Juvenal Satires

Juvenal wrote just 16 satires but they are considered among the best and most influential in Western literature. Tackling them now, for the first time, I discover that his poems are considerably more strange, gnarly and uneven than that reputation suggests, and also that the man himself is something of a mystery.

Potted biography

Decimus Junius Juvenal was probably born around 55 AD, the son of a well-off freedman who had settled in Aquinum near Monte Cassino, 80 miles south-east of Rome. According to two stone inscriptions found in the area, in 78 a ‘Junius Juvenal’ was appointed commander of a cohort and served in Britain under Julius Agricola (father-in-law of Tacitus the historian). The supposition is that this is the same Juvenal as our author, but scholars disagree. The satires contain a number of surprisingly detailed references to life in Britain which seem to reinforce this view, but…Nothing conclusive. (Introduction, pages 16 to 18)

The same inscription describes the return of this Junius Juvenal to Rome in 80, when he was made a priest of the deified Vespasian. A year later, in 81, Domitian became emperor and it is likely that Juvenal cultivated his position in society, writing verses. But in 93 a lampoon he’d written caused offence and he was exiled to Egypt (at least that’s what some scholars believe; Introduction p.18 to 20).

After Domitian’s assassination in 96, it seems that he was allowed back to Rome. Another decade passed and then, in 110-112 he published his first book of satires, containing satires 1 to 5.

  • Book 2 (published around 116 AD) consists of the long sixth satire against women.
  • Book 3 (around 120) consists of satires 7 to 9.
  • Book 4 (around 124) contains satires 10, 11, 12.
  • Book 5 (around 130) contains satires 13 to 16.

The dates of these publications are deduced from what seem to be contemporary references in some of the poems and are themselves the subject of fierce debate.

Unlike the satires of his predecessors in the genre, Horace and Statius, Juvenal’s satires contain no autobiographical information. They are hard, external, objective.

Contemporary references to Juvenal are few and far between. Martial’s epigrams contain three references to a ‘Juvenal’, the longest being epigram 18 in book 12 where Martial writes to someone named Juvenal, as to an old friend, gloating that while his friend is still living in noisy, stinky Rome, he (Martial) has retired to a beautifully quiet farm back in his native Spain. Scholars assume this is the same Juvenal, though there is no proof beyond the text itself.

The earliest satires are bitter and angry. In the later ones a change of tone is noticeable. Scholars assume this is because he went from being an utterly penniless poet, dependent on the good will of patrons handing out dinner invitations or a small portula or ‘dole’, to somehow acquiring a moderate ‘competency’. We learn from these later poems that he owned a small farm at Tivoli (satire 11) and a house in Rome where he entertained modestly. How did he acquire these? Did a grateful emperor gift them to him, as Augustus gave Horace a farm and a pension? We don’t know.

Scholars estimate that books 4 and 5 appeared in 123-5 and 128-30. It is likely that he survived the emperor Hadrian to die around 140, having lived a very long life. (Green refers to him as ‘the bitter old man from Aquinum’, p.10).

Soon after his death sometime in the late 130s, Juvenal’s work disappears and isn’t mentioned by anyone until the 4th century when he begins to be cited by Christian writers. Lactantius established the tradition of regarding Juvenal as a pagan moralist with a gift for pithy phrases, whose scathing contempt for corrupt pagan and secular society could be usefully quoted in order to contrast with the high-minded moral behaviour of the Christian believer – a tradition which was to hold true for the next 1,500 years.

Peter Green’s introduction

If you’ve read my notes on Peter Green’s translations of Ovid you’ll know that I’m a big fan of his. Born in 1924, Green is still alive, a British classical scholar and novelist who’s had a long and lively career, latterly teaching in America. Green’s translations of Ovid are characterised by a) long, chatty, informative, opinionated notes and b) rangy, freeflowing, stylish translations. Same here.

At 320 pages long, the Penguin edition of the Green translation feels like a bumper volume. This is because, with characteristic discursiveness, it starts with a 54-page introduction, which summarises all scholarly knowledge about, and interpretations of, the satires. And then each of the satires are immediately followed by 6, 7 or 8 pages of interesting, chatty notes.

I found Green’s introduction fascinating, as usual. He develops a wonderfully deep, complex and rewarding interpretation of Juvenal and first century Rome. It all starts with an explanation of the economic, social and cultural outlook of the rentier class.

Rentier ideology

At its most basic a rentier is ‘a person living on income from property or investments’. In our day and age these are most closely associated with the large number of unloved buy-to-let landlords. In ancient Rome the class system went, from the top:

  1. the emperor, his family and circle
  2. the senatorial class and their family and clan relatives
  3. beneath them sat the eques, the equestrian or knightly class

To belong to the senatorial class required a net worth of at least a million sesterces. To belong to the equestrian order required at least 400,000 sesterces.

Beneath these or attached to them, was the class Juvenal belonged to – educated, from a reputable family with maybe roots in the regional administrative class, who had come to Rome, rejected a career in the administration or the law courts, preferred to live by their wits, often taking advantage of the extensive networks of patrons and clients. Both Martial and Juvenal appear to have chosen to live like this. They weren’t rentiers in the strict sense of living off ‘income from property or investments’; but they were rentiers in the sense of not working for a living, not having a profession or trade or position in the administration.

Thus their livelihood depended on the existing framework of society remaining the same. Their income, clothes, property etc , all derived from finding wealthy patrons from the classes above them who endorsed the old Roman value and lived up to aristocratic notions of noblesse oblige i.e. with great wealth and position comes the responsibility to look after men of merit who have fallen on bad luck or don’t share your advantages i.e. supporting scroungers like Martial and Juvenal.

What Juvenal’s satires promote, or sometimes clamour for, is the continuation of the old Roman social structures and the endurance of the good old Roman (republican) virtues.

His approach to any social problem is, basically, one of static conservatism. (Introduction, p.23)

Green sums up the characteristic beliefs of the rentier class as:

  • lofty contempt for trade and ignorance of business
  • indifference to practical skills
  • intense political conservatism, with a corresponding fear of change or revolution
  • complete ignorance of the economic realities underpinning his existence
  • a tendency, therefore, to see all social problems in over-simplified moral terms (p.26)

The rentier believes that, because they are ‘good’ and uphold the ‘old values’ and traditional religion and so on, that they deserve to be rewarded with the old privileges and perks. They cannot process the basic reality of life that just being good, won’t make you rich.

And so the enemy of this entire worldview, of all its traditional values and relationships, is change, and especially economic change.

For in the century leading up to Juvenal’s time, Rome had not only transitioned from being a republic to becoming a full-blown empire but had also undergone sweeping economic changes. The old family farm, which was already a nostalgic fantasy in the time of Virgil and Horace, had long been obliterated by vast latifundia worked by huge gangs of shackled slaves.

But far more importantly, there had arisen an ever-changing and ever-growing class of entrepreneurs, businessmen, merchants, loan sharks, import-export buffs, hustlers and innovators who swarmed through the capital city, the regions and provinces. Sustained peace (apart from the disruption of the bad year, 69) had brought undreamed of wealth. Money, affluence, luxury was no longer restricted to the emperor, his family and the better-off senatorial classes, but had helped to create large numbers of nouveaux-riches. And these people and their obsession with money, money, money seemed to have infiltrated every aspect of Roman society.

It is this which incenses Juvenal and drives him to paroxysms of bile. He wants social relations in Rome to stay the same, ideally to revert to what they were in the fabled Golden Age, before money ruined everything. It is these floods of unprincipled money and the luxury, corruption and loss of traditional values which they bring in their wake, which obsess Juvenal. It expresses itself in different ways:

Money

Money is the root of all evil. It corrupts all social relationships.

Patron and client

Applied to Juvenal’s specific social position as an educated dinner-scrounger, parasite and hanger-on, he is incensed that the Grand and Noble Tradition of patron and client, which he likes to think applied some time back in the Golden Age, has now been corrupted and brought low by a flood of unworthy parasites among the clients, and the loss of all noble and aristocratic feeling among the patrons.

One of his recurring targets is the decadent aristocrat who has betrayed the upper-class code, whose money-mad, sexually profligate behaviour – adultery, gay sex, appearing on stage or in the gladiatorial arena – undermines all the old values Juvenal believes in.

Business

Green makes the excellent point that very often writers who find themselves in this position, dependent on charity from patrons, don’t understand how money is actually made. They’ve never run a business, let alone an international import-export business, so have only the vaguest sense of what qualities of character and responsibility and decision-making are required. This explains why Juvenal’s portraits of the nouveaux riches are so spiteful but also generalised. Somehow these ghastly people have become filthy rich and he just doesn’t understand how. With no understanding of the effort involved, of the changes in the Mediterranean economy or transport and storage or markets which are involved, all Juvenal has to resort to is abuse. The most hurtful spiteful sort of abuse is to attack someone’s sex life.

Sex

The thought of other people having sex is, for many, either disgusting or hilarious. Sex has always been an easy target for satirists. Conservatives like Juvenal, concentrate all their disgust at the wider ‘collapse of traditional values’ onto revulsion at any form of sex which doesn’t conform to traditional values (the missionary position between a married heterosexual couple). Hence the astonishing vituperation levelled at the vast orgy of deviant sex which Juvenal thinks Rome has become. He singles out a) deviant sex practiced by straight people, such as fellatio and cunnilingus; b) homosexual sex and in particular the stories of men and boys getting married: the way these couples (allegedly) dress up in the traditional garb of bride and groom, use the same priests reciting the traditional wedding ceremony etc, drives him to paroxysms of fury.

As so often with angry men, Juvenal’s vituperation is especially focused on the sexual behaviour of women, and indeed Book 2 consists of just one satire, the unusually long sixth satire against women. As Green points out, the focus of Juvenal’s fury is not women in general but aristocratic women for falling so far short of the noble values they should be upholding. What drives Juvenal mad is that their sexual liaisons are with men from the lower classes such as gladiators or actors. He contrasts their irresponsible promiscuity with the behaviour of women of lower classes who actually bear children instead of having endless abortions, and would never dream of performing on the stage or in the arena. There is a great deal of misogyny in the sixth satire but Green suggests that it is driven, like all his other anger, not quite by woman-hating alone but by the failure to preserve traditional values.

Immigrants

As mentioned several times, Rome saw an ‘invasion’ of new money and entrepreneurial rich. What gets Juvenal’s goat is how many of them are foreigners, bloody foreigners, coming over here, buying up our grand old houses, buying their way into the equestrian class, even running for public office, bringing their bloody foreign religions. A virulent strain of xenophobia runs alongside all Juvenal’s other rages and hates, in particular hatred of Egyptians who he particularly loathes. A recurrent hate figure is Crispinus (‘that Delta-bred house slave’, p.66) who, despite originating as a fish-hawker from Egypt, had risen to become commander of the Praetorian Guard!

Freedmen

Alongside loathing of the newly rich and foreigners goes hatred of freedmen, jumped-up social climbers who come from slave families or who were once slaves themselves! My God! What is the city coming to when ex-slaves rise to not only swanky houses on Rome’s grandest hills, but even become advisers to emperors (as Claudius, reigned 41 to 54, had notoriously let state affairs be run by a small coterie of freedmen.) Unhampered by the dignified self-restraint and lofty morality of the old Romans, these base-born parvenus often acquired immense fortunes and thrust themselves into positions of great political power.

This, of course, is precisely the type who Petronius nails with his extended description of the grossly luxurious dinner party of the upstart arriviste Trimalchio, in his Satyricon.

It was not just economic and social power: Juvenal raged against the fact that he and his shabby-genteel friends were kept out of the seats reserved for Knights at the theatre and the games, while the same seats were filled with the sons of pimps, auctioneers and gladiators! They were everywhere, taking over everything! What could any decent person do, he argues in satire 1, except write bilious anathemas of these crooks and careerists and corrupters?

Bad literature

I find it the most predictable and least amusing thread in the satires, but it is a recurring theme that literature itself has been debauched by the collapse of these values. Somehow the old world of mythology, ancient myths and legends, all the twee genres of pastoral and idyll which accompanied them, none of these are appropriate for the current moronic inferno which faces the poet.

All this is entertainingly expressed in Satire 1 which is a justification of his approach i.e. rejecting all those knackered old mythological tropes and forms (idyll, epic, what-have-you) because these are all forms of escapism, in order to write blistering broadsides against the actual real world which he saw all around him.

In other words, wherever he looked, from the details of his own day-to-day livelihood to the counsels of the highest in the land, to the private lives of pretty much every citizen of note, Juvenal was aghast that a tide of money and corruption had tainted every aspect of Roman society, destroying the old aristocratic values, undermining traditional religion, destroying family values, turning the place into an Oriental bazaar run by foreigners who have imported their filthy decadent sexual practices.

Solutions?

Do Juvenal’s 16 satires offer a solution or alternative to this sorry state of affairs? Of course not. The satirist’s job is to flay abuses not fix them. Insofar as a solution is implied by the 16 satires, it is a return to traditional old Roman values and virtues. But as with so much satire, the pleasure comes not from hopes of solutions and improvements, but from sharing the sadistic glee of the demolition. He is a caricaturist, creating a rogues’ gallery of outrageous portraits.

Juvenal does not work out a coherent critique of institutions or individuals: he simply hangs a series of moral portraits on the wall and forces us to look at them. (p.43)

Philosophy

In a similar vein, Green points out that, at moments the poems appear briefly to espouse formulas from one or other of the three main philosophies popular in Rome at the time (Stoicism, Epicureanism and Cynicism), but never enough make you think he understands or cares for them. Generally they’re referred to in order to mock and ridicule their practitioners, as in the extended passage in Satire 3 which accepts the conventional view that most philosophers are homosexual and then exaggerates this idea for comic effect.

An unstructured torrent of bile

Juvenal’s lack of any theory of society or economics, any understanding of business, his lack of any coherent philosophical framework, all these go to explain the lack of structure which critics have always lamented in the satires.

Instead of coherent argument, Juvenal is notorious for bombarding the reader with powerful, vitriolic, scabrous images in paragraphs or couplets which often bear little relation to each other. Each satire has a broad subject but, within it, Juvenal’s ‘thought’ jumps all over the place. Juvenal:

picked a theme and then proceeded to drive it home into his reader’s mind by a vivid and often haphazard accumulation of examples. He is full of abrupt jumps…and splendidly irrelevant digressions. (p.44)

He obtains his effects by the piling up of visual images, paradoxical juxtapositions rather than step-by-step development. (p.46)

A principle of random selection at work, a train of thought which proceeds from one enticing image to another like a man leaping from tussock to tussock across a bog. (p.47)

Green points out that, in addition, although we have many manuscripts of the satires, all of them contain textual problems and issues – at some points there appear to be gaps in the logic of sentences or paragraphs, some passages or lines seem to be in the wrong place.

This has made Juvenal’s satires, over the centuries, a happy hunting ground for generations of editors, who have freely cut and pasted lines and passages from where they sit in the manuscript to other places where editors think they make more sense. Editors have even made up sentences to connect two passages which contain abrupt jumps. Green in his introduction laments that this is so, but himself does it quite freely, with interesting notes explaining each of his edits.

The point is that the problematic nature of all the manuscripts only exacerbate the issue which was always there, which is that Juvenal’s poems lack the kind of logical discursive narrative you find (up to a point) in ‘architectonic’ poets such as Horace or Ovid. Instead they generally consist of illogical but fantastically angry, vivid bombardments of bile and imagery.

The best attitude in a reader, then, is not to look for cool, considered argument, which simply isn’t there; it’s to sit back and enjoy the fireworks. The pleasure is in watching a clever, learnèd man, with advanced skills in writing verse, exploding with anger and bile.

Juvenal’s style

Green mentions ‘Juvenal’s technical virtuosity; his subtle control of rhythm and sound effects, his dense, hard, verbal brilliance.’ (p.7) According to Green few Roman poets can equal his absolute control over the pace, tone and texture of a hexameter, and no translator can hope to capture the condensed force of Juvenal’s enjambed hexameters, his skilful rhythmic variations, his dazzling displays of alliteration and assonance and onomatopoeia (p.59).

He goes on to elaborate that Juvenal’s use of Latin was ‘distilled, refined, crystallised.’ Of the 4,790 words used in the satires now fewer than 2,130 occur here once only and nowhere else. His entire lifetime’s work amounts to barely 4,000 lines. Rarely has a writer’s oeuvre had less spare fat. This helps to explain the number of Juvenal’s pithy phrases which went on to become well-known Latin tags:

  • quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (satire 6) = ‘who will guard the guards themselves?’, also translated as ‘who watches the watchers?’. The original context dealt with ensuring marital fidelity by setting watchers to guard an unfaithful wife, but the phrase is now used to refer to the problem of controlling the actions of persons in positions of power
  • panem et circenses (satire 10) = ‘bread and circuses’, meaning to generate public approval, not by excellence in public service or policy but by diversion, distraction, by satisfying the basest requirements of a population
  • mens sana in corpore sano (satire 10) = ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’, the phrase is now widely used in sporting and educational contexts to express that physical exercise is an important part of mental and psychological well-being

The 16 satires

Book 1

Satire 1: A justification for satire (171 lines)

He’s sick to death of rubbish poets declaiming the same exhausted stories about old mythology. He too has cranked out suasoria in the school of rhetoric. Why is he writing satire in the mode of old Lucilius? With Rome overrun by money and vulgarity, what else is there to do? Then gives a long list of types of social climber, frauds, embezzlers, men who rise by screwing rich old women, or pimp out their own wives, forgers carried round in litters, chiselling advocates, sneaky informers, the young buck who squandered his inheritance on horses, the lowly barber who used to shave Juvenal but is now as rich as any aristocrat, the distinguished old lady who’s an expert in poisoning. Everyone praises honesty, but it’s crime that pays.

Why, then, it is harder not to write satires, for who
Can endure this monstrous city and swallow his wrath?

Since the days of the flood has there ever been
Such a rich crop of vices? When has the purse
Of greed yawned wider?…Today every vice
Has reached its ruinous zenith…

Though talent be wanting, yet
Indignation will drive me to verse, such as I or any scribbler
May still command. All human endeavours, men’s prayers,
Fears, angers, pleasures, joys and pursuits, these make
The mixed mash of my verse.

An extended lament on the corruption of the relationship of patron and client, and all the thrusting crooks who now join the morning scrum outside a patron’s house for the ‘dole’, including many who are actually wealthy, but still scrounge for scraps. Describes the typical day of a client i.e. hanger-on, trudging round Rome after their patron, getting hot and sweaty and hungry. He rages against the greedy patron who feeds his cadgers scraps while he gorges on roast boar and peacock. One day he’ll have a heart attack but nobody will care.

He ends by saying Lucilius in his day felt confident of shared civil values to name the guilty men; in Juvenal’s day, naming an imperial favourite or anyone with pull could end you up as a burning torch illuminating the games. Better not name names, better restrict himself to using only the names of the dead, safer that way.

Satire 2: Against homosexuals and particularly gay marriage (170 lines)

The hypocrisy of bogus moralists, people who quote the great philosophers, who fill their halls with busts of the great thinkers, but don’t understand a word. Most philosophers are effete fairies. He prefers the eunuch priest of the Mother goddess, at least he’s open about it. Just recently Domitian was reviving laws about public morality while all the time tupping his niece; he forced her to have an abortion which killed her.

He has a courtesan address one such manicured, perfumed moralist for his hypocrisy, going on to say men are far worse than women; women wouldn’t dream of licking each other’s parts; accuses men of pleasuring their boy lovers ‘both ways’. She laments how most women, when they marry, have to take second place to a favoured boy or freedman.

He describes the scandalous advocate who prosecuted a case before the public wearing see-through chiffon, ‘a walking transparency’. It’s a slippery slope which leads to involvement in the secret rites of the Mother Goddess, for men only, who wear elaborate make-up, wear women’s clothing, use women’s oaths and ‘shrill, affected voices’. Throws in an insulting comparison to ‘that fag of an emperor, Otho’ who fussed over his armour in front of a mirror.

What about the young heir who went through a wedding ceremony with a trumpeter? Or the once-honourable priest of Mars who dresses up in ‘bridal frills’.

O Father of our city,
What brought your simple shepherd people to such a pitch
Of blasphemous perversion?

When men marry men why doesn’t great Mars intervene? What’s the point of worshipping him if he lets such things happen? Mind you, they can’t have children, so can’t preserve the family name (and, Juvenal appears to suggest, do try magic remedies so that the passive homosexual can get pregnant. Can that possibly be true, can ancient Romans have really thought a man can get pregnant?)

Juvenal goes on that what’s worse than holding a wedding ceremony to marry another man was that this blue-blooded aristocrat then took up a trident and net to fight in gladiatorial games. This really seems to be the most outrageous blasphemy of all, to Juvenal.

A digression to claim that nobody in Rome now believes in the ancient religion, Hades, Charon the ferryman and all that. But if they did wouldn’t the noble dead, fallen in so many battles to make Rome great, be scandalised to welcome such a degenerate aristocrat into their midst? Wouldn’t Hades itself need to be purified?

Yes, even among the dead Rome stands dishonoured.

Even the barbarians at Rome’s borders are not so debauched; although if we bring them as prisoners to Rome, they soon learn our decadent, effeminate ways and, when released, take our corruption back to their native lands.

Satire 3: Unbricius’ monologue on leaving Rome (322 lines)

His friend Umbricius is leaving Rome to go and live in Cumae. He’s jealous. He gives Umbricius a long speech in which he says he leaves Rome to fraudulent developers, astrologers, will-fixers, magicians, the go-betweens of adulterous lovers, corrupt governors, conspirators. Above all he hates Greeks, actually Syrians with their awful language, flutes and tambourines and whores. Sly slick dexterous Greeks from the islands can turn their hand to anything. These are the people who now wear the purple, precede him at dinner parties, officiate at manumissions. They can blag anyone, which explains why they’re such great actors, especially in women’s roles. Mind you, no woman is safe from a Greek man in the house, ‘he’ll cheerfully lay his best friend’s grandmother.’

This morphs into the misery of the client or hanger-on to dismissive rich men. He describes being kicked out of a prime seat at the theatre to make way for a pimp’s son, an auctioneer’s offspring or the son of a gladiator because they have more money. A plain white cloak is fine for the provinces, but here in Rome we must beggar ourselves to keep up with the latest decadent fashions.

And the misery of living in apartment blocks which are falling down or liable to fire at any moment. (Umbricius implies he lives on the third floor, as Martial does in one of his epigrams.) If your block goes up you lose everything, compared to the rich man; if his house burns down he is flooded with presents and financial aid to rebuild it from clients and flatterers and connections.

No, Umbricius advises to buy the freehold on a nice place in the country rather than a rented hovel in Rome. The worst of it is the noise at night from all the wagons wending through the winding alleyways. Insomnia’s causes more deaths among Roman invalids than any other cause. He gives a vivid description of the muddy, jostling misery of trying to get through Rome’s packed streets without being involved in some gruesome accident.

Walking at night is even worse, with the risk of being brained by a falling roof tile or drenched in slops chucked out the window by a housewife. And then the possibility of being beaten up by some bored, drunk bully. Or the burglars. Or some ‘street apache’ who’ll end your life with a knife.

So farewell Rome, he begs the author won’t forget him and, when he goes back to his home town for a break, will invite him round to celebrate a country festival.

Satire 4: A mock epic of the turbot (154 lines)

Starts off by ridiculing Crispinus for buying a red mullet for the ludicrous price of 60 gold pieces. Then morphs into a mock epic celebrating a fisherman in the Adriatic who catches an enormous giant turbot and carries it all the way to Rome to present to the emperor. This 100 lines of mock epic poetry contains a mock invocation to the Muses, extended epic similes etc. Then – and this appears to be the real point of the poem – it turns into a list of the emperor Domitian’s privy councillors, each one a crook or sadist or nark or creep.

Satire 5: Trebius the dinner-cadger (173 lines)

Is dinner worth every insult which you pay for it?

In the miserable figure of Trebius Juvenal lists the humiliations the ‘client’ must undergo in order to wain a grudging, poor quality ‘dinner’ from his patron (here called Virro), at which he will be offered the worst wine, rocky bread and humiliated by sneering slaves, served half an egg with boiled cabbage while the patron eats a huge crayfish with asparagus garnish.

Now if you had money, if you got yourself promoted to the Equestrian Order, then at a stroke you’d become Virro’s best friend and be lavished with the finest food. As it is, he serves you the worst of everything out of spite, to amuse himself. He wants to reduce you to tears of anger and frustration.

Don’t fool yourself that you are his ‘friend’. There is none of the honour of the old Republican relationship of patron and client. He simply wants to reduce his clients to the level of a buffoon, the stupidus of Roman pantomime who has his head shaved and is always being kicked or slapped by his smarter colleagues. He wants to make you an abject punchbag.

Book 2

Satire 6: Don’t marry (661 lines)

Postumus, are you really taking a wife?
You used to be sane…

Wouldn’t it be quicker to commit suicide by jumping out of a high building or off a bridge? Surely boys are better: at least they don’t nag you during sex or demand endless gifts or criticise your lack of passion.

Juvenal gives a funny account of the Golden Age, when humans lived in cave and women were hairier than their menfolk, their big breasts giving suck to tough babies. But long ago Chastity withdrew to heaven and now infidelity and adultery are well-established traditions.

Fidelity in a woman! It’s be easier to persuade her to have an eye out than keep faithful to one man! Posh women are mad for actors and entertainers. If he marries his wife will make some flute player or guitarist or gladiator father to his children.

He profiles Eppia the senator’s wife who ran off to Egypt with a gladiator, abandoning her children and her country. Then a searing portrait of Messalina, the nymphomaniac wife of Claudius, who snuck off to a brothel where, wearing a blonde wig and gilded nipples, she let herself be fucked by all-comers, all night long. A profile of Bibula who has her husband in thrall and goes on monster shopping sprees which morphs into a dig at Queen Berenice who lived for many years in an incestuous union with her brother, Agrippa of Judaea.

What point a beautiful wife if she is proud and haughty. Juvenal cites Niobe who was so vain she called down disaster on herself and her 12 children.

Modern girls doll themselves up like the bloody Greeks and express themselves with Greek language which (apparently) reeks of the bedroom.

Our provincial dollies ape Athenian fashion, it’s smart
To chatter away in Greek – though what should make them blush
Is their slipshod Latin. All their emotions – fear,
Anger, happiness, anxiety, every inmost
Secret thought – find expression in Greek, they even
Make love Greek-style.

It may be alright for schoolgirls to act this way, but Roman women in their eighties!

A flurry of sexist stereotypes: Women want money money money. They’ll take control of household spending, veto your business plans, control your friendships. She’ll force you to include her lover’s in your will.

Yet another shocking insight into Roman’s and their slaves when it’s played for laughs that a husband will order ‘crucify that slave’ and Juvenal paints it as typically feminine of a wife to want to know why, what the slave has done, before they’re hustled off to be crucified.

And the mother-in-law! She’ll egg her daughter on to every sin, adultery, spending all your money. Women are behind virtually all law suits, and insist on defending or prosecuting. And what about women athletes! And women fencers! And women who want to fight in the ring, ‘helmeted hoydens’, gladiatresses!

But bed is the place where wives are at their worst, endlessly bitching, about your boyfriends or imaginary mistresses, all the time hiding letters from her lover or making plans to visit her mother as an excuse to meet her lover. Bursting into tears if you accuse her, but quick to insist it was always an open marriage if you find her out.

What triggered all this corruption? In the good old days of relative poverty wives were too busy working, cooking, cleaning, darning to play the whore. All this wickedness is the result of a ‘too-long peace’. The world Rome conquered takes its revenge by afflicting Rome with Luxury, from which all vices spring, money – filthy lucre – leading to ‘shameless self-indulgence’.

He accuses religious festivals: the Floralia which celebrates fertility with phallus images and prostitutes; the worship of Venus; the mysteries of the Great Goddess whose frenzied worship makes women wet between the thighs, get drunk, bump and grind – then they call in the slaves to fuck them and if there aren’t any slaves, a donkey will do. The shrine of Isis might as well be called the brothel of Isis.

Gladiator trainers keep the gay ones segregated from the straight, but in a rich woman’s house queers are encouraged, man with kohl-ringed eyes, see-though clothes and hairnets. Mind you, half of them turn out to be straight after all, and well able to give your wife a good stuffing.

Juvenal accuses a specific fag of being a straight man in disguise. His friends tell him it’s best to lock up a wife and bar the doors. And here comes one of Juvenile’s most famous quotes. Yes, by all means lock up your wife and put a guard on the doors but will keep guard on the guards? ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ They, also, will be bribed by your whore wife to turn the other eye when her lover calls. Or will screw her themselves.

He profiles a generic aristocratic woman, Ogulna, who’s mad about the games and attends with a big expensive entourage, example of women who spend everything you have then get you into debt.

Then the wives who love eunuchs, if they’ve been neutered the right way they still can get erections and no worries about abortions! Especially the big bull black ones!

Women will lavish your money on music, musicians and musical instruments. The temples are packed with woman asking the gods to favour this or that performer or actor or gladiator or whatnot.

But they’re not as bad as the flat-chested busybody, who runs round town, buttonholing men, interrupting their conversations, an expert on every subject under the sun. overflowing with gossip about politics or military campaigns. Then goes off to the baths after dark, works out with weights, has a massage from an expert who oils her and makes her climax. Making her guests wait till she arrives late and proceeds to drink gallons on an empty stomach then spew it up all over the dining room tiles.

Worse is the bluestocking who holds forth about literature at dinner, comparing Virgil and Homer. God how he hates a female pedant and grammarian, always correcting your speech, ‘a husband should be allowed his solecisms in peace’.

Juvenal gives a description of the elaborate process of an upper class woman putting her make-up on, looking ridiculous in face-pack and thick creams at home, reserving her ugliness for her husband. The kind of woman who has her wool-maid or cosmetician or litter bearers flogged till they bleed while she fusses about her eye make-up or the hem of a gown.

God, the number of helpers and assistants required just to do her hair till it stands up like a ridiculous pomade.

Then a passage ridiculing the absurd requirements of foreign religious cults and superstitions, Bellona, Cybele, requiring total immersion in the Tiber, crawling across the field of Mars on your hands and knees, going a pilgrimage to Egypt. Or admires the shaven-headed devotees of the dog god Anubis who run through the streets wailing for dead Osiris. Or a palsied Jewess arrives ready to interpret the secret laws of Jerusalem.

