Philosophers, Brush Your Teeth!

Apuleius, Apologia 7

“I have just noticed certain people here barely containing their laughter, probably because that last speaker was viciously attacking oral health and using the word “dentifrice” with as much anger as no one has ever used for “poison”. Why not? A Philosopher must dismiss no crime, allow nothing corrupt associated with himself, suffer no part of his body to ever be messy or smelly, especially his mouth, something people use openly and obviously all the time whether they try to kiss someone, or attempt to have a conversation, address a large group, or offer prayers in a temple.

Speech leads nearly every human deed and, as the foremost poet says, it begins “at the barrier of the teeth”. Consider someone of fairly elevated speech: he would likely say in his own way that someone who cares about speaking must attend to his mouth beyond the rest of his body because it is the entryway of the mind, the door of speech, the assembly-hall of thoughts.

For my part, I can say that nothing is less fitting to a free person who is educated well than a filthy mouth. The mouth is in that elevated part of the human body, easy to see, needed for speech. In animals, whether wild or domesticated, the mouth is lower and pointed toward feet, near food and footprints. An animal’s mouth is rarely seen except when they are dead or annoyed into biting. For a human, there is nothing you see consider more clearly either when silent or speaking.”

Vidi ego dudum vix risum quosdam tenentis, cum munditias oris videlicet orator ille aspere accusaret et dentifricium tanta indignatione pronuntiaret, quanta nemo quisquam venenum. Quidni? Crimen haud contemnendum philosopho, nihil in se sordidum sinere, nihil uspiam corporis apertum immundum pati ac foetulentum, praesertim os, cuius in propatulo et conspicuo usus homini creberrimus, sive ille cuipiam osculum ferat, seu cum quiquam sermocinetur, sive in auditorio dissertet, sive in templo preces alleget. Omnem quippe hominis actum sermo praeit, qui, ut ait poeta praecipuus, dentium muro proficiscitur. Dares nunc aliquem similiter grandiloquum: diceret suo more cum primis cui ulla fandi cura sit impensius cetero corpore os colendum, quod esset animi vestibulum et orationis ianua et cogitationum comitium. Ego certe pro meo captu dixerim nihil minus quam oris illuviem libero et liberali viro competere, est enim ea pars hominis loco celsa, visu prompta, usu facunda. Nam quidem feris et pecudibus os humile est et deorsum ad pedes deiectum, uestigio et pabulo proximum; nunquam ferme nisi mortuis aut ad morsum exasperatis conspicitur: hominis vero nihil prius tacentis, nihil saepius loquentis contemplere.

By Dupons Brüssel – “Das Album”, page 62-63, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=334108

Solon Says: Sue Bad Leaders of State

Aeschines, Against Timarchus

“[Solon] believed that someone who managed their own personal affairs badly would manage matters of state similarly. It did not seem likely to the lawgiver that that the same person who was a scoundrel in private would be a useful citizen in public. He also did not think right that a person should come to speak in public before being prepared for it, not just for words but in life.

And he also thought that advice from a good and noble person, however poorly and simply it was framed, is beneficial to those who hear it, while the words of a person who has no shame, who has made a mockery of his own body and who has shamefully managed his inheritance—well, these words he believed would never help the people who heard them, not even if they were delivered well.

This is why he keeps these kinds of people from the platform, why he forbids them from addressing the public. If someone speaks, then, not merely against these precepts but also for the sack of bribery and criminality, and if the state can no longer endure such a person, he adds “Let any citizens who desires it, and who is able, sue him…”

