Tuesday, June 15, 2021


Two Lessons

Thomas S. Kuhn (1922-1996), The Essential Tension (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), p. xii (footnote omitted):
Briefly stated, those lessons are two. First, there are many ways to read a text, and the ones most accessible to a modern are often inappropriate when applied to the past. Second, that plasticity of texts does not place all ways of reading on a par, for some of them (ultimately, one hopes, only one) possess a plausibility and coherence absent from others. Trying to transmit such lessons to students, I offer them a maxim: When reading the works of an important thinker, look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you find an answer, I continue, when those passages make sense, then you may find that more central passages, ones you previously thought you understood, have changed their meaning.


An Expert at Ignoring Things

Rüdiger Safranski, Goethe: Life as a Work of Art, tr. David Dollenmayer (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017), page number unknown (from the Preface):
Our times do not favor the creation of individuality. The price we pay for our universal interconnectedness is increased conformity. Although Goethe was intimately connected to the social and cultural life of his time, he also knew how to maintain his individuality. His principle was to take in only as much of the world as he could process. Whatever he could not respond to in a productive way he chose to disregard. In other words, he was an expert at ignoring things. Of course, he was also compelled to take an interest in much he would have preferred to be spared. But as far as possible, he was bent on determining the scope and direction of his own life.

Monday, June 14, 2021


A Great National Fact Crippled and Destroyed

Goethe, Conversations with Eckermann (Goethe speaking, October 15, 1825; tr. John Oxenford):
Till lately, I was always pleased with a great fact in the thirteenth century, when the Emperor Frederic the Second was at variance with the Pope, and the north of Germany was open to all sorts of hostile attacks. Asiatic hordes had actually penetrated as far as Silesia, when the Duke of Liegnitz terrified them by one great defeat. They then turned to Moravia, but were here defeated by Count Sternberg. These valiant men had on this account been living in my heart as the great saviours of the German nation. But now comes historical criticism, and says that these heroes sacrificed themselves quite uselessly, as the Asiatic army was already recalled, and would have returned of its own accord. Thus is a great national fact crippled and destroyed, which seems to me most abominable.

So hatte ich bisher immer meine Freude an einem großen Faktum des dreizehnten Jahrhunderts, wo Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite mit dem Papste zu tun hatte und das nördliche Deutschland allen feindlichen Einfällen offen stand. Asiatische Horden kamen auch wirklich herein und waren schon bis Schlesien vorgedrungen; aber der Herzog von Liegnitz setzte sie durch eine große Niederlage in Schrecken. Dann wendeten sie sich nach Mähren, aber hier wurden sie vom Grafen Sternberg geschlagen. Diese Tapfern lebten daher bis jetzt immer in mir als große Retter der deutschen Nation. Nun aber kommt die historische Kritik und sagt, daß jene Helden sich ganz unnütz aufgeopfert hätten, indem das asiatische Heer bereits zurückgerufen gewesen und von selbst zurückgegangen sein würde. Dadurch ist nun ein großes vaterländisches Faktum gelähmt und zernichtet, und es wird einem ganz abscheulich zumute.
Related post: Inspiring Stories.


Foreign Language Immersion

Michael J. Lewis, "The cooling of John le Carré," The New Criterion 39.10 (June, 2021):
Some time ago I chanced upon a German-language interview with le Carré from 1989, and I was impressed at how flawless and accent-free his German was. But I should not have been surprised. Only those who have grown up in an erratic and oppressive household know how liberating it is to immerse yourself completely in a foreign language and emerge out of it another person, an alternative version of yourself. That alternative version will exist along with the original, two halves of a divided self, each watching the other with wary amusement.


New Testament Greek

Friedrich Nietzsche, Unpublished Fragments from the Period of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Summer 1882-Winter 1883/84), tr. Paul S. Loeb and David F. Tinsley (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019 = The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, vol. 14), p. 92 (Notebook 3, number 445)
What a subtlety it is that God learned Greek when he wanted to become a writer; just as subtle, that he did not learn it better!
Friedrich Nietzsche, Nachgelassene Fragmente 1882-1884, edd. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, 2. Aufl. (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988 = Kritische Studienausgabe, Bd. 10), p. 101:
Es ist eine Feinheit, daß Gott griechisch lernte, als er Schriftsteller werden wollte, und ebenso dies, daß er es nicht besser lernte!
Reused in his Beyond Good and Evil IV.121.


