On Old Age by Cicero (44 BC)

‘Of what immense worth is it for the soul to be with itself, to live, as the phrase is, with itself, discharged from the service of lust, ambition, strife, enmities, desires of every kind!’
(On old age by Cicero)

Cicero wrote De senectute or ‘Of old age’ to disabuse people of their negative stereotypes about old age, to defend old age, to make it less feared. It’s a relatively short treatise by Cicero’s standards. It is dedicated to his good friend Titus Pomponius (who gave himself the nickname ‘Atticus’ because he loved Athens so much).

Cicero sets it, like De republica and De amitia, back in the time of Scipio Aemilianus, about 130 BC, and has the characters in the dialogue be Scipio, his friend Caius Laelius, and the stern moralist Cato the Elder, who lived a very long life (234 to 149 BC) and so was eminently qualified to talk about age.

In De senectute Cicero, like the defence lawyer he was, mounts a defence of the state of old age against its alleged disadvantages. He has Cato tell Scipio and Laelius how foolish general attitudes to old age are. The best way to live is to ‘follow and obey Nature, the surest guide, as if she were a god,’ (which my recent reading has taught me to see as pure Stoicism). Hence the Stoic insistence on Virtue:

CATO: “The best-fitting defensive armour of old age, Scipio and Laelius, consists in the knowledge and practice of the virtues, which, assiduously cultivated, after the varied experiences of a long life, are wonderfully fruitful, not only because they never take flight, not even at the last moment, — although this is a consideration of prime importance, — but because the consciousness of a well-spent life and a memory rich in good deeds afford supreme happiness.”

Those who criticise old age are often simply projecting their own vices and shortcomings onto an inevitable part of life.

About a quarter of the way into the text, after this fictional Cato has given us profiles and anecdotes about quite a few eminent Romans of his time, he gets round to tabulating the four main criticisms people make of old age.

“One, that it calls us away from the management of affairs; another, that it impairs bodily vigour; the third, that it deprives us to a great degree of sensual gratifications; the fourth, that it brings one to the verge of death.”

The essay consists of him examining and refuting each of these claims in turn:

1. Old age withdraws us from active pursuits

It’s true old age prevents activities which are appropriate for youth and strength of body. But there are many activities appropriate to maturity and statesmanship, and he gives a list of eminent Romans who played decisive roles at key moments of Roman history:

The old man does not do what the young men do; but he does greater and better things. Great things are accomplished, not by strength, or swiftness, or suppleness of body, but by counsel, influence, deliberate opinion, of which old age is not wont to be bereft, but, on the other hand, to possess them more abundantly…Unless these were the characteristics of seniors in age, our ancestors would not have called the supreme council the Senate.

The word senate derives from senex, the Latin for old man, implying that with age comes wisdom and decision.

If you see fit to read or hear the history of foreign nations, you will find that states have been undermined by young men, but maintained and restored by old men.

Rashness, indeed, belongs to youth; prudence, to age.

Indeed, the crowning glory of old age is authority.

Old age, especially when it has filled offices of high public trust, has so much authority, that for this alone it is worth all the pleasures of youth.

Old men are said to forget, but Cato insists this is only true among those who do not exercise their memory or were slow-minded to begin with. No, old men remember everything that they care about and:

Old men have their powers of mind unimpaired when they do not suspend their usual pursuits and their habits of industry.

Examples of men who excelled at their craft well into old age include Sophocles, Homer, Hesiod, Simonides, Stesichorus, Isocrates, Gorgias, Pythagoras and Democritus, Plato, Xenocrates, Zeno and Cleanthes and so on. Did these men not continue working at the top of their bent till the end of their lives?

Some say old age is repellent to the young, but it need not be so if is considered with respect to the wisdom age has to offer:

As wise old men are charmed with well-disposed youth, so do young men delight in the counsels of the old, by which they are led to the cultivation of the virtues.

And so another of the benefits of age is the respect of the young and he details the respect afforded successful elder statesmen, such as being saluted in the morning, grasped by the hand, received by the rising of those present, escorted to the Forum, escorted home, asked for advice.

What pleasures of body are to be compared with the prerogatives of authority?

2. Old age makes the body weaker

It is becoming to make use of what one has, and whatever you do, to do in proportion to your strength

But the eloquence that becomes one of advanced years is calm and gentle, and not infrequently a clear-headed old man commands special attention by the simple, quiet elegance of his style

You can at least help others by your counsel; and what is more pleasant than old age surrounded by young disciples? Must we not admit that old age has sufficient strength to teach young men, to educate them, to train them for the discharge of every duty? And what can be more worthy of renown than work like this?

If you know someone stronger than you, does that make them better than you? No, each of us has the strength appropriate to our bodies and exercise, so:

Provided one husbands one’s strength, and does not attempt to go beyond it, one will not be hindered in one’s work by any lack of the requisite strength.

Accept the course of nature.

Life has its fixed course, and nature one unvarying way; each age has assigned to it what best suits it, so that the fickleness of boyhood, the sanguine temper of youth, the soberness of riper years, and the maturity of old age, equally have something in harmony with nature.

But do what you can to remain fit.

Exercise and temperance, then, can preserve even in old age something of one’s pristine vigour.

Live a healthy life.

Old age, like disease, should be fought against. Care must be bestowed upon the health; moderate exercise must be taken; the food and drink should be sufficient to recruit the strength, and not in such excess as to become oppressive. Nor yet should the body alone be sustained in vigour, but much more the powers of mind; for these too, unless you pour oil into the lamp, are extinguished by old age. Indeed, while overexertion tends by fatigue to weigh down the body, exercise makes the mind elastic.

Cato lists the intimidating roster of activities he is undertaking in his 84th year, including:

  • he is writing a history
  • he is collecting memorials of older times
  • he is writing out the speeches he gave in all his law cases
  • he is treating of augural, pontifical, civil law
  • to exercise his mind he recalls every evening whatever he has said, heard or done during the day
  • he often appears in court on behalf of friends
  • he attends the senate and still has motions he wants to propose

These are the exercises of the mind; these, the race-ground of the intellect.

If you remain alert and active:

One who is always occupied in these studies and labours is unaware when age creeps upon him. Thus one grows old gradually and unconsciously,

3. Old age deprives us of almost all physical pleasures

This is a positive thing, considering that the lure of physical pleasure is one of the most harmful things to youth. He quotes a violent speech against pleasure by Archytas of Tarentum:

“There is no form of guilt, no atrocity of evil, to the accomplishment of which men are not driven by lust for pleasure. Debaucheries, adulteries, and all enormities of that kind have no other inducing cause than the allurements of pleasure.

“Still more, while neither Nature nor any god has bestowed upon man aught more noble than mind, nothing is so hostile as pleasure to this divine endowment and gift. Nor while lust bears sway can self-restraint find place, nor under the reign of pleasure can virtue have any foothold whatever.”

If reason is the greatest gift of the gods and the highest faculty of man, and if indulgence in physical pleasure overrides or extinguishes it, then thank God for old age if it means all these harmful forces leave you.

For pleasure thwarts good counsel, is the enemy of reason, and, if I may so speak, blindfolds the eyes of the mind, nor has it anything in common with virtue.

Plato called pleasure ‘the bait of evil’, and so:

It is not only no reproach to old age, but even its highest merit, that it does not severely feel the loss of bodily pleasures.

It is said that old men have less intensity of sensual enjoyment. So I believe; but there is no craving for it. You do not miss what you do not want.

Sophocles very aptly replied, when asked in his old age whether he indulged in sensual pleasure, “May the gods do better for me! I rejoice in my escape from a savage and ferocious tyrant.”

So one can feel grateful for it:

I am heartily thankful to my advanced years for increasing my appetency for conversation, and diminishing my craving for food and drink.

Speaking personally, I’m glad I’m middle aged. When I was a young man I felt I had a raging fire burning in my mind which could only be extinguished by intoxicants and inebriants, I hurtled round London feeling like I might explode at any moment. Now the fires of testosterone have banked right down and I am content to read literature and tend my garden, like the best of the ancients. It is an enormous relief not to be young any more.

it is to Solon’s honour that he says, in the verse which I just now quoted, that as he advanced in age he learned something every day, — a pleasure of the mind than which there can be none greater.

