David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: classics (page 1 of 4)

Books of the Year 2014

I had less time for reading this year than I would have liked. When I selected Drago Jancar’s haunting and beautiful The Tree with No Name for Slate’s Overlooked Books, it was still with the knowledge that I’d read a lot less fiction than I’d wanted. And Antal Szerb’s excellent, though modest Journey by Moonlight is a bit of a cheat, since I read it (and wrote about it) when Pushkin Press published it all the way back in 2003, rather than when NYRB Classics reissued it this year. It’s stayed with me, though, so I can pick it with more certainty than some of the other choices.

Seeing Richard McGuire’s long-gestating Here finally be published bookends my reading the original 8 page version in RAW when I was 13, when it changed my life. I wrote about the original Here in 2003 too.

And Alonso de Ercilla’s 1569 Spanish-Chilean epic The Araucaniad has been an alluring title to me since I read about it in David Quint’s fascinating Epic and Empire in connection with Lucan’s Civil War. Quint described The Araucaniad as one of those rare epics that takes the side of the losers, and it’s one of those artifacts, like Lucan’s Civil War, that doesn’t fit neatly with any common sense of literary history. Its relevance stems from its own grim variation on a theme that is at the heart of so many great epics and books: in Quint’s words, “that those who have been victimized losers in history somehow have the right to become victimizing winners, in turn.” It deserves a new translation.

As with last year, I haven’t read the entirety of some of the nonfiction selections: Chris Wickham is an excellent historian but I’m not going to deny that some of his Annales-ish wonkery had my eyes skimming. And while the biology and physics books are pretty interesting, I can’t say with much certainty that they’re accurate.

If anyone’s curious as to why some book or other made the list, feel free to ask in the comments. Thanks again for reading my work here or elsewhere.

(As always, I do not make any money from these links; they’re just the easiest way to get the thumbnails.)


The Araucaniad
Alonso de Ercilla Y Zuniga Vanderbilt University Press

Contemporaries and Snobs (Modern & Contemporary Poetics)
Laura Riding University Alabama Press

The Tree with No Name (Slovenian Literature Series)
Drago Jancar Dalkey Archive Press

I Am China: A Novel
Xiaolu Guo Anchor

All Our Names
Dinaw Mengestu Knopf

Foreign Gods, Inc.
Okey Ndibe Soho Press

Prae, Vol. 1
Miklos Szentkuthy Contra Mundum Press

The Time Regulation Institute
Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar Penguin Classics

The Alp (Swiss Literature Series)
Arno Camenisch Dalkey Archive Press

The Stories of Jane Gardam
Jane Gardam Europa Editions

Harlequin's Millions: A Novel
Bohumil Hrabal Archipelago

Journey by Moonlight (NYRB Classics)
Antal Szerb NYRB Classics

Midnight in the Century (NYRB Classics)
Victor Serge NYRB Classics



The Classical Tradition: Art, Literature, Thought
Michael Silk, Ingo Gildenhard, Rosemary Barrow Wiley-Blackwell

Inside Paradise Lost: Reading the Designs of Milton's Epic
David Quint Princeton University Press

Why Is There Philosophy of Mathematics At All?
Ian Hacking Cambridge University Press

A World without Why
Raymond Geuss Princeton University Press

From Akhenaten to Moses: Ancient Egypt and Religious Change
Jan Assmann The American University in Cairo Press

Social Dynamics
Brian Skyrms Oxford University Press

Absolute Music: The History of an Idea
Mark Evan Bonds Oxford University Press

Common Knowledge?: An Ethnography of Wikipedia
Dariusz Jemielniak Stanford University Press

July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914
T. G. Otte Cambridge University Press

The Logical Must: Wittgenstein on Logic
Penelope Maddy Oxford University Press

After Hegel: German Philosophy, 1840-1900
Frederick C. Beiser Oxford University Press

Becoming Mead: The Social Process of Academic Knowledge
Daniel R. Huebner University of Chicago Press

The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics after Napoleon
Brian E. Vick Harvard University Press

Children into Swans: Fairy Tales and the Pagan Imagination
Jan Beveridge McGill-Queen's University Press

Earth's Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters
Martin J. S. Rudwick University Of Chicago Press

Forensic Shakespeare (Clarendon Lectures in English)
Quentin Skinner Oxford University Press

The Computing Universe: A Journey through a Revolution
Tony Hey, Gyuri Pápay Cambridge University Press

In Other Shoes: Music, Metaphor, Empathy, Existence
Kendall L. Walton Oxford University Press



Here (Pantheon Graphic Library)
Richard McGuire Pantheon

Beautiful Darkness
Fabien Vehlmann, Kerascoët Drawn and Quarterly

Hubert NBM Publishing

Dungeon: Twilight – Vol. 4: The End of Dungeon
Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim NBM Publishing

Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen
Dylan Horrocks Fantagraphics

Incomplete Works
Dylan Horrocks Victoria University Press

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth: A Novel
Isabel Greenberg Little, Brown and Company

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth: A Novel
Isabel Greenberg Little, Brown and Company

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy
Abel Lanzac SelfMadeHero

Kenneth Rexroth on Aristotle’s Poetics

Bashing on Aristotle has become a fond pastime since the Scientific Revolution, but the mere fact that he was wrong about many, many things isn’t enough to explain the repulsion he attracts, nor my own persistent lack of interest in him. Laura Riding, in Lives of Wives, portrayed a fictionalized Aristotle as prodigious and indefatigable, but also smug, opportunistic, and terminally pedestrian. She’s merely quoting Aristotle’s works here when she has him rebut Plato, but does so in a way to highlight some of his most unflattering traits:

‘Is this not to put philosophy in place of the laws,’ asked Aristotle, ‘and make philosophic justice a rival to legal justice? Should we not use philosophy to strengthen the laws rather than to compete with them?’