τὸν γὰρ τὴν ἰδίαν οἰκίαν κακῶς οἰκήσαντα, καὶ τὰ κοινὰ τῆς πόλεως παραπλησίως ἡγήσατο διαθήσειν, καὶ οὐκ ἐδόκει οἷόν τ᾿ εἶναι τῷ νομοθέτῃ τὸν αὐτὸν ἄνθρωπον ἰδίᾳ μὲν εἶναι πονηρόν, δημοσίᾳ δὲ χρηστόν, οὐδ᾿ ᾤετο δεῖν τὸν ῥήτορα ἥκειν ἐπὶ τὸ βῆμα τῶν λόγων ἐπιμεληθέντα πρότερον, ἀλλ᾿ οὐ τοῦ βίου. καὶ παρὰ μὲν ἀνδρὸς καλοῦ καὶ ἀγαθοῦ, κἂν πάνυ κακῶς καὶ ἁπλῶς ῥηθῇ, χρήσιμα τὰ λεγόμενα ἡγήσατο εἶναι τοῖς ἀκούουσι· παρὰ δὲ ἀνθρώπου βδελυροῦ, καὶ καταγελάστως μὲν κεχρημένου τῷ ἑαυτοῦ σώματι, αἰσχρῶς δὲ τὴν πατρῴαν οὐσίαν κατεδηδοκότος, οὐδ᾿ ἂν εὖ πάνυ λεχθῇ συνοίσειν ἡγήσατο τοῖς ἀκούουσι. τούτους οὖν ἐξείργει ἀπὸ τοῦ βήματος, τούτους ἀπαγορεύει μὴ δημηγορεῖν. ἐὰν δέ τις παρὰ ταῦτα μὴ μόνον λέγῃ, ἀλλὰ καὶ συκοφαντῇ καὶ ἀσελγαίνῃ, καὶ μηκέτι τὸν τοιοῦτον ἄνθρωπον δύνηται φέρειν ἡ πόλις, “Δοκιμασίαν μέν,” φησίν, “ἐπαγγειλάτω Ἀθηναίων ὁ βουλόμενος, οἷς ἔξεστιν,” ὑμᾶς δ᾿ ἤδη κελεύει

File:Portrait bust of Sophocles on Herm (known as Solon)-Uffizi.jpg
Bust Labeled “Solon” but Probably actually Sophocles. Sue Me.

Water and Dirt: A Curse

Homer, Iliad 7.97-100 [Menelaos speaking to the Achaeans]

“This is going to be a truly awful disgrace
unless some Greek goes against Hektor now.
But I wish you would all turn into water and dirt
Each of you sitting there, similarly feckless, fameless.”

ἦ μὲν δὴ λώβη τάδε γ’ ἔσσεται αἰνόθεν αἰνῶς
εἰ μή τις Δαναῶν νῦν ῞Εκτορος ἀντίος εἶσιν.
ἀλλ’ ὑμεῖς μὲν πάντες ὕδωρ καὶ γαῖα γένοισθε
ἥμενοι αὖθι ἕκαστοι ἀκήριοι ἀκλεὲς αὔτως·

Schol. bT+T ad Il.7.99

“I hope you become water and dirt”. Water and earth are elements that don’t move by their nature, but other things move through them. So, he is rebuking them in this way for their paralysis.

Or, this means that they are made of these substances and he is praying they will dissolve back into them. So Xenophanes says: “we are all made of dirt and water / and everything from earth returns to earth again.”

Or, he says this because water destroys souls.”

ὕδωρ καὶ γαῖα γένοισθε: τῶν στοιχείων ὕδωρ καὶ γῆ κατὰ φύσιν ἀκίνητα, τὰ δὲ ἄλλα κινητὰ δι’ ἑαυτῶν. ταῦτα οὖν φησι τὴν ἀκινησίαν ὀνειδίζων·

ἢ ἐξ ὧν συνεστήκασιν, εἰς ταῦτα αὐτοὺς ἀναλυθῆναι εὔχεται καὶ Ξενοφάνης πάντες γὰρ γαίης τε καὶ ὕδατος ἐκγενόμε<σ>θα· / ἐκ γῆς γὰρ †πάντα καὶ εἰς γῆν πάντα τελευτᾷ.”

ἢ ὅτι τὸ ὕδωρ τὰς ψυχὰς διαφθείρει.