He then has a passage about the joys of what he calls agriculture, but is nearer to horticulture, with an extended description of the joy of growing grapes and watching the vines grow and spread.

What can I say of the planting, upspringing, and growth of vines? It is with insatiable delight that I thus make known to you the repose and enjoyment of my old age.

I know what he means. This year I have planted seven trees, set up 10 trellises and planted five climbers to grow up them, and sown wild flowers seed along 20 metres of border. There is no pleasure like the calm pleasure of planning, planting, watering and tending your own garden.

He introduces some further accusations against old men 1) that they are morose, uneasy, irritable and hard to please, 2) that they become avaricious with age.

But these are faults of character, not of age itself.

He defends (some) old men from being uneasy and irritable because this is, in fact, a justified response to the way they are sometimes treated – when they are scorned, despised, mocked. Who can blame old people from being grumpy about being badly treated and neglected.

Also, if you have a weaker body, sometimes undermined by chronic health problems, then any cause of vexation is felt more keenly. But such infirmities of temper should be corrected by good manners and liberal culture.

As to old men becoming greedy, he can’t understand it at all. With less of life to live, why bother devoting your energies to acquiring wealth you won’t have time to spend. Better to cultivate a calm but active mind.

4. Old age is liable to excessive solicitude and distress because death is so near

But one of the key achievements of wisdom is to overcome your fear of death and learn to despise it. There are, after all, only two scenarios: either the soul / mind ceases to exist at death (in which case there is nothing to worry about) or we pass to an immortal realm (which is highly desirable). Win-win, either way.

In fact, young people are more liable to fatal incidents than old people: young people commit suicide, are killed in car or motorbike crashes, in fights or murders and, in Cicero’s time, in battle, much more than old people.

Young people hope to live to a ripe old age. An old person should rejoice because he has achieved that wish.

Each one should be content with such time as it is allotted to him to live.

In order to give pleasure to the audience, the actor need not finish the play; he may win approval in whatever act he takes part in; nor need the wise man remain on the stage till the closing plaudit. A brief time is long enough to live well and honourably.

But if you live on, you have no more reason to mourn over your advancing years, than the farmers have, when the sweet days of spring are past, to lament the coming of summer and of autumn.

What can be more natural than to die old. It is those who die young who are the tragic waste. Dying old is part of the natural cycle of things.

Old men die as when a spent fire goes out of its own accord, without force employed to quench it…This ripeness of old age is to me so pleasant, that, in proportion as I draw near to death, I seem to see land, and after a long voyage to be on the point of entering the harbour.

And:

Because old age has no fixed term, one may fitly live in it so long as one can observe and discharge the duties of his station, and yet despise death.

Old age, fearless of death, may transcend youth in courage and in fortitude.

As to the actual pain of dying:

There may be, indeed, some painful sensation in dying, yet for only a little while, especially for the old; after death there is either desirable sensation or none at all.

It is possible to have had enough, to have lived well and done everything one wanted so as to reach a stage of being ready for death:

satiety of life, as it seems to me, creates satiety of pursuits of every kind. There are certain pursuits belonging to boyhood; do grownup young men therefore long for them? There are others appertaining to early youth; are they required in the sedate period of life which we call middle age? This, too, has its own pursuits, and they are not sought in old age. As the pursuits of earlier periods of life fall away, so in like manner do those of old age. When this period is reached, satiety of life brings a season ripe for death.

Cato ends by sharing his personal thoughts about the soul. He believes, with the Pythagoreans, that each human soul is a fragment of the Divine Mind forced, for a while, into the prison of an earthly habitation. Indivisible and immortal, human souls knew things before we were born (as per Plato).

The wise soul knows it will live on after death:

Since men of the highest wisdom die with perfect calmness, those who are the most foolish with extreme disquiet, can you doubt that the soul which sees more and farther perceives that it is going to a better state, while the soul of obtuser vision has no view beyond death?

Cato is looking forward to meeting the great men he knew in life, as well as legendary figures from earlier days. And so, after a lifetime of toil for his nation, Cato is ready to move on for a better place, the abode of bliss and the company of heroes:

I depart from life, as from an inn, not as from a home; for nature has given us here a lodging for a sojourn, not a place of habitation. O glorious day, when I shall go to that divine company and assembly of souls, and when I shall depart from this crowd and tumult!

Thoughts

Unlike Cicero’s treatise on friendship, which was impossibly high-minded and deformed by Cicero’s obsession with Stoic philosophy, his insistence on spelling out the belief in God which underlies his belief in a God-given Human Nature and therefore God-given Moral Laws – this essay is far less theoretical, and therefore a genuinely useful, insightful guide to how to age gracefully and well.

Once or twice he mentions the Stoic nostrum that virtue can fortify the mind against all vicissitudes, but the philosophy is tamped right down in favour of the many practical, real world examples of fellow Romans who Cato has known or whose grace and wisdom and ongoing energy in old age offer genuinely inspiring examples, both to him and to anybody who reads it.


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On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 2

‘It is the task of philosophy to dispel errors so that when we talk about the immortal gods we may say only what is worthy of them.’
(Gaius Aurelius Cotta, page 219, book III, On the nature of the gods)

On the nature of Cicero’s books

Cicero’s books are extremely argumentative. By which I mean that there are no descriptive or literary passages, only the briefest autobiographical passage at the start and then – bang! – straight into 150 pages of non-stop, unrelenting argumentation. Every paragraph is arguing a point, and he sometimes makes two or 3 points on a page. On the nature of the gods is only 150 or so pages long in the Penguin paperback edition but every page is crammed with a non-stop barrage of arguments, proofs and refutations.

The one really obvious attraction of these ancient texts is that they are accessible. By that I mean that the protagonists in a text like this use examples and ideas which are completely understandable by the man or woman in the street. Unlike modern philosophy there is a complete absence of: maths and maths-style logic (as found in analytical and logical philosophy); specialised technical terms; and, above all, the clutter and detritus of hundreds of other philosophical schools which have arisen over the past 2,000 years and left their semantic and conceptual wreckage strewn across the intellectual landscape.

Instead, the three protagonists in this dialogue about the nature of the gods almost entirely use ordinary language and everyday examples to make their points. For example when Velleius says that, if God only decided to make the universe, the sun and the moon and so on at some point into infinite time, does that mean that up till that moment he had been living in darkness like a pauper in a hovel? There is a lot more like this, a lot more crude sarcasm and taunting and ridiculing than you might expect in a ‘philosophical’ work.

(Actually, that’s not strictly true: from time to time the speakers use philosophical terms coined by the original Greek philosophers. Not many and not often, though.)

The result is twofold: although a lot of the arguments come across as wrong, superficial and bizarre, nonetheless it is easy to read and enjoyable to follow the flow of each speaker’s case. The editor, J.M. Ross, points out that the text is very uneven, with chunks missing, other bits arranged in what seem to be the wrong order, with the protagonists failing to address each other’s points or wandering off the subject altogether. But this makes it all the more entertaining, like listening to a tipsy polymath holding forth at a dinner party or at the bar. I think of the comic monologues of entertainers of my youth like Victor Borge or Peter Ustinov. The combination of serious points embellished with ridicule and exaggeration are frequently more reminiscent of a comic monologue than a work of ‘philosophy’.

It also gives the book a pleasing naivety. Coming to Cicero after trying to read Derrida or Habermas is like walking from an intense undergraduate seminar down the corridor into the creche where a load of toddlers are playing with lego.

