Monday, February 28, 2005


Legal Language

Dennis R. Hower, Wills, Trusts, and Estate Administration for the Paralegal, 5th edition (West Legal Studies, 2002), p. 265:
The beneficiary can obtain an injunction, i.e., a court order, to compel the trustee to do, or refrain from doing, an act that would constitute a breach of trust.
In other words,
  1. The beneficiary can obtain an injunction to compel the trustee to do an act that would constitute a breach of trust.
  2. The beneficiary can obtain an injunction to compel the trustee to refrain from doing an act that would constitute a breach of trust.
The author obviously intended 2, but not 1.

Sunday, February 27, 2005


Whence and Whither?

In The Oregon Trail, Francis Parkman (1823–1893) mentions with some irritation the curiosity of fellow travelers on the Great Plains:
They demanded our names, whence we came, whither we were going, and what was our business. The last query was particularly embarrassing; since traveling in that country, or indeed anywhere, from any other motive than gain, was an idea of which they took no cognizance. (Chapter VIII)

"How are you, strangers? whar are you going and whar are you from?" said a fellow, who came trotting up with an old straw hat on his head. (Chapter XXVI)
From time immemorial strangers and wanderers have faced these same questions. In Homer's Odyssey, the following line occurs several times, first at 1.170 (tr. Richmond Lattimore):
What man are you, and whence? Where is your city? Your parents?
In Rome even friends asked some of these same questions when meeting:

Phil Flemming (via email) writes:
Socrates begins his conversation with Phaedrus by asking poi de kai pothen? It's a kind of scold, isn't it? Pretending to greet Phaedrus as someone who been away on a great voyage, he's really asking, where have you been hiding yourself, Phaedrus? And why have you become a stranger?
R. Hackforth translates this passage (Plato, Phaedrus 227a) as follows:
Where are you coming from, Phaedrus my friend, and where are you going?

Saturday, February 26, 2005


Linguistic Experiments

Andrew Wedel at the University of Arizona is doing an interesting linguistic experiment:
Wedel has devised an experiment with several computers that "speak" to one another.


Their language is built out of sounds analogous to the range of sounds from a vowel continuum that starts with "eee," which is made with the jaw closed, down to "aaaah," which is made with the jaw open. As the jaw lowers from "eee," the vowel changes, eventually to something approaching "aaah." This continuum of sounds are assigned a number between zero and one or a percentage thereof.

At the beginning of these simulations, the computers start with random words made out of random combinations of vowels and don't understand what each other are saying, much like babies trying to understand and mimic speech for the first time.


After running for thousands of "conversations," the system begins to develop certain characteristics that are like human language that the simulations didn't begin with. The computers begin to recognize each others' sounds and agree on their meanings.

Eventually they develop a common vocabulary of words that mean certain things.
This reminds me of another linguistic experiment, long before the computer age, described by Herodotus (2.2, tr. George Rawlinson):
Now the Egyptians, before the reign of their king Psammetichus, believed themselves to be the most ancient of mankind. Since Psammetichus, however, made an attempt to discover who were actually the primitive race, they have been of opinion that while they surpass all other nations, the Phrygians surpass them in antiquity. This king, finding it impossible to make out by dint of inquiry what men were the most ancient, contrived the following method of discovery: He took two children of the common sort, and gave them over to a herdsman to bring up at his folds, strictly charging him to let no one utter a word in their presence, but to keep them in a sequestered cottage, and from time to time introduce goats to their apartment, see that they got their fill of milk, and in all other respects look after them. His object herein was to know, after the indistinct babblings of infancy were over, what word they would first articulate. It happened as he had anticipated.

The herdsman obeyed his orders for two years, and at the end of that time, on his one day opening the door of their room and going in, the children both ran up to him with outstretched arms, and distinctly said "Becos." When this first happened the herdsman took no notice; but afterwards when he observed, on coming often to see after them, that the word was constantly in their mouths, he informed his lord, and by his command brought the children into his presence. Psammetichus then himself heard them say the word, upon which he proceeded to make inquiry what people there was who called anything "becos," and hereupon he learnt that "becos" was the Phrygian name for bread. In consideration of this circumstance the Egyptians yielded their claims, and admitted the greater antiquity of the Phrygians.

That these were the real facts I learnt at Memphis from the priests of Vulcan. The Greeks, among other foolish tales, relate that Psammetichus had the children brought up by women whose tongues he had previously cut out; but the priests said their bringing up was such as I have stated above.
Wedel's computers seem to speak only in vowels. If consonants were introduced as well, I wonder if they would ever say "becos."

Friday, February 25, 2005


Illegal Immigration

Edward Abbey, Down the River (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1982), p. 17:
The one thing we could do for a country like Mexico, for example, is to stop every illegal immigrant at the border, give him a good rifle and a case of ammunition, and send him home. Let the Mexicans solve their customary problems in their customary manner.