The Tumor That Comes from Afar

Livy 25.12.8-10 ≈ Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.17.28 (on the prophecies of Marcius, 213 BC; tr. J.C. Yardley):
The second prophecy was then read out. This was not only more difficult to fathom because the future is less clear than the past, but was also more cryptic in the way it was written: 'Romans: If you wish to drive out the enemy, the tumour that comes from afar, my advice is to dedicate games to Apollo, annual games to be held with good cheer in Apollo's honour. When the people have given part from the public purse, then let private individuals contribute for themselves and their relatives. The praetor who will be dispensing supreme justice to the people and plebeians shall be in charge of the conduct of such games. The decemvirs should offer sacrifice after the Greek manner. If you do this correctly, you shall rejoice for ever, and your circumstances shall improve. For he will wipe out your enemies, that one of the gods who gently nourishes your fields.'

tum alterum carmen recitatum, non eo tantum obscurius quia incertiora futura praeteritis sunt sed perplexius etiam scripturae genere. 'hostis, Romani, si expellere voltis, vomicam quae gentium venit longe, Apollini vovendos censeo ludos, qui quotannis comiter Apollini fiant; cum populus dederit ex publico partem, privati uti conferant pro se atque suis; iis ludis faciendis praeerit praetor is quis ius populo plebeique dabit summum; decemviri Graeco ritu hostiis sacra faciant. hoc si recte facietis, gaudebitis semper fietque res vestra melior; nam is deum exstinguet perduellis vestros qui vestros campos pascit placide.'
Oxford Latin Dictionary, s.v. uomica:
a gathering of pus, an abscess, boil, etc.
Here the tumor is Hannibal and his army.

See Federico Russo, "I Carmina Marciana e le tradizioni sui Marcii," La Parola del Passato, vol. 60, no. 340 (2005) 5-32.


Seeds of Destruction

Polybius 6.10.3-5 (tr. Ian Scott-Kilvert):
[3] For just as rust eats away iron, and woodworms or ship-worms eat away timber, and these substances even if they escape any external damage are destroyed by the processes which are generated within themselves, [4] so each constitution possesses its own inherent and inseparable vice. Thus in kingship the inbred vice is despotism, in aristocracy it is oligarchy, [5] and in democracy the brutal rule of violence, and it is impossible to prevent each of these kinds of government, as I mentioned above, from degenerating into the debased form of itself.

[3] καθάπερ γὰρ σιδήρῳ μὲν ἰός, ξύλοις δὲ θρῖπες καὶ τερηδόνες συμφυεῖς εἰσι λῦμαι, δι᾽ ὧν, κἂν πάσας τὰς ἔξωθεν διαφύγωσι βλάβας, ὑπ᾽ αὐτῶν φθείρονται τῶν συγγενομένων, [4] τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον καὶ τῶν πολιτειῶν συγγεννᾶται κατὰ φύσιν ἑκάστῃ καὶ παρέπεταί τις κακία, βασιλείᾳ μὲν ὁ μοναρχικὸς λεγόμενος τρόπος, ἀριστοκρατίᾳ δ᾽ ὁ τῆς ὀλιγαρχίας, [5] δημοκρατίᾳ δ᾽ ὁ θηριώδης καὶ χειροκρατικός, εἰς οὓς οὐχ οἷόν τε μὴ οὐ πάντα τὰ προειρημένα σὺν χρόνῳ ποιεῖσθαι τὰς μεταστάσεις κατὰ τὸν ἄρτι λόγον.

Sunday, June 13, 2021


Worse Than Death

Carolyne Larrington, "Diet, Defecation and the Devil: Disgust and the Pagan Past," in Nicola McDonald, ed., Medieval Obscenities (2006; rpt. Suffolk: York Medieval Press, 2014), pp. 138-155 (at 146):
Excretion is not much referred to in Scandinavian texts; however, when the inhabitants of one farmhouse in northern Iceland in Laxdœla saga are prevented by an enemy from leaving the main building to use the external privy for three days, the outcome is regarded as both disgusting and shameful:
Kjartan lét þar taka dyrr allar á húsum ok bannaði öllum mönnum útgöngu ok dreitti þau inni þrjár nætr. . . . þeim Laugamönnum líkar illa ok þótti þetta miklu meiri svívirðing ok verri en þótt Kjartan hefði drepit mann eða tvá fyrir þeim.

