By the time one has read them all one does not know what to think about anything

From Anatole France’s Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard:

– Que de livres ! s’écria-t-elle. Et vous les avez tous lus, monsieur Bonnard ?

– Hélas ! oui, répondis-je, et c’est pour cela que je ne sais rien du tout, car il n’y a pas un de ces livres qui n’en démente un autre, en sorte que, quand on les connaît tous, on ne sait que penser. J’en suis là, madame.

“What a lot of books!” she cried. “And have you really read them all, Monsieur Bonnard?”

“Alas! I have,” I replied, “and that is just the reason that I do not know anything; for there is not a single one of those books which does not contradict some other book; so that by the time one has read them all one does not know what to think about anything. That is just my condition, Madame.”

Parler français comme une vache espagnole

A curious phrase I learned from Balzac’s Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (with a recentish Penguin translation as A Harlot High and Low) that came to mind this morning when I ran into a cow while hiking:

Jacques Collin parlait le français comme une vache espagnole

Jacques Collin spoke French like a Spanish cow

The first appearance of the idiom is securely dated to the mid 17th century but the origin is disputed.  These are the three theories I can find:

  1.  ‘Vache’ is a deformation of ‘vasques’ from Latin ‘vasco’ and originally referred to a Gascon or a Basque.  The former were traditionally regarded as a bit backwoods (D’Artagnan is the best known instance of a Gascon bumpkin-ish character) while the latter were equally backwoods with the added disadvantage of being foreign.
  2. ‘Vache’ is a deformation of ‘basse’, which at the time referred to a servant woman of foreign origins whose French was predictably poor.
  3. It blends an existing ‘comme une vache’ that generically slurred the performance of any action with a 17th century nationalist distaste for the Spanish.

Per publicam viam ne ambules

Erasmus’ Adagia 2.12.

Per publicam viam ne ambules

Λεωφόρου μὴ βαδίζειν, id est Per publicam viam ne ambules. Diuus Hieronymus
exponit: Ne vulgi sequaris errores. Nunquam enim tam bene cum rebus humanis
actum est, vt optima plurimis placuerint. Vnde quidam hoc sic efferunt: Viam
regiam declinato, per semitas ingreditor. Quod quidem praeceptum non abhorret
ab Euangelica doctrina, quae monet, vt declinata via spaciosa per quam
ambulant plerique, per angustam ingrediamur viam a paucis quidem tritam,
sed ducentem ad immortalitatem.

Do not walk along the public way.  Saint Jerome explains: Do not follow the errors of the crowd.  Indeed, never in human affairs has it been possible to act such that the best actions are pleasing to the majority.  For this reason certain authors say it in this way: Avoid the royal road, take the by-ways.  A precept which itself is not in disagreement with the evangelical doctrine, which warns that we should turn away from the spacious way by which the many walk and go by the narrow path which is trod by few but leads to immortality.

As a child, I loved you; lately, I have run you down; now, I forgive you

From Villers de l’Isle-Adam’s Le visions Merveilleuses du Dr. Tribulat Bonhomet. 

Left alone, Monsieur Bonhomet felt the need to set things right with God, to whom he had so long displayed such wise antagonism. (It goes without saying that, everyone having only the God whom he consents to give thought to, the God of Doctor Bonhomet probably differs in numerous respects from the God of Isaiah, Saint Paul, Saint Laurent, Saint Blandine, Christopher Columbus, Saint Louis, Saint Bernard, Blaise Pascal and many other superficial souls seemingly deprived of the enlightenment of that dear Good Sense of which we others, spoiled children of the Ages, have obtained through our discoveries–without fear of contradiction–the exclusive monopoly.)

“Lord!” called the prudent Doctor, interlacing his fingers. “As a child, I loved you; lately, I have run you down; now, I forgive you.”

Demeuré seul, M. Bonhomet ressentit le besoin de se remettre avec le dieu, dont il s’était tant de fois montré le si sagace antagoniste.—(Il va sans dire que chacun n’ayant de Dieu que ce qu’il accepte d’en penser, le dieu du docteur diffère peut-être, en quelques points, du dieu d’Isaïe, de saint Paul, de saint Laurent, de sainte Blandine, de Christophe Colomb, de saint Louis, de saint Bernard, de Pascal, et de quelques autres âmes superficielles, dénuées, paraît-il, des lumières de ce cher Bon sens, dont nous autres, enfants gâtés des Époques, avons, sans contredit, depuis nos découvertes, l’exclusif monopole).