Then the fortune tellers, Armenians and Syrians, or the Chaldean astrologers, all knowing they’ll get a credulous hearing from the rich woman of the house, the kind of woman who won’t make any decision, who won’t accompany or agree with her husband unless her astrologer says it’s written in the starts, or the augur tells her it’s written in the entrails of some chicken or pigeon or puppy.

Poor women go to the races to consult palmists or phrenologists, but at least they actually bear children, keep their pregnancies to full term. Not like rich women with their drugs to be made sterile or prompt abortions. Well, it could be worse, you could find yourself ‘father’ to a black child, obviously not yours, obviously fathered by a slave or gladiator.

If you start forgetting things, chances are you’re being poisoned by your wife. After all, emperors’ wives have poisoned their husbands and so set an example to us all! Beware step-mothers, scheming to kill the biological son and promote their boy. He cites the example of Pontia, daughter of Petronius, who is said to have poisoned her own two sons.

He doesn’t mind the old myths about women who murdered in a white hot frenzy; what he loathes is modern matrons who cold-bloodedly scheme to do away with husbands or stepsons and care about their lives less than they do about their lapdogs.

Book 3

Satire 7: The misery of a writer’s, but especially a teacher’s, life (243 lines)

Modern poets in Juvenal’s day would make a better living opening a bakery or becoming an auctioneer. The emperor (probably Hadrian who came to power in 118) has let it be known he’s looking for poets to patronise, but the run-of-the-mill writer looking for a decent patron, forget it! The modern patron begrudges funding even a small recital in an out of town hall. After all, he’s probably a poet himself and ranks his work higher than yours!

It’s a very contrast between the lofty diction the modern poet aspires to and the sordid reality of his own life, forced to pawn his coat and dishes for his next meal. Horace on the old days, and Lucan more recently, could write magnificent verse because they weren’t hungry.

He gives an interesting sketch of the poet Publius Papinius Statius and how popular his public recitals were of his great epic, the Thebaid, reeled off in his mellifluous voice. But even has to make a living by flogging libretti to the head of the ballet company. Because:

Today the age
Of the private patron is over; Maecenas and co.
Have no successors.

Does the historian make any more, slaving away in his library, covering thousands of pages? No.

What about lawyers, huffing and puffing and promoting their skills? Look closely and you’ll see a hundred lawyers make less than one successful jockey. He profiles an aristocratic advocate, Tongilus, ‘such a bore at the baths’, who is carried about in a litter by 8 stout Thracian slaves. For what’s valued in a court of law is a dirty great ring, flash clothes and a bevy of retainers. Eloquence is dead. Juries associate justice with a flashy appearance. Cicero wouldn’t stand a chance.

What about teachers of rhetoric, wasting their lives getting boys to rehash tired old topics in stale old catchphrases. Better to drop logic and rhetoric and become a singer, they get paid a fortune.

Juvenal profiles a typical nouveau riche building private baths and a cloister to ride his pampered horses round and a banqueting hall with the best marble and ready to cough up for a first class chef and a butler. But a teacher of rhetoric for his son? Here’s a tenner, take it or leave it.

Really it’s down to luck or Fortune as the ancients called her, ‘the miraculous occult forces of Fate’. Luck makes a first class speaker or javelin thrower, if Fortune favours you can rise from teacher to consul.

In the olden days teachers were respected, even Achilles still feared the rod of his tutor Chiron as he turned man; but nowadays pupils are likely to beat up their teachers who go in fear. God, why be a teacher stuck in some hell-hole cellar before dawn, working by the light of filthy oil lamps, trying to knock sense into pupils who answer back, and all for a pittance, from which you have to give a cut to the boy’s attendant to make sure he even attends lessons?

And if the pupils are awful, what about the parents? Expecting each teacher to be a 100% expert in all knowledge, buttonholing him on the way to the baths and firing off all kinds of impossible questions. All for a pittance which, nine times out of ten, you’ll have to go to court for just to get paid.

Satire 8: Family trees and ‘nobility’ are worth nothing next to personal virtue (275 lines)

What good are family trees?

What good is tracing your family back through venerable ancestors if your own life is a public disgrace?

You may line your whole hall with waxen busts, but virtue,
And virtue alone, remains the one true nobility.

And:

Prove that your life
Is stainless, that you always abide by what is just
In word and deed – and then I’ll acknowledge your noble status.

Unlike the other satires which are often strings of abuse and comic caricatures, this one has a thread of argument and logic and is addressed to a named individual, Ponticus who is depicted as preening himself on his ‘fine breeding’..

Juvenal claims nobility is as nobility does. A racehorse may come from the noblest ancestry imaginable but if it doesn’t win races it’s pensioned off to work a mill-wheel. Just so, claiming respect for having been born to a particular family is ludicrous. Instead, show us one good deed in order to merit our respect.

Lots of the most useful work in the empire, from soldiers on the frontier to the really effective lawyers in the city, are done by ‘commoners’. He is surprisingly programmatic and non-ironic in listing the virtues:

  • be a good soldier
  • be a faithful guardian
  • be an honest witness in law cases
  • be a good governor:
    • set a limit on your greed and pity the destitute locals
    • have staff that are upright and honest (not some corrupt long-haired catamite)
    • have a wife above suspicion not a rapacious harpy
  • observe the law
  • respect the senate’s decrees

This leads into a lament for the way Rome used to govern its colonies wisely, but then came ‘the conquistadors’, the looters, Anthony and his generation, and its been rapacity, greed and illegal confiscations ever since.

Then Juvenal goes on to flay aristocratic wasters, dissipating their fortunes with love of horseracing and gambling, to be found among the lowest possible company down at the docks; or reduced to acting on the stage (clearly one of the most degraded types of behaviour Juvenal can imagine). Or – absolute lowest of the low – appear in the gladiator fights and he names a member of the noble Gracchii clan who shamefully appeared as a retiarius.

This leads to a profile of the most scandalously debased of leaders, Nero, with his insistence on performing as a musician and singer onstage, not only in Rome but at festivals across Greece. Super-noble ancestry (membership of the gens Sergii) didn’t stop Lucius Sergius Catilina planning to burn Rome to the ground and overthrow the state. It was an upstart provincial, Cicero, who saved Rome. Or Marius, man of the people, who saved Rome from invasion by Germanic tribes in 102 and 101 BC.

Achievement is what counts, not family. Juvenal ends with a surprising general point, which is that the very first settlement of Rome was carried out by Romulus who then invited men to join him, men who, according to the Roman historian Livy, were either shepherds, or escaped convicts and criminals. Ultimately, no matter how much they swank, all the ‘great and noble’ Roman families are derived from this very ignoble stock.

Satire 9: Dialogue with Naevolus the unemployed gay gigolo (150 lines)

According to green some scholars think this was an early work, added in to bulk out the book. This is one explanation of why it is, unlike any of the other poems, in dialogue form. A character named Juvenal swaps dialogue with a character named Naevolus.

Juvenal starts by asking why Naevolus, previously a smart man-about-town, a pick-up artists who shagged women by the score (and their husbands too, sometimes) is now so long-in-the-mouth, pale, thin and unkempt.

Naevolus explains that his time as a gigolo has ground to an end and brought him few returns, specially since he was working for a very tight-fisted gay patron, Virro (presumably the same dinner party host who enjoyed humiliating his hangers-on in satire 5). Virro seems to have got bored of him and dumped him.

There is an extremely graphic moment when Naevolus describes how difficult it was having to stuff his hard cock up Virro’s anus, till he was ‘stopped by last night’s supper.’ Yuk.

The dialogue becomes a dialogue-within-a-dialogue as Naevolus imagines a reproachful conversation with Virro. Why does he, Naevolus, have to send his rich patron gifts on his birthday? What’s Virro going to do with his huge estates when he dies, will Naevolus get even a little cottage?

As it is Naevolus doesn’t have enough to clothe and feed his one lousy slave. Naevolus reproaches Virro that he not only had to service the fat man but his wife too!

I sired you a son and a daughter: doesn’t that mean
Anything to you at all, you ungrateful bastard?

(In the Roman context this means Naevolus has only provided Virro with heirs, but with the legal advantages of being a father.) So Juvenal interrupts to ask what Virro says in his own defence. Nothing, apparently, he’s too busy looking for Naevolus’s replacement, a mere ‘two-legged donkey’. Suddenly Naevolus gets nervous. He begs Juvenal not to whisper a word of all this, or Virro will have him bumped off, knifed or poisoned, or his house burned down.

Juvenal mocks the idea that a master can keep any secret from his slaves who will, in turn, blab to everyone they meet. There’s no such thing as secrecy in a slave society.

So Naevolus asks what Juvenal advises him to do. Juvenal replies a) there’ll always be more customers for him, b) ‘chew colewort; it’s a fine aphrodisiac.’

the poem ends with Naevolus saying he doesn’t want much, but then – surprisingly – including in his list of modest requirements a pair of brawny Bulgarian porters to carry him in a chair, a silver engraver and a portraitist, all of which seem wildly extravagant and commentators have worried about for the past 1,900 years.

Book 4

Satire 10: The vanity of human wishes (366 lines)

This is the comprehensive overview of the futility of human ambition which formed the basis for the 18th century English author, Samuel Johnson’s great poem, ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated‘.

Mankind is gripped by a self-destructive urge. What man was ever guided by Reason? Any man with belongings is the toy of Fate. He invokes Democritus the laughing philosopher and Heraclitus the weeping philosopher and goes on to mockingly describe the progress of a modern consul through the streets preceded by his lictors. Democritus thought the worries of the people as absurd as their joys, the gods listen to neither. So what should we ask the gods for?

He gives Sejanus as an example, not only of Fortune turning her wheel to bring the second highest figure in the land down into the gutter, but at the fickleness of the change, since there was no legal process involved, it all resulted from one single letter from Tiberius in Capri to the Senate. And the mob? They don’t care for proof or law, they just cheer the victors and jeer the losers. They all rushed to kick Sejanus’s corpse or pull down his statues, but if Tiberius had dropped dead of a heart attack, the same mob would have been cheering Sejanus to the rafters as the new emperor. Fickle.

In the olden days, when their votes were vital for the election of consuls, praetors, governors and so on, the public took an interest in public affairs. But in 14 AD Tiberius transferred the election of magistrates from the popular assemblies to the senate, with the far-reaching consequences that Juvenal describes. After nearly a century of non-involvement, now the catchphrase is ‘who cares?’ Now there’s only two things that interest the people: bread and the games. (Another famous tag, panem et circenses in the Latin.)

No, he’d rather be the small-time governor of some sleepy backwater, with no glory but no risk, than rise to the giddy heights of a Sejanus only to be be dragged to his death. Same goes for the first triumvirate, Pompey and Crassus and Julius Caesar – lust for ultimate power took them to giddy heights and then…catastrophic fall, miserable murder.

Setting off on a tangent, Juvenal claims what everyone seeks is eloquence, the gift of swaying crowds, but look what happened to the two greatest orators of all time, Cicero was beheaded at the insistence of his arch enemy Anthony, and the great Demosthenes was forced to commit suicide.

How many national leaders thirst for glory, for the spoils of victory, for triumphs and a triumphal arch.

The thirst for glory by far outstrips the pursuit of virtue.

Vladimir Putin thinks murdering thousands of men, women and children is a price well worth paying for restoring Ukraine to the Russian motherland. Killing pregnant women is worth it to get a place in the history books. ‘The thirst for glory by far outstrips the pursuit of virtue.’

Yet countries have come to ruin
Not once but many times, through the vainglory of a few
Who lusted for power, who wanted a title that would cling
To the stones set over their ashes…

Or take Hannibal, one-time conqueror of the Mediterranean, vaingloriously vowing to capture Rome but, in the end, routed from Italy, then defeated in Africa and forced into exile to become the humiliated hanger-on of ‘a petty Eastern despot’ eventually, when his extradition was demanded by Rome, committing suicide by poison.

Same with Alexander the Great, at one point commanding the entire known world, next moment filling a coffin in Babylon. Or Xerxes whose exorbitant feats of engineering (a bridge across the Hellespont, a canal through the peninsula of Mount Athos) all led up to complete military defeat at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC and Xerxes’ miserable return to Persia.

Juvenal makes one of his jump cuts to a completely different theme, the triumph of old age over all of us. Men start out full of hope and individuality and all end up looking the same, senile sexless old dodderers. All your senses weaken, you can no longer appreciate music, you fall prey to all kinds of illnesses.

And senility. Old men forget the names of their servants, their hosts at dinner, eventually their own families, and end up disinheriting their children and leaving everything to a whore whose expert mouth has supplied senile orgasms.

But if you live to a ripe old age, as so many people wish, chances are you’ll witness the deaths of everyone you loved, your wife, your siblings, maybe your own children. ‘Perpetual grief’ is the reward of old age. Examples from legend: Nestor outliving everyone he loved; Peleus mourning his son; if only Priam had died in his prime he wouldn’t have seen all his sons killed and his city destroyed. And Mithridates, and Croesus.

Then he turns to specific Roman examples: if only Marius had died after his triumph for defeating the Teutons instead of going on to humiliation and then tyranny; if only Pompey had died at the peak of his powers instead of being miserably murdered in Egypt.

Then the theme of beauty. Mothers wish their daughters to be beautiful and their sons handsome but beauty brings great risks and he cites Lucretia raped and Virginia murdered by her own father to keep her ‘honour’. Then handsome young men generally go to the bad, become promiscuous, sleep around, and then risk falling foul of jealous husbands. Even if he stays pure and virginal, chances are he’ll fall foul of some middle-aged woman’s lust, just look at Hippolytus and Phaedra.

Or take the case of Gaius Silius, consul designate, who Claudius’s third wife, Messalina was so obsessed with she insisted they have a public wedding, even though she was already married to Claudius, precursor to a coup. With the inevitable result that when Claudius found out he sent the Praetorian Guard to execute both Silius and Messalina. (The story is told in Tacitus’s Annals 11.12 and 26.)

Juvenal concludes the poem by answering the question he asked at the start of it, what should we pray to the gods for? Answer: nothing. Leave it to them to guide our destinies without our intervention. The gods give us what we need, not what we want. Humans are led by irrational impulses and blind desires so it follows that most of our prayers are as irrational as our desires. But if you must insist on making silly sacrifices and praying for something, let your requirements be basic and practical. Ask for:

a sound mind in a sound body, a valiant heart
Without fear of death, that reckons longevity
The least among Nature’s gifts, that’s strong to endure
All kinds of toil, that’s untainted by lust and anger…
…There’s one
Path and one path only to a life of peace – through virtue.
Fortune has no divinity, could we but see it; it’s we,
We ourselves, who make her a goddess, and set her in the heavens.

So that’s the context of another of Juvenal’s most famous quotes or tags, mens sana in corpore sano – it comes at the end of an enormous long list of the futilities of seeking long life or wealth or power or glory. It is the first and central part of Juvenal’s stripped-down, bare minimum rules for living.

Satire 11: Invitation to dinner at Juvenal’s modest place in the country (208 lines)

This starts out as a diatribe against spendthrifts, against the young heirs who take out big loans and blow it all on luxurious foods. If you’re going to host a dinner, make sure you can afford it.

This leads into an actual dinner party invitation Juvenal is giving to his friend Persicus. He lists the menu and assures him it’s all ‘home-grown produce’: a plump tender kid ‘from my farmstead at Tivoli’; mountain asparagus; eggs still warm from the nest; chicken; grapes, baskets of Syrian pears and Italian bergamots, and apples.

[This mention of the farmstead is what makes Green and other commentators deduce that Juvenal had, by this point, ceased to be the impoverished and consequently very angry satirist of the earlier works, has somehow acquired a ‘competence’ and so his tone is more mellow.]

Juvenal says even this relatively modest menu would have appeared luxury in the good old republican days, and lists various high-minded old Roman heroes (Fabius, Cato, Scaurus, Fabricius) and the tough old Roman legionaries they led, uncorrupted by luxury and money, who ate their porridge off earthenware bowls. Those were the days.

The gods were closer back then, their images made of humble baked clay, not gold, and so they warned us e.g. of the approaching Gauls.

How changed is contemporary Rome whose aristocrats demand obscene levels of luxury in food and ornamentation. Nothing like that for Persicus when he comes round, there won’t be a pupil of Trypherus’s famous school of cuisine where students are taught the correct way to carve antelope, gazelle and flamingo!

His slaves, likewise, are honest lads dressed practically for warmth, a shepherd’s son and a ploughman’s son, not smooth imported Asiatics who can’t speak Latin and prance around in the baths flaunting their ‘oversized members’.

[Green notes that the Roman historian Livy dates the introduction of foreign luxuries to the defeat of the Asiatic Gauls in 187 BC. Whereas Sallust thought the introduction of corrupt luxury dated from Sulla’s campaign in Asia Minor in the 80s BC. Whatever the precise date, the point is the author always thinks things started to go to hell a few generations before their own time.]

And don’t expect any fancy entertainment like the Spanish dancers who wiggle their bums to arouse the flagging passions of middle-aged couples, no such obscene entertainment in his modest home, no, instead he’ll have a recitation of Homer or Virgil.

Like Horace, Juvenal tells his guest to relax. Discussion of business is banned. He won’t be allowed to confide his suspicions of his wife who stays out till all hours, or the ingratitude of friends. ‘Just forget all your troubles the minute you cross my threshold.’

Let all Rome (the Colosseum seated 300,000 spectators) go to the Megalesian Games (4 to 10 April) and cheer the Blues and the greens (chariot racing teams) and sweat all day in an uncomfortable toga. Juvenal prefers to let his ‘wrinkled old skin’ soak up the mild spring sunshine at his nice place in the country.

Satire 12: A storm at sea (130 lines)

The first 20 or so lines describe to a friend a series of sacrifices Juvenal is going to make, and the even bigger ones he wishes he had the money to make. Why? To celebrate the safe arrival in harbour of a dear friend of his, Catullus (not the famous poet, who died 170 years earlier, in 54 BC).

Juvenal gives a vivid description of a storm at sea, ending with the sailors seeing ‘that lofty peak so dear to Ascanius’ in diction which evokes Virgil’s Aeneid with no irony or mocking. And he’s just as sincere when he returns to describing how he’ll burnish his household gods, make oblations to Jupiter, burn incense and so on.

Up to this point this combination of devout piety and picturesque description are very much not the viciously angry Juvenal of the Roman streets that we are used to. But in the final 30 or so lines Mr Angry reappears a bit, to make the distinction between his genuine, devout sacrifices and those of legacy hunters and it turns into a stock diatribe against this class of parasites who seek out the wealthy but childless and do anything, including making extravagant sacrifices for them when they’re ill, in the hope of being included in their wills. May all their tricks and scams work but ‘May they love no man and be loved by none.’

[Incidentally, this last section has a passage about elephants, saying the legacy-hunters would sacrifice elephants if they could but none live naturally in Italy except for those of the emperor’s personal herd, near modern Anzio. Elephants are mentioned in quite a few Juvenal poems. At some level they fascinated him, maybe because they’re the biggest animal and so attracted a poet interested in extremity and exaggeration.]

Book 5

Satire 13: The futility of revenge, the pangs of a guilty conscience (249 lines)

On putting up with life’s vicissitudes. Juvenal reproaches someone called Calvinus for making a big fuss and going to court about a loan not being repaid. Doesn’t he realise the age he’s living in? Honour long since departed. It’s not like it was back in the good old days, in the Golden Age when there were only a handful of gods who dined modestly, back in those days youth respected the elderly, everyone was upstanding and dishonesty was vanishingly rare. The decent god-fearing man is a freak like the sky raining stones or a river issuing in milk.

While guilty people, whether they believe in the gods or not, tell themselves they’ll be OK, the gods won’t get round to punishing them yet and so on. In fact many make a histrionic appeal to the gods to vouchsafe their honesty, banking on ‘brazen audacity’.

Juvenal mentions the three philosophies current in his day, Cynicism, Stoicism and Epicureanism, only to dismiss them all. Instead he mocks Calvinus for making such a fuss about such a common, everyday bit of dishonesty and goes into a list of far worse crimes starting with the temple robbers who steal devoted statues or plate and melt them down or sell them off. Think of arsonists or poisoners or parricides. If you want to find the truth about human nature you should visit a courtroom.

Many unusual things are taken for granted in the appropriate context, for example big breasted women in Upper Egypt or blonde, blue-eyed men in Germany, or pygmies in Africa. Well, so does this kind of embezzlement or fraud feel completely at home in its natural setting, Rome. What’s the point of pursuing his legal vendetta. Rise above it.

Benign
Philosophy, by degrees, peels away our follies and most
Of our vices, gives us a grounding in what’s right or wrong.

[This is surprisingly reflective and thoughtful of Juvenal, supporting the thesis that the poems are in chronological order and the later ones reflect middle-age and having come into some property and generally stopped being so vitriolically angry at the world.]

He goes on to say that paying off scores is for the small-minded. Anyway, people who break laws and commit crimes are often punished most of all in their own minds, by their own guilt. ‘The mind is its best own torturer.’ He gives examples of people who suffered the pangs of conscience but what’s striking is:

  1. how didactic he’s become; instead of depicting bad behaviour with satirical glee, now he’s lecturing the reader on good behaviour
  2. how much he sounds at moments like a Christian, preaching about the power of conscience; when he says that he who meditates a crime is as guilty as he who commits one, he sounds like Christ (‘I tell you that everyone who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.’ Matthew 5. verses 27 to 28)

The guilty man is wracked with conscience, can’t eat or drink or sleep. In fact it turns into a vivid proto-Christian depiction of the miseries of Guilt, interpreting the weather as signs from God, the slightest setback as punishment, the slightest physical ailment as payback.

Satire 14: The disastrous impact of bad parenting (331 lines)

Again this satire has a direct addressee, Fuscinus. Juvenal takes the theme that parents hugely influence their children, generally for the worse. ‘Bad examples are catching.’ By the time he’s seven a boy’s character is fixed for life. He gives examples of terrible parents starting with ‘Rutilus’ who is a sadistic brute to his slaves.

[As with so much Roman literature, the examples of brutality to slaves tend to eclipse all the subtler argumentation: here, Rutilus is described as ordering a slave to be branded with a red-hot iron for stealing a couple of towels.]

Or the girl who’s brought up into a life of adultery and sexual intrigues by her mother. We are all corrupted by examples of vice in the home. This is a spur to good behaviour – that our bad behaviour is quickly copied by our children.

All this turns into a surprisingly preachy lists of dos and don’ts and turns into almost a harangue of bad parents, telling them to set better examples.

For some reason this leads into a short passage about the Jews who Juvenal sees as handing on ridiculously restrictive practices, circumcision and avoiding certain foods, along with taking every seventh day off for idleness, to their children. So Judaism is taken as an example of parents handing down bad practices to their children in an endless succession.

Then a passage attacking misers, characterising them especially by their recycling scraps of leftover food at revolting meals. And insatiable greed for more land, the kind of men who won’t rest till they’ve bought up an estate as the entire area cultivated by the first Romans. Compare and contrast with pensioned off Roman legionaries who are lucky to receive 2 acres of land to support themselves and their families.

then he invokes the old mountain peasants and the wisdom of living simply and plainly on what a small parcel of land provides. [This strikes me as straight down the line, entry level, the good old days of the Golden Age clichés, such as centuries of Roman writers had been peddling.]

The logical corollary of praising the simple lives and virtues of his farming forefathers, is dislike and contempt for the vices of luxury which are attributed to foreigners, especially from the exotic East.

[I always thought Edward Said, in his lengthy diatribe against ‘Orientalism’, should have started not in the 18th century, but 2,000 years earlier, with the ancient Greeks writing pejoratively about oriental despotism (with Persia in mind), a discursive tradition which was handed on to the Romans who also associated decadence and luxury with the East (Cleopatra of Egypt, Mithridates of Pontus and so on), centuries of stereotyping and anathematising the East and the Oriental to which Juvenal adds his own contribution and which was merely revived, like so much other ancient learning, in the Europe of early modernity – xenophobic clichés and stereotypes which were dusted off and reapplied to the Ottoman Empire.]

Juvenal then gives an interesting portrait of the ambitious father of a modern youth, recommending all the ways he can get on and rise in the world, studying to become a lawyer, or aiming for a career in the army, or becoming a merchant. Juvenal reprimands this made-up figure, telling him to lay off inculcating greed and deceit quite so early; his kids will learn it all by themselves in good time. ‘But’, claims the made-up father, ‘I never taught my son his criminal ways!’ Yes, replies Juvenal, but you taught him the principles of greed at an early age, and all the rest follows. You set the spark, now watch the forest fire rage out of control.

And you’ll have created a peril for your own life. For such a greedy offspring will grow impatient to see his parent snuff it so he can inherit his patrimony.

In the final passage he compares the life of a merchant with that of a tightrope walker at the circus and says watching greedy merchants trying to juggle their many deals is far more entertaining. He mocks harbours packed with huge merchant ships, prepared to go to the ends of the earth and beyond to make a profit.

Juvenal goes so far as to say these far-trading merchants are mad, as mad as mad Ajax at Troy, mad to risk his life and fortune and for what? Little silver coins printed with someone else’s head. One minute he’s at the prow of his mighty ship, laden with precious cargo; next moment it’s sunk in a storm and he’s clinging to the wreckage. Only a madman would commit his life and wealth to capricious Fortune and then…he’s a beggar in the streets, waving an artist’s impression of the storm which ruined him at passersby. Right at the end he cites Diogenes the Cynic, who abandoned all earthly possessions in order to have a calm mind. Compared to the merchant who risks losing everything and even drowning at sea:

The tub of the naked Cynic
Diogenes never caught fire: if it broke, he could pick up another
The following day – or put some lead clamps in an old one.
Alexander perceived, on seeing the tub and its famous
Occupant, how much happier was the man who desired nothing
Than he whose ambitions encompassed the world, who would yet
Suffer perils as great as all his present achievements.

And he concludes with another straight, unironic recommendation of the bare minimum required by philosophers and the old Roman tradition, in phrasing very similar to the barebones advice at the end of satire 10.

If anyone asks me
Where we’re to draw the line, how much is sufficient, I’d say:
Enough to meet the requirements of cold and thirst and hunger
As much as Epicurus derived from that little garden,
Or Socrates, earlier still, possessed in his frugal home.

Satire 15: In praise of kindness (174 lines)

Addressed to Volusius of whom we know nothing. The poem opens by reviewing the fantastical beliefs of the Egyptians in their animal gods, then takes a comic view of Odysseus’s telling of his adventures at the court of King Alcinous whose guests, if they had any sense, would dismiss such a pack of lies.

The point of this introduction is to contrast fantastical myths and legends with what Juvenal now intends to tell us about which is a real-life atrocity which happened in the recent past. In fact, Peter Green in a note tells us it took place in 127AD. Juvenal goes on to describe the rancorous feud which broke out between the neighbouring towns of Ombi and Tentyra (real neighbouring towns in ancient Egypt).

the fighting becomes savage, involving thousands. One of the leading Ombites stumbled, fell and was immediately seized by the Tentyrans who tore him to pieces and ate every morsel. This gives rise to a digression about cannibalism practiced by the Spanish in the besieged town of Calagurris who were reduced by starvation to eating human flesh. Then onto the Tauri in Crimea who worshipped Artemis by making human sacrifices of travellers who fell into their hands.

But the Tauri don’t actually eat the victims they kill and the Spaniards had the excuse of starvation. nothing excused the horror of contemporary men tearing each other to pieces and eating each other’s raw bodies. It triggers an outburst of virulent xenophobia.

And then, to our complete surprise, Juvenal turns mushy. Describing these horrors turn out to have been preparation for a hymn to tenderness and kindness.

When nature
Gave teas to mankind, she proclaimed that tenderness was endemic
In the human heart: of all our impulses, this
Is the highest and best.

We weep at funerals of children, or to see adolescents in court cases. ‘What good man…thinks any human ills outside his concern?’

It’s this
That sets us apart from the dumb brutes, it’s why we alone
Have a soul that’s worthy of reverence, why we’re imbued
With a divine potential, the skill to acquire and practice
All manner of arts…

Who are you, O wise Stoic teacher, and what have you done with the angry, fire-breathing Juvenal?

When the world was still new, our common Creator granted
The breath of life alone, but on us he further bestowed
Sovereign reason, the impulse to aid one another…

Juvenal identifies this God-given sovereign reason with everything noble and altruistic in man, proof of his difference from the animals and that he has a soul. This makes him a Stoic, doesn’t it?

Then, right at the end, the poem returns to the disgusting story of the Egyptian torn apart and eaten raw, and laments that man, blessed with all these gifts, creates swords and spears, man alone of the animals, goes out of his way to kill and massacre his own kind.

Satire 16: The military life (60 lines; incomplete)

The final satire in the series is incomplete. It is addressed to one Gallius, about whom nothing is known. Were all Juvenal’s addressees fictional or real people? No-one knows.

the poem obviously set out to ironically praise the great advantages of the soldier’s life. First is that you can beat up anyone you like and either be too intimidated to take legal action against them or, if you do, you’ll end up in a military court where the judge and jury will find for the soldier and you’ll end up being beaten up a second time.

Next advantage is that, whereas most people caught up in law suits have to endure endless delays and adjournments, a soldier will get his case seen straightaway. Plus, if you earn money as a soldier it is exempt from control by your father (which other earnings aren’t). The reverse; doddering old fathers court their sons to get a cut of their pay…

Here the poem simply breaks off. Scholars speculate that Juvenal died before he completed it. or maybe the emperor Hadrian censored this mocking of the Roman army. But Green sides with the Juvenal expert, Gilbert Highet, who thinks the earliest version of the manuscript, from which all surviving manuscript copies derive, early on lost its final few pages.

Common tropes

1. Juvenal’s position really is based on a profound belief that the olden days were best, the Golden Age of Saturn, when Rome’s ancestors lived in mud huts and farmed small allotments, and lived frugally, and taught honour and respect to their sons and daughters.

Mankind was on the decline while Homer
Still lived; and today the earth breeds a race of degenerate
Weaklings, who stir high heaven to laughter and loathing.
(Satire 15)

2. The logical corollary of thinking his primitive ancestors knew best is Juvenal’s virulent xenophobia, blaming Rome’s decline into luxury and decadence on the corrupting wealth and example of foreigners, especially the tyrannies of the East (note p.238).

