Procrastination: A Greek and Roman Tradition

Our word ‘procrastination’ is pretty much a direct borrowing from Latin (first attested in English in 1548, according to the OED–we really delayed in adopting it!). There was also a brief-lived adaptation of Latin cunctatio (delay) in English cunctation, cunctatory, cunctatious (etc.) but, thankfully, that fell into disuse. Eventually.

Here are some Greek and Roman thoughts on delay:

From the Suda:

Ἀμβολία: ἡ ὑπέρθεσις: Hesitation: postponement
Ἀναβάλλειν: To Delay
Ἀνάθεσις: ἡ ὑπέρθεσις: A delay: postponement
Διαμέλλει: ἀναβολῇ χρῆται: He/she put something off: to employ procrastination.

A few proverbs from the Suda

“The wings of Daidalos”: used of those who employ delay because they lack a prosthetic.

Δαιδάλου πτερά: ἐπὶ τῶν δι’ ἀπορίαν προσθήκης χρωμένων παρελκύσει.

“The hedgehog would put off childbirth.” This proverb is applied to situations that become worse with delay”

Ἐχῖνος τὸν τόκον ἀναβάλλῃ: λέγεται ἐφ’ ὧν τὸ ἀναβάλλεσθαι πρὸς χείρονος γίνεται.

Image result for Medieval manuscript hedgehog

Terence, Andria 206

“Dave, this is no place for sluggishness or procrastination.”

Dave, nil locist segnitiae neque socordiae,

Propertius, 1.12

“Why can’t you stop flinging a charge of laziness at me—
The claim that Rome, Ponticus, is making me procrastinate?”

Quid mihi desidiae non cessas fingere crimen,
quod faciat nobis, Pontice, Roma moram?

Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 18

“For when beauty, wealth and sex converge upon you, you better not sit or procrastinate!”

κάλλος γὰρ καὶ πλοῦτος καὶ ἔρως εἰ συνῆλθον ἐπὶ σέ, οὐχ ἕδρας οὐδὲ ἀναβολῆς

Cicero, Letters (to Atticus) 10.9

“Fearing this, I fell into this delay. But I might achieve everything if I hurry—if I procrastinate, I lose.”

hoc verens in hanc tarditatem incidi. sed adsequar omnia si propero: si cunctor, amitto.

Cicero, Letters to Friends (Caelius Rufus to Cicero, 87)

“You know how slow and barely effective Marcellus is. And Servius too, the procrastinator….”

nosti Marcellum, quam tardus et parum efficax sit, itemque Servium, quam cunctator

Thucydides, 2.18

“The Peloponnesians believed that when they arrived they would have captured everything outside still immediately, except for his procrastination…”

καὶ ἐδόκουν οἱ Πελοποννήσιοι ἐπελθόντες ἂν διὰ τάχους πάντα ἔτι ἔξω καταλαβεῖν, εἰ μὴ διὰ τὴν ἐκείνου μέλλησιν

Demosthenes, Second Olynthiac 23

“It is no surprise that Philip, when he goes on campaign himself, toiling and present at every event, overlooking no opportunity or season, outstrips us as we procrastinate, vote on things, and make official inquiries.”

οὐ δὴ θαυμαστόν ἐστιν, εἰ στρατευόμενος καὶ πονῶν ἐκεῖνος αὐτὸς καὶ παρὼν ἐφ᾿ ἅπασι καὶ μήτε καιρὸν μήθ᾿ ὥραν παραλείπων ἡμῶν μελλόντων καὶ ψηφιζομένων καὶ πυνθανομένων περιγίγνεται.

Plato, Critias 108d

“I need to do this already, I can’t procrastinate anymore!”

τοῦτ᾿ οὖν αὐτὸ ἤδη δραστέον, καὶ μελλητέον οὐδὲν ἔτι.

Minucius Felix, Octavius 13

“Shouldn’t everyone should respect and imitate the procrastination of Simonides, the lyric poet? When he was asked by the tyrant Hiero what he thought about the nature of the gods, first he asked for a day to think about it. On the next day, he asked for two more days. And he requested another two when reminded again!

Finally, when the tyrant asked the cause of so much delay, he responded that to him “the truth became as much more obscure as the time spent pursuing it”. To my taste, matters that are uncertain should be let as they are. When so many impressive minds disagree, decisions should not be made rashly or speedily for either side to avoid entertaining an old woman’s superstition or the loss of all religion.”

Simonidis Melici nonne admiranda omnibus et sectanda cunctatio? Qui Simonides, cum de eo, quid et quales arbitraretur deos, ab Hierone tyranno quaereretur, primo deliberationi diem petiit, postridie biduum prorogavit, mox alterum tantum admonitus adiunxit. Postremo, cum causas tantae morae tyrannus inquireret, respondit ille ‘quod sibi, quanto inquisitio tardior pergeret, tanto veritas fieret obscurior.’Mea quoque opinione quae sunt dubia, ut sunt, relinquenda sunt, nec, tot ac tantis viris deliberantibus, temere et audaciter in alteram partem ferenda sententia est, ne aut anilis inducatur superstitio aut omnis religio destruatur.”