Three speakers

As explained before, the text is conceived as presenting three speakers, each of whom is a star representative of the three main philosophical schools of Cicero’s day – Epicurean, Stoic, Academic. There were many other minor schools but as his book is focusing on the specific questions of a) whether there are gods and b) what they’re like and c) how we should behave regarding them, Cicero only needed three positions or attitudes. The three interlocutors are:

  • Gaius Velleius who represents the Epicurean point of view
  • Quintus Lucilius Balbus who propounds the Stoic point of view
  • Gaius Aurelius Cotta who represents the Academic point of view

The three positions can be summarised as:

  • atheist / Epicurean (no gods or, if gods, no intervention in human affairs)
  • providence / Stoic (gods exist and are identical with nature, with the visible universe and its laws)
  • sceptic (voicing objections to both the above to arrive at a ‘common sense’ view of the existence of the gods and the reverence due them)

In what follows I’m not going to give an exhaustive summary of all the points made by all the speakers, just the ones which came over to me as important or interesting or quirky.

Introduction

In the brief introduction Cicero makes a couple of points which will recur throughout the book:

Cicero takes it as axiomatic that there are gods. Only a fool or anarchist would be an atheist. Belief in the existence of the gods follows from two key axioms:

1. All of history and all of anthropology suggests that all humanity is naturally and innately inclined to believe in gods. And this universal predilection is taken as incontrovertible proof.

2. Religious belief and practice are the vital glue holding society together and underpinning all moral and social values, underpinning interpersonal ethics and the rule of law and justice.

When piety goes, religion and sanctity go with it. And when these are gone, there is anarchy and complete confusion in our way of life…If our reverence for the gods were lost, we should see the end of good faith, of human brotherhood, and even of justice itself, which is the keystone of all the virtues. (I.2)

So although all three speakers may at points touch on the logical possibility of there being no gods, none of them actually propounds this view. Possibly this was also because, although there was no actual law against atheism, nonetheless Greek thinkers who had propounded atheism had been vilified. Cotta gives the example of Protagoras of Abdera who wrote in a book that he was not able to say whether the gods existed or not, and was as a result banished from the city and his works burned in public. Cicero himself had been elected a member of the College of Augurs in 53 BC and so was responsible for performing various religious duties in public. As he has Cotta say:

I myself hold a religious office and I believe that public religious worship and ritual ought to be reverently observed. (p.94)

If his book had openly espoused atheism, presumably he would have been sacked from that job and maybe faced further sanctions. So hidden behind the civilised chat of our three protagonists lurks a coercive social threat. (The notion that it is ‘prudent’ to profess belief in the gods is repeated on pages 104, 120 and 193.)

1a. Gaius Velleius and the Epicurean view of the gods (pages 77 to 92)

Rubbishing the opposition

A good deal of Velleius’s discourse consists of stating, then rubbishing, Stoic and other Greek philosophical views.

Velleius kicks off by rubbishing Stoic-style notions that the universe was built by a master artificer, the view put forward by Plato in his dialogue Timaeus. Can anyone actually imagine that happening? What tools did he use, what levers and pulleys and scaffolding? How came earth and air and fire and water to obey his commands?

Plato makes the world a manufactured article but he contradicts himself by saying the universe was made but at other points saying it is eternal.

We know time is infinite, eternal. Therefore the universe was created some point into infinite time. It had a beginning. Why? Why create it just at that moment? What triggered this sudden decision? What prompted God to decorate the universe with pretty lights like ‘some Minister of Public Works’? Is it because the world was created for the benefit of the wise? Then surely, never was so much trouble gone to to please so few.

Also: if the universe had a beginning, it must also have an ending.

How can the universe be a conscious being?

He mocks people who say the universe is a great consciousness, one conscious and immortal being (i.e. Stoics). They have no idea what consciousness is. They are ‘stupid’. Plato says the universe must be a sphere because the sphere is ‘the perfect shape’. How childish. He also says it must be spinning. If this sphere is conscious and is spinning at high speed, doesn’t God get giddy? And if the universe is ‘conscious’ some parts of the world are freezing ice caps, some parts are burning desert. So doesn’t it follow that god is roasting on one place and freezing in another?

Listing and rubbishing all other philosophers

Velleius then gives a long list of Greek philosophers starting with Thales, devoting a paragraph to summarising their chief contribution and then dismissing it with a sentence, being: Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, Alcmeon, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles, Protagoras, Democritus, Diogenes, Plato, Xenophon, Antisthenes, Speusippus, Aristotle, Xenocrates, Heraclides, Theophrastus, Strato, Zeno (father of Stoicism), Aristo, Cleanthes, Persaeus, Chrysippus, Diogenes of Babylon, and more.

In his introduction Ross describes this list as an irritating digression which the reader can skip but, on the contrary, I found it an enjoyable and informative overview. Above all it is a useful counter to Cicero’s structural claim that there are only 3 schools of philosophy. On the contrary, this list demonstrates the huge jungley undergrowth of Greek philosophical opinions.

Rubbishing Aristotle

Velleius castigates Aristotle for holding at least three separate views: in one place attributing divinity to mind only, in another saying the entire universe is God, in another setting God above the universe with the power to order all its motions; in yet another claiming the fiery ether is God, so how does that square with the entire universe being God? And if heaven is a God where do the gods reside? Anyway, how could the heavens, in their endless fast revolutions around the earth, maintain consciousness worthy of a god? And if God is bodiless how can he be in motion?

See what I mean by argumentative? In just one paragraph Velleius rubbishes 9 theological propositions of Aristotle. So this list of silly philosophers also feeds into Cicero’s Academic scepticism by demonstrating what a range of absurd and contradictory opinions have been held by such ‘clever’ people. Velleius calls them ‘the fantasies of lunatics’, no better than the fictions of the poets and the wonders of the magicians.

Velleius’s exposition of Epicurus (pages 87 to 92)

Epicurus thought the gods must exist because nature has imprinted an idea of them in the minds of all mankind. This is one of the fundamental axioms of human thought without which there can be no knowledge, rational thought or argument. It is the basis of a firm and continuing consensus.

The same nature which imprints this idea also imprints the notion that they are blessed and immortal. If this is so, the gods must be free from care, anxiety and other human emotions, and must cause no care or anxiety in others i.e. mortals.

The logical consequence of this is that a) the gods deserve reverence as everything which is excellent deserves reverence, but b) we need not fear the gods because blessed and immortal beings have no motive to cause anxiety and fear in others (p.89). This is the core aim of Epicureanism – to banish anxiety, fear, worry and care from its followers.

The gods have human form

Evidence for this includes:

  1. The universal conviction of all humanity i.e. nature has implanted this idea in all human minds.
  2. Because the divine nature is perfect, it must be clothed in the most perfect form and what form is more perfect and beautiful than the human body?
  3. Reason cannot dwell in any other form but the human form.

He gives a good example of the poor, biased and sometimes absurd arguments used throughout the book when he claims that: everyone agrees that the gods are happy, and no happiness is possible without virtue, and there is no virtue without reason, and reason is associated only with the human form: therefore, the gods must have human form. Cotta picks up on this sentence to point out that the final link – that reason is only associated with the human form – does not follow but is willed (p.104 and p.114).

BUT individual human bodies are fallible, vulnerable, age and die. Not so immortal bodies. Therefore the gods have the shape of human bodies but not actual human flesh and blood.

The gods are blissfully detached

Happiness is a state of rest. The gods do not strive and work. They have attained stasis, contemplating their own holiness and wisdom (which sounds very Buddhist). Therefore they have no involvement whatsoever in the world of men, which would involve them in anxiety and endeavour.

A being which is blessed and immortal is itself without cares and brings no cares to others. (p.104)

The universe was created by natural causes

Rather than created by some God, the universe came into being quite naturally by the clash of the infinite number of atoms falling infinitely through infinite space, banging into each other, congealing and constellating. No need for any God labouring away with levers and pulleys.

Thus there is no overseeing God, no God involved in creating the universe, it and everything in it have developed by natural processes. Thus there is no reason to be afraid of a curious god poking and prying into our lives, ‘a busybody god’.

Velleius’s conclusion

Epicurus has saved us from all such fears and set us free, so that we have no terror of the gods, whom we know neither devise any mischief for themselves nor seek to bring it upon others. And so with reverence and awe we worship them in their divine perfection. (p.92)

1b. Cotta’s refutation of Velleius (pages 93 to 120)

Cotta the sceptic is ‘one of those who can more easily see why something is false than true’. Cicero, rather unfairly, gives more space to Cotta’s demolition of Velleius than to the former’s main exposition. Cotta calls Velleius’s Epicurean views ‘irresponsible and ridiculous’.

