Wednesday, May 19, 2004


Odium and Insults

In his Works and Days, line 24, the ancient Greek poet Hesiod says, "Potter is jealous of potter," and members of the learned professions are not immune from the same affliction.

Odium theologicum, or the hatred which exists among theologians, is evident from the brickbats they hurl at one another, despite their lip service to the commandment "Love one another" (John 13:34). Just look at the tracts of St. Jerome, especially those titles that start with the words "Contra" or "Adversus". David S. Wiesen, in St. Jerome as a Satirist (Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 1964), has collected many of St. Jerome's choicest insults in his chapter on "Personal Enemies" (pp. 200-246), from which I select just one:
"You say," writes Jerome to Riparius, "that Dormitianus has again opened his stinking mouth and emitted some foul putrescence against relics of the martyrs" (p. 221 = Letter 109.1).
Odium philologicum, or the hatred which exists among philologists, is no less virulent. A couple of years ago the fury of a cabal of scholars descended with full force on the head of a hapless reviewer of a translation of some epigrams from the Greek Anthology, because in his review he had the temerity to utter a politically incorrect opinion which offended their tender sensibilities. No one dared to come to the reviewer's defense. Academic careers and scholarly reputations these days depend on punctilious observation of the canons of political correctness. It is said that there are 613 precepts (365 prohibitions and 248 obligations) which the observant Jew must be careful to obey. There are at least that many groups of certified "victims" today which anyone who makes public pronouncements must take care not to offend.

I remember reading somewhere that the eminent Latinist A.E. Housman used to keep a notebook in which he recorded choice insults, until such time as he found a suitable opponent to direct them against. Whether that story is true or not, it's undeniable that his writings are full of venomous barbs, like these comments on Elias Stoeber:
If a man will comprehend the richness and variety of the universe, and inspire his mind with a due measure of wonder and of awe, he must contemplate the human intellect not only on its heights of genius but in its abysses of ineptitude; and it might be fruitlessly debated to the end of time whether Richard Bentley or Elias Stoeber was the more marvellous work of the Creator. Elias Stoeber, whose reprint of Bentley's text, with a commentary intended to confute it, saw the light in 1767 at Strasburg, a city still famous for its geese. This commentary is a performance in comparison with which the Aetna of Mr S. Sudhaus is a work of science and of genius. Stoeber's mind, though that is no name to call it by, was one which turned as unswervingly to the false, the meaningless, the unmetrical, and the ungrammatical, as the needle to the pole.
A Mencken Chestomathy (New York: Vintage Books, 1982) is a rich garden for those looking for good insults. In just the space of a few pages I encountered the following Schimpfwörter: balderdash, buffoon, cad, chicanery, mountebank, oaf, piffle, poltroon, and popinjay. One of Mencken's favorite words is "brummagem," meaning "tawdry". The budding theologian or philologist could do worse than to cull some flowers of invective from Mencken.

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