Saturday, November 27, 2010


Verses on Chaeremon the Stoic

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 3.7.13 (1116 a 12, tr. H. Rackham):
But to seek death in order to escape from poverty, or the pangs of love, or from pain or sorrow, is not the act of a courageous man, but rather of a coward...
The ancient Stoics, on the other hand, did allow poverty as an acceptable reason for suicide. See Miriam Griffin, "Philosophy, Cato, and Roman Suicide: I," Greece & Rome 33 (1986) 64-77 (at 73):
Another passage likens the proper reasons for leaving life to those for leaving a banquet (SVF 3.768):
(1) because the oracle tells one to kill oneself to save one's country, that is, in the simile, because one's services are suddenly required, as in the case of the appearance of a friend after a long time;
(2) because tyrants are forcing us to do or say disgraceful things; that is, because of the arrival of rowdy revellers;
(3) protracted disease preventing the soul from using its tool, the body = spoilage of provisions at the banquet;
(4) poverty = scarcity of provisions at the banquet;
(5) madness = drunkenness at the banquet.
Martial 11.56 (tr. D.R. Shackleton Bailey) criticizes Chaeremon, a Stoic, for his readiness to depart from life by reason of poverty:
Stoic Chaeremon, because you laud death overmuch, do you wish me to admire and look up to your courage? A jug with a broken handle makes this valor of yours, and a dismal hearth unwarmed by any fire, and a mat, and a gnat, and the frame of a bare truckle bed, and a short gown worn night and day alike. What a hero you are, who can do without dregs of red vinegar and straw and black bread! Come, let your pillow swell with Leuconian wool, and silky purple drape your couches, and a boy sleep with you who lately tormented the guests with his rosy face as he mixed the Caecuban: oh, how eager you will be to live three time the years of Nestor, how you will want to lose no instant of any day! It is easy to hold life cheap with straightened means: he who can be wretched plays the man.
The same, tr. Peter Whigham:
Your Stoic commendations of the grave
  rouse neither wonder nor esteem.
'Tis virtue caused by mere cracked crockery,
  by a cheerless, chilled, fireless hearth,
By flea-ridden mattressing, bare bedframe,
  one all-purpose, skimpy toga.
A rare asceticism to renounce
  lees of cheap red wine, straw, black bread!
What with a mattress of Leucanian wool?
  What with thick-napped sofa draperies?
A cup-boy for your couch, whose Caecuban, whose
  pink mouth, makes havoc with your guests?
You'd settle then for three times Nestor's years,
  and not mislay one day of them.
Straitened means invite to scorn of living:
  fortitude meets penury head on.
The same, tr. James Michie:
Because you hysterically glorify death, old Stoic,
Don't expect me to admire you as heroic.
What does your high-mindedness amount to but a few broken-handled jugs,
A cheerless, fireless hearth, some moth-eaten rugs,
A bare bed-frame, a cut-down toga (worn day and night)—and bugs?
What a spiritual achievement—to be able to do without straw for your bed,
Sour red wine and cheap black bread!
Come off it! Imagine yourself tucked up asleep
Under thick purple quilts, on pillows bulging with wool of Leuconian sheep,
In the arms of a red-lipped boy who's just filled your guests' cups to the brim
And made them long for a taste of him.
Ah, be honest, then you'd pray
To live three times as long as Nestor, to savour every minute of every day.
It's easy to despise life when things go wrong:
The true hero endures much, and long.
The same, tr. Paul Nixon:
As a Stoic, Chaeremon, you eulogize death:
  Don't think you do aught to admire there.
    You're bold since you've got
    Only one broken pot
  And a woebegone grate with no fire there,
And a mat and a bug and the frame of a bed,
  And a toga whose duty is double.
    Ah, brave to resign
    All those lees of sour wine,
  To forego eating black bread and stubble!
But look here! Gallic wool swells your mattresses now;
  You've a purple draped couch, one supposes:
    Fair slaves when you dine
    Serve you Caecuban wine;