3. As usual, I am left reeling by the casual way he describes the brutal, savage, sadistic treatment meted out to Roman slaves. Branded with a red-hot iron for stealing a few towels, crucified for speaking out of turn, horse-whipped for trivial mistakes serving dinner. What a brutal, cruel, inhumane society. ‘Cato, in his Res Rustica, recommends the dumping of worn-out horses’ harnesses and worn-out slaves in the same breath,’ (p.276)

Thoughts

Very simply, Juvenal is the Lionel Messi of satirists, producing high-octane, intense, bitterly angry and often very funny masterpieces of the genre.

Second thought is that Augustus had Ovid exiled, supposedly for the amorality of his ‘Art of Love’ which is a guide for pick-up artists. How things had changed a hundred years later when Juvenal not only mentions the places to hang out if you want to pick up women (or boys) but goes way, way beyond Ovid in his depiction of a pungently promiscuous society with, apparently, no consequences from the powers that be.

Summary

Final thought is that this is another brilliant volume from Peter Green, containing not just a zingy, stylish translation from the Latin but also long and fascinating introduction, and then encyclopedic notes which are full of fascinating titbits of information, opinion and insight. Of course most editions of ancient texts have notes, but Green’s are distinguished by their length and engaging chattiness. Here’s a random selection of brief but typical nuggets:

  • Women swore by Juno. (page 83)
  • After the sack of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD many Jews made their way to Rome and eked out a living as fortune tellers or beggars. (99)
  • No wheeled traffic was allowed in Rome for ten hours after dawn, so the city was incredibly noisy all through the night as farmers and merchants drove their carts through the narrow cobbled streets. (102)
  • Any of the (six) vestal virgin caught having sex was buried alive. (111)
  • Nine days after a funeral, offerings of eggs, salt and lentils were left on the grave of the deceased. (125)
  • It is hard to realise the influence which the Roman ballet (or pantomimus) exerted on Roman citizens. It was not only immensely popular but formed a centre for violent factions like those of the chariot races and sometimes led to riots and bloodshed. (153)
  • The secret rites of the Bona Dea were held at the home of one of the consuls. It was attended by women only. The house owner and all male slaves had to leave the premises. Even statues or images of men were covered up to protect the secret ceremonies. (156)
  • Eclipses of the moon were said to be caused by witchcraft. Beating pots and pans was said to put the witches off their wicked spells. (158)
  • A lawyer who won a case could advertise the fact by hanging palm branches outside his door.
  • People who survived a shipwreck often commissioned a painting of the event either to hang in a temple as an offering or to display to passersby in the street, if they were begging. (246)
  • the emperor kept a herd of elephants on a ranch at Laurentum, near Ardea. (248)

Among his many fascinating comments, one theme stood out for me:

Useless natural history

It’s odd that 2,000 years of writers or scholars in the humanities continue to quote, praise or base their writings on the literature or philosophy of the ancient world, when the ancients’ knowledge of the natural world, the world around them, its geology, and geography, and weather, and all the life forms we share the planet with, was fantastically ignorant.

As Green points out in a note, it is staggering that all the ancient authors whose writings have survived held ludicrous and absurd beliefs about animals and nature which you’d have thought the slightest actual observation by any rational adult would have disproved in a moment (note, page 238).

No, elephants do not get rid of their over-heavy tusks by thrusting them in the ground (satire 11). No, sparrows are not more highly sexed than other birds (satire 9). No, cranes flying south do not engage in pitched battles with pygmies in Ethiopia (satire 13). No, stags do not live to over 900 years old (satire 14).

‘A collector of natural history fallacies would do quite well out of Juvenal’ (note, page 291).

It is testament, maybe, to the way their culture preferred book learning to even the slightest amount of actual observation. And on a par with their credulous belief in no end of signs, omens and portents. Not only are these reported in all the histories as preceding momentous occasions but most official ceremonies in Rome, including whether to do battle or not, depended on the reading of the weather or flight of birds or entrails of sacrificed animals. It was an astonishingly credulous culture.

Only with Francis Bacon in the 1600s do we have an author who bravely declares that we ought to throw away most ancient ‘learning’ and make our own scientific observations about the phenomena around us. Such a long, long time it took for genuinely rational scientific method to slowly extract itself from deadening layers of absurd and nonsensical ‘learning’.


Credit

Sixteen Satires by Juvenal, translated by Peter Green, was published by Penguin Classics in 1967, then reprinted with revisions in 1973. Page references are to the 1982 paperback edition.

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Why Seneca was wrong

In his ‘Letters to Lucilius’ Seneca expounds his version of Stoic philosophy. As I explain in my review of the letters, I think they consist more of a mix of moral exhortation and self-help advice than a fully worked-out ‘philosophy’. But on the occasions when he does set out to argue from first principles I find myself quite strongly disagreeing with just about every assertion and every argument Seneca makes. Letter 76 lays out the premises of Seneca’s philosophy with particular clarity (a ‘premise’ being defined as “a statement taken to be true and used as a basis for argument or reasoning”) from which I extract the following sequence of assertions.

Seneca’s argument

Seneca says there is a God who made the universe and created man. Wrong.

Seneca says God planted a fragment of divine Reason in man. Wrong. No God, no divine Reason.

Seneca says every created thing has one particular merit or attribute which sets it apart – the fruit of the vine, the speed of the stag, the strong back of a pack animal, the hunting dog’s sense of smell and so on. The one distinctive attribute of human beings is Reason. Wrong:

a) This notion that every thing has just one peculiar merit is primitive and childish. Quite clearly all living organisms have multiple features and qualities. Study biology.

b) To say that the One Special Thing about humans is Reason is a wild underestimate of the numberless qualities which contribute to human survival and evolution. As one example, according to my son the biologist, humans can run for longer than any other animal, not a massively important attribute but a refutation of Seneca’s claim that there is just one thing which sets humans apart from other animals. Then there’s also the small factor of the opposable thumb, which gives us the ability to manipulate tools and develop the countless inventions and technologies we have devised – far more distinctive than ‘divine Reason’.

(As an indication of how malleable this argument is, I have just read in Tacitus’s Histories the stirring speech of Gaius Julius Civilis who tells his warriors that The One Distinctive Thing About Humans is Courage [Tacitus, Histories, book 4, chapter 17]. 1,900 years later, Jean-Paul Sartre would claim the One Distinctive Thing About Humans is our existentialist Freedom. It’s a parlour game. Anyone can join in.)

c) Anyway, humans are emphatically not rational. Humans are wildly irrational. A book like Stuart Sutherland’s Irrationality, which brings together a century of psychological study of how clumsily and irrationally all humans think, almost all the time, demolishes the Rationalist argument forever.

d) The entire form of this argument is tendentious because it is clearly designed to justify what follows.

Seneca says all these animals are designed to ‘reach the goal of their nature’ i.e. they aspire to maximise the distinctive attribute given to them by God. Wrong. There is no God and this one, special attribute doesn’t exist. Seneca has invented it for the sake of his argument.

Seneca says that, seeing as man’s one special attribute is Reason, and that all beings find their greatest fulfilment when they maximise their one special attribute, it follows that man will be happiest and most fulfilled when he cultivates his Reason to the max.

Well:

a) It’s wrong to say that man’s one special attribute is ‘Reason’.

b) Humans are wildly irrational.

c) Since it doesn’t exist, this ‘Reason’ can’t be developed to the max as if that implies one, widely agreed state of mind.

d) If this notion of ‘Reason’ actually existed, surely all ‘philosophers’ would agree about it, whereas anyone who’s read a bit of philosophy immediately discovers that there are hundreds of ‘philosophies’ and philosophers who completely contradict each other.

e) Far from ‘philosophy’ making its practitioners calm and content, there’s plenty of evidence that some of the greatest philosophers were deeply unhappy individuals: characters as different as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein spring to mind. There is no evidence whatsoever that someone who practices ‘philosophy’ is more happy than the general run of the population.

(By this point it should be clear that although Seneca uses philosophical-sounding arguments to support his case, he isn’t really dealing in philosophy but with lessons in mental resilience and moral uplift.)

Seneca goes on to say that when this ‘Reason’ is brought to ‘perfection’ through the study of ‘philosophy’, ‘this perfected reason is called virtue’ (Letter 76, section 10). This also is obviously wrong:

a) There is no such thing as ‘Reason’ with a capital R, instead:

i) Two and a half thousand years of philosophers can’t agree what ‘Reason’ is or how it works.

ii) According to psychologists like Sutherland, instead of One Reason humans use hundreds of different strategies for thinking and problem solving, which often overlap and contradict each other, hence the appearance of the real world we actually live in, made up of endlessly conflicting opinions and plans.

b) What is this ‘virtue’? Seneca identifies ‘virtue’ with the perfection of human ‘Reason’ but by now we can see that this is just playing with words, it’s like moving shiny counters around on a board game, it doesn’t relate to anything in the real world.

Seneca goes on to identify this maximised Reason with ‘virtue’ and ‘the good’ and ‘the honourable’. I appreciate that Seneca is engaging with the tradition of moral philosophy which is concerned with trying to define terms like ‘the good’, ‘honour’, ‘virtue’ but I believe that, mildly entertaining although these verbal games are, they have little or nothing to do with real people or the actual world we live in. Within the rules of the game called ‘moral philosophy’ these kinds of definitions and redefinitions may have meaning, but it is a niche activity with no impact on the real world.

Also, it often feels as if Seneca is using rhetorical tricks to prove that His Way is the Only Way to achieve these great goals i.e. it is less an open-ended enquiry designed to establish an objective truth than a tendentious distortion of arguments all designed to ‘prove’ a view of human nature and a way of life which he already subscribes to. It amounts to a wordy rationalisation of a personal lifestyle preference (to live a simple life and read books is best).

The counter-argument to Seneca

There is no God. The universe came about in a big bang 13.7 billion years ago. Certain laws and regularities emerge from the nature of the matter created by this cataclysm. Stars form, galaxies form,  planets form around suns. Conditions for life happened to occur on this planet as they probably have on countless others. Primitive replicating structures come about as an inevitable product of chemistry. As soon as the most primitive replicating organisms come about they are governed by evolution through natural selection, which dictates that only the most fit will replicate, thus setting in train an endless process of diversity and selection. Human beings are a random offshoot of mammals, themselves lucky to survive the last great extinction event 66 million years ago. There is no teleology or purpose or plan. Shit happens, whether it’s your valley flooding or a meteor hitting the earth, and some organisms survive to pass on their genes to their offspring. Over vast distances of time – hundreds of millions of years – fast-breeding organisms have diverged to fill every available niche in countless different ecosystems which themselves change and evolve all the time. Modern archaeology shows that there is not one human race, but that over the past few hundred thousand years, many different forms of the genus Homo have sprung up, flourished for a time, then died out. Seneca and we happen to belong to the one branch or variety which happens to have survived. Others might have; we happened to. There was no God, providence or teleology involved.

To attribute this immensely long chain of chance and accident to the providence of some creator God is psychologically appealing but factually ludicrous. If there is a God behind it then he works so completely through accident and mass extinction as to be indistinguishable from randomness.

Therefore humans do not possess some ‘divine Reason’ which can be cultivated to its maximum potential at which point it can grandly be called ‘virtue’. The exact opposite. Humans quite evidently employ hundreds, maybe thousands of different mental strategies, tricks and approaches to solve the problems thrown up by day-to-day existence, and struggle daily to implement our deep biological drives (to eat and drink, get shelter, find a mate, raise a new generation, find physical and psychological security) against the challenges of the rebarbative real world, with all kinds of florid, varied and unpredictable outcomes.

Summary

Seneca’s theistic rationalism looks for and privileges One Thing in every field: One God, One Human Race, One Reason, One Virtue, One Philosophy.

Although I can see the appeal of submitting to this One World point of view – I can see the comfort it brings to its adherents or even to modern readers who bathe in its simple-minded reassurance while they’re reading his text (and I can also see how so much of Stoicism was incorporated into the equally consoling and comforting One World Christian ideology) – nonetheless, I find it creepy, I detect in it authoritarian, even totalitarian tendencies. To genuinely believe that there is just One Way to Virtue which all people should submit themselves to…

And it also happens to be factually incorrect at every step.

By contrast, I believe in diversity, in manyness, in multitudes. In my worldview humans have evolved over a very long period to possess incredibly complex mental and physical attributes, far too complex and multifaceted to encompass in one definition, in one ‘philosophy’, in one set of magic words like ‘Reason’, ‘good’ and ‘virtue’, even in words like ‘science’ or ‘biology’. The real world continually surprises us and overflows all human attempts at neat definitions, whether in philosophy, religion, science or any other system.

People are quite obviously capable of believing all kinds of things, struggle with all kinds of problems, use all manner of beliefs and faiths and rites and rituals and traditions and cultures to get them through their days and lives. All these belief systems and practices are themselves constantly evolving, added to, improved, fossilise, dumped, revived, you name it – with the result that human cultures are mind-bogglingly rich and diverse and many-sided – far too many to summarise or encapsulate in this prescriptive One World dogma.

Conclusion

Therefore it is my view that, although I can see why, narrowly appealing and comforting though Seneca’s teachings may appear at a first reading, they are nonetheless not only a) factually incorrect at every level, at every step or his argument, but b) derive from an incredibly narrow social caste (the Roman aristocracy) during an incredibly narrow moment in history (Nero’s tyranny).

Seneca’s letters are worth reading because they give a vivid insight into the mindset of a very clever man situated very close to a terrifyingly arbitrary tyrant and working out a philosophical tradition he inherited from Greek originators to fit his very specific (and very fraught) circumstances (hence the obsessive belief in suicide as an escape from tyranny).

He circles around central Stoic beliefs, reviewing them from different angles in different contexts and this provides a very useful, panoramic view of this particular belief system – and a fascinating insight into a particular cultural moment.

And many of his recommendations – shorn of their theistical underpinning – are of value, at least to the kind of reader who is already predisposed to bookish aloofness. Avoid the crowd, despise pleasure, cultivate the life of the mind, rise above the chaos of petty emotions and transient enjoyments – all this reads very well and flatters a certain kind of bookish reader who may believe that they already practice some or all of these prescriptions.

But then surely these precepts are taught by the high-minded in pretty much every major religion: surely this kind of advice can be found not only in the Christianity which incorporated so much of it, but in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Shintoism and countless other religious traditions? Or expounded by high-minded secular humanists. Ignore the trashy entertainments of the masses, despise the vulgar trappings of wealth, be content with the simple life, concentrate on acquiring wisdom.

Widespread though his conclusions may be, because they speak to a certain character type which recurs across diverse cultures, and propose a type of psychological practice which clearly speaks to a certain type of person — to focus back on the specific arguments Seneca uses to justify and underpin his philosophy – the logical sequence of arguments which I summarised at the start of this post – I have explained why I believe they are factually incorrect and intellectually untenable from start to finish.


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On the diversity of belief systems

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Moral letters by Seneca

What do you need to be a good man? Willpower.
(Letter 80, section 4)

Whatever you do, keep death in mind.
(Letter 114, section 27)

You must embed these thoughts deep in your heart, Lucilius.
(Letter 7, section 12)

Stoicism

The thing about Stoic philosophy is how wrong its premises are and how banal its teachings.

Stoics believed there is a God, that the universe or Nature is God, or God suffuses Nature. Human beings were created by God with a spark of Divine Reason within us. Our job is to clear away all the clutter of work, society, gossip, all relationships, friends and family, all the clamour which clogs up our lives, including all our own passions and emotions, love, anger and so on – in order to cultivate this fragment of the Divine Reason in each of is and, by doing so, bring our lives into alignment with the values of the universe/God. Then, by cultivating detachment from all earthly worries and passions, by strengthening our minds, we can prepare for the worst the world has to throw at us and defuse the ultimate terror, the fear of death.

That’s it. You can vary the wording and multiply the precepts with lots of specific examples (avoid gossip, avoid crowds, eat moderately, don’t get drunk, treat everyone with respect – ponder with the worst possible outcomes so nothing surprises you, analyse every situation with detachment), but it’s that simple and, after the initial novelty has worn off, that boring.

Seneca

The Roman author, tutor, Stoic philosopher, politician and immensely rich man, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC to 65 AD) is called Seneca the Younger because his father (54 BC to 39 AD) – author of a collection of reminiscences about the Roman schools of rhetoric (which survives) and a history of Roman affairs from the beginning of the Civil Wars until the last years of his life (which is lost) – had the exact same name, so is known as Seneca the Elder.

Seneca the Younger, much more famous than his father, is sometimes just referred to as Seneca.

Seneca wrote a prodigious amount; later critics said too much. E.F. Watling, in his Penguin edition of Seneca’s plays, says that his best-loved works are the letters he wrote to one specific friend, Lucilius. Seneca himself titled these the Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (‘Moral Letters to Lucilius’), also known in English as the ‘Letters from a Stoic’. Seneca wrote this collection of 124 letters at the end of his life, from approximately 63 to 65 AD, after he had largely retired as tutor and adviser to the Emperor Nero, a post he’d held since 49 – sixteen years.

The letters are addressed to Lucilius Junior who was then procurator of Sicily and is known to posterity only through Seneca’s writings. (Seneca also dedicated his dialogue On Providence and his encyclopedic Natural Questions to this same Lucilius.)

Scholars fret about whether these were ‘real’ letters, and what the structure of correspondence was – did Seneca only respond to questions sent him by Lucilius? Where is Lucilius’s half of the correspondence? etc. But whether or not they were ever part of a ‘real’ correspondence, it is clear that Seneca wrote these letters with a wider readership in mind. They contain numerous carefully crafted passages obviously aimed at posterity and are structured so as to cover a wide range of subjects dear to Stoics. The 124 letters were published grouped together into 20 ‘books’.

Philosophy as therapy

The letters amount to a series of short moral lessons, designed to help Lucilius achieve the wisdom and peace of mind (‘a calm and correct state of mind,’ Letter 4) promised by Stoic doctrine. In order to do this the letters focus on the traditional themes of Stoic philosophy such as removing oneself from the crowd; cultivating a contempt of death; learning to endure the ups and downs of life; acknowledging virtue as the supreme good, and so on.

The key point which the translator of the Oxford University Press edition, Elaine Fantham, makes in her introduction, is that the letters do not amount to a systematic exposition of Stoicism. Almost the reverse. They are like a series of lessons on ad hoc, specific topics, often beginning with an everyday experience and then extracting from it an insight or type of behaviour which Seneca tells Lucilius he can adopt in order to improve himself. Each letter contains ‘a little bit of profit’ (5) – like instalments in a self-help correspondence course.

Seneca wrote the letters not to promote a complete finished system of thought: he wasn’t necessarily interested in extrapolating a comprehensive system. As Fantham says, Seneca put moral impact before intellectual debate. He ‘puts the ability to avoid fear and desire ahead of any intellectual expertise’ (note, page 298). Seneca gave the work a new type of name, Epistulae Morales, and wrote them with a moral purpose to promote moral behaviour.

Philosophy is not a skill shaped for popular appeal or for display; it does not consist of words but of deeds…it moulds and shapes the mind, arranges one’s life, controls one’s actions, points out what is to be done and what to be avoided. (16)

Thus Seneca instructs Lucilius not about this or that point of abstract philosophical doctrine – but over and over again tells him that he must repeat certain thoughts in order to put them into practice, to make them part of his everyday waking thoughts.

Only Philosophy will wake us up, it alone will shake off our heavy sleep, so dedicate yourself wholly to it. (53.8)

Possibly the most consistent lesson (repeated so many times it gets a little boring) is cultivating a ‘contempt’ for death. When death comes it is over; it is nothing. We need to live with the idea of our death all the time, to get accustomed to it, so as to eliminate all fear and anxiety about it:

  • Let us order our minds so that we wish for whatever circumstances demand, and especially let us think about our ends without sadness. We need to be prepared for death before we are prepared for life. (61.3)
  • The more men have accustomed themselves to hardship, the more easily they will endure it. (76.34)
  • Whatever has been long anticipated comes as a lighter blow. (78.29)
  • Everyone approaches a hazard to which he has long squared himself with more courage and resists harsh events by contemplating them in advance. (107.4)

This accustoming to death takes effort so we must ‘practice thinking this over each day’ (4.5) and ‘ensure that what is now an urge becomes a lasting disposition’ (17.6).

Virtue does not come to a mind unless it is trained and taught and brought to its highest condition by constant exercise. (90.46)

Repeat, practice, memorise. The letters are lessons in how to think, in how to live life in order to maximise calm and reason, mental or psychological exercises which must be learned through constant repetition.

  • You must persist and build up strength by constant diligence until what is now a good intention becomes a good state of mind. (16.1)
  • These are things we must learn, in fact learn by heart. (123.17)

In this respect, the OUP is a good edition because Fantham precedes every letter with a short summary of its main topics, of its time and place of composition, and how it relates to other letters on the same topic. This is extremely useful. (Mind you, the 1917 translation by Richard Mott Gummere which is available online has something the Fantham edition hasn’t, which is attributing each letter a title such as ‘On saving time’, ‘On discursiveness in reading’ and so on. I imagine these titles aren’t in the original but they are extremely useful in remembering at a glance which letter is about what.)

There is some background information about Roman society, but not as much as you’d hope for, certainly nothing like the chatty detail you get in Cicero’s wonderful letters (Seneca consciously distances himself from Cicero’s style and gossipy subject matter in letter 118).

Like all Roman writers, Seneca now and then cites famous Roman heroes or historical figures as examples of ‘virtue’ (notably Marcus Porcius Cato, who committed suicide in 46 BC, as the example of fortitude in the face of death; or Gaius Mucius Cordus who unflinchingly put his hand into a fire to prove his bravery).

There is a description of the lives of the super-rich at Baiae (51), a fascinating portrait of the conditions of slaves (47), a vivid comparison of the spartan bathhouses of old with their modern luxurious equivalents (86), a description of the grand retinues of foreign slaves rich people insist on travelling with (123), a description of viticulture and grafting techniques (86). Mostly, though, the letters are disappointing from a social history point of view. Philosophy is drab.

This Oxford University Press edition does not contain all of the letters – it contains 80 out of 124 (introduction p.xxxv) – but still claims to be the largest selection available in print.

Epistolary traditions

In a throwaway remark, Fantham indicates that there were two types of letter, two epistolary traditions: the philosophical letter of advice (pioneered by Epicurus, born 341 BC, and into which these letters fall) and chatty personal correspondence (Cicero, born 106 BC). [She doesn’t mention a third type which occurs to me, which is the crafted verse epistle as epitomised by Horace’s Letters or Ovid’s Black Sea Letters.]

The problem of suicide

A major stumbling block is Seneca’s worldview, the classical Roman worldview, which promotes suicide as a noble, honourable and virtuous response to all kinds of social humiliations, setbacks, not least the threats from tyrannical power.

It is a noble thing to die honourably, prudently and bravely. (77)

Part of the reason for cultivating a contempt for death, for having death continually in your thoughts, is so that, when the moment comes, it will feel like only a small additional step to fall on your sword or open your veins in a hot bath.

How many people death has been useful to, how many it frees from torture, poverty, laments, punishment, weariness. We are not in any man’s power when death is in our power. (91.21)

The historical model Seneca invokes repeatedly is Cato, who committed suicide in 46 BC two years into the civil war, when he was governor of Utica, a city in North Africa, as Julius Caesar’s army was closing in. Cato killed himself to deprive Caesar of the power of either executing him or (more likely) humiliatingly pardoning him, meaning he would ignominiously owe the rest of his existence to a tyrant.

Desiring neither option, Cato stabbed himself. In the event failed to kill himself, a doctor was called who patched up his stomach wound, gave him medicine, put him to bed. In the night Cato placed his fingers into the stomach wound, ripped it open, and proceeded to pull out his intestines until he died of shock. This is held up by Seneca as exemplary behaviour.

This makes sense within the long Roman tradition of preferring honourable suicide to dishonour, but it is just not a worldview any modern person shares and Cato is not a role model any modern person would wish to copy. Of course, this strand in Seneca’s writings is magnified by the fact that Seneca himself did something similar, committing suicide on the orders of the emperor Nero, his one-time pupil, in an exemplary fashion, calmly dictating notes about Stoic resilience as he bled to death in a hot bath.

Thus he has gone down as a hero of high-minded Stoicism but there are numerous objections to this notion. One is that plenty, thousands, of other Roman notables killed themselves over the centuries, famous examples being Anthony and Cleopatra, and they weren’t Stoic philosophers. So Seneca’s high-minded end wasn’t unique, far from it, it was a very common behaviour among the aristocratic class in the ancient world, and not only under the Empire but the Republic, too.

So a) it was far from being an act unique to ‘philosophers’ but b) it is obviously something very remote indeed from modern society. Sure, people still kill themselves. But not many people kill themselves at the command of an emperor, or to demonstrate their high-minded command over their destiny and a Stoic rising above the petty concerns of life and death. This whole worldview is so remote as to be science fiction.

There seems to me something perverse, almost creepy, about a philosophy which is constantly preparing its followers for death and for suicide. The words ‘death’ or ‘die’ recur on every page. I infinitely prefer Horace’s encouragement to enjoy life to the full while we can.

Come, let’s
Go to the cave of love
And look for music in a jollier key.
(Horace Odes, book 2, poem 1)

Themes in the letters

Despise death

We start to die from the day we are born. When we die there is nothing. There was nothing before life and there will be nothing after. So be not afraid.

  • What I am recommending to you is not just a remedy for this disease but for your whole life: despise death. (78.5)
  • First free yourself from the fear of death. (80.5)

Freedom

Despising death means we are free from the threats of tyrants or society. What is the worst they can do to us if we despise the worst, consider it nothing? Nothing can harm the calm and virtuous mind. By welcoming whatever will happen, it creates its own freedom no matter what the external circumstances. With typical extremity of metaphor or rhetoric, Seneca continually contrasts freedom, not with being bogged down or caught up or hampered by obligations – such as most of us encounter in real life – but with full-on hardcore Roman slavery:

  • You ask what is liberty? To be enslaved to no object, no necessity, no chances, to reduce Fortune to a level field. (51.9)
  • We must busy ourselves with our studies and the sources of wisdom…this is how we should rescue our mind from a most wretched enslavement and restore it to liberty. (104.16)
  • We have enslaved our spirit to pleasure whose indulgence is the beginning of all evils. (110.10)

Now it makes sense that Seneca uses as metaphor the slavery which was, arguably, the central fact of Roman life. But as with the way his mind, when he wants to imagine examples of adversity, leaps straight towards images of torture and execution, it’s another example of the extremity of metaphor and argument which underpins his ‘philosophy’ and makes so much of it feel so alien to the modern mind.

True friendship

Gauge a man before making him a friend. Be cautious, test out friends. But once someone is a friend, bind them to you, share everything with them. True friends share everything, including misfortune. Seneca says you have to learn to be a friend to yourself.

Avoid crowds

‘Shun whatever pleases the common herd’ (8). One iniquitous example can adversely affect you. A crowd presents all kinds of bad examples. People are emboldened to behave badly in crowds. So withdraw into yourself and study philosophy, but not so conspicuously as to draw attention or criticism. Don’t draw attention to your retirement and quietism. Quietly disappear.

Your body

A great and cautious man separates his mind from his body and spends the better part of his time with his better and divine part. (78.10)

Provide it only as much as needed to preserve good health. Avoid excess. Consume as much plain drink as required to quench thirst, as much plain food as to quench hunger, the minimum clothes to protect you from the elements, a house sufficient to protect you from the weather.

Devote some days to eating as little as possible. Become familiar with the bare minimum needed to keep alive and healthy (so that if exile to a bare rock or sudden incarceration befall you, your body is ready for much reduced circumstances).

Don’t exercise to excess. Do as much as needed to keep healthy. Reserve your energy for cultivating the mind.

As to physical pleasures, avoid them like the plague; they enslave the body and then the mind.

  • Uproot pleasures and treat them with absolute loathing. (51.13)
  • First of all we must reject pleasures; they make men weak and effeminate and demand too much time and effort. (104.34)

Your house

Your house should be a size and contain only as much as needed to protect you from the elements. Despise ornament and decoration.

Possessions

Have as few as possible. ‘No one is worthy of God unless he despises possessions.’ (18.13) Have them, but adopt a mindset where you could happily dispense with all of them, where they are all taken from you and you don’t care a jot, because you are secure in the untroubled citadel of your mind.

Enough

Don’t overdo it: don’t mortify your body, don’t insist on eating bread and water, living in a hut, neglecting your body, like the Cynics who, following Diogenes, set out to punish their bodies. Live comfortably and sensibly, just not to excess.

  • So correct yourself, take off your burdens and shrink your desires within a healthy limit. (104.20)

How to be content

And cultivate contentment by being happy with what you’ve got.

  • I will tell you how you can recognise the healthy man: he is content with himself. (72.7)
  • This is what philosophy will guarantee you, something which nothing surpasses: you will never be dissatisfied with yourself. (115.18)

Excess

Similar to his thoughts about suicide and anger, in that it sounds reasonable of Seneca to tell his follower not live to excess, but what Seneca has in mind is Roman excess, the off-the-scale lavishness and baroque luxury of the Roman emperors and the richest in the known world (as described in the letters from the fashionable resort of Baiae, 49, 51).

  • Too many amenities make the spirit effeminate…The stricter discipline of a simpler place strengthens the mind and makes it fit for great undertakings. (51.10-11)

The general point is not so much that indulgence is morally bad in itself: but that people enslave themselves by indulging the pleasures of the senses, deform their minds, make themselves into addicts, by coming to rely on excessive behaviour, on excessive drinking, excessive eating, excessive sex, excessive gambling.

It’s not so much that moderation is good in itself but that it stops you developing addictions and so becoming enslaved to them. Moderation leaves your mind free to focus on more important, ‘higher’ things. Moderation sets you free from all the snares of the senses.

That is why:

We ought to concentrate on escaping as far as possible from the provocations to vice. One’s mind must be hardened and dragged away from the enticements of pleasure. (51.5)

Anger

Quite apart from the letters, Seneca wrote no fewer than three treatises on anger. Fantham makes a really profound point about this which depends, again, on the profound difference between us and Roman society. This is that Roman emperors had complete power over all citizens, and all citizens had complete power over huge numbers of slaves. In this society an angry citizen could order his slave to be tortured or killed, just as an angry emperor could order anyone he fancied to be exiled, thrown into gaol, tortured or executed. Therefore controlling anger was much, much more important than it is in our society. Anger is not a good emotion with us but could have catastrophic consequences in Seneca’s world.