Laura Riding, Lives of Wives

His Poetics is one of the earliest works of literary criticism that have come down through the ages. It gets Oedipus Rex completely wrong, but nonetheless, Aristotle’s aesthetics held great sway well beyond the point that his physics did. None of that is Aristotle’s fault, but I think it’s a good indicator of how the appearance of systematic, elegant thought can trump the reality of sloppiness and fiat, not only in a work’s own time but for centuries thereafter.

Kenneth Rexroth’s passionate assessment of the Poetics may be roughshod, but it hits on something quite profound about Aristotle’s sensibility and its virtues and defects–that only someone so shallow in sensibility should cast such a wide-ranging net over the founding of logic and various sciences, for a keener mind would have fallen into the many hopeless conundrums that Aristotle rather blithely passed by and considered, if not settled, at least untroubling. It substantially lines up with Laura Riding’s assessment: he organized better than he analyzed.

Around each of the key words of Aristotle’s short definition of tragedy the most violent controversies have raged, and to this day no two translators or commentators agree on the meanings of all of them. If Greek tragedy is the etherialization of myth, Aristotle’s little essay–it is not really booklength–on tragedy is something like myth itself. It has functioned as a myth of criticism, the subject of innumerable etherializations….

There is no evidence in the Poetics that Aristotle possessed any sensitivity to the beauties of poetry as such. Although the Poetics is concerned almost exclusively with tragedy, Aristotle had less of what we call the tragic sense of life than almost any philosopher who ever lived, less even than Leibniz with his “best of all possible worlds.” Aristotle was an optimist. Leibniz’ judgment never entered his mind. The world he studied was simply given. It was not only the best, it was the only one possible. There was nothing in the human situation that could not be corrected by the right application of the right principles of ethics, politics, and economics. Even Plato, who banned the poets from the Republic, and in the Laws permitted only happy, patriotic plays to be performed by slaves, had a greater awareness of the meaning of tragedy–which is precisely why he banned it….

The Poetics is a textbook of the craft of fiction and as such it is far more applicable to the commercial fiction of modern magazines than to Greek tragedies. It has been called a recipe book for detective-story writers. Actually the fictions that come nearest to meeting Aristotle’s specifications are the standard Western stories of the pulp magazines. These are not to be despised. Ernst Haycox and Gordon Young raised the American Western story to a very high level. Year in, year out, Western movies are better than any other class of pictures. The great trouble with Haycox and Young is that they were rigorously Aristotelian and therefore ran down into monotonously repeated formulas. It is hard to think of any other kinds of fiction, either novels or dramas, which do exemplify the Poetics. The neoclassic theater of Corneille and Racine or Ben Jonson is governed by rules which are pseudo-Aristotelianism, the invention of Renaissance critics….

By katharsis Aristotle means the same thing that we mean when we say “cathartic.” His attitude toward the arts was not at all that they were the highest expression of mankind, but that they served as a kind of medicine to keep the ordinary man who lived in the world between the machines of meat– the slaves–and the philosophers who spent their time thinking about first principles; free from emotions, and hence motives, that would disrupt the social order. Like Freud after him, Aristotle’s esthetics are medical. What the Poetics says in the last analysis is, “Timid, sentimental, and emotionally unstable people will feel better, and be better behaved, after a good cry on the stone benches of the theater.” This is an esthetics identical with that of the child psychologists who are hired to apologize for lust and murder on television. There is never a hint in Aristotle that tragedy is true.

The Poetics could have been written substantially unchanged if Aristotle had never seen a Greek tragedy. The imaginary tragedy which could be deduced from the Poetics resembles the commercial fictions of our day for a very simple reason. It is a projection of the ordinary mind, the same then as now. It is the kind of play Aristotle himself would have written if he had possessed, not the genius of Sophocles, but the learned talents of an ordinary craftsman. It is the kind of play that a highly competent academic philosopher, biologist, physicist, or psychologist would write today.

Kenneth Rexroth, More Classics Revisited

Rexroth’s critique here, of the supposedly profound thinker revealed to be conventional and conservative, elevated only by the breadth and depth of his conservatism, is surprisingly representative of a fictional figure who is portrayed in similarly scathing terms: Arnheim in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.

Myles Burnyeat presents a more substantial variation on this general argument, focusing on Aristotle’s comparative embrace of accepted opinions (endoxa):

Aristotle is unique among ancient philosophers in his respect for people’s opinions: both the opinions of other philosophers and the opinions of the ordinary man. He does not defend a ‘common sense’ philosophy in the manner of G.E. Moore, but if something is believed by absolutely everyone, then, he holds, it must be true. Aristotle also does something that a 20th-century philosopher like Moore could never have dared. He establishes science on the basis of the opinions of ‘the majority’ and of ‘the wise’….

Aristotle’s official methodology implies that if the stock of available endoxa were significantly different, the conclusions of his dialectic would be different too. How then can he claim that his conclusions are true?…

Consider some of the conclusions for which Aristotle argues with the help of some of the opinions which were accepted and esteemed in his day. Slavery is just; the world is eternal and the same things have always existed in it; the atomic theory of matter is defective because it fails to explain the difference between dinner and breakfast. I have of course chosen examples which tell against Ross’s conviction that Aristotle ‘rarely writes what anyone would regard as obviously untrue’. But the point of choosing them is to raise the question whether reputable opinion can fulfil the heuristic and evidential role that Aristotelian philosophy assigns to it….

The fact that a proposition is believed by the majority or by experts is not for Aristotle just a sign that, if we asked them, they could cite evidence for the proposition. Their belief, as he treats it, is already some evidence in favour of what they believe; even if the opinion is not correct, it is likely to contain an element of truth which the dialectic can sift out and formulate clearly….

The appeal to ‘our’ beliefs, ‘our’ intuitions, ‘our’ way of speaking, is as common in philosophy today as it was earlier in the century, and Aristotle’s name is still frequently invoked to show that opinion of one sort or another is a reputable basis for philosophy to start from. The irony is that if Aristotle’s professed methodology was sound, there would be little to add to The Complete Works of Aristotle.

