In looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water

From Ch 7 (The Chapel) of Moby Dick, the chapter’s concluding reflection. Obvious Cartesian influence aside, Melville here seems to combine ideas from two passages of Plato given below. He may also be indirectly recalling (or expecting the reader to recall) the famous 1 Corinthians (13:12) ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.’

It needs scarcely to be told, with what feelings, on the eve of a Nantucket voyage, I regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me. Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine. But somehow I grew merry again. Delightful inducements to embark, fine chance for promotion, it seems—aye, a stove boat will make me an immortal by brevet. Yes, there is death in this business of whaling—a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot.

From Plato’s Phaedo (starting 109b), a sort of early version of the allegory of the cave – only grounded purely in the physical.

The earth itself is pure and lies in the pure heaven in which there are the stars. Indeed, the majority of those who are accustomed to talk about these things call it the ether. It’s of this that these elements (the water, mist and air) are the sediment and they continually flow together into the hollows of the earth. Now we who live in its hollows have failed to observe this and think we live above on the earth, as if someone living in the middle of the depths of the ocean were to think he was dwelling on the surface of the sea and, seeing the sun and the rest of the stars through the water, he were to think the sea was the heaven; but, on account of his slowness and weakness, he had never yet got to the surface of the sea, or had even seen, on emerging and lifting his head out of the sea and looking up at our world here, how much purer and more beautiful it actually is than his own environment, nor had heard from anyone else who had seen it. So this then is exactly what we too have experienced, because, living in some hollow in the earth, we think we’re on the surface of it, and we call the air heaven as though this were the heaven through which the stars pass. But it’s the same thing; as a result of our weakness and slowness we’re unable to get out to the farthest reaches of the air. Since if someone were to get to the surface, or grew wings and flew up, he’d lift up his head and see, just as fish here look up out of the sea and see what’s here, so someone would see what’s up there, and if he were naturally capable of holding out and viewing the sight, he’d realize that is truly heaven and the true light and the real earth.

εἶναι γὰρ πανταχῇ περὶ τὴν γῆν πολλὰ κοῖλα καὶ παντοδαπὰ καὶ τὰς ἰδέας καὶ τὰ μεγέθη, εἰς ἃ συνερρυηκέναι τό τε ὕδωρ καὶ τὴν ὁμίχλην καὶ τὸν ἀέρα· αὐτὴν δὲ τὴν γῆν καθαρὰν ἐν καθαρῷ κεῖσθαι τῷ οὐρανῷ ἐν ᾧπέρ ἐστι τὰ ἄστρα, ὃν δὴ αἰθέρα ὀνομάζειν τοὺς πολλοὺς τῶν περὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα εἰωθότων λέγειν· οὗ δὴ ὑποστάθμην ταῦτα εἶναι καὶ συρρεῖν ἀεὶ εἰς τὰ κοῖλα τῆς γῆς. ἡμᾶς οὖν οἰκοῦντας ἐν τοῖς κοίλοις αὐτῆς λεληθέναι καὶ οἴεσθαι ἄνω ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς οἰκεῖν, ὥσπερ ἂν εἴ τις ἐν μέσῳ τῷ πυθμένι τοῦ πελάγους οἰκῶν οἴοιτό τε ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάττης οἰκεῖν καὶ διὰ τοῦ ὕδατος ὁρῶν τὸν ἥλιον καὶ τὰ ἄλλα ἄστρα τὴν θάλατταν ἡγοῖτο οὐρανὸν εἶναι, διὰ δὲ βραδυτῆτά τε καὶ ἀσθένειαν μηδεπώποτε ἐπὶ τὰ ἄκρα τῆς θαλάττης ἀφιγμένος μηδὲ ἑωρακὼς εἴη, ἐκδὺς καὶ ἀνακύψας ἐκ τῆς θαλάττης εἰς τὸν ἐνθάδε τόπον, ὅσῳ καθαρώτερος καὶ καλλίων τυγχάνει ὢν τοῦ παρὰ σφίσι, μηδὲ ἄλλου ἀκηκοὼς εἴη τοῦ ἑωρακότος. ταὐτὸν δὴ τοῦτο καὶ ἡμᾶς πεπονθέναι· οἰκοῦντας γὰρ ἔν τινι κοίλῳ τῆς γῆς οἴεσθαι ἐπάνω αὐτῆς οἰκεῖν, καὶ τὸν ἀέρα οὐρανὸν καλεῖν, ὡς διὰ τούτου οὐρανοῦ ὄντος τὰ ἄστρα χωροῦντα· τὸ δὲ εἶναι ταὐτόν, ὑπ’ ἀσθενείας καὶ βραδυτῆτος οὐχ οἵους τε εἶναι ἡμᾶς διεξελθεῖν ἐπ’ ἔσχατον τὸν ἀέρα· ἐπεί, εἴ τις αὐτοῦ ἐπ’ ἄκρα ἔλθοι ἢ πτηνὸς γενόμενος ἀνάπτοιτο, κατιδεῖν <ἂν> ἀνακύψαντα, ὥσπερ ἐνθάδε οἱ ἐκ τῆς θαλάττης ἰχθύες ἀνακύπτοντες ὁρῶσι τὰ ἐνθάδε, | οὕτως ἄν τινα καὶ τὰ ἐκεῖ κατιδεῖν, καὶ εἰ ἡ φύσις ἱκανὴ εἴη ἀνασχέσθαι θεωροῦσα, γνῶναι ἂν ὅτι ἐκεῖνός ἐστιν ὁ ἀληθῶς οὐρανὸς καὶ τὸ ἀληθινὸν φῶς καὶ ἡ ὡς ἀληθῶς γῆ.