The mind

‘Nothing deserves admiration except the mind’ (9). The mind alone is worth cultivating. No other skills, activities, pastimes are worth cultivating.

  • Control your mind so as to bring it to perfection in the most calm condition, a mind which feels neither what is taken from it nor added to it, but keeps the same disposition however affairs turn out. (36.6)
  • A great and cautious man separates his mind from the body and spends much of his time with his better and divine part. (78.10)

Moral behaviour

Imagine the most moral, honourable person you can. Then imagine they are watching everything you say or do.

Fear, anxiety, stress

All these are caused by worry that the worst is going to happen. Well, imagine the worst has happened. Live with the worst, imaginatively – prepare yourself for the worst. Once you dispel anxiety about unnamed and exaggerated fears, you can get rid of the panic and examine the issue rationally, restoring order and calm to the mind, allowing Reason to operate unhampered by over emotions.

Philosophy

Philosophy, for Seneca, isn’t the working out of a complex system or ideology: it is a psychological or spiritual practice. It is an exercise to attain an attitude, cultivated with the sole aim of making its practitioner mentally strong and resilient against tyranny, suffering and death.

Philosophy is not a skill shaped for popular appeal or for display; it does not consist of words but of deeds. It is not taken up to make sure the day passes with some enjoyment, to take the boredom out of leisure; it moulds and shapes the mind, arranges one’s life, controls one’s actions, points out what is to be done or avoided; it is seated at the helm and steers the course of those adrift among treacherous shoals. Without it no man can live without fear or anxiety; countless things occur each hour that need the advice which we must seek from philosophy. (16.3)

Philosophy may include technical aspects such as types of argument and syllogism (which he consistently ridicules and dismisses for its pedantry) but, far more importantly, Seneca sees ‘philosophy’ as a kind of mental fortress, a psychological redoubt:

So withdraw into philosophy as far as you may; she will protect you in her bosom and in her shrine you will be safe. (103.4)

In doing so, it can raise us above the level of mere mortals:

This is what philosophy promises me, to make me equal to a god. (48.11)

Slavery

As you might expect Seneca admonishes Lucilius to treat his slaves as equals because they are as human as you or I:

Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave. (47.10)

But, just as predictably, Seneca doesn’t actually recommend actually freeing them. (In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Juvenal’s Satires, Peter Green says this attitude was typical of Stoics: ‘[Juvenal] attacked wanton cruelty to slaves, but did not query the concept of slavery itself (another characteristically Stoic attitude.)] Introduction, page 23)

Letter 47 is fascinating for giving an extended description of the types of functions slaves performed in an aristocratic household and the brutal punishments they were liable to for the slightest infraction.

(It is a secondary consideration that in the long letter 90, a detailed list of the technical achievements and innovations which make up civilisation, Seneca despises them all and considers all of them – agriculture and irrigation and milling grain to make bread and architecture and glass windows and all the rest of it – only worthy of slaves and freedmen [who, apparently, largely made up the artisan class of Rome] and so far beneath an aristocrat like himself and his friend Lucilius. Aristocrats needed to rise above these slave occupations in order to practice the only thing worthwhile activity for humans, to cultivate the mind, perfect reason, acquire wisdom, so as to rise above passions and fear of death. That is the primary aim of the letter, but in order to make the point what comes over is a contempt for the artisan class, for engineers and innovators and craftsmen, which makes me dislike Seneca even more. His assumption is that all the achievements of the thousands of people who had perfected all aspects of civilisation and raised it to the luxurious heights of his day only matter insofar as they allow him to perfect his wonderful mind. It’s a privileged narcissism which is, in its own arrogant way, every bit as corrupt as the decadent court of the arch-egotist Nero.)

Self-help slogans

The book is stacked with improving and inspiring thoughts of the kind which have become over-familiar in the subsequent 2,000 years, particularly the last 50 years or so of self-help books.

  • I think it is the first proof of a stable mind to be able to pause and spend time with oneself. (2.1)
  • The best measure of wealth is to have what is necessary and the next best, is to have enough. (2.5)
  • The man at ease should take action, and the man at action should take ease. (5)
  • Who is well born? The man well set up by nature for virtue…it is the spirit that makes one noble. (44.5)
  • Nature made us teachable and gave us an imperfect reason but one which can be perfected. (50.11)

Although Seneca’s long porridgey paragraphs have the heavy feel of ‘philosophy’, the quality of the argumentation is often weak and many of the actual injunctions feel more like daytime TV, self-help guru-talk than Hegel or Hume. Once or twice he came close to the banal catchphrase mocked in the old TV sitcom, Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em: ‘Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.’

I rejoice that you are studying with perseverance and abandoning all else for this one thing, to make yourself a better man each day. (5.1)

Critique

As with all philosophy, and especially ‘moral’ philosophy, there is no end to the debate, discussion, critique and commentary which the Letters from a Stoic have spawned over the past 2,000 years. A handful of themes struck me:

1. Simplistic values

The most obvious, for me, is the extreme difference in the social context between Seneca and us and in particular his concept of negative life events. For Seneca a bad turn of events is an ever-present threat under the tyranny of imperial rule. It is associated with prison, torture, enslavement and all the other dire possibilities of life under arbitrary Roman emperors such as Nero. Thus there is a misleading simplicity to most of his meditations. When he imagines something bad, it’s being thrown into prison or tortured or executed by the emperor. The conception of negative life events which he uses to underpin his entire Stoic system is disconcertingly simple and extreme – exile, torture, death – and so the mental lesson he is teaching is concomitantly simplistic: prepare your mind to be strong and noble under torture or the threat of death (see the harping on about torture and death in letters 67 and 70).

But not many modern readers of the letters are going to have the same concerns – that they will thrown into prison, tortured or forced to commit suicide at the whim of a Roman emperor. The worst things I can imagine happening to me are: being in a life-changing accident i.e. becoming wheelchair-bound or having a stroke; being diagnosed with a terminal or life-changing illness; something bad happening to my loved ones, especially my children. But my day-to-day worries are more humdrum, recalcitrant, fiddly, frustrating: worried about my performance at work, this or that bit of the house needs maintenance, I’m worried about money, about not being able to pay my bills – fuel bills, heating bills, food bills.

I know Stoic thought can be applied to these modern circumstances i.e. I should try to cultivate mental detachment and resilience so I am ready to face bad events and rise above them. But the extremity and the simpleness of the situations Seneca describes and which form the basis of his entire philosophy (arbitrary arrest, torture, execution) rarely if ever occur in modern Western life and so all his much-repeated lessons rarely if at all apply to me. Modern life is more complex and multi-faceted than Seneca’s philosophy allows.

Seneca’s ‘philosophy’ is worth reading as an extremely vivid insight into the mindset of the Stoic classes during the tyranny of Nero but is, in my opinion, of limited use or value to modern readers leading modern lives.

2. Hypocrisy

I’ve just read Tacitus’s Annals where Seneca is described as being one of the richest men in Rome, with mansions as big as Nero’s and gardens even bigger, hundreds of servants, immense wealth in gold and assets. (In fact Seneca’s extreme wealth became proverbial to later generations: Juvenal’s tenth satire describes how Seneca, ‘grown too wealthy’ lost his magnificent gardens.) So it’s pretty ironic, knowing the man was a byword for obscene wealth, to read Seneca’s continual recommendation of the plain, simple life, eschewing pleasure and cultivating virtue. It’s easy advice for the ridiculously rich to give. The hypocrisy is summed up by a character in John Marston’s 1603 play, The Malcontent, which Watling quotes:

Out upon him! He writ of temperance and fortitude, yet lived like a voluptuous epicure and died like an effeminate coward. (The Malcontent, Act 3, scene 1, line 28)

Not quite accurate (Seneca definitely did not die ‘like an effeminate coward’) but the first half, the epicure accusation, has force. This point was epitomised, for me, in a throwaway remark of Seneca’s in a letter which is intended to be about exercise and physical frailty:

I have just returned from my ride. I am just as tired as if I had walked as far as I have been sitting. It is an effort to be carried for a long time, and I rather think the effort is greater because riding is contrary to nature. (55.1)

It is an effort to be carried for a long time. (In a sedan chair, presumably.) Well, what about the slaves who were doing the carrying? Bet it was a bit of an effort for them, too. Seneca’s writings cannot escape from the taint of the astonishing level of privilege enjoyed by his class in general, and the extraordinarily privileged lifestyle enjoyed by him – according to Tacitus the richest man in Rome – in particular.

3. How Christians appropriated Stoic rhetoric

Many of the lessons Seneca spells out to Lucilius are very familiar from the long tradition of Western moralists, from Erasmus, through Montaigne, on into the Enlightenment and then diffused out into the broader culture by thousands of Victorian moralists.

My mum used to tell us kids, ‘Moderation in everything’. You don’t need to read Seneca to already know half of his nostrums and tags. I suggest that much of it seems so familiar because Stoic teachings were taken over wholesale by the early Christians and formed the basis of much Christian everyday morality. Obviously not the bits specific to Christian theology (the Fall, Original Sin, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection etc) but the fundamental theist worldview is often indistinguishable from Christianity:

  • No one is worthy of God unless he despises possessions. (18.13)
  • God is near you, he is with you, he is within you. (41.1)
  • What is enough for God is not too little for masters. (47.18)
  • The place which God occupies in this universe is the place which mind occupies in man. (65.24)
  • God comes to men. Indeed, what is actually nearer, he comes into men. No mind is good without God. (73.16)
  • Whatever is good for us our God and father placed at hand. (110.10)

My point is that in the advice about day-to-day living, the Christians appropriated Stoic teachings so completely that the advice to Lucilius to cultivate the mind, avoid the crowd and their superficial entertainments, practice virtue, despise the knocks of Fortune and cultivate a contempt for death – all these are the familiar background hum of Christian morality, the subjects of hundreds of thousands of Sunday sermons and public lectures, recycled on radio phone-ins and daytime TV and millions of self-help columns in magazines and newspapers and books. Which explains why when we moderns come to read Seneca we are so rarely surprised and so often find his nostrums familiar and reassuring.

4. Repetition

Above all, like any good teacher, he repeats the same key points again and again, in different formulations, approached from different angles, but coming back again and again to the same fundamental idea: rise above the fortuitous events of your life; rise above all emotions and attachments; cultivate ‘philosophy’, which means a Buddhist detachment from everyone else and even from yourself; live with the idea of death so continually that it eventually presents no fears. And then you will have conquered yourself, your fear of death and you will be…free.

  • I am forcing my mind to focus on itself and not be distracted by outside events…The real calm is when a good state of mind unfolds. (56.6)
  • The wise man is full of joy, cheerful and calm, undisturbed. He lives on equal terms with the gods…The wise man’s mind is like the universe beyond the moon: there it is always fine and calm. (59.14)
  • Abandon those distractions which men have rushed to enjoy; abandon riches, which are either a danger or a burden to their possessors; leave the pleasures of body and mind, which soften and weaken you; abandon ambition, which is a bloated, hollow and windy condition with no limit. (84.11)
  • There is only one way the dawn can come: if a man takes in this knowledge of things human and divine and does not just sprinkle it over himself but but steeps himself in it; if he goes over the same things repeatedly (110.8)

But repetition is not argumentation. Despite Seneca using the word ‘philosophy’ all the time, this isn’t really philosophy at all. It is, as I’ve said, more like exhortation to a good frame of mind, moral uplift, encouragement to develop a tough attitude, therapy for the anxious, a self-help manual. And incredibly repetitive.

Unvexed by terrors and uncorrupted by pleasures we shall dread neither death nor the gods. We shall know that death is not an evil and the gods do not exist for evil. What harms us is as weak as what is harmed; the best things lack the power to harm. What awaits us, if we ever emerge from these dregs to the sublime and lofty region, is peace of mind and liberty free from the errors which have been driven out. What does that liberty consist of? Not fearing men or gods; wanting neither what is base nor excessive; having the greatest power over oneself. It is an incalculable good to become one’s own master. (75.17-18)

5. Family and friends

In nearly 300 pages of relentless insistence that we rise above all attachments and emotions, nowhere does he mention family (in just one letter, 104, he mentions his wife, Paulina).

Family was a very big thing indeed for noble Romans, so it’s a striking absence in the context of Seneca’s own time. But regarded as instructions for modern readers, his insistence on boiling your life right down to a relentless focus on cultivating your virtue and your indifference to death completely ignores the scores of relationships most people have in their lives, starting with their family.

Most modern therapy involves getting to grip with your childhood experiences and your relationship with your parents. But parents, spouses or children are completely absent from Seneca’s teachings. His Stoicism is an impressively selfish concern, in which he endlessly exhorts Lucilius to forget about everyone but himself, to focus on his own mind and anxiety of death etc, to think about no-one but me me me.

This makes his ‘philosophy’ inapplicable, in practice, to anyone who has parents, partners or children and really cares for them, is involved in their day-to-day wellbeing and, especially when it comes to children, to their little triumphs or setbacks. None of that for Stoic Seneca. He is in his study toughening up his mind by envisaging torture in every detail so as to be able to rise above it, when the time comes.

But it struck me that this deliberate ignoring of family sheds light on and helps to explain the humanistic obsession with friendship. Seneca’s letters on the importance of having one, key soulmate-level friend are one of the sources for the obsession with friendship which is a central theme of humanist writings from the 15th century onwards.

Friends know that they have everything in common…the true friendship which neither hope nor fear nor self-interest can sever, the friendship with which men die and for which they die. (6.2)

It’s possible to interpret this obsession with Perfect friendship as the Stoic replacing the messy, uncontrollable web of family relationships, with all its unpredictable ups and downs, with One Relationship with One Special Friend. To use the modern buzzword, it’s a very controlling approach. When you read the great humanist works on this subject (Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon) what comes over is that you are only going to meet one or two soulmates in your life and that you will become identical in interests and affections with this one special person. In a science fiction kind of way, you and the True Friend of humanist tradition will become one person.

So, to put it crudely, humanist teaching about friendship a) is a way of ducking the uncontrollable mess of family ties and responsibilities and b) ends up with you looking in a mirror. Solipsistic narcissism.

Horace

As Roman ‘moralists’ go, I prefer Horace. He’s lighter, funnier, his affable tone is more persuasive, more inspiring for me, than Seneca’s dour and relentless lecturing. Seneca sounds like the tutor he was:

I hereby order you to be slow in speaking. (40.14)

Whereas Horace sounds like a friend offering gentle advice:

Try not to guess what lies in the future, but,
As Fortune deals days, enter them into your
Life’s book as windfalls, credit items,
Gratefully…
(Horace, Odes, book 1, poem 9)

Seneca thinks of himself as embattled – quick! time is short! the enemy is at the door! focus on the essentials!

  • I am being besieged right now…the enemy is at our backs…I need a heroic spirit (49.9)
  • Fortune is waging war with me but I will not do what she orders, I will not accept the yoke. (51.8)
  • A real man prefers his sleep to be broken by a bugle than a chorus. (51.12)

This sense of the world as a battlefield, a fight, a struggle against countless enemies all trying to seduce your God-given soul, was inherited by Christianity. It dominates the letters of St Paul who wrote the most influential letters in Christendom, and used rhetoric similar to Seneca when he urged his followers to ‘fight the good fight’ (First letter to Timothy).

To understand Paul, we must grasp that he is at war, with the angels of heaven at his back. The Acts of the Apostles is, at its base, a power-struggle between Christ and Satan, wrenching whole peoples away from Satan’s grasp. (Jesus Walk Bible Studies)

In contrast to this worldview of unrelenting embattled paranoia, Horace writes a letter to a friend inviting him to come round and try the new wine they’ve just bottled on his estate. There’ll be other friends there, and they’ll stay up late together laughing and joking. Seneca’s remedy for the fickleness of human existence is to be continually, constantly thinking about death all the time.

Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable…Say to me when I lie down to sleep: ‘You may not wake again!’ And when I have waked: ‘You may not go to sleep again!’ Say to me when I go forth from my house: ‘You may not return!’ And when I return: ‘You may never go forth again!’

Well, you may win the lottery this weekend. You may run down the escalator and bump into the woman of your dreams. If you start speculating about things which may happen, the sky’s the limit. In which case – why focus only on the bad things which ‘may’ happen. Lovely things ‘may’ happen, too. Pondering Seneca’s use of the conditional to dwell only on the most extreme negative outcomes (torture, execution) makes the reader realise how much he is obsessed with the dark side of life, and so insists that we be brutally harsh with ourselves:

  • Cast out whatever desires are lacerating your heart and if they cannot be pulled out any other way then you must tear out your heart with them. In particular, uproot pleasures and treat them with absolute loathing. (51.13)
  • We believe pleasure is a moral failing…Pleasure is a shameful thing. (59.1-2)

What a stupid attitude. Horace has an equally frank acceptance of how time is limited and we are hurrying towards our deaths, but he draws the exact opposite conclusion, which is: carpe diem, enjoy the moment. Instead of considering yourself under siege from wicked temptations so that you have to harden your heart against all affection, think of life as a blessing, bless every moment it brings you, and savour the fleeting pleasures. Horace gets my vote.

Last word to Martial

Martial book 11, epigram 56, begins, in the translation by James Michie:

Because you glorify death, old Stoic,
Don’t expect me to admire you as heroic…

And ends ten lines later:

It’s easy to despise life when things go wrong;
The true hero endures much, and long.


Credit

Selected Letters of Seneca, translated and introduced by Elaine Fantham, was published as an Oxford University Press paperback in 2010. All quotes are from this edition.

Related links

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Ted Hughes

Image after image. Image after image. As the vulture
Circled.
(Prometheus on his crag, Poem 20, by Ted Hughes)

This overview of Ted Hughes’s career is by way of preparing for a review of Ted Hughes’s volume of translation, Tales from Ovid, in the next blog post.

Ted Hughes (1930 to 1998) was one of Britain’s best poet-war poets. Born in 1930 in Mytholmroyd in Yorkshire, Hughes was a countryman through and through, brought up as a boy ranging over the rainswept moors and farms of his home region, coming across the bones of dead sheep or birds, ranging over a landscapes of ferns and thistles, bracken and broom, and harsh northern birds – crows, hawks – flinging themselves into the wind over his head.

Early career

Hughes went to Cambridge to study English but found its traditionalism stifling and switched to Anthropology and Archaeology, developing an interest in shamen and the supernatural which would last his career. He had the usual scattering of odd jobs until his first volume, The Hawk in The Rain, published in 1957, won prizes and his literary career was launched. There followed an infrequent but extraordinary series of volumes:

1957 The Hawk in the Rain
1960 Lupercal
1967 Wodwo
1970 Crow: From the Life and the Songs of the Crow
1975 Cave Birds
1977 Gaudete
1979 Remains of Elmet
1979 Moortown
1983 River
1986 Flowers and Insects
1989 Wolfwatching
1997 Tales from Ovid
1998 Birthday Letters

The early books are full of poems about otters, hawks, ferns, thistles, thrushes, pike, the kind of animals he grew up observing, fishing or hunting, all described with a feral brutality and supernatural ability to inhabit their lives, all glinting eyes and tearing talons:

As Wikipedia says, ‘The West Riding dialect of Hughes’s childhood remained a staple of his poetry, his lexicon lending a texture that is concrete, terse, emphatic, economical.’

Intermixed are other subjects, the Great War (Bayonet charge, Wilfred Owen’s photographs), animals in the zoo, like the Jaguar. The early poems in their concern for standard stanzas and his occasional bathetic lapses of subject matter, sometimes remind you that he wasn’t born fully formed but emerged from the very traditional 1950s, from John Osborne’s 1950s of angry young writers raging against the dead hand of the older generation. The early poems, trailing traces of traditionalism, often indicate the effort required to break free of black and white, provincial Englishness and find his voice.

Hence a poem describing a DH Lawrence-style argument between a miner and his wife or the poem taking the mickey out of a retired colonel or satirising a Famous Poet – these satires or kitchen sink dramas seem a bit, well, obvious and trite, placed next to the more mind-bending visionary poems. Somehow unworthy of his extraordinary gift.

The Great War

His obsession with the First World War apparently derived from the fact his father fought in it. Hence:

  • the three-part poem, Out, about his father’s wounds and ominous silence
  • or the sweaty terror of a bayonet charge
  • the last thoughts of a man shot through the head
  • the five anti-war poems in the sequence Scapegoats and Rabies
  • the dense Larkinesque poem about the photograph of a group of six young men from Hughes’s village who were all killed during the war
  • the inclusion in Crow of a battle scene, Crow’s account of the battle
  • reference to the Battle of the Somme in ‘Crow improvises’

But nevertheless the subject feels a little, well, obvious, compared to the visionary poems. And the anti-war sarcasm of Scapegoats and rabies feels, despite the fancy phrasing, straight out of Siegfried Sassoon. Old.

When he writes that war is sweat and terror it is what thousands of others have written; but nobody else had realised that November is ‘the month of the drowned dog’, that the attent, sleek thrushes on the lawn are terrifying in their single-minded obsession with bouncing and stabbing and dragging some writhing thing out of the wet earth; or that thistles are a fistful of splintered weapons thrusting out of the grave of a rotting Viking. This was, and remains, news from another dimension.

Books for children

In another mode it’s surprising, given his reputation for searing descriptions of the harshness of nature, how very sensitive some of the poems are, first dew on fresh cobwebs:

A reminder that alongside his harsh and symbolical works for adults, Hughes wrote no fewer than 16 books for children, some of them very successful, for example the tale of the Iron Man. But the delicacy of those two poems and a handful like them, when it appears is marvellous but is comparatively rare.

Extraordinary intensity of vision

The weakness of Hughes’s adult style was that he started off at such full throttle, with maximum brutality, animals killing each other, young men blown to smithereens in the Great War, God invoked as a helpless witness of the universal bloodshed, that is was hard to know where to go next. Right from the start the human mind (well, Hughes’s mind) is under relentless attack, assaulted by the bestial savagery of the natural world.

Dead and unborn are in God comfortable.
What a length of gut is growing and breathing –
This mute eater, biting through the mind’s
Nursery floor, with eel and hyena and vulture,
With creepy-crawly and the root,
With the sea-worm, entering its birthright.

In small doses, an individual Hughes poem is like an icepick to the imagination. Over any length, the relentless extremity becomes pretty wearing and, worse, begins to lose its impact. There is a staggering visionary power to his imagery and phrasing, again and again, which feel like they’ve been ripped out of the windswept landscape of the North:

The farms are oozing craters in
Sheer sides under the sodden moors…

Or see deeper into reality, expressing levels of perception most of us didn’t know existed:

The pig lay on a barrow dead.
It weighed, they said, as much as three men.
Its eyes closed, pink white eyelashes.
Its trotters stuck straight out.

Such weight and thick pink bulk
Set in death seemed not just dead.
It was less than lifeless, further off.
It was like a sack of wheat.

‘It was less than lifeless’, what a dynamite idea, what an insight. There are hundreds of moments like this in Hughes’s oeuvre, which take you beyond the horizon of your thinking, yanking together worlds of perception, brilliant.

His earliest poems in the 1950s followed traditional poetic forms, employed regular stanzas and rhymes and all, although always pushing at them with half rhymes and embedded rhymes and assonance. By 1967’s Wodwo he was using a lot more free verse, the individual line getting the space and impact its utterance deserved rather than following the same metre as all the other lines in the poem, some only one word long if that was what was required, others becoming very long indeed, all of them unfolding a science fiction, otherworldly intensity of vision:

I listened in emptiness on the moor ridge.
The curlew’s tear turned its edge on the silence.

Slowly detail leafed from the darkness. Then the sun
Orange, red, red erupted

Silently, and splitting to its core tore and flung cloud,
Shook the gulf open, showed blue,

And the big planets hanging—

‘Horizon’ is a favourite word in the early poems, the narrator’s spirit flying off over the edge of normal perception, spinning into the prophetic otherworld inhabited by his killer animals.

… He meant to stand naked
Awake in the pitch dark where the animal runs,
Where the insects couple as they murder each other,
Where the fish outwait the water.

I agree. As a Darwinian materialist I see a vast universe of complete indifference, on one tiny planet of which life forms have evolved through a never-ending cycle of relentless competition and mass murder. And we humans are unavoidably part of the choiceless animal kingdom – as portrayed over and over again in Hughes’s oeuvre, for example in Crow Tyrannosaurus, where Crow disgustedly sees all other life forms condemned to eat screaming victims, then finds himself unable to avoid doing the same.

Myth making

But, having established this territory of panic-stricken intensity, where was there to go next? Hughes’s answer was to double down on the anthropological aspect of his work, increasingly turning the animals he described with such staggering vividness in the early poems into heavyweight symbols in a symbolical mindscape:

The bear is digging
In his sleep.
Through the wall of the universe
With a man’s femur.

The bear is a well
Too deep to glitter
When your shout
Is being digested.

The bear is a river
Where people bending to drink
See their dead selves.

The bear sleeps
In a kingdom of walls.
In a web of rivers.

He is the ferryman
To dead land.

The trouble with this kind of writing, innovative, mind-opening, astonishing as it first appeared in the 1960s, is that it can quickly come to seem too easy, too glib. Replace ‘bear’ with any other big mammal you can think of, tiger, bison, rhino, whatever. I admit it does make a bit of difference, but not enough. And Hughes wrote scores of poems like it, outlandish, fluent, increasingly pretentious but, worst of all, with whole stanzas or passages which were interchangeable. Identikit. Rentamyth.

Somewhere Al Alvarez commented that Hughes’s poems rarely present an argument but leap from one dazzling image to the next, and you can see it in action in ‘The Bear’. Each of those little sections isn’t a stanza in the traditional sense of a unit with a predictable number of lines, with a predictable metre and system of rhyme – they’re more like items on a list, each little unit a miniature parable clustered round one of Alvarez’s dazzling images, each one lasting exactly as long as it takes to express that image.

Too much pretentious abstraction

You can trace this runaway fluency in Hughes’s increasingly casual use of the word ‘God’. To begin with it has some vestige of Christian meaning and therefore feels transgressively powerful when mentioned in the early, pagan beast poems. However, the term soon becomes something more like an anthropological abstraction, as much a part of the merciless world as the howling wind and biting rain, equally as driven and powerless. And then, as Hughes became more prolific and apocalyptic and symbolical, the word ‘God’ is thrown around with increasing abandon, losing some of its poetic charge with each iteration.

When Hughes ended his poem about the terrifying crabs which emerge clattering from the sea at night by calling them ‘God’s only toys’, it is not as powerful as it ought to be because of so many other animals or experiences which have, by now, been associated with this ‘God’. Ultimately, the word becomes somewhat cartoony.

When I was a young man bursting with hormones, ‘A childish prank’ struck me as a profound insight into the bittersweet world of sex. Now it strikes me as on a level with a roadrunner cartoon. Too often in the mythological poems everything is everywhere all the time – terms like the universe, infinity, God, Death become increasingly empty counters. His mythological character Crow:

peered out through the portholes at Creation
And saw the stars millions of miles away
And saw the future and the universe

And:

The body lay on the gravel
Of the abandoned world
Among abandoned utilities
Exposed to infinity forever

And:

Crow looked at the world, mountainously heaped.
He looked at the heavens, littering away
Beyond every limit

And:

There was this terrific battle.
The noise was as much
As the limits of possible noise could take

And:

So the survivors stayed.
And the earth and the sky stayed.
Everything took the blame.
Not a leaf flinched, nobody smiled.

And:

Crow roasted the earth to a clinker, he charged into space –
Where is the Black Beast?
The silences of space decamped, space flitted in every direction.

And:

He sees everything in the Universe
Is a track of numbers racing towards an answer.

And:

People were running with bandages
But the world was a draughty gap
The whole creation
Was just a broken gutter pipe.

And:

Without a goodbye
Faces and eyes evaporate.
Brains evaporate.
Hands arms legs feet head and neck
Chest and belly vanish
With all the rubbish of the earth.
And the flame fills all space.

The same kind of extremity and exorbitance, the same kind of phraseology about ‘the universe’ and ‘space’ and ‘Death’ in every poem. Gets a bit boring.

The same could go for the word ‘crucifixion’. When it first appeared in one of the 1950s poems it had a shocking impact appropriate to an era when the Church of England was still a power in the land. It crops up more and more regularly as Hughes moved into the 60s. And by the time of Crow (1970) it had become just one more of his pseudo-mythological reference points, appearing on pages 35, 36, 63, 68, 77, 82 of the book. It had become routine. ‘God’, ‘crucifixion’, ‘space’, ‘Death’, ‘infinity’ – all became steadily overused.

Having invented a searingly intense new way of seeing the world, perhaps it was inevitable that Hughes would go on to flog them to death and, in doing so, turn his dazzling insights into a new set of stereotypes and clichés.

(The way Hughes burst on the scene with a radically violent and personal vision, tinged with unhinged psychosis, in the late 1950s, flowered in the 60s, decayed in the 70s and then became a prolix echo of himself from the 1980s onwards, is strongly reminiscent of the identical career arc of the visionary novelist, J.G. Ballard, born in the same year, 1930.)

Crow

1970’s Crow saw Hughes give full throttle to his anthropological interests. It consists of 89 pages of poems devoted to the figure of ‘Crow’ seen as a nature god, a shamanistic figure who caws and pecks his way through a series of bleakly powerful fables and parables. A disenchanted, non-human observer of the disasters of Creation. The creation of a new mythic character, and the abstract flinty style of the cosmic parables, is an extraordinary achievement,

But from a technical point of view, even if, as a poet, you reject conventional forms and stanzas, you still have to find some way organise your lines on a page and it turns out one of the most basic ways to do that is with repetition, the basic forms of incantations, spells and liturgies. Look at the obsessive use of repeated phrases in these poems from Crow:

Even simpler than variations on the question and answer format, the easiest way to create a poem is simply to line up a sequence of images and just put ‘And’ at the start of each of them:

When the owl sailed clear of tomorrow’s conscience
And the sparrow preened himself of yesterday’s promise
And the heron laboured clear of the Bessemer upglare
And the bluetit zipped clear of lace panties
And the woodpecker drummed clear of the rotovator and the rose-farm
And the peewit tumbled clear of the laundromat

This isn’t ‘about’ anything: it feels like a dazzle of images. It may be aiming for the fake sonority of an Old Testament genealogy, but it is just a glorified list with smart variations. And once you get started with this kind of thing, it proves difficult to stop. The ‘and’ thing becomes addictive, leading to a fluency which starts off impressive but ends up becoming steadily more meaningless:

While the bullfinch plumped in the apple bud
And the goldfinch bulbed in the sun
And the wryneck crooked in the moon
And the dipper peered from the dewball

Wodwo

1967’s Wodwo had expanded the notion of a collection of verse by including a set of short stories and a play wedged between two suites of poems i.e. as soon as he could, Hughes was interested in experimenting with other forms. Crow is a collection of invented folk tales or parables. 1975’s Cave Birds continued this interest in playing with forms, Hughes himself describing it as ‘an alchemical drama’.

