The sign of Socrates

5 February 2011
A stylized starburst


Yet another chunk of Plutarch: the De Genio Socratis; just in English, since the Greek text, along with a French translation, is already available at Philippe Remacle’s site.

We need not be misled by the title, “On the Genius (Sign, Daemon) of Socrates”; maybe a third of it discusses in what his guardian voice might have consisted, and it is embedded in a typically Greek matrix of (1) moral concerns, (2) mysticism, and (3) murder — this last, the Theban uprising of 379 BC, forming the unlikely setting and in fact the main topic: after a spirited discussion of Buddhist reincarnation, virtue and the paths of the planets thru the Milky Way, the philosophers run off to assassinate the heads of their government.

Samples of (1), (2), and (3), in order:

For if it is a noble act to benefit friends, it is no disgrace to be benefited by them; for the favour, requiring a recipient no less than a giver, needs both to be made perfect in nobility. He who refuses to accept the favour, like the man who refuses to catch a well-directed ball, disgraces it, allowing it to fall to the ground without achieving its end. For what target is so delightful to hit and so painful to miss, as a man deserving kindness at whom we aim a favour? Yet in the case of the target the man who misses has only himself to blame, as the mark is fixed; whereas with favours, the man who declines and moves aside is guilty of an offence against the favour, allowing it to fall short of its goal.

Some of it was of the pure hue of the high seas, while elsewhere the colour was not unmixed, but turbid and like that of a pool. As they crested the surge the islands came back, without, however, returning to their point of departure or completing a circle; but with each new circuit they advanced slightly beyond the old, describing a single spiral in their revolution. The sea containing these was inclined at an angle of somewhat less than eight parts of the whole toward the midmost and largest portion of the surrounding envelope, as he made out; and it had two openings receiving rivers of fire emptying into it across from one another, so that it was forced far back, boiling, and its blue colour was turned to white. All this he viewed with enjoyment of the spectacle. But looking down he saw a great abyss, round, as though a sphere had been cut away; most terrible and deep it was, and filled with a mass of darkness that did not remain at rest, but was agitated and often welled up. From it could be heard innumerable roars and groans of animals, the wailing of innumerable babes, the mingled lamentations of men and women ….

[W]hen Melon, the first to make a move, set out through their midst, his hand on his sword hilt, Cabirichus, the magistrate appointed by lot, caught his arm as he passed and shouted: “Isn’t this Melon, Phyllidas?” Melon, however, disengaged himself, drawing his sword as he did so, and rushing at Archias, who was having trouble getting to his feet, did not slacken his blows until he had killed him. Philippus was wounded by Charon near the neck, and as he defended himself with the goblets set before him, Lysitheüs threw him from his couch to the ground and dispatched him. We endeavoured to quiet Cabirichus, adjuring him not to lend aid to the tyrants but help us set his country free, as his person was sacred and consecrated to the gods in that country’s behalf. But as he was not easily to be won over to the wiser course by an appeal to reason, the wine also having its effect, but was getting to his feet, excited and confused, and couching the spear our magistrates are accustomed to keep always with them, I seized it in the middle and raising it above my head shouted to him to let go and save himself, as he would otherwise be cut down; but Theopompus came up at his right and struck him with his sword, saying: “Lie there with these you toadied to: may you never wear the chaplet when Thebes is free and never sacrifice again to the gods before whom you have invoked so many curses on your country in your many prayers for her enemies.” When Cabirichus had fallen, Theocritus (who was standing near) caught up the sacred spear from the blood, while we dispatched the few servants who had ventured to fight back and locked up the rest ….

There’s still a lot of Plutarch left: right now, only 45% of the Moralia are onsite.

Plutarch, Progress in Virtue

6 April 2010

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

LacusCurtius’ Bill Thayer is now especially occupied with making available the biographies of a long series of nineteenth-century American officers (here), but in the meantime also continues to put online some ancient stuff.

Today’s contribution came, to me, as a pleasant surprise: Plutarch’s essay How We may Become Aware of Our Progress in Virtue, one of my favorite texts from Antiquity. It’s polemical: the Stoics had argued that only wise people can be virtuous, and Plutarch shows that this is absurd. Admittedly, Plutarch’s suggestions on how we realize that we’re becoming more virtuous/wise, is rather commonplace. Yet, it is a good question – perhaps one of the best questions we may expect from philosophers.

