Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Guiding Principles

Ernst Robert Curtius (1886-1956), at the beginning of his European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, tr. Willard E. Trask (1953; rpt. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), set forth ten "Guiding Principles," in the form of untranslated quotations from five European languages. I could find existing translations of only the first three principles, so I tried to translate the others myself. Thanks very much to friends who patiently answered questions and made suggestions—any remaining errors and infelicities are my own fault. I've also added a few notes. Curtius put the citations after the quotations; I put them before.

1. Herodotus, I, ch. 8:

πάλαι δὲ τὰ καλὰ ἀνθρώποισι ἐξεύρηται, ἐκ τῶν μανθάνειν δεῖ.

Translated by A.D. Godley:

Men have long ago made wise rules from which one ought to learn.

2. Polybius, XV, 4.11:

πατέρων εὖ κείμενα ἔργα.

Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert:

The noble traditions of our fathers.

It's a bit difficult to understand this phrase, by itself, as a guiding principle. In the original Greek, the words are the object of the verb διαφυλάξαι (to guard, preserve, uphold). "To preserve the noble traditions of our fathers" would be an appropriate principle.

3. Petronius, ch. 118:

... neque concipere aut edere partum mens potest nisi ingenti flumine litterarum inundata

Translated by Michael Heseltine:

... the mind cannot conceive or bring forth its fruit unless it is steeped in the vast flood of literature

4. Proverb:

Ne tu aliis faciendam trade, factam si quam rem cupis.

If you want something done, don't give it to others to be done.

This proverb isn't in Hans Walther, Proverbia Sententiaeque Latinitatis Medii Aevi (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963-1969), or Renzo Tosi, Dictionnaire des sentences latines et grecques, tr. Rebecca Lenoir (Grenoble: Jérôme Millon, 2010). W.M. Lindsay quotes it as an old proverb (proverbii veteris) in the Latin preface to his edition of Isidore's Etymologiae (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), p. vi.

Update: see Not an Ancient Latin Proverb.

5. Les Narbonnais:

Guillames dist a ceus qui o lui erent:
"Seignor," fet il, "les bones uevres perent;
Fesom aussi con cil qui bien ovrerent."

William spoke to those who were with him:
"Gentlemen," he said, "good deeds perish*;
Let us, too, act with those who do good deeds."

See Hermann Sucher, ed., Les Narbonnais: Chanson de Geste (Paris: Librairie de Firmin Didot et Cie, 1898), p. 26, who prints these lines (numbered 611-613) as follows:

Guillames dist a ceux qui o lui erent:
"Segnor," fet il, "les bones hoevres perent.
Fessom ausi con cil qui bien ovrerent!"

*Update: Trond Kruke Salberg writes in an email (January 9, 2016):
The verbal form "perent" is 3rd person plural indicative present tense of Old French "paroir" (= Modern French "paraître": to appear, to be or become visible). It has nothing to do with Modern French "périr".
Change the translation above, therefore, to "good deeds are conspicuous."

6. Goethe, Flüchtige Übersicht über die Kunst in Deutschland (1801):

Vielleicht überzeugt man sich bald, dass es keine patriotische Kunst und patriotische Wissenschaft gebe. Beide gehören, wie alles Gute, der ganzen Welt an und können nur durch allgemeine freie Wechselwirkung aller zugleich Lebenden, in steter Rücksicht auf das, was uns vom Vergangenen übrig und bekannt ist, gefordert werden.

Perhaps people will soon be convinced that there is no patriotic art, no patriotic science. Both belong, like all good things, to the entire world and can be furthered only by free and universal cooperation among all now living, with constant reference to what has been handed down and is familiar to us from past generations.

7. Jacob Burckhardt, Werke, XIV, 57 8:

Auch die Zeiten des Verfalls und Untergangs haben ihr heiliges Recht auf unser Mitgefühl.

Even times of decay and destruction have their sacred right to our sympathy.

8. Gustav Gröber, Grundriss der romanischen Philologie, I (1888), 3:

Absichtslose Wahrnehmung, unscheinbare Anfänge gehen dem zielbewussten Suchen, dem allseitigen Erfassen des Gegenstandes voraus. Im sprungweisen Durchmessen des Raumes hascht dann der Suchende nach dem Ziel. Mit einem Schema unfertiger Ansichten über ähnliche Gegenstände scheint er das Ganze erfassen zu konnen, ehe Natur und Teile gekannt sind. Der vorschnellen Meinung folgt die Einsicht des Irrtums, nur langsam der Entschluss, dem Gegenstand in kleinen und kleinsten Schritten nahe zu kommen, Teil und Teilchen zu beschauen und nicht zu ruhen, bis die Überzeugung gewonnen ist, dass sie nur so und nicht anders aufgefasst werden dürfen.

Unintentional observation and unremarkable beginnings precede the purposeful search, the comprehension of the object in all its aspects. Crossing the area in fits and starts the researcher strives to attain his goal. With a pattern of incomplete views of similar objects, he seems able to grasp the whole before its character and parts are known. Rash opinion follows the insight gained through error, and only slowly does one resolve to approach the object in small and even smaller steps, to examine it part and parcel, and not to rest until convinced that things should be understood in just this way and not otherwise.

9. Antoine Meillet, Esquisse d'une histoire de la langue latine (1928):

On aurait souhaité de n'être pas technique. À l'essai, il est apparu que, si l'on voulait épargner au lecteur les détails précis, il ne restait que des généralités vagues, et que toute démonstration manquait.

One would have liked not to be technical. But in the attempt, it seemed that, if one wanted to spare the reader specific details, there remained only vague generalities, and all proof was lacking.

10. José Ortega y Gasset, Obras (1932), 963:

Un libro de ciencia tiene que ser de ciencia; pero también tiene que ser un libro.

A scientific book must be scientific; but it also must be a book.

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