Myles Burnyeat, “Good Repute”

Father Time: Chronos and Kronos

"Classic" Kronos: The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn

Classic Kronos: The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn (Kronos)

It is easy to confuse the Greek god of time, Chronos (Χρόνος), with Zeus’ Titan father, Kronos (Κρόνος). So easy, in fact, that the conflation has been made for over two thousand years. The Greeks conflated them regularly, at least according to Plutarch. The Romans then coopted Kronos into the form of Saturn, who later became known as Father Time and the god of time.

To make things even more confusing, sometime in the late Roman Empire, Saturn was then conflated with the Greek concept of kairos, which designates a pregnant or opportune “special” time. Kairos is somewhat opposed to chronos, which signifies day-to-day time in general. Chronos is the quotidian, the recurrent, the passing of the years, while kairos is the moment, the event, the suspension of the normal. But both were piled onto Saturn over the centuries.

Time is always a messy concept, in mythology and otherwise. I haven’t found a good overview of the nooks and crannies of these nominal twins; this is my attempt.

The Greek origins are frustratingly fuzzy, as usual. Chronos doesn’t appear in Hesiod’s Theogony, which tells the usual story of Kronos eating his children and then being tricked by his wife Rheia into regurgitating them, then being defeated by them (as well as Zeus, who Rheia hid).

But Chronos does appear in the cosmogony of the sixth century BCE writer Pherekydes of Syros. Pherekydes posits three primordial deities: Chronos, proto-Zeus figure Zas, and proto-Gaia figure Chthonie. Zas marries Chtonie and gives her the earth and sea as a wedding present, turning Chthonie into her present Ge, the earth. The gifts are partly created, however, by Chronos himself:

Zas always existed, and Chronos and Chthonie, as the three first principles.. .and Chronos made out of his own seed fire and wind [or breath] and water… from which, when they were disposed in five recesses, were composed numerous other offspring of gods, what is called ‘of the five recesses’, which is perhaps the same as saying ‘of five worlds’.

Fragment 52, Kirk, Raven, Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers

Then there is a big gap in our knowledge, and the next thing we have from Pherekydes is Kronos (not Chronos) fighting with Ophioneus over who should hold the heavens. Kronos wins. Apart from the oddness of Kronos allying with Zas, there are all sorts of other questions:

Scholars have generally assumed that at some point Chronos becomes Kronos, and Zas Zeus, and perhaps Ge Rheia. Such an assumption seems likely to be right, but poses some problems for our understanding of the relationship between Zeus and Kronos: do they clash as in Hesiod after the fall of Ophioeus, or are they allies in that battle and subsequently, with Zeus simply assuming a more prominent role toward the end of the poem? … There still remains the fact that Zeus (as Zas) and Kronos (as Chronos) have both existed forever, in contrast to Ophioneus, and there seems no good reason why either of them should suddenly engage in conflict with the other….

On the whole, then, I think it best to assume that Zas and Chronos work together in harmony from beginning (of which there is none) to end, and that the battle with Ophioneus (from his name clearly a Typhoeus counterpart) and his brood is the only conflict which Pherekydes envisioned.

Timothy Gantz, Early Greek Myth

Kirk and Raven say that Pherekydes was clearly “addicted to etymologies,” and so perhaps did the joining of similarly named gods, turning Time into a creator and Zeus and Kronos into allies.

Onto the post-classical Hellenistic world. In his book on the Orphic poems, M.L. West tells of Clement quoting from a hymn to a god that is both father and son to Zeus: “The god is probably Kronos (Chronos), called Zeus’ son because of the story in the Rhapsodic Theogony that Zeus swallowed the older gods and brought them forth again. Cf. Hymn 8.13” This leaves us with the perplexing loop of Kronos killing both his father and children, only to have his surviving son become his father.

And the ourobourus is doubly appropriate because one of Chronos’ early forms was a winged serpent, which developed into a three-headed serpent in Orphic cosmogony:

The serpent form of Chronos may have its origins in Egyptian fantasy, but in Orphic poetry it took on a symbolic significance which justified its retention and elaboration. Chronos was represented, we are told, as a winged serpent with additional heads of a bull and a lion, and between them the face of a god. How is this to be imagined? The detail that the wings were `on his shoulders’ suggests that the whole upper part of his body was of human shape apart from the wings and extra heads. This is also indicated by the fact that his consort, who was `of the same nature’, had arms. If the couple are mainly anthropomorphic above the waist and snakelike below, they are reminiscent of Echidna (Hes. Th. 298-9, Hdt. 4.9.1), and even more of her consort Typhoeus as he is represented on a well-known Chalcidian hydria in Munich.

M.L. West, The Orphic Poems

Zeus and Typhoeus (Chronos?)

Zeus and Typhoeus (akin to the Orphic Chronos–minus two heads)

West sees a common Indo-European origin to these myths shared by Indian, Egyptian, and Greek sources. He speculates:

The snake was an ancient and natural symbol of eternity because of its habit of sloughing its skin off and so renewing its youth. It may also be relevant that the serpent with human head and arms is the regular shape of river-gods. The idea of Time as a river is present in at least one passage of tragedy (Critias 43 F 3.1-3 `Tireless Time with his ever-flowing stream runs full, reborn from himself’); and it would be assisted by the fact that Oceanus is usually the father of rivers, if in the Orphic poem Chronos was represented as born to Oceanus. River-gods are not usually fitted with wings, of course, and would have no use for them. But they are a natural adjunct for a cosmic serpent with no earth to glide upon. We may compare the wings of Pherecydes’ world tree, and in art the wings of the sun’s horses. In a wider context, wings are freely bestowed by archaic artists upon all manner of divine beings, and fabulous monsters such as sphinxes and griffins are also winged; the type of the winged Typhoeus has its place with them. That Time should be winged is something in which it is easy to find symbolic meaning.