And from Phaedrus (250 E):

For, as has been said, every soul of man has by the law of nature beheld the realities, otherwise it would not have entered into a human being, but it is not easy for all souls to gain from earthly things a recollection of those realities, either for those which had but a brief view of them at that earlier time, or for those which, after falling to earth, were so unfortunate as to be turned toward unrighteousness through some evil communications and to have forgotten the holy sights they once saw. Few then are left which retain an adequate recollection of them; but these when they see here any likeness of the things of that other world, are stricken with amazement and can no longer control themselves; but they do understand their condition, because they do not clearly perceive. Now in the earthly copies of justice and temperance and the other ideas which are precious to souls there is no light, but only a few, approaching the images through the darkling organs of sense, behold in them the nature of that which they imitate, and these few do this with difficulty. But at that former time they saw beauty shining in brightness, when, with a blessed company—we following in the train of Zeus, and others in that of some other god—they saw the blessed sight and vision and were initiated into that which is rightly called the most blessed of mysteries, which we celebrated in a state of perfection, when we were without experience of the evils which awaited us in the time to come, being permitted as initiates to the sight of perfect and simple and calm and happy apparitions, which we saw in the pure light, being ourselves pure and not entombed in this which we carry about with us and call the body, in which we are imprisoned like an oyster in its shell.

καθάπερ γὰρ εἴρηται, πᾶσα μὲν ἀνθρώπου ψυχὴ φύσει τεθέαται τὰ ὄντα, ἢ οὐκ ἂν ἦλθεν εἰς τόδε τὸ ζῷον,· ἀναμιμνῄσκεσθαι δ᾿ ἐκ τῶνδε ἐκεῖνα οὐ ῥᾴδιον ἁπάσῃ, οὔτε ὅσαι βραχέως εἶδον τότε τἀκεῖ, οὔτε αἳ δεῦρο πεσοῦσαι ἐδυστύχησαν, ὥστε ὑπό τινων ὁμιλιῶν ἐπὶ τὸ ἄδικον τραπόμεναι λήθην ὧν τότε εἶδον ἱερῶν ἔχειν. ὀλίγαι δὴ λείπονται, αἷς τὸ τῆς μνήμης ἱκανῶς πάρεστιν· αὗται δέ, ὅταν τι τῶν ἐκεῖ ὁμοίωμα ἴδωσιν, ἐκπλήττονται καὶ οὐκέθ᾿ αὑτῶν γίγνονται, ὃ δ᾿ ἔστι τὸ πάθος ἀγνοοῦσιν διὰ τὸ μὴ ἱκανῶς διαισθάνεσθαι. δικαιοσύνης μὲν οὖν καὶ σωφροσύνης, καὶ ὅσα ἄλλα τίμια ψυχαῖς, οὐκ ἔνεστι φέγγος οὐδὲν ἐν τοῖς τῇδε ὁμοιώμασιν, ἀλλὰ δι᾿ ἀμυδρῶν ὀργάνων μόγις αὐτῶν καὶ ὀλίγοι ἐπὶ τὰς εἰκόνας ἰόντες θεῶνται τὸ τοῦ εἰκασθέντος γένος· κάλλος δὲ τότ᾿ ἦν ἰδεῖν λαμπρόν, ὅτε σὺν εὐδαίμονι χορῷ μακαρίαν ὄψιν τε καὶ θέαν, ἑπόμενοι μετὰ μὲν Διὸς ἡμεῖς, ἄλλοι δὲ μετ᾿ ἄλλου θεῶν, εἶδόν τε καὶ ἐτελοῦντο τῶν τελετῶν ἣν θέμις λέγειν μακαριωτάτην, ἣν ὠργιάζομεν ὁλόκληροι μὲν αὐτοὶ ὄντες καὶ ἀπαθεῖς κακῶν, ὅσα ἡμᾶς ἐν ὑστέρῳ χρόνῳ ὑπέμεν, ὁλόκληρα δὲ καὶ ἁπλᾶ καὶ ἀτρεμῆ καὶ εὐδαίμονα φάσματα μυούμενοί τε καὶ ἐποπτεύοντες ἐν αὐγῇ καθαρᾷ, καθαροὶ ὄντες καὶ ἀσήμαντοι τούτου, ὃ νῦν σῶμα περιφέροντες ὀνομάζομεν, ὀστρέου τρόπον δεδεσμευμένοι.

