Skip to content

Category: The Ancients

“Alcibiades. He was the Golden Boy of 4th century Athenian culture. Pericles was his guardian, Plato his teacher. A fine athlete, a brilliant general, handsome, marvelously intelligent, popular, everything. A summation of the Golden Age. And what happened? He went bad. He was vain, treacherous, selfish, sacrilegious, debauched, dishonest, and a traitor twice over. His aid to the enemy during the Syracuse campaign destroyed Athens. Just about the finest product of the most notable civilization man has accomplished, and it turned out like that. This haunts me.” – Jack Gilbert (interviewed by Gordon Lish in Genesis West, Issue #1, 1962)

Leave a Comment

Sophrosyne, which to the Greeks was an ideal second to none in importance, is not among our ideals. We have lost the conception of it. Enough is said about it in Greek literature for us to be able to describe it in some fashion, but we cannot give it a name. It was the spirit behind the two great Delphic sayings, ‘Know thyself’ and ‘Nothing in excess.’ Arrogance, insolent self-assertion, was the quality most detested by the Greeks. Sophosyne was the exact opposite. It meant accepting the bounds which excellence lays down for human nature, restraining impulses to unrestricted freedom, to all excess, obeying the inner laws of harmony and proportion.” – Benjamin Jowett, “Introduction to Plato’s Charmides

Leave a Comment

“Judgment is to be made of actions according to the times in which they were performed. The conduct of a wise politician is ever suited to the present posture of affairs; often by foregoing a part he saves the whole, and by yielding in a small matter secures a greater.” – “Comparison of Poplicola with Solon,” Plutarch’s Lives (trans. A. H. Clough)

Leave a Comment

“The remission of debts was peculiar to Solon; it was his great means for confirming the citizens’ liberty; for a mere law to give all men equal rights is but useless, if the poor must sacrifice those rights to their debts, and, in the very seats and sanctuaries of equality, the courts of justice, the offices of state, and the public discussions, be more than anywhere at the beck and bidding of the rich. A yet more extraordinary success was, that, although usually civil violence is caused by any remission of debts, upon this one occasion this dangerous but powerful remedy actually put an end to civil violence already existing,” – “Comparison of Poplicola with Solon,” Plutarch’s Lives (trans. A. H. Clough)

Leave a Comment

“Most of the authors of the New Testament did not write particularly well, even by the forgiving standards of the koiné—that is, ‘common’—Greek in which they worked. The unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews commanded a fairly distinguished and erudite style, and was obviously an accomplished native speaker of the tongue; and Luke, the author of both the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, wrote in an urbane, unspectacular, but mostly graceful prose; the author of the first letter attributed to Peter was clearly an educated person whose primary language was a fairly refined form of Greek, while the author of the second letter wrote in a somewhat bombastic style, of the kind classically called Asiatic Greek; but the language of most of the canon is anything but extraordinary. Paul’s letters possess an elemental power born out of the passion of his faith and the marvel of what he believes has been revealed to him, and his prose occasionally flowers into a plain but startling lyricism; but his Greek is generally rough, sometimes inept, and occasionally incoherent. The Gospel of Mark contains obvious solecisms and is awkwardly written throughout. The prose of the Gospel of Matthew is rarely better than ponderous. Even the Gospel of John, perhaps the most structurally and symbolically sophisticated religious text to have come down to us from late antiquity, is written in a Greek that is grammatically correct but syntactically almost childish (or perhaps I should say, ‘remarkably limpid’), and—unless its author was some late first-century precursor of Gertrude Stein—its stylistic limitations suggest an author whose command of the language did not exceed mere functional competence. Then, of course, the book of Revelation, the last New Testament text to be accepted into the canon—it was not firmly established there throughout the Christian world until the early fifth century—is, if judged purely by the normal standards of literary style and good taste, almost unremittingly atrocious. And, in the most refined pagan critics of the new faith in late antiquity, the stylistic coarseness of Christian literature often provoked the purest kind of patrician contempt. This is all evidence, however, of a deeper truth about these texts: They are not beguiling exercises in suasive rhetoric or feats of literary virtuosity; rather, they are chiefly the devout and urgent attempts of often rather ordinary persons to communicate something ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ that transcends any language, but that nevertheless demands to be spoken, now, here, in whatever words one can marshal. This is the special amphibology of Christian scripture. Whereas the Jewish Bible represents the concentrated literary genius of an ancient and amazingly rich culture—mythic, epic, lyric, historical, and visionary, in texts assembled over many centuries and then judiciously synthesized, redacted, and polished—the Christian New Testament is a somewhat unsystematically compiled and pragmatically edited compendium of ‘important documentation’: writings from the first generation of witnesses to the new faith, the oldest ambassadors to us from the apostolic and early postapostolic ages, consisting in quickly limned stories, theological discourses, and even a bit of historically impenetrable occasional writing. As such it draws one in by the intensity, purity, and perhaps frequent naiveté of its language, not by the exquisite sheen of its belletristic graces.” – David Bentley Hart, “Introduction,” The New Testament: A Translation (emphasis in original)

