The Annoying Liberal Arts, Or: Seneca Goes Full-on Bauerlain

Seneca, Moral Epistle 88

“But, truly, the knowledge of many disciplines is pleasurable”. Ok, then, let’s keep only what is necessary from these arts. Do you think that the person who considers superficial matters equal to useful ones and for this reason makes his home a museum of expensive products is reprehensible but not the man who is obsessed with the superfluous aspects of academia? To want to know more than is enough is a kind of excessive delusion.

Why? Well, this extreme pursuit of the liberal arts makes people annoying, wordy, bad-mannered, and overly self-satisfied, even though they have not learned the basics because they pursue the useless.

The scholar Didymus wrote four thousand books. I would pity him if had only read that many useless works. In these books he searched for Homer’s homeland, the real mother of Aeneas, whether Anacreon is more licentious or just drunk, whether Sappho was promiscuous and other various questions which, if you learned them, would have been necessarily forgotten. Go on, don’t say life is long. No, when you turn to your own people too, I will show you many things which should be pruned back with an ax.”

“At enim delectat artium notitia multarum.” Tantum itaque ex illis retineamus, quantum necessarium est. An tu existimas reprendendum, qui supervacua usibus conparat et pretiosarum rerum pompam in domo explicat, non putas eum, qui occupatus est in supervacua litterarum supellectile? Plus scire velle quam sit satis, intemperantiae genus est.

Quid? Quod ista liberalium artium consectatio molestos, verbosos, intempestivos, sibi placentes facit et ideo non discentes necessaria, quia supervacua didicerunt. Quattuor milia librorum Didymus grammaticus scripsit. Misererer, si tam multa supervacua legisset. In his libris de patria Homeri quaeritur, in his de Aeneae matre vera, in his libidinosior Anacreon an ebriosior vixerit, in his an Sappho publica fuerit, et alia, quae erant dediscenda, si scires. I nunc et longam esse vitam nega. Sed ad nostros quoque cum perveneris, ostendam multa securibus recidenda.

These are themes close to the old man’s heart, elsewhere too:

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 13

“This sickness used to just afflict the Greeks, to discover the number of oars Odysseus possessed, whether the Iliad was written before the Odyssey, whether the poems belong to the same author, and other matters like this which, if you keep them to yourself, cannot please your private mind; but if you publish them, you seem less learned than annoying.”

Graecorum iste morbus fuit quaerere, quem numerum Ulixes remigum habuisset, prior scripta esset Ilias an Odyssia, praeterea an eiusdem essent auctoris, alia deinceps huius notae, quae sive contineas, nihil tacitam conscientiam iuvant sive proferas, non doctior videaris sed molestior.

Seneca, Moral Epistle 108

“But some error comes thanks to our teachers who instruct us how to argue but not how to live; some error too comes from students, who bring themselves to teachers not for the nourishing of the soul, but the cultivation of our wit. Thus what was philosophy has been turned into philology.”

Sed aliquid praecipientium vitio peccatur, qui nos docent disputare, non vivere, aliquid discentium, qui propositum adferunt ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium. Itaque quae philosophia fuit, facta philologia est.

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 ca. 1350 | The Morgan Library & Museum

“Give the Child a Book and Order Them to Read”

Polybius, Histories 10.47 7-12

“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.”

τοῦ δὲ τοιούτου λόγου παραδείγματα μὲν πολλὰ καὶ ἕτερα πρὸς πίστιν, ἐναργέστατον δὲ τὸ γινόμενον ἐπὶ τῆς ἀναγνώσεως. ἐπὶ γὰρ ἐκείνης, εἴ τις παραστησάμενος ἄνθρωπον ἄπειρον μὲν καὶ ἀσυνήθη γραμματικῆς, τἄλλα δ᾿ ἀγχίνουν, κἄπειτα παιδάριον ἕξιν ἔχον παραστήσας καὶ δοὺς βυβλίον κελεύοι λέγειν τὰ γεγραμμένα, δῆλον ὡς οὐκ ἂν δύναιτο πιστεῦσαι διότι <δεῖ> πρῶτον ἐπὶ τὰς ὄψεις τὰς ἑνὸς ἑκάστου τῶν γραμμάτων ἐπιστῆσαι τὸν ἀναγινώσκοντα, δεύτερον ἐπὶ τὰς δυνάμεις, τρίτον ἐπὶ τὰς πρὸς ἄλληλα συμπλοκάς, ὧν ἕκαστον ποσοῦ χρόνου τινὸς δεῖται.διόπερ ὅταν ἀνεπιστάτως θεωρῇ τὸ παιδάριον ὑπὸ τὴν ἀναπνοὴν ἑπτὰ καὶ πέντε στίχους συνεῖρον, οὐκ ἂν εὐχερῶς δύναιτο πιστεῦσαι διότι πρότερον οὗτος οὐκ ἀνέγνωκε τὸ βυβλίον· εἰ δὲ καὶ τὴν ὑπόκρισιν καὶ τὰς διαιρέσεις, ἔτι δὲ δασύτητας καὶ ψιλότητας δύναιτο συσσῴζειν, οὐδὲ τελέως. διόπερ οὐκ ἀποστατέον οὐδενὸς τῶν χρησίμων διὰ τὰς προφαινομένας δυσχερείας, προσακτέον δὲ τὴν ἕξιν, ᾗ πάντα τὰ καλὰ γίνεται θηρατὰ τοῖς ἀνθρώποις, ἄλλως τε καὶ περὶ τῶν τοιούτων, ἐν οἷς πολλάκις κεῖται τὸ συνέχον τῆς σωτηρίας.