A photograph of a tan colored mountain in the background with a blue lake in the foreground
Placid water on Lake Powell

Fantastic Lies (about Helen)

Isocrates, Helen 1-3

“There are some people who get puffed up if they manage to talk about something tolerably after they have themselves selected a strange and impossible subject. Men have also grown old claiming that it is impossible to say or disprove a lie or to speak two ways about the same matters. Others claim that courage, wisdom, and justice are the same thing, that we have none of these by nature, and that there is a single knowledge about them all. Others waste their time in conflicts which bring no benefit, which can only create more trouble for those who approach them.

I, if I saw that this superfluity had only just emerged in speeches and that these men were eager for honor in the novelty of what they discover, I would not be a surprised at them. But, now, who is such a late-learner that he does not know Protagoras and the sophists who were active at his time and that they left to us these types of things and speeches even more excessively composed than these? How could anyone overcome Gorgias who dared to say that nothing exists at all or Zeno who tried to demonstrate that the same things are possible and impossible or even Melissos who—although some things are countless in number—tried to provide a proof that everything is one!”

Εἰσί τινες οἳ μέγά φρονοῦσιν, ἢν ὑπόθεσιν ἄτοπον καὶ παράδοξον ποιησάμενοι περὶ ταύτης ἀνεκτῶς εἰπεῖν δυνηθῶσι· καὶ καταγεγηράκασιν οἱ μὲν οὐ φάσκοντες οἷόν τ᾿ εἶναι ψευδῆ λέγειν οὐδ᾿ ἀντιλέγειν οὐδὲ δύω λόγω περὶ τῶν αὐτῶν πραγμάτων ἀντειπεῖν, οἱ δὲ διεξιόντες ὡς ἀνδρία καὶ σοφία καὶ δικαιοσύνη ταὐτόν ἐστι, καὶ φύσει μὲν οὐδὲν αὐτῶν ἔχομεν, μία δ᾿ ἐπιστήμη καθ᾿ ἁπάντων ἐστίν· ἄλλοι δὲ περὶ τὰς ἔριδας διατρίβουσι τὰς οὐδὲν μὲν ὠφελούσας, πράγματα δὲ παρέχειν τοῖς πλησιάζουσι δυναμένας.

Ἐγὼ δ᾿ εἰ μὲν ἑώρων νεωστὶ τὴν περιεργίαν ταύτην ἐν τοῖς λόγοις ἐγγεγενημένην καὶ τούτους ἐπὶ τῇ καινότητι τῶν εὑρημένων φιλοτιμουμένους, οὐκ ἂν ὁμοίως ἐθαύμαζον αὐτῶν· νῦν δὲ τίς ἐστιν οὕτως ὀψιμαθής, ὅστις οὐκ οἶδε Πρωταγόραν καὶ τοὺς κατ᾿ ἐκεῖνον τὸν χρόνον γενομένους σοφιστάς, ὅτι καὶ τοιαῦτα καὶ πολὺ τούτων πραγματωδέστερα συγγράμματα κατέλιπον ἡμῖν; πῶς γὰρ ἄν τις ὑπερβάλοιτο Γοργίαν τὸν τολμήσαντα λέγειν ὡς οὐδὲν τῶν ὄντων ἔστιν, ἢ Ζήνωνα τὸν ταὐτὰ δυνατὰ καὶ πάλιν ἀδύνατα πειρώμενον ἀποφαίνειν, ἢ Μέλισσον ὃς ἀπείρων τὸ πλῆθος πεφυκότων τῶν πραγμάτων ὡς ἑνὸς ὄντος τοῦ παντὸς ἐπεχείρησεν ἀποδείξεις εὑρίσκειν;

Gorgias, Defense of Helen 1-2

“Kosmos for a city is a good-population; for a body it is beauty; for a soul, wisdom. For a deed, excellence; and for a word, truth. The opposition of these things would be akosmia. It is right, on the one hand, to honor a man and a woman and a deed and a city and a deed worthy of praise with praise and to lay reproach on the unworthy. For it is equally mistaken and ignorant to rebuke the praiseworthy and praise things worthy of rebuke.