Leave a Comment

“If there is no consciousness but only a dreamless sleep, death must be a marvelous gain. I suppose that if anyone were told to pick out the night on which he slept so soundly as not even to dream, and then to compare it with all the other nights and days of his life, and then were told to say, after the consideration, how many better and happier days and nights than this he had spent in the course of his life—well, I think that the Great King himself, to say nothing of any private person, would find these days and nights easy to count in comparison with the rest. If death is like this, then, I call it a gain, because the whole of time, if you look at it this way, can be regarded as no more than one single night.” – Plato, Socrates’ Defense (Apology) (trans. Hugh Tredennick)

Leave a Comment

“I do not think that it is right for a man to appeal to the jury or to get himself acquitted by doing so; he ought to inform them of the facts and convince them by argument. The jury does not sit to dispense justice as a favor, but to decide where justice lies, and the oath which they have sworn is not to show favor at their own discretion, but to return a just and lawful verdict.” – Plato, Socrates’ Defense (Apology) (trans. Hugh Tredennick)

Leave a Comment

“You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action—that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly, like a good man or a bad one.” – Plato, Socrates’ Defense (Apology) (trans. Hugh Tredennick)

Leave a Comment

“People do not obey, unless rulers know how to command; obedience is a lesson taught by commanders. A true leader himself creates the obedience of his own followers; as it is the last attainment in the art of riding to make a horse gentle and tractable, so is it of the science of government, to inspire men with a willingness to obey.” – “Lycurgus,” Plutarch’s Lives (trans. A. H. Clough)

Leave a Comment

“A ruler’s first end is to maintain his office, which is done no less by avoiding what is unfit than by observing what is suitable. Whoever is either too remiss or too strict is no more a king or a governor, but either a demagogue or a despot, and so becomes either odious or contemptible to his subjects.” – “Comparison of Romulus with Theseus,” Plutarch’s Lives (trans. A. H. Clough)

Leave a Comment

“That age produced a sort of men, in force of hand, and swiftness of foot, and strength of body, excelling the ordinary rate, and wholly incapable of fatigue; making use, however, of these gifts of nature to no good or profitable purpose for mankind, but rejoicing and priding themselves in insolence, and taking the benefit of their superior strength in the exercise of inhumanity and cruelty, and in seizing, forcing, and committing all manner of outrages upon every thing that fell into their hands; all respect for others, all justice, they thought, all equity and humanity, though naturally lauded by common people, either out of want of courage to commit injuries or fear to receive them, yet no way concerned those who were strong enough to win for themselves.” – “Theseus,” Plutarch’s Lives (trans. A. H. Clough)