M.L. West, The Orphic Poems

As an anthropomorphic god, however, Chronos fades out while Kronos retains his standard position as Zeus’ father, parricide, and filicide in classical Greek sources.

Plutarch, though, continues to speak of a more figurative allegory known in the Orphic cults and to the Greeks in general:

And they are those that tell us that, as the Greeks are used to allegorize Kronos (or Saturn) into chronos (time), and Hera (or Juno) into aer (air) and also to resolve the generation of Vulcan into the change of air into fire, so also among the Egyptians, Osiris is the river Nile, who accompanies with Isis, which is the earth; and Typhon is the sea, into which the Nile falling is thereby destroyed and scattered, excepting only that part of it which the earth receives and drinks up, by means whereof she becomes prolific.

Plutarch, “Of Isis and Osiris”

Kronos was not the only one to be allegorized into chronos, however. There are bits of evidence of hero-demigod Herakles/Hercules also being equated with the winged serpent.

Athenagoras and Damascius both record that the winged serpent Chronos was also called Heracles. Why? What was there about Heracles that enabled him to be identified with a creature of such physical monstrosity and such cosmic importance? Only one plausible answer has so far been suggested. In the legendary cycle of twelve labours, in the course of which Heracles overcame a lion, a bull, and various other dangerous fauna, some allegorical interpreters saw the victorious march of the sun through the twelve signs of the zodiac. Time is measured by the sun and the solar year. It is thus that Heracles-Helios can be addressed by the author of the Orphic Hymns as `father of Time’ (12.3), and by Nonnus as `thou who revolvest the son of Time, the twelve-month year’ (D. 40.372). By the same token, it may be argued, the Orphic Chronos, Time himself, might be identified with Heracles, the indomitable animal-tamer of the zodiac.

However, there is another possibility. For Plato, time is defined by the complex movements of the sun, moon, and planets; and when they have played through all their permutations and returned to the same relative positions, the `perfect year’ and the `perfect number of time’ are complete. The early Stoics derived from this their doctrine of the Great Year, at the end of which the cosmos is totally dissolved into fire. They defined time as the dimension of cosmic movement. Time was therefore coextensive with the Great Year, and could be considered to pause in the ecpyrosis. Now we find in Seneca, after a thoroughly Stoic exposition of the identity of God, the author of the world, with Nature and Fate, the argument that he may be equated with (among other divinities) Hercules, `because his force is invincible, and when it is wearied by the promulgation of works, it will retire into fire’. The allusion is on the one hand to the Stoic ecpyrosis, on the other to the pyre on the summit of Mount Oeta in which Heracles was cremated and achieved apotheosis after completing his labours. In this Stoic allegorization of the Heracles myth, then, the cycle of labours corresponds to the totality of divine activity in the course of the Great Year. Since divine activity is coextensive with the cosmos, that means that Heracles’ labours represent everything that happens in cosmic time.

M.L. West, The Orphic Poems

This is admittedly rather speculative. It is noteworthy, however, because it links Chronos to one of two Greek cults that thrived heavily under Rome, those of Herakles and Dionysus.

The movement from the literal to the figurative is not the only direction. The process works in reverse as well. What subsequently happens is a combining and recombining in which incompatible features are freely merged and tossed away. Here the best single guide is Ernst Panofsky’s article “Father Time.”

In none of these ancient representations do we find the hourglass, the scythe or sickle, the crutches, or any signs of a particularly advanced age. In other words, the ancient images of Time are either characterized by symbols of fleeting speed and precarious balance, or by symbols of universal power and infinite fertility, but not by symbols of decay and destruction. How, then, did these most specific attributes of Father Time come to be introduced?

The answer lies in the fact that the Greek expression for time, Chronos, was very similar to the name of Kronos (the Roman Saturn), oldest and most formidable of the gods. A patron of agriculture, he generally carried a sickle. As the senior member of the Greek and Roman Pantheon he was professionally old, and later, when the great classical divinities came to be identified with the planets, Saturn was associated with the highest and slowest of these. When religious worship gradually disintegrated and was finally supplanted by philosophical speculation, the fortuitous similarity between the words Chronos and Kronos was adduced as proof of the actual identity of the two concepts which really had some features in common. According to Plutarch, who happens to be the earliest author to state this identity in writing, Kronos means Time in the same way as Hera means Air and Hephaistos, Fire.

The Neoplatonics accepted the identification on metaphysical rather than physical grounds. They interpreted Kronos, the father of gods and men, as nous, the Cosmic Mind (while his son Zeus or Jupiter was likened to its ’emanation,’ the psyche, or Cosmic Soul) and could easily merge this concept with that of Chronos, the ‘father of all things,’ the ‘wise old builder,’ as he had been called. The learned writers of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. began to provide Kronos-Saturn with new attributes like the snake or dragon biting its tail, which were meant to emphasize his temporal significance. Also, they re-interpreted the original features of his image as symbols of time, His sickle, traditionally explained eithcr as an agricultural implement or as the instrument of castration, came to be interpreted as a symbol of tempora quae sicut falx in se recurrunt; and the mythical tale that he had devoured his own children was said to signify that Time, who had already been termed ‘sharp-toothed’ by Simonides and edax rerum by Ovid, devours whatever he has created.

Ernst Panofsky, “Father Time”

Note that pace Panofsky, the snake/dragon imagery of time was not new to the 4th/5th centuries CE. Neoplatonics like Proclus were aware of the Orphic cosmogonies and were resuscitating an existing, though latent, symbolism.

Nonetheless, we have some ex post facto justification here. New explanations are created that invoke anachronistic features of the deities. If Kronos devouring his children originally had nothing to do with time, now it does. Time now becomes gloomy because Saturn is gloomy. In place of Orphic “unaging” Time, we now get aged, cranky, hungry Time.

