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).

More Plutarch

29 June 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

Bill copies the translations of Plutarch‘s Moralia faster than even God can read them.  I am glad that they are online now. Today’s installments are:

So many Greek texts… Seeing the speedy expansion of their number, I think Bill will soon have to rebaptize his increasingly inaccurately named website “LacusCurtius. Into the Roman World”, and will name it  “Trophonius’ Cave. Into the Greek World”. 😉

Finishing things, sort of

26 June 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

When I was a kid I collected stamps. Back in those days, it was still not so far in the past that many countries issued stamps in “series” — a set of stamps with a single design, but each denomination in a different color. The stamp collector was thus very often enticed into trying to get the whole series, an amusing and harmless semi-competitive endeavor.

Well, this compulsive trait has surfaced again from my childhood. I originally had no intention of putting all of Plutarch online, many of his works being concerned with philosophy and Greek stuff, and I’m not fond of either. But little by little — at Attalus there is a page entitled “Plutarch: Moralia — list of translations”; and if anyone out there has been wondering why certain Plutarch items have been going up at Lacus rather than others, it goes far to explain it. I’m filling in the blanks, starting by and large with those texts that don’t appear to be online anywhere at all; and when I’m done with those, I’ll probably wind up by putting up the others as well … to “complete the series”. Right now, in addition to the Lives (complete), Lacus has just short of 30% of the Moralia.

Today’s item is an exception, though, since already up elsewhere, but it was short: On Envy and Hate (envy rather than hate, in fact) with Philippe Remacle’s Greek and French linked, as before. It’s a bland little essay, tells us a bit about envy, but not what to do about it; reminds me of the oft-told story, with various famous American divines in the title rôle, of the preacher who gave a two-hour sermon on Sin: when a parishioner was asked by an absent friend what he’d said, the reply — “He was against it.”

The good Plutarch

25 June 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

Amyot thought and wrote of Plutarch as “le bon Plutarque”; and I’ve just put online one of the items that gave him that reputation, that made him “the good Plutarch.”

Plutarch can be very good. Good in two senses: (1) as opposed to not very good, unfinished, fragmentary, turgid, pro-forma — a lot of that in the Plutarchean corpus, as previously noted — but also (2) good in the sense of therapeutic for the common man. If philosophy among the Greeks covered disciplines as diverse as metaphysics and meteorology, theories of history and religion, political science and ethics, it also covered psychology; and the essay usually called De vitioso pudore (“On Compliancy” in the Loeb translation) is one of the psychological ones, and apparently breaks new ground: it’s a clear exposition, not previously made by anyone, of a fault common to many of us, and what to do about it. The fault in question is one of my worst, and has caused me endless personal grief; I hope that for once, in addition to doing the donkey work for which LacusCurtius is now famous and being of academic use to serious students of Antiquity, I might pay attention to what I transcribed, and maybe do myself some good. My own title for it — as the Loeb editor’s introduction points out, the Greek word is very difficult to render — is On Not Letting Ourselves Be Bullied. The approach is typical Plutarch: the moral person is the happy person; and this particular essay, in its easy humanity but at the same time its astringent sense of morality, is very reminiscent of the Desert Fathers (or of course, the other way round).

No Greek onsite: again, grec et français chez Philippe Remacle with links to him on each of my pages, under the Greek and French flags as before.

Oh, what a difference 40 years makes….

18 June 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

Plutarch, or at least the body of work transmitted to us under his name, covers a multitude of sins.

Some of these works are so fragmentary as to be next to nothing; some very few are so bizarre or so inept that they cannot possibly be by him (unless they’re impish self-parodies); some seem to be his own working notes or collections extracted from him by others; some are abstruse Gnostic-like disquisitions on the slenderest of topics, the kind of thing that gives philosophy a bad name; finally, many are banal and derivative; and many, and not just either the longest and the best-known, are marked by warmth, humanity, psychological insight, humor, and outright genius: the Plutarch of Montaigne and Shakespeare.

I’ve just put online two of these unpredictable critters — as it turns out, one each of the last two types mentioned; amazing they should be by the same man, but to me, at least, they both bear the unmistakable imprint of Plutarch: the first, the dull one, On the Love of Wealth (De cupiditate); the other, Should Old Men Take Part in Affairs of State? (An seni respublica gerenda sit). The “only” thing that separates them is forty years or so of living; the latter is clearly addressed by one old man to another he has known for many years — “neither of us shall desert the long companionship in the journey which we have thus far made together” — this one sentiment and the gracious expression of it sufficient to place the essay in a class of its own; the other essay, so the Loeb editor tells us, is characterized by youthful “exuberance and fancifulness of diction”: but we need not be proficient in ancient Greek prose style to recognize it clearly as the work of a very young man, just by its inadequate and regurgitative treatment of the subject.