1. Velleius’s main argument for the existence of the gods is that ‘all mankind’ believes in them. Well, how does he know the opinion of all mankind? There may be any number of wild and primitive peoples who don’t believe in gods, how can he know? Also, there is a record of known philosophers in Greece who have been out-and-out atheists; it doesn’t take many instances to disprove a claim to universality.

2. Cotta comes down hard on Velleius’s theory of atoms endlessly falling in infinite space, whose collisions eventually give rise to matter and the universe. Cotta denies the existence of atoms but says that, even if they existed, the notion that from sheer chance they have created the universe and all the order and regularity and life forms which we observe is ridiculous (p.114). The entire cock and bull theory is a working backwards from the necessary core of Epicureanism i.e. the non-intervention of the gods.

More fatally, if everything is made of atoms then the gods are made of atoms too and can be dissolved as easily as they came into being. If they had a beginning they must have an end: so how can they avoid anxiety about death and dissolution? (p.115)

3. Cotta ridicules Epicurus for saying that the gods must have a human body, as that is the highest form of perfection, and yet it is not actually a body because that is subject to decay – so they have something like a body but not subject to decay. Velleius criticised all other philosophers for their absurdities; Cotta calls Epicurus’s ideas ‘fanciful dreams’.

The notion that the gods must have human form is the product of:

  • superstitious minds who created phantom images of the gods because it was easy
  • poets and painters who need to work with something tangible, and therefore promoted the idea of gods having bodily form
  • humanity’s bias or prejudice towards thinking itself fabulous and the highest of all possible life forms; it is a form of narcissism; anthropomorphism (“the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.”)

Are the gods different as human beings are different, one from another? In which case, how can they be perfect? Surely there is only one model of perfection and all gods ought to embody it?

Anyway, it’s not true to say that all cultures envision the gods in human form: the Egyptians envision gods as animals (dog, crocodile, jackal, cat), as do many other cultures.

Similarly, is there a fixed number of gods with fixed identities? Because a) all cultures appear to have their own gods and b) many gods who are recognisably the same (king of the gods, queen of the gods, god of war, god of love) seem to have multiple names.

‘Do you really think that a god looks like me or like you? The fact is, you have no idea.’ (p.103)

Epicurus appears to say that there is no causal link between humans looking like gods and gods having human form, that both are just accidents of the infinite interaction of an infinite number of atoms in infinite space. This is a ridiculous assertion.

If the gods are so powerful why do they need bodies at all? Why do they need hands or feet or limbs let alone the complex internal organs? If they have godly powers they have no need of all these clumsy encumbrances. If they have bodies the gods would have to walk and climb and bend and stoop. they would have to eat and drink and pee and defecate. If they have the usual organs of generation they would have sex, with all the indignity that implies.

If the gods are vastly superior to us in mind and reason why shouldn’t they be similarly superior to us in body, inhabiting bodies whose shape and powers we can’t even conceive of?

Cotta ridicules the notion of the gods’ detachment. Even idle children get up to games. No human can rest idle indefinitely. What is the point of having the body he insists they have, if they don’t use them?

All creatures, all living things, have a sphere of operation within which they live and are active. Where is the gods’ sphere? To what objects do they use their mind and intelligence. If they know everything their minds are, in a sense, empty, because unexercised.

Velleius had said that the gods are happy because they have achieved the height of virtue. But virtue doesn’t mean anything unless it is tested in action i.e. someone has a choice of actions and decisions and acts accordingly. But Epicurus’s gods do not act in any way. Therefore they do not exercise virtue. Therefore they cannot be happy. Humans exercise decision and judgement all the time, therefore are more able to behave virtuously, therefore humans must be happier than the gods (p.115).

Epicurus derives all happiness, ultimately, from bodily pleasure (hence his reputation). Yet the gods have no bodies in the flesh and blood human sense and so cannot experience pleasure in the Epicurean sense and so cannot by happy (p.116).

Cotta attacks the Innate Theory i.e. that the notion of the gods is a universal aspect of human nature so must be true. Because plenty of other ideas and notions seem to be universal. Are they also true? And our minds can conceive and imagine all manner of things and situations. Are they all true, too?

Epicureanism undermines reverence for the gods

What reverence is due to beings who have never done anything and will never do anything? What reverence do we owe beings who have never done anything for us and never will? Piety is a bond but what bond can there be for beings who never interact? Why should we thank the gods if they have never done anything for us?

This undermining of any reason for humans to reverence or worship the gods in effect destroys religion.

One of the noblest qualities of people is their love and affection for others. Epicurus’s gods have no interest in anyone or anything else at all, but sit perfectly passively uninvolved with anything contemplating their own sterile ‘happiness’. This is to take away the ‘graciousness’ which is the highest attribute of humanity.

Compare and contrast with the doctrine of the Stoics that we should love all good and honest people as ourselves. Epicurean detachment teaches a terrible ethical lesson. A true human friendship is free and selfless. The love and selflessness of the gods ought to be that much superior to human love, yet Epicurus strips his gods of all fine feelings.

Cotta concludes by saying the whole tendency of Epicurus’s thought is atheist, he just tacked on his incoherent ‘defence’ of his very peculiar conception of the gods ‘in order to avoid the odour of atheism’. He was merely paying lip service to the gods that he had actually destroyed (p.120).

Summary of Velleius

Having read it twice I can see how Velleius’s points of view, with all their distortions of fact, the weird atomic theory and the, in the end, weird view of gods who are utterly detached from the world – I can see how these are all the tortured consequences of a reasonable premise and intention which was to free human beings from fear and anxiety.

As a philosophy it appeals to those who seek an oriental-style detachment from involvement in the trials and tribulations of life and instead seek detachment and calm.

Its weak spots are its implausible atomic theory about the creation of not one but infinite universes; and its bloodless vision of gods which are supposedly made in human form and yet utterly lifeless, like beautiful shop window mannequins.

2. Balbus’s presentation of the Stoic view of the gods (pages 123 to 190)

Balbus says he can divide Stoic views into 4 areas. The Stoics:

  • teach that divine beings exist
  • explain their nature
  • describe their government of the world
  • show how they care for mankind

The Argument from Design

If Velleius rested his case on the universal innate conviction of the gods’ existence, Balbus bases his on the Argument from Design. Look up at the sky and survey the beauty of the heavens. What more proof do you need that god exists? You might as well doubt the existence of the sun. Both god and the sun are as obvious to our senses. (It was to refute this age-old argument that Richard Dawkins wrote his long argumentative book The Blind Watchmaker.)

As ancient superstitions are sloughed off, true religion is growing more popular with every day. Balbus bases this assertion on:

  • the intervention of the gods in human history, especially at key moments of Roman history
  • predictions and prophecies
  • the special level of piety of the ancient Romans (like everyone in antiquity, Balbus thinks things, in this case religious piety, have declined in his day)

The proof of prophecies and soothsaying is that they have accurately predicted the future. Plenty of evidence from Rome’s history. So who can doubt the gods exist if they send messages?

‘Beings who do not exist can send us no messages. But the gods do have their prophets and messengers. So how can we deny they exist.’ (p.128)

The state prospers only under the guidance of men of religious faith.

In fact Balbus then echoes Velleius’s nostrum: The existence of gods is inscribed on the human mind from birth (p.128). Thus there is no debate about the existence of gods, only about their nature.

Cleanthes speaks of 4 influences which have formed men’s images of gods:

  1. the power and evidence and proof of divination and prophecy
  2. the blessings of a temperate climate and fertile soil
  3. the awe inspired by natural phenomena such as storms, hailstorms, blizzards, floods, plagues, earthquakes etc
  4. the regularity of the motion of the heavenly bodies. Movements so vast and purposive and regular must be guided and controlled by a divine intelligence. He lists the motion of the sun and moon and stars and the tides and oceans and says none of this would work unless it were powered by a divine and omnipotent spirit. These are all variations on the Argument from Design (p.129).

