When I’m Dead, Y’all Can Go Screw

CW: Profanity.

Anonymous, Greek Anthology, 7.704

“When I’m dead, the earth can be fucked by fire.
It means nothing to me since I’ll be totally fine.”

Ἐμοῦ θανόντος γαῖα μιχθήτω πυρί·
οὐδὲν μέλει μοι· τἀμὰ γὰρ καλῶς ἔχει.

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.”

τοῦτο δὲ τὸ ἀρχαῖον ἐφθέγξατο· ἐμοῦ θανόντος γαῖα μιχθήτω πυρί. καὶ τὸν Πρίαμον ἐμακάριζεν, ὅτι μετὰ τῆς πατρίδος καὶ τῆς βασιλείας ἀπώλετο.

Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta
From Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta

Here’s one explanation:

Appendix Proverbiorum 2.56

“When I am dead, the earth can be fucked by fire.” Note that this [proverb is used] to express that it isn’t necessary to think or worry about the future

᾿Εμοῦ θανόντος γαῖα μιχθήτω πυρί: ὅτι οὐ δεῖ περὶ τῶν μελλόντων φροντίζειν ἢ δεδιέναι.

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:

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.

Thanks to @mwiik and @ericvonotter for this.


Injustice: A Greater Portion of Good; A Lesser Share of Evils

Demosthenes, Against Olympiodorus 46

“This is the greatest sign of all, jurors, by which you will know that this man is an unjust and selfish person.”

ὃ δὲ πάντων μέγιστόν ἐστιν, ὦ ἄνδρες δικασταί, ᾧ καὶ γνώσεσθε ταυτονὶ ὅτι ἄδικός ἐστιν καὶ πλεονέκτης ἄνθρωπος·


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1129b (Book 5)

“Let us consider now how many ways a man may be called unjust. It is indeed clear that a man who breaks laws is unjust but so is someone who is greedy and inegalitarian—thus it is clear that the just man will be law-abiding and fair. Justice, then, is lawful and fair; injustice is unlawful and unfair.

Since the unjust man someone who is greedy, he will be selfish regarding good things, not everything, but those things upon which good fortune and bad fortune rely—those things which are universally always good but not always for the same person. People pray for these things and pursue them; it is not right, however, that they pray for things which are universally good and good for them, but that they choose things that are just good for them.

The unjust man does not always choose the larger portion;for he will choose the smaller portion of bad things. But even here he is more selfish of the good because he appears to take on less evil, which is a type of good, and for that reason he seems greedy. He should be called unfair. This also embraces the common sense.”

εἰλήφθω δὴ ὁ ἄδικος ποσαχῶς λέγεται. δοκεῖ δὴ ὅ τε παράνομος ἄδικος εἶναι καὶ ὁ πλεονέκτης καὶ ἄνισος, ὥστε δῆλον ὅτι καὶ [ὁ] δίκαιος ἔσται ὅ τε νόμιμος καὶ ὁ ἴσος. τὸ μὲν δίκαιον ἄρα τὸ νόμιμον καὶ τὸ ἴσον, τὸ  δ’ ἄδικον τὸ παράνομον καὶ τὸ ἄνισον. ἐπεὶ δὲ πλεονέκτης ὁ ἄδικος, περὶ τἀγαθὰ ἔσται, οὐ πάντα, ἀλλὰ περὶ ὅσα εὐτυχία καὶ ἀτυχία, ἃ ἐστὶ μὲν ἁπλῶς ἀεὶ ἀγαθά, τινὶ δ’ οὐκ ἀεί. οἱ δ’ ἄνθρωποι ταῦτα εὔχονται καὶ διώκουσιν· δεῖ δ’ οὔ, ἀλλ’ εὔχεσθαι μὲν τὰ ἁπλῶς ἀγαθὰ καὶ αὑτοῖς ἀγαθὰ εἶναι, αἱρεῖσθαι δὲ τὰ αὑτοῖς ἀγαθά. ὁ δ’ ἄδικος οὐκ ἀεὶ τὸ πλέον αἱρεῖται, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ ἔλαττον ἐπὶ τῶν ἁπλῶς κακῶν· ἀλλ’ ὅτι δοκεῖ καὶ τὸ μεῖον κακὸν ἀγαθόν πως εἶναι, τοῦ δ’ ἀγαθοῦ ἐστὶν ἡ πλεονεξία, διὰ τοῦτο δοκεῖ πλεονέκτης εἶναι. ἔστι δ’ ἄνισος· τοῦτο γὰρ περιέχει καὶ κοινόν.


Image result for Stylized picture greek trump


Greed: Possessed by Love of Possession

Publilius Syrus, 560

“Greed considers what it wants not what is right”

Quod vult cupiditas cogitat, non quod decet

Dicta Catonis 31

“Greed always loves lies, secrets, and stealing”

Semper avarus amat mendacia furta rapinas

Seneca De Beneficiis 2.27

“Greed does not allow anyone to be grateful”

Non patitur aviditas quemquam esse gratum

De Beneficiis 2.27

“Greed always reaches beyond itself and one cannot sense his own happiness because he looks not at where he came from but instead to where he reaches.”

Ultra se cupiditas porrigit et felicitatem suam non intellegit, quia non, unde venerit, respicit, sed quo tendat.

Pliny the Younger, Letters 30.4

“Such a greed for possession has overtaken people that they seem to be owned by things rather than possess them”

Ea invasit homines habendi cupido, ut possideri magis quam possidere videantur

Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.8

“One is a slave to lust, another to greed, or ambition: all are slaves to hope, to fear. Certainly, no servitude is fouler than a voluntary one.”

alius libidini servit, alius avaritiae, alius ambitioni, omnes spei, omnes timori: et certe nulla servitus turpior quam voluntaria.

Publilius Syrus 438

“Greed loves nothing more than what is not permitted”

Nihil magis amat cupiditas quam quod non licet

Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 2r