If this seems a cruel and sneering suggestion, consider the current working alternative: leaving our borders open to unlimited immigration until -- and it won't take long -- the social, political, economic life of the United States is reduced to the level of life in Juarez. Guadalajara. Mexico City. San Salvador. Haiti. India. To a common peneplain of overcrowding, squalor, misery, oppression, torture, and hate.


The Classics

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, volume 1, book 3, section 49 (tr. E.F.J. Payne):
Only the genuine works that are drawn directly from nature and life remain eternally young and strong, like nature and life itself. For they belong to no age, but to mankind; and for this reason they are received with indifference by their own age to which they disdained to conform; and because they indirectly and negatively exposed the errors of the age, they were recognized tardily and reluctantly. On the other hand, they do not grow old, but even down to the latest times always make an ever new and fresh appeal to us. They are then no longer exposed to neglect and misunderstanding; for they now stand crowned and sanctioned by the approbation of the few minds capable of judging.

These appear singly and sparingly in the course of centuries, and cast their votes, the slowly increasing number of which establishes the authority, the only judgement-seat that is meant when an appeal is made to posterity. It is these successively appearing individuals alone; for the mass and multitude of posterity will always be and remain just as perverse and dull as the mass and multitude of contemporaries always were and always are. Let us read the complaints of the great minds of every century about their contemporaries; they always sound as if they were of today, since the human race is always the same.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


Live Long and Prosper

Mark Liberman at Language Log traces the history of the Star Trek expression "Live long and prosper" back to an 1826 play by John Kerr entitled Rip van Winkle, or The Demons of the Catskill Mountains. When I tried to think of a Latin equivalent, "Ad multos annos" first came to mind. Henerik Kocher's indispensable dictionary of Latin proverbs doesn't reveal a source for the phrase, but he does give a variation that neatly and accurately renders "Live long and prosper," and that is "Ad multos et faustissimos annos," literally "To many and very prosperous years."


The World

Balzac, Le Père Goriot (tr. Ellen Marriage):
Believe everything that you hear said of the world, nothing is too impossibly bad. No Juvenal could paint the horrors hidden away under the covering of gems and gold.


Portrait of a Bureaucrat

Balzac, Le Père Goriot (tr. Ellen Marriage):
There is a race of quill-drivers, confined in the columns of the budget between the first degree of latitude (a kind of administrative Greenland where the salaries begin at twelve hundred francs) to the third degree, a more temperate zone, where incomes grow from three to six thousand francs, a climate where the bonus flourishes like a half-hardy annual in spite of some difficulties of culture.

A characteristic trait that best reveals the feeble narrow-mindedness of these inhabitants of petty officialdom is a kind of involuntary, mechanical, and instinctive reverence for the Grand Lama of every Ministry, known to the rank and file only by his signature (an illegible scrawl) and by his title -- "His Excellency Monseigneur le Ministre," five words which produce as much effect as the il Bondo Cani of the Calife de Bagdad, five words which in the eyes of this low order of intelligence represent a sacred power from which there is no appeal.

The Minister is administratively infallible for the clerks in the employ of the Government, as the Pope is infallible for good Catholics. Something of his peculiar radiance invests everything he does or says, or that is said or done in his name; the robe of office covers everything and legalizes everything done by his orders; does not his very title -- His Excellency -- vouch for the purity of his intentions and the righteousness of his will, and serve as a sort of passport and introduction to ideas that otherwise would not be entertained for a moment? Pronounce the words "his Excellency," and these poor folk will forthwith proceed to do what they would not do for their own interests.

Passive obedience is as well known in a Government department as in the army itself; and the administrative system silences consciences, annihilates the individual, and ends (give it time enough) by fashioning a man into a vice or a thumbscrew, and he becomes part of the machinery of Government.
This type thrives in the corporate world as well as in government.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


Damnatio Memoriae

It's hard to tell whether it's a case of I quit or You're fired, but Keith Burgess-Jackson (KBJ) has banished Max Goss (MG) from the Conservative Philosopher group blog. MG no longer appears on the roster of contributors, and all his posts have been removed.

Charges and counter-charges are flying back and forth. According to KJB, MG committed the following sins:KJB stinks in the nostrils of MG because:I'm not privy to all the facts, and I wouldn't presume to judge anyway. What interests me about this kerfuffle is the parallel with the ancient Roman penalty of damnatio memoriae (obliteration of memory).

In the Roman empire, treason against the state or against the emperor as the embodiment of the state was called maiestas (cf. French lèse-majesté). The penalty was often death, but to add insult to injury, an additional punishment of damnatio memoriae was sometimes imposed. Damnatio memoriae included:It seems that MG offended the majesty of KBJ, who imposed a sentence of damnatio memoriae by removing every trace of him from the Conservative Philosopher.



Hunter S. Thompson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound a few days ago. If you're interested in reading the ramblings of a drug-addled journalist, try Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822).