I feel privileged to see the beginning and end of such a man’s life, and as it were share in his journey; would we all did so well in the business and art of being human.

No Greek onsite for either one, since Philippe Remacle has the Greek original of both on his site; I was off the hook easily: you will find links to him on each of my pages, under the Greek and French flags of course.

Plutarch, That a Philosopher ought to Converse especially with Men in Power

18 June 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

Although LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer is also occupied with putting online texts on the history of the United States, he continues to put online the Moralia by Plutarch. Today’s contribution is a brief treatise with the dazzling title That a Philosopher ought to Converse especially with Men in Power.

Plutarch addresses an old question. Plato had argued that in the best constitution, the state was ruled by philosophers. When he was offered to organize Syracuse according to his ideas, Plato failed miserably. His pupil, Aristotle, argued that it was better if a king had philosophers as his advisers. Plutarch essentially sides with the latter, arguing that one should not put a light under a bushel.

Two texts by Plutarch

13 June 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer has returned to putting online the Moralia by Plutarch, and today, we can read two well-known treatises:

Both texts are fragments of larger discourses. The ideas are not very original, which the ancients almost expect from texts on this subject. The constitutional debates in Herodotus (Histories, 3.82), Cassius Dio (Roman History, 52), Josephus (Jewish Antiquities, 19), and Philostratus (Life of Apollonius, 5.31ff) are surprisingly similar. Plutarch’s ideas are another branch of this tree.

The Glory of Athens

10 June 2009
The Parthenon

The Parthenon

So many of the Greek and Roman texts I transcribe and present on Lacus can be considered as irrelevant to us today, if not in their most general lines of course, certainly in their details. One of today’s items, though, is not: Plutarch’s fragmentary essay On the Glory of Athens. I hadn’t read it, but it was part of the immense backlog of items not online or not onsite that I was eventually going to get around to; Jona’s entry a few days ago on the runner of Marathon decided me to put it up, mostly so he’d have something to link to for the careful reader eager to read the actual source. The incidental mention of Marathon aside, however, the essay itself turned out to be so relevant to the modern world and to modern America, that I’m not far from considering it part of my American history site. (The Greek original is also up.)

While I was at it, I noticed that a squib of Plutarch that I’d already put up in English translation, the Greek wasn’t that long, why not — so it’s now gone to join it: Εἰ διδακτόν ἡ ἀρετή.

Common Errors (12): Marathon

31 May 2009
A Greek soldier and his panoply (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussels)

A Greek soldier and his panoply (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussels)

In 490 BCE, Hippias, a former tyrant of Athens, attempted to return to his native city, which was, by now, in the hands of the democrats. His interests matched those of the Persian king Darius I the Great, who liked the idea of a pro-Persian regime among the Yauna-across-the-Sea. The expedition turned out to be an epic failure: the army was defeated at Marathon. After the Athenian victory, a man named Thersippus of Eroeadae ran to Athens to announce the outcome; having told his compatriots that they were safe, he fell down dead.

At least, that’s what Plutarch says in his treatise The Glory of Athens. But the reliability of this anecdote is about zero. Plutarch lived about six centuries after the events. Worse, he adds that other sources report that the runner was called Eucles, and that he covered the distance while wearing his panoply, which is physically impossible. The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who lived shortly after the famous battle and could interview the survivors, knows nothing about the Marathon runner, although he does mention a long-distance runner named Pheidippides who ran to Sparta to ask for reinforcement.

Whatever the reliability of the story, Plutarch’s anecdote inspired the organizers of the first modern Olympics, in 1896 in Athens, to invent an athletic contest of epic dimensions: the marathon run. It was repeated on later occasions, and since the Olympic Games of London (1908), the distance has always been 42 kilometer. Many people now believe that it’s also 42 kilometer from the battlefield to the Athens, but that is not the case. It is in fact about 35 kilometer, depending on your route. I once covered it in a little over seven hours. Without panoply.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (1): Archimedes’ Heat Ray

20 April 2009

It is one of the most impressive movie scenes I have ever seen: how Archimedes set Roman warships afire with a burning mirror, in the famous Italian movie Cabiria (1914; scene starts at 20’24). The incident, which took place during the siege of Syracuse in 212 BCE, can be found in many history books and continues to amaze. Unfortunately, it can not be true.