Far from being an abstraction limited to philosophy, Time seems better thought of as one of those absolute metaphors darting between concept, symbol, and personification. Time latches onto Kronos because of a lexical similarity, but it latches onto Herakles through arcane associations mostly lost to us. It infects myths like a virus.

By the age of Petrarch (1304-1374), Renaissance humanism makes for a new recombination. Petrarch’s Triumphs portrays a menacing, conquering time. Saturn was readymade for the job. Saturn’s castrating scythe now signifies the ravages of time. (Destruction is always an easily-reappropriated metaphor.) The scythe also links time easily to his compatriot Death, who is associated with the scythe as early as the 11th century.

Small wonder that the illustrators decided to fuse the harmless personification of ‘Temps’ with the sinister image of Saturn. From the former they took over the wings, from the latter the grim, decrepit appearance, the crutches, and, finally, such strictly Saturnian features as the scythe and the devouring motif. That this new image personified Time was frequently emphasized by an hourglass, which seems to make its first appearance in this new cycle of illustrations, and sometimes by the zodiac, or the dragon biting its tail.

Ernst Panofsky, “Father Time”

Petrarch's Triumph of Time

Petrarch’s Triumph of Time

And with this new conception of time, the menacing portions stick while the innocuous features–like the wings–do not, even though it was the wings that were associated with time in the first place! The serpent imagery is long-gone, overwritten by Christianity.

By this point, the idea of time devouring his children (not Zeus, but us) has taken on real metaphysical weight, and time the destroyer proceeds into the present day. It’s not Goya’s Saturn but Rubens’ Saturn that captures this new Saturn-as-Time, white beard, decrepit body, and staff/scythe.

Petrarch, Triumph of Time

Rubens' Saturn (1638)

Rubens’ Saturn (1638)

Your grandeur passes, and your pageantry,
Your lordships pass, your kingdoms pass; and Time
Disposes wilfully of mortal things,

And treats all men, worthy or no, alike;
And Time dissolves not only visible things,
But eloquence, and what the mind hath wrought.

And fleeing thus, it turns the world around.
Nor ever rests nor stays nor turns again
Till it has made you nought but a little dust.

Time in his avarice steals so much away:
Men call it Fame; ’tis but a second death,
And both alike are strong beyond defense.
Thus doth Time triumph over the world and Fame.


Gilbert Ryle’s Plato

Plato’s Progress is not just for philosophers. It is a detective story, and a very entertaining one. Mid-century arch-analytic philosopher Gilbert Ryle skillfully constructed it as such, and it’s a shame this book is so little-known these days. It certainly doesn’t bear much relation to Ryle’s The Concept of Mind, a solid if rather dogmatic book attacking Cartesians and psychologists for, well, making stuff up. But Ryle was more eclectic in his interests than his bulldog personality would lead you to believe; his flirtation with Husserl and Heidegger being just one of the curious detours he made.

While Plato’s Progress is about philosophy, it really isn’t a philosophical work. Rather, it’s Ryle’s attempt to explain the many cryptic, bizarre, and inconsistent aspects of Plato’s writings in as coherent a way as possible. People have been doing this for over two millennia, but Ryle, with focus and creativity that borders on genius, adopts a very simple heuristic and sticks with it to the end.

Though Ryle never states it, his heuristic is as follows:

Plato never tried to be obscure. Any baffling aspects of Plato’s dialogues are unintentional and have an explanation, generally outside of the text.

This may seem reasonable, but try telling it to anyone who has been working on the Parmenides or the Sophist and they will probably laugh at you. Ryle, however, is utterly unsympathetic to the idea that Plato wrote with a level of elusiveness that would put Heidegger to shame. He assumes that a common-sense interpretation of Plato’s writing is generally accurate and that Plato wasn’t hiding some “unwritten doctrines” or performing some implicit dialectical maneuvers without telling us.

The most important consequence of this heuristic is that Ryle remains resolutely focused on Plato’s audience, which is what makes this a work of literary criticism more than philosophy. Of each dialogue, he asks: who was it written for? What was Plato trying to achieve with it?

Ryle cavalierly discards the notion of Plato as some oracular genius whose works were received as if sent from on high, and places him back in 4th-century Athens (and, significantly, Syracuse). If the style changes, often it’s because he’s writing for a different audience. If Plato contradicts himself from one dialogue to the next, he really did change his mind. To quote Ryle:

For philosophers the transformation of Plato from something superhuman to something human is compensated by the transformation of Plato from the sage who was born at his destination to the philosopher who had to search for his destination. We lose a Nestor, but we gain an Ulysses.

Since we don’t know much about Plato’s life, and not that much about 4th-century Athens, Ryle has to make quite a few suppositions, to the point of amassing something of a conspiracy theory for why Plato wrote what he did. But it’s a very clever theory, and Ryle is a remarkably elegant and lucid writer.

Let’s hit the main points:

  1. Why did Plato write dialogues rather than poetry or prose? Because they were meant to be performed and were performed. In fact, philosophical debate was a sporting contest in Athens, which is how Plato got his start.
  2. Why is Socrates absent from the later dialogues? Because only Plato could play Socrates and he fell ill for the latter part of his life.
  3. Why, after the early dialogues, do the dialogues stop being dialogues and turn into Socrates lecturing and everyone else agreeing with him? Because Plato was banned from participating in debates after an (unreported) Socrates-esque trial of his own.
  4. Why are the Republic and the Laws so long and disjointed? Because they were fix-up compilations of normal-length dialogues intended for private publication and consumption by rich hyper-conservative Athenians. They have no internal unity.
  5. Did Plato really reject the Forms and idealism? Yes. He was virtually an Aristotelian scientist by the end of his life, possibly influenced by Aristotle.
  6. What’s up with the tedious Magnesian legal code in the Laws? It was an intended legal code for Syracuse that never got put into practice due to political upheaval, used to pad out one of those books mentioned in answer #4.
  7. What about the 7th Epistle that’s ostensibly Plato talking about his disastrous attempt to bring up a philosopher-king in Syracuse? A forgery! Filled with implausibilities but also valuable true details, it was written by a supporter of Syracusan noble Dion in order to discredit his nephew, Syracusan ruler Dionysius, whom Plato tutored in philosophy.