Gaudete

1977’s Gaudete took this a step further, creating a innovative hybrid form of narrative, a sort of novella told entirely in highly charged poetic prose, or in lines of verse so free they range from one-word lines to lines which contain entire paragraphs.

Gaudete is a deeply weird book. The plot, such as it is, concerns an Anglican clergyman named Lumb (with his ‘long-jowled monkish visage,’ p.87) who is abducted by spirits and replaced by an identical copy of himself. This changeling is driven like a machine to tup every woman in their little village, maybe in a bid to conceive the next Messiah (at least that is the explanation given by Evans the blacksmith’s girlfriend on page 113).

The 200-page text describes the last day of fake Lumb’s existence in the village as he drives from manor, to farmhouse, to open field, in order to service women who are all mindlessly infatuated with him, gagging for abandoned sex.

In the second half their various husbands and boyfriends all tumble to the fact that their women are being tupped by this relentless shagger (helped by 18-year-old poacher Joe Garten who take incriminating photos of couples in the act or, at the very least, of Lumb’s distinctive blue Austen van outside everyone’s houses while the husbands are away).

The cuckolded men meet to drum up Dutch courage in the local pub and decide to confront Lumb at that evening’s women’s meeting in the church, which is in fact some kind of black magic coven wherein the women strip naked, take magic mushrooms, wrap themselves in dead animals skins and lose themselves in primitive drum music, before performing The Ritual.

It’s like The Archers remade by the director of Emmanuelle, except in a tone of relentless hysteria – part 70s soft porn, part Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. The key words are ‘scream’ and ‘skull’, ‘dead’ and terror’. Blood and guts spill across every page:

But already hands grip his head,
And the clamp of tightness, which has not shifted,
Is a calf-clamp on his body.
He can hear her whole body bellowing.
His own body is being twisted and he hears her scream out.

He feels bones give. He feels himself slide.
He fights in hot liquid.
He imagines he has been torn in two at the waist and this is his own blood everywhere.

The retired naval commander Estridge’s daughter, Janet, hangs herself when his other daughter, Jennifer, tells her that she, too, is in love with Lumb and is carrying his child. Dr Westlake, tipsy after a pub lunch, confronts Lumb in his wife’s bedroom and tries to shoot him with a shotgun. The young architect, Dunworth, discovers Lumb in flagrante with his wife and, after failing to shoot either of them with his handgun, puts it into his own mouth but also fails to pull the trigger, and is left a broken shell of a man as Lumb drives off and his wife ignores him. Young poacher Joe Garten spies Lumb tupping Betty the barmaid from the local pub (the Bridge Inn) among the bluebells, and gets home to find his mum adjusting the rabbit cages which she has upset during her just-completed coition with Lumb – at which point he sets out to gather as much incriminating evidence against the vicar as he can. Maud gets fucked, Felicity gets fucked, Mrs Holroyd too, in a delirious merry-go-round of rural rumpy-pumpy.

It sounds ridiculous and it ought to be, but the whole thing is told in fast-moving 1-, 2- or 3- page sections of extraordinary, hallucinatorily intense prose poetry.

It is a very long poem on acid (in fact, in the climactic black magic scene in the crypt of the church, the women are dosed with magic mushrooms, p.140). But no drugs are needed for most of the characters to be continually in the grip of wildly extreme emotions, and the poetic prose to be off-the-scale in over-vivid intensity.

Commander Estridge’s arrival at the Bridge Inn could have been described in a matter-of-fact, realistic style, whereas Hughes gives us a charged, symbolical description of how triggers psychological impact on the other men already gathered and grumbling.

His arrival
Is like permission: it flings open all limits.
His ferocity, concentrated in that bulbous hawk’s eye,
Delegates, as in a battle,
A legitimate madness to each member. (p.143)

Although the characters go about often recognisable activities – poaching, shopping in town, sunbathing, idling away the afternoon looking through a telescope – and there is more than enough precisely observed detail to fill a novel, yet the inflamed prose poetry conveys a continual sense of unreality and weirdness.

All over her body the nerves of her skin smoulder.
The cream suit is an agony.
A lump of boiling electricity swells under her chest.
Wild cravings twist through her
To plunge to the floor
As if into a winter sea
And scour her whole body’s length with writhings. (p.38)

As a student I read it in one all-night sitting, too terrified to get out of bed to go for a pee or put it down. I distinctly remember the moment when Lumb is driving his blue Austen van round the curve of a hillside when out of nowhere two hairy arms reach over his shoulders, grab the wheel and wrench it to the side, sending his van tumbling down the hillside and hurling Lumb into another of the terrifying Samuel Beckett-type nightmares which punctuate the main narrative. (He has a vision of all the women he’s tupping buried up to their necks in mud and screaming in terror as some underground monster approaches to tear and shred their trapped bodies. The muddiness of this mud world reminded me very powerfully of Samuel Beckett’s 1964 text, ‘How It Is’, depicting a man out of his mind crawling through a world of mud).

Now, rereading it 30 years later, I noticed two things:

1. That in such a long book, effectively a novel in poetic prose, there isn’t a scrap of dialogue. Odd. Eeerily so. Some of the characters, especially towards the end as the husbands band together, are described as talking, but we never hear any actual dialogue. I think this was a deliberate choice because nothing anyone could say could match the delirious intensity of the narrative voice.

2. Second thing: it is a very great relief to be out of Hughes’s head. Ok, so all the character experience life in a very Hughesian way, drowning in extreme emotions, are shaken with terror, clutching their skulls and silently screaming etc. But actually a) there is a range of human characters unprecedented in his oeuvre, and b) there is more effort than in any other Hughes work to differentiate between the characters, in terms of names, professions, activities, descriptions of their homes, their attitudes and experiences.

[Mrs Davies having sex p.93, Mrs Walsall having sex p.96.]

Sylvia?

After the main narrative is over, if you have any mental energy left, Gaudete presents 20 pages of short fragmented poems, supposedly from the notebook of the real Reverend Lumb, supposedly addressed to some kind of female deity, but which are obviously fragments which have no place in the main story.

Only one of them made any impression on me, but really stood out. I wondered if it was a veiled memory of Sylvia Plath. Here it is in its entirety:

Once I said lightly
Even if the worst happens
We can’t fall off the earth.

And again I said
No matter what fire cooks us
We shall be still in the pan forever.

And words twice as stupid.
Truly hell heard me.

She fell into the earth
And I was devoured.

Moortown

Like a lot of creative people who took things to the limit and beyond in the 1960s and on into the long hangover of the 1970s, it feels like Hughes eventually exhausted the vein of his own weirdness, burst the bubble of mythographic pretentiousness, and reverted to a more sober, factual style. Up to a point, anyway.

Thus 1979’s Moortown contains a sequence of 34 poems describing his work on a sheep farm in Devon. They have his characteristic brutal honesty about the blundering cruelty of nature – the poem about the bloody process of dehorning cows is particularly stomach turning, in fact it is such a traumatic procedure that he had already spent a couple of pages of Gaudete describing it in unnecessary detail – but are nonetheless a reversion back to the more naturalistic subject matter of his early period (albeit with cosmic burps). It opens with a brilliantly vivid description of rain in the countryside.

Mist-rain off-world. Hills wallowing
In and out of a grey or silvery dissolution. A farm gleaming,
Then all dull in the near drumming. At field-corners
Brown water backing and brimming in grass.
Toads hop across rain-hammered roads.

The recurring descriptions of the bloody process of cows or sheep giving birth and the many calves or lambs which are born dead or get stuck halfway and strangled so their heads have to be sawn off etc are grimly, sadistically naturalistic, and often deliberately repellent. With the result that my favourite poem is the one about a tractor frozen in the deep winter.

The tractor stands frozen – an agony
To think of. All night
Snow packed its open entrails.

I love that when they finally get the frozen tractor to start, it abruptly bursts:

with superhuman well-being and abandon
Shouting Where Where?

‘Where Where?’ Even Hughes’s most ‘adult’ poems often come perilously close to his children’s poems in their wide-eyedness.

Reading ‘Moortown’ made me realise Hughes is not such a Darwinian materialist as I had thought. In fact he’s more like a Platonist. His poetry believes there are huge primeval forces, universal abstract forces, continually at work in the world and that individual entities – foxes, hawks, cows, ewes, humans – are pathetic tatters which get caught up in the maelstrom of these forces, treated like puppets, tortured, thrown away once they’re used up.

Animals, and especially people, are only really interesting for Hughes insofar as they embody or trigger these eternal forces – in humans the embodiment coming via the primal experiences of sex, death, rage, despair and so on.

And the landscape only appears to be made up of trees and fields and hedges because beneath it all Hughes’s imagination sees archetypal science fiction forces, ‘the earth’s furnace’, the snow is ‘star dust’, ‘space’ is continually entering the woods or pressing onto the grass, the sun is eating the moon, the moon drinks the sea, the wood disappears over the edge of the world, and so on.

In this vein Hughes uses the term ‘radioactive’ twice in the sequence, not because there is any radioactivity anywhere but as a 1970s symbol for the enduring, invisible, science fiction forces which underpin the mess of living and dying things.

Orf

The poem ‘Orf’ maybe demonstrates the four levels of Hughes’s cosmology. Level one is naturalistic descriptions of nature, in this case a sickening description of the illness and sores which plague a lamb and refuse to get better (which I won’t trouble you with). So Hughes shoots the lamb in the head, at which point we get level 2, a kind of detached and carefully alienated vision of what follows, observation of nature as by a robot, by someone completely outside the normal frame of human and humane reference. He shoots the lamb and then:

He lay down.
His machinery adjusted itself
And his blood escaped, without any loyalty.

This is a brilliant mentation of the act of dying, only a little undermined by the fact that this trope, of comparing a living thing to a machine, is a very common Hughes tactic; it occurs throughout Hughes’s oeuvre. Just a few pages later, here’s a newborn calf learning to suckle at the udder:

He got going finally, all his new
Machinery learning suddenly.

Anyway, back to ‘Orf’, Hughes then moves the narrative to level 3, to the shaman-pagan plane, as he imagines the dead lamb’s soul standing up in front of him and asking permission to be dismissed.

But the lamb-life in my care
Left him where he lay, and stood up in front of me
Asking to be banished.

OK. I get this as a transformation of the lamb into a mythological figure. Because I’ve read the visionary weirdnesses of Crow and Gaudete this doesn’t surprise me as much as it might someone new to Hughes.

And so, finally, to level 4: ‘Orf’ is useful because it is a little more explicit than most of the poems about where all this is taking place i.e inside Hughes’s deeply fevered imagination. It happens:

Inside my head
In the radioactive space
From which the meteorite had removed his body.

Thousands of lyric poets talk about their feelings, go on at great length about their feelings, about their lady love or a Grecian Urn or Tintern Abbey or whatever. Not many poets describe their own minds as ‘a radioactive space’ which has been hit by a meteorite. I find this brain damage aspect of Hughes’s verse is often overlooked. Critics analyse the obvious subject matter but overlook the obvious fact that the poet frequently refers to himself as deranged.

Hughes’s science fiction vibe

Also: surfing the internet for essays and reviews and notes on Hughes, I’ve come across plenty of critics who point to his interest in black magic, the Kabbala and whatnot. This is a relatively easy subject to discuss because a) Hughes himself frequently mentioned it, b) it’s at the centre of Gaudete and other works, and c) magic it has its own texts for critics to plunder and quote and juxtapose with similar passages by Hughes. Essays on a plate. By contrast, I haven’t seen anyone pointing out the persistent theme of science fiction imagery in his poetry. Sure, the sun and the moon might be interpreted as basic symbols found in primitive writing around the world or pagan religions etc. But not radiation or meteorites.

Prometheus on his crag

Next to the vivid descriptions of the farm poems, the ‘mythological’ sequences ‘Prometheus on his crag’ (21 poems) and ‘Adam and the sacred nine’ (12 poems) seem like a throwback to the Crow period but without the cocky swagger of Crow; they come over as forced and pretentious.

‘Prometheus’ is all babies being dragged out of wombs, exploded heavens, screaming entrails, insane laughter, the sea retching bile and so on – so hyperbolical and inordinate it’s quite an effort to take seriously or care. (And includes a few more references which support my science fiction thesis: Hughes mentions ‘one nuclear syllable’ (17) and ‘atomic law’ (20), and the buzzword ‘space’ has a little splurge in poem 19:

So speech starts hopefully to hold
Pieces of the wordy earth together
But pops to space-silence and space-cold

Emptied by words
Scattered and gone.
And the mouth shuts
Savagely on a mouthful

Of space-fright which makes the ears ring.)

The sequence titled ‘Orts’ contains 22 poems, none of which meant very much to me, which I skimmed because they all sound the same.

Adam and the Sacred Nine

But for me the utter nadir of meaninglessness, the point at which Hughes’s endlessly repeated schtick of screaming universes reached absolute rock bottom, was in poem 8 of ‘Adam and the Sacred Nine’.

The nine in question turn out, rather disappointingly, to be common or garden English birds.

There’s a poem about the wren which I thought was rubbish; I have a jenny wren nesting in my garden that I love to watch flitting about among the ivy and and bushes, and Hughes’s cosmic bullshit completely failed to capture the look and feel and activity of an actual wren, at all.

But the rock bottom of his cosmic style arrives in the poem about the owl. Here it is in its entirety:

And Owl

Floats. A masked soul listening for death.
Death listening for a soul.
Small mouths and their recriminations are suspended.
Only the centre moves.

Constellations stand in awe. And the trees very still, the fields very still
As the Owl becalms deeper
To stillness.
Two eyes, fixed in the heart of heaven.

Nothing is neglected, in the Owl’s stare.
The womb opens and the cry comes
And the shadow of the creature
Circumscribes its fate. And the Owl

Screams, again ripping the bandages off
Because of the shape of its throat, as if it were a torture
Because of the shape of its face, as if it were a prison
Because of the shape of its talons, as if they were inescapable

Heaven screams. Earth screams. Heaven eats. Earth is eaten.

And earth eats and heaven is eaten.

For me, by this stage, Hughes had destroyed his own gift. He had turned his style into a cupboard of clichés – the same ludicrously hyperbolic cosmic vision, the same handful of key words (universe, scream, torture, death, birth, heaven, earth, blah blah blah) repeated with minor variations, everything turned into everything else which is probably having its womb ripped open or its skull staved in, blood weltering, with lots of screaming all round. The one good line:

Nothing is neglected in the Owl’s stare

tells you how crisp and precise his writing had once but it’s in fact a repetition of lines and attitude first and best expressed in ‘Hawk roosting’ from 1960:

The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.

Some of the same brilliant intensity is here, obviously, but a) it’s a repetition of something he did better 30 years earlier and then b) it collapses into the ludicrous morass of overblown tripe of the poem’s final lines.

Depression and confessional poetry

There’s a case to be made that Hughes’s entire oeuvre amounts to the author struggling with depression and worse, with recurrent feelings of howling despair, or whatever the technical term is for a continual, hallucinatory over-intensity of perception and feeling directed in an unremittingly negative, death-obsessed direction.

The 1960s saw an increasing number of artists in all media letting it all hang out. The phrase ‘confessional poetry’ was coined in 1959 and applied to a number of American poets (notably Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton) and to Hughes’s ill-fated wife, Sylvia Plath (who committed suicide in 1963).

You could argue that his most memorable poems are the ones which maintain a precarious balance – containing his violent feelings and endless visions of pain, screaming skulls, flames crashing through space etc within a framework of detailed real-world observation. Certainly that’s why I love the early poems about the pike, otter, thistles, pig, bull, hawk, thrushes and so on – the dominant element is the wonderfully observed real-world imagery, behind which the shamanistic, universal anthropological vibe provides the fuel, supercharging the details, making them luminescent.

In the increasingly anthropological poems of the 1960s Hughes doesn’t exactly bare his soul – he rarely if ever speaks in his own character, rarely if ever about his own emotions per se. But he uses his animals to convey very strong emotions indeed, murder, rape, sexual disgust, despair. I thought Crow was the peak of this process, a great primal scream of a book, for example:

  • in ‘Crow’s account of St George’, which is a horrifying bad acid trip nightmare description of a man hacking his wife and children to pieces
  • ‘Criminal ballad’, where the man looks at his children playing in the garden and can’t hear them for machine guns and screaming
  • A bedtime story about a man who can never manage to do or be complete

But in retrospect a lot of the Crow poems still maintain a kind of balance, a sort of restraint and so command respect, because the mad intensity is contained within the form of parables or fables or lessons.

Similarly, hundreds and hundreds of lines in Gaudete although they contain a relentless bombardiment of hysterical extremity are, nonetheless, contained and controlled by the requirement of telling a narrative, the need to describe actual real-world incidents and to depict the large cast of actual human characters. This serves to rein in Hughes’s derangement and limit and focus his hysteria.

By contrast, the other sequences contained in Moortown (beside the title series which is avowedly naturalistic in intent) abandon any restraint, like a fat man taking off his belt, and the result is the great splurge of cosmic diarrhoea which characterise ‘Prometheus on his crag’ and ‘Adam and the sacred nine’.

I thought these poems were so drainingly absurd, such repetitive drivel, that I gave up buying new Ted Hughes books after Moortown. I thought his appointment as poet laureate in 1984 was a bizarre decision and read his laureate poems with dismay, as he struggled to reconcile his mythological blah with the modern world of tiaras and royal receptions.

Hughes seemed to be sinking into irrelevance until the sudden publication, right at the end of his life, of Tales from Ovid (1997) and Birthday Letters (1998), which changed everyone’s perception of what had come before.


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The Georgics by Virgil (39 to 29 BC)

Time’s flying by, time we’ll never know again,
while we in our delighted state savour our subject bit by bit.
(Eclogue 3, lines 284 to 285)

Publius Vergilius Maro (70 to 19 BC), generally referred to in English simply as Virgil (or Vergil), was the greatest Roman poet. He wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the epic poem, the Aeneid.

Poetic background to the Georgics

In about 39 BC Virgil became part of the circle of poets associated with Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (70 to 8 BC), close friend and political advisor to Gaius Octavius, who was to become the first Roman Emperor under the name Augustus. According to the introduction to the Peter Fallon OUP translation of the Georgics, they took Virgil seven years to write, 35 to 28 BC (Fallon p.xxxix).

There are four Georgics. If Virgil took the Greek poet Theocritus as his model for the Eclogues, in the Georgics he bases himself on the much older, ‘archaic’ Greek poet Hesiod, author of Works and Days, a miscellany of moral and religious advice mixed in with practical instruction on agriculture.

Virgil’s four long poems pretend to be giving practical advice to the traditional figure of the Roman smallholder. The word ‘georgic’ comes from the Greek word γεωργικά (geōrgika) which means ‘agricultural (things)’. But in fact the advice, although extensive, manages somehow to be very shallow and is certainly not very practical. An entire book is devoted to the care of bees but nothing about, say, goats or chickens.

Moreover, the nominal addressee, the smallholder, was a vanishing figure in Virgil’s day. Already by 73 BC Spartacus’s gladiators, marching across Italy, were amazed to discover the quaint patchwork of family farms they were expecting to find had been swept away and replaced with vast estates or latifundia worked not by cosy extended families but by armies of badly treated slaves (many of whom they recruited to their cause). The word ‘slave’ occurs nowhere in the Georgics just as the harsh economic and social realities of the Roman countryside are ignored. So what was Virgil’s real motive for writing these long and often very detailed texts?

Political background

In his introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of the Georgics translated by Cecil Day Lewis, the classicist R.O.A.M. Lyne pins everything on their historic context. The period 39 to 29 saw ongoing political instability with a barely maintained alliance between Julius Caesar’s adoptive son, Gaius Octavianus (who had renamed himself Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus in honour of his assassinated great-uncle, and is generally referred to by historians as as Octavian) and his colleague in the so-called Second Triumvirate, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony).

In 36 Antony embarked on his ill-fated campaign to invade the Parthian Empire in the East, while Octavian led a campaign to defeat Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus’s surviving son, Sextus Pompeius, who had established a military and naval base in Sicily.

Antony lost badly and retreated to Egypt, while Octavian astutely used the Sicilian War to force the retirement of the third triumvir, Lepidus, thus making himself ruler of the central and western Mediterranean. Throughout 33 and 32 BC he promoted fierce propaganda in the senate and people’s assemblies against Antony, accusing him of going native in Egypt, transgressing all Roman values, abandoning his legal Roman wife (Octavia) and debasing himself in a slavish passion to the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra.

In 32 BC Octavian manipulated the senate into depriving Antony of his executive powers and declaring war on Cleopatra. It was another genuine civil war because, despite decades of anti-Egyptian propaganda, and the record of his own scandalous misbehaviour and defeats in Parthia, a large number of the Roman ruling class still identified with Antony. On the declaration of war, both consuls, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Gaius Sosius, and a third of the senate abandoned Rome to meet Antony and Cleopatra in Greece.

Nonetheless, the decisive naval Battle of Actium in September 32 was a disaster for Antony. When he saw Cleopatra’s contingent leaving his side, he abandoned his own fleet to follow her. Octavian then led his army to Egypt and besieged the capital, Alexandria. After the Egyptian fleet sallied out only to defect to Octavian, both Antony and Cleopatra realised the game was up and committed suicide rather than be captured and dragged through the streets of Rome in a vulgar triumph.

So the Georgics were composed during yet another period of prolonged and bitter civil dispute and then open warfare between Romans. And so, Lyne suggests, their real purpose was not in the slightest to give ‘practical’ advice to that non-existent figure, the Latin smallholding farmer. Their intention was moral and religious.

In reaction to an era of chaos and destruction, Virgil wrote four works hymning the values of hard work, piety and peace.

Lyne’s overview

In his introduction to the Oxford University Press (OUP) edition, R.O.A.M. Lyne gives a précis of each of the four books and then proceeds to an overarching thesis. For him the key books are 1 and 4. Book 1 gives a tough, unsentimental description of farming as demanding unremitting effort and attention. The text is packed with instructions on what to expect and what to do at key moments throughout the year.

However, the final book is a lengthy description of bees and bee-keeping and, in Lyne’s opinion, this represents a significant shift in Virgil’s opinion. When restoring the Republic seemed an option, albeit remote, a society of rugged individuals seemed a desirable prospect. However, sometime during the decade 39 to 29 Virgil appears to have changed his view and come round to the opinion that only the suppression of individualism and the submission of individuals to the needs of the community can benefit or save society as a whole. In other words, the progress of the four books embodies Virgil’s move from Republican to Imperial thinking.

It’s a powerful interpretation but, as Lyne points out, there’s a lot of other stuff going on the Georgics as well. Lyne ends this very political interpretation by saying that it is only one interpretation and others are possible. And also that there are long stretches which are just beautiful poetry, in the same sense that an 18th or 19th century landscape painting may have had umpteen ulterior motives (not least to gratify the landowner who paid for it) but it can also just be…beautiful – just there to be enjoyed as a sensual evocation of country life.

Packed

I don’t have a problem with Lyne’s interpretation, I get it in a flash. The real problem is in fully taking on board, processing and assimilating what are very dense poems. The Georgics are far from easy to read because they are so cluttered. And (it has to be said) badly laid out. I found them confusing. It was only by dint of reading the first one three times, and introductions to it twice, that I began to get a handle on what is going on. When you read a summary saying it describes a calendar year in terms of the many jobs that a smallholding farmer needs to do, it sounds graspable and rational, but it is much more than that.

The passage of the year is difficult to grasp because Virgil doesn’t mark it off by clearly describing the passage of the seasons let alone the months. And when he does do it, he does it via astrology i.e. the coming into dominance of various star signs. For the ancients this counted as knowledge (and is still serving that function in, for example, the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, 1,400 years later) but for us it obscures the dating.

Also, Virgil rarely alights on one subject, announces it clearly and describes it properly. Instead, line after line describe individual sights or features of the season, rivers flooding, leaves falling, lists of crops that need to be sown, lists of weeds that need to be hoed up, and the behaviour of domestic and wild animals.

My view is the poem is designed to be a cornucopia, a horn of plenty. It is designed not to be a clear and rational handbook, but to overflow with images. It’s not so much a depiction of country life as a feast of agricultural lore and traditions and descriptions.

Two translations

I have the Georgics in two translations. I bought the old Day Lewis translation, albeit packed in a shiny new OUP paperback, because it was the only cheap way of getting the Eclogues. However, I found Day Lewis’s verse rhythms a little unwieldy, maybe because he is closely following or ghosting the strict hexameter of Virgil’s original, or maybe it’s his 1940s style, I don’t know. I struggled through his translation of the first Georgic.

But I had also bought the OUP paperback edition of a much more recent translation, by Peter Fallon, from 2004. Oh my God, it is a totally different reading experience. Fallon appears to translate it into something approaching free verse where the length and rhythm of each line appears to vary to suit the meaning and vocabulary of each individual line. It is enormously more appealing and attractive and readable than the Day Lewis.

Georgic 1 (514 lines)

Yes, unremitting labour
And harsh necessity’s hand will master anything.
(Day Lewis, lines 145 to 146)

‘pitiful man’ (Fallon, 238)

Opening prayer to various agricultural deities (Liber/Bacchus, Ceres, Neptune, Pan, Minerva, Triptolemos, Sylvanus) and then to Augustus (‘and I address you, too, O Caesar’), with 15 lines prophesying Augustus’s divinity, his place among the stars, a new sign of the zodiac etc.

At which point Virgil plunges straight into a description of ‘the sweet o’ the year’ which I take to be spring, when streams begin to melt and clods crumble and it’s time to put the bull before ‘the deep-pointed plough’ etc. A litany of agricultural products, including ones from far flung regions of the earth (Arabia), each from its specific place as ordained by nature.

Plough the soil twice (line 48). Rotate crops. Respect the laws Nature has imposed on the soil (60). Fertilise the soil with manure (80) or spread ashes. Set fire to stubble (he speculates why this seems to work). Break the soil with hoe and mattock (95). The countryman should pray for wet summers and mild winters (100).

Then something which none of the summaries I’d read had quite prepared me for: Virgil says Jupiter has made husbandry difficult in order to prevent idleness. Honey used to fall from the trees, the crops sowed themselves, there were never storms. Jupiter overturned all this and deliberately made life hard in order to spur men’s creativity. God overturned the Golden Age in order to make men creative, come up with tools and processes. God instantiated into the world, into the way of things, a fundamental need for work, piety and order:

Hard work prevailed, hard work and pressing poverty. (146)

Because now, since God’s intervention, nature is set towards decline and fall, entropy, things fall apart, unless maintained with unremitting toil:

world forces all things to the bad, to founder and to fall (200)

Like a man paddling a canoe against the current; if you stop for even a second, you are borne backwards and lose all your work.

Back to practicalities, Virgil describes the construction of the ideal plough (160 to 175). It hovers between instructions of a sort, for example, how to build a proper threshing floor (178) – and the history of agriculture i.e. who invented what under the inspiration of which god or goddess.

Work according to the sky / stars / the zodiac, with different tasks appropriate under Arcturus, the Charioteer, Draco (205), Taurus, the Dog, the Seven Sisters. At the equinox sow barley, linseed and poppies (212). But in springtime (see what I mean by the chronology jumping around a bit?) sow alfalfa and millet (215).

An extended passage on the structure of the globe, consisting of freezing zones at each pole, an uninhabitably hot zone in the middle, and two temperate zones inhabitable my ‘pitiful man’ in between. This morphs into a description of the underworld, dark and infernal, inside the earth.

So: the importance of always being aware of the seasons and the stars and the constellations (252). If it rains, there are lots of odd jobs to do indoors, which he proceeds to list (260). Some days are, traditionally, lucky and some very unlucky for different types of work, Beware the fifth!’ (276). ‘The seventeenth’s a lucky day’ (284).

This morphs into consideration of what tasks are appropriate for times of the day, with a sweet description of a countryman staying up all night by winter firelight to edge his tools, while his wife weaving and minding a boiling pot (296).

Winter is a time of rest but there are still chores: gathering up acorns, setting traps for herons (307).

In a confusing passage he says he’s going to describe the trials of autumn (following winter) but then of spring. Since this follows vivid evocations of winter, it shows how the poem is not a neat chronology moving through the seasons of the year at all; it’s a confusing mess.

The book comes to a first climax with the description of a great storm in lines 311 to 350. He describes the sudden devastation of raging storms and rainstorms, Jupiter, ‘squire of the sky’, straddling the skies and sending down deluges and laying human hearts low in panic. For which reason, observe the stars and zodiac and make your offerings to the appropriate gods (338) in particular Ceres, and a passage describing various rituals and observances.

But this is barely done before we’re off describing the meaning of the different phases of the moon. You tell a storm at sea is coming when cormorants fly inland, herons forsake the lake and there are shooting stars (366).

Quite a long passage listing countrymen’s signs to detect the approach of rain (374 to 392). This, like many of these passages, is really beautiful. I loved the crow cawing Rain, rain and the housewife working by lamplight noticing the sputtering of the wick.

Or the signs predicting sunshine and clear weather: stars unblurred, the moon brighter. 12 lines on how ravens croak and caw to celebrate the coming of fine weather (410 to 412).

More reasons for why you need to pay attention to the sun and moon. How to interpret different appearances of the moon (427 to 437). Same for different appearances of the sun, clear, blurred, emerging from clouds, with tinges of other colours, and so on: ‘Who’d dare to question the sun’s word?’ (438 to 464).

And mention of the sun’s signs leads us into the last 40 or so lines, 2 pages of paperback text, in which Virgil lists some of the portents associated with Caesar’s assassination and the coming of the civil war. These are far more lurid and ridiculous than anything in Plutarch. According to Virgil, cattle spoke, the Alps trembled, ghosts walked abroad at night, statues wept, rivers ground to a halt, the Po flooded and devastated farmland, wells spouted blood, wolves howled all night long.

