Socrates is telling a story of the invention of writing in Egypt
“When it came to the written letters, Theuth said, ‘This training, King, will make Egyptians wiser and will give them stronger memories: for it is a drug for memory and wisdom!’ But the king replied, “Most inventive Theuth, one man is able to create technology, but another judges how much harm and benefit it brings to those who use it. Just so now you, who are father of letters, declare the opposite of what they are capable because of your enthusiasm.
This craft will engender forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn it from the disuse of the memory since they will trust external writing struck by others, no longer recalling their own thoughts within them. You have discovered a drug for reminding, not one for memory; you will offer students the reputation of wisdom but not the true thing. For many who become students without instruction will seem to know a lot when they are mostly ignorant and difficult to be around, since they have become wise for appearance instead of wise in truth.’
Ph. Socrates, you can easily make up any story about Egypt that you want to…”
M. I do understand that I have been promising this work for a long time now, Atticus. It is something I would not refuse if any bit of open and free time were allotted to me. A work as momentous as this cannot be taken up when one’s efforts are occupied and his mind is elsewhere. It is really necessary to be free from worry and business.
A. What about the other things you have written more of than any of our people? What free time did you have set aside then?
M. These ‘leftover moments’ occur and I will not suffer wasting them—as when there are some days set aside for going to the country, I write something equal to what the number of days allow. But a history cannot be begun unless there is dedicated time and it can’t be completed in a short time. I habitually weigh down my thought when, once I have started, I am distracted by something else. And once a project is interrupted, I do not finish what was started easily.”
M. Intellego equidem a me istum laborem iam diu postulari, Attice; quem non recusarem, si mihi ullum tribueretur vacuum tempus et liberum; neque enim occupata opera neque inpedito animo res tanta suscipi potest; utrumque opus est, et cura vacare et negotio.
A. Quid ad cetera. quae scripsisti plura quam quisquam e nostris? quod tibi tandem tempus vacuum fuit concessum?
M. Subsiciva quaedam tempora incurrunt, quae ego perire non patior, ut, si qui dies ad rusticandum dati sint, ad eorum numerum adcommodentur quae scribimus. historia vero nec institui potest nisi praeparato otio nec exiguo tempore absolvi, et ego animi pendere soleo, cum semel quid orsus sum,1 si traducor alio, neque tam facile interrupta contexo quam absolvo instituta.
I encourage everyone to copy “Intellego equidem a me istum laborem iam diu postulari” and paste it liberally into emails explaining why you have yet to complete that review, abstract, etc. etc. Take a break for a day or a nap for an hour. Let Cicero speak for you!
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers 7.7 180 Chrysippus
“He was so famous for his dialectic that the majority of people supposed that if the gods had dialectic if would be no different from Chrysippus’. While he had plenty of material, he was not much mistaken in his phrasing too.
He was the hardest working philosopher of them all, as is clear from the mere list of his publications: for their count is beyond 705. But he did advance their number by writing often on the same matter and writing down everything he thought of and correcting it often while also using and abundance of citations. This was so severe that in one of his publications he set out nearly every part of Euripides’ Medea. When someone picked up the book and asked him what he was reading, he said “Chrysippus’ Medea.”
“And so, life passes. Each day, something is read or is written. Then, since I owe something to my friends, I eat with them–not beyond the law, as if anything is these days, but just a little short of it and clearly so. You don’t need to fear my visit at all. You’ll find a guest who eats little, but has many jokes.”
Sic igitur vivitur. cottidie aliquid legitur aut scribitur. dein, ne amicis nihil tribuamus, epulamur una non modo non contra legem, si ulla nunc lex est, sed etiam intra legem, et quidem aliquanto. qua re nihil est quod adventum nostrum extimescas. non multi cibi hospitem accipies, multi ioci.
Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 281 (XII.40)
“Well, you write that you fear that my reputation and my respect is depleted because of my mourning and I don’t understand what people are criticizing or what they expect. That I not feel grief? How’s that possible? Should I not be laid out because of it? Who was ever less paralyzed than me? When your home was lifting me up, who did I refuse? Who came and was offended?