If all of these things were true, they would make a lot of Plato scholarship look very silly indeed. Anglo and European scholars have twisted themselves into knots in various ways trying to find some intra-textual explanation for a lot of these matters, and Ryle sweeps all their efforts away with pedestrian explanations. He integrates them into a coherent and extremely vivid historical framework that left me envying his mental powers.

Fortunately for more dedicated Platonists, no proof exists for Ryle’s theories, though Ockham’s Razor still makes some of them pretty tempting. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen any explanation for the bizarre disappearance of Socrates in the later dialogues except for Ryle’s, and the idea of Plato performing as Socrates in Athens and later in the Academy is certainly compelling. And the idea of the Republic as a compilation geared toward hyper-authoritarian Athenians explains its bizarre construction, as well as making Plato potentially a bit less totalitarian than Kallipolis implies.

The trial of Plato and his banishment from philosophical contest is at the center of Ryle’s theory. Ryle is not certain of the charges, but comes up with a number of hypotheses that all revolve around Plato defaming or otherwise offending some rich and powerful Athenians. While such a wholly undocumented event may sound implausible, Ryle marshals a compellingly methodical (if hopelessly speculative) argument for it. It’s the best chapter in Plato’s Progress because of Ryle’s incredible Columbo-like ability to draw out little circumstantial details from Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Isocrates, and others that support his case. It’s an amazing performance.

Ryle attributes the intense drama of Socrates’ trial and death in Apology, Phaedo, and Crito not to Plato deciding to memorialize Socrates long after his death, but to Plato using Socrates to justify his own position while on trial in Athens. There is not sufficient reason otherwise, Ryle says, for the shift in Socrates’ personality from the early to the middle dialogues:

The impression that the early dialogues give us of Socrates’ personality is that of the gay, avuncular, combative, shrewd and predominantly scrupulous champion of eristic ring-craft; a mixture of Dr Johnson, D’Artagnan and Marshall Hall. The last twenty pages of the Gorgias, the Apology, the Crito and the Phaedo introduce us to a very different man. Socrates is now a prophet, a reformer, a saint and a martyr. The hemlock reminds us of the crucifix. Plato is writing here with a passion which was not there before. Some quarter of a century has elapsed since Socrates’ execution, and during this period Athens has repented of her crime. Socrates’ name no longer needs to be retrieved from disgrace. Plato himself has written, surely to the great satisfaction of his Athenian audiences, a number of cheerful, down-to-earth stories of the champion’s victories and, in the Euthydemus, of his technical defeat in the disputation-ring.

Whence come the new tones of Plato’s voice? No mere twenty-five-year-old piety could explain the new moral passion or the new political venom of Socrates’ monologue in the Gorgias; his relish in themyth.in the Gorgias for the eternal tortures in Tartarus that await the men of power; his apostolic vindication of his mission in the Apology; the deep and almost merry seriousness of his Farewell to This Life in the Phaedo. The earlier eristic dialogues are the products of Plato’s talents, but these immediately succeeding dialogues come out of his heart as well. What has happened to Plato’s heart?

There must have been a crisis in Plato’s life in the later 370’s, which is reflected at once by the disappearance of the elenchus from his dialogues; by the foundation of the Academy with its dialectic-barred curriculum for the young men; by the passion with which Plato writes in the Gorgias monologue and in the Apology, Crito and Phaedo; and even, perhaps, by Socrates’ very uncharacteristic lament at the divine veto on suicide in the opening conversation of the Phaedo.

Moreover, unlike Socrates, Plato bungled the defense quite badly, and he was not only defending himself, but other practitioners of philosophical debate:

In his long monologue at the end of the Gorgias 508c, 5o9d), Socrates surprises us by twice saying prophetically that he will flounder incompetently in his defence of himself, his associates and his relations, oikeion. But in 399 Socrates was the sole defendant; he had no co-defendants for whom he had to try to state the defence. The prosecution prophesied in the Gorgias was not that of a solitary defendant for irreligion; it was the prosecution of a plurality of defendants for defamation. Apparently at least one of these defendants was a relative of ‘Socrates’. Who?

Why is Socrates made to prophesy that he will flounder hopelessly in court? Xenophon reports no floundering; and Plato’s Apology will live for ever as a powerful speech. A very creditable minority of the judges voted for the acquittal of Socrates. There are other places where Plato makes Socrates declare that the true philosopher is bound to flounder in court against the ready-witted, mean-minded prosecutor, though their roles will be happily reversed when they come to discuss more cosmic matters. One place is the long and philosophically quite pointless digression in the Theaetetus from 172c. Here Socrates says nothing about himself in particular. In the Republic 517a we get a similar but briefer statement of the forensic incompetence of the true philosopher, who again is not identified with Socrates. In the Gorgias 526b-527,a the politician Callicles is warned that he, but not the philosopher, will gape and feel dizzy before Rhadamanthus and Minos, as Socrates is going to do before his Athenian judges. We may conjecture that Plato had had to speak on behalf of his fellow-defendants and himself in their trial for defamation and that his performance had been embarrassingly inadequate. His pitiful showing left an abiding sore place in his memory. His dream in the Gorgias and Theaetetus of an eventual turning of the tables upon the ‘lawyers’ was a compensation-dream. It is noteworthy that in the Theaetetus the philosopher is described as an unworldly innocent who does not even know his way to the agora or the courts. In the Apology Socrates had not been so represented. He was a frequenter of the agora. In the Theaetetus Plato was thinking about someone else than Socrates as his unworldly, forensically ineffective philosopher.

