Thursday, August 02, 2012
The Body as a House in Greek and Latin
Gorgias the rhetor, when he was already old, was asked if he would die with pleasure. "With the utmost pleasure," he said, "just as I gladly depart from a filthy, leaking, tiny tenement-house."Teles, in Otto Hense, Teletis Reliquiae, 2nd ed. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1909), pp. 15-16 (quoting Bion of Borysthenes; tr. Edward O'Neill):
Γοργίας ὁ ῥήτωρ ἤδη γηραιὸς ὑπάρχων ἐρωτηθεὶς εἰ ἡδέως ἀποθνήσκοι, 'ἥδιστα' εἶπεν 'ὥσπερ δὲ ἐκ σαρποῦ καὶ ῥέοντος συνοικιδίου ἀσμένως ἀπαλλάττομαι'.
"Just as we are ejected from our house," says Bion, "when the landlord, because he has not received his rent, takes away the door, takes away the pottery, stops up the well, in the same way," he says, "am I being ejected from this poor body when Nature, the landlady, takes away my eyes, my ears, my hands, my feet."I don't have access to Jan Fredrik Kindstrand, Bion of Borysthenes: A Collection of the Fragments with Introduction and Commentary (Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 1976) = Studia Graeca Upsaliensia, 11, which probably has an extensive list of parallels.
καθάπερ καὶ ἐξ οἰκίας, φησὶν ὁ Βίων, ἐξοικιζόμεθα, ὅταν τὸ ἐνοίκιον ὁ μισθώσας οὐ κομιζόμενος τὴν θύραν ὰφέλῃ, τὸν κέραμον ἀφέλῃ, τὸ φρέαρ ἐγκλείσῃ, οὕτω, φησί, καὶ ἐκ τοῦ σωματίου ἐξοικίζομαι, ὅταν ἡ μισθώσασα φύσις τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ἀφαιρῆται τὰ ὦτα τὰς χεῖρας τοὺς πόδας.
Cicero, On Old Age 20.72 (tr. W.A. Falconer):
As the builder most readily destroys the ship or the house which he has built, so Nature is the agent best fitted to give dissolution to her creature, man. Now every structure when newly built is hard to pull apart, but the old and weather-beaten house comes easily down.Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 30.1-2 (on Aufidius Bassus; tr. Richard M. Gummere):
ut navem, ut aedificium idem destruit facillime, qui construxit, sic hominem eadem optime quae conglutinavit natura dissolvit. iam omnis conglutinatio recens aegre, inveterata facile divellitur.
You know that his body was always delicate and sapless. For a long time he has kept it in hand, or, to speak more correctly, has kept it together; of a sudden it has collapsed. Just as in a ship that springs a leak, you can always stop the first or the second fissure, but when many holes begin to in an old man's body, there is a certain limit up to which you can sustain and prop its weakness. But when it comes to resemble a decrepit building, when every joint begins to spread and while one is being repaired another falls apart,—then it is time for a man to look about him and consider how he may get out.Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 58.35 (tr. Richard M. Gummere):
scis illum semper infirmi corporis et exsucti fuisse. diu illud continuit et, ut verius dicam, concinnavit; subito defecit. quemadmodum in nave, quae sentinam trahit, uni rimae aut alteri obsistitur, ubi plurimis locis laxari coepit et cedere, succurri non potest navigio dehiscenti; ita in senili corpore aliquatenus inbecillitas sustineri et fulciri potest. ubi tamquam in putri aedificio omnis iunctura diducitur, et dum alia excipitur, alia discinditur, circumspiciendum est quomodo exeas.
But if old age begins to shatter my mind, and to pull its various faculties to pieces, if it leaves me, not life, but only the breath of life, I shall rush out of a house that is crumbling and tottering.Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 65.17 (tr. Richard M. Gummere):
at si coeperit concutere mentem, si partes eius convellere, si mihi non vitam reliquerit, sed animam, prosiliam ex aedificio putri ac ruenti.
So the soul, imprisoned as it has been in this gloomy and darkened house, seeks the open sky whenever it can, and in the contemplation of the universe finds rest.Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 70.16-17 (tr. Richard M. Gummere):
sic animus in hoc tristi et obscuro domicilio clusus, quotiens potest, apertum petit et in rerum naturae contemplatione requiescit.
None of us reflects that some day he must depart from this house of life; just so old tenants are kept from moving by fondness for a particular place and by custom, even in spite of ill-treatment. Would you be free from the restraint of your body? Live in it as if you were about to leave it. Keep thinking of the fact that some day you will be deprived of this tenure; then you will be more brave against the necessity of departing.Seneca, On Anger 2.28.4 (tr. John W. Basore):
nemo nostrum cogitat quandoque sibi ex hoc domicilio exeundum; sic veteres inquilinos indulgentia loci et consuetudo etiam inter iniurias detinet. vis adversus hoc corpus liber esse? tamquam migraturus habita. propone tibi quandoque hoc contubernio carendum; fortior eris ad necessitatem exeundi.
Bearing this in mind, let us be more just to transgressors, more heedful to those who rebuke us; especially let us not be angry with the good (for who will escape if we are to be angry with the good?), and least of all with the gods. For it is not by their power, but by the terms of our mortality, that we are forced to suffer whatever ill befalls. "But," you say, "sickness and pain assail us." At any rate there must be an ending sometime, seeing that we have been given a crumbling tenement!Occasionally we see the idea that the body is too impermanent even to be compared with a house, e.g. in Cicero, On Old Age 23.84 (tr. W.A. Falconer):
hoc cogitantes aequiores simus delinquentibus, credamus obiurgantibus; utique bonis ne irascamur (cui enim non, si bonis quoque?), minime dis; non enim illorum vi, sed lege mortalitatis patimur quidquid incommodi accidit. "at morbi doloresque incurrunt." utique aliquo defungendum est domicilium putre sortitis.
I quit life as if it were an inn, not a home. For Nature has given us an hostelry in which to sojourn, not to abide.See also Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 120.14 (tr. Richard M. Gummere):
ex vita ita discedo tamquam ex hospitio, non tamquam ex domo; commorandi enim natura deversorium dedit, non habitandi.
The body is not a permanent dwelling, but a sort of inn (with a brief sojourn at that) which is to be left behind when one perceives that one is a burden to the host.This impermanence of the flesh also appears in the numerous references (especially early Christian references) to the body not as a fixed dwelling, but as a nomad's dwelling, a tent. See the citations in Bauer-Gingrich-Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), s.vv. σκῆνος and σκήνωμα (p. 755).
nec domum esse hoc corpus, sed hospitium, et quidem breve hospitium, quod relinquendum est, ubi te gravem esse hospiti videas.
Hat tip: Tim Parkin, who alerted me to the passages from Seneca. See his Old Age in the Roman World: A Cultural and Social History (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), pp. 70-71, and n. 55 on p. 341.
Related post: The Body as a House.