Scene from Cabiria: Archimedes hexagonal mirror (top) sets a Roman ship (front) afire.

Scene from Cabiria: Archimedes' hexagonal mirror (top) sets a Roman ship (front) afire.

There are two arguments. In the first place, the laws of physics. On at least three occasions, people have tried to repeat the trick; they established that, if you use dozens of mirrors, you can indeed set fire to an object at a short distance (50-60 meter). The sources, however, refer to only one mirror or a couple of mirrors. Worse, the object must remain on the same place for some time, which is not very likely: the Roman galleys were subject to waves, winds, and swell. To really work, the mirror must have a diameter of at least eleven meters, which is larger than the largest telescope mirror ever made.

As a practical instrument, the weapon can, therefore, not exist, unless Archimedes could suspend the laws of nature. The story is pseudoscientific in its most elementary sense.

The second argument is that the famous incident is not recorded in our sources. Historians like Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch offer detailed descriptions of the siege of Syracuse and mention new weapons, but the heat ray is not among them. This is sufficient to send the story to the country of fairy tales.

But what are the origins of the story? Now, things become more complex.

The first to refer to Archimedes as firemaker appears to have been the satirical writer Lucian, who praises an engineer for having surpassed several legendary engineers, including Archimedes, who invented an instrument to set ships afire (Hippias 2). We know more about this from Lucian’s younger contemporary Galen, who offers an account of spontaneous combustion of houses, and adds that “this, they say, was how Archimedes set fire to the enemy ships by means of pyreia” (On Temperaments 3.2). Pyreia is usually translated as “firesticks”. Note that Lucian and Galen do not identify the enemy.

As far as I know, the first to refer to Archimedes using mirrors, is the Byzantine author Anthemius of Tralles (sixth century) in a book called On miraculous engines. On page 153 and 156 (ed.Westerman), he informs us that Archimedes’ secret weapon consisted of many small, flat mirrors. The Byzantine author Tzetzes (twelfth century) even offers a detailed description:

Archimedes constructed a kind of hexagonal mirror, and at an interval proportionate to the size of the mirror, he set similar small mirrors with four edges, moving by links and by a kind of hinge, and made the glass the centre of the sun’s beams … So after that, when the beams were reflected into this, a terrible kindling of flame arose upon the ships, and he reduced them to ashes a bow-shot off (Chiliades, 2.109-123).

This is the instrument shown in Cabiria, but the experiments have shown that it is too simple to do the job; Tzetzes cannot have used an authentic source.

There’s perhaps one author before Anthemius who may have referred to burning mirrors: the third-century historian Cassius Dio, but his account of the siege is lost. However, Tzetzes’ older contemporary Zonaras summarizes Dio’s History of the Roman Empire, and refers to the burning mirror. The problem is that Zonaras often introduces stories to his excerpt, and this may be one of these additions; worse, he also writes that this weapon was used in 514 by one Proclus, when he defended Constantinople against the ships of the Gothic adventurer Vitalianus (Annals 14.55).

Summa summarum: I think that Proclus’ experimental weapon, which must have been known to Anthemius, is the origin of the story. Alternatively, the story of Archimedes’ mirrors appears to have been invented in the age of Lucian, Galen, and Cassius Dio, about half a millennium after the siege of Syracuse.

This is not unique: think only of Pythagoras, who is never credited with the theorem that is now named after him, until the fourth century CE.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Carnivoracity, or Sarcophagy

7 December 2008

white_lambFrom lamb to lamb chop — Plutarch as a fired-up young vegetarian: On Eating Meat. (A fragmentary pair of essays)

More Misery

12 November 2008

Another essay of Plutarch’s, either closely related to the one I put up a coupla days ago, or even part of the same one; since both are fragmentary and deal in the same kind of subject, it’s hard to tell. Anyway, online, in Greek and English: Πότερον τὰ τῆς ψυχῆς ἢ τὰ τοῦ σώματος πάθη χείρονα.

Only the wicked know misery

10 November 2008

— in celebration of which, I’ve put the appropriate essay of Plutarch’s online, in Greek and English: Εἰ αὐτάρκης ἢ κακία πρὸς κακοδαιμονίαν.

Plutarch: de exilio

9 October 2008

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

Looks like yesterday Jona and I crossed posts; this time I’ve avoided it by not posting to my own site until I did it here: Plutarch’s little tract On Exile is now onsite at Lacus, in English and Greek cross-linked. Exile, a common legal penalty in Roman times, not as bad as all that — philosophical and practical reasons.