—Seigneur! clamait l’avisé docteur en entrelaçant ses doigts,—tout enfant, je vous ai aimé: ultérieurement, je vous ai conspué; actuellement, je vous pardonne.

But meanwhile I am enjoying my friends’ teasing

From Pliny’s Letters (5.13) – I note this passage as an instance of Pliny’s relaxing of his authorial persona – of allowing a view to a less constructed version of his self.  Where several times he hints, as immediately below in 4.14 and 5.3, at the livelier sides of his personality, he rarely allows those elements into his published letters so they’re all the more welcome and effective when they do appear.


With this letter you will receive some hendecasyllables of mine with which I amuse myself when I have time to spare in my carriage, my bath, or at dinner. Here are my jokes and witticisms, my loves, sorrows, complaints and vexations; now my style is simple, now more elevated, and I try through variety to appeal to different tastes and produce a few things to please everyone.

Accipies cum hac epistula hendecasyllabos nostros, quibus nos in vehiculo in balineo inter cenam oblectamus otium temporis. His iocamur ludimus amamus dolemus querimur irascimur, describimus aliquid modo pressius modo elatius, atque ipsa varietate temptamus efficere, ut alia aliis quaedam fortasse omnibus placeant.


I admit that I do often write verse which is far from serious, for I also listen to comedy, watch farces, read lyric poetry, and appreciate Sotadic verse; there are besides times when I laugh, make jokes, and enjoy my fun, in fact I can sum up all these innocent relaxations in a word “I am human.”

facio non numquam versiculos severos parum, facio; nam et comoedias audio et specto mimos et lyricos lego et Sotadicos intellego; aliquando praeterea rideo iocor ludo, utque omnia innoxiae remissionis genera breviter amplectar, homo sum.


But before a vote could be taken, Nigrinus, the tribune of the people, read out a well-phrased statement of great importance. In this he complained that counsel sold their services, faked lawsuits for money, settled them by collusion, and made a boast of the large regular incomes to be made by robbery of their fellow-citizens. He quoted the relevant paragraphs of the law, reminded the Senate of its decrees, and ended by saying that our noble Emperor should be asked to remedy these serious evils himself, since the law and the Senate’s decrees were fallen into contempt. After a few days the Emperor issued a decree, which was firm but moderate in tone. It is published in the official records, so you can read it.

How glad I am that I have always kept clear of any contracts, presents, remunerations, or even small gifts for my conduct of cases! It is true that one ought to shun dishonesty as a shameful thing, not because it is illegal; but, even so, it is a pleasure to find an official ban on a practice one would never have permitted oneself. Perhaps I shall lose some of the credit and reputation I won from my resolve—in fact I am sure to do so, when everyone is compelled to behave as I did of my own free will—but meanwhile I am enjoying my friends’ teasing, when they hail me as a prophet or pretend that this measure is directed against my own robberies and greed.

Sed prius quam sententiae dicerentur, Nigrinus tribunus plebis recitavit libellum disertum et gravem, quo questus est venire advocationes, venire etiam praevaricationes, in lites coiri, et gloriae loco poni ex spoliis civium magnos et statos reditus. Recitavit capita legum, admonuit senatus consultorum, in fine dixit petendum ab optimo principe, ut quia leges, quia senatus consulta contemnerentur, ipse tantis vitiis mederetur. Pauci dies, et liber principis severus et tamen moderatus: leges ipsum; est in publicis actis. Quam me iuvat, quod in causis agendis non modo pactione dono munere verum etiam xeniis semper abstinui! Oportet quidem, quae sunt inhonesta, non quasi inlicita sed quasi pudenda vitare; iucundum tamen si prohiberi publice videas, quod numquam tibi ipse permiseris. Erit fortasse, immo non dubie, huius propositi mei et minor laus et obscurior fama, cum omnes ex necessitate facient quod ego sponte faciebam. Interim fruor voluptate, cum alii divinum me, alii meis rapinis meae avaritiae occursum per ludum ac iocum dictitant. Vale.