Martial, 5.58

“Postumus, you always say that you will live tomorrow, tomorrow!
But that ‘tomorrow’ of yours – when does it ever come?
How far off is that ‘tomorrow’! Where is it, or where should it be sought?
Does it lie hidden among the Parthians, or the Armenians?
That ‘tomorrow’ is as old as Priam or Nestor.
For how much can ‘tomorrow’ be purchased?
You will live tomorrow, you say?
Postumus, even living today is too late;
he is the wise man, who lived yesterday.

Cras te uicturum, cras dicis, Postume, semper:
dic mihi, cras istud, Postume, quando uenit?
Quam longe cras istud! ubi est? aut unde petendum?
Numquid apud Parthos Armeniosque latet?
Iam cras istud habet Priami uel Nestoris annos.              5
Cras istud quanti, dic mihi, possit emi?
Cras uiues? Hodie iam uiuere, Postume, serum est:
ille sapit quisquis, Postume, uixit heri.

“The Ascension of Fools” Some Ancient Comments on Stupidity

μωρολογία: properly, “stupid-talking” or “the talk of fools”. But why not: “the science of stupidity”?

Sophocles, fr. 924

“Stupidity is a terrible opponent to wrestle”
ὡς δυσπάλαιστόν <ἐστιν> ἀμαθία κακόν

Terence, Phormio, 659-660

“Whether I claim he does this because of stupidity or

malice—whether this is a knowing plot, or incompetence, I am unsure.”

utrum stultitia facere ego hunc an malitia
dicam, scientem an imprudentem, incertu’ sum.

Sophocles, fr. 925

“Stupidity really is evil’s sibling”

ἡ δὲ μωρία
μάλιστ᾿ ἀδελφὴ τῆς πονηρίας ἔφυ

Suetonius, Divus Claudius 38

“But he did not stay quiet even about his own stupidity: but claimed that he had faked it on purpose under Gaius because he would have not escaped and advanced to his eventual position otherwise—and that this was supported by certain oracles. But he persuaded no one. And after a brief time, a book was published with the title “The Ascension of Fools” which posited that no one can pretend stupidity.”

Ac ne stultitiam quidem suam reticuit simulatamque a se ex industria sub Gaio, quod aliter evasurus perventurusque ad susceptam stationem non fuerit, quibusdam oratiunculis testatus est; nec tamen49 persuasit, cum intra breve tempus liber editus sit, cui index erat μωρῶν ἐπανάστασις, argumentum autem stultitiam neminem fingere.

Plutarch, Rational Beasts 998a

“Note that a lack of intelligence or stupidity in some animals emerges in contrast with the abilities and sharpness of others as you might compare an ass or a sheep with a fox, a wolf or a bee. It would be the same if you would compare Polyphemos or that idiot Koroibos to your grandfather Autolykos. For I do not think that there is so great a difference between beasts as there is between individual people in thinking, using reason, and in memory.”

ἐννόησον δ᾿ ὅτι τὰς ἐνίων ἀβελτερίας καὶ βλακείας ἐλέγχουσιν ἑτέρων πανουργίαι καὶ δριμύτητες, ὅταν ἀλώπεκι καὶ λύκῳ καὶ μελίττῃ παραβάλῃς ὄνον καὶ πρόβατον· ὥσπερ εἰ σαυτῷ τὸν Πολύφημον ἢ τῷ πάππῳ σου τῷ Αὐτολύκῳ τὸν Κόροιβον ἐκεῖνον τὸν μωρόν οὐ γὰρ οἶμαι θηρίου πρὸς θηρίον ἀπόστασιν εἶναι τοσαύτην, ὅσον ἄνθρωπος ἀνθρώπου τῷ φρονεῖν καὶ λογίζεσθαι καὶ μνημονεύειν ἀφέστηκεν.

Andocides, On His Return 2

“These men must be the dumbest of all people or they are the most inimical to the state. If they believe that it is also better for their private affairs when the state does well, then they are complete fools in pursuing something opposite to their own advantage right now. If they do not believe that they share common interests with you, then they must be enemies of the state”

δεῖ γὰρ αὐτοὺς ἤτοι ἀμαθεστάτους εἶναι πάντων ἀνθρώπων, ἢ τῇ πόλει ταύτῃ δυσμενεστάτους. εἰ μέν γε νομίζουσι τῆς πόλεως εὖ πραττούσης καὶ τὰ ἴδια σφῶν αὐτῶν ἄμεινον ἂν φέρεσθαι, ἀμαθέστατοί εἰσι τὰ ἐναντία νῦν τῇ ἑαυτῶν ὠφελείᾳ σπεύδοντες· εἰ δὲ μὴ ταὐτὰ ἡγοῦνται σφίσι τε αὐτοῖς συμφέρειν καὶ τῷ ὑμετέρῳ κοινῷ, δυσμενεῖς ἂν τῇ πόλει εἶεν·