Only an arrogant fool would think there is nothing in the universe smarter than him. Therefore there must be something greater than Man. And that something must be God.

There is nothing more beautiful or perfect in the world than Reason or mind or intellect. The universe is perfect. Therefore the universe must be possessed of reason i.e. be rational. All natural laws, the passage of the seasons etc etc all these bespeak ‘the planning of a divine and omnipresent spirit’ (p.131).

The universe and God are one. He cites arguments formulated by Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism.

If a being is without consciousness then every part of it must be without consciousness. But some parts of the universe are conscious beings, therefore the entire universe as a whole must be a conscious being. Therefore the universe is a living intelligence.

The universe must be a rational being and the nature which permeates all things must be endowed with reason in its highest form. So God and the world of Nature must be one and all the life of the world must be contained within the being of God. As the universe is surely superior to any other being, then it must be endowed with reason. ‘The universe was endowed with wisdom from eternity and is itself divine.’ (p.137).

There is no quality higher than goodness and nothing more perfect than the universe. Therefore goodness must be a characteristic of the universe. (p.138)

[Pages 141 to 145 consist of a sluggish digression on astronomy i.e. the movements of the planets and stars.]

He then argues that the sun must be a conscious rational being, and so are all the stars, as proved by the regularity of their motions. The stars move of their own free will and motivated by their own intelligence – what other force could move them so efficiently?

I cannot understand this regularity in the stars, his harmony of time and motion in their various orbits through all eternity, except as the expression of reason, mind and purpose in the planets themselves, which we must therefore reckon in the number of the gods. (p.145)

At which point he makes the leap that the fact that the gods exist is so obvious that anyone who disagreed must be mad (p.141). Anyone who looks up and observes the beautiful order and regularity of the movement of the stars and doesn’t feel the power of God must be out of his mind (p.145, repetition of p.124).

As we have an innate idea in our minds that God must be a living God and supreme above all else in the world, there seems to me nothing more consonant with this idea than to recognise the whole universe, than which there can be nothing more sublime, as being the living God. (p.141)

The gods just exist because there must be some supreme being which is superior to all else. 

Another reason is that, although all men acknowledge the existence of the gods, to give them human form is to assign them limitations and imperfections. This, also, is an argument for equating God with the entire universe.

Balbus argues that the gods don’t of course have the form of humans with all the frailties and limitations that implies. The traditional names of the gods embody qualities of the universe which are gifts to humankind and which we ought to worship (p.147).

[Pages 147 to 151 consist of a digression on the etymology of the names of the gods.]

On the providence of the gods

Balbus then sets out to prove that the world is governed by the wisdom and foresight of the gods.

My belief is that the universe and everything in it has been created by the providence of the gods and is governed by their providence through all eternity. (p.154)

Stoics like him give three reasons:

  1. if you grant the existence of gods, you must grant their providence
  2. all things are ordered by a sentient natural power impelling them towards their own perfection
  3. the wonders of the earth and sky (Argument from Design)

1. All men acknowledge that the gods exist. If they exist, they must be active. What kind of activity could be better than the government of the world. Therefore the world is governed by the wisdom of the gods (p.154). There is nothing greater or more wonderful than the universe. Therefore it must be governed by the wisdom and foresight of the gods (p.156).

2. Nature is a principle of reason which pursues its own methodical course. His explanation of nature/God is based on the ancients’ belief that the world was made of four elements (earth, air, water, fire) and theories about reason and mind, all of which are twaddle, so it’s difficult to follow in its complexity something you know is rubbish. A central problem is the interchangeability of the words universe’ and ‘nature’ throughout this book.

  • Nature is the power which rules the universe.

There follows an extended passage (pages 161 to 177) describing the wonders of the stars and the planets and the sun and then of geography (seas and rivers and forests and deserts) and then a lot of ‘wonders’ of the natural world, every one of which Balbus recruits as evidence for his simple-minded insistence that every single one proves the universe is controlled by an intelligent and caring providence.

From all this evidence we must conclude that everything in the world is marvellously ordered by divine providence and wisdom for the safety and protection of us all. (p.177)

Wrong. The ludicrously naive self-centredness of this view becomes apparent when he goes on to ask for whom all this wonder was laid on? Well, obviously not for the lifeless rocks or even for mindless animals. Obviously for those with mind and reason, ta-dah! Us humans!

We can therefore well believe that the earth and everything in it was created for the gods and for mankind. (p.177)

Balbus then goes on to consider the ‘perfection’ of the design of man, how perfect the human mouth is for drinking, how perfect the lungs for drawing in air, the stomach for digesting food and so on, the gift of speech, the wonder of the human hand (pages 178 to 184). Balbus attributes all this to:

the wise and careful providence of nature, which shows the great and gracious benefits the gods have bestowed upon mankind. (p.180)

Everything in the world which we enjoy was made and ordered for our sake. (p.185)

I attribute it to evolution. Balbus’s anthropocentric narcissism leaps out when he claims that ‘every human sense far surpasses the sense of beast’ (p.182) which is plumb wrong, as we now know that all human senses are far excelled by any number of other animals.

To sum up: man has been given all manner of gifts in the design of the universe, the beauty of the world, the provision of plants and animals to rear and eat, in the wonderfully apt design of his own body and, above all, in the gift of reason so we can understand it all. Contemplating all this must lead to awareness of a guiding and kindly providence working throughout the universe and in our favour, and from this stems Religion and a sense of the virtues, of the good life which is living in harmony with the universe, in loving-kindness and generosity to our fellow men.

Summary of Balbus

Although every factual claim he makes about the universe, the solar system and the natural world are howlingly wrong, I can see the aim of Balbus’s Stoic philosophy. It is for those who appreciate the beauty of the night skies and the wonders of the natural world and believe that they indicate some natural law or harmony and that, in order to live well, in order to live wisely and virtuously, we humans should acknowledge these gifts and try and bring our way of living into harmony with the natural world. A not unreasonable ambition.

Its weak spot is Stoics odd insistence on the importance of ‘prophesy’ as a strong proof of providence. Both Epicureans and Academics were quick to ridicule this and it’s hard to see why it is needed in their system and couldn’t be quietly dropped.

3. Cotta puts the academic view (pages 193 to 235)

Cotta introduces himself as a member of the College of Augurs and a priest. He will never abandon the views he has inherited from his Roman forebears about worship of the gods. He doesn’t require a load of fancy arguments to prove the existence of the gods: the traditional belief of their Roman ancestors was enough. As a rational man, he simply wants to question the arguments of the other two more closely in order to base his own belief on a sound foundation.

Remember that a substantial portion of Cotta’s book is missing, and it feels like it. Anyway, he says he will not refute Balbus’s argument in its entirety but ask him about specific aspects. He attacks Balbus’s stories about ‘prophecy’ and ‘omens’ as superstitious hearsay.

Then he attacks one of the central arguments of both Velleius and Balbus, that the gods exist because the notion of immortal gods is innate in human nature. Not so, says Cotta. Just because a large number of people believe something to be true does not make it true.

More importantly, for me, Cotta refutes most of the arguments Balbus put forward to prove that the universe, the sun and the moon and the stars are all gods. No, says Cotta. Just because something behaves with mechanical regularity and is beautiful to look at (like the stars) doesn’t mean it is either conscious or immortal (p.202).

One flaw in his argument is to assume that anything bigger than man must be Perfect and Immortal, such as the movement of tides, and rivers and the seasons and the stars. not at all. They might just be part of the mechanical rhythm of the universe. The parts of nature move in consonance but this does not require a guiding intelligence.

Nature persists and coheres by its own power without any help from the gods. (p.204)

Just because something is bigger than man doesn’t make it a god. Otherwise all mountains would be gods. Every hill, every bluff, every tree would be a god.

Cotta’s critique of Balbus is less effective than his attack on Velleius. This seems to be because he is actually missing a lot of Balbus’s point. He says that all things made up of the elements will eventually decompose and die but this isn’t as effective an attack on Balbus as on Velleius. He says the so-called gods experience no evil so cannot judge between good and evil so cannot really enact virtue. How can we respect a god who doesn’t exercise reason or moral qualities?