Helen’s phantom

A myth variant I’ve always found interesting, originally from a fragment of Stesichorus reported by Plato (Phaedrus 243a):

For those who have sinned in their telling of myths there is an ancient purification, known not to Homer but to Stesichorus: when he was blinded because of his slander of Helen he was not unaware of the reason like Homer, but being devoted to the Muses recognised the cause and immediately wrote:

That story is not true, and you did not go on the well-benched ships and you did not reach the citadel of Troy;

and having composed all the Palinode, as it is called, he at once regained his sight.

ἐστὶν δὲ τοῖς ἁμαρτάνουσι περὶ μυθολογίαν καθαρμὸς ἀρχαῖος, ὃν Ὅμηρος μὲν οὐκ ᾔσθετο, Στησίχορος δέ· τῶν γὰρ ὀμμάτων στερηθεὶς διὰ τὴν Ἑλένης κακηγορίαν οὐκ ἠγνόησεν ὥσπερ Ὅμηρος, ἀλλ᾿ ἅτε μουσικὸς ὢν ἔγνω τὴν αἰτίαν καὶ ποιεῖ εὐθύς·

οὐκ ἔστ᾿ ἔτυμος λόγος οὗτος,
οὐδ᾿ ἔβας ἐν νηυσὶν ἐϋσσέλμοις
οὐδ᾿ ἵκεο πέργαμα Τροίας,

καὶ ποιήσας δὴ πᾶσαν τὴν καλουμένην Παλινῳδίαν παραχρῆμα ἀνέβλεψεν.

Some other references to the same story:

Isocrates, Helen (64):

She (Helen) displayed her power to the poet Stesichorus also: for when at the beginning of his song he uttered a blasphemy against her, he stood up deprived of his sight; but when he had realised the cause of his plight and had composed the Palinode, as it is called, she restored him to his original condition.

Plato, Republic (9.586c)

. . . just as Helen’s phantom, according to Stesichorus, was fought over by the warriors at Troy in ignorance of the truth.

Aelius Aristides, Orations (1.128)

. . . just as some of the poets say Alexander took Helen’s phantom but was unable to take her.

Scholiast: Stesichorus in his poetry tells that when Alexander had seized Helen and was making his way through Pharos1 he was robbed of her by Proteus and received from him her portrait painted on a panel, so that he could assuage his passion by looking at it.

Aelius Aristides, Orations (2.234)

. . . just like the Trojans of Stesichorus, who have Helen’s phantom, believing it to be Helen herself.

Dio Chrysostom, Discourses (11.40s)

These men, he said, have had such a ridiculous effect on you Greeks that you say that another poet who was persuaded by Homer and gave in full the same account of Helen—Stesichorus, I believe—was blinded by Helen for telling lies and got his sight back when he told the opposite story . . . Stesichorus, you allege, said in his later song that Helen never sailed anywhere, whereas others say that Helen was carried off by Alexander but came here to us in Egypt.

Papyrus commentary on lyric poets (2nd c. a.d.,  P.Oxy. 2506 fr. 26 col. i)

. . . (in one Palinode) he blames Homer because he put Helen in Troy, not her phantom; and in the other he blames Hesiod: for there are two different Palinodes, and the beginning of one is

Hither again, goddess, lover of song and dance,

and of the other

Golden-winged maiden,

as Chamaeleon wrote. Stesichorus himself says that the phantom went to Troy while Helen remained with Proteus.