Plato was thinking of himself! Plato was not executed–Athens would not repeat the mistake of scapegoating a philosopher–but he was banned from participating in dialogue tournaments. Yet, Ryle hypothesizes, that freed up Plato’s imagination to begin real philosophizing. The early dialogues were little more than records of tournament debates (“Moot”s). Ryle dramatically tells the tale:

The reason why the suppression of Plato’s practice of the Socratic Method involved the abandonment of the eristic dialogue was that Plato now had no more Moot-records or memories to dramatize. His home source of elenctic arguments dried up when his personal participation in dialectical debates stopped.

What forced Plato to find out the secret of solitary debating was the suppression of his practice of conducting eristic Moots with the young men. It was his exile from this duelling that drove Plato, though only after years of frustration, into solitary pro and contra reasoning. Plato did not write the eristic dialogues because he was a philosopher; he became a philosopher because he could no longer participate in questioner-answerer Moots, or any longer be their dramatic chronicler. His judges broke Plato’s heart, but they made him in the end a self-moving philosopher. No longer had the Other Voice to be the voice of another person. No longer was the objective the driving of another person into an impasse; it was now the extraction of oneself from an impasse.

He comes up with similar explanations for the strange topics in the dialogue by positing extra-philosophical motivations for them. The early dialogues often mention one topic and then veer away from it because they were written to order for competition, which prescribed a certain theme. The Phaedrus turns away from metaphysics and politics to boy-love eroticism because it’s an advertisement for the Academy!

The Boy-Love motif is very strong in the [early] eristic dialogues. We find it in the Lysis, Charmides, Protagoras, [Alcibiades], Euthydemus, Gorgias and Meno. We hear hardly a whisper of it in the later dialogues with the two important exceptions of the Symposium and the Phaedrus. In Diotima’s speech in the Symposium the darling of Eros is sublimated into an Otherworldly Beloved, in what sounds like a valedictory tone of voice. It is the sixty-year-old Plato’s ‘Farewell for Ever’ to his darling twenty-year-olders. He must now think without them. He must now think alone. The much later Phaedrus is a new call to the twenty-year-olders, but this time not to dialectic-hungry young men, but to the rhetoric-hungry young men for whom at last the Academy is going to provide rhetoric- teaching of a philosophically fortified kind.

As Socrates’ own eloquence in the Phaedrus is both profounder in content and better organized in form than the speech of Lysias, so the Academy’s scheme of instruction in rhetoric will make its students both wiser and more winning than those of Isocrates. In his Phaedrus Plato is showing to would-be rhetoric students that the philosopher can defeat the rhetorician in rhetoric. Being addressed specially to such Phaedruses, the dialogue is devoid of philosophical argumentation, though it contains some philosophical rhetoric.

Having founded the Academy and free to philosophize once more, Plato’s approach changes again. The impenetrable later dialogues like Parmenides and Sophist are rather different, intended for internal consumption at the Academy, where Plato has far more latitude to write than he previously did. Ryle works through the dialogues one by one, ordering them, explaining their provenance, and sometimes carving them up: for example, the Parmenides is stitched together from two very different pieces with no connection between the two). And his forensic skills are impressive. Here’s a representative example:

Many of Plato’s middle-sized dialogues seem to adhere to a regulation length, namely 52-54. Stephanus pages. As the Phaedo is five or six pages in excess of this regulation length, it is worth while to see if it has been enlarged beyond its original length. There is a stretch of just the required length between 108c and 113c which does bear several marks of being a subsequent interpolation. This stretch, which tells us that the earth is spherical and cavernous, is totally irrelevant to the subject-matter of the dialogue as a whole and is only factitiously relevant to the subject-matter of the passages immediately preceding and succeeding it. Moreover there is a glaring incongruity between Socrates’ exposition of someone else’s geophysical theory in this stretch and his renunciation of physical theories ten pages earlier. The theme interrupted in the middle of 108c seems to be smoothly resumed at the beginning of 113d.

One more mystery dispatched!

The result is gripping, at least if you have a basic familiarity with Plato and appreciate detective work of this sort, performed with uncommon astuteness. Ryle also has a very enjoyable dry wit (he was a huge fan of Austen and Wodehouse), as here:

In his Panathenaicus 26, Isocrates refers to the curriculum of the Academy as having been set up ‘in our own day’,  This part of the oration was probably written in about 342 when Isocrates was some ninety-three years of age. Unfortunately his longevity makes his phrase ‘in our own day’ quite uninformative.

English philosopher I.M. Crombie, who wrote two immense and analytical volumes on Plato, also managed to get in a few good ones in his review of Plato’s Progress, which he reviewed appreciatively but with some skepticism. This is my favorite, when Crombie is discussing Ryle’s idea of philosophical debate as recreational and competitive pastime in Athens:

For this intrinsically unplausible proposition, Ryle does indeed produce some evidence, certainly enough to show that something here needs to be thought about, but not enough to persuade me that, “Come on, let’s see if I can defend ‘Virtue is teachable’ for half an hour” was a common alternative to “Come on, let’s play draughts.”

I gather the same sensibility underlies G.A. Cohen’s tribute to his former adviser Ryle:

“Obscene abuse of a randy old hag”: Horace’s Epode 8 in Translation

Coarsely abusive sexual language is an early iambic tradition.

Daniel Garrison

Besides being Augustus’s favored poet and composing immaculate and subtle Odes, Horace wrote some rougher-hewn pieces in his series of Epodes (30 BC). The most notorious are the eighth and the twelfth, which are both obscene, misogynistic brushoffs to an older female lover. (In the twelfth, she at least gets in a bit of a riposte at the end.) David Mankin summarizes the eighth as “obscene abuse of a randy old hag” and the twelfth as “further abuse of the old hag.”