Common Errors (28): Cleopatra’s Viper

23 January 2010

Cleopatra with a cobra ("Esquiline Venus"; Musei Capitolini, Rome)

It’s a great story, perfectly suited for a theater or movie adaptation: the final moments of the Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra, who had herself bitten by a viper. There is indeed ancient evidence for this story, which is told by Plutarch (Marc Antony, 86):

It is said that the viper (aspis) was brought with those figs and leaves and lay hidden beneath them, for thus Cleopatra had given orders, that the reptile might fasten itself upon her body without her being aware of it. But when she took away some of the figs and saw it, she said: “There it is, you see,” and baring her arm she held it out for the bite.

However, this cannot be true. A viper’s bite is not fatal. Only a few scholars have realized the problem, and they have argued that in fact a cobra must be meant. However, the Greeks and Romans were perfectly capable of distinguishing several kinds of snakes. The poet Lucian even offers a catalog of reptiles (with their poisonous effects) in his Pharsalia, book nine.

I do not know what really happened, but I have an idea: Octavian sent a soldier to kill the queen, because he could not afford to capture her. Just imagine that he returned to Rome with a woman tied to his triumphal chariot. The Romans would joke that he had not won a major war, but had merely defeated a woman. There is, of course, no evidence for this theory, but at least it is possible. That’s more than we can say about a fatal viper’s bite.

<Overview of Common Errors>

More Plutarch

25 September 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer continues to add texts documenting Greek intellectual life. To start with, there’s Plutarch‘s Consolation to Apollonius, “into which quotations from earlier authors have been emptied from the sack rather than scattered by hand”, as the author of the introduction to the Loeb edition remarks. His explanation for this odd phenomenon is that this text is the rough draft of a letter. If this is true, we can see how Plutarch really thought – jumping from one quote to another. This man’s thoughts were shaped by classical texts, literally.

The second text is Plutarch’s Dinner of the Seven Sages, which is essentially a fun text comparable to an imaginary meeting of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Montaigne. What would the Seven Sages have said, had they been able to meet each other? The joke is, of course, that real quotes of the seven sages had to be used.

The third text is Theophrastus’ Weather Signs (Περὶ σημείων): a mixed collection of popular wisdom. I found it more interesting than I had expected. One would have expected something more profound from a pupil of Aristotle.

Inscriptions from Jordan

29 August 2009
Funeral stone from Madaba (Louvre)

Funeral inscription from Madaba (Louvre)

The regular readers will by now have realized that I am currently focusing on Jordan in Antiquity; I will visit that country in November, in šāʾ Allāh. Before I will put online a page on the Nabataeans, I’ve first made available several inscriptions. The photo to the right shows a funeral inscription now in the Louvre; it is from the tomb of a grandfather and a grandson, and contains an interesting Greek loanword.

Three other inscriptions can be found here; one of them dates -amusingly- from the exactly the beginning of our era, the month of Tebeth of the ninth year of Aretas IV, i.e., the two last weeks of 1 BCE or the two first weeks of January 1 CE.

The Deir ‘Alla Inscription is about eight centuries older. It describes the revelations of the prophet Balaam, son of Beor, who is also known from the Biblical book of Numbers. In the first part, he describes how a group of evil deities wants to destroy the world, and how Balaam is able to avert this danger; a second part describes Sheol, the Underworld.

Meanwhile, Bill has made available uncle Plutarch‘s unfinished declamation On Affection for Offspring.

Plutarch, for a friend

27 August 2009
fictitious portrait of Plutarch

A fictitious 16c portrait of Plutarch

Another “request” item; this time, a real request, from my friend Susan, whose site Elfinspell is a Wunderkammer of mediaevalia and classical Antiquity. So, tracking down a sort-of citation in chapter 5 of Sir John Lubbock’s The Pleasures of Life, another bit of Plutarch: On Brotherly Love; just in English. A French translation is available at Philippe Remacle’s site; neither of us yet have the Greek.

There’s a lot of Plutarch left! Right now, only 40% of the Moralia are onsite (40.2%, to be precise).

Water or Fire

30 June 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

From my fingers to God’s ear; I hope He has something better to do — this one is none too good, although here and there it makes up for it in downright weirdness: ps‑Plutarch • Is Water or Fire More Useful? (no Greek online anywhere that I know of, and I didn’t add any, either).


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