Seneca the Elder, Suasoriae, 21

“A special recognition for stupidity needs to be given to the rhetorician Corvus who said, “Since Xerxes is already sailing against us on his sea, shouldn’t we flee before the earth is taken from us””

Corvo rhetori testimonium stuporis reddendum est, qui dixit: “quidni, si iam Xerses ad nos suo mari navigat, fugiamus, ntequam nobis terra subripiatur?”

Image result for ancient greek stupidity

Back to School, Fools: You Were Made For Learning!

“Who would not be made dull if he had to bear a single teacher of a single science throughout the entire day?”

Quis vero non obtundatur, si per totum diem unius artis unum magistrum ferat?

-Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, de Liberorum Educatione, chp. 95

 

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, de Liberorum Educatione cp.6

“We encounter few, however, who are unteachable by nature. For just as birds (as Quintilian notes) are born for flying, and horses for running, and beasts for savagery, so too are cunning and mental activity the proper sphere of humanity. Dull and ineducable people are therefore born no more according to nature than are prodigious and remarkable bodies are in monsters. And though one person might excel another in natural talent, there is no one to be found who cannot attain something with a bit of application.”

“Pauci tamen reperiuntur quibus natura indocilis est. Sicut enim aves ad volatum (Quintilianus ait), equi ad cursum, as saevitiam ferae gignuntur, sic hominis propria est agitatio mentis atque solertia; hebetes vero et indociles non magis secundum naturam quam prodigiosa corpora et insignia monstris eduntur. Et quamvis alius alium praestet ingenio, nemo tamen reperitur qui nihil sit studio consecutus.”

 

Quintilian, Institutio 1.1.1-3

“It is a false complaint that the faculty of understanding what is taught is granted to only a few, and that most people waste their time and energy due to the slowness of their intellect. Just the opposite: you can find many who have an easy time with thinking, and are ready to learn. Certainly, this is natural for humans, just as birds are born to fly, horses are born to run, and beasts are born for savagery; similarly, the activity and ingenuity of the mind is peculiarly our own.

Slow and ineducable people are no more the product of human nature than are giants and wondrously deformed people, but these have been but few. A proof of this is the fact that the hope of many things shines forth in children: if it passes away with age, it is clear that the fault lay not with human nature, but with our lack of care. One might object, ‘But nevertheless, some people are superior in intellect to others.’ I readily concede that point; but that will do more for some than for others. However, no one will be found who has pursued nothing with effort.”

Falsa enim est querela, paucissimis hominibus vim percipiendi quae tradantur esse concessam, plerosque vero laborem as tempora tarditate ingenii perdere. Nam contra plures reperias et faciles in excogitando et ad discendum promptos. Quippe id est homini naturale, ac sicut aves ad volatum, equi ad cursum, ad saevitiam ferae gignuntur, ita nobis propria est mentis agitatio atque sollertia: unde origo animi caelestis creditur. Hebetes vero et indociles non magis secundum naturam hominis eduntur quam prodigiosa corpora et monstris insignia, sed hi pauci admodum fuerunt. Argumentum, quod in pueris elucet spes plurimorum: quae cum emoritur aetate, manifestum est non naturam defecisse sed curam. “Praestat tamen ingenio alius alium.”  Concedo; sed plus efficiet aut minus: nemo reperitur qui sit studio nihil consecutus.

Martial, 5.58

“Lupus, you ask long and anxiously to what teacher you should entrust your son. I advise you to avoid all teachers and professors: don’t let him have anything to do with the books of Cicero or Vergil. Let him leave Tutilius to his own reputation. If he writes verses, you will disown him as a poet. Does he want to learn a more… pecuniary skill? Make him learn to be a lute player or a flute player; if he seems a bit on the untalented side, just make him an auctioneer or a builder.”

56

Cui tradas, Lupe, filium magistro
quaeris sollicitus diu rogasque.
Omnes grammaticosque rhetorasque
deuites moneo: nihil sit illi
cum libris Ciceronis aut Maronis;              5
famae Tutilium suae relinquat;
si uersus facit, abdices poetam.
Artes discere uolt pecuniosas?
Fac discat citharoedus aut choraules;
si duri puer ingeni uidetur,              10
praeconem facias uel architectum.