This is all very vivid but, stepping back a bit – it is all twaddle. How much of this nonsense did men like Virgil and Plutarch genuinely believe? If even a fraction, then ‘credulous fools’ would be a polite description of them.

Anyway, Virgil deliberately conflates the universal upheaval triggered by Caesar’s assassination with other signs and portents observed before the Battle of Philippi, where Octavian and Antony defeated the assassins (as depicted in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar). In fact the notes tell me something I would have never noticed, which is that Virgil also conflates it with the Battle of Pharsalus, where Caesar triumphed over Pompey, 6 years earlier in 48 BC.

He clearly does so in order to create a grand sense of wear and ruin in order to finish the book with…a second hymn to Octavian. He begs Romulus and Vesta, patrons of Rome, to stand back and allow the rise of young Octavian:

this young one who comes to save / a world in ruins (500)

In fact, it doesn’t end with the sycophantic words of praise I was expecting but with a vivid ten lines or so depicting a world run completely mad with war (lines 505 to 514), like (in a simile as vivid as the one about the rower borne back by the tide) a charioteer competing in the circus whose horses run out of control, he can’t rein them in, a world hurtling towards ruin.

Little conclusion

Pyne points out that the overall vibe of the book is negative. If we neglect the principles of hard work, fail to follow best practice, are not sufficiently alert to all the signs of nature and the gods – then we will have chaos and destruction. The harshness of Virgil’s tone reflects the very bitter experience of civil wars he has lived through. Pyne takes this to be the meaning of the ‘tumultuous’ consequences of the assassination of Caesar and it’s pretty obvious in the vision of chaos at the very end of the eclogue. Only Octavian/Augustus offers any hope of salvation.

Georgic 2 (542 lines)

Book 2 is less harsh and more attractive. It starts by hymning trees before focusing in on the vine. Its moral is that Nature is fruitful, especially in Italy.

Invocation to Bacchus, god of wine, to be with him and support him. Then a second dedication, to Maecenas, Virgil’s friend and patron.

Lesson one is about trees and how they seed themselves and grow. Many species and many varieties, oak, elm, ash, alder etc etc. Each land has trees specific to it. The medicinal attributes of citron.

A passage of praise of Italy, a passage which came to have its own name, the Laudes Italiae (lines 136 to 176): ‘Hail to thee Italy, holy mother of all that grows, mother of men ‘ (173), mixed with an address to Caesar, ‘first of all mankind’ (170). I keep thinking I must read a biography of Mussolini to see how much of this slavish praise of a dictator was revived 2,000 years later.

Different types of terrain and soil, the wooded fields and open spaces of Tarentum, the rolling plains of Mantua etc.

Black friable soil is best for corn, gravel in a hilly place, chalkland. The best soil for olives. The difference between land for corn and land for vines. Order the rows of vines like troops lined up for battle (279). Dig shallow trenches for vines, but deep holes for trees. Don’t plan a vineyard facing west.

The perils of wildfires. Don’t plough rock solid ground while north winds bare their teeth.

Best to sow vines in the spring for then the almighty father, Air, marries the earth, penetrating her body with showers. This is a beautifully sensuous passage which, apparently, is famous enough to have been given its own name, the Praises of Spring (323 to 345).

After you’ve planted your vines you need to hoe and weed them, then erect canes and supports (358). At first pluck new buds only with your fingers, don’t use metal tools.

Build hedges to keep animals out (371). Their incessant nibbling and destruction of crops, especially vines, is why a goat is sacrificed to the god Bacchus (380). An extended passage on how Virgil associates rural worship of Bacchus with the origins of theatre and the origin of sacrifices and rites they still perform.

More work: break up the clods around vines and clear away leaves (401).

Virgil makes reference to the turning of the year, the procession of the seasons, and yet his poem emphatically does NOT follow the cycle of the seasons at all. It is NOT rational, ordered or structured, but wanders all over the place, one digression after another.

More chores with vines, but he suddenly switches to consideration of olive growing (420). Olives do it by themselves, as do apple trees.

Clover must be cut for fodder. Deep in the woods pines are cut down to provide firewood.

Suddenly we are in the far distant Caucasus, home to various useful trees (440) and what tools are made from them.

Then suddenly back to Bacchus and, with no logic I can discern, into a final hymn in praise of country life (458 to 542). How lucky the lowly countryman who doesn’t live in a mansion crowded with sycophants! He has the quiet, carefree life! Pools of running water, cool grottos, naps in the shade and sweet Justice.

Then he turns to address himself and used to wish that sweet Poetry would open up to him the secrets of the earth (480). But since that appears not to be happening, maybe because of his ‘heart’s lack of feeling’, well, at least let him be satisfied with rural beauty and streams running through glens.

In line 490 he appears to envy one referred to only as ‘that man’ who is lucky enough to understand the workings of the world and escaped fear of hell and death. Even without the note I’d have guess this referred to Epicurus, whose entire materialist philosophy was designed to assuage anxiety, especially when it goes on to confirm that this man is not interested in the bitter competition for high public office which led to the downfall of the Republic.

The different types of bad rich man are enumerated in lines 495 to 512 – then compared with the simple countryman who tills his native soil and increases its wealth, who glories in the harvest, who keeps an ordered homestead with dutiful sons, who organises feasts and games for his hired hands (javelin throwing, wrestling matches). Ah, those were the virtuous activities of the old Sabines. Ah, the good old days, the Golden Age of Saturn before his son, Jupiter, overthrew him and instituted the Iron Age when everything became bloody hard work (as described at the start of Georgic 1).

Georgic 3 (566 lines)

George 3 is in two halves and mainly about animal husbandry. The first half is devoted to the selection of  good breeding stock and the breeding of horses and cattle.

The opening 39 lines are nothing whatever to do with rural life, but a poetic invocation describing his ambition to achieve things never before achieved in verse (much the same as invocations on the same theme by Ennius and Lucretius), and a vivid description of a massive festival, complete with elaborate games, he will hold in honour of Caesar. I hadn’t realised Virgil was such a thorough-going courtier and sycophant.

This segues into a secondary invocation to his patron, Maecenas, asking for his help in his self-appointed task. Revealingly, he tells us the time is not far off when he will have to gird himself to write a full account of Caesar/Octavian’s ‘hard-fought battles’ – the plan to celebrate Octavian which evolved into the Aeneid.

So there’s all this fol-de-rol before we get back to the rural tone and subject of the poem, but we’ve barely had 15 lines about horses and horse breeding before Virgil gives way to some moralising lines commiserating poor humans that we are, the best days of our lives are first to fly etc.

Then he finally gets back to the subject in hand – how to recognise good horses to breed, by their age, their colour and their behaviour – but this barely lasts 20 lines before he digresses off to talk about famous horses from mythology, the horses of Pollux, Mars, Achilles, Jupiter and so on.

There are 8 lines on how you shouldn’t choose a knackered old horse which can’t get an erection to breed from, before he’s off on another digression, this time a thrilling description of the horses in a chariot race at the Circus. And then a few lines on the man who first tamed horses and tied four to a chariot i.e. godfather to the circus chariot races (Erichthoneus).

It feels very much as if Virgil doesn’t want to write this boring manual about animal husbandry and would rather be writing a much more exciting epic poem, invoking gods and figures from history.

Anyway: how to choose and prepare the stallion; how to prepare the mares for insemination namely by lots of exercise so, when they are mounted, they will tuck the seed away deep inside; when they are pregnant don’t use them to pull carts or let them swim in rivers.

Avoid the gadfly which will drive them into a frenzy, as it did when Hera turned Io into a heifer and set it on her. Only release pregnant horses out to pasture at dawn or as evening falls.

When they foal, the best will be selected for sacrifice, some for breeding and some for farmwork. How to train young horses to bear a collar and bridge (170).

How to train a horse for warfare, to become a cavalry mount (179 to 194).

Sex

And it’s at this point that we come to the most striking passage in the poem which concerns sex. From line 209 onwards the narrator counsels horse breeders to keep male horses and cattle away from females. This is the best way of ensuring their strength. This leads into an extended set piece on the futile and destructive lengths to which sexual passion drives animals and, by implication, men. It is a wild fantastical passion, a helter-skelter of images and legends of horses and other animals (lioness, bear, boar, tiger) running completely mad with lust and sexual frenzy.

Man and beast, each and every race of earth,
creatures of the sea, domesticated animals, and birds in all their finery,
all of them rush headlong into its raging fury; love’s the same for one and all.
(242 to 244)

As Pyne puts it, this isn’t a description, it’s a denunciation and Pyne links it to Epicurus’s great denunciation of irrational sexual passion in De rerum natura book 4. Certainly, this makes little or no sense as ‘practical’ advice to any farmer: it is clearly didactic moralising. Virgil is making a general point about The Good Life and asserting that passion must be eliminated in order to enable the peaceful and moral life.

Anyone familiar with the plot of his great epic poem, the Aeneid, knows that this is the thrust of the most famous narrative sequence, where prince Aeneas falls in love with Queen Dido of Carthage and is strongly tempted to settle down and be happy with her but, eventually, acknowledges his destiny, puts duty above love, and abandons her to sail for Italy. Sex, and all forms of emotion, must be renounced in order to lead The Good Life and fulfil one’s duty.

At line 284 he pivots to the second half of the book. This is devoted to the care and protection of sheep and goats and their by-products.

Death

Some very lovely lines about taking out sheep and goats to their summer pasture first thing in the morning when the dew is glistening (322).

For some reason shepherds from Libya occur to him, who are in constant motion because their land is so hot; and this triggers a description of the exact opposite, an extended description of the legendary people who live in the farthest north, near the pole, and endure conditions of ultimate winter (352 to 383). Structurally, a lot of the poem consists of a kind of learnèd free association.

Half a dozen lines about how to choose a breeding ram segue into a legend about Pan disguising himself as a sheep in order to seduce the moon. If you want milk, give your ewes lucerne, clover and salted grass.

Keep dogs, they will help you hunt, protect against rustlers at night or wolves.

In cattle stalls burn juniper to keep snakes at bay. Kills snakes with a big rock or stick (420). Extended description of a particularly fearsome three-tongued serpent.

At line 440 Virgil commences a new subject, the diseases which afflict livestock, with an extended description of how to treat scab. If sheep bleat for pain and have a fever, bleed them from a vein in the feet. If you see a ewe dilly-dallying or sloping off to slump under the shade of a tree, waste no time in killing it to prevent the infection spreading (468).

Just as a great storm wrecks the farmer’s work in the first Georgic, the third Georgic moves towards  an extended description of the havoc and devastation among livestock caused by an actual historical plague  which broke out in Noricum (470 to 566). (To be clear: a plague affecting only of animals, not humans.)

Animals selected for sacrifice died at the altar; entrails refuse to light; a knife slipped under the skin draws no blood; calves dropped in droves; house-trained dogs went mad; pigs’ throats welled up so they couldn’t breathe; horses fell sick; the plough ox collapsed.

Lyne interprets this to mean that the farmer must acknowledge, that even if he follows all the rules laid down in Georgic 1, is pious and hard working and true, a hellish plague may come along and ruin his life’s work. The dying ox is anthropomorphised as if it had human feelings:

All the work he did, all he contributed – and to what end? (525)

It was a universal plague: fish died on the shore; seals tried to escape upriver; vipers died in their dens; birds fell dead out of the skies. There was no cure, all the animals died and their hides and skins were worthless; anyone who tried to wear them broke out in ‘a fester of pustules’. And with that, the book abruptly ends.

In the face of overwhelming external forces of destruction, what is the reasonable man to do?

Georgic 4 (566 lines)

Georgic 4 is about bees and bee keeping. Instructions to the beekeeper. An interlude describing an old gardener, Corycian (116 to 148). Then the bee description develops into an obvious allegory.

Bee society stands for a model of ideal human society: absolute patriotism, complete concord, total subordination of the self to the common good. In line 201 the bees are even referred to as quirites, the Latin word for Roman citizens. And yet all this harmony and submission is based on service to a monarch (lines 210 onwards), an extremely unroman attitude, the precise thing all Romans have railed against for the entire history of the Republic.

His bees are also absolutely passionless (197 onwards):

bees refrain from intercourse, their bodies never
weaken into the ways of love

This is obviously picking up the denunciation of passion from Georgic 3, continuing the Epicurean attack on passion. (Just as obviously, Virgil’s entire account of bee keeping is wildly wrong and shows no understanding of how bees reproduce. Amazingly, Virgil seems to imply that bees populate their hive  by discovering their young on leaves in lovely meadows, 4.201).

The book ends with by recapitulating the end of Georgic 3, but this time with a happy ending. For, whereas human society may be ruined by a cataclysmic plague, devastated bee societies can be restored. The poem describes the method for recreating devastated bee colonies as the invention of one Aristaeus and describes it at length.

The most obvious thing about the relatively short passage giving practical advice on how to create a bee colony is it’s twaddle. Virgil describes at length how to rebuild a bee colony (4.295 to 314). Take a bull calf 2 years old. Build an enclosure with apertures facing the four directions of the wind and a tiled roof. Plug his nostrils and, despite his struggles, beat him to death, though without breaking the skin. Under his ribcage place branches of thyme and newly picked spurge laurel. Do all this before the onset of spring. The dead bull’s bones will start to ferment, and from them insects will appear: at first legless, but then with wings, eventually spilling out like rain.

Do you think that’s how modern beekeepers create a new colony?

The Aristaeus epyllion (lines 317 to 566)

After giving this absurd advice, Virgil shifts to safer ground and cuts and pastes into the end of this book a relatively long mythological poem. All the critics refer to this as an epyllion, being ‘a relatively short narrative poem (or discrete episode in a longer work) that shows formal affinities with epic but whose subject and poetic techniques are not characteristic of epic proper.’

Just to be crystal clear, the entire rationale of the previous three poems, to provide ‘practical’ advice for yeoman farmers, is simply dropped. Instead we enter a completely different imaginative realm, a sustained piece of mythological writing.

Virgil has Aristaeus lament the collapse of his farming efforts to his mother, the nymph Cyrene, living in the river Peneius, sitting spinning wool attended by her handmaidens, who are each lovingly named, leading into another passage which gives a similarly sensuous list of classical rivers.

Cyrene gives permission for Aristaeus to be wafted through the waves to her (much sensual description) and he is amazed at life under a river. Then she explains that he will have to go on a mission to capture the god Proteus in order to extract from him the reason why all his (Aristaeus’s) ventures have failed. This permits a florid description of Proteus’s legendary ability to change shape.

Cut to a lovely description of night falling over the sea and the cave where Proteus lives, surrounded by the race of mermen splashing in the briny sea while seals frolic around them. Aristaeus pounces and holds him tight, whatever shape Proteus assumes. Eventually, tired out, Proteus he admits defeat, at which point Aristaeus asks his question.

As in a chamber of mirrors, Proteus then explains that Aristaeus has undergone the punishment of his labours on the orders of Orpheus who is angry with him for the role he played in the abduction of his beloved Eurydice.

What? Where did all this come from?

It seems that Aristaeus was in love with Eurydice, too, and one day pursued her out of lust so that she stumbled across a seven-headed water snake and was bitten and died. Hence her passage to the underworld, hence Orpheus’s journey thither to reclaim her. Here’s a taste of one aspect of an epyllion’s epic style i.e. stuffing the text with exotic place names:

Then the chorus of her peers, the Dryads, filled the mountaintops with their lament,
the heights of Rhodope cried out, too, in mourning,
as did lofty Pangaea, and the land of the warring Rhesus,
and the Getae, the river Hebrus and the princess Orothyia.
(4.460 to 464)

There follows an extensive description of Orpheus venturing down into the underworld to the amazement of its denizens, his pleading with the god of hell to release his beloved, her release and their slow progress back up towards the light when, of course, in a moment of madness, Orpheus looked behind him, broke his promise and Eurydice disappeared back into the shadows.

Returned to earth, Orpheus spends ages bewailing his fate, seven months singing his lamentations, until the bacchantes, thinking themselves slighted by his obsession, tore him to pieces and distributed the pieces throughout the land. But even in death Orpheus’s head continued to cry out ‘Eurydice’ as it was carried down the river.

At which point Proteus ends his recitation of the Orpheus story and plunges back into the waves, handing the narrative back to Atraeus’s mother, Cyrene. Cyrene summarises: so that’s the reason Orpheus cursed his agricultural work. The only cure is to make an offering, and pay respect to the nymphs, and she gives instructions on how to do this:

Select four bulls and four heifers. Build four altars ‘by the tall temples of the goddesses’. Cut their throats and let the blood pour. Leave the carcasses in a leafy den. After nine days send as offerings to Orpheus soporific poppies and sacrifice a black ewe, then go back to the thicket (presumably where the 8 cattle corpses are) and worship Eurydice with a slaughtered calf.

So Aristaeus does exactly as his mummy told him and lo and behold, when he returned to the thicket nine days later…

And there they met a miracle and looked it in the face –
from those cattle’s decomposing flesh, the hum of bees,
bubbling first, then boiling over and, trailing giant veils into the trees,
they hung like grapes in bunches from the swaying branches.

In other words, this enormous digression has been by way of explaining how Aristaeus discovered that killing cattle and letting them rot, under the right conditions, triggers the creation of a colony of bees! Wow. What a round-the-houses way of doing it. As Seneca said (every commentary I’ve read mentions this opinion of Seneca) Virgil never intended his book for the instruction of anyone, let alone an actual farmer: it is an aristocratic entertainment, pure and simple.

Virgil’s conclusion

Virgil rounds out his book with a 9-line conclusion:

Such was the song that I took on to sing, about the care of crops
and stock, and trees with fruit, while he, our mighty Caesar,
was going hell for leather along the great Euphrates
adding victory to triumph, winning the war for people who appreciate his deeds,
and laying down the law – enough to earn his place in heaven.

And I, Virgil, was lying in the lap of Naples, quite at home
in studies of the arts of peace, I, who once amused myself
with rustic rhymes, and, still a callow youth,
sang of you Tityrus, as I lounged beneath the reach of one great beech.
(4. 458 to 566)

Pyne’s interpretation

Pyne largely ignores the presence of the epyllion to focus on the last piece of practical advice in the book, about how to recreate a bee colony. For Pyne the metaphor is clear: war or revolution may devastate a society, but that society may be recreated and regenerated by a saviour, a man of destiny, particularly if that man has divine parentage like… like Augustus Caesar, adoptive son of the now deified Julius.

Thus, in Pyne’s view, the poem dramatises a problem in political and moral theory: Georgic 3 shows that, no matter how hard working and pious the individual is, all his work may still be ruined by forces beyond his control. Georgic 4 offers the solution, which is to shift the focus away from the individual altogether, and see things from the perspective of the entire society.

If the individual can identify, not with his personal, highly fragile situation, but with society as a whole, in particular with a strong leader, then he can rise above the tribulations of his individual story.

Incompletion

There is another interpretation of the plonking down of this extended epyllion into the fourth Georgic (at 249 lines, it makes up nearly half the book). This is that Virgil really struggled to finish things. I’m saying this with advance knowledge that he, notoriously, failed to complete – to his own satisfaction – his epic poem, the Aeneid, and asked his literary executors to burn it (which the latter, very fortunately, refused to do).

The fourth Georgic, and therefore the book as a whole, doesn’t work its subject through in the same way the previous ones did. Instead it feels like Virgil has abandoned his subject and treatment completely – until the very end where he suddenly brings his long story back to being, rather improbably, about how the first farmer learned to recreate a bee colony.

This thought highlights in retrospect what struck me as odd in the previous books, which is Virgil’s complaints about how hard he was finding it to write the damn thing. When he invokes his patron Maecenas, more often than not it’s because he’s really struggling to write. At the start of book 1 he asks Caesar to ‘grant him an easy course’.

And you, Maecenas, stand behind me now in this, the work I’ve taken on,
you to whom the largest fraction of my fame belongs by right,
have no second thoughts before the great adventure into which I’ve launched myself.
Not that I could ever hope to feature all things in my verses –
not even if I had a hundred mouths, as many ways of speech,
and a voice as strong as iron. Stand by me now – as we proceed along the shoreline…
(2.39 to 40)

Meanwhile we’ll trace the Dryads’ woods and virgin glades,
no little task that you’ve laid out for me, Maecenas,
for without encouragement from you, what could I amount to?
Come on! Help me shake off this lassitude…
(3.40 to 43)

Was it a task laid on him by Maecenas? And then there are the other places where Maecenas isn’t mentioned but Virgil candidly shares with the reader the sheer effort of writing this stuff, like his sigh of relief at getting to the end of book 2:

But we have covered vast tracts of matter and, besides,
it’s high time that we released the sweating horses from their halters.
(2.541 to 542)

And the several times in book 4 that he gets excited about the fact that he’s nearly bloody finished:

Indeed, if I were not already near the limit of my undertaking,
furling my sails and hurrying my prow to shore…
(4.116 to 117)

And his apology that he’s running out of time and space:

The like of this, however, I must forgo – time and space conspiring
to defeat me – and leave for later men to make more of.
(4.147 to 148)

Why? Why couldn’t Virgil have carried on for another year and described these things fully? No doubt it’s a familiar trope or topos to include in an extended poem, but still…it speaks to Virgil’s sense of himself as unable to finish, harassed by time but, deeper down, haunted by inadequacy and incompletion.

The influence of Lucretius

As soon as I learned that Georgic 3 ends with an extended description of a plague I immediately thought of the powerful but odd way that Lucretius’s long didactic poem describing Epicurean belief, De rerum natura, also ends in a devastating plague, of Athens (albeit it’s important to emphasise that Lucretius’s plague afflicts humans whereas Virgil’s one decimates only animals).

Epicurus had already made an appearance in Georgic 2 in the passage towards the end which describes a great man who both understands how the universe works and is divinely detached from the strife-ridden competition for political office which has wrecked Rome.

Pyne emphasises Lucretius’s influence by pointing out the several places where Virgil insists on the absence of passion as being a crucial prerequisite for happiness which, of course, evoke Lucretius’s Good Life of divinely passionless detachment. Pyne doesn’t fully explore the Lucretius connection so I might as well quote Wikipedia on the subject:

The philosophical text with the greatest influence on the Georgics as a whole was Lucretius’ Epicurean epic De rerum natura. G. B. Conte notes that ‘the basic impulse for the Georgics came from a dialogue with Lucretius.’ David West states that Virgil is ‘saturated with the poetry of Lucretius, and its words, phrases, thought and rhythms have merged in his mind, and become transmuted into an original work of poetic art.’

I found this very interesting because, as I know from my reading of Cicero’s De rerum deorum, Cicero strongly criticised Epicureanism, principally because it counselled withdrawal from the public realm, whereas Cicero espoused Stoicism, which was more suitable to his model of the responsible Republican citizen throwing himself into the permanent civil strife which is what Republican politics consisted of.

Stoicism = political involvement = messy Republican democracy = Cicero

Epicureanism = political detachment = submission to the princeps = Virgil

Invocations

Worth reminding myself how many invocations there are in the poem. These are (it seems to me) of three types.

1. Virgil tends to start each book with an extended appeal to one or more gods, chosen to be appropriate to the subject matter, calling on them to assist him in his task or organising the right material and help his eloquence.

2. As mentioned above, he also appeals to his worldly patron, Maecenas, friend and cultural fixer for Augustus.

And you, Maecenas, stand behind me now in this, the work I’ve taken on,
you to whom the largest fraction of my fame belongs by right…
(2.39 to 40)

Lend kind ears to this part, my lord Maecenas (4.2)

3. Lastly, there are the direct addresses to Octavian/Caesar/Augustus himself, or references to his greatness:

and I address you too, O Caesar, although none knows the gathering of gods
in which you soon will be accommodated…
(1.24 to 25)

Long, long ago since heaven’s royal estate
begrudged you first your place among us, Caesar…
(1. 502 to 503)

…and you yourself, Caesar, first of all mankind,
you who, already champion of Asia’s furthest bounds,
rebuffs the craven Indian from the arched portals of the capital…
(2.170 to 173)

These addresses are often very extravagant, witness the 18 lines at the start of book 1 (1.24 to 42) extravagantly wondering whether Caesar will be gathered among the gods, whether the wide world will worship him as begetter of the harvest or master of the seasons, or whether he will become ‘lord of the endless sea’, worshipped by sailors, or becomes a new sign of the zodiac. Whatever the details, his power will reach to the ends of the earth and everyone will bow down to him.

These are quite extravagantly oriental obeisances before a Great Ruler, worthy of the emperors of Babylon or Assyria. In Georgic 3 Virgil dreams of erecting a marble temple in his home town of Mantua, by the banks of the river Mincius and:

At its centre I’ll place Caesar, master of the shrine,
and in his honour – the day being mine – resplendent in my purple robes,
I’ll drive five score of teams-of-four up and down along the bank.
(3.16 to 19)

But the thing is… Virgil was right. Augustus did usher in a new golden age of peace and prosperity and he was worshipped as a god (in the superstitious East, anyway), had a month named after him and any number of other imperial honours.

Fallon fantastic

Spring it is, spring that’s good to the core of the wood, to the leaves of groves,
spring that reawakens soil and coaxes seeds to fruitfulness.
(1.323)

The Peter Fallon translation of the Georgics is absolutely brilliant. Rather than sticking to any defined metre, his lines feel wonderfully free, each line free to have the rhythm and shape its content suggests. That means there is no monotony of rhythm but a continual cascade of surprises. Here’s his translation of Virgil’s (oblique) description of Epicurus:

That man has all the luck who can understand what makes the world
tick, who has crushed underfoot his fears about
what’s laid out in store for him and stilled the roar of Hell’s esurient river.
(2.400 to 402)

The tone is relaxed (‘what makes the world tick’), the rhythm is deliberately playful (holding ‘tick’ over till the second line), there are rhymes but not at each line end, instead dotted artfully within the line (‘about/out’ and ‘store/roar’) and then a surprise at the end where he allows himself the unusual word, the Latinate word ‘esurient’ (meaning hungry or greedy), gently reminding us that this is a translation from another language: the low tone (tick) for us, the high tone (esurient) reminding us of the much more formalised, aristocratic Roman origins of the work.

The free verse allows a free attitude. It allows his lines to be hugely varied and inventive, jewelled with occasional recherché vocabulary (hasky 1.453; smigs 3.311; violaceous 3.372; exscinding 3.468; mastic 4.39, eft 4.242, clabber 4.478, paludal 4.493) and effects subtle or obvious, ever-interesting and accessible. Take the entertaining alliteration, distantly echoing the organising principle of Anglo-Saxon verse:

Now tell me about the tools and tackle unflagging farmers had to have…
(1.160)

I’ll waste none of your time with made-up rhymes,
or riddles, or prolonged preambles.
(2.45 to 46)

It’s high time we released the sweating horses from their halters.
(2.542)

First find a site and station for the bees
far from the ways of the wind…
(4.8 to 9)

a swarming tone that brings to mind the broken blast of a bugle-horn
(4.72)

the Curetes’
songlike sounds, their shields clashing like cymbals.
(4.150 to 151)

on the Nile
whose flowing waters form floodpools
(4.289)

already she was making her stiff way across the Styx
(4.506)

In fact once I started to look for alliteration I found it everywhere: it’s a key component of Fallon’s style. He combines it with internal rhymes for greater effect:

and, though enraptured by such strange delight, they mind
their nestlings and newborn, seed and breed of them.
(4.54 to 56)

the way a troubled sea shrieks and creaks at ebb-tide
(4.262)

He can be intensely lyrical:

Come the sweet o’ the year, when streams begin to melt and tumble down the hoary hills
and clods to crumble underneath the current of west winds…
(1.43 to 44)

Oh for the open countryside
along the Spercheus, or the mountains of Taygetus, its horde of Spartan maidens
ripe for picking! Oh, for the one who’d lay me down to rest
in cool valleys of the Haemus range and mind me in the shade of mighty branches!
(2.486 to 489)

Come night, the youngsters haul themselves back home, exhausted,
leg-baskets loaded down with thyme; they pick randomly on wild strawberry,
the blue-grey willow, spunge laurel (that’s the bee plant), blushing saffron,
and a luxury of limes and lindens and lilies tinted rust.
(4.180 to 184)

Fallon is sometimes demotic i.e. uses everyday turns of phrase:

you might as well get on with it (1.230)

and no let up and no let off, they’re kicking up such a storm (3.110)

The Lapiths, all the way from Pelion, bequeathed us bits and bridles
and – riders astride – the lunging ring, and taught the cavalry
to hit the ground running
(3.115 to 117)

and spare no end of trouble to flesh him out and fatten him up
(3.124)

You see, that’s why they banish horses to the back of beyond
(3.212)

There’s nothing that can snaffle them when they’re in season
(3.269)

at the mercy of the worst those east winds have to offer
(3.383)

…all this
in case an east wind occurred to sprinkle them [bees]
while they were dawdling, or dunked them head first in the drink.
(4.28 to 30)

and on their beaks they hone their stings; they are limbering up
(4.73)

going to no end of bother
(4.265)

And uses short phrases of command in the many places where Virgil tells us to sit up and pay attention, in phrases which are presumably as short and imperative in the original Latin as in this translation:

So pay close attention (1.187)

Keep all this in mind. (2.259)

Listen. Here’s how you’ll tell the sort of soil you’re dealing with. (2.226)

So spare no efforts to shield them from the bite of frosts and icy winds (3.318)

So listen now, while I outline the qualities bestowed on bees by Jupiter…(4.149)

Listen. I’ll tell you all… (4.286)

Mostly, it hovers around a combination of the above with a sort of semi-hieratic, not-too-elevated form of translationese i.e. not language any ordinary English speaker would write, which registers the heightened tone of the original, but without heaviness or portentousness, acknowledging the folk wisdom and maybe proverbial basis of a lot of the content:

For that’s the way it is –
World forces all things to the bad, to founder and to fall
(1.199 to 200)

At moments dipping into Shakespearian phraseology:

And it was he that felt for Rome that time that Caesar fell…
(1.466)

In a slightly different mood I might have complained about this unevenness of tone, except that it’s carried out with such style and charm. You like Fallon for his cheek and tricks and twists and endless invention. It’s a mashup of registers and tones, which matches his mashup of rhythms. There are hundreds of precise and evocative moments. I love his descriptions of birds, especially the crow:

Then a crow, strutting the deserted shore,
proclaims in its mean caw, Rain, rain, and then more rain.
(1.387 to 390)

This is up there with Rolfe Humphrey’s translation of Epicurus as maybe the best two verse translations I’ve ever read.

