Academic-ese rather than English, ask yourself some questions. How many multisyllabic Latinate abstractions have you used? Can you read one of your paragraphs aloud without stumbling or running out of breath? How many subordinate clauses does your typical sentence have? Ask a non-teacher to read your latest paper, and invite them to be brutally honest with you about the style. Then listen carefully to their answer. My students have made me a better writer, in ways that all of us would do well to think about.
“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.