It is thus necessary for the same man to speak truly and refute those who reproach Helen, a woman about whom the belief from what the poets say and the fame of her name are univocal and single-minded, that memory of sufferings. I want, by giving some reckoning in speech, to relieve her of being badly spoken, and, once I demonstrate and show that those who reproach her are liars, to protect the truth from ignorance”

(1) Κόσμος πόλει μὲν εὐανδρία, σώματι δὲ κάλλος, ψυχῆι δὲ σοφία, πράγματι δὲ ἀρετή, λόγωι δὲ ἀλήθεια· τὰ δὲ ἐναντία τούτων ἀκοσμία. ἄνδρα δὲ καὶ γυναῖκα καὶ λόγον καὶ ἔργον καὶ πόλιν καὶ πρᾶγμα χρὴ τὸ μὲν ἄξιον ἐπαίνου ἐπαίνωι τιμᾶν, τῶι δὲ ἀναξίωι μῶμον ἐπιτιθέναι· ἴση γὰρ ἁμαρτία καὶ ἀμαθία μέμφεσθαί τε τὰ ἐπαινετὰ καὶ ἐπαινεῖν τὰ μωμητά.

(2) τοῦ δ’ αὐτοῦ ἀνδρὸς λέξαι τε τὸ δέον ὀρθῶς καὶ ἐλέγξαι *** τοὺς μεμφομένους ῾Ελένην, γυναῖκα περὶ ἧς ὁμόφωνος καὶ ὁμόψυχος γέγονεν ἥ τε τῶν ποιητῶν ἀκουσάντων πίστις ἥ τε τοῦ ὀνόματος φήμη, ὃ τῶν συμφορῶν μνήμη γέγονεν. ἐγὼ δὲ βούλομαι λογισμόν τινα τῶι λόγωι δοὺς τὴν μὲν κακῶς ἀκούουσαν παῦσαι τῆς αἰτίας, τοὺς δὲ μεμφομένους ψευδομένους ἐπιδείξας καὶ δείξας τἀληθὲς [ἢ] παῦσαι τῆς ἀμαθίας.

 

 a warrior draws his sword on a modestly veiled woman in the presence of two onlookers; this scene has been identified as Menelaos' recovery of Helen after the capture of Troy. Attributed to the circle of Exekias.
Black-figure Belly Amphora with the Reclamation of Helen and Herakles and Kerberos, c. 540 BCE. Walters Art Museum

Nature vs. Nurture, or On Hands and Walls

Philostratus, Discourse II

“To me, custom and nature are not merely not opposed but they are most closely related, similar and overlapping one another. For custom is the way we approach nature and nature is our avenue to custom; we do call one the starting point and one the result: let nature be called the leader and culture the follower. Custom never would have built walls or outfitted men against them if nature hadn’t given man hands.”

ἐμοὶ δὲ νόμος καὶ φύσις οὐ μόνον οὐκ ἐναντίω φαίνεσθον, ἀλλὰ καὶ ξυγγενεστάτω καὶ ὁμοίω καὶ διήκοντε ἀλλήλοιν· νόμος τε γὰρ παριτητέος ἐς φύσιν καὶ φύσις ἐς νόμον καὶ καλοῦμεν αὐτοῖν τὸ μὲν ἀρχήν, τὸ δ’ ἑπόμενον, κεκληρώσθω δὲ ἀρχὴν μὲν φύσις, νόμος δὲ τὸ ἕπεσθαι, οὔτε γὰρ ἂν νόμος ἐτειχοποίησεν ἢ ὑπὲρ τείχους ὥπλισεν, εἰ μὴ φύσις ἔδωκεν ἀνθρώπῳ χεῖρας….

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wall_street_of_the_tombs_sacred_way_Kerameikos_Athens.jpg

Philostratus?

Judging on Aspiration not Failure

Aelius Aristedes, Reply to Plato 259-260

“Some of them certainly corrupted people while others blasphemed the gods; there were those who gave speeches which would have been better unsaid and others who produced more audacity than good sense. But it may not be the best to say that if some people use the excuse of philosophy and become scoundrels who are no better than most people or, by Zeus, even more clever at doing evil, then we should dishonor philosophy, provided that philosophy is not doing these sorts of things. Instead, we must use these things as evidence against them, that they have failed at philosophy.