Kjartan secured all the doors on the buildings and prevented everyone from going outside and they had to defecate inside for three nights. . . . The people at Laugar were very displeased and thought it was a much greater disgrace and worse than if Kjartan had killed one or two of them.32
32 Laxdœla saga, ed. E.Ó. Sveinsson, Íslenzk Fornrit 5 (Reykjavík, 1934), p. 145.




Carl H. Kraeling, "The Episode of the Roman Standards at Jerusalem," Harvard Theological Review 35.4 (October, 1942) 263-289 (at 269-270):
The word σημαία used by Josephus in his account of the episode of the standards is, like its Latin equivalent signum, a generic term and may apply to any or all of the standards borne by military units, though it is used also in a narrower sense for one particular type. Among the Roman standards the first to be mentioned are the aquila, a golden eagle mounted on a pole, and the imago or imagines, representations of animals or busts of the Emperor similarly mounted.13 Both types are essentially symbolic and religious in their significance. The aquila borne by the aquilifer is the palladium exclusively of the legion. Legions also have imagines borne by imaginiferi, but they share this type of standard with other troops, the urbaniciani, the vigiles, the alae and the auxiliarii. The theriomorphic imagines, comprising mainly zodiacal animals, have something to do with the dies natalis of the unit. The images of the Emperor, what ever else they may denote, have a religious and cultic significance also. While every established military unit could, and perhaps did, have its own theriomorphic imago, it is clear that some units did not have separate representations of the Emperor. What the criterion for the distribution of the imperial likenesses may be, is not yet entirely evident.

The next type of standard to be mentioned is that to which the word signum is applied in the narrower sense.14 More familiar than the others if for no other reason than because of representations in the school texts of Caesar's Gallic Wars, the signum consists of a spear decorated just below the spear-head with a cross-bar and fillets, and adorned along the shaft with a series of discs, or wreaths and discs, or wreaths and discs and mural crowns. So far as the discs (phalerae) are concerned the signa can be divided into two types, those that are aniconic and have smooth, polished surface, and those that are iconic, being embossed with a likeness of an emperor (or an image of a deity?). The signa, while also of religious significance, are basically the instruments of tactical procedure and hence essential to all troops engaged in tactical manoeuvres. Each military unit has as many signa as it has tactical elements, though in the case of a cohort the signum of the triarii maniple is simultaneously also the signum of the cohort as a whole.

The last type of standard to be mentioned is the vexillum, a cloth flag attached to a cross-bar hanging from the top of a pole or spear. It is used by temporary detachments from established military units, which are therefore known as vexillationes, and in cavalry alae. Under what conditions it served as an identifying medium and as a tactical instrument respectively, is not entirely clear.

13 On the general subject of standards cf. A.J. Reinach in Daremberg-Saglio, s.v. signa; A. v. Domaszewski, Die Fahnen im Römischen Heere, Abhandlungen des archäologisch-epigraphischen Seminares der Universität Wien, Vol. V, 1885; and Kromayer-Veith, op. cit., esp. pp. 402 ff., 520 ff.

14 To avoid confusion we shall use the term signum here wherever this particular type of standard is meant, keeping "standard" as the generic term throughout.


Saying Lessons

"Sheppard Sunderland Frere, Historian and Archaeologist," Britannia 46 (2015) 1-13 (at 2, from Roger Goodburn's "A Personal Memoir"):
He read Classics and Ancient History at Magdalene College, Cambridge. There, the Master, A.B. Ramsay, made his scholars do 'saying lessons', i.e. learning a Greek or Latin text, adding twenty lines more each week. Even in 1935 this was considered old-fashioned, but Sheppard never regretted his learning by heart. Even though Demosthenes evaporated over the years, he could to his latter days recite long pieces of the Aeneid and the writings of Tacitus.

Saturday, June 12, 2021


Abusive Language

Demosthenes 54.19 (Against Conon; tr. A.T. Murray):
The least of these evils, namely abusive language, has, I think, been provided for to prevent the last and most grievous, that murder may not ensue, and that men be not led on step by step from vilification to blows, from blows to wounds, and from wounds to murder...

τὸ φαυλότατον, οἶμαι, τὸ τῆς λοιδορίας, πρὸ τοῦ τελευταίου καὶ δεινοτάτου προεώραται, τοῦ μὴ φόνον γίγνεσθαι, μηδ᾿ ὑπάγεσθαι κατὰ μικρὸν ἐκ μὲν λοιδορίας εἰς πληγάς, ἐκ δὲ πληγῶν εἰς τραύματα, ἐκ δὲ τραυμάτων εἰς θάνατον...
This is a good example of the rhetorical device known as ladder or climax or gradatio. For other examples see:


Inspiring Stories

Goethe, Conversations with Eckermann (Goethe speaking, October 15, 1825; tr. John Oxenford):
"Deficiency of character in individual investigators and writers is," he said, "the source of all the evils of our newest literature.