Leave a Comment

“According to Aristotle, the Pythagoreans held that the elements of number were the elements of things, and, therefore, that things were numbers. To us, accustomed as we are from childhood to the multiplication table, such an assertion seems simply meaningless. We are so familiar with the idea of counting without counting anything, that it is only by an effort that we can realise what a very abstract process this is. It is certain, however, that, natural as it may be to us to speak of numbers as things that can exist by themselves, it was long before men learnt to think of a number, except as a number of something.” – John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy

Leave a Comment

“And the father lifts up his own son in a changed form and slays him with a prayer. Infatuated fool! And they are dragged along begging mercy from the madman, while he, deaf to their cries, slaughters them in his halls and gets ready the evil feast.” – Empedokles, Purifications (from John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy)

Leave a Comment

“Greek democracies could never pardon the introduction of new gods. Their objection to this was not, however, that the gods in question were false gods. If they had been so, it would not have mattered so much. What they could not tolerate was that any one should establish a private means of communication between himself and the unseen powers. This introduced, as it were, an unknown and incalculable element into the arrangements of the State, which might very likely be hostile to the democracy, and was in any case a standing menace to the mass of the citizens, who had no means of propitiating the intruding divinity. And it was nearly as bad to worship the ordinary gods of the State in a private way; for it was manifestly unfair that any section of the community should have access to the supreme dispensers of good and ill at times and seasons when the ordinary man was excluded. The religious creed of the Greek citizen may, in short, be summed up in the single tenet promulgated by the Delphic oracle that all must worship ‘according to the use of the city,’ and none must be suffered to gain the private ear of the gods for the furtherance of his own end.” – John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy

Leave a Comment

“Ancient religions cared nothing for a man’s belief, if only it did not set him in open opposition to the public worship of the State, and, so long as the proper ceremonial was correctly performed, any explanation of it that occurred to the spectator might be given. He might believe or disbelieve that the Mysteries taught the doctrine of immortality; the essential thing was that he should duly sacrifice his pig.” – John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy

Leave a Comment

“Imagine insects with a life span of two weeks, and then imagine further that they are trying to build up a science about the nature of time and history. Clearly, they cannot build a model on the basis of a few days in summer. So let us endow them with a language and a culture through which they can pass on their knowledge to future generations. Summer passes, then autumn; finally it is winter. The winter insects are a whole new breed, and they perfect a new and revolutionary science on the basis of the ‘hard facts’ of their perceptions of snow. As for the myths and legends of summer: certainly the intelligent insects are not going to believe the superstitions of their primitive ancestors.” – William Irwin Thompson, Passages About Earth

Leave a Comment

“Myth is not an early level of human development, but an imaginative description of reality in which the known is related to the unknown through a system of correspondences in which mind and matter, self, society, and cosmos are integrally expressed in an esoteric language of poetry and number which is itself a performance of the reality it seeks to describe. Myth expresses the deep correspondence between ‘the universal grammar’ of the mind and the universal grammar of events in spacetime. A hunk of words does not create a language, and a hunk of matter does not create a cosmos. The structures by which and through which man realizes the intellectual between himself and the universe of which he is a part are his mathematical, musical, and verbal creations. Mediating between Nous and Cosmos is the Logos.” – William Irwin Thompson, At the Edge of History