Then he moves on to attack the way many humans, either legendary or historical figures, have, allegedly been translated into gods. This didn’t strike me as central to Balbus’s argument. What both of them seem to be missing is the centrality of prophecy to Stoic beliefs and the enormous problems thrown up by trying to reconcile God’s Preknowledge of the future and human free will (without which there can be no morality), a topic which was to bedevil Christian theology for 2,000 years.

Instead he wastes his time on the secondary argument of which of the actual Roman gods who have temples devoted to them Balbus includes in his pantheon, and which he excludes, and why. As he rattles off an enormous list of gods major and minor and then nymphs and satyrs and demi-gods and so on, it dawned on me he is missing a major distinction to be made between religion as theology and religion as practice. I’m betting most people are attached to their religions as traditions and practices which bind together families and communities. Cotta’s attack on the pantheon of the gods makes it clear just how futile it is trying to come up with a coherent intellectual underpinning for the super-diverse world of actual religious practice. Religious practices just are.

This reductio ad absurdem list of gods goes on for some time (pages 208 to 219), with Cotta asking Balbus whether he allows the rainbow to be a god or clouds and so on, ridiculing the idea that qualities such as Faith or Courage or objects of desire such as Victory and Honour can be gods.

Lacuna in the text.

He spends so much time on it because, apparently, many Stoic writers have devoted a lot of time to giving philosophical rationales for all these gods. But, says Cotta, this is all superstitious twaddle.

Lacuna in the text.

Balbus had assumed all through his speech that Reason is the highest attribute imaginable. So Cotta sets out to destroy this view by quoting an extensive number of examples where people have used their reason for evil i.e. have acted rationally in order to achieve wicked ends.

If the divine mind willed the good of men, when it endowed them with reason, then it willed only the good of those whom it also endowed with the power to use their reason well, whom we see to be very few indeed, if any. (p.222)

Maybe it would have been better if the gods had never given man reason at all. Maybe philosophy does more to lead students astray into immoral or unnatural beliefs and activities than improve them.

The problem of pain

Then Cotta moves on to a version of the perennial ‘problem of pain’, asking why the gods gave men the power of ‘reason’ instead of the ability to act virtuously? Instead, monsters have thrived and honest men met violent ends. If the gods do look upon our world they apparently make no distinction between good and bad men.

There can be no divine guidance of human affairs if the gods make no distinction between good and evil. (p.230)

And:

The prosperity and good fortune of the wicked absolutely disprove the power of the gods. (p.232)

Why don’t the gods intervene on the side of good while letting evil prosper? It’s the central question which has plagued the Abrahamic religions with their notion of an all-powerful all-loving god down to the present day, crystallised by the central catastrophe of the twentieth century: if there is an all-powerful, all-loving God why did he allow the Holocaust?

Abrupt ending

Right at the last minute on the last page Cotta re-emphasises that he doesn’t say this to argue against the gods but to submit men’s arguments to strict scrutiny and show how difficult the issue is. This feels very much like a last-minute cop-out designed to avert accusations of atheism which most of the rest of the document strongly endorses.

The host, Lucilius, is made to say that he would take up arms to defend their venerable religious traditions and temples and so on, and Cotta repeats that he agrees and will join him and has been merely working through the arguments not denying religion. Perish the thought!

It’s worth quoting the final sentence for two reasons. It purportedly gives the view of Cicero who has been a silent witness throughout the previous 3 books, never saying a word.

The conversation ended here, and we parted. Velleius judged that the arguments of Cotta were truest; but those of Balbus seemed to me to have the greater probability.

It has puzzled commentators that Cicero came down on the side of Balbus rather than sympathising with his fellow Academician, Cotta. It rather suggests that the debate was never between three points of view, but between two major points of view both of which were then critiqued by Cotta, with the result that onlookers (such as Cicero) only had a choice of two.

Lastly, its abruptness has convinced most commentators that the work was never finished properly and would probably have been revised and polished if Cicero had lived long enough.


Related links

Roman reviews

More Pricks Than Kicks by Samuel Beckett (1934)

‘You and your sad and serious,’ she said. ‘Will you never come off it?’ (p.24)

Beckett biography

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin in 1906 into a middle-class Anglican family (they had a tennis court in the garden). He went to private school, where he excelled at cricket, and people who like arty anecdotes will tell you he is the only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature who is also mentioned in Wisden, ‘the Bible of cricket’, for his several appearances in county-level cricket teams.

From 1923 to 1927 Beckett studied French, Italian, and English at Trinity College, Dublin, which goes a long way to explaining the polyglot nature of his texts. In 1929, while living in Paris, the young Anglo-Irishman was introduced to the great Modernist writer, James Joyce, famous for his vast rewriting of the English language in the experimental novel, Ulysses, and became his secretary for a while.

In 1931 Beckett returned to Dublin to take up an appointment as a lecturer, but in 1931 resigned, packing in academic life to travel on the Continent. He published a study of Proust, miscellaneous poems and tried to find a publisher for his first novel, A Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the title being a ponderously jocose reference to Tennyson’s poem, A Dream of Fair Women.

All the publishers rejected it, but Beckett reworked passages of it into this collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks. In fact, the failed novel is referred to by title as the long-pondered work of a character in the seventh story, What a Misfortune, the would-be poet and cuckold of Mr Otto Olaf bboggs, Walter Draffin.

The tilted kepi of the attendant, its green band and gilt harp, and the clang beneath in black and white of his riotous hair and brow, so ravished Walter that he merely had to close his eyes to be back in Pisa. The powers of evocation of this Italianate Irishman were simply immense, and if his Dream of Fair to Middling Women, held up in the limae labor stage for the past ten or fifteen years, ever reaches the public, and Walter says it is bound to, we ought all be sure to get it and have a look at it anyway. (p.128)

More pricks than kicks

So this collection is Beckett’s first published work of fiction. It’s a sequence of ten interlocking stories (with a few author’s footnotes explaining the linkages, where necessary), set in Dublin and describing the super-bookish, über-erudite but shiftless anti-hero, Belacqua Shuah – ‘a dirty lowdown Low Church Protestant high-brow’ (p.156) – who has a series of mostly pretty mundane encounters and adventures around Dublin and in the neighbouring countryside.

(Nowhere in the text does it explain that the name Belacqua Shuah comes from a figure in Dante’s Purgatorio, a Florentine lute-maker famed for his laziness, who has given up on ever reaching heaven. ‘Samuel Beckett, whose favorite reading was Dante, closely identified with Belacqua and his indolence.’ I mean Beckett mentions Dante, the medieval Italian poet’s name is in the title of the first story, but it’s left to the enterprising reader either to look up the connection or, one assumes, to erudite enough to spot it straightaway. – We have Wikipedia to thank for this information.)

Like most Modernist texts More Pricks than Kicks assumes you have a good working knowledge of European literary classics and are fluent in at least the key modern languages (not only the French and Italian which Beckett himself studied, but German also) as the text is sprinkled with quotes like the following, with no translation:

Meine Ruh ist hin mein Herz ist schwer
Ich finde Sie nimmer und nimmer mehr.

You only have to read a few sentences to realise that Beckett has a very tangential relationship to the English language. His prose wilfully combines:

  • Irish idioms and phrases (‘It would take off the rough wet’)
  • Latin tags and phrases (obiter, pro tem, tempus edax)
  • worn-out English proverbs and clichés:
    • better late than never
    • the things people come out with sometimes!
  • pompous Biblical phraseology:
    • ‘Who shall silence them, at last?’
  • and clichés from popular fiction treated with elaborate academic condescension:
    • The effect of this was to send what is called a glow of warmth what is called coursing through his veins
    •  … and no mistake!
    • well, to make a long story short
    • Hairy was as snug as a bug in a rug
  • archly direct address to the reader:
    • ‘Reader, a rosiner is a drop of the hard…’
    • ‘Reader, a gloria is coffee laced with brandy.’

along with:

  • a liberal sprinkling of the three main European languages
  • sly quotes from literary classics
  • rebarbatively arcane words
  • an elaborately Euphuistic register
  • deliberately obscure phrasing and sentence structure

The book has a strong sense of humour but of a very distinct and idiosyncratic kind. Three pages are devoted to describing Belacqua’s extremely pedantic way of toasting bread for lunch which – it appears – involves burning each of the two slices of bread to a smouldering crisp.