Hymn to Sleep

John Keats, To Sleep:
O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas'd eyes, embower'd from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
Or wait the "Amen," ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes, --
Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.

Monday, February 21, 2005



Dennis Mangan calls someone a gay punk, and Rogueclassicism wonders if the Latin vocative catamite (nominative catamitus) is a correct translation of the English punk in "Age, catamite -- fac mihi hunc diem felicissimum!" ("Go ahead, punk -- make my day!").

The American Heritage Dictionary gives "a passive homosexual; catamite" as one definition of punk.

Our English word catamite comes ultimately from the Greek mythological figure Ganymede, cupbearer of the gods. Theognis 1345-1350 (tr. J.M. Edmonds) explains how Ganymede got the job:
A pleasant thing hath lad's-love ever been since Ganymede was loved of the great Son of Cronus [Zeus], the king of the Immortals, who seized and brought him to Olympus and made him a God, what time his boyhood was in its lovely flower. In like manner, Simonides, be not thou astonished that 'tis come out that I too am taken with the love of a fair lad.


The Present Generation

Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, September 7, 1751:
The mental disease of the present generation, is impatience of study, contempt of the great masters of ancient wisdom, and a disposition to rely wholly upon unassisted genius and natural sagacity. The wits of these happy days have discovered a way to fame, which the dull caution of our laborious ancestors durst never attempt; they cut the knots of sophistry which it was formerly the business of years to untie, solve difficulties by sudden irradiations of intelligence, and comprehend long processes of argument by immediate intuition.



Henry Alford (1810-1871), Homer:
Ilion, along whose streets in olden days
Shone that divinest form, for whose sweet face
A monarch sire, with all his kingly race,
Were too content to let their temples blaze --
Where art thou now? -- no massive columns raise
Their serried shafts to heaven; we may not trace
Xanthus and Simois, nor each storied place
Round which poetic memory fondly plays.

But in the verse of the old man divine
Thy windy towers are built eternally;
Nor shall the ages, as they ruin by,
Print on thy bulwarks one decaying sign;
So true is beauty clothed in endless rhyme,
So false the sensual monuments of time.

Sunday, February 20, 2005


The Blogosphere

Tennyson, Idylls of the King, Merlin and Vivien, 662-664:
Where blind and naked Ignorance
Delivers brawling judgments, unashamed,
On all things all day long.


Stemmata Quid Faciunt?

Outer Life asks someone who boasted of his pedigree:
Are you under the impression that having a famous ancestor, by itself, entitles you to our esteem and elevates you over those of us with lowlier ancestry? Exactly how does that hereditary principle work? Does it decline over time, as lowlier genes intervene to dilute your famous ancestor's genes? Come to think of it, what exactly did you inherit from that famous ancestor, other than the fact of your descent?
The difference between the false nobility of birth and the true nobility of character was a commonplace of the ancient moralists. Plato (Theaetetus 174e-175a, tr. Benjamin Jowett) writes about the philosopher:
If he is told of the antiquity of a family, he remembers that every one has had myriads of progenitors, rich and poor, Greeks and barbarians, kings and slaves. And he who boasts of his descent from Amphitryon in the twenty-fifth generation, may, if he pleases, add as many more, and double that again, and our philosopher only laughs at his inability to do a larger sum.
Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 44 (tr. Richard M. Gummere), embellishes this theme and quotes from the passage of Plato just cited:
[1] You are again insisting to me that you are a nobody, and saying that nature in the first place, and fortune in the second, have treated you too scurvily, and this in spite of the fact that you have it in your power to separate yourself from the crowd and rise to the highest human happiness! If there is any good in philosophy, it is this, -- that it never looks into pedigrees. All men, if traced back to their original source, spring from the gods.

[2] You are a Roman knight, and your persistent work promoted you to this class; yet surely there are many to whom the fourteen rows are barred; the senate-chamber is not open to all; the army, too, is scrupulous in choosing those whom it admits to toil and danger. But a noble mind is free to all men; according to this test, we may all gain distinction. Philosophy neither rejects nor selects anyone; its light shines for all.

[3] Socrates was no aristocrat. Cleanthes worked at a well and served as a hired man watering a garden. Philosophy did not find Plato already a nobleman; it made him one. Why then should you despair of becoming able to rank with men like these? They are all your ancestors, if you conduct yourself in a manner worthy of them; and you will do so if you convince yourself at the outset that no man outdoes you in real nobility.

[4] We have all had the same number of forefathers; there is no man whose first beginning does not transcend memory. Plato says: "Every king springs from a race of slaves, and every slave has had kings among his ancestors." The flight of time, with its vicissitudes, has jumbled all such things together, and Fortune has turned them upside down.