And that’s a fact

Fallon’s translation has frequent repetition of the phrase ‘that’s a fact’ and ‘it’s a fact and true’ (2.48 and 61), ‘as a matter of true fact’ (4.221).

a) I wonder why Virgil felt the need to keep telling his readers that what he’s telling them is true.

b) It automatically raises the doubt that the opposite is the case. I planted seven trees in my garden this spring, dug over two separate borders, forked in manure and compost, and planted bushes and flowers for bees and insects. I didn’t find a single sentence in all these 2,188 lines of hexameter verse which was remotely useful or even rang a vague bell.

I wonder if any of Virgil’s advice is true. I have no doubt he conscientiously gathered tips and folklore on the widest range of agriculture available to him (and the notes point out his abundant borrowings from all available previous writers on these subjects). I have no doubt that he crammed in as many relevant myths and legends as he could, plus the usual tall tales about remote peoples and their fantastical habits (most memorable is the absolute winter passage in Georgic 3). But I wonder if any of it is true.

What would be interesting to read is an assessment of the book by an agricultural expert, going through line by line, and assessing whether anything he tells us about planting vines or trees (2.290) or nipping buds off new vines (2.366), or how to select the best breeding stallion or ram, or how to ensure a good yield of milk from your sheep – whether any of it is the slightest use.

‘Take my word’ he says (4.279). Should we?


Credit

Georgics by Virgil, translated by Peter Fallon, was first published by The Gallery Press in 2004. I read the 2009 Oxford University Press edition, with an excellent introduction and notes by Elaine Fantham.

Roman reviews

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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Roman reviews

On the laws by Cicero

We are born for justice and what is just is based, not on opinion, but on nature.
(De legibus, book I, section 28)

Cicero began writing the De legibus or On the laws during the same period as the De republica, i.e. the late 50s BC, but suspended work on it when he was compelled to go and be governor of Cilicia in 51 BC, and possibly never resumed it. It is certainly unfinished. We have just two books of 60-odd sections each and most of book 3 (49 sections) then the manuscript stops in mid-sentence. The 4th century AD philosopher Macrobius refers to the existence of a book 5. Maybe it was intended to have 6 books to parallel the De republica to which it is obviously a partner.

Like most of Cicero’s other works it is a dialogue though, unlike the De republica, it is set in the present and, instead of historical personages, features just the author himself, his brother (Quintus Tullius Cicero) and his best friend (Titus Pomponius Atticus, addressee of so many of Cicero’s letters).

De legibus has a simple premise: since he is Rome’s leading lawyer and advocate, Cicero’s brother and friend suggest he is perfectly placed to write a book about The Law, and so Cicero sets off with the aim of establishing the fundamental basis of law, before considering specific laws, whether they need to be amended and, if so, how. From the start Cicero describes and explicates what was essentially the Stoic theory of natural law as amounting to right reason in action.

Natural Law

In the introduction to the Oxford University Press edition, Jonathan Powell explains that Cicero’s theory of Natural Law was based on certain premises:

  1. that the universe is a system run by a rational providence
  2. that mankind stands between God and the animals so that in creating and obeying laws man is employing Right Reason
  3. that human potential can only be realised in communities – Cicero derives this from Aristotle’s view that humans are sociable animals
  4. that man is a homogeneous species – we have more in common than separates us – therefore we are susceptible to the same, one, universal natural law which stands above (or lies beneath) all ‘positive’ i.e. merely local and culture-specific laws
  5. that law is based on (human) nature not opinion – individual laws may come and go but the existence of a deep fundamental law of human nature can never change

Natural Law refuted

The objections to this are obvious and start with the counter statement that the universe is very much not a system run by a rational providence. Since Isaac Newton’s discoveries of the basic forces which govern the universe, there has been no need to posit a God to create and keep the universe running; and since Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859, there has been no need to posit a God who created the extraordinary diversity of life forms we see around us, including humanity. Many other reasons may be found for adducing the existence of a God or gods, but the regularity of the cosmos and the diversity of the natural world are not among them.

If God does not exist, didn’t create the universe and does not deploy a benevolent providence to watch over us, then humans cannot occupy a middle space between the animals and this God who doesn’t exist. We are more accurately seen as just another life form amid the trillions teeming all over the earth.

Cicero displays towards human beings the same kind of anthropocentric chauvinism and exceptionalism which was first recorded among his Greek predecessors and persisted through most thinking about humanity and human nature up till very recently. Only in the last couple of generations has it become clear that humans may have invented language and maths and built skyscrapers and flown to the moon but that, deep down, we are just apes, mammals, animals, and behave much like all the other mammals, in terms of our fundamental behaviours – feeding, mating and fighting.

If you have a God, then you can establish a hierarchy with him at the top, then the angels, then humans sitting comfortably above all other species on earth. If you have no God, the hierarchy crumbles and we are just one among a million different life forms jumbled together on this small planet, engaged in the never-ending battle for survival. Nowadays we know that humanity is killing off the other species, destroying countless habitats, and burning up the planet as no other species possibly could. Some people characterise our arrogant lording it over life forms as speciesism, a view I share.

If there is one quality that distinguishes human beings from all other species it is our unique capacity for destruction.

The notion that humans are governed by Right Reason has always seemed to me self evidently false. Our values are inculcated by the society we grow up in. If some values are almost universal across most of these societies this is because they make evolutionary sense, they help the group survive, rather than being a Universal Law handed down by a Benevolent God.

Therefore premises 1, 2, 4 and 5 listed above are false. We are left with 3, the notion that humans naturally live in groups or communities, which seems to be objectively true, but gives us no guide on how we should conduct ourselves, or establish laws or rules for running these communities.

Lastly, the introductions to all these texts by Cicero tend to talk about Universal values, Universal laws, and Universal human nature very freely but I can’t help feeling they only apply to the Western world. The terms of reference seem very Eurocentric or Anglocentric or whatever the word is for Western-centric. Meaning that my reading about African tribes, cultures, laws and traditions, or what I know about Chinese history, and my personal experience of travelling in the Muslim world, suggest that there are many non-Western cultures which don’t share these ways of looking at the world at all. I’m guessing the same could be said about Indian culture, or the traditions of the native Americans of North or South America, the Australian aborigenes and any number of other cultures.

Liberals may be proud of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the recently founded United Nations, founded by the soon-to-be-victorious Allies during the Second World War, based in New York, a document drafted by a committee chaired by the American president’s wife (Eleanor Roosevelt) – but the idea of universal set of values is not a fact about human beings but a high-minded aspiration.

I recently visited the British Museum exhibition on Stonehenge. This has a section describing life in Britain before the advent of the (first) agricultural revolution, which began in the Middle East 12,000 years ago. The human population of Britain was minuscule (maybe 5,000) arranged into tiny communities of hunter gatherers who lived deep amid nature as they found her, without the knowledge, means or incentive to change anything, to fell trees, clear land, burn forests and so on. Instead they considered themselves an integral part of nature, not set aside from it. They killed rarely and atoned for their killings with offerings. And the exhibition says this was the way of life for most hunter-gatherer societies for most of human history i.e. going back hundreds of thousands of years, back through all the various species of the genus Homo.

So I’m saying that Cicero’s premises are not only wrong in the theoretical/theological way that they posit the existence of One Universal God to explain the world around us, an explanation which has been utterly superseded by the scientific worldview – but wrong in all his factual claims about human nature,  above all that it is universally the same, whereas we now know that there have been, and currently are, many, many, many more human cultures than Cicero could ever imagine.

The Romans thought the world amounted to one continent completely surrounded by a vast Ocean, punctuated by the middle-earth or Mediterranean Sea. They hugely underestimated the size of Africa, and thought the world ended with India and a little beyond the Ural mountains, so forming one circular continent. The historical examples Cicero bases his notion of a universal human nature on amount to a tiny sub-set of the actually existing cultures of his own time, and a minuscule sub-set of all the human cultures and societies which have existed over the face of the earth for the past several hundred thousand years.

So: this book is clever and interesting in all kinds of ways but it is based on multiple types of ignorance – deep, deep ignorance – which lead to false premises and wrong deductions on every page.

Cicero’s motivation

As we saw in De republica Cicero was a very practical-minded Roman. He wasn’t interested in airy-fairy philosophical speculations for their own sake. He was a staunch Roman patriot who wanted to preserve the Roman state. The practicalness of his motivation is stated explicitly mid-way through book one:

You see the direction which this discussion is taking. My whole thesis aims to bring stability to states, steadiness to cities, and well-being to communities. (I, 37)

He is not seeking ‘the truth’, so much as cherry-picking arguments from the range of Greek philosophy in order to shore up his practical and patriotic aim.

Book one

Cicero asserts that:

  1. human beings are blessed with the ultimate gift of the gods, Reason
  2. humans have a single way of living with one another which is universal
  3. all people in a community are held together by natural goodwill and kindness (I, 35)

As you can see, all these axioms are wrong and he goes on to deliver a slew of equally high-minded, fine-sounding sentiments which are equally false:

Law is the highest reason, inherent in nature, which enjoins what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. (I, 18)

Law is a force of nature, the intelligence and reason of a wise man, and the criterion of truth and injustice. (I, 19)

The creature of foresight, wisdom, variety, keenness, memory, endowed with reason and judgement, which we call man, was created by the supreme god to enjoy a remarkable status. Of all the types and species of living creatures he is the only one that participates in reason and reflection whereas none of the others do…Since there is nothing better than reason, and reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God. (I, 22-23)

No, humans were not created by God but evolved through natural processes. We now know that numerous other species certainly have memory, and many appear capable of thought and calculation. Who says there is nothing better than reason? A philosopher whose central subject is reason, which is like a carpenter saying there’s nothing better in the world than working with wood. Why is there nothing better in the world than reason. How about, say, love?

Since there is no God, the statement ‘since reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God’ is meaningless. Or more accurately, it has a meaning, but a meaning made out of words, in the same way that a poem about blue guitars floating up to the moon makes sense, but refers to nothing in the real world. On it goes:

Those who share reason also share right reason; and since that is law, we men must also be thought of as partners with the gods in law. (I, 23)

Those who obey the same laws effectively live in the same state and:

and they do in fact obey this celestial system, the divine mind, and the all-powerful god. Hence this whole universe must be thought of as a single community shared by gods and men. (I, 23)

In the course of the continuous circuits and revolutions of the heavens the right moment arrived for sowing the human race; that after being scattered and sown in the earth it was further endowed with the divine gift of mind; that whereas men derived the other elements in their makeup from their mortal nature…their mind was implanted in them by God. Hence we have…a lineage, origin or stock in common with gods…As a result man recognises God in as much as he recognises his place of origin…the same moral excellence in man and in God. (I, 24-25)

Cicero’s belief in God or gods isn’t tangential to his thought: his theism is absolutely central and vital to his entire view of human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice. And so, since there is no God, Cicero’s views on human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice are wrong from top to bottom. They may occasionally coincide with modern views based on humanistic atheism but these are accidental overlaps.

What makes this relatively short book (72 pages) so hard to read is that I disagreed with all his premises and almost all his conclusions. As a discussion of the theoretical basis of law and justice I found it useless. It has a sort of historical usefulness in shedding a very clear light on how a leading Roman lawyer conceived his profession and clearly explaining the kind of arguments about jurisprudence which were common in his day. And it includes references to Greek and Roman history which are anecdotally interesting. But every time he makes a general statement I find myself totally disagreeing and this eventually becomes very wearing:

Nature has lavished such a wealth of things on men for their use and convenience that every growing thing seems to have been given to us on purpose; it does not come into existence by chance. (I, 26)

Wrong: the life forms we see around us evolved by the process explained by Darwin, of which Cicero knows nothing; none of them were created ‘for our convenience’, instead food crops and livestock only began to be bred and fine-tuned for our use during the agricultural revolution which began some 10,000 years before Cicero’s time, of which he knew and understood nothing.

And the world does not exist ‘for our convenience’: it is precisely this self-centred sense of human privilege and entitlement which is very obviously destroying the earth in our own time.

God has created and equipped man in this way, intending him to take precedence over everything else. (I, 27)

Anthropocentrism. Narcissism*. Human chauvinism. Arrogance.

Nature made man alone erect, encouraging him to gaze at the heavens as being akin to him and his original home. (I, 27)

Sweet, poetic and false.

Cicero goes on to make the humanistic claim that people have more in common than separates them, we are all one human family. He is not stating this because he’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony but because he wants to continue his thought that there is One God who has created one human race with One Reason and so it follows that there must be One Law to rule them all. Hence his insistence that there is One Human Nature. He claims that Reason:

  • may vary in what it teaches but is constant in its ability to learn
  • that what we perceive through the senses, we all perceive alike
  • that perceptions which impinge on our minds do so on all minds in the same way
  • that human speech may use different words but expresses the same ideas
  • troubles and joys, desires and fears haunt the minds of all alike

He is trying to corral human nature into his One God, One Reason, One Human Nature therefore One Law argument, but each of those four statements is questionable or wrong, starting with the notion that everyone is alike in the ability to learn and ending with the notion that we all experience the same emotions. Demonstrably false.

This is the evidence, in reality just wishes and assertions, which leads him to conclude that there is One Justice and that it derives from Nature (I, 33). Again and again he repeats the same formulas:

There is one, single, justice. It binds together human society and has been established by one, single law. That law is right reason in commanding and forbidding. (I, 42)

We are inclined by nature to have a regard for others and that is the basis of justice. (I, 43)

But repeating false claims doesn’t make them true.

Nature has created perceptions that we have in common, and has sketched them in such a way that we classify honourable things as virtues and dishonourable things as vices. (I, 44)

And yet Cicero saw Scipio Africanus, the general who oversaw the complete destruction of Carthage and the selling of its entire population of 50,000 into slavery as an epitome of virtue and honour and glory. Is that a perception we all have in common? Probably not the population of Carthage.

Moral excellence is reason fully developed and that is certainly grounded in nature. (I, 45)

Goodness itself is good not because of people’s opinions but because of nature. (I, 46)

Here and in many other similar formulations you can see that what he is arguing against is the notion that goodness and morality and law are contingent upon human societies. If this is true then, for a patriotic, socially-minded conservative like Cicero, what follows is anarchy. (It is the same fear of anarchy which underpins his conservative preference to keep on worshipping the gods according to the traditional ceremonies, as expressed in De rerum deorum.)

For more pragmatic, sceptical and utilitarian-minded people like myself, what follows is not anarchy, but is certainly a complex and never-ending process of trying to create culture, morality and laws which allow for diversity and strike a balance between conflicting opinions, classes and needs. The unending messiness of democracy, in other words.

Book one is essentially in two parts: up to section 40-something he is laying down these basic principles, and then gets his brother and best friend to enthusiastically vouch that he has certainly proved them, that men were endowed with reason by the gods, men live with one another in the same way everywhere, and that all human communities are held together by the same universal justice (I, 35).

All good men love what is fair in itself and what is right in itself. (I, 48)

In the second half he introduces, or wanders off to consider, notions of the good and morality. Sometimes, reading Cicero, it feels like you can see the joins, the places where he moved from copying one Greek text to suddenly copying from another. The order is his but much of the source content is cribbed from Greek originals (as he freely admits in his letters and in the texts themselves) with the result that his works rarely feel like they have a steady clear direction of travel, but more like a collection of related topics thrown loosely together. And this partly explains why his so-called conclusions rarely feel really justified by what has preceded them.

The conclusion is obvious from what has been said, namely that one should strive after justice and every moral virtue for their own sake. (I, 48)

Therefore what is right should be sought and cultivated for itself. (I, 48)

The t-shirt slogans keep on coming:

Justice looks for no prize; it is sought for itself and is at once the cause and meaning of all virtues. (I, 48)

This reminds me of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude… (1 Corinthians 13:4)

And the comparison confirms my sense that Cicero’s writings are less philosophy than wisdom literature, defined as: “statements by sages and the wise that offer teachings about divinity and virtue.”

A fundamental mistake he makes is common to dogmatists of his type, namely the false dilemma or false dichotomy, “an informal fallacy based on a premise that erroneously limits what options are available.” For, Cicero argues, if his account of One God endowing One Human Race with One Right Reason so that Justice and Virtue arise out of Nature is wrong – then the only alternative is chaos. For if people only act in their own self-interest, not according to Universal Justice, then:

where is a generous person to be found…what becomes of gratitude…where is that holy thing, friendship…what are we to say of restraint, temperance, and self-control? What od modesty, decency and chastity?… then there is no such thing as justice at all. (I, 49-50)

But this is a false dichotomy. There aren’t just two stark alternatives. There are, in reality, a huge variety of societies, laws, customs and traditions. Yes it may look like anarchy to a conservative like Cicero. But it is how human beings actually live. The false dichotomy is a way for an author to terrorise you into accepting his tendentious view.

Cicero is not seeking ‘the truth’; he is, like the excellent lawyer he was, making a case and using every rhetorical and logical sleight of hand to do so.

Quintus asks where all this is going (I, 52) and Marcus replies that he is steering the discussion towards a definition of the Highest Good. Oh God, how boring. As with all these conservative/authoritarian thinkers, there can only be one of everything, One God, One Human Nature, One Reason, One Justice, One State and One Good.

As usual he a) approaches the problem through a blizzard of references to Greek philosophers including Phaedrus, the Academy, Zeno, the Old Academy, Antiochus, Chios, Aristotle, Plato and b) fails to reach any meaningful conclusion. Whereas the Old Academy called what is honourable the highest good, Zeno said it was the only good, holding the same beliefs as Aristotle but using different terms. (I, 55).

Quintus suggests that:

There is no doubt about it: the highest good is either to live according to nature (i.e. to enjoy a life of moderation governed by moral excellence) or to follow nature and to live, so to speak, by the law (i.e. as far as possible to omit nothing in order to achieve what nature requires, which means the same as this: to live, as it were, by a code of moral excellence). (I, 56)

Great. Does that help anyone? No. Words, words, words. But when Quintus asks him to show what all this means in practice, Cicero at first pleads that it is beyond his powers. What isn’t beyond his powers is more highfalutin’ truisms:

Wisdom is the mother of all good things; the love of her gives us the word ‘philosophy’ from the Greek. Of all the gifts which the immortal gods have bestowed on human life none is richer or more abundant or more desirable. (I, 58)

Cicero deflects to invoke the famous maxim carved above the oracle at Delphi, Know thyself:

The person who knows himself will first of all realise that he possesses something divine, and he will compare his own inner nature to a kind of holy image placed within a temple. (I, 59)

Will he? The book concludes with a half page hymn of praise to the Truly Great Man Who Knows Himself, understands his mind is a gift from God, understands Wisdom and Virtue and Justice, and so is ideally placed to rule over his fellow men. In other words, the ideal Roman ruler of Cicero’s own time.

Book two

As a break, the characters describe the fictional walk they are taking through the countryside of around the Cicero family estate outside Cicero’s home town of Arpinum, 100 kilometres south east of Rome. Pleasant chat about the view (‘What could be more delightful?’) is artfully placed in order to lead on to consideration of love of birthplace and country. Never forget that Cicero was a fierce Roman patriot. A person’s birthplace:

is the country for which we should be willing to die, to which we should devote ourselves heart and soul, and on whose altar we should dedicate and consecrate all that is our. (II, 5)

All that is ours. Cicero is usually referred to as a lovely humanist but this is as fierce and total a patriotism as Mussolini’s. And then we return to consideration of the law and Cicero recapitulates his axioms for the umpteenth time:

Law was not thought up by the intelligence of human beings, nor is it some kind of resolution passed by communities, but rather an eternal force which rules the world by the wisdom of its commands and prohibitions…the original and final law is the intelligence of God, who ordains or forbids everything through reason. Hence that law which the gods have given to the human race is rightly praised, for it represents the intelligence of a wise man directed to issuing commands and prohibitions. (II, 8)

I think I disagree with pretty much every word of this. On it goes: the power of encouraging people to right actions:

is not only older than the existence of communities and states; it is coeval with that god who watches over and rules heaven and earth. (II, 10)

Repetition

If in doubt, repeat it again and again, bludgeoning your readers into submission:

Reason existed, reason derived from the nature of the universe, impelling people to right actions and restraining them from wrong. That reason did not first become law even it was written down, but rather when it came into being. And it came into being at the same time as the divine mind. Therefore the authentic original law, whose function is to command and forbid, is the right reason of Jupiter, Lord of all. (II, 10)

Mind you, in a note to page 162 Jonathan Powell points out that repeating ideas in different formulations in order to drive it home was a skill that was taught and practiced in the schools of rhetoric which Cicero attended.

The use value of religion

I mentioned above how the conservative Cicero thought religion should be kept up in order to maintain social structure, for its use value. In book two he makes this explicit:

Who would deny that these [religious] ideas are useful, bearing in mind how many contracts are strengthened by the swearing of oaths, how valuable religious scruples are for guaranteeing treaties, how many people are restrained from crime for fear of divine retribution…(II, 16)

One of the reasons Cicero despises and mocks Epicureans is because they sought to free people’s minds from fear of the gods. For Cicero (as for the ancient Jews) piety and morality begin with fear of the gods. This is very Roman, very practical-minded of Cicero. And explains why the population has to be brainwashed into believing in the gods:

Citizens should first of all be convinced of this, that the gods are lords and masters of everything; that what is done is done by their decision and authority; that they are, moreover, great benefactors of mankind and observe what kind of person everyone is…Minds imbued with these facts will surely not deviate from true and wholesome ideas. (II, 15)

I don’t need to point out how coercive and authoritarian this idea is. The gods are Big Brother, watching you, reading your thoughts, checking up that you obey Right Reason, as defined by Cicero and his class.

That said, Cicero’s attitude really only reflected the attitudes of most educated men of his time. They didn’t believe in their religion in the same way a Christian or Muslim believes in their God. Roman religion was, as Jonathan Powell puts it, by this period a matter almost entirely of public ritual, tradition and custom. Religious belief, in the post-Christian sense of the word, wasn’t required or checked. Obedience to custom and ritual, reverence for tradition, was all.

Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion

All of which explains why, when he comes to actually enumerate the laws in his ideal state, Cicero does so with Laws Governing Religion. Anti-climactically, these turn out to be pretty much the same laws as govern Rome. Just as De republica concluded that the Roman constitution was the best imaginable constitution (a conclusion he repeatedly refers to here e.g. II, 23), so De legibus, when push comes to shove, concludes that the best possible laws the human mind could devise are…exactly the same as the laws of ancient Rome (II, 23).

The rest of the book is divided into two parts: a relatively considered statement of Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion (sections 18 to 22) followed by a detailed commentary on each of them (sections 23 to 60). There follow pages and pages of detailed prescriptions about religious rites and rituals, an extraordinary level of detailed specification. There’s a short digression about the proper regulation of music to stop it becoming immoral and corrupting which made me think of Mary Whitehouse and demonstrates Cicero’s cultural conservatism, before we plunge back into thickets of religious law.

The contrast between the high minded rhetoric about the One God and Universal Human Nature and Divine Law in book one and the slavish iteration of Roman rules and regulations as the actual embodiment of this supposedly Universal Law is unintentionally comic. Bathos = “an effect of anti-climax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.”

The place of burial is not called a grave until the rites have been conducted and the pig has been slain. (II, 57)

Do not smooth the pure with a trowel. (II, 59)

Women shall not scratch their cheeks on the occasion of a funeral. (II, 64)

It is forbidden to decorate a tomb with stucco work. (II, 65)

Do these sound like the Universal Laws indicative of the Divine Mind which Cicero has been banging on about…or the customs and conventions accumulated by one particular little city state?

Once this lengthy and hyper-detailed account of Rome’s religious laws is finished, Cicero announces that the next most important element in the structure of the state is magistrates and that he will devote the next book to considering the ideal magistrate.

Book three

Cicero bases his thoughts about magistrates, like his thoughts about everything else, on God:

Nothing is so closely bound up with the decrees and terms of nature…as authority. Without that, no house or clan or state can survive – no nor the human race, nor the whole of nature, nor the very universe itself. For the universe obeys God; land and sea abide by the laws of the universe; and human life is subject to the commands of the supreme law. (III, 3)

As with book two, he gives a clipped concise statement of his ideal laws governing magistracies or public offices (sections 6 to 11, 3 pages) then a detailed commentary on them (sections 12 to 47, 14 pages).

And yet again he repeats that, since his ‘six previous books’ (i.e the De republica) ‘proved’ that the Roman constitution was the best one conceivable by the human mind, so, logically enough, the kind of Ideal Magistrate he intends to describe will also turn out to be…Roman ones!

And so indeed, it turns out, after consulting the Divine Mind, that the optimum state will feature quaestors, aediles, praetors, consuls and censors, a senate to propose laws and popular assemblies to vote on them – exactly like the Roman state! He has the good grace to have his characters admit that this is a little embarrassing:

QUINTUS: How succinctly, Marcus, you have drawn up a scheme of all the magistrates for our inspection! But they are almost identical with those of our own country, even if you have introduced a little novelty.
MARCUS: Yes, we are talking about the harmoniously mixed constitution which Scipio praised in those books and prefers to all others…and since our constitution was given the most sensible and well-adjusted form by our ancestors, I found little or nothing to change in the laws. (III, 12)

The latter part of book three goes into considerable details about all aspects of the Roman constitution, the peculiarities of the different magistracies, the age limits, the pros and cons of the tribunate, the different types of voting (by acclamation, writing down, secret ballot) and so on. This is quite interesting because it is, arguably, the most practical part of the book, describing Rome’s actual constitutional practices and debating points Cicero (or his more conservative brother, Quintus) would like to change, a bit, not too much.

Worth emphasising that the aim of all the tinkering round the edges which Cicero proposes is to ensure that power remains firmly in the hands of the aristocracy and out of the hands of the people at large.

Liberty will exist in the sense that the people are given the opportunity to do the aristocracy an honourable favour.

Thanks to my [proposed] law, the appearance of liberty is given to the people [and] the authority of the aristocracy is retained. (III, 39)

The end was nigh

This final section has a wistfully hypothetical air about it because, within a few short years the entire world it describes would be swept away.

Let us imagine that Cicero was half way through writing the book when, in 51 BC, he was called on to take up the governorship of Cilicia (the southern coast of modern Turkey) and served throughout the year 50.

This meant that he was out of Rome as the political confrontation between Caesar and the Senate came to a head. there was a flurry of proposals and counter proposals in December 50, all of which failed and prompted Caesar, in January 49, to cross with his army from Cisalpine Gaul where he held an official post, into mainland Italy, where he didn’t, thus breaking the law, making himself an outlaw, and sparking the five year civil war between himself and Pompey and his followers.

When peace was restored in 45 BC, Caesar had himself declared dictator for life thus turning the entire Roman constitution into a hollow shell and rendering On the laws, with their pages of pedantic footling about precise constitutional arrangements, redundant overnight. It became overnight a record of a specific historical moment, which was eclipsed before the book could even be completed.

Thoughts

Cicero is frequently held up as the godfather of humanism. Finding, translating and commenting on his books was a central element in the Renaissance, which saw the creation of modern ideas of humanism. (“Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited for initiating the 14th-century Renaissance.” Lumen).

However, as my close readings of De rerum deorumDe republica and De legibus amply demonstrate, Cicero’s ‘humanism’ is crucially, vitally, centrally based on his theism, his belief in One God who created human beings and implanted in them fragments of the Divine Reason which underpin all our values, morality, law, justice and statecraft.

Thus, in a nutshell: humanism derives from religious belief. Without its religious underpinning, humanism is nothing. It becomes a wish, a hope, a dream, with no factual or logical basis. I don’t say this to undermine humanistic values. I am probably a humanistic progressive liberal myself. Where I appear to differ from most of my tribe is I don’t believe these truths to be self evident. There are other ways of being human, other cultures, other values completely different from ours, probably the majority of human lives have very much not been lived according to these values. Several points follow:

1. We do not have the right to compel these other cultures into adherence to our values. That is no different from Victorian missionaries trying to convert tribes in Africa or Asia or Australia to their narrow Christian culture.

2. If we want to defend our values effectively against those who threaten them, for example Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, we must base them on really secure foundations, not wishes or aspirations. Far stronger foundations than Cicero, who wrote all these fancy words only to have his head cut off by Mark Antony’s bounty hunters. The sword is mightier than the pen.

* Cicero’s self promotion

It’s further evidence of Cicero’s self-centred narcissism that in several places in book 3 he manages to shoehorn into the text the famous events of 63 BC, when he was consul and saved the state from the Cataline conspiracy. He gives a melodramatic account of the tremendous dangers he faced and how he single-handedly overcame them (III, 26) and then has Atticus fulsomely thank him for his efforts.

To be sure, the whole order is behind you and cherishes most happy memories of your consulship. (III, 29)

Cicero also takes the opportunity to remind everyone that he should never have been exiled (in 57 BC) and that’s why it needed no legislation to rescind his exile (III, 47). In other words, no matter what Cicero is writing about, the text has a strong tendency to end up being about himself.

There is something irredeemably comic about Cicero, like Oliver Hardy pretending to be Napoleon. It’s this hyper-intelligent, super articulate yet comical earnestness which has endeared him to 2,000 years of readers.

Niall Rudd’s translation

A word of praise for this Oxford University Press edition. I described, probably at too much length, how strongly I disliked the prose styles and odd attitudes of A.J. Woodman, who translated Sallust, and Carolyn Hammond, who translated Caesar’s Gallic War, both for OUP. This edition restored my faith in OUP editions of the classics.

The introduction, mostly written by Jonathan Powell, is a model of lucidity, useful and to the point, as are the scholarly and interesting notes. There is a useful list of names and an appendix giving a handy summary of the sometimes confusing Roman constitution.

The translation itself is by Professor Niall Rudd (1927 to 2015) and was first published in 1998. It is clear and unaffected – you feel you are engaging directly with the text. I cannot judge its fidelity to the source Latin, but it makes for a lucid, engaging read, as I hope you can tell from the many quotations I take from it. All round, it is a gold standard edition.


Credit

The Republic and The Laws by Cicero translated by Niall Rudd with introduction and notes by Jonathan Powell and Niall Rudd was published by Oxford University Press in 1998. All references are to the 2008 paperback edition.

Related link

Roman reviews

What is Waugh satirising in ‘Love Among The Ruins’?