Here’s Epode 8 in Niall Rudd’s Loeb translation from 2004, which I take to be a reasonably close paraphrase:


To think that you, who have rotted away with the long passage of time, should ask what unstrings my virility, when your teeth are black, and extreme decrepitude ploughs furrows on your forehead, and your disgusting anus gapes between your shrivelled buttocks like that of a cow with diarrhea! I suppose I am excited by your bosom with its withered breasts like the udders of a mare, your flabby belly, and your scrawny thighs perched on top of your swollen ankles! Be as rich as you like. May the masks of triumphal ancestors escort your cortege! Let no wife be weighed down with fatter pearls as she walks proudly by! What of the fact that slim Stoic volumes nestle on your cushions of Chinese silk? Does that make my organ (which can’t read) any stiffer, or my phallic charm less limp? To call it forth from my proud crotch you must go to work with your mouth.

Horace seems to be trying to outdo Catullus, but some of it reads like it comes out of a Shakespeare Dark Lady sonnet. The progenitor of this abusive tradition is the mysterious 6th century BC Greek poet Archilochus, who was promoted by Guy Davenport’s translation in 1964 (also see his introduction to Archilochus from 7 Greeks).

Because of Horace’s high profile, these epodes have necessitated being brushed under the rug up until a recent renaissance. In the 1960s, Eduard Fraenkel called them “repulsive,” while Steele Commager just ignored them altogether. The Latin students edition of 1896 omits them rather conspicuously (they’re numbered, after all), which presumably sent more than a few students to the library to locate the missing poems.

Translators, too, historically excluded the problem poems (8 and 12, but also the far less obscene but explicitly gay 11). After Henry Rider omitted them in his 1638 translation of the complete works, the first person to tackle them was Christopher Smart in 1756. (Also available on the web here.) Smart smooths out the obscenity rather cleverly, but still gets the vitriol:

UPON A WANTON OLD WOMAN. (Christopher Smart)

Can you, grown rank with lengthened age, ask what unnerves my vigor? When your teeth are black, and old age withers your brow with wrinkles: and your back sinks between your staring hip-bones, like that of an unhealthy cow. But, forsooth! your breast and your fallen chest, full well resembling a broken-backed horse, provoke me; and a body flabby, and feeble knees supported by swollen legs. May you be happy: and may triumphal statues adorn your funeral procession; and may no matron appear in public abounding with richer pearls. What follows, because the Stoic treatises sometimes love to be on silken pillows? Are unlearned constitutions the less robust? Or are their limbs less stout? But for you to raise an appetite, in a stomach that is nice, it is necessary that you exert every art of language.

(Fascinatingly, in Epode 11, Smart obscures the gender of the speaker’s male lover Lyciscus, while still leaving in the confession of attraction to both sexes.)

Philip Francis (1746) and Bulwer Lytton (1870) also omit the problem poems from their translations.

In his 1901 Latin edition, C.E. Bennett includes them but does not summarize or give any commentary, beyond the statement “The brutal coarseness of this epode leads to omission of an outline of its contents,” though by this point the gay content of 11 poses no problem. He did not translate 8 or 12 for his 1914 Loeb Library edition either, which relegates the Latin versions to an appendix after the other epodes.

In fact, I can’t find a single English translation other than Smart’s prior to 1960, when two appeared, by Joseph P. Clancy and W.G. Shepherd. Neither seems to pull any punches, though Shepherd goes more over the top with flowery language and a Beat-esque poser:

ROGARE LONGO (W.G. Shepherd)

That you, rotten, should ask what it is
that emasculates me, when you’ve
just one black tooth and decrepit age
ploughs up your forehead with wrinkles,
when a diarrhoeic cow’s hole gapes
between your dehydrated buttocks!
What rouses me is your putrid bosom,
your breasts like the teats of a mare,
the flaccid belly and skinny thighs
that top your grossly swollen shanks.
Be bless’d, and may triumphant lovers’
likenesses attend your corpse.
May no wife perlustrate laden
with fatter, rounder pearls than yours.
What though Stoic pamphlets like
to lie between silken pillows?
Illiterate sinews stiffen,
and hamptons droop, no less for that.
(Though if you hope to rouse up mine,
your mouth is faced with no mean task.)

Comparing to Smart’s translation reveals that Smart was quite ingenious with his adjustments. Shepherd also uses a wince-inducing racial epithet in Epode 12, which I will leave to others to comment on. (The American Clancy, in contrast to the British Shepherd, avoids any mention of race at all.) Notably, both are only coy when it comes to the male member (“sinew,” “rod,” Cockney rhyming slang “hampton”), though this is not the case with either translator in Epode 12.

More recent translations follow the same line but make the language a bit plainer. David West’s version (1997) is quite forthright, less self-conscious about the shocking content.


You dare to ask me, you decrepit, stinking slut,
   what makes me impotent?
And you with blackened teeth, and so advanced
   in age that wrinkles plough your forehead,
your raw and filthy arsehole gaping like a cow’s
   between your wizened buttocks.
It’s your slack breasts that rouse me (I have seen
   much better udders on a mare)
your flabby paunch and scrawny thighs
   stuck on your swollen ankles.

May you be blessed with wealth! May effigies
   of triumphators march you to the grave,
and may no other wife go on parade
   weighed down with fatter pearls!

But why do Stoic tracts so love to lie
   on your silk cushions?
They won’t cause big erections or delay the droop–
   you know that penises can’t read.
If that is what you want from my fastidious groin,
   your mouth has got some work to do.

Finally, there is classicist John Henderson’s translation. Henderson is noted for a punning deconstructionist critical style (for which he has been taken to task), and he has written a couple essays on Epode 8, though he is clearly wrong to say (a) that all pre-1980 translations were Bowdlerized and (b) that prior to that the two poems were excluded from virtually all Latin editions with commentary.


Ironically, by adopting a declasse anti-authoritarian patois closer to Shepherd than West, Henderson seems to be trying to recapture the original’s shock value by appealing to shocking standards of a past American era: the artful and self-conscious provocations of Shepherd, reveling in obscenity-as-rebellion rather than obscenity-as-ridicule. It’s a strange and anachronistic brew. I suspect that the blase, imperious ridicule of Rudd and West is closer to the original.

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