[5] Then who is well-born? He who is by nature well fitted for virtue. That is the one point to be considered; otherwise, if you hark back to antiquity, every one traces back to a date before which there is nothing. From the earliest beginnings of the universe to the present time, we have been led forward out of origins that were alternately illustrious and ignoble. A hall full of smoke-begrimed busts does not make the nobleman. No past life has been lived to lend us glory, and that which has existed before us is not ours; the soul alone renders us noble, and it may rise superior to Fortune out of any earlier condition, no matter what that condition has been.

[6] Suppose, then, that you were not that Roman knight, but a freedman, you might nevertheless by your own efforts come to be the only free man amid a throng of gentlemen. "How?" you ask. Simply by distinguishing between good and bad things without patterning your opinion from the populace. You should look, not to the source from which these things come, but to the goal towards which they tend. If there is anything that can make life happy, it is good on its own merits; for it cannot degenerate into evil.

[7] Where, then, lies the mistake, since all men crave the happy life? It is that they regard the means for producing happiness as happiness itself, and, while seeking happiness, they are really fleeing from it. For although the sum and substance of the happy life is unalloyed freedom from care, and though the secret of such freedom is unshaken confidence, yet men gather together that which causes worry, and, while travelling life's treacherous road, not only have burdens to bear, but even draw burdens to themselves; hence they recede farther and farther from the achievement of that which they seek, and the more effort they expend, the more they hinder themselves and are set back. This is what happens when you hurry through a maze; the faster you go, the worse you are entangled. Farewell.
Juvenal's eighth satire, on the same subject, is too long to reproduce in its entirety. Here are a few excerpts:

Saturday, February 19, 2005



Tertullian, On Repentance (De Paenitentia) 1.2 (tr. S. Thelwall):
Reason, in fact, is a thing of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God the Maker of all has not provided, disposed, ordained by reason -- nothing which He has not willed should be handled and understood by reason.

Quippe res dei ratio quia deus omnium conditor nihil non ratione providit disposuit ordinavit nihilque non ratione tractari intellegique voluit.


My Neurological Disorder

Bill Maher:
I think religion is a neurological disorder.


Country Mouse and City Mouse

In Plato's Phaedo (60c-61d), the imprisoned Socrates says that he has been setting the fables of Aesop to verse. He wasn't the first or last to versify animal fables. From Archilochus in the seventh century B.C. to La Fontaine in the seventeenth century A.D., talking animals have been a favorite theme of poets.

A well-known fable is that of the country mouse and the city mouse. Horace versified it in Latin, Babrius in Greek.

Horace, Satires 2.6.79-117 (tr. John Conington):
One day a country mouse in his poor home
Received an ancient friend, a mouse from Rome:
The host, though close and careful, to a guest
Could open still: so now he did his best.
He spares not oats or vetches: in his chaps
Raisins he brings and nibbled bacon-scraps,
Hoping by varied dainties to entice
His town-bred guest, so delicate and nice,
Who condescended graciously to touch
Thing after thing, but never would take much,
While he, the owner of the mansion, sate
On threshed-out straw, and spelt and darnels ate.
At length the townsman cries: "I wonder how
You can live here, friend, on this hill's rough brow:
Take my advice, and leave these ups and downs,
This hill and dale, for humankind and towns.
Come now, go home with me: remember, all
Who live on earth are mortal, great and small:
Then take, good sir, your pleasure while you may;
With life so short, 'twere wrong to lose a day."

This reasoning made the rustic's head turn round;
Forth from his hole he issues with a bound,
And they two make together for their mark,
In hopes to reach the city during dark.
The midnight sky was bending over all,
When they set foot within a stately hall,
Where couches of wrought ivory had been spread
With gorgeous coverlets of Tyrian red,
And viands piled up high in baskets lay,
The relics of a feast of yesterday.
The townsman does the honours, lays his guest
At ease upon a couch with crimson dressed,
Then nimbly moves in character of host,
And offers in succession boiled and roast;
Nay, like a well-trained slave, each wish prevents,
And tastes before the tit-bits he presents.
The guest, rejoicing in his altered fare,
Assumes in turn a genial diner's air,
When hark! a sudden banging of the door:
Each from his couch is tumbled on the floor:
Half dead, they scurry round the room, poor things,
While the whole house with barking mastiffs rings.

Then says the rustic: "It may do for you,
This life, but I don't like it; so adieu:
Give me my hole, secure from all alarms,
I'll prove that tares and vetches still have charms."
Babrius, Fables 108 (tr. Ben Edwin Perry):
Two mice decided to share their living with each other. One of them lived in the country, the other had his nest in a rich man's pantry.

The house-bred mouse first came to dine in the country, when the fields had just begun to blossom with verdure. After nibbling on some meagre and sodden roots of grain mixed together with clods of black soil, he said: "It's the life of a miserable ant you live here, eating scant bits of barley meal in the depths of the earth. As for me, I have an abundance of good things, even more than I need. Compared with you, I live in the Horn of Plenty. If you will come with me to my house, you will indulge your appetite as much as you like and leave this ground for the moles to dig up."

