Dio, continued

26 March 2012

Up on Lacus in the last few days, a few more of the Greek originals of the Discourses of Dio Chrysostom: 53, 56, 57, 60, 80. For a while, some of the wind was taken out of my sails when I discovered that Perseus has them all — but in fact, on closer inspection, they only have 1‑13 and 31‑35, which right now is nice complementarity, since of those I only have 5 and 9. At any rate, for the Greek originals, the situation is currently: 39 of them only on Lacus, 16 only on Perseus, and 2 on both: with 23 not online anywhere that I know of. For English translations, Dio is complete on Lacus, and as far as I can tell, neither Perseus nor anyone else has any of them.


Modern cartoons, ancient ideas

11 August 2011

Martin Rowson is a British cartoonist. You can find his work in The Guardian, like this one, which connects the Tottenham Riots with the financial crises that continue to plague the western world:

I think it’s brilliant, but that’s not why I am writing this. The same comparison – politicians doing nothing while the world is burning – is made in the next cartoon, which appeared on 28 October 1912 in the German satirical journal Simplicissimus. It illustrates the outbreak of the First Balkan War: “Unfortunately,” the caption says, “the united European fire brigade was unable to stop te fire”.

The fact that two cartoonists make the same comparison, illustrates the power of the metaphor. The idea that the world can be set ablaze, is a very old one. I believe that it stems from Stoic ideas about ekpyrosis and Christian and Jewish apocalypticism. Both are, in turn, inspired by Zoroastrian ideas about the end of the world.

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.

Socrates’ Obscene Last Words

20 May 2010

The Silenus-like Socrates (Louvre)

I recently made a remark on this blog that Socrates‘ last words were obscene, to which Mr Steven Saylor replied that he liked me to elaborate on it. I gladly do so, because Mr Saylor is the author of several nice novels (here‘s his website).

The story is told by Plato and can be found in the Phaedo (118a). Socrates has drunk from the poison cup, walks around to make the venom do its work, sits down, and the executioner touches him, telling him that his body will become stiff; when this stiffness will reach his heart, he will pass away.

Now when the stiffness reaches the lower part of Socrates’ torso (ἦτρον), Socrates “uncovers himself”. The now naked part of his body is not mentioned, but there is no reason to assume that it was his head, as nearly all painters represent this scene. (The custom to cover one’s head when one senses one was going to die, was Roman.) With at least one part of his body uncovered, Socrates’ final words are, “We owe a cock to Asclepius”. The Greek word that Plato uses, “ἀλεκτρυών”, has the same meaning as the English “cock”.

Being touched, stiffness, the lower part of the body, uncovering oneself, a cock: Plato offers no less than five signal words, and the listener must have understood what Plato did no say, that the dying Socrates had, to use the medical phrase, a “terminal erection”. Socrates’ last words, fitting for a man whose portrait is modeled on Silenus, were a joke.


Eva Keuls, The Reign of the Phallus (1985)

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 (31): Pythagoras

21 February 2010

Pythagoras (Musei Capitolini, Rome)

One of the most famous anecdotes from Antiquity deals with the philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras (c.570-c.495), who discovered the theorem that is named after him, and sacrificed an ox – or even one hundred oxen – to celebrate this. The joke that ever since the oxen are afraid of scientific progress has been used a bit too often by scientists dismissing critical reviews.

For several reasons, this anecdote is problematic. In the first place, because it is probably one of those unhistorical tales attributed to Pythagoras. Another example is his legendary visit to the ancient Near East, which is referred to for the first time in the second century CE, when Apuleius says that the Samian sage was “believed by some to have been a pupil of Zoroaster” (Apology, 31). In his Refutation of All Heresies (1.2.12), Hippolytus of Rome (early third century CE) implies that he had read this story in a book by Aristoxenus of Tarentum, a contemporary of Alexander the Great. Yet, even if Hippolytus’ is right (which is doubtful), this means that Pythagoras’ eastern trip is unmentioned by earlier authors describing Pythagoras’ life and opinions, even though Herodotus, Plato, and Aristotle had many opportunities to discuss it. The story is almost certainly invented, just like Pythagoras’ visit to India.

The same applies to the theorem that in right-angled triangles the square on the hypothenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the sides containing the right angle. Pythagoras and his pupils were interested in mathematical proof, certainly, but the first to attribute the theorem to the Samian sage is Proclus (412-485), who lived almost one thousand years after Pythagoras (On Euclid I, 426.6-14 [Friedlein]).

A second problem is that the principle was already well-known prior to Pythagoras. Several cuneiform texts from the twenty-first and twentieth century BCE prove the that the ancient Babylonians not only knew that a²+b²=c², but also knew that this principle was generally applicable. There is a difference in the way Babylonians and Greeks proved this rule, but it is possible to overstate Pythagoras’ importance.


J. Høyrup, ‘The Pythagorean “Rule” and “Theorem” – Mirror of the Relation between Babylonian and Greek Mathematics’ in: J. Renger (red.): Babylon. Focus mesopotamischer Geschichte, Wiege früher Gelehrsamkeit, Mythos in der Moderne (1999).

<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.