When the first candidate was done, which was only when it was black through and through, it changed places with its comrade, so that now it in its turn lay on top, done to a dead end, black and smoking, waiting till as much could be said of the other… Belacqua on his knees before the flame, poring over the grill, controlled every phase of the broiling. It took time, but if a thing was worth doing at all it was worth doing well, that was a true saying. Long before the end the room was full of smoke and the reek of burning. (p.11)

Because:

This meal that he was at such pains to make ready, he would devour it with a sense of rapture and victory, it would be like smiting the sledded Polacks on the ice. He would snap at it with closed eyes, he would gnash it into a pulp, he would vanquish it utterly with his fangs. Then the anguish of pungency, the pang of the spices, as each mouthful died, scorching his palate, bringing tears.

This is certainly pretentious (the sledded Polacks are from Hamlet), but is it funny? Or just student-type self-indulgence? The show-off antics of a top-of-the-class ephebe?

These questions hover over the entire book, which treads all kinds of knife-edges. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny. Some of it is, frankly, incomprehensible. Most of it is painfully arch and contrived. You get the sense that a lot of it – whether the use of Irish idioms or obvious proverbs, the learned disquisitions about Italian poets or the sentences which feel like they’re walking on stilts – they all seem to be mocking their respective registers, styles and conventions.

Take this portrait of a lady, ‘the Frica’, which, beneath the glossolalia, seems to be comparing her, caustically, to a horse:

Behold the Frica, she visits talent in the Service Flats. In she lands, singing Havelock Ellis in a deep voice, frankly itching to work that which is not seemly. Open upon her concave breast as on a lectern lies Portigliotti’s Penombre Claustrali, bound in tawed caul. In her talons earnestly she grasps Sade’s 120 Days and the Anterotica of Aliosha G. Brignole-Sale, unopened, bound in shagreened caul. A septic pudding hoodwinks her, a stodgy turban of pain it laps her horse face. The eyehole is clogged with the bulbus, the round pale globe goggles exposed. Solitary meditation has furnished her with nostrils of generous bore. The mouth champs an invisible bit, foam gathers at the bitter commissures. The crateriform brisket, lipped with sills of paunch, cowers ironically behind a maternity tunic. Keyholes have wrung the unfriendly withers, the osseous rump screams behind the hobble-skirt. Wastes of woad worsted advertise the pasterns. Aïe! (p.46)

It comes from the longest ‘story’, A Wet Night which seems to be about a soirée for poets and literary layabouts held by this same Frica.

It’s as if the entire text is held at an angle from normal human perception, and bears only a passing resemblance to traditional narrative conventions. Maybe it’s intended to have the same deliberately angular feel as Wyndham Lewis’s consciously Modernist prose. Maybe its sentences are intended to contain lots of jagged edges, like a Vorticist painting.

Portrait of Kate Lechmere by Wyndham Lewis

Portrait of Kate Lechmere by Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis’s prose was generally satirical in intention. This book feels like it is not only satirising the ‘grotesque’ and apparently ageing anti-hero, his solemn monologues and pettifogging concerns, and also many of the traditions of conventional narrative – plot, dialogue, description – but is also satirising the reader for wanting to read it and the author for ever writing it. The whole enterprise is a right boggins.

Some occasional phrases appear legible and funny, and ring with a Joycean poetry:

  • ‘Oh Winnie’ he made a vague clutch at her sincerities, for she was all anyway on the grass. (p.25)
  • Chastening the cat with little skelps she took herself off. The grey hairs of her maidenhead
    screamed at Belacqua. A devout, virginal blue-stocking, honing after a penny’s worth of scandal. (p.17)
  • Though he might be only able to afford a safety-bicycle he was nevertheless a man of few words.
  • Capper Quin arrived on tiptire, in a car of his very own. (p.164)

But many, many, many other passages are purposely obtuse and circumlocutory, wilfully repelling and discomforting comprehension.

At this all-important juncture of his delirium Belacqua found himself blinking his eyes rapidly, a regular nictation, so that little flaws of dawn gushed into his mind. This had not been done with intent, but when he found that it seemed to be benefiting him in some curious way he kept it up, until gradually the inside of his skull began to feel sore. Then he desisted and went back to the dilemma. Here, as indeed at every crux of the enterprise, he sacrificed sense of what was personal and proper to himself to the desirability of making a certain impression on other people, an impression almost of gallantry. He must efface himself altogether and do the little soldier. It was this paramount consideration that made him decide in favour of Bim and Bom, Grock, Democritus, whatever you are pleased to call it, and postpone its dark converse to a less public occasion. This was an abnegation if you like, for Belacqua could not resist a lachrymose philosopher and still less when, as was the case with Heraclitus, he was obscure at the same time. He was in his element in dingy tears and luxuriously so when these were furnished by a pre-Socratic man of acknowledged distinction. How often had he not exclaimed, skies being grey: “Another minute of this and I consecrate the remnant of my life to Heraclitus of Ephesus, I shall be that Delian diver who, after the third or fourth submersion, returns no more to the surface!” (p.149)

For long stretches the text is an omnium-gatherum of obfuscation. But despite its post-graduate knick-knackery – I liked it. I read many passages twice, getting to know them better. The Lobster, Lethe, Walking out and Yellow repay rereading.


The stories

Dante and the Lobster (11 pages)

Introducing Belacqua, who makes burned toast for lunch, stops in a pub till chucking out time (2.30), picks up the lobster his aunt ordered from a fishmonger, goes to his Italian lesson, where the lobster is attacked by the French tutor’s cat, and arrives with the lobster at his aunt’s, who boils it alive.

Fingal (10 pages)

Belacqua takes his lady love to Fingal, a viewing point outside Dublin, where they colloquise almost incomprehensibly before walking over to enjoy the view of the lunatic asylum, where Belacqua is replaced in the lady’s affections by Dr Sholto, sidles off, then nicks a labourer’s bicycle and scarpers back to Dublin where the story ends with him happily ensconced in a warm snug downing a pint of porter.

Ding-Dong (9 pages)

Restlessly moving from pub to pub, Belacqua witnesses a child being run over by a cart, though that’s not the point, the point seems to be a woman approaching him to sell theatre tickets in yet another pub.

A Wet Night (30 pages)

Belacqua is dragged along to a party hosted by ‘the Finca’, and attended by the ‘homespun Poet’, ‘the Alba’, the Polar Bear (P.B.), a Jesuit (S.J.), Chas and his girl (‘a Shetland Shawny’), the ‘arty Countess of Parambini’, the Student, the Caleken, a Galway Gael, the Man of Law escorting three tarts, two banned novelists, a bibliomaniac and his mistress, a paleographer, a violist d’amore with his instrument in a bag, a popular parodist with his sister and six daughters, a still more popular Professor of Bullscrit and Comparative Ovoidology, the saprophile the better for drink, a communist painter and decorator fresh back from the Moscow reserves, a merchant prince, two grave Jews, a rising strumpet, three more poets with Lauras to match, a disaffected cicisbeo, a chorus of playwrights, the inevitable envoy of the Fourth Estate, a phalanx of Grafton Street Stürmers and Jemmy Higgins. I dare say these are all hilarious portraits of characters from 1920s literary Dublin.

Love and Lethe (12 pages)

A slightly more comprehensible ‘story’, complete with satirical asides to the reader, in which Belacqua has persuaded the fading 33-year-old Ruby to accompany him in a suicide attempt. They drive out to a hill, climb it, sit to admire the view, drink a whole bottle of spirits, the gun goes off by accident harming neither – at which they fall to urgent rumpy-pumpy in the ling.