So he led the toiling country mouse away, having persuaded him to enter a man's house by creeping under the wall. He showed him where there was a lot of barley, where there was a pile of pulse, casks of figs, jars of honey, and baskets full of dates. The country mouse was delighted with it all and went for it eagerly. He was dragging a piece of cheese from a basket when someone suddenly opened the door; whereupon he leapt back in fright and fled into the recess of his narrow hole, squeaking unintelligibly and crowding against his host. He waited a while and then, popping out from within, was about to lay hold of a Camiraean fig; but just then another man entered to get something else, and both mice hid themselves again in their holes.

Then said the country mouse: "Farewell to you and such feasts as these; enjoy your wealth and revel by yourself in superfine banquets. This abundance of yours is full of danger. As for me, I'll not desert the homely clods, under which I munch my barley free from fear."

Friday, February 18, 2005


Oedipus at Colonus

Apollodorus, Library 3.5.8-9 (tr. James G. Frazer):
Oedipus both succeeded to the kingdom [Thebes] and unwittingly married his mother [Jocasta], and begat sons by her, Polynices and Eteocles, and daughters, Ismene and Antigone .... When the secret afterwards came to light, Jocasta hanged herself in a noose, and Oedipus was driven from Thebes, after he had put out his eyes and cursed his sons, who saw him cast out of the city without lifting a hand to help him. And having come with Antigone to Colonus in Attica, where is the precinct of the Eumenides, he sat down there as a suppliant, was kindly received by Theseus, and died not long afterwards.
Henry Alford (1810–1871) wrote a sonnet about Oedipus at Colonus:
Colonos! can it be that thou hast still
Thy laurel and thine olives and thy vine?
Do thy close-feather'd nightingales yet trill
Their warbles of thick-sobbing song divine?
Does the gold sheen of the crocus o'er thee shine
And dew-fed clusters of the daffodil,
And round thy flowery knots Cephisus twine,
Aye oozing up with many a bubbling rill?
Oh, might I stand beside thy leafy knoll,
In sight of the far-off city-towers, and see
The faithful-hearted pure Antigone
Toward the dread precinct, leading sad and slow
That awful temple of a kingly soul,
Lifted to heaven by unexampled woe!
Sophocles was a native of the deme Colonus, and in a chorus of his play Oedipus at Colonus, he described the place with obvious affection. Many of the details in Alford's poem (olive trees, nightingale, crocus, river Cephisus, etc.) come from this chorus (lines 668-706, tr. Richard C. Jebb):
Stranger, in this land of goodly steeds thou hast come to earth's fairest home, even to our white Colonus; where the nightingale, constant guest, trills her clear note in the covert of green glades, dwelling amid the wine-dark ivy and the god's inviolate bowers, rich in berries and fruit, unvisited by sun, unvexed by wind of any storm; where the reveller Dionysus ever walks the ground, companion of the nymphs that nursed him.

And, fed of heavenly dew, the narcissus blooms morn by morn with fair clusters, crown of the Great Goddesses from of yore; and the crocus blooms with golden beam. Nor fail the sleepless founts whence the waters of Cephisus wander, but each day with stainless tide he moveth over the plains of the land's swelling bosom, for the giving of quick increase; nor hath the Muses' quire abhorred this place, nor Aphrodite of the golden rein.

And a thing there is such as I know not by fame on Asian ground, or as ever born in the great Dorian isle of Pelops, -- a growth unconquered, self-renewing, a terror to the spears of the foemen, a growth which mightily flourishes in this land, -- the grey-leafed olive, nurturer of children. Youth shall not mar it by the ravage of his hand, nor any who dwells with old age; for the sleepless eye of the Morian Zeus beholds it, and the grey-eyed Athena.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005


Brevity and Prolixity

La Rochefoucauld, Maxims 142 (tr. J.W. Willis Bund and J. Hain Friswell):
As it is the mark of great minds to say many things in a few words, so it is that of little minds to use many words to say nothing.

Comme c'est le caractère des grands esprits de faire entendre en peu de paroles beaucoup de choses, les petits esprits au contraire ont le don de beaucoup parler, et de ne rien dire.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005


The People

Anthony Daniels, aka Theodore Dalrymple, on a nightclub fire in Buenos Aires:
'The people' are sacrosanct, beyond unfavourable remark. What thousands or millions of people do cannot be wrong. Their worthless tastes, their vulgar habits, their frequently antisocial conduct, must never be criticised.


Deceit and Betrayal

La Rochefoucauld, Maxims 114 (tr. J.W. Willis Bund and J. Hain Friswell):
We are inconsolable at being deceived by our enemies and betrayed by our friends, yet still we are often content to be thus served by ourselves.

On ne se peut consoler d'être trompé par ses ennemis, et trahi par ses amis; et l'on est souvent satisfait de l'être par soi-même.