Leave a Comment

Line ’em up

“The sage in governing the people considers their springs of action, never tolerates their wicked desires, but seeks only for the people’s benefit. Therefore, the penalty he inflicts is not due to any hatred for the people but to his motive of loving the people. If penalty triumphs, the people are quiet; if reward over-flows, culprits appear. Therefore the triumph of penalty is the beginning of order; the overflow of reward, the origin of chaos. Indeed, it is the people’s nature to delight in disorder and detach themselves from legal restraints. Therefore, when the intelligent sovereign governs the state, if he makes rewards clear, the people will be encouraged to render meritorious services; if he makes penalties severe, the people will attach themselves to the law. If they are encouraged to render meritorious services, public affairs will not be obstructed; if they attach themselves to the law, culprits will not appear. Therefore, he who governs the people should nip the evil in the bud; he who commands troops, should inculcate warfare in the people’s mind. If prohibitions can uproot causes of villainy, there will always be order; if soldiers can imagine warfare in mind, there will always be victory. When the sage is governing the people, he attains order first, wherefore he is strong; he prepares for war first, wherefore he wins. Indeed, the administration of the state affairs requires the attention to the causes of human action so as to unify the people’s mental trends; the exclusive elevation of public welfare so as to stop self-seeking elements; the reward for denunciation of crime so as to suppress culprits; and finally the clarification of laws so as to facilitate governmental procedures. Whoever is able to apply these four measures, will become strong; whoever is unable to apply these four measures, will become weak.” – The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu (trans. and ed. W. K. Liao)

Leave a Comment

Shock-haired bad boy

“Suppose there is a boy who has a bad character. His parents are angry at him, but he never makes any change. The villagers in the neighbourhood reprove him, but he is never thereby moved. His masters teach him, but he never reforms. Thus with all the three excellent disciplines, the love of his parents, the conduct of the villagers, and the wisdom of the masters, applied to him, he makes no change, not even a hair on his shins is altered. It is, however, only after the district-magistrate sends out soldiers in accordance with the law to search for wicked men that he becomes afraid and changes his ways and alters his deeds. So the love of parents is not sufficient to educate children. But if it is necessary to have the severe penalties of the district-magistrate come at all, it is because people are naturally spoiled by love and obedient to authority.” – The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu (trans. and ed. W. K. Liao)

Leave a Comment

Philosopher kings

“In the age of remote antiquity, human beings were few while birds and beasts were many. Mankind being unable to overcome birds, beasts, insects, and serpents, there appeared a sage who made nests by putting pieces of wood together to shelter people from harm. Thereat the people were so delighted that they made him ruler of All-under-Heaven and called him the Nest-Dweller. In those days the people lived on the fruits of trees and seeds of grass as well as mussels and clams, which smelt rank and fetid and hurt the digestive organs. As many of them were affected with diseases, there appeared a sage who twisted a drill to make fire which changed the fetid and musty smell. Thereat the people were so delighted that they made him ruler of All-under-Heaven.” – The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu (trans. and ed. W. K. Liao)

Leave a Comment

Faking the news

“An unreal thing, if its existence is asserted by ten men, is still subject to doubt; if its existence is asserted by one hundred men, its reality becomes probable; and if its existence is asserted by one thousand men, it becomes undoubtable. Again, if spoken about by stammerers, it is susceptible to doubt; if spoken about by eloquent persons, it becomes believable.” – The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu (trans. and ed. W. K. Liao)

Leave a Comment

But who shall rule the ruler

“What parents desire of children is safety and prosperity in livelihood and innocence in conduct. What the ruler requires of his subjects, however, is to demand their lives in case of emergency and exhaust their energy in time of peace. Now, parents, who love their children and wish them safety and prosperity, are not listened to; whereas the ruler, who neither loves nor benefits his subjects but demands their death and toil, can enforce his orders. As the enlightened sovereign knows this principle, he does not cultivate the feeling of favour and love, but extends his influence of authority and severity. Mothers love sons with deep love, but most of the sons are spoilt, for their love is over-extended; fathers show their sons less love and teach them with light bamboos, but most of the sons turn out well, for severity is applied.” – The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu (trans. and ed. W. K. Liao)

Leave a Comment

Get in under the hood

“In general, the principal way of government does not solely mean the justice of reward and punishment. Much less does it mean to reward men of no merit and punish innocent people. However, to reward men of merit, punish men of demerit, and make no mistake in so doing but affect such persons only, can neither increase men of merit nor eliminate men of demerit. For this reason, among the methods of suppressing villainy the best is to curb the mind, the next, the word, and the last, the work.” – The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu (trans. and ed. W. K. Liao)

Leave a Comment