Savoir s’il est permis d’écrire et de lire l’histoire, singuliérement celle de son temps

From the concluding sections of the Duc de Saint-Simon’s introductory essay, Savoir s’il est permis d’écrire et de lire l’histoire, singuliérement celle de son temps.  Which, very oddly to me, has not made it into either of the English translations.  But I am lazy so it will remain untranslated today.

Écrire l’histoire de son pays et de son temps, c’est repasser dans son esprit avec beaucoup de réflexion tout ce qu’on a vu, manié, ou su d’original, sans reproche, qui s’est passé sur le théâtre du monde, et les diverses machines, souvent les riens apparents, qui ont mû les ressorts des événements qui ont eu le plus de suite et qui en ont enfanté d’autres; c’est se montrer à soi-même pied à pied le néant du monde, de ses craintes, de ses désirs, de ses espérances, de ses disgrâces, de ses fortunes, de ses travaux; c’est se convaincre du rien de tout par la courte et rapide durée de toutes ces choses et de la vie des hommes; c’est se rappeler un vif souvenir que nul des heureux du monde ne l’a été, et que la félicité, ni même la tranquillité, ne peut se trouver ici-bas; c’est mettre en évidence que, s’il était possible que cette multitude de gens de qui on fait une nécessaire mention avait pu lire dans l’avenir le succès de leurs peines, de leurs sueurs, de leurs soins, de leurs intrigues, tous, à une douzaine près tout au plus, se seraient arrêtés tout court dès l’entrée de leur vie, et auraient abandonné leurs vues et leurs plus chères prétentions; et que de cette douzaine encore, leur mort, qui termine le bonheur qu’ils s’étaient proposé, n’a fait qu’augmenter leurs regrets par le redoublement de leurs attaches, et rend pour eux comme non avenu tout ce à quoi ils étaient parvenus. Si les livres de piété représentent cette morale, si capable de faire mépriser tout ce qui se passe ici-bas, d’une manière plus expresse et plus argumentée, il faut convenir que cette théorie, pour belle qu’elle puisse être, ne fait pas les mêmes impressions que les faits et les réflexions qui naissent de leur lecture. Ce fruit que l’auteur en tire le premier, se recueille aussi, par ses lecteurs; ils y joignent de plus l’instruction de l’histoire qu’ils ignoraient. Cette instruction forme ceux qui ont à vivre dans le commerce du monde, et plus encore s’ils sont portés en celui des affaires. Les exemples dont ils se sont remplis les conduisent et les préservent d’autant plus aisément, qu’ils vivent dans les mêmes lieux où ces choses se sont passées, et dans un temps encore trop proche pour que ce ne soient pas les mêmes moeurs, et le même genre de vie, de commerce et d’affaires. Ce sont des avis et des conseils qu’ils reçoivent de chaque coup de pinceau à l’égard des personnages, et de chaque événement par le récit des occasions et des mouvements qui l’ont produit; mais des avis et des conseils pris de la chose et des gens par eux-mêmes qui les lisent, et qu’ils reçoivent avec d’autant plus de facilité qu’ils sont tous nus, et n’ont ni la sécheresse, ni l’autorité, ni le dégoût, qui rebutent et qui font échouer si ordinairement les conseils et les avis de ceux qui se mêlent d’en vouloir donner. Je ne vois donc rien de plus utile que cette double et si agréable manière de s’instruire par la lecture de l’histoire de son temps et de son pays, ni conséquemment de plus permis que de l’écrire.