In the same way, it does not make oratory worse if some people use blandishment or abuse, but we must recognize in this that they are bad at rhetoric just as the other people fail at philosophy, they all use the excuse of the noblest action to furnish themselves with the opportunity to do evil.

It would be odd if we were to judge actions of cobblers and carpenters not from their mistakes but instead from examples where they did as well as humanly possible, but we evaluate oratory not just from its greatest accomplishments, but instead according to those who do the opposite of what oratory intends.”

ὧν οἱ μὲν διέφθειραν δήπου τινάς, οἱ δ’ ἐβλασφήμησαν περὶ θεούς, οἱ δὲ λόγους ἄλλους τινὰς εἶπον, οὓς οὐκ ἄμεινον ἦν ὅλως, οἱ δὲ αὐθαδείας πλέον ἢ φρονήσεως εἰσηνέγκαντο. ἀλλὰ μὴ οὕτω βέλτιον ᾖ λέγειν, ὅτι οὐκ, εἴ τινες φιλοσοφίας προβλήματι χρώμενοι φαῦλοι καὶ μηδὲν βελτίους τῶν πολλῶν γεγόνασιν, ἢ νὴ Δία καὶ δεινότεροι κακουργεῖν, οὐ διὰ ταῦτα ἀτιμαστέον φιλοσοφίαν, ἕως ἂν φιλοσοφία μὴ τὸ τὰ τοιαῦτα ποιεῖν ᾖ, ἀλλ’ αὐτοῖς τούτοις τεκμηρίοις χρηστέον κατ’ ἐκείνων, ὅτι διημαρτήκασι φιλοσοφίας. οὐδὲ εἴ τινες, οἶμαι, κολακεύουσιν ἢ συκοφαντοῦσιν, χείρω τοῦτο ποιεῖ ῥητορικήν, ἀλλ’ ἡμαρτηκότας αὐτοὺς ῥητορικῆς ταύτῃ γε ταῦτα δεῖ δοκεῖν, ὥσπερ ἐκείνους φιλοσοφίας, ἐπὶ τῷ τοῦ καλλίστου προσχήματι τὴν τοῦ κακουργεῖν ἄδειαν ἑαυτοῖς ἐκπορίζοντας. ἄτοπον δ’ ἂν εἴη, εἰ τὰ μὲν τῶν σκυτοτόμων καὶ τῶν τεκτόνων ἔργα μὴ ἐξ ὧν ἂν διαμάρτωσι κρινοῦμεν, ἀλλ’ ἐξ ὧν ἂν ὡς δυνατὸν μάλιστα τύχωσιν, ῥητορικὴν δ’ οὐ μόνον οὐκ ἐκ τῶν κάλλιστα αὐτὴν ἀποτελεσάντων κρινοῦμεν, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐκ τῶν αὐτὰ τἀναντία πραττόντων οἷς ἡ ῥητορικὴ βούλεται.

 

Image result for medieval manuscript cobbler
Ott Norlinger (1476) from the Hausbuch of the Mendelschen Zwolfbruderstiftung (Neurenberg, Germany). Folio 96 recto

I hate Education: Let Me Compose a Poem About It

Petronius, Satyricon 4

“The fact is this: if they would tolerate the work advancing by stages, so that the studious youth were were steeped in strict reading, they shaped their minds with the sayings the wise, they were digging out words with a tireless pen, they were listening at length to words they want to imitate, and they believed that what was pleasing to children was never truly exceptional, then that old style of oratory would have the weight of its majesty.

As it is now, children play at school and our youths are mocked in public. And what is more disgusting than this, no one is willing to admit in old age whatever nonsense they learned before. But, please don’t think that I am attacking a tenet of Lucilian humility. I will put what I believe in a poem.”