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Freed By Literature, Teaching Children for Free

Suetonius, Lives of Illustrious Men: On Grammarians 13

“Staberius Eros, who was bought with his own money at a public auction and was then freed because of his dedication to literature, taught Brutus and Cassius, among others.

There are those who report that he was so noble that during the Sullan period he accepted the children of proscribed men into his school free and without any additional payment.”

XIII. Staberius Eros, suomet aere emptus de catasta et propter litterarum studium manumissus, docuit inter ceteros Brutum et Cassium. Sunt qui tradant tanta eum honestate praeditum, ut temporibus Sullanis proscriptorum liberos gratis et sine mercede ulla in disciplinam receperit.

 

  1.  He taught the republican assassins.
  2. He taught children of political assassinations for free.
  3. Staberius Eros sounds like a good man.
A Roman teacher home-schooling, about 200 AD
Image found here

What Does Philosophy Teach? the Difference Between Knowing Things and How to Think

A warning for schools that might not think philosophy is important

Heraclitus, fr. 40

“Knowing much doesn’t teach you how to think.”

πολυμαθίη νόον ἔχειν οὐ διδάσκει

Dio Chrysostom, Orat. 70.10

“Knowing these things does not make a person’s soul better or preserve it from mistakes. But someone who pursues philosophy and has a share of its learning could never rebel against the best things, nor, because he neglected them, would he prefer something shameful or common instead, or choose to be lazy, or to eat constantly and be drunk.

For to fail to wonder at this things and to cleanse your soul of desire for them is the opposite—instead, philosophy is learning how to hate them and dismiss them. Nevertheless, there’s nothing to stop someone from claiming to be a philosopher and to be an impostor and deceive himself and others”

ὸ γὰρ ταῦτα ἐπίστασθαι οὐδὲν ποιεῖ βελτίω τὴν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ψυχὴν οὐδὲ ἀποτρέπει τῶν ἁμαρτημάτων· φιλοσοφίᾳ δὲ προσέχων τις καὶ μετασχὼν τούτου τοῦ μαθήματος οὐκ ἄν ποτε ἀποσταίη τῶν βελτίστων, οὐδὲ τούτων ἀμελήσας αἰσχρόν τι καὶ φαῦλον προέλοιτ᾿ ἂν πράττειν οὐδὲ ἀργεῖν καὶ ὀψοφαγεῖν καὶ μεθύσκεσθαι. τὸ γὰρ ταῦτα μὴ θαυμάζειν καὶ τὴν τούτων ἐπιθυμίαν ἐξαιρεῖν τῆς ψυχῆς καὶ τοὐναντίον εἰς μῖσος αὐτῶν καὶ κατάγνωσιν προάγειν φιλοσοφία ἐστίν. τὸ δέ γε φῆσαι φιλοσοφεῖν καὶ ἀλαζονεύεσθαι καὶ αὑτὸν ἐξαπατῆσαι καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους οὐδὲν ἴσως κωλύει.

Seneca, Moral Epistle 5.4

“The first thing philosophy promises is a shared communion, humanity and friendship with others. Our differences from others will keep us from this promise. We must examine that those very values through which we hope to create admiration do not become laughable and hateful”

Hoc primum philosophia promittit, sensum communem,humanitatem et congregationem. A qua professione dissimilitudo nos separabit. Videamus, ne ista, per quae admirationem parare volumus, ridicula et odiosa sint.