So long as they are not of this whiffling century

From Charles Lamb’s Readers Against the Grain

Every new publication that is likely to make a noise, must be had at any rate. By some they are devoured with avidity. These would have been readers in the old time I speak of. The only loss is, that for the good old reading of Addison or Fielding’s days is substituted that never-ending flow of thin novelties which are kept up like a ball, leaving no possible time for better things, and threatening in the issue to bury or sweep away from the earth the memory of their nobler predecessors. We read to say that we have read. No reading can keep pace with the writing of this age, but we pant and toil after it as fast as we can. … If I hate one day before another, it is the accursed first day of the month, when a load of periodicals is ushered in and distributed to feed the reluctant monster. How it gapes and takes in its prescribed diet, as little savoury as that which Daniel ministered to that Apocryphal dragon, and not more wholesome! Is there no stopping the eternal wheels of the Press for a half century or two, till the nation recover its senses? Must we magazine it and review at this sickening rate for ever? Shall we never again read to be amused? but to judge, to criticise, to talk about it and about it? Farewell, old honest delight taken in books not quite contemporary, before this plague-token of modern endless novelties broke out upon us—farewell to reading for its own sake!

Rather than follow in the train of this insatiable monster of modern reading, I would forswear my spectacles, play at put, mend pens, kill fleas, stand on one leg, shell peas, or do whatsoever ignoble diversion you shall put me to. Alas! I am hurried on in the vortex. I die of new books, or the everlasting talk about them. I faint of Longman’s. I sicken of the Constables. Blackwood and Cadell have me by the throat.

I will go and relieve myself with a page of honest John Bunyan, or Tom Brown. Tom anybody will do, so long as they are not of this whiffling century.

Do not stir the fire with a sword

From Erasmus’ Adagia (2.6).  My own hasty rendering.


‘Do not stir the fire with a sword’, that is to say, do not provoke someone already stirred to anger.  It is far better to yield and calm his enraged spirit with kind words.  This is the opinion of Saint Jerome and of Demetrius of Byzantium, cited by Athenaeus.
Diogenes Laertius explains that the choleric temperament of violent and wrathful men ought not to be stirred up with reproaches, because the more a flame is stirred up, the stronger it grows.
Plutarch does not judge any differently.
Plato, however, in Book 6 of The Laws, has used this saying of men who strive in vain for what can be in no way accomplished, showing this to have been a type of game – that they would cut up a fire with a sword.
Saint Basil mentions a nearly identical sense in his letter to his nephews – how they wish to cut fire with a sword and draw water with a sieve.
And it is surely to that definition that Lucian refers in book 2 of his True History.  He tells that that at his departure from the Isles of the Blessed, Rhadamanthus ordered him to follow three rules when he came back to our earth: not to stir the fire with a sword, not to eat beans, and not to bed a boy more than 18 years old.  If he kept these in mind, he would one day return to the isle.
It seems that Horace, by this saying, points out cruelty mixed with madness.  For love is in itself mad and if it breaks forth into fighting and murder, the fire is pierced by a sword.  Satire 2.3: “Add bloodshed to these and stire the fire with a sword.”

Πῦρ σιδήρῳ μὴ σκαλεύειν, id est• Ignem gladio ne fodito, hoc est ira percitum ne
lacessas. Quin magis concedere conuenit et blandis verbis tumidum animum
placare. Ita diuus Hieronymus et apud Athenaeum Demetrius Byzantius.
Diogenes Laertius exponit potentium et ferocium iracundiam non esse
conuitiis exagitandam, propterea quod flamma quo magis exagitatur, hoc
magis atque magis inualescit. Neque dissentit ab hoc interpretamento Plutarchus.
Quanquam Plato libro De legibus sexto sic vsurpauit, vt de iis dici
solitum videatur, qui frustra moliuntur quod effici nullo pacto queat, osten-
dens id lusus genus quoddam fuisse, vt ignem gladio dissecarent. Ad eundem
ferme sensum retulit diuus Basilius in Epistola ad nepotes, vt idem sibi velint
ignem gladio dissecare et cribro haurire aquam. Huc nimirum allusit Lucianus
in secundo Verarum narrationum libro, cum ex insulis fortunatis dimitteretur,
fingens se a Rhadamantho admonitum, vt si quando rediret in hunc nostrum
orbem, tria quaedam obseruaret, Μὴ πῦρ μαχαίρᾳ σκαλεύειν, μήτε θερμούς
ἐσθίειν, μήτε παιδὶ ὑπὲρ τὰ ὀκτωκαίδεκα• ἔτη πλησιάζειν, id est Ne gladio ignem
diuerberaret, ne lupinis vesceretur, ne se puero decimumoctauum annum egresso adiunge-
ret. Si quidem horum meminisset, futurum vt aliquando ad eam insulam
reuerteretur. Horatius hoc dicto videtur indicare crudelitatem cum insania
coniunctam. Amor enim per se furor est, qui si erumpat in pugnas ac caedes,
ignis gladio perfoditur. Libro Sermonum secundo, satyra iii.: His adde cruorem
/ atque ignem gladio scrutare.

