“The nature of birds comes next. The largest—and also nearly of the class of wild beasts—is the ostrich of Ethiopia or Africa. They exceed a seated horseman in height and surpass them in speed. They have wings only for help in running. But are not for flight and do not rise from the earth. The ostrich’s talons, used as weapons, are similar to a deer’s hooves: they are split in two and are useful for picking up the rocks they throw with their feet at anyone who pursues them. They have a marvelous capacity for digesting whatever they swallow, but an equal amount of stupidity for believing that they they have completely hidden themselves when they put their neck in bushes, regardless of the great height of their bodies.
Ostrich eggs are amazing because of their size: some use them as bowls and use their feathers too for decorating the crests and helmets of armor.”
Sequitur natura avium, quarum grandissimi et paene bestiarum generis struthocameli Africi vel Aethiopici altitudinem equitis insidentis equo excedunt, celeritatem vincunt, ad hoc demum datis pinnis ut currentem adiuvent: cetero non sunt volucres nec a terra attolluntur.1 ungulae iis cervinis similes quibus dimicant, bisulcae et conprehendendis lapidibus utiles quos in fuga contra 2sequentes ingerunt pedibus. concoquendi sine dilectu devorata mira natura, sed non minus stoliditas in tanta reliqui corporis altitudine cum colla frutice occultaverint latere sese existimantium. praemira ex iis ova propter amplitudinem quibusdam habita pro vasis, conosque bellicos et galeas adornantes pinnae.
“These are the sayings attributed to Pythagoras: don’t mix a fire with a knife; don’t step over a balance beam; don’t sit on a bushel; don’t eat your heart; don’t help with a burden but put it on; always make your bed; don’t put a god’s image on a ring; don’t leave the outline of a pan in ashes; don’t wipe up a mess with a torch; don’t piss towards the sun; don’t walk on the highway; don’t offer your right hand too easily; don’t share your roof with swallows; don’t keep clawed birds; don’t piss or stand on your cut nails and hair; turn sharp blades away from you; when abroad, don’t turn back at the border
This is what these sayings mean: “don’t mix a fire with a knife” means not inciting the rage or swollen anger of people in power. “Don’t step over a balance beam” means don’t transgress equality and justice. “Don’t sit on a bushel” means keep both today and the future in mind since a bushel is a daily ration. “Don’t eat your heart” clearly means not wearing away your mind with troubles and grief. By saying “Don’t turn around when going abroad” Pythagoras advises people when they are leaving life not to cling to it desperately nor to be overcome by its pleasures. The logic of the rest of the sayings are similar to this and would take a while to go through.”
This statement is no less potent or poignant now than 2500 years ago. It signals the vampiric and internally apocalyptic solipsisms of the powerful and the elite. But it also engages with a universal human denial and naive narcissism that allows us to ignore and exacerbate global warming and to throw other people’s children into cages while we cherish our own. This is the voice that says only the now matters, that this quarter’s profits are more important than sustainability and justice, that today’s ends justify any kinds of means.
Unsurprisingly, it is attributed to the Roman Emperors Tiberius and Nero.
Suda tau 552 [cribbing Dio Cassius]
“And Tiberius uttered that ancient phrase, “when I am dead, the earth can be fucked with fire”, and he used to bless Priam because he died with his country and his palace.”
The saying seems to predate the Roman Emperors, however. Cicero riffs on this sentiment.
Cicero, De Finibus 3.64
“In turn, they believe that the universe is ruled by the will of the gods and that it is like a city or state shared by humans and gods and that everyone of us is a member of this universe. This is the reason that it is natural for us to put shared good before the personal. Truly, just as the laws prefer the safety of the collective over that of individuals, so too a good and wise person, obedient to the laws and not ignorant of his civic duty, pursues the advantage of the collective over that of an individual or himself.
A traitor to a state need not be hated more than one who undermines common advantage or safety on account of his own. This is why the person who faces death for the republic must be praised, because it bestows glory upon us to care more for our country than ourselves. And this is why it seems an inhuman and criminal voice when people say that they don’t care if all of everything burns when they are dead—as it is typically construed with that common Greek verse—and it is also certain true that we must care for those who will live in the future for their own sake.”
Mundum autem censent regi numine deorum eumque esse quasi communem urbem et civitatem hominum et deorum, et unumquemque nostrum eius mundi esse partem; ex quo illud natura consequi ut communem utilitatem nostrae anteponamus. Ut enim leges omnium salutem singulorum saluti anteponunt, sic vir bonus et sapiens et legibus parens et civilis offici non ignarus utilitati omnium plus quam unius alicuius aut suae consulit. Nec magis est vituperandus proditor patriae quam communis utilitatis aut salutis desertor propter suam utilitatem aut salutem. Ex quo fit ut laudandus is sit qui mortem oppetat pro re publica, quod deceat cariorem nobis esse patriam quam nosmet ipsos. Quoniamque illa vox inhumana et scelerata ducitur eorum qui negant se recusare quo minus ipsis mortuis terrarum omnium deflagratio consequatur (quod vulgari quodam versu Graeco pronuntiari solet), certe verum est etiam iis qui aliquando futuri sint esse propter ipsos consulendum.
Here’s a more genteel variation on the sentiment:
‘Après moi le déluge’.
Louis XV of France offers a lapidary (and politer) version of the sentiment.
A note about the translation: I use the English profane “fuck” for mikhthênai here for two reasons. First, mignumi is often used in periphrases or euphemism for sex. Second, I think the speaker is effecting a dismissive and aggressively narcissistic stance towards the world which will exist after his death. Such narcissism and self-absorption is so perverse and twisted and yet so utterly common as to demand obscenity and plunge us all into the painfully profane. Third, as my students, and unfortunately my children, can attest, I am profane in real life. This is in part a class issue (I lack certain refinements) but it is also part character (my slight discomfort at class mobility and playing the professional role is expressed through this minor, adolescent rebelliousness).
But, there’s also the zeitgeist. There have been complaints over the years about profanity coming from this website and twitter account. While I understand that language use can be harmful and seem inapposite, I fear that I am insufficiently sympathetic to complaints about vulgar or profane language. We are living in a perverse and obscene time. Effective language, a man once said, is when the sound is an echo of the sense.
Seneca gets the same sense, but makes it a bit more active in his Medea.
Seneca, Medea 426–428
“…The only rest
Is if I see the whole world uprooted along with my ruin.
Let everything depart with me. It is pleasing to destroy while you die.”
…Sola est quies,
mecum ruina cuncta si video obruta;
mecum omnia abeant. trahere, cum pereas, libet.