 

Gnomologium Vaticanum 289

“Erasistratos [the doctor] used to say that medicine was philosophy’s sister: one treats maladies of the spirit, the other treats those of the body.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς τὴν ἰατρικὴν τῆς φιλοσοφίας ἔφησεν ἀδελφὴν εἶναι· τὴν μὲν γὰρ τὰ ψυχικά, τὴν δὲ τὰ σωματικὰ θεραπεύειν ἀῤῥωστήματα.

 

Epictetus, Encheiridion 22

“If you desire to study philosophy, prepare to be mocked because many people will ridicule you”

Εἰ φιλοσοφίας ἐπιθυμεῖς, παρασκευάζου αὐτόθεν ὡς καταγελασθησόμενος, ὡς καταμωκησομένων σου πολλῶν

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Laurentius de Voltolina

The Strong and the Weak: Reading Some Thucydides

“These well-known speeches have so many unclear and odd phrases that they barely make sense….”

Ipsae illae contiones ita multas habent obscuras abditasque sententias vix ut intellegantur– Cicero, Orator 9.31

“One could easily count the number of people who are able to understand all of Thucydides, and even these people need to rely on a commentary from time to time.”

εὐαρίθμητοι γάρ τινές εἰσιν οἷοι πάντα τὰ Θουκυδίδου συμβαλεῖν, καὶ οὐδ’ οὗτοι χωρὶς ἐξηγήσεως γραμματικῆς ἔνια –Dionysius of Halicarnassus, On Thucydides 51:

Recently, my friend Mimi Kramer (@nhmeems) was asking about a pretty famous line from the Melian Dialogue. I looked it up and then my brain started hurting. I went to sleep, and looked again. Here are the Athenians speaking to the Melians:

Thucydides, 5.89

“Now, we ourselves will not provide a discreditable length of arguments with noble words that we rule justly because we threw off the Persians or that we are attacking now because we were done wrong by you; nor do we think that you should think you are able to persuade us by claiming either that you did not campaign with the Lakedaimonians when you are their allies or that you did us no harm. No, we each should say what we think is possible to accomplish in truth, because we know that what is just is judged in human reasoning from equal compulsion: those who are in power do what they can and those who are weak allow it.”

ἡμεῖς τοίνυν οὔτε αὐτοὶ μετ᾽ ὀνομάτων καλῶν, ὡς ἢ δικαίως τὸν Μῆδον καταλύσαντες ἄρχομεν ἢ ἀδικούμενοι νῦν ἐπεξερχόμεθα, λόγων μῆκος ἄπιστον παρέξομεν, οὔθ᾽ ὑμᾶς ἀξιοῦμεν ἢ ὅτι Λακεδαιμονίων ἄποικοι ὄντες οὐ ξυνεστρατεύσατε ἢ ὡς ἡμᾶς οὐδὲν ἠδικήκατε λέγοντας οἴεσθαι πείσειν, τὰ δυνατὰ δ᾽ ἐξ ὧν ἑκάτεροι ἀληθῶς φρονοῦμεν διαπράσσεσθαι, ἐπισταμένους πρὸς εἰδότας ὅτι δίκαια μὲν ἐν τῷ ἀνθρωπείῳ λόγῳ ἀπὸ τῆς ἴσης ἀνάγκης κρίνεται, δυνατὰ δὲ οἱ προύχοντες πράσσουσι καὶ οἱ ἀσθενεῖς ξυγχωροῦσιν.

Here are some translations of the last few phrases:

Rex Warner: “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept”.

Benjamin Jowett: “the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must”.

Thomas Hobbes “They that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get”

The recent translation below, to my taste, does a much better job of not forcing a parallelism into the objects of the last two phrases

Johanna Hanink (How to Think about War, 2019: 169): “We need to accomplish what we can on the basis of what we really think, each side fully aware that justice is only a factor in human decisions when the parties are on equal footing. Those in positions of power do what their power permits, while the weak have no choice but to accept it.”

The last phrases cause some fits because there is no clear object for the verb ξυγχωροῦσιν. Warner, Jowett, and Hobbes seem to have taken δυνατὰ with both πράσσουσι and ξυγχωροῦσιν. While Greek (and Thucydides) is certainly capable of implying this, I think Hanink’s translation is much better for this.