I left from you for Astura. These pleasant folks who criticize me can’t even read the number of pages I have written. How well they would do it is another matter, but it is the kind of writing that no one with a truly depressed spirit could accomplish. So, I spend thirty days at “the garden”. Did anyone go lacking seeing me or enjoying my easy conversation?
Right now I am reading things, I am writing things even as those who are with me are managing leisure worse than I handle work. If anyone asks why I’m not at Rome it’s because it’s vacation.”
Quod scribis te vereri ne et gratia et auctoritas nostra hoc meo maerore minuatur, ego quid homines aut reprehendant aut postulent nescio. ne doleam? qui potest? ne iaceam? quis umquam minus? dum tua me domus levabat, quis a me exclusus? quis venit qui offenderet? Asturam sum a te profectus. legere isti laeti qui me reprehendunt tam multa non possunt quam ego scripsi. quam bene, nihil ad rem; sed genus scribendi id fuit quod nemo abiecto animo facere posset. triginta dies in horto fui. quis aut congressum meum aut facilitatem sermonis desideravit? nunc ipsum ea lego, ea scribo ut hi qui mecum sunt difficilius otium ferant quam ego laborem. si quis requirit cur Romae non sim: quia discessus est
“Poverty, be brave and endure the foolish talkers.
For a multitude of sweets and pleasureless hunger overwhelm you.
Whomever the Muses taught their letters backward
Walked having chilblains under his feet
Hermokaikoxanthos prayed to father Zeus:
“Oh man-slayer: how many mortals have you assigned to Hell?”
The “backward letters” above (ἐδίδαξαν ἀριστερὰ γράμματα) is more precisely “left-side letters”, with either the pejorative sense of Latin sinister or just a general notion of wrongness. I took the comic lines below as inspiration.
Theognetus, fr. 1.7-8
“Wretch, you learned your letters backwards.
Your books have turned your life upside down.”
“Right-hand of the lord”: this phrase means influence coming from on high and good action in the holy writings. For the ancients used to call right-hand things prudent but left-hand things foolish. Sophocles writes: “You never walked to the left because of your mind, son of Telamôn.”
Note: this is a guest post and possible first of many from the amazing Deborah Beck.
“Whenever I hear a man discoursing on virtue, or on some other form of wisdom, who is a true man and worthy of the words he says, I am hugely delighted, admiring at the same time both the speaker and how the things being said are fitting and harmonious with each other.”
Several years ago, I taught an advanced undergraduate Greek class on Homer’s Odyssey. Many of my students were vociferously indignant about the poor quality, as writing, of much of the scholarship that I asked them to read. I was unable to disagree with them, as I often feel much the same way. I suspect most professional Classicists do, whether or not they are willing to admit it. Reading Sophocles, or Livy, or Galen, or Ovid, is usually more fun than reading our colleagues’ views on these authors. The rare exceptions to the generally disappointing quality of academic writing as prose can be easily identified by the lively enthusiasm with which a book reviewer comments on the writing style of a new publication.
The summation of the BMCR review of Mimetic Contagion, by the late Robert Germany (Oxford 2016), is the exception that proves the rule: “This impeccably produced book is unpretentiously erudite; as the saying goes, much more than the sum of its (very many, ancient and modern) parts, impressively documented and arranged: literary-philological analysis and performance criticism, art-historical and anthropological inquiry, sociocultural and intellectual history. Germany regularly deploys critical theory pedagogically judiciously, painlessly introducing uninitiated readers to Benjamin, Foucault, Frazer, Gell, and Irigaray, to name some. Ultimately, Germany’s sophisticated and dense analysis, masterfully delivered in clear, serene prose is a pleasure to read.”
How often do we encounter such praise of academic writing? Not often at all. My students’ annoyance about this was a wake-up call. Why, I wondered, do we put up with so much academic writing that is so lackluster as English prose? And what can be done about it?