Plutarch, Alexander 8.1-2

“Aristotle, more than others, seems to me to have fostered in Alexander a love of healing. For he delighted not just in talking about medicine but he even used to help his sick friends and assign to them certain therapies and treatments, as one can see from his letters. He was by nature a lover of language, a lover of learning and a lover of reading. Because he believed and named the Iliad the roadmap of military excellence, he took a copy corrected by Aristotle which they called the “Box-Iliad” and he always had it with his knife lying under his pillow, as Onesikritos recounts. And when he did not have other books deep in Asia, he ordered Harpalos to send him some. Harpalos sent him the books of Philistos, the tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus, and the dithyrambs of Telestos and Philoxenos.

In the beginning, Alexander revered Aristotle and said that he loved him no less than his father because he was alive thanks to one and living well thanks to the other. Later, he was rather suspicious of him, not so much that he harmed him at all, but his attachment and attention were not as eager as before—and this was a sign of their alienation.”

Alexander and Aristotle
Alexander and Aristotle (Artist Unknown)

Δοκεῖ δέ μοι καὶ τὸ φιλιατρεῖν ᾿Αλεξάνδρῳ προστρίψασθαι μᾶλλον ἑτέρων ᾿Αριστοτέλης. οὐ γὰρ μόνον τὴν θεωρίαν ἠγάπησεν, ἀλλὰ καὶ νοσοῦσιν ἐβοήθει τοῖς φίλοις, καὶ συνέταττε θεραπείας τινὰς καὶ διαίτας, ὡς ἐκ τῶν ἐπιστολῶν λαβεῖν ἔστιν. ἦν δὲ καὶ φύσει φιλόλογος καὶ φιλομαθὴς καὶ φιλαναγνώστης, καὶ τὴν μὲν  ᾿Ιλιάδα τῆς πολεμικῆς ἀρετῆς ἐφόδιον καὶ νομίζων καὶ ὀνομάζων, ἔλαβε μὲν ᾿Αριστοτέλους διορθώσαντος ἣν ἐκ τοῦ νάρθηκος καλοῦσιν, εἶχε δ’ ἀεὶ μετὰ τοῦ ἐγχειριδίου κειμένην ὑπὸ τὸ προσκεφάλαιον, ὡς ᾿Ονησίκριτος ἱστόρηκε (FGrH 134 F 38)· τῶν δ’ ἄλλων βιβλίων οὐκ εὐπορῶν ἐν τοῖς ἄνω τόποις, ῞Αρπαλον ἐκέλευσε πέμψαι, κἀκεῖνος ἔπεμψεν αὐτῷ τάς τε Φιλίστου βίβλους καὶ τῶν Εὐριπίδου καὶ Σοφοκλέους καὶ Αἰσχύλου τραγῳδιῶν συχνάς, καὶ Τελέστου καὶ Φιλοξένου διθυράμβους. ᾿Αριστοτέλην δὲ θαυμάζων ἐν ἀρχῇ καὶ ἀγαπῶν οὐχ ἧττον, ὡς αὐτὸς ἔλεγε, τοῦ πατρός, ὡς δι’ ἐκεῖνον μὲν ζῶν, διὰ τοῦτον δὲ καλῶς ζῶν, ὕστερον ὑποπτότερον ἔσχεν, οὐχ ὥστε ποιῆσαί τι κακόν, ἀλλ’ αἱ φιλοφροσύναι τὸ σφοδρὸν ἐκεῖνο καὶ στερκτικὸν οὐκ ἔχουσαι πρὸς αὐτόν, ἀλλοτριότητος ἐγένοντο τεκμήριον.

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“Do This, Not That”: Terence and Horace on Education

Terence Adelphoe 414-417

“Demio: I pass over nothing; I accustom him to it: I have
him look as if into a mirror at the lives of everyone
that he make take from others an example for himself.
Do this!” Syrus: Rightly, Correctly. DE: Don’t do this! SY: Cleverly!
DE: This is praiseworthy: SY: That is the thing! DE: This is a fault.”

DE. …
nil praetermitto: consuefacio: denique
inspicere tamquam in speculum in uitas omnium
iubeo atque ex aliis sumere exemplum sibi.
hoc facito. SY. Recte sane. DE. Hoc fugito. SY. Callide.
DE. Hoc laudist. SY. Istaec res est. DE. Hoc uitio datur.

Horace, Satires 1.4: 120-126

“This is how [my father]
used to train me as a boy with stories and whether he was
ordering me to do something, he would say “You have a precedent for doing this’ and he would offer as example one
of the selected officials.
Or, if he was forbidding me from something,
Don’t doubt that he would ask whether
“This was dishonorable and unproductive if done
Or not or if this or that man was aflame from
A bad reputation…
….sic me
formabat puerum dictis et, sive iubebat
ut facerem quid, ‘habes auctorem, quo facias hoc’
unum ex iudicibus selectis obiciebat,
sive vetabat, ‘an hoc inhonestum et inutile factu
necne sit, addubites, flagret rumore malo cum
hic atque ille?’ …