He made such innovations in his stories that he says that Demophon, son of Theseus, was brought to Egypt with the Thestiadae in the homecoming from Troy, and that Demophon was Theseus’ son by lope, daughter of Iphicles, Acamas his son by Phaedra, Hippolytus by the Amazon . . . Helen . . . Agamemnon . . . Amphilochus. . .

Euripides uses essentially the same version but Herodotus adds another (2.113-120):

And the priests told me, when I inquired, that the things concerning Helen happened thus:—Alexander having carried off Helen was sailing away from Sparta to his own land, and when he had come to the Egean Sea contrary winds drove him from his course to the Sea of Egypt; and after that, since the blasts did not cease to blow, he came to Egypt itself, and in Egypt to that which is now named the Canobic mouth of the Nile and to Taricheiai. Now there was upon the shore, as still there is now, a temple of Heracles, in which if any man’s slave take refuge and have the sacred marks set upon him, giving himself over to the god, it is not lawful to lay hands upon him; and this custom has continued still unchanged from the beginning down to my own time. Accordingly the attendants of Alexander, having heard of the custom which existed about the temple, ran away from him, and sitting down as suppliants of the god, accused Alexander, because they desired to do him hurt, telling the whole tale how things were about Helen and about the wrong done to Menelaos; and this accusation they made not only to the priests but also to the warden of this river-mouth, whose name was Thonis.

Thonis then having heard their tale sent forthwith a message to Proteus at Memphis, which said as follows: “There hath come a stranger, a Teucrian by race, who hath done in Hellas an unholy deed; for he hath deceived the wife of his own host, and is come hither bringing with him this woman herself and very much wealth, having been carried out of his way by winds to thy land. 95 Shall we then allow him to sail out unharmed, or shall we first take away from him that which he brought with him?” In reply to this Proteus sent back a messenger who said thus: “Seize this man, whosoever he may be, who has done impiety to his own host, and bring him away into my presence, that I may know what he will find to say.”

Hearing this, Thonis seized Alexander and detained his ships, and after that he brought the man himself up to Memphis and with him Helen and the wealth he had, and also in addition to them the suppliants. So when all had been conveyed up thither, Proteus began to ask Alexander who he was and from whence he was voyaging; and he both recounted to him his descent and told him the name of his native land, and moreover related of his voyage, from whence he was sailing. After this Proteus asked him whence he had taken Helen; and when Alexander went astray in his account and did not speak the truth, those who had become suppliants convicted him of falsehood, relating in full the whole tale of the wrong done. At length Proteus declared to them this sentence, saying, “Were it not that I count it a matter of great moment not to slay any of those strangers who being driven from their course by winds have come to my land hitherto, I should have taken vengeance on thee on behalf of the man of Hellas, seeing that thou, most base of men, having received from him hospitality, didst work against him a most impious deed. For thou didst go in to the wife of thine own host; and even this was not enough for thee, but thou didst stir her up with desire and hast gone away with her like a thief. Moreover not even this by itself was enough for thee, but thou art come hither with plunder taken from the house of thy host. Now therefore depart, seeing that I have counted it of great moment not to be a slayer of strangers. This woman indeed and the wealth which thou hast I will not allow thee to carry away, but I shall keep them safe for the Hellene who was thy host, until he come himself and desire to carry them off to his home; to thyself however and thy fellow-voyagers I proclaim that ye depart from your anchoring within three days and go from my land to some other; and if not, that ye will be dealt with as enemies.”

This the priests said was the manner of Helen’s coming to Proteus; and I suppose that Homer also had heard this story, but since it was not so suitable to the composition of his poem as the other which he followed, he dismissed it finally, making it clear at the same time that he was acquainted with that story also: and according to the manner in which he described the wanderings of Alexander in the Iliad (nor did he elsewhere retract that which he had said) it is clear that when he brought Helen he was carried out of his course, wandering to various lands, and that he came among other places to Sidon in Phenicia. Of this the poet has made mention in the “prowess of Diomede,” and the verses run this:

“There she had robes many-coloured, the works of women of Sidon,
Those whom her son himself the god-like of form Alexander
Carried from Sidon, what time the broad sea-path he sailed over
Bringing back Helene home, of a noble father begotten.”
And in the Odyssey also he has made mention of it in these verses: 99 “Such had the daughter of Zeus, such drugs of exquisite cunning,
Good, which to her the wife of Thon, Polydamna, had given,
Dwelling in Egypt, the land where the bountiful meadow produces
Drugs more than all lands else, many good being mixed, many evil.”