Courts of Justice

Francis Bacon, Essays LVI (Of Judicature):
The attendance of courts, is subject to four bad instruments. First, certain persons that are sowers of suits; which make the court swell, and the country pine. The second sort is of those, that engage courts in quarrels of jurisdiction, and are not truly amici curiae, but parasiti curiae, in puffing a court up beyond her bounds, for their own scraps and advantage. The third sort, is of those that may be accounted the left hands of courts; persons that are full of nimble and sinister tricks and shifts, whereby they pervert the plain and direct courses of courts, and bring justice into oblique lines and labyrinths. And the fourth, is the poller and exacter of fees; which justifies the common resemblance of the courts of justice to the bush, whereunto while the sheep flies for defence in weather, he is sure to lose part of his fleece.

Monday, February 14, 2005



W.S. Merwin, Odysseus:
Always the setting forth was the same,
Same sea, same dangers waiting for him
As though he had got nowhere but older.
Behind him on the receding shore
The identical reproaches, and somewhere
Out before him, the unraveling patience
He was wedded to. There were the islands
Each with its woman and twining welcome
To be navigated, and one to call "home."
The knowledge of all that he betrayed
Grew till it was the same whether he stayed
Or went. Therefore he went. And what wonder
If sometimes he could not remember
Which was the one who wished on his departure
Perils that he could never sail through,
And which, improbable, remote, and true,
Was the one he kept sailing home to?



Artemus Ward, The London Punch Letters, 4 (At the Tomb of Shakespeare):
Some kind person has sent me Chawcer's "poems." Mr. C. had talent, but he couldn't spel. No man has a right to be a lit'rary man onless he knows how to spel. It is a pity that Chawcer, who had geneyus, was so unedicated. He's the wuss speller I know of.


Portrait of a Pedant

Samuel Butler, Hudibras, Part I, Canto I, lines 51-58:
Beside, 'tis known he could speak Greek
As naturally as pigs squeak;
That Latin was no more difficile,
Than to a blackbird 'tis to whistle:
Being rich in both, he never scanted
His bounty unto such as wanted;
But much of either would afford
To many, that had not one word.

Sunday, February 13, 2005


An Emasculated Country

Henry David Thoreau, Journal, March 23, 1856:
I spend a considerable portion of my time observing the habits of the wild animals, my brute neighbors. By their various movements and migrations they fetch the year about to me. Very significant are the flight of geese and the migration of suckers, etc., etc.

But when I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here, -- the cougar, the panther, lynx, wolverine, wolf, bear, moose, deer, the beaver, the turkey, etc., etc., -- I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed, and, as it were, emasculated country. Would not the motions of those larger and wilder animals have been more significant still? Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with? As if I were to study a tribe of Indians that had lost all its warriors. Do not the forest and the meadow now lack expression, now that I never see nor think of the moose with a lesser forest on his head in the one, nor of the beaver in the other?

When I think what were the various sounds and notes, the migrations and works, and changes or fur and plumage which ushered in the spring and marked the other seasons of the year, I am reminded that this my life in nature, this particular round of natural phenomena which I call a year, is lamentably incomplete. I listen to [a] concert in which so many parts are wanting. The whole civilized country is to some extent turned into a city, and I am that citizen whom I pity.

Many of those animal migrations and other phenomena by which the Indians marked the season are no longer to be observed. I seek acquaintance with Nature, -- to know her moods and manners. Primitive Nature is the most interesting to me. I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of the spring, for instance, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth. All the great trees and beasts, fishes and fowl are gone. The streams, perchance, are somewhat shrunk.

Saturday, February 12, 2005


The Life of the Party

Outer Life describes the torment of a shy soul at a party. Social misfits (of which I am one) know from bitter experience how true his description is.

Dennis Mangan expertly translates a fine poem by Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas (1580-1645). Instead of making yourself miserable at a party, follow Quevedo's example:
Retired to the peace of this deserted place
Together with a few but learned books
I live in conversation with those passed away,
And with my eyes listen to the dead.
Update: Dennis now has a revised translation.



Hesiod, Works and Days 410-413 (tr. Hugh G. Evelyn-White):
Do not put your work off till to-morrow and the day after; for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor one who puts off his work: industry makes work go well, but a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin.


Words of Life

Matthew 4.4:
Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginibus Puerisque:
Man is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, but principally by catchwords.

Friday, February 11, 2005


Eyes and Ears

Jeremiah 5.21:
Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not.
Ezekiel 12.2:
Son of man, thou dwellest in the midst of a rebellious house, which have eyes to see, and see not; they have ears to hear, and hear not: for they are a rebellious house.
Mark 8.18:
Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember?
See also Isaiah 6.9-10 (quoted by Matthew 13.13-15, John 12.40, Acts 28.26-27, and Romans 11.8), Mark 4.11-12 and 8.18, Luke 8.10, and John 9.39-41.