Quod si paterentur laborum gradus fieri, ut studiosi iuvenes lectione severa irrigarentur, ut sapientiae praeceptis animos componerent, ut verba atroci stilo effoderent, ut quod vellent imitari diu audirent, <ut persuaderent>2 sibi nihil esse magnificum, quod pueris placeret: iam illa grandis oratio haberet maiestatis suae pondus. Nunc pueri in scholis ludunt, iuvenes ridentur in foro, et quod utroque turpius est, quod quisque perperam didicit, in senectute confiteri non vult. Sed ne me putes improbasse schedium Lucilianae humilitatis, quod sentio, et ipse carmine effingam:

Petronius Arbiter by Bodart 1707.jpg

It Is Impossible to Speak Worthily of the Dead

Epitaphios: A speech performed annually in honor of those who have died in war. See this  piece in The Conversation on Greek memorials or listen to a conversation with Arnie Arnesen.

The most famous that remains is Thucydides’ version of Perikles’ funeral oration (2.35-46).

Thucydides, 2.35

“Many of those who have spoken here already praised the one who made this speech law, that it is a noble thing to speak over the burials of those who died in war.  But honors paid in deeds for deeds performed by good men would seem to be sufficient to me—the acts which you see performed now by the public at this burial. The virtues of many should not be risked by entrusting them to the good or poor speaking of one man alone. “

‘Οἱ μὲν πολλοὶ τῶν ἐνθάδε ἤδη εἰρηκότων ἐπαινοῦσι τὸν προσθέντα τῷ νόμῳ τὸν λόγον τόνδε, ὡς καλὸν ἐπὶ τοῖς ἐκ τῶν πολέμων θαπτομένοις ἀγορεύεσθαι αὐτόν. ἐμοὶ δὲ ἀρκοῦν ἂν ἐδόκει εἶναι ἀνδρῶν ἀγαθῶν ἔργῳ γενομένων ἔργῳ καὶ δηλοῦσθαι τὰς τιμάς, οἷα καὶ νῦν περὶ τὸν τάφον τόνδε δημοσίᾳ παρασκευασθέντα ὁρᾶτε, καὶ μὴ ἐν ἑνὶ ἀνδρὶ πολλῶν ἀρετὰς κινδυνεύεσθαι εὖ τε καὶ χεῖρον εἰπόντι πιστευθῆναι.

For more….

Lysias, Epitaphios 1-3

“If I believed it were possible, men in attendance, to make clear in this speech the virtue of the men who lie here, I would complain to those who summoned me to speak after only a few days.

Εἰ μὲν ἡγούμην οἷόν τε εἶναι, ὦ ἄνδρες οἱ παρόντες ἐπὶ τῷδε τῷ τάφῳ, λόγῳ δηλῶσαι τὴν τῶν ἐνθάδε κειμένων [ἀνδρῶν] ἀρετήν, ἐμεμψάμην ἂν τοῖς ἐπαγγείλασιν ἐπ’ αὐτοῖς ἐξ ὀλίγων ἡμερῶν λέγειν·

For more…

Plato’s Menexenus (236dff), Socrates recites an epitaphios given by Aspasia:

“In deed, these men have what is required for them materially—now that they have obtained it, they proceed along the fated path: they have been carried out in common by the city and in private by their families.  But in speech it is necessary to pay out the remaining rite which custom assigns us.

῎Εργῳ μὲν ἡμῖν οἵδε ἔχουσιν τὰ προσήκοντα σφίσιν αὐτοῖς, ὧν τυχόντες πορεύονται τὴν εἱμαρμένην πορείαν, προπεμφθέντες κοινῇ μὲν ὑπὸ τῆς πόλεως, ἰδίᾳ δὲ ὑπὸ τῶν οἰκείων· λόγῳ δὲ δὴ τὸν λειπόμενον κόσμον ὅ τε νόμος προστάττει ἀποδοῦναι τοῖς ἀνδράσιν καὶ χρή.

For more…

Demosthenes, Epitaphios (speech 60)

“Since it seems right to the state to bury those lying in this grave publicly because they proved themselves noble in war and it has been assigned to me to deliver the customary speech on their behalf, I immediately began to examine how others have crafted the appropriate praise. But while I was considering and examining this, I realized that speaking worthily of the dead is one of those things that is impossible for men.”