And thus too Menelaos says to Telemachos:

“Still the gods stayed me in Egypt, to come back hither desiring,
Stayed me from voyaging home, since sacrifice was due I performed not.”
In these lines he makes it clear that he knew of the wandering of Alexander to Egypt, for Syria borders upon Egypt and the Phoenicians, of whom is Sidon, dwell in Syria.”

By these lines and by this passage it is also most clearly shown that the “Cyprian Epic” was not written by Homer but by some other man: for in this it is said that on the third day after leaving Sparta Alexander came to Ilion bringing with him Helen, having had a “gently-blowing wind and a smooth sea,” whereas in the Iliad it says that he wandered from his course when he brought her.

Let us now leave Homer and the “Cyprian” Epic; but this I will say, namely that I asked the priests whether it is but an idle tale which the Hellenes tell of that which they say happened about Ilion; and they answered me thus, saying that they had their knowledge by inquiries from Menelaos himself. After the rape of Helen there came indeed, they said, to the Teucrian land a large army of Hellenes to help Menelaos; and when the army had come out of the ships to land and had pitched its camp there, they sent messengers to Ilion, with whom went also Menelaos himself; and when these entered within the wall they demanded back Helen and the wealth which Alexander had stolen from Menelaos and had taken away; and moreover they demanded satisfaction for the wrongs done: and the Teucrians told the same tale then and afterwards, both with oath and without oath, namely that in deed and in truth they had not Helen nor the wealth for which demand was made, but that both were in Egypt; and that they could not justly be compelled to give satisfaction for that which Proteus the king of Egypt had. The Hellenes however thought that they were being mocked by them and besieged the city, until at last they took it; and when they had taken the wall and did not find Helen, but heard the same tale as before, then they believed the former tale and sent Menelaos himself to Proteus.

And Menelaos having come to Egypt and having sailed up to Memphis, told the truth of these matters, and not only found great entertainment, but also received Helen unhurt, and all his own wealth besides. Then however, after he had been thus dealt with, Menelaos showed himself ungrateful to the Egyptians; for when he set forth to sail away, contrary winds detained him, and as this condition of things lasted long, he devised an impious deed; for he took two children of natives and made sacrifice of them. After this, when it was known that he had done so, he became abhorred, and being pursued he escaped and got away in his ships to Libya; but whither he went besides after this, the Egyptians were not able to tell. Of these things they said that they found out part by inquiries, and the rest, namely that which happened in their own land, they related from sure and certain knowledge.

Thus the priests of the Egyptians told me; and I myself also agree with the story which was told of Helen, adding this consideration, namely that if Helen had been in Ilion she would have been given up to the Hellenes, whether Alexander consented or no; for Priam assuredly was not so mad, nor yet the others of his house, that they were desirous to run risk of ruin for themselves and their children and their city, in order that Alexander might have Helen as his wife: and even supposing that during the first part of the time they had been so inclined, yet when many others of the Trojans besides were losing their lives as often as they fought with the Hellenes, and of the sons of Priam himself always two or three or even more were slain when a battle took place (if one may trust at all to the Epic poets),—when, I say, things were coming thus to pass, I consider that even if Priam himself had had Helen as his wife, he would have given her back to the Achaians, if at least by so doing he might be freed from the evils which oppressed him. Nor even was the kingdom coming to Alexander next, so that when Priam was old the government was in his hands; but Hector, who was both older and more of a man than he, would have received it after the death of Priam; and him it behoved not to allow his brother to go on with his wrong-doing, considering that great evils were coming to pass on his account both to himself privately and in general to the other Trojans. In truth however they lacked the power to give Helen back; and the Hellenes did not believe them, though they spoke the truth; because, as I declare my opinion, the divine power was purposing to cause them utterly to perish, and so make it evident to men that for great wrongs great also are the chastisements which come from the gods. And thus have I delivered my opinion concerning these matters.

But to leave ourselves as we now are, this I do not advise

From the conclusion of Plato’s Laches (201B)

Socrates: ….Now if in the debates that we have just held I had been found to know what our two friends did not know, it would be right to make a point of inviting me to take up this work: but as it is, we have all got into the same difficulty, so why should one of us be preferred to another? In my own opinion, none of us should; and this being so, perhaps you will allow me to give you a piece of advice. I tell you, gentlemen—and this is confidential—that we ought all alike to seek out the best teacher we can find, first for ourselves—for we need one—and then for our boys, sparing neither expense nor anything else we can do: but to leave ourselves as we now are, this I do not advise. And if anyone makes fun of us for seeing fit to go to school at our time of life, I think we should appeal to Homer, who said that “shame is no good mate for a needy man.”