Maybe it’s worth taking a moment to explain what Waugh was targeting in his 1953 satirical novella Love Among The Ruins. This essay is in three parts:

  1. Waugh’s conservative values
  2. The state of Britain after the war i.e. Labour represent everything Waugh detests
  3. Specific topics satirised in Long Among the Ruins

1. Waugh’s conservative values

Elitist

Waugh was an elitist in the literal sense of believing that Britain should be run by its hereditary elite, the landed gentry and aristocracy. He thought they were the best educated, the most responsible and, because of their ties to the land and to grand houses, mansions and parishes across the country, were  the most representative of a kind of mystical ideal of the English population and English values.

Snob

Waugh was a snob. It is well-documented that he liked to hobnob with the aristocracy and namedrop and social climb as much as possible. His father was ‘only’ the managing director of a medium-sized publishing company, so Waugh was a long way lower on the social ladder than the lords and viscounts and earls that he liked to litter his novels with.

Catholic elitism

Waugh was a Christian who showed an unusual interest in church architecture and ritual as a boy, even before he was sent to one of the country’s most High Church public schools (Lancing). A number of his friends converted to Catholicism in the late 1920s so there was a certain inevitability about his Christian traditionalism eventually manifesting itself in his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930.

Waugh’s Catholicism was linked with his other values in a multi-faceted belief in old, traditions, the values of country living, the natural innate superiority of the landowner to his tenants and farmers. He valued luxurious good living, grand country houses, fine wines, the best food, the impeccable manners of the highest in society, and the aristocratic values of nonchalance and superiority.

Catholic belief

Beyond that, however, Catholicism was based on certain inflexible, timeless values. To start with, on the sanctity of human life. This meant no abortion or euthenasia. It is not for man to determine the start or end of human life. All human life is sacred. God is at the centre of all systems of value, underpinning all morality. Removing God, declaring an overtly atheist ideology, begins the process of undermining human life and all morality. Various forms of state-approved murder soon follow, abortion and assisted suicide being the two most obvious.

Individual responsibility and expression

Connected with all this is Waugh’s conservative idea of individualism. In the kind of society Waugh liked, one that implemented a low-tax, laissez-fair regime which allowed the aristocracy and upper middle class to flourish, there was lots of scope for the privileged in society, for the grand old families in their country houses and the bright young things they sent to public school and on into London’s party and cocktail bar circuit, to develop charming idiosyncracies and eccentricities.

In a sense, Waugh’s fiction is devoted to the oddballs, eccentrics and chancers who are able to flourish in the wealthy, blessed, privileged, over-educated and under-worked circles which he described. Take the outrageous practical joker Basil Seal in Put Out More Flags or the eccentric Apthorpe in Men at Arms, or, in a slightly different vein, the camp aesthetes Anthony Blanche (Brideshead) and Everard Spruce (Flags).

For Waugh, it is only his idealised conservative society that true individualism, individual tastes, aestheticism and connoisseurship are able to flourish.

The British Empire

On the global stage i.e. in international politics, Waugh saw Britain and the British Empire as embodying the finest values of civilisation, gentlemanly democracy and individual freedom. In his travel book Remote People it is very striking that Waugh unequivocally supports the right of the white settlers in Kenya to live the life of Riley at the expense of the native African population. He mocks the British Empire as everyone of  his generation did, confident in the knowledge that it was here to stay forever. Its actual dismantling after the war came as a great shock.

The international alternatives

In Waugh’s fiction English gentlemanliness is contrasted with:

  1. the irritating, bubble-gum and Coca Cola trashiness of American soldiery (in Sword of Honour) and of superficial, vacuous American consumer culture (in The Loved One)
  2. the terrifying totalitarianism of the post-war communist states, with their utterly amoral commitment to seizing complete power and reducing entire populations to modern slavery (embodied in the Yugoslav communists in Unconditional Surrender)

So that’s a brisk run through Waugh’s conservative Catholic values. Now let’s set these values against the reality of Britain in 1950, when he wrote the first draft of Love Among The Ruins.

2. The state of Britain after the war i.e. the Labour government represented everything Waugh detested

The impact of the Second World War

The Second World War was a disaster for all Waugh’s values. Britain went bankrupt, was only kept afloat by ruinous loans from America, and emerged from the war with her role greatly diminished, a diminution symbolised by the relinquishing of India (and Pakistan) in 1947.

Not only the country but large numbers of landed families were financially ruined, first by the collapse in the economy, in particular the agricultural sector many relied on, and also by the collapse in value of the stocks and shares in British companies whose dividends they’d lived on between the wars and whose value now plummeted.

The Labour Party’s socialist policies

But the greatest cataclysm was the coming to power of the Labour Party in the 1945 general election. The Labour Party embodied everything Waugh despised, disliked and even hated about the modern world. It was the antithesis of everything he valued. In those days the Labour Party contained real socialists who genuinely wanted to nationalise everything, to impose state control of huge sectors of industry (coal, steel, shipbuilding) and the professions (doctors).

Nationalisation

In its first five years in power the Labour government enacted a broad swathe of socialist policies. It nationalised the coalmining industry and the trains. More was promised in a government which pledged to take over ‘the commanding heights’ of the economy. Owners of private companies the length of the land were forcibly bought out.

The theft of private property

Conservatives like Waugh saw this not as contributing to some vague notion of social justice but the very real confiscation of people’s property and businesses.

The faceless bureaucracy

The new ministries set up to run the economy were stuffed with bureaucrats and ideologues. Quite quickly the bureaucracy of the nationalised industries became a joke. ‘The man from the ministry’ came to symbolise the interfering, know-nothing, centralised bureaucracy which conservatives like Waugh contrasted with the personalised relations between landed gentry and local tenants and populations whose names and faces and traditions and values they knew and shared, which Waugh depicted in his idealised version of rural patriarchy. Human interaction was replaced with uncaring forms and procedures.

The NHS

The Labour government’s most famous achievement was the creation of the National Health Service but people tend to forget the immense amount of pressure, which could easily be seen as state intimidation, which was brought to bear on the medical profession. Again, to a conservative like Waugh this meant that a personal relationship with a local doctor who had individual responsibility to run his own practice and, for example, to carry out works of charity, to moderate his fees according to patients’ ability to pay, was replaced by outsiders parachuted into a large, faceless bureaucratic system.

This attitude – the preference for individual and established relationships over modern bureaucratic arrangements – is typified in a passage from The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold where the narrator describes Pinfold’s relationship with his local doctor:

Mr. Pinfold seldom consulted his doctor. When he did so it was as a ‘private patient’. His children availed themselves of the National Health Act but Mr. Pinfold was reluctant to disturb a relationship which had been formed in his first years at Lychpole. Dr. Drake, Mr. Pinfold’s medical attendant, had inherited the practice from his father and had been there before the Pinfolds came to Lychpole. Lean, horsy and weather-beaten in appearance, he had deep roots and wide ramifications in the countryside, being brother of the local auctioneer, brother-in-law of the solicitor, and cousin of three neighbouring rectors. His recreations were sporting. He was not a man of high technical pretensions but he suited Mr. Pinfold well. (Chapter one)

The way the local doctor has deep roots is obviously described, but let us dwell on the phrase ‘his medical attendant’. The implication is that Pinfold prefers Dr Drake because he is more like a servant than a bossy, hurried NHS doctor would be.

To summarise: in a broad swathe of Labour Party policies a conservative like Waugh saw nothing of ‘social justice’ being implemented but only that individual relationships, individual responsibilities and individual freedom of action were being taken away by an overbearing state and replaced by surly, bad-mannered state interference.

Rationing

Rationing had been introduced under Winston Churchill’s wartime government and, of course, destroyed at a stroke the wonderful world of fine wines and expensive meals depicted in Waugh’s 1930s novels. As Waugh himself points out, one aspect of his nostalgia fest Brideshead Revisited, is the description of sumptuous meals and fine vintages which the author, writing in tightly rationed, blacked out Britain of 1943, could only fantasise about.

Waugh like many Britons hoped that rationing would end with the end of the war but it didn’t. In fact it intensified as Britain’s ruined economy struggled to rebuild itself in a world which was also ruined. Rationing was extended to more foods and services, in a world which began to seem like it was going to be grey and shabby forever.

Shabby housing

The most visible sign of the war was the ruins to be found in every British city. The Labour government came to power promising a huge programme of housebuilding and this overlapped with ambitious plans by developers and architects to implement new continental ideas of town planning and design.  A series of new towns was conceived, designed and built. Every town and village in the land acquired a penumbra of council houses built on council estates.

Unfortunately many of these developments quickly developed bad reputations, council estates for poverty and chavvy behaviour, the new town towns for being soulless concrete jungles. Tower blocks which looked gleaming symbols of modernity in the architecture magazines turned out to be badly designed, badly built, quickly stained. The windows leaked and the lifts broke.

In his post-war correspondence Waugh summed up all these changes with the satirical notion that Britain was being changed into a new state named ‘Welfaria’.

3. Specific topics satirised in Long Among the Ruins

The name of the new state, ‘New Britain’, has a suitably Orwellian, totalitarian overtone.

The replacement of traditional oaths with ones using ‘State’ instead of God indicate how the genuine source of morality and meaning in Waugh’s Catholicism has been replaced by the corrupt, fallible, pretentious and doomed-to-fail worship of the State (in oaths such as ‘Great State!’, ‘State be with you’ and ‘State help me’).

But the state has usurped not just God but all kinds of relationships, large and small. It is symptomatic that Miles Plastic is an orphan because parents interfere with the upbringing of children, do it well or badly, introduce an element of personal duty and responsibility, and also introduce that human variety and individuality which Waugh values.

The abolition of individualism

In his satirical New Britain, the State interferes everywhere to abolish individualism. So instead of individuals the State’s aim is to produce millions of identikit citizens. Hence the throwaway reference to the way everyone in New Britain speaks with the same ‘flat conventional accent of the age’.

For Waugh, this is a nightmare vision, the death of colourful individualism and the soul-destroying reduction of all human beings to the same, dull, identikit lowest common denominator.

And not just people. Where there had been a plethora and range of goods and services now there is only one brand of everything, the State brand (exactly as in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with its Victory brand of goods). Thus the State wines and State sausages and State clothes of Waugh’s fantasy.

The abolition of personal responsibility

The abolition of individual responsibility is, of course, the target satirised in the long opening passage about Mountjoy Prison, in which Waugh satirises the belief that criminals are not responsible for their actions, society is, so that any given crime is not the fault of the criminal but indicates a failure of the welfare system. And hence the satirical details, which flow from it, such as prisoners who are clearly old lags now living in the lap of luxury with prisons replaced by lovely houses in beautiful grounds and nothing more taxing than sessions of ‘Remedial Repose’ to attend and the governor isn’t called a prison governor but ‘Chief Guide’.

(The State confiscation of private property is included in the satire of Mountjoy prison when we learn  that Mountjoy Castle had been the ancestral seat of a maimed V.C. of the Second World War, who had been sent to a Home for the Handicapped when the place was converted into a gaol. Obviously the fact that the former owner was a war hero is designed to maximise the reader’s outrage at this typical act of State theft.)

The abolition of personal responsibility is further demonstrated by the way Miles’s criminal act of burning down the RAF barracks where he was stationed and burning to death half the inhabitants is dismissed by the State’s psychologist as perfectly natural adolescent behaviour.

The failure of modern architecture and town planning

It typifies the socialist removal of individuality and character and texture and colour and interest that once Miles is rehabilitated, he is not sent to a named specific town but to ‘the nearest Population Centre’ which has the generically futuristic name of ‘Satellite City’

It is also symptomatic that all the architects’ grand plans have resulted in a shoddy, half-built reality. The so-called ‘Dome of Security’ has blacked out windows, broken lifts and shabby rooms. All around it the rest of the gleaming modern town has failed to be built at all and instead the Dome is surrounded by slums made of huts, the use of the word ‘huts’ suggesting not even English habitations but African shanties.

There were no workers’ flats, no officials’ garden suburb, no parks, no playgrounds yet. These were all on the drawing boards in the surveyor’s office, tattered at the edges, ringed by tea cups; their designer long since cremated. (p.441)

It is similarly symptomatic that when Miles moves in with Clara they share a cramped compartment of a world war Nissen Hut. More than a decade after the war the coalition government has miserably failed to build adequate homes for the population.

The rise of State murder

It is no surprise that the busiest part of the local authority is the Euthenasia Department. In other words, the socialist regime has created a society which people would rather die than live in. For a Catholic like Waugh euthenasia is a sin. Only God decides when people should die. The State offering people the service of assisted suicide is not only repugnant to secular liberal values, but a sin.

State sterilisation

Same goes for sterilisation. A good Catholic believes in using no form of contraceptive device and abortion is a sin. From the same point of view, seeking to permanently sterilise people, or yourself, is a crime against nature and against God.

The irreligious amorality of modern science

The entire idea that the ‘heroine’ of the story should be beautiful but with a lush curly beard caused by the side effects of an operation to be sterilised combines at least two elements: disgust at the notion that women should sterilise themselves in order to further their career (Clara is sterilised in order to become a better ballet dancer); and the beard idea is a ludicrous satire on the unintended side-effects of modern science, in this case the fictional ‘Klugmann’s Operation’.

After the war there was a boom in the idea that ‘modern science’ would solve our social problems. As a Catholic Waugh takes a pessimistic view of human nature and of humanity’s ability to change or cure itself. Only God can do that via divine grace.

On this view there is something both blasphemous and pathetic about modern science’s hubristic claims to be able to cure the modern world. Much the same critical worldview underpins and informs C.S. Lewis’s post-war satire and fable That Hideous Strength (1945).

For Christians like Waugh and Lewis almost all the ills of the modern world stem from man’s foolish attempts to deny the reality of God and try to set up mankind in God’s place.

On a more mundane level, the inevitable failure of modern science is embodied in a) the side effects of the Klugmann Operation i.e. Clara growing a beard; and then b) the grotesque results of the ‘plastic surgery’ carried out to remedy this, which replaces Clara’s soft and beautiful face with an inflexible mask of tough, salmon-coloured rubber. Yuk.

The feeble replacement of Christmas

It’s a small detail but indicative of the whole situation that the State thinks it can simply ‘replace’ the word Christmas and Christmas trees with ‘Santa-Claus-tide’ ‘Goodwill Trees’. It’s pathetically unimaginative in itself but also indicates a deeper failure to understand the nature of human society, the way traditions and beliefs are handed down through the generations. It is exactly as shallow and doomed to fail as the French revolutionaries’ trying to replace the Catholic Church with the cult of the Supreme Being or Lenin and Stalin’s attempts to replace the Russian Orthodox Church faith in The Soviet or the Great Leader. Abolishing the church and Christian festivals masquerades as liberal and progressive but is the precise opposite: destroying history, destroying tradition, destroying diversity, destroying people’s freedom to choose their beliefs and ideas, all swept away in the name of one, centralised, totalising ideology of Unity and Progress.

Summary

Some of Waugh’s points are still relevant today. Even people on the progressive wing of politics lament the depersonalising affect of bureaucracy and form-filling which came in with the welfare state and has never gone away. None of us remember the profound poverty and immiseration of the 1930s which the nationalisation of key industries, the establishing of a welfare state and a national health service were designed to address.

It’s possible, therefore, to profoundly disagree with Waugh’s politics (such as they are) but sympathise with this or that detail of his complaint. Then again, like any satire on a dystopian future, even when it’s intended to be biting we can distinguish the political point (which we might disagree with) from the satirical humour (which we still find funny).

In some ways, then, the text is a handy checklist of issues or topics which a Christian conservative like Waugh objected to in the post-war world and post-war politics. It’s a useful primer on the conservative point of view which was, of course, to triumph in the 1951 general election, when Labour were thrown out and Winston Churchill’s Conservatives returned with a majority. And a primer on the perennial concerns of the conservative frame of mind.

And to return to its literary effects – although, in the end, Love Among The Ruins fails as a story, it is entertaining enough, especially in the dense opening passages, for the vigour of its attack and satirical vehemence.


Credit

Love Among the Ruins by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1953. All references are to its place in the 2018 Penguin paperback edition of the Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

Not I by Samuel Beckett (1972)

…. grabbing at the straw… straining to hear… the odd word… make some sense of it… whole body like gone… just the mouth… like maddened… and can’t stop… no stopping it… something she – … something she had to –
… what?… who?… no!… she!…

Remember how episodes of the American sitcom Friends were named ‘The one where….’, well, this Beckett play is ‘the one where’ almost the entire stage is in darkness except for the face of a woman, in fact just her mouth, a woman’s mouth illuminated by one tight spotlight while she declaims a fragmented panic-stricken monologue at breathless speed.

Mise-en-scène

As with all Beckett’s ‘plays’ from 1960 or so onwards, the stage directions are extremely precise, because Not I is, arguably, less a play than a piece of performance art which happens to be taking place in a theatre:

Stage in darkness but for MOUTH, upstage audience right, about 8 feet above stage level, faintly lit from close-up and below, rest of face in shadow. Invisible microphone. AUDITOR, downstage audience left, tall standing figure, sex undeterminable, enveloped from head to foot in loose black djellaba, with hood, fully faintly lit, standing on invisible podium about 4 feet high shown by attitude alone to be facing diagonally across stage intent on MOUTH, dead still throughout but for four brief movements where indicated. See Note. As house lights down MOUTH ‘s voice unintelligible behind curtain. House lights out. Voice continues unintelligible behind curtain, 10 seconds: With rise of curtain ad-libbing from text as required leading when curtain fully up and attention sufficient
into:

Into the ceaseless flow of verbiage coming out of MOUTH’s mouth. As to ‘See Note’, the Note says:

Movement: this consists in simple sideways raising of arms from sides and their falling back, in a gesture of helpless compassion. It lessens with each recurrence till scarcely perceptible at third. There is just enough pause to contain it as MOUTH recovers from vehement refusal to relinquish third person.

So two people are onstage, a woman about 8 feet above the stage to the right and a tall figure standing 4 feet above the stage on the left.

In my review of Breath I wrote about the importance of exact stage directions in Beckett’s plays and the sense you often have that the staging and the stage directions virtually overshadow the actual content of the plays. Not I is a classic example of this, in that there is content, the mouth does say thing of consequence and import – but it is all dwarfed by the intensity of the conception and of the extremely precise and very vivid stage directions.

Content

So what is this voice ceasely reciting at such high speed? Well, like so many other Beckett texts it is built out of the repetition of key phrases, pretty banal in themselves, which quickly accumulate a freight of meaning, ominous overtones, and which are told in a high voltage, jerky panic. The opening few lines give a complete flavour:

out… into this world… this world… tiny little thing… before its time… in a god for- … what?… girl?… yes… tiny little girl… into this… out into this… before her time… godforsaken hole called… called… no matter… parents unknown… unheard of…

It sounds like yet another deranged Beckett consciousness, an Alzheimer’s victim, feverishly piecing together fragments of memory, torn by incessant questions she addresses to herself, who? why? what? and moments of panic:

… what?… who?… no !.. she !..

There is a passage about punishment and sin, and the fact she’d been brought up to believe in ‘a merciful God’.

… thing she understood perfectly … that notion of punishment … which had first occurred to her … brought up as she had been to believe .. . with the other waifs … in a merciful . . . [Brief laugh. ] .. . God … [Good laugh. ]

She sounds like one of the old ladies from Beckett’s childhood in rural Ireland, except with a thoroughly modern hysteria, complaining about the sounds in her skull, the relentless buzzing, and then… a passage about how she couldn’t scream, some problem with screaming, screaming, which leads up to her harrowing actual screams:

… never got the message… or powerless to respond… like numbed… couldn’t make the sound… not any sound… no sound of any kind… no screaming for help for example… should she feel so inclined… scream… [Screams. ]… then listen… [Silence. ]… scream again… [Screams again.]

The frenzy of the ceaseless wording leading up to the four movements from the AUDITOR, which occur during the silences after the woman works herself up to a frenzy or short, staccato, terrified words, almost as if she’s having a seizure, a fit:

.. the buzzing?.. yes… all dead still but for the buzzing… when suddenly she realized… words were – … what ?.. who?.. no !.. she!..

She appears to be sent shopping as a girl but stands dumb and terrified giving her bag to a man who does it all for her, it takes a while to realise that this is one of about four scenarios which the flood of fragmented memories seem to be reconstructing.

But specific memories tend to be eclipsed by descriptions of the voice itself, of the experience of being hag-ridden and driven by the voice by the mouth, no  idea what she’s saying but can’t stop:

just the mouth… lips… cheeks… jaws… never-… what?.. tongue?.. yes… lips… cheeks… jaws… tongue… never still a second… mouth on fire… stream of words… in her ear… practically in her ear… not catching the half… not the quarter… no idea what she’s saying… imagine!.. no idea what she ‘s saying!.. and can’t stop… no stopping it… she who but a moment before… but a moment!.. could not make a sound… no sound of any kind… now can’t stop… imagine!.. can’t stop the stream… and the whole brain begging… something begging in the brain… begging the mouth to stop… pause a moment… if only for a moment… and no response… as if it hadn’t heard… or couldn’t… couldn’t pause a second… like maddened… all that together… straining to hear… piece it together… and the brain… raving away on its own… trying to make sense of it… or make it stop…

God, it’s a vision of intense horror, despair, astonishing intensity, a soul driven, endlessly driven on, by what she keeps describing as a buzzing inside her skull, very much the motive of Beckett’s many monologuists since The Unnameable who hear a voice compelling them to speak, think, make sense of the endless voice compelling words within their skulls, the motive force behind so many of Beckett’s skullscapes. One critic, Vivian Mercier, suggests that Not I is, in effect, a placing on stage of the prose experience of The Unnameable a dramatisation of the same terrible compulsion.

… something she had to -… what?… the buzzing?… yes… all the time the buzzing… dull roar… in the skull…

Another important element is the way MOUTH appears, in these fragmentary memories or anecdotes, to be talking about herself and describing herself in the third person, a common symptom of mental illness, observing memories of their own lives with detachment as if they happened to someone else.

In this mood she seems to be referring to herself when she talks about the tiny little thing, the wee bairn, the tiny mite, born into a world of woe, illegitimate and rejected… and then jumps to herself as an old lady, surprised at her own age:

coming up to sixty when – … what?.. seventy?.. good God !.. coming up to seventy…

An old lady, her mind completely gone, fragments of memories, trying to make sense, driven on by the incessant buzzing in her skull.

This alienation from herself rises to a terrifying climax at each of the punctuation points when she pauses a moment and the other figure on the stage makes its strange hieratic gesture. Each time the crisis is signalled by a formula of the same four words, the last of which is ‘she’, as if MOUTH is seized with panic-horror by it, the Other, herself as other, her maenad voice.

… what?.. who ?.. no!.. she !..

The final section gives a bit more biography, how she was always a silent child, almost a mute, but just occasionally experienced the sudden urge to speak and had to rush outside, rushed into the outdoors lavatory, spewed it all up. That was the root, the precursor of the plight she is in now:

… now this… this… quicker and quicker… the words… the brain… flickering away like mad… quick grab and on… nothing there… on somewhere else… try somewhere else… all the time something begging… something in her begging… begging it all to stop…

God, the horror. Beckett told the American actress Jessica Tandy he hoped that the piece would ‘work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect’ and it certainly sets my nerves jangling.

Not I

… what?.. who ?.. no!.. she !..

This is the rationale for the title, Not I. On one level the piece is not exactly a systematic ‘investigation’ but a terrifying dramatisation of the way all of us are aware not only of our ‘selves’, but of other elements in our minds which we, on the whole, manage or reject, the host of alternative suggestions, the way we are inside ourselves and yet, at various moments, are also capable of seeing ourselves as if from the outside.

This is busy territory, and over the past two and a half thousand years a host of philosophers and, more recently, psychologists, have developed all manner of theories about how the mind develops and, in particular, manages the dichotomy of being an I which perceives but also developing the awareness that this I exists in a world which is mostly Not I. In its entry of Not I the Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett refers to the theories of:

  • Schopenhauer, for whom perception of the external world was always accompanied by a sense that it is not I
  • Nordau‘s theory of the development of the psyche which first defines itself but as it conceptualises and understands the external world, the I retreats behind the Not I
  • St Paul Corinthians 15:10: ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.’
  • Jakob Böhme, asked by what authority he wrote, replied: ‘Not I, the I that I am, knows these things, but God knows them in me’ (page 412)

Of these, I like the St Paul quote. If it bears any relation to this play it is the notion that I am that I am but I am not I, I am only I by virtue of another, of the Not I. Hence the shadowy Other sharing the stage.

But there’s no end to the concordances and echoes of these two words which can be found in the world’s literature and theology and philosophy – but most people are aware of there being levels of their selves, or of it being fragmented into peripheral, casual elements which we can easily dismiss, spectruming through to core elements of our selves which we cling on to and consider essential.

The Mouth’s monologue dramatises a set of four big moments which come back to her in fragments after some kind of epiphany or trigger moment in a field full of cowslips to the sound of larks. They are:

  1. being born a little thing
  2. crying on her hands one summer day in Croker’s acre
  3. being sent to do the shopping in some shopping centre
  4. in court

But really these moments serve to bring out the troubled relationship between the core being, whatever you want to call it, and those other moments, those other aspects of our personalities, everything which is ‘Not I’.

Of course in the play as conceived there is a physical embodiment of Not I onstage, namely the other figure. The way it raises its arms ‘in a gesture of helpless compassion’ at the four moments when Mouth stutters to a horrified silence, suggests they are linked. Is the figure Death, a Guardian Angel, the speaker’s Id or Superego? You pays your money and you takes your choice, but there’s no doubting the importance of the dynamic relationship between the two figures, an I and a Not I. Or maybe two Is which both possess Not Is. Or maybe they are two parts of the same I…

The Billie Whitelaw production

Beckett’s muse, the actress Billie Whitelaw, didn’t give the piece’s premiere, but starred in its first London performance in 1973. This was then recreated in order to be filmed in 1975 and can be found on YouTube.

I think this is spectacular, what a spectacular, amazing performance, what an experience, how disorientating, how revolting the way that, after a while the mouth seems to morph into some disgusting animal, and the endless mad demented drivel, the breathless haste in Whitelaw’s voice rising to the recurrent shout of SHE!! God, the horror.

Although very sexy and feminine when she wanted to be, Whitelaw also had a no-nonsense, working class toughness about her, a strong northern accent (she grew up in a working class area of Bradford) which slips out throughout the recitation.

But her real toughness comes over in those four big cries of SHE!!, delivered much deeper and ballsier than softer actresses, and so giving it a real terror.

Once you get over the sheer thrill of the performance there is an obvious feature about it which is that it largely ignores Beckett’s stage directions. In the piece as conceived there is a dynamic tension between the speaking woman on the right of the stage and the androgynous cloaked figure to the left who responds to the four big hysterical climaxes of the monologue with the mysterious, slow-motion raising and lowering of the arms gesture.

The oddity is that Whitelaw’s performance benefited from extensive coaching from Beckett. So why did he completely jettison a key part of the initial concept? Did he realise it was distracting from the core idea of the spotlight on a ceaselessly talking mouth? Apparently so because, according to the Wikipedia article:

When Beckett came to be involved in staging the play, he found that he was unable to place the Auditor in a stage position that pleased him, and consequently allowed the character to be omitted from those productions. However, he chose not to cut the character from the published script, and whether or not the character is used in production seems to be at the discretion of individual producers. As he wrote to two American directors in 1986: “He is very difficult to stage (light–position) and may well be of more harm than good. For me the play needs him but I can do without him. I have never seen him function effectively.”

Staging the production presented extreme difficulties for the leading lady.

Initially Billie Whitelaw wanted to stand on a dais but she found this didn’t work for her so she allowed herself to be strapped in a chair called an ‘artist’s rest’ on which a film actor wearing armour rests because he cannot sit down. Her entire body was draped in black; her face covered with black gauze with a black transparent slip for her eyes and her head was clamped between two pieces of sponge rubber so that her mouth would remain fixed in the spotlight. Finally a bar was fixed which she could cling to and on to which she could direct her tension. She was unable to use a visual aid and so memorised the text.

Regarding selves and unselves, it is a maybe a profound insight that, although Whitelaw found is a desperately difficult role and was, after the initial rehearsals, seriously disorientated, she came to regard it as one of her most powerful performances because it unlocked something inside her,

She heard in Mouth’s outpourings her own ‘inner scream’: ‘I found so much of my self in Not I.’

Maybe we all do. Maybe that’s one function of art, allowing us to discover the Not I in all of us.

A touch of autobiography

I grew up above the village grocery shop and sub-post office my parents ran, and across the road and through some woodland was a priory which had been turned into an old people’s home which was still run by nuns, old nuns, very old nuns, in fact most of the nuns were too old and infirm to make it the couple of hundred yards through the trees up to the road they had to cross to get to the shop and some of the nuns and old ladies who could make it up weren’t too confident crossing the road, not least Miss Luck (real name) who was very short-sighted, almost blind, who would arrive at the road and just set out across it regardless of traffic, so that the first thing all the new staff in the shop were taught was, ‘If you see Miss Luck arrive at the gate from the Priory, drop everything and run across the road to help her walk across without being run over’.

And so I watch this amazing work of art, and I’m aware of the multiple meanings it can be given, from the characteristic sex obsession of many literary critics who see the mouth a vagina trying to give birth to the self (given that Whitelaw has a set of 32 immaculate-looking sharp teeth, these critics must have been hanging round some very odd vaginas); to the many invocations of philosophers and psychologists to extrapolate umpteen different theories of the self and not-self; through to the more purely literary notion that the endless repetition of the voice’s obsessive moments, insights, anxieties are a further iteration of the struggle of the narrator in The Unnamable to fulfil the compulsion, the order, the directive to talk talk talk he doesn’t know why, because he must, because they say so.

So I am aware of many types of interpretation the piece is susceptible to. But I also understand what Beckett meant when he said in an interview that:

I knew that woman in Ireland. I knew who she was — not ‘she’ specifically, one single woman, but there were so many of those old crones, stumbling down the lanes, in the ditches, besides the hedgerows.

Because there were so many old, old ladies pottering across the road from the Priory or from other parts of my village, talking talking talking, babbling their way around the place in a continual stream of undertones and monologue, throughout my boyhood.

It is at the same time an artfully contrived work of avant-garde art, but also an unnervingly realistic depiction of how some people actually are. And not just some – nearly 9 million people in the UK are aged over 70, and Alzheimer’s disease has gone from being a condition few of us had heard about 20 years ago, to now being the leading cause of death in the UK.


Related link

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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