This paradox of unseeing eyes and unhearing ears was also proverbial in Greek, as [Demosthenes] 25.89 (tr. J.H. Vince) makes clear:
As the saying runs, "seeing, they see not; hearing, do not hear."
Here are some similar passages:Plutarch, On the Education of Children 13e (tr. Frank Cole Babbitt) is only superficially similar, since he is talking about connivance, not obtuseness:
It is a good thing also to pretend not to know of some shortcomings, and to turn the old man's dull eye and dull ear to what they do, and seeing, not to see, and hearing, not to hear, sometimes, what goes on.

Thursday, February 10, 2005


Ancient Literature

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II, Part I, Chapter XV:
All who aspire to literary excellence in democratic nations ought frequently to refresh themselves at the springs of ancient literature; there is no more wholesome medicine for the mind. Not that I hold the literary productions of the ancients to be irreproachable, but I think that they have some special merits, admirably calculated to counterbalance our peculiar defects. They are a prop on the side on which we are in most danger of falling.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


Julius Caesar

H.J. Rose called Caesar "one of the most unsuitable authors for a beginner that can be imagined." Here is a poem by Arthur Christopher Benson (1862–1925) on Caesar, entitled After Construing:
Lord Caesar, when you sternly wrote
  The story of your grim campaigns,
And watched the ragged smoke-wreath float
  Above the burning plains,

Amid the impenetrable wood,
  Amid the camp's incessant hum,
At eve, beside the tumbling flood
  In high Avaricum,

You little recked, imperious head,
  When shrilled your shattering trumpet's noise,
Your frigid sections would be read
  By bright-eyed English boys.

Ah me! who penetrates to-day
  The secret of your deep designs?
Your sovereign visions, as you lay
  Amid the sleeping lines?

The Mantuan singer pleading stands;
  From century to century
He leans and reaches wistful hands,
  And cannot bear to die.

But you are silent, secret, proud,
  No smile upon your haggard face,
As when you eyed the murderous crowd
  Beside the statue's base.

I marvel: that Titanic heart
  Beats strongly through the arid page,
And we, self-conscious sons of art,
  In this bewildering age,

Like dizzy revellers stumbling out
  Upon the pure and peaceful night,
Are sobered into troubled doubt,
  As swims across our sight

The ray of that sequestered sun,
  Far in the illimitable blue,—
The dream of all you left undone,
  Of all you dared to do.
Caesar described the siege of Avaricum in the seventh book of De Bello Gallico. The Mantuan singer is Vergil.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005


A Word of Wisdom

Anton Chekhov, The Two Volodyas:
"Here, you are a clever man, Volodya," said Sofya Lvovna. "Show me how to do what Olga has done. Of course, I am not a believer and should not go into a nunnery, but one can do something equivalent. Life isn't easy for me," she added after a brief pause. "Tell me what to do .... Tell me something I can believe in. Tell me something, if it's only one word."

"One word? By all means: tarara-boom-dee-ay."


Letting Off Steam

Gilbert and Sullivan, Utopia Limited, Act I:
When I want to let off steam, I have no alternative but to say, "Lalabalele molola lililah kallalale poo!"

Monday, February 07, 2005



Samuel Johnson, The Rambler 155 (September 10, 1751):
Indolence is therefore one of the vices from which those whom it once infects are seldom reformed. Every other species of luxury operates upon some appetite that is quickly satiated, and requires some concurrence of art or accident which every place will not supply; but the desire of ease acts equally at all hours, and the longer it is indulged is the more encreased. To do nothing is in every man's power; we can never want an opportunity of omitting duties.

Sunday, February 06, 2005


President Polk

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Age of Jackson (1945), XXXIV, 1 (p. 452):
Polk's great defect was an inability to recognize the honesty of opposition. It was always selfish and factious, based on ambition or jealousy or disappointment over patronage. This dry assumption of infallibility gave his administration its peculiar strength -- its decision, its firmness of purpose, its steady selection of ends, and its precise achievement of them. But it was also responsible for its peculiar weakness. As a result of misjudging the grounds of opposition, Polk consistently underestimated its moral force.


Veni, Sancte Spiritus

My daughter received the sacrament of Confirmation yesterday at the Cathedral of St. Paul. She made me very proud and happy.

This hymn to the Holy Ghost is attributed to Stephen Langton. It is my prayer for my daughter.
Veni, Sancte Spiritus,
et emitte coelitus
lucis tuae radium.

Veni, pater pauperum,
veni, dator munerum
veni, lumen cordium.

Consolator optime,
dulcis hospes animae,
dulce refrigerium.

In labore requies,
in aestu temperies
in fletu solatium.

O lux beatissima,
reple cordis intima
tuorum fidelium.

Sine tuo numine,
nihil est in homine,
nihil est innoxium.

Lava quod est sordidum,
riga quod est aridum,
sana quod est saucium.

Flecte quod est rigidum,
fove quod est frigidum,
rege quod est devium.

