Tuesday, September 27, 2005


A Surfeit of Praise

In a discussion about the proverbial expression "Non sine causa sed sine fine laudatus," the words are attributed to that prolific writer "anonymous" and are translated as "He was praised not without cause, but without an end result." I question both the attribution and the translation.

The expression is not anonymous. It appears in Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 5.1 (tr. Richard M. Gummere):
Marcus Cicero, long flung among men like Catiline and Clodius and Pompey and Crassus, some open enemies, others doubtful friends, as he is tossed to and fro along with the state and seeks to keep it from destruction, to be at last swept away, unable as he was to be restful in prosperity or patient in adversity - how many times does he curse that very consulship of his, which he had lauded without end, though not without reason!

Marcus Cicero inter Catilinas, Clodios iactatus Pompeiosque et Crassos, partim manifestos inimicos, partim dubios amicos, dum fluctuatur cum republica et illam pessum euntem tenet, novissime abductus, nec secundis rebus quietus nec adversarum patiens, quotiens illum ipsum consulatum suum non sine causa, sed sine fine laudatum detestatur?
I would translate "Non sine causa sed sine fine laudatus" as "Praised not without good reason, but without end." It is properly used of a man who is worthy of praise, but who is praised so incessantly that people get sick and tired of hearing about him.

Such a man was Aristides, surnamed "The Just," about whom Plutarch tells this delightful anecdote (Life of Aristides 7.3-6, tr. Bernadotte Perrin):
The method of procedure--to give a general outline--was as follows. Each voter took an ostrakon, or potsherd, wrote on it the name of that citizen whom he wished to remove from the city, and brought it to a place in the agora which was all fenced about with railings.

The archons first counted the total number of ostraka cast. For if the voters were less than six thousand, the ostracism was void. Then they separated the names, and the man who had received the most votes they proclaimed banished for ten years, with the right to enjoy the income from his property.

Now at the time of which I was speaking, as the voters were inscribing their ostraka, it is said that an unlettered and utterly boorish fellow handed his ostrakon to Aristides, whom he took to be one of the ordinary crowd, and asked him to write Aristides on it.

He, astonished, asked the man what possible wrong Aristides had done him. "None whatever," was the answer, "I don't even know the fellow, but I am tired of hearing him everywhere called 'The Just.'" On hearing this, Aristides made no answer, but wrote his name on the ostrakon and handed it back.
If I recall correctly, actual potsherds have been found with Aristides' name scratched on them.

Ostracism is one of those ancient customs which should be revived. It would be hard to choose, but I think I would write Donald Trump on my ostrakon.

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