In criticism, especially, this defect produces mischief to the world, for it either diffuses the false instead of the true, or by a pitiful truth deprives us of something great, that would be better.

Till lately, the world believed in the heroism of a Lucretia,—of a Mucius Scævola,—and suffered itself, by this belief, to be warmed and inspired. But now comes your historical criticism, and says that those persons never lived, but are to be regarded as fables and fictions, divined by the great mind of the Romans. What are we to do with so pitiful a truth? If the Romans were great enough to invent such stories, we should at least be great enough to believe them."

»Mangel an Charakter der einzelnen forschenden und schreibenden Individuen«, sagte er, »ist die Quelle alles Übels unserer neuesten Literatur.

Besonders in der Kritik zeigt dieser Mangel sich zum Nachteile der Welt, indem er entweder Falsches für Wahres verbreitet, oder durch ein ärmliches Wahres uns um etwas Großes bringt, das uns besser wäre.

Bisher glaubte die Welt an den Heldensinn einer Lucretia, eines Mucius Scävola, und ließ sich dadurch erwärmen und begeistern. Jetzt aber kommt die historische Kritik und sagt, daß jene Personen nie gelebt haben, sondern als Fiktionen und Fabeln anzusehen sind, die der große Sinn der Römer erdichtete. Was sollen wir aber mit einer so ärmlichen Wahrheit! Und wenn die Römer groß genug waren, so etwas zu erdichten, so sollten wir wenigstens groß genug sein, daran zu glauben.«



S. Douglas Olson, "Methodological Reflections on the Text and Action of Sophocles' Tereus (S. Fr. 583 + POxy. 5292)," Logeion: A Journal of Ancient Theatre 10 (2020) 168-186 (at 184-185):
— Analogy is a potentially useful form of argument when other, better evidence is lacking, but has significant limits due to the fact that it serves to seek commonalities between different objects. Put another way, analogy functions until it does not, and identifying the point at which "same" turns into "different" is a fundamentally subjective enterprise. Arguments that depend on a mix of literary analogy and psychological plausibility — what a character "might do" or "should do" in a particular situation — are particularly treacherous, because they are easily influenced by the modern reader's own sense of what is right and possible. This issue becomes particularly troubling in the case of fragmentary texts, for which context must be reconstructed (generally on the basis of a mix of analogy and other, even more subjective factors.

— Elaborate "house­-of-­cards" arguments are inherently dubious, and the more elaborate they become, the less likely they are to be correct. They are accordingly to be avoided on principle, the practical methodological difficulty here being that individual scholars may have a different sense of how many "cards" is one too many. As a corollary to this rule, further hypotheses based on such constructions by another scholar are even less likely to be correct than the original hypothesis.

— Ancient evidence must be carefully distinguished from modern constructions based on it. The former takes priority when the two come into conflict, and arguments that reject original sources in favor of modern hypotheses should be viewed with deep suspicion.
Related post: A House of Cards.

Friday, June 11, 2021


Thou Shalt

Friedrich Nietzsche, Unpublished Fragments from the Period of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Summer 1882-Winter 1883/84), tr. Paul S. Loeb and David F. Tinsley (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019 = The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, vol. 14), p. 87 (Notebook 3, number 397):
To make a "thou shalt" out of an "I feel like," to reshape habit into virtue, customs into ethics: this is a subtle old ancient form of second-rate counterfeiting — and I still see through it today.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Nachgelassene Fragmente 1882-1884, edd. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, 2. Aufl. (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988 = Kritische Studienausgabe, Bd. 10), p. 101:
Aus einem „ich habe Lust“ ein „du sollst“ machen, die Gewohnheit zur Tugend, die Sitte zur Sittlichkeit umprägen: das ist eine feine alte uralte Falschmünzerei — und ich verstehe mich heute noch auf sie.
Umprägen can mean remint, which fits in with Falschmünzerei.



Homer, Iliad 6.488-489 (tr. Richmond Lattimore):
But as for fate, I think that no man yet has escaped it
once it has taken its first form, neither brave man nor coward.

