Wow, Juvenal

Juvenal is mean.  Some of the satires are a bit hard to stomach.  But the next time I’m about to have one too many, maybe I’ll remember this line:

“She drinks and vomits like a big snake that has fallen into a vat.”

And I’ll be a little better off thanks to Juvenal.


Diogenes Laertius, Part II

All the sources I’ve looked at call Lives of Eminent Philosophers a work of great value but do not go into specifics.  The Oxford Companion to Philosophy complains that Diogenes has no discernible philosophy; less charitable, but not unreasonable commenters do not deign to call him an author at all.  It’s not easy to prove that Diogenes is worth reading.

Perhaps the title of another lost work from Diogenes’ endless list provides a clue: Against Wisdom, by Aenesidemus, the follower of Pyrrho.  The Pyrrhonians took skepticism quite far, insisting they determined nothing, and did not even determine that they determined nothing.  Diogenes rightly doubts whether Pyrrho really was as skeptical in everyday life, of carts, deep holes, dogs, and the like, as he was in philosophy.  To opponents who claimed that he could not live without making some affirmations, he answered that custom was sufficient and did not imply a judgment.  From Pyrrho’s standpoint, anyone who went further was a dogmatist.

The question of how far we should venture in setting down beliefs does not concern only Pyrrho and the skeptics.  Diogenes writes what is still true today, that “There is great division of opinion between those who affirm and those who deny that Plato was a dogmatist.”  He doesn’t even have to comment on the divisions that arose among the successors of Socrates; the lives speak for themselves: Antisthenes the Cynic and the hedonist Aristippus clearly took things in different directions than Plato.  Controversy between dogmatists and skeptics shows that the nature of a philosophical work is itself a question for philosophy.  Should it propound theory or attack it, or should it only report impressions?  It also showed how Diogenes was faced with a wider range of philosophical positions than I am accustomed to bear in mind.  Therefore I am more intrigued by his equanimity than I am disappointed in his lack of a position.

I would like to think that one can explain some of the odd features of the Lives on the basis of this equanimity, rather than on sheer muddled credulity.  Diogenes sees fit to include many things not to the credit of his eminent subjects.  He describes Menedemus as a vain slacker but a particularly good friend.  This story concerning Arcesilaus I found rather touching:

“He also attended the lectures of the geometer Hipponicus, at whom he pointed a jest as one who was in all besides a listless, yawning sluggard but yet proficient in his subject.  ‘Geometry,’ he said, ‘must have flown into his mouth while it was agape.’ When this man’s mind gave way, Arcesilaus took him to his house and nursed him until he was completely restored.”

Diogenes’ anecdotes of the most various philosophers show them at their most humane, from Pyrrho’s dusting furniture in the house he shared with his sister to the flat contention that all of the detractors of Epicurus must be ignorant of how much people liked the man.  This is an aspect of the philosophic life that is easy to lose sight of in an era where even the surviving names are few.  Surely to take Diogenes to task for lack of a position is to lose sight of the idea that philosophy might make us not just wiser, but better.

Where Do Books Go?

Of course I worry that I am not reading all the books that need to be read, but should I have to worry at the same time that there are not enough books?  Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers (I’ve been reading the Loeb, translated by R. D. Hicks) has dozens of pages listing the works of philosophers from Aristotle to Zeno of Citium, many or all of which are lost.  This Diogenes lived in the third century and, unlike the Diogenes who lived in a tub and helped found cynicism, is not known for being particularly original or bright.  He is, however, one of the few sources on ancient philosophers who were not Plato or Aristotle.  Some interesting lost titles given are Aristotle’s Laws of the Mess Table and A Reply to the Pythagoreans, Theophrastus’ On Riot, Strato’s On Enthusiasm, Demetrius’ On the Ten Years of His Own Supremacy and Of the Beam in the Sky, the Cynic’s Jackdaw and On Death.  I suppose it was from a case like Sophocles, who I learned quite a while ago had written not just seven plays, but over a hundred, that I got the idea that lost books are an occasion for mourning and vain speculation.  There’s no way of summarizing the effect of Diogenes’ lists and their blend of the mundane, the overworked, the strange.  On Fatigues, On Motion, On Precious Stones, On Pestilences, On Fainting… they just go on and on.  Suddenly I’m having a much easier time resigning myself to the idea, not only that I’ll never read these books, but that I’ll never read most books.  It’s not that I rest easy in the assumption that what survives, our Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle, our Herodotus and Thucydides, our three tragedians, is the best there was.  However, there is perspective to be had in the realization that all of the authors writing today, though they take themselves ever so seriously, in philosophy or whatever else, would be lucky to find themselves as well off as humble Diogenes after a thousand years or so.  Hopefully in the next post I can prove that Diogenes is one of those authors worth reading.