᾿Επειδὴ τοὺς ἐν τῷδε τῷ τάφῳ κειμένους, ἄνδρας ἀγαθοὺς ἐν τῷ πολέμῳ γεγονότας, ἔδοξεν τῇ πόλει δημοσίᾳ θάπτειν καὶ προσέταξεν ἐμοὶ τὸν νομιζόμενον λόγον εἰπεῖν ἐπ’ αὐτοῖς, ἐσκόπουν μὲν εὐθὺς ὅπως τοῦ προσήκοντος ἐπαίνου τεύξονται, ἐξετάζων δὲ καὶ σκοπῶνἀξίως εἰπεῖν τῶν τετελευτηκότων ἕν τι τῶν ἀδυνάτων ηὕρισκον ὄν.

For more….

Image result for ancient greek epitaph
An epitaph

Knowing Other People: A Commencement Address

Editor’s note: As a faculty member, I attend graduation every year and hear a lot of commencement speeches. This one below, from the Humanities Commencement Ceremony of Brandeis’ School of Arts and Sciences on Sunday, May 22nd just stopped me. The author is an English and European Cultural Studies Major who took a few introductory Greek classes with me. Read through to the end. – JPC

The Speech

Dear fellow students, families, friends, and faculty, hello, good morning, and congratulations. In lieu of a conventional speech, I offer a short narrative, and invite you to indulge me:

He was surprised when they asked him to give a speech at the graduation, for he was never the speech-giving kind of student, whether in his own country or abroad elsewhere. Speeches were supposed to be given by other people – by the better, more perfect specimens of scholarship and society: people who can stand on podiums with big confident smiles and talk about the democratic values of a humanistic education. He was not one of those people; he felt satisfied to sit in the audience.

“So, what’re you gonna say?” she asked. It is midnight. He sits on a sofa outside his room. She is somewhere in Liaoning. They met on WeChat. They have never met in person. There is no one else to talk to at this hour.

“I’ve no idea,” he texted. “I’m reading speeches from last year. One of them quotes Shakespeare, another Shelley. I feel like I should do something different, maybe quote Confucius? I’m flipping through a translation of the Analects right now, but I can’t find a good passage.”

“What do you want to say?” she asked. “What is your message?”

He stops. Is it so simple? To say something, to have a message. Outside, a car arrived in the lot, a shadow with a suitcase approached the vehicle – someone is heading home for summer.

“Some speeches from the past touch on politics,” he texted. “North American politics, of course. Nothing unusual. Do you think I should go in that direction?”

“Do you have something to say in that direction?” she replied.

“Well, I can say something like: ‘Today, we live in an age of global nationalism and international mistrust, in which it is all too easy for people to perceive and prejudge each other, perhaps unconsciously, according to the country they come from, or some other group identity, thus enacting a totalizing discourse of group impressions. These are times when the value of the humanities become especially pertinent, because the humanities teach us to behold one another’s differences intimately, to confront each other, to engage the Other, in the words of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, “face-to-face”, on an individual basis. The kind of knowledge that the humanities impart us consists in precisely this ability to open up to the Other, and by doing so, ultimately, know ourselves.’”

He sends the text and waits. She does not reply. He feels hypocritical. In his three years at Brandeis, he did not do what he had just preached in that very text he had just produced, neither did he feel like it was possible. In his actual experience, people always hanged out with their own, no matter what they think they believe in, almost as if they could not help it. When he attempts to break into a different territory, its local inhabitants quickly remind him, by confused looks and bored expressions, that he is an outsider who does not really speak their language or share their jokes. It matters little if these people have read Shelley or Shakespeare.

Perhaps, he thinks, true learning is not about believing that you have become a better person, that you are that better person, but in knowing that you are not, and that there is much, still, to be known.