μοῖραν δ᾽ οὔ τινά φημι πεφυγμένον ἔμμεναι ἀνδρῶν,
οὐ κακὸν οὐδὲ μὲν ἐσθλόν, ἐπὴν τὰ πρῶτα γένηται.
G.S. Kirk ad loc. interprets ἐπὴν τὰ πρῶτα γένηται differently:

Thursday, June 10, 2021



One explanation that we can dismiss outright is that nerd is an acronym for Northern Electric Research and Development Laboratories in Ontario. There is a logical connection in that one would expect a lab to be full of nerds, but one should always be suspicious of proposed acronymic origins, and in this case Northern Electric (now Nortel) didn't establish their R&D labs until 1959, well after nerd was firmly ensconced in the slang lexicon.
I used to work at Bell-Northern Research (BNR), the research and development arm of Bell Canada and Northern Electric (later Northern Telecom, Nortel, etc.). A standing joke was that the acronym BNR stood for Big Nerd Reserve.

Another joke was that the company logo represented "Man reaching out for his paycheck":
At BNR I wrote software for the DMS telephone switch, a big hunk of metal that makes an appearance in the movie Robocop:


Seeking and Blundering

Goethe, Conversations with Eckermann (Goethe speaking, May 1, 1825; tr. John Oxenford):
But that is the advantage of a passionate liking for any pursuit, that it carries one to the very bottom of the subject. Besides, seeking and blundering are good, for it is by seeking and blundering that we learn. And, indeed, one learns not merely the thing itself, but everything connected with it.

Das ist aber immer der Vorteil irgendeiner leidenschaftlichen Richtung, daß sie uns in das Innere der Dinge treibt. Auch ist das Suchen und Irren gut, denn durch Suchen und Irren lernt man. Und zwar lernt man nicht blos die Sache, sondern den ganzen Umfang.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021



Friedrich Nietzsche, Unpublished Fragments from the Period of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Summer 1882-Winter 1883/84), tr. Paul S. Loeb and David F. Tinsley (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019 = The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, vol. 14), p. 59 (Notebook 3, number 159):
Insanity seldom occurs in individuals — but in groups, political parties, peoples, ages, it is the rule...
Friedrich Nietzsche, Nachgelassene Fragmente 1882-1884, edd. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, 2. Aufl. (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988 = Kritische Studienausgabe, Bd. 10), p. 72:
Der Irrsinn ist selten bei Einzelnen — aber bei Gruppen, Parteien, Völkern, Zeiten die Regel...
By 1889 Nietzsche was insane.


A Sound and Wholesome Rule?

Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 8.5 (tr. Richard M. Gummere):
Hold fast, then, to this sound and wholesome rule of life — that you indulge the body only so far as is needful for good health. The body should be treated more rigorously, that it may not be disobedient to the mind. Eat merely to relieve your hunger; drink merely to quench your thirst; dress merely to keep out the cold; house yourself merely as a protection against personal discomfort. It matters little whether the house be built of turf, or of variously coloured imported marble; understand that a man is sheltered just as well by a thatch as by a roof of gold. Despise everything that useless toil creates as an ornament and an object of beauty. And reflect that nothing except the soul is worthy of wonder; for to the soul, if it be great, naught is great.

hanc ergo sanam ac salubrem formam vitae tenete, ut corpori tantum indulgeatis quantum bonae valetudini satis est. durius tractandum est ne animo male pareat: cibus famem sedet, potio sitim exstinguat, vestis arceat frigus, domus munimentum sit adversus infesta temporis. hanc utrum caespes erexerit an varius lapis gentis alienae, nihil interest: scitote tam bene hominem culmo quam auro tegi. contemnite omnia quae supervacuus labor velut ornamentum ac decus ponit; cogitate nihil praeter animum esse mirabile, cui magno nihil magnum est.
This rule sucks all the enjoyment out of life. I'll try to do the opposite.


Other Times and Another World

Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824), Prolegomena to Homer, Chapter XXII (tr. Anthony Grafton):
At this point, let us quite forget the bookcases and libraries that nowadays preserve our studies, and be transported to other times and another world, where many of the inventions which we think necessary for the good life were unknown to both wise men and fools.

Hic prorsus obliti scrinia nostra et bibliothecas, quibus nunc studiorum immortalitas constat, transvolemus hinc in alia tempora et in alium orbem rerum, ubi tot inventa, quae nobis videntur ad beate vivendum necessaria esse, a sapientibus omnibus et stultis ignorabantur.


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