Walking Out (10 pages)

‘Walking out’ is the phrase used to describe courting couples back in D.H. Lawrence days (the 1910s and 20s) This is a brutal subversion of the convention. Belacqua is walking in fields when he is caught up by his lady love and fiancée, Lucy, on horseback. An obscure Latin phrase in their conversation somehow conveys to Lucy what we then find out, which is that Belacqua has come this way to spy on a ‘courting couple’ who, apparently, have sex in the nearby woods. She rides off in a huff, and is trotting blind with anger along a narrow country lane when a car driven by a drunken lord hurtles round the corner, kills her horse outright and cripples her for life. Oblivious of all this Belacqua has continued on his way to the gloomy woods where he sneaks about till he finds his (German) couple in flagrente delicto, but steps on a dry branch and the enraged Tanzherr chases him, catches him, and administers a good flogging. Belacqua crawls home. In a cruel postscript we learn that he and the crippled Lucy are now married and regularly play records on the phonogram :).

What a Misfortune (30 pages)

Lucy conveniently dies, two years after her accident, and Belacqua is free to become engaged to Thelma bboggs, younger daughter of Mr and Mrs Otto Olaf bboggs, who has made his pile from toiletries. Beckett’s humour is not… subtle. This is an extended Beckettian satire on all the embarrassments and confusions of a bourgeois marriage, complete with unwilling bride’s father, his wife’s lover, the hairy best man, a crippled nymphomaniac and a drooling cretin. But this makes it sound too comprehensible. It is the usual onomasticon of oneiromancies:

The hyperaesthesia of Hairy was so great that the mere fact of standing on licensed ground, without the least reference to its liberties, was of force sufficient to exhilarate him. Now therefore, under the influence of his situation, he dilated with splendid incoherence on the contradiction involved in the idea of a happy Belacqua and on the impertinence of desiring that he should derogate into such an anomaly. (p.118)

The Smeraldina’s Billet Doux (5 pages)

The shortest section, this is told entirely in the first person, as a letter written by an illiterate German girl who appears to be madly in love with Belacqua, who she refers to as Bel. Presumably, he’s had some kind of affair with her.

[The central importance of women, or a Woman – Only at this point in my reading did I finally realise that every one of these stories revolves around Belacqua’s encounter with a specific woman – Signorina Adriana Ottolenghi in Dante and the Lobster, Winnie in Fingal, the unnamed woman who sells him theatre tickets in Ding-Dong, ‘the’ Alba in Wet Night, Ruby in Love and Lethe, Lucy in Walking Out, Thelma in What a Misfortune and ‘the’ Smeraldina in this story. And that these are presumably the fair to middling women of his unpublished novel, reworked into freestanding stories. It’s hard to see what purpose or meaning to give to their central role except as a plot device, the device being that each of them represents the opposite pole to Belacqua’s well-developed solipsism and self-absorption, each of them yanks our hero out of his seamless subjectivity. And each one of them is then the butt of humour, satire and scorn.]

Yellow (13 pages)

Belacqua is in hospital awaiting an operation on a tumour the size of a brick growing out of his neck. Now that I’ve identified the woman-theme in the previous stories, this one confirmed what I see as the fundamental dynamic of the stories, which is the way Belacqua’s leaden solipsism is punctured and alleviated, lightened, amused or irritated, by the intrusion of women – one per story, generally, but in this one it is a small regiment of nurses, fussing and trimming him. They are quite personable. Some bits – like the nurse bursting out laughing at the ugliness of his toes – are quite funny. In the last few sentences, it appears that Belacqua dies on the operating table.

Draff (13 pages)

This final story reviews, or at least namechecks, all the fair to middling women who featured in its predecessors, before pointing out that Belacqua’s widow was his final amour, no other than ‘the Smerladina’ whose letter we read a few sections earlier. Now she attends to Belacqua’s corpse, laid out in the parlour, and deals with sundry visitors (Nick Malacoda the undertaker, the Church of Ireland padre, friend Capper). She and Hairy dress the burial plot with moss then go through the interment, next day. On the way back Hairy argues with the padre and dumps him in the middle of nowhere. Arriving home, they find Smeraldina and Belacqua’s house in flames. Apparently the gardener ran amok, raped the serving girl and torched it. A policeman points out he is now under arrest. Hairy takes the Smeraldina driving up into the mountains where – I think – they have sex which – I think – she seems to like rather rough. The groundsman back at the cemetery finishes his bottle of stout.

So it goes in the world. (p.173)

So it goes, eh? That immediately makes me think of Kurt Vonnegut, who has the same mocking attitude to human existence, and actually uses the catchphrase ‘so it goes’ throughout his breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.


Conclusion

So what do we take from all this? That Beckett:

  1. has swallowed not only an English dictionary of rare and obscure words, but an Italian and French and German dictionary as well
  2. has little new or interesting to say but says it with supernumerary logorrhoea, or with the smart, ironic use of worn-out clichés
    • (‘what a splendid thing it is when all is said and done to be young and vigorous’)
  3. occasionally takes recourse to Catholic theology, but with no feel at all for the numinous
    • (‘He did not know the French for lobster. Fish would do very well. Fish had been good enough for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. It was good enough for Mlle Glain.’)
  4. is not much interested in plot or story
  5. and finds all humans risible, but has a particular itch against old crones – like ‘his lousy old bitch of an aunt’

But most of all, that Beckett’s prose – stitched together from a diverse range of sources and languages – is not sensual. It is certainly variegated – a rackety gallimaufrey of idiolects, langues and locutions – but it is always rather grey.

Belacqua, paying pious suit to the hem of [Ruby’s] garment and gutting his raptures with great complacency at a safe remove, represented precisely the ineffable long-distance paramour to whom as a homesick meteorite abounding in IT she had sacrificed her innumerable gallants. And now, the metal of stars smothered in earth, the IT run dry and the gallants departed, he appeared, like the agent of an ironical Fortune, to put her in mind of what she had missed and rowel her sorrow for what she was missing. Yet she tolerated him in the hope that sooner or later, in a fit of ebriety or of common or garden incontinence, he would so far forget himself as to take her in his arms.

The ghost of Joyce hangs heavily over Beckett. Joyce, a genuine world class genius, wrote sensitively and sensuously with a God-given inhabitation of language. Beckett is trying something similar – deploying an obfuscation of orotundity – but it doesn’t roll or rise. He has all the fandango and fol-de-rol, but no feel.

Clever, but dead. Beckett’s prose is assembled with tweezers. It is like a chemistry set, constructed with a chemist’s detachment. You can see why, later in the 1930s, he began to write in French. The over-clotted English style displayed here was a dead end, as was the entire approach of clotting and cluttering, additioning and complexifying. He had to completely purge his approach and his langue, in order to find his metier as the prophet of paucity.

Stray thoughts

The stories were written between 1931 and 1934, at the same time that Christopher Isherwood (b.1904 and therefore two years older than Beckett, b,1906) was working as an English teacher in Berlin, keeping his diary and working up the stories which were to appear in Mr Norris Changes Trains. There are suggestive points of comparison:

  • Isherwood’s prose is self-consciously crisp and clear and modern, like modernist architecture, completely unlike Beckett’s mongrel, multilingual, playing-with-registers gallimaufrey
  • similarly, Isherwood’s stories are stories in the utterly traditional sense, with characters and plots, although the ‘plots’ are often thin, the obvious working-up of everyday incidents – whereas Beckett has no plots, but instead sequences of trivial incidents on which he can hang his philosophical and linguistic games
  • although many details in both are harsh, they are both, arguably, comic writers
  • and if you consider how totally Isherwood commits himself to describing the foreign city where he was living, and its troubled politics i.e. the rise of Hitler, it makes you realise how, by contrast, Beckett never writes about Paris or the France he lived in, about the rise of fascism or the entire Second World War. Instead his imagination, in all his works, remains utterly rooted in the Dublin streets and pubs and characters and slang and songs of his boyhood. Although he was later hailed as a member of the international post-war avant-garde, a really close reading of Beckett (and hearing, of the radio plays, and watching, of the made-for-TV plays) brings out Beckett’s essential parochialness.

Credit

More Pricks Than Kicks by Samuel Beckett was published in 1934 by Chatto and Windus, London. All page references are to the 1974 Picador paperback edition.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

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