Da tuis fidelibus,
in te confidentibus,
sacrum septenarium.

Da virtutis meritum,
da salutis exitum,
da perenne gaudium.
John Mason Neale's translation preserves the metre and rhyme scheme of the original:
Come, Thou holy Paraclete,
And from Thy celestial seat
Send Thy light and brilliancy:

Father of the poor, draw near;
Giver of all gifts, be here;
Come, the soul's true radiancy.

Come, of comforters the best,
Of the soul the sweetest guest,
Come in toil refreshingly:

Thou in labor rest most sweet,
Thou art shadow from the heat,
Comfort in adversity.

O Thou Light, most pure and blest,
Shine within the inmost breast
Of Thy faithful company.

Where Thou art not, man hath naught;
Every holy deed and thought
Comes from Thy divinity.

What is soilèd, make Thou pure;
What is wounded, work its cure;
What is parchèd, fructify;

What is rigid, gently bend;
What is frozen, warmly tend;
Strengthen what goes erringly.

Fill Thy faithful, who confide
In Thy power to guard and guide,
With Thy sevenfold mystery.

Here Thy grace and virtue send:
Grant salvation to the end,
And in Heav'n felicity.

Friday, February 04, 2005


You Can't Take It With You

Horace, Epistles 2.2.175-179:
Since everlasting possession is given to no one, and one heir follows the heir of yet another heir like water flowing over water, what good are estates and storehouses? What good are pastures in Lucania joined to pastures in Calabria, if Death harvests the great along with the small and cannot be bribed by gold?

sic quia perpetuus nulli datur usus, et heres
heredem alterius velut unda supervenit undam,
quid vici prosunt aut horrea? quidve Calabris
saltibus adiecti Lucani, si metit Orcus
grandia cum parvis, non exorabilis auro?
Here are some ancient variations on the same theme:

Thursday, February 03, 2005


Paper Route

I never had a paper route of my own, but I used to deliver papers for a friend during the summer when he went with his family on long vacations. Kihm Winship's essay on his paper route brought back many memories, not all of them pleasant. The worst thing was collecting the money, as Kihm recalls:
People who didn't answer the door, didn't hear the doorbell, didn't have $2.48 and hey, could I come back next week, and of course I could. I was not a very intimidating figure. In the seventh grade, I weighed 65 pounds. Nor did I have a forceful personality or an upbeat attitude.


One dark, cold, windy, winter evening, I rang a doorbell and the man came to the porch and opened the door. I said, "Courier-Express, two-forty-eight." And he said, "I'll be right back." He closed the door. I stood out in the dark and cold for about five minutes, not wanting to anger a grownup by ringing the bell again, but finally giving in. The door opened again and he laughed out loud, and said, "Hey, I forgot about you!" Then he closed the door again.
But there are pleasant memories, too. I had teenage fantasies about a young divorcée on my route. In my daydreams, I was collecting money, she came to the door dressed in a flimsy negligée, invited me inside her apartment, said she was lonely, and ....


The Best Expedient

Alessandro Manzoni, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), chap. 2 (tr. Archibald Colquhoun):
People of far greater importance than Don Abbondio have more than once found themselves in situations so unpleasant, and have been so uncertain what to do next, that they have found the best expedient was to take to their beds with a fever.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005


Prayer for an Insomniac

Seneca, Hercules Furens 1063-1081:
Free his heart, o gods above, free it from these dire portents, turn his irrational mind to a better way. And you, Sleep, conqueror of evils, heart's relief, better part of human life, winged son of your mother Astraea, gentle brother of harsh Death, you who mix false dreams with true, trustworthy and yet unreliable prophet of the future, respite from wanderings, life's harbor, rest from daylight and companion of night, you who come equally to king and slave, who compel the human race, fearful of death, to become acquainted with endless night: peacefully and calmly refresh this weary man, bind him with heavy numbness, overpower him, let restfulness fetter his limbs and not depart from his savage breast until his mind is restored and regains its former path.

solvite tantis animum monstris,
solvite, superi, caecam in melius
flectite mentem. tuque, o domitor
Somne malorum, requies animi,
pars humanae melior vitae,
volucre o matris genus Astraeae,
frater durae languide Mortis,
veris miscens falsa, futuri
certus et idem pessimus auctor,
pax errorum, portus vitae,
lucis requies noctisque comes,
qui par regi famuloque venis
pavidum leti genus humanum
cogis longam discere noctem:
placidus fessum lenisque fove,
preme devinctum torpore gravi;
sopor indomitos alliget artus,
nec torva prius pectora linquat,
quam mens repetat pristina cursum.
Some previous posts on related subjects:

Tuesday, February 01, 2005



Joseph Wood Krutch, The Voice of the Desert (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1954), p. 191:
To almost everything except man the smell of humanity is the most repulsive of all odors, the sight of man the most terrifying of all sights.

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