She does not reply. He waits. In the silence of the night, he detects a strange humming sound, as if there is a machine hidden in the darkness. He flips through the Analects. A message appears on his phone. It is from her – it is a quote:

“子曰:不患人之不己知,患不知人也。”

“‘The Master said: Do not worry that other people do not know you. But be concerned that you do not know them.’”

Zhongzhi Chen is a recent graduate of Brandeis University. He plans to attend an MFA program this Fall. He was inspired by J. M. Coetzee’s Nobel lecture for this piece.

Judging on Aspiration not Failure

Aelius Aristedes, Reply to Plato 259-260

“Some of them certainly corrupted people while others blasphemed the gods; there were those who gave speeches which would have been better unsaid and others who produced more audacity than good sense. But it may not be the best to say that if some people use the excuse of philosophy and become scoundrels who are no better than most people or, by Zeus, even more clever at doing evil, then we should dishonor philosophy, provided that philosophy is not doing these sorts of things. Instead, we must use these things as evidence against them, that they have failed at philosophy.

In the same way, it does not make oratory worse if some people use blandishment or abuse, but we must recognize in this that they are bad at rhetoric just as the other people fail at philosophy, they all use the excuse of the noblest action to furnish themselves with the opportunity to do evil.

It would be odd if we were to judge actions of cobblers and carpenters not from their mistakes but instead from examples where they did as well as humanly possible, but we evaluate oratory not just from its greatest accomplishments, but instead according to those who do the opposite of what oratory intends.”

ὧν οἱ μὲν διέφθειραν δήπου τινάς, οἱ δ’ ἐβλασφήμησαν περὶ θεούς, οἱ δὲ λόγους ἄλλους τινὰς εἶπον, οὓς οὐκ ἄμεινον ἦν ὅλως, οἱ δὲ αὐθαδείας πλέον ἢ φρονήσεως εἰσηνέγκαντο. ἀλλὰ μὴ οὕτω βέλτιον ᾖ λέγειν, ὅτι οὐκ, εἴ τινες φιλοσοφίας προβλήματι χρώμενοι φαῦλοι καὶ μηδὲν βελτίους τῶν πολλῶν γεγόνασιν, ἢ νὴ Δία καὶ δεινότεροι κακουργεῖν, οὐ διὰ ταῦτα ἀτιμαστέον φιλοσοφίαν, ἕως ἂν φιλοσοφία μὴ τὸ τὰ τοιαῦτα ποιεῖν ᾖ, ἀλλ’ αὐτοῖς τούτοις τεκμηρίοις χρηστέον κατ’ ἐκείνων, ὅτι διημαρτήκασι φιλοσοφίας. οὐδὲ εἴ τινες, οἶμαι, κολακεύουσιν ἢ συκοφαντοῦσιν, χείρω τοῦτο ποιεῖ ῥητορικήν, ἀλλ’ ἡμαρτηκότας αὐτοὺς ῥητορικῆς ταύτῃ γε ταῦτα δεῖ δοκεῖν, ὥσπερ ἐκείνους φιλοσοφίας, ἐπὶ τῷ τοῦ καλλίστου προσχήματι τὴν τοῦ κακουργεῖν ἄδειαν ἑαυτοῖς ἐκπορίζοντας. ἄτοπον δ’ ἂν εἴη, εἰ τὰ μὲν τῶν σκυτοτόμων καὶ τῶν τεκτόνων ἔργα μὴ ἐξ ὧν ἂν διαμάρτωσι κρινοῦμεν, ἀλλ’ ἐξ ὧν ἂν ὡς δυνατὸν μάλιστα τύχωσιν, ῥητορικὴν δ’ οὐ μόνον οὐκ ἐκ τῶν κάλλιστα αὐτὴν ἀποτελεσάντων κρινοῦμεν, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐκ τῶν αὐτὰ τἀναντία πραττόντων οἷς ἡ ῥητορικὴ βούλεται.

 

Image result for medieval manuscript cobbler
Ott Norlinger (1476) from the Hausbuch of the Mendelschen Zwolfbruderstiftung (Neurenberg, Germany). Folio 96 recto