Sententiae Antiquae is one answer. It has tens of thousands of enthusiastic readers in large part because it helps us to explore learned matters, and complex and challenging topics, by writing about them with engaging clarity and vigor. A post on Sententiae Antiquae always sounds like a real person speaking. This is a key reason that SA has been so successful in fostering substantive conversations about difficult issues in both Classical literature and current affairs. The writing styles of SA’s contributors put out a welcome mat for anyone interested in the subject under discussion. In fact, SA models for readers that writing style is important, because writing style makes an idea both more enjoyable and more persuasive to its audiences.
An ongoing complaint about the academy in recent decades, and about the Humanities in particular, is that our scholarship has become so specialized that no one outside of a small group of experts can understand it. Specialization in and of itself, in my view, is not the main problem. This way of framing the issue creates a false dichotomy between erudition and accessibility. It allows scholars to wiggle out of the problem by making the issue one of too little knowledge on the part of someone else, instead of taking responsibility for asking necessary questions about what “erudition” should look like. At a time when many Classicists are eager for ways to bring more people into our field, a meaningful yardstick for measuring erudition is the ability to create conversations about specialized ideas in which both the learned and the not-as-learned can participate with enjoyment.
This does not mean that scholarly writing needs to be “dumbed down” in order to be appealing to a wider audience. Nor am I suggesting that everyone now writing scholarly monographs for Oxford and Cambridge should instead write general interest books. My beef is not with scholarly writing and argument per se, but with the default understanding of what constitutes good scholarly writing. In my view, the clotted and wearisome “Academic-ese” writing style that we too often equate with erudition can also be seen as laziness. It’s hard to present a scholarly argument in a clear and straightforward way that can be understood by anyone familiar with the ancient evidence. It’s much easier to write the kind of “insider baseball” footnotes that remind knowledgeable readers of scholarship they have already read, while leaving everyone else frustrated and confused. It’s easier to dismiss calls for scholarship that any devoted reader of Homer can enjoy than it is to try to write such scholarship. But this is something that scholars should be thinking about, because “more accessible scholarly writing” is one answer to the question, “how can we make our field more welcoming to more different kinds of people?”
Learning to write in a more user-friendly way is an ongoing project. Whenever I am working on a new publication, I now ask myself whether those former students of mine would be aggrieved if they were asked to read my piece. If the answer is yes, I’ve done it wrong and I should try again. If you’re not sure if you’re one of Those Writers, who are writing in Academic-ese rather than English, ask yourself some questions. How many multisyllabic Latinate abstractions have you used? Can you read one of your paragraphs aloud without stumbling or running out of breath? How many subordinate clauses does your typical sentence have? Ask a non-teacher to read your latest paper, and invite them to be brutally honest with you about the style. Then listen carefully to their answer. My students have made me a better writer, in ways that all of us would do well to think about.
“For this reason it is necessary that every serious person does not write about serious subjects so that they might not end up an object of envy or confusion among regular people. Simply, when you look at someone’s written work, whether it is a law by a legislator or anything by anyone else, you need to understand that this is not the person’s most serious work even if the author is very serious. Instead, his best works remain in the most noble part of his own realm. But if it turns out that the most serious works are those they have been written down, it is surely not the gods, but mortals themselves “who have totally ruined their senses.”
Anyone who has been following this story and my digression will clearly know that whether Dionysus has written anything about the ultimate and primary truths of nature or some lesser or greater mind has done the same, according to my argument nothing of what he has written is sound thanks to what he has learned or what he has heard. For, he would have the same respect for these things as I do and would not dare to make them available for inappropriate or unacceptable reception.
Dionysius did not write those things for the sake of reminding himself. For there is no danger of anyone forgetting a thing once he has obtained it with his soul, where it is settled among the smallest of all places. But it was for shameful pride, if truly he did write, either as a way of establishing the ideas as his own or to demonstrate that he was an initiate in great learning for which he proved himself unworthy by delighting in the reputation he might gain from it. If this happened to Dionysius because of our single interaction, it could be the case. But how, Only Zeus knows, as the Theban says. For, as I said before, I went through my ideas with him only once and never again afterwards.”