The Alexander of Quintus Curtius Rufus

Let’s get right into this.  I’ve been reading Curtius’ History of Alexander the Great.

This would seem like a natural continuation of my slow progress through classical history, if it really amounts to that yet.  It’s hard to keep in mind that, in contrast to Thucydides or Xenophon, I’m now dealing with a history written more than three hundred years after the events it describes.  (Alexander died in 323 BC and the timing for Curtius is extremely vague but he can safely be placed in the early Roman empire.)  I’m quite interested in how historical knowledge gets pieced together in a reader’s mind, and this gap and the different kinds of sources, immediate or later, would certainly bear on that.  I hope I can say something more about this sometime.  The other gap that should be kept in mind is the lost beginning of the history itself.  The first two books are lost and replaced in the Loeb edition with summaries by the seventeenth century editor Freinshem based on Arrian, Diodorus, Plutarch, and a few other sources.  So there are alternative routes to understanding Alexander’s time, which I do hope to explore.  I really only chose to read Curtius instead of Arrian because I found a cheap copy a while back.  In spite of all these issues I have to admit that I tend to read less critically than I probably should, and if I wanted to, I could give an utterly guileless summary of the campaign of Alexander according to Quintus Curtius, because that’s mostly what I was looking for.

I won’t do that though.  I think the best thing to set beside my tendency to that kind of naive reading is an appreciation of Curtius’ impressive skill as a storyteller.  After Alexander has pretty well overthrown the Persians, there’s naturally a kind of lull in the action.  Issues of the army’s loyalty and Alexander’s self-aggrandizement come to the fore.  Probably the biggest episode between the death of Darius and the battles in India is a plot to kill Alexander that embroils some of Alexander’s closest companions.  A small example could represent his handling of the whole affair: The first conspirator to be confronted “gave himself a severe wound with a sword” (6.7.29) before he could be arrested.  Here Curtius, with a touch I very much appreciate, does not merely describe the outcome, saying that the man killed himself, but describes the action itself.  It’s more common to read about noble generals “falling on their swords”, and so the word “wound” here is uncommonly vivid.  (To the best of my ability I have tried to verify that this is in the Latin, and not a happy introduction by translator J. C. Rolfe.)  Curtius has brought us directly into the action as we read of the man being brought before Alexander only to expire before he can reveal anything.  One of Alexander’s chief men, Philotas, is now confronted with having failed to act when warning of the conspiracy was first brought to him.  As Curtius tells it, we really don’t know whether he was guilty or not.  What follows is a dramatic account of the trial, with elaborate speeches, the eventual torture and confession of Philotas, and finally the cunningly arranged murder of Philotas’ father Parmenion, who was away in another district with a large army.  It’s an appalling episode, and I hope I can justify myself by saying that its fascination comes not just from Curtius’ descriptions of blood and betrayal but from the skillful touch he brings to questions of guilt and remorse.  How sincere is Alexander’s initial pardon of Philotas?  What about the army’s leniency (and the army plays a large role in the trials) towards those who deserted in fear of the proceedings?  There’s much more to get into here.

I did learn a few things from this besides the general outline of Alexander’s career.  First, Philip and Alexander’s involvement with Greece wasn’t all about Chaeronea.  Philip invaded under the pretense of exacting obedience already promised him by the Greeks.  At Chaeronea, they indeed defeated a confederation of Thebans and Athenians.  Later, when Philip was dead, the Thebans revolted again, and it was then that Thebes was destroyed.  Still later, when Alexander was in Asia, his governor Antipater confronted the Spartans and killed their king.  Second, Alexander comes out of this still managing to cut a pretty impressive figure.  I’m not sure how to say exactly what I mean here.  Basically, in Curtius, the big-picture politics appears to receive a more temperate treatment than I am accustomed to, but the adventure story and the Great Alexander come through still looking pretty amazing.  As I said, I am leery of reading this too naively, but I have to wonder if nowadays, with the “great man” idea of history in disrepute, we are too given to great political generalizations.  I’m sure I’ve read a lot about “the end of freedom in Greece”, usually leading up to that one name, Chaeronea.  For another example, look at the varied fortunes of the phrase “the end of history” over the past few years, not to mention the temptation to characterize whole periods of recent history as Herodotean or Thucydidean.