Wednesday, April 29, 2015


The Desire to Know the Future

Statius, Thebaid 3.551-565 (tr. D.R. Shackleton Bailey, with his notes):
Whence first for hapless mortals grew worldwide this sick craving for what is to come? Shall we call it a gift of the gods or do we ourselves, a greedy race never content to rest with what we have, dig out which day is the first37 and where life ends, what that kindly begetter of the gods and what iron Clotho have in view? Hence entrails and the talk of birds in the clouds and the comings and goings of the stars and the counted path of the moon and the abomination of Thessaly. But that earlier golden race of our ancestors and the peoples born of rocks and timber38 used not these skills.39 Their one desire was to tame forest and earth with their hands; what the morrow's years might bring 'twas sin for man to know. We, a perverted and pathetic multitude, peer deep into the High Ones; hence pallor and anger, hence crime and treachery and prayer beyond all moderation.

37 Using a horoscope. But the date of birth would normally be known. Perhaps this is a loose way of saying 'an entire life.' Or it could relate to a child conceived but not yet born (SB2).
38 As the Arcadians were supposed to have been.
39 See SB2.
The Latin (with Shackleton Bailey's apparatus):
                                  Unde iste per orbem
primus venturi miseris animantibus aeger
crevit amor? divumne feras hoc munus, an ipsi,
gens avida et parto non umquam stare quieti,
eruimus quae prima dies, ubi terminus aevi,        555
quid bonus ille deum genitor, quid ferrea Clotho
cogitet? hinc fibrae et volucrum per nubila sermo
astrorumque vices numerataque semita lunae
Thessalicumque nefas. at non prior aureus ille
sanguis avum scopulisque satae vel robore gentes        560
artibus his usae; silvas amor unus humumque
edomuisse manu; quid crastina volveret aetas
scire nefas homini. nos, pravum et flebile vulgus,
scrutati penitus superos: hinc pallor et irae,
hinc scelus insidiaeque et nulla modestia voti.        565

561 mentibus (SB2)
564 scrutati ω: -ari P
SB2 is D.R. Shackleton Bailey, "On Statius' Thebaid," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 100 (2000) 463-476 (this passage discussed on p. 465):
In revision of an earlier note (MH 40 [1983] 53) I would now suggest that Statius may have had in mind an astrologer casting the horoscope of an unborn child. 355 amounts to "we dig out lives from birth to death."


mentibus, referring to the methods of divination (entrails etc.) mentioned in the preceding sentence, is simply a wrong word. The right word is artibus.
On the idea that it's better not to know the future see e.g.

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