When I try to teach Greek prose analysis to students, I do what I learned from Hardy Hansen (yes, the Hardy Hansen): Kola kai kommata! Break the sentences into levels of subordination and try to find the rhythm and parallels. This speech is actually kind of simple on a structural level (for Thucydides). What makes it bedeviling are some of the individual phrases. I have moved a few phrases to show how the sense works:

ἡμεῖς τοίνυν οὔτε αὐτοὶ μετ᾽ ὀνομάτων καλῶν [λόγων μῆκος ἄπιστον παρέξομεν]

ὡς ἢ δικαίως τὸν Μῆδον καταλύσαντες ἄρχομεν

ἀδικούμενοι νῦν ἐπεξερχόμεθα,

οὔθ᾽ ὑμᾶς ἀξιοῦμεν [λέγοντας οἴεσθαι πείσειν]

ἢ ὅτι Λακεδαιμονίων ἄποικοι ὄντες οὐ ξυνεστρατεύσατε

ἢ ὡς ἡμᾶς οὐδὲν ἠδικήκατε

τὰ δυνατὰ δ᾽ ἐξ ὧν ἑκάτεροι ἀληθῶς φρονοῦμεν διαπράσσεσθαι,

ἐπισταμένους πρὸς εἰδότας [=acc. Subj of infinitive διαπράσσεσθαι in indirect discourse]

ὅτι δίκαια μὲν ἐν τῷ ἀνθρωπείῳ λόγῳ ἀπὸ τῆς ἴσης ἀνάγκης κρίνεται,

δυνατὰ δὲ οἱ προύχοντες πράσσουσι καὶ οἱ ἀσθενεῖς ξυγχωροῦσιν.

I am really unsure if it is possible to convey the [forced?] antithesis between δίκαια μὲν and δυνατὰ δὲ in English! (Or what about the repetition τὰ δυνατὰ…δυνατὰ δὲ ?). But, you know, Thucydides is trying to give an idea of the kinds of things people were likely to say….

Thucydides, 1.22

“In respect to however many speeches individuals made, either when they were about to start the war or were already in it, it is hard for me to replicate with precision what was said—and this applies both to the things I heard myself and those from people reported them to me from elsewhere. So the speeches are presented as each speaker would seem to speak most appropriately about the material at hand, and when I am able to, as close as possible to the total sense of what was actually said.”

Καὶ ὅσα μὲν λόγῳ εἶπον ἕκαστοι ἢ μέλλοντες πολεμήσειν ἢ ἐν αὐτῷ ἤδη ὄντες, χαλεπὸν τὴν ἀκρίβειαν αὐτὴν τῶν λεχθέντων διαμνημονεῦσαι ἦν ἐμοί τε ὧν αὐτὸς ἤκουσα καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοθέν ποθεν ἐμοὶ ἀπαγγέλλουσιν· ὡς δ᾿ ἂν ἐδόκουν μοι ἕκαστοι περὶ τῶν αἰεὶ παρόντων τὰ δέοντα μάλιστ᾿ εἰπεῖν, ἐχομένῳ ὅτι ἐγγύτατα τῆς ξυμπάσης γνώμης τῶν ἀληθῶς λεχθέντων, οὕτως εἴρηται·

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Some Cool Projects from Greek Classes

Zenobius 1.89

“The doors of the muses are open”: a proverb applied to those readily acquiring the best things in their education.”

᾿Ανεῳγμέναι Μουσῶν θύραι: ἐπὶ τῶν ἐξ ἑτοίμου λαμβανόντων τὰ κάλλιστα τῶν ἐν παιδείᾳ.

I have shared some of my successes and failures from Greek Classes before on this site–I like to celebrate student achievements where I can and also share the little bit I learn about trying to get out of their way while they are in the business of actually learning. Two of my colleagues at other universities have shared some of their student projects this semester, and I think both projects deserve wider notice.

Podcasting the Iliad

Dr. Deborah Beck at the University of Texas had her students produce podcasts on specific passages from Homer’s Iliad. (Deborah has created a great list of instructions she is happy to share with anyone who contacts her.) Each podcast lasts about 12 minutes and can be listened to in sequence or as a standalone piece. The podcasts started as class presentations and were be expanded with reflections on the process of preparing a class as well as the content. The podcasts are produced by the students and they are of a fine quality–they are listenable, personable and enjoyable. The discussions are deep and indicative of sustained and meaningful engagements with the text. After just a few minutes of listening, I became convinced that this is a project worth repeating.

Dr. Beck starts the project off herself with a nice introduction and a discussion of Iliad 22.199-213. In looking at Hektor’s flight from Achilles provides her an opportunity to think about divine engagement in the war “helps to …make the Iliad a universal story of loss and war rather than a more simplistic and less interesting victory song of the Greeks.”