Come this evening even, if it is more convenient for you

Probably the only light moment in Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man (Le Dernier Jour d’un Condamné):

[The guard] lowered his voice, and assumed an air of mystery, which was not in keeping with his stupid face.

“Yes, criminal, happy and lucky. You can make me all this. Listen. I am a poor gendarme. My duties are heavy, my pay is small; my horse is my own, and is the ruin of me. But to offset this I take shares in the lottery. One must have some business. Until now I have needed nothing in order to win except lucky numbers. I look everywhere for sure ones; but I always fall to one side. I place 76; it draws 77. In vain have I kept them; they do not come. A little patience, please; I am almost through. But here is a lucky chance for me. It seems—pardon me, criminal—that you are to die to-day. It is a well-known fact that these who die in this way see the lottery in advance. Promise me to come to-morrow evening,—what difference will it make to you?—and give me three numbers, three good ones. Hey? I am not afraid of ghosts, you may be sure. This is my address: Caserne Popincourt, staircase A, number 26, at the end of the corridor. You will recognize me, won’t you? Come this evening even, if it is more convenient for you.”

Il a baissé la voix et pris un air mystérieux, ce qui n’allait pas à sa figure idiote.

— Oui, criminel, oui bonheur, oui fortune. Tout cela me sera venu de vous. Voici. Je suis un pauvre gendarme. Le service est lourd, la paye est légère ; mon cheval est à moi et me ruine. Or, je mets à la loterie pour contre-balancer. Il faut bien avoir une industrie. Jusqu’ici il ne m’a manqué pour gagner que d’avoir de bons numéros. J’en cherche partout de sûrs ; je tombe toujours à côté. Je mets le 76 ; il sort le 77. J’ai beau les nourrir, ils ne viennent pas…

— Un peu de patience, s’il vous plaît ; je suis à la fin.

— Or, voici une belle occasion pour moi. Il paraît, pardon, criminel, que vous passez aujourd’hui. Il est certain que les morts qu’on fait périr comme cela voient la loterie d’avance. Promettez-moi de venir demain soir, qu’est-ce que cela vous fait ? me donner trois numéros, trois bons. Hein ? — Je n’ai pas peur des revenants, soyez tranquille. — Voici mon adresse : Caserne Popincourt, escalier A, n°26, au fond du corridor. Vous me reconnaîtrez bien, n’est-ce pas ? — Venez même ce soir, si cela vous est plus commode.

Suppose you had heard the beast himself?

From Pliny’s Letters (2.3)

Nothing brings you to Rome, myself included, but do come to hear [Isaeus the orator]… You may say that you have authors as eloquent whose works can be read at home; but the fact is that you can read them any time, and rarely have the opportunity to hear the real thing. Besides, we are always being told that the spoken word is much more effective; however well a piece of writing makes its point, anything which is driven into the mind by the delivery and expression, the appearance and gestures of a speaker remains deeply implanted there, unless there is no truth in the tale of Aeschines when he was at Rhodes, who countered the general applause he won for his reading of one of Demosthenes’ speeches with the words: “Suppose you had heard the beast himself?”

Proinde si non ob alia nosque ipsos, at certe ut hunc audias veni… Dices: “Habeo hic quos legam non minus disertos.” Etiam; sed legendi semper occasio est, audiendi non semper. Praeterea multo magis, ut vulgo dicitur, viva vox adficit. Nam licet acriora sint quae legas, altius tamen in animo sedent, quae pronuntiatio vultus habitus gestus etiam dicentis adfigit; nisi vero falsum putamus illud Aeschinis, qui cum legisset Rhodiis orationem Demosthenis admirantibus cunctis, adiecisse fertur: τί δέ, εἰ αὐτοῦ τοῦ θηρίου ἠκοὺσατε