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.

Alas, my scraps of leather! Alas, my old shoes! Alackaday, my rotten sandals!

From Lucian’s The Downward Journey, or the Tyrant (ΚΑΤΑΠΛΟΥΣ Η ΤΥΡΑΝΝΟΣ) in vol. 2 of the Loeb edition.  Cyniscus the philosopher and Micyllus the cobbler bring different attitudes to the transition to the afterlife than their companions.

Pull an oar; that will be enough to exact of you.

Shall I strike up a song, too?

Yes, by all means, if you know any of the sailors’ chanties.

I know plenty of them, Charon; but as you see, these people are competing with our music by crying, so that we shall be put out of tune in our song.

The Dead
(one) Alas, my wealth! (another) Alas, my farms! (another) Alackaday, what a house I left behind me! (another) To think of all the thousands my heir will come into and squander! (another) Ah, my new-born babes! (another) Who will get the vintage of the vines I set out last year?

Micyllus, you are not lamenting at all, are you? Nobody may cross without a tear.

Get out with you! I have no reason to lament while the wind is fair.

Do cry, however, even if only a little, for custom’s sake.

Well, I’ll lament, then, since you wish it, Hermes.—Alas, my scraps of leather! Alas, my old shoes! Alackaday, my rotten sandals! Unlucky man that I am, never again will I go hungry from morning to night or wander about in winter barefooted and half-naked, with my teeth chattering for cold! Who is to get my knife and my awl?

Ἔρεττε· καὶ τουτὶ γὰρ ἱκανὸν παρὰ σοῦ λαβεῖν.

Ἦ καὶ ὑποκελεῦσαι δεήσει;

Νὴ Δία, ἤνπερ εἰδῇς κέλευσμά τι τῶν ναυτικῶν.

Οἶδα καὶ πολλά, ὦ Χάρων. ἀλλ᾿, ὁρᾷς, ἀντεπηχοῦσιν οὗτοι δακρύοντες· ὥστε ἡμῖν τὸ ᾆσμα ἐπιταραχθήσεται.

Οἴμοι τῶν κτημάτων.—Οἴμοι τῶν ἀγρῶν.—Ὀττοτοῖ, τὴν οἰκίαν οἵαν ἀπέλιπον.—Ὅσα τάλαντα ὁ κληρονόμος σπαθήσει παραλαβών.—Αἰαῖ τῶν νεογνῶν μοι παιδίων.—Τίς ἄρα τὰς ἀμπέλους τρυγήσει, ἃς πέρυσιν ἐφυτευσάμην;

Μίκυλλε, σὺ δ᾿ οὐδὲν οἰμώζεις; καὶ μὴν οὐ θέμις ἀδακρυτὶ διαπλεῦσαί τινα.

Ἄπαγε· οὐδέν ἐστιν ἐφ᾿ ὅτῳ ἂν οἰμώξαιμι1 εὐπλοῶν.

Ὅμως κἂν μικρόν τι ἐς τὸ ἔθος ἐπιστέναξον.

Οἰμώξομαι τοίνυν, ἐπειδή, ὦ Ἑρμῆ, σοὶ δοκεῖ. οἴμοι τῶν καττυμάτων· οἴμοι τῶν κρηπίδων τῶν παλαιῶν· ὀττοτοῖ τῶν σαθρῶν ὑποδημάτων. οὐκέτι ὁ κακοδαίμων ἕωθεν εἰς ἑσπέραν ἄσιτος διαμενῶ, οὐδὲ τοῦ χειμῶνος ἀνυπόδητός τε καὶ ἡμίγυμνος περινοστήσω τοὺς ὀδόντας ὑπὸ τοῦ κρύους συγκροτῶν. τίς ἄρα μου τὴν σμίλην ἕξει καὶ τὸ κεντητήριον;

They’re light and easy to carry, and useful for the voyage

From Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead (number 20 in the Loeb edition, whose good-enough translation I also use here).  The scene is the Styx as Hermes guides a batch of the newly dead – including the Cynic philosopher Menippus, Lucian’s sometimes mouthpiece – to Charon’s crossing:

Let me tell you how you stand; This boat is small for you, as you can see, and unsound, and leaks almost all over; if it lists one way or the other, it will capsize and sink. Yet you come in such numbers all at once, each of you laden with luggage. If, then, you take all this on board, I’m afraid you’ll be sorry for it later on, particularly those of you that can’t swim.
Dead Men
Well, what shall we do to have a good passage?
I’ll tell you. Strip yourselves before you come on board, and leave all this useless stuff on the shore; for, even then, the ferry will hardly hold you. It will be up to you, Hermes, to let none of them aboard after this, unless he has stripped himself and thrown away his trappings, as I said he must. Go and stand by the gangway, and sort them out for admission. Make them strip, before you let them on board.
But here’s an august personage, to judge by his appearance, and a proud man. Who can he be, with his haughty eyebrows, thoughtful mien, and bushy beard?

A Philosopher, Hermes, or rather an impostor, full of talk of marvels. Strip him too, and you’ll see many amusing things covered up under his cloak.

You there, off first with your clothes, and then with all this here. Ye gods, what hypocrisy he carries, what ignorance, contentiousness, vanity, unanswerable puzzles, thorny argumentations, and complicated conceptions—yes, and plenty of wasted effort, and no little nonsense, and idle talk, and splitting of hairs, and, good heavens, here’s gold too, and soft living, shamelessness, temper, luxury, and effeminacy! I can see them, however much you try to hide them. Away with your falsehood too, and your pride, and notions of your superiority over the rest of men. If you came on board with all these, not even a battleship would be big enough for you.

What’s this? Crying, you scum? Afraid to face death? Get in with you.

He still has the heaviest thing of all under his arm.

What, Menippus?

Flattery, Hermes, which was often most useful to him in life.

What about you then, Menippus? Off with your independence, plain speaking, cheerfulness, noble bearing, and laughter. You’re the only one that laughs.

Do nothing of the sort, but keep them, Menippus; they’re light and easy to carry, and useful for the voyage. But you, Rhetorician, throw away your endless loquacity, your antitheses, balanced clauses, periods, foreign phrases, and everything else that makes your speeches so heavy.