The first student presentation by Ethan Russo looks at Achilles’ reflection on Hektor and his treatment of the body. Ethan emphasizes the emotive experience of reading the passage out-loud as a method in re-embodying the text. The third episode turns to Andromache’s laments for Hektor and how the narrator characterizes her ignorance (“evoking the distance between Andromache’s expectations and reality”). Sam Ross’s reflections on presenting this text in class are a personal and useful reminder of what it is like for anyone to plan a class.

Altogether the podcasts provide an intimate view of the tools and assumptions that shape the way we read Homer together. Claudia Cockerell brings us to the beginning of book 23 in the 4th episode and asks us to think about the catharsis of the coming funeral. She starts with a reading of the appearance of Patroklos at the beginning of the book and “the fact that Patroklos thinks they will be able to embrace one more time further underlines how little he knows of the current situation”. Claudia communicates her own deep conflict in witnessing the dream sequence and being unsure of which character deserves our pity.

In Episode 5, Austin McDow  expands on the simile which precedes Priam’s supplication of Achilles in the middle of book 24 (24.424-506). Austin does a great job of invoking the basic themes of Priam’s katabasis before turning to the simile–he summarizes how his fellow students responded to his simile and the potentially ungovernable range of responses to such a charged moment.

In Episode 6, Rachel Pritchett focuses on Achilles’ response to Priam’s request–she surveys each of Achilles’ speeches in book 24 to show how each one of them emphasizes “important insights into the character’s worldview, emotions, and sympathies.” Staying with this movement, Trey Timson uses Episode 7 to talk about Achilles’ myth of Niobe in book 24. This paradeigma (a hero’s telling of a previous myth for a specific purpose) is one of the more hotly debated topics in Homeric scholarship.  Trey brings together multiple interpretations and the conventional tale to bear on the strangeness and power of this moment. He notes smartly that ancient audiences might not be troubled by contradictions–he sees a blend of different traditions operative at the same time. (He spends an extra bit of time focusing on the importance of sitos (“grain”) in this passage.)

Episode 8 (which comes a bit out of order) looks at the final 100 lines of the Iliad. Lauryn Hanely  provides a proud overview of the poem’s end, starting with a tangent about the importance of a three-act structure for works of art, separating the poem into three parts. For her, books 23 and 24 present the denouement of the three-part movement. Lauren goes through the powerful laments that close the epic’s final book

One of the neatest things about this project is that it is clear that the students have listened to each other both inside and outside of class and that their interpretation of the poem is a both a product of and producer of a community, the very thing the Homeric poems are too.

Gnomologium Vaticanum, 469

 [Plato] used to say that someone being educated needs three things: ability, practice and time.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἔλεγεν ὅτι ὁ παιδευόμενος τριῶν τούτων χρῄζει· φύσεως, μελέτης, χρόνου.

Lysias Puppet Show

Dr. Suzanne Lye’s Greek class at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill did a puppet show based on Lysias’ “Murder of Eratosthenes”.

Ok, this is awesome. Puppets? Murder? There is something for everyone! In all seriousness, it is a great exercise for teamwork, pronunciation, and a deeper understanding of the speech. The show replays part of the case–this is some Law and Order stuff here–which means students have to investigate material culture and the legal background more extensively than one might in a typical class.

If you have any great projects with an online presence, let me know. I would be happy to share them.

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Stob. 2.31.38

“Noble Socrates reproached fathers who did not teach their sons and then, when they were destitute, took their sons to court and sued them as ungrateful because they did not support their parents. He said that the fathers were expecting something impossible: those who have not learned just actions are incapable of performing them”

Σωκράτης ὁ γενναῖος ᾐτιᾶτο τῶν πατέρων ἐκείνους, ὅσοι <μὴ> παιδεύσαντες αὑτῶν τοὺς υἱεῖς, εἶτα ἀπορούμενοι ἦγον ἐπὶ τὰς ἀρχὰς τοὺς νεανίσκους καὶ ἔκρινον αὐτοὺς ἀχαριστίας, ὅτι οὐ τρέφονται ὑπ᾿ αὐτῶν. εἶπε γὰρ ἀδύνατον ἀξιοῦν τοὺς πατέρας· μὴ γὰρ οἵους τε εἶναι τοὺς μὴ μαθόντας τὰ δίκαια ποιεῖν αὐτά.