  You've a mistress whose lips are like roses.
Were it thus you would wish to live thrice Nestor's years;
  Every moment you'd cherish and treasure.
    When a man's down at heels
    Death's a pleasure, he feels.
  He's brave who refuses the pleasure.
The same, tr. James Elphinston:
The stoic soul, that daily death desires,
Can e'er Cheremon think my soul admires?
On what a base does such high virtue stand?
On a poor pitcher, who has lost her hand:
On a desponding hearth, that never glows;
Yet sometimes smoke, for satisfaction, shows:
On the fell moths, that have consum'd a rug;
On a bare bedsted, odor'd by a bug:
On once a gown, tho' now curtail'd a cloke:
Ah! night and day, one undiminisht joke.
What fortitude is his, who can forgo
All he allows felicity below!
The blackest crustlings e'er becruncht by grub;
The dreg of vinegar, and couch of stub!
But, bolder still, my sage, invert thy plan:
Tempt other walks, no less indulg'd to man.
With wool Leuconic, let thy pillow swell;
And, o'er thy down, let woven purple dwell.
Hail ev'ry sweet, nor banish ev'ry sour;
Of food, of raiment, of the social hour.
Nay, let the fair sublime the joys of night,
Whom thy delighted guests confest so bright.
How shalt thou hug a thrice-told Nestor's age,
Nor of the three vast volumes lose a page!
Then were it great, thy glories to resign;
And, to forsake the earth, were half-divine.
But, should'st thou prove the meanest of mankind;
Thou may'st create the bliss, thou dost not find.
The storms of life who greatly would despise,
Must sink with spirit, and by patience rise.
Conflicting scenes 'tis easy to detest:
Brave is the man, who brooks to be distrest.
The same, tr. R. Fletcher:
  Stoick Cheraemon cause that thou
  Canst cry up death I know not how
Thou wouldst have me this thy fortitude admire:
  Some broken Pitcher bred in thee
  This seeming piece of gallantrie,
Or else some frozen Chimney without Fire;
  A noysom Worm, or Coverlid,
  Or Side-Piece of thy naked Bed,
Or a short Coat worn by thee day and night,
  O what a mighty Man thou'lt seem
  That canst the Dregs of sower red Wine,
And thatch, and poor course black bread dare to slight!
  But yet suppose thy Couch should bee
  Stuft with Leuconick wooll for thee,
And Purple Vallions should thy Bed attire,
  And that thy Boy with thee should sleep,
  Which fill'd rich Wine with rosy lip
And set thy love-inflamed guests on fire?
  O how wouldst thou then wish to see
  Thrice Nestor's years fullfill'd in thee?
And not a minute of a day loss'd have?
  To slight a life in miserie
  Is nothing: But he that can bee
Contentedly distress'd is truly brave.
The same, tr. Thomas May:
That thou, Cheraemon, death dost oft desire
Thou would'st have us thy stoic mind admire.
This high resolve comes from an earelesse pot,
A chimney without fire to keep it hot,
A bedsted eat with wormes, rugs coarse and light,
One short bare gown to weare both day and night.
How brave a man art thou canst leave such geere
As straw, coarse bread, and lees of vinegar!
But if a woven purple coverled,
And fine french lawne adorn'd thy downy bed,
Hadst thou a girl, whose rosie lips would fire,
As wine she fills the lustfull guests desire:
Then thou to live thrice Nestor's years would'st pray,
And would'st not lose an houre of any day.
In poore estate 'tis easie scorning death;
Valiant is he dares draw a wretched breath.
The Latin:
Quod nimium mortem, Chaeremon Stoice, laudas,
  vis animum mirer suspiciamque tuum?
hanc tibi virtutem fracta facit urceus ansa,
  et tristis nullo qui tepet igne focus,
et teges et cimex et nudi sponda grabati,
  et brevis atque eadem nocte dieque toga.
O quam magnus homo es, qui faece rubentis aceti
  et stipula et nigro pane carere potes!
Leuconicis agedum tumeat tibi culcita lanis
  constringatque tuos purpura pexa toros,
dormiat et tecum modo qui, dum Caecuba miscet,
  convivas roseo torserat ore puer:
o quam tu cupies ter vivere Nestoris annos
  et nihil ex ulla perdere luce voles!
rebus in angustis facile est contemnere vitam:
  fortiter ille facit qui miser esse potest.

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