ΣΩ. Καὶ γὰρ ἂν δεινὸν εἴη, ὦ Λυσίμαχε, τοῦτό γε, μὴ ἐθέλειν τῳ συμπροθυμεῖσθαι ὡς βελτίστῳ γενέσθαι. εἰ μὲν οὖν ἐν τοῖς διαλόγοις τοῖς ἄρτι ἐγὼ μὲν ἐφάνην εἰδώς, τώδε δὲ μὴ εἰδότε, δίκαιον ἂν ἦν ἐμὲ μάλιστα ἐπὶ τοῦτο τὸ ἔργον παρακαλεῖν· νῦν δ᾿, ὁμοίως γὰρ πάντες ἐν ἀπορίᾳ ἐγενόμεθα· τί οὖν ἄν τις ἡμῶν τινὰ προαιροῖτο; ἐμοὶ μὲν οὖν δὴ αὐτῷ δοκεῖ οὐδένα· ἀλλ᾿ ἐπειδὴ ταῦτα οὕτως ἔχει, σκέψασθε ἄν τι δόξω συμβουλεύειν ὑμῖν. ἐγὼ γάρ φημι χρῆναι, ὦ ἄνδρες—οὐδεὶς γὰρ ἔκφορος λόγος—κοινῇ πάντας ἡμᾶς ζητεῖν μάλιστα μὲν ἡμῖν αὐτοῖς διδάσκαλον ὡς ἄριστον—δεόμεθα γάρ—ἔπειτα καὶ τοῖς μειρακίοις, μήτε χρημάτων φειδομένους μήτε ἄλλου μηδενός· ἐᾷν δὲ ἡμᾶς αὐτοὺς ἔχειν, ὡς νῦν ἔχομεν, οὐ συμβουλεύω. εἰ δέ τις ἡμῶν καταγελάσεται, ὅτι τηλικοίδε ὄντες εἰς διδασκάλων Βἀξιοῦμεν φοιτᾷν, τὸν Ὅμηρον δοκεῖ μοι χρῆναι προβάλλεσθαι, ὃς ἔφη οὐκ ἀγαθὴν εἶναι αἰδῶ κεχρημένῳ ἀνδρὶ παρεῖναι.

The Homer quote is from Odyssey 17.347 as Telemachus and Odysseus-as-beggar have arrived in Odysseus’ home:

Then Telemachus called the swineherd to him, and, taking a whole loaf from the beautiful basket, and all the meat his hands could hold in his grasp, spoke to him, saying:

“Take, and give this to the stranger, and bid him go about himself and beg of the suitors one and all. Shame is no good thing in a man that is in need.”

Τηλέμαχος δ᾿ ἐπὶ οἷ καλέσας προσέειπε συβώτην,
ἄρτον τ᾿ οὖλον ἑλὼν περικαλλέος ἐκ κανέοιο
καὶ κρέας, ὥς οἱ χεῖρες ἐχάνδανον ἀμφιβαλόντι·

“δὸς τῷ ξείνῳ ταῦτα φέρων αὐτόν τε κέλευε
αἰτίζειν μάλα πάντας ἐποιχόμενον μνηστῆρας·
αἰδὼς δ᾿ οὐκ ἀγαθὴ κεχρημένῳ ἀνδρὶ παρεῖναι.”



So to me there is nothing unusual, or unpleasant either, in being tried and tested by Socrates

From Plato’s Laches, as Nicias preps Lysimachus, Socrates’ two partners in the dialogue, for what’s in store.  Text and translation are the Loeb.

Nicias: You strike me as not being aware that, whoever comes into close contact with Socrates and has any talk with him face to face, is bound to be drawn round and round by him in the course of the argument—though it may have started at first on a quite different theme—and cannot stop until he is led into giving an account of himself, of the manner in which he now spends his days, and of the kind of life he has lived hitherto; and when once he has been led into that, Socrates will never let him go until he has thoroughly and properly put all his ways to the test. Now I am accustomed to him, and so I know that one is bound to be thus treated by him, and further, that I myself shall certainly get the same treatment also. For I delight, Lysimachus, in conversing with the man, and see no harm in our being reminded of any past or present misdoing: nay, one must needs take more careful thought for the rest of one’s life, if one does not fly from his words but is willing, as Solon said, and zealous to learn as long as one lives, and does not expect to get good sense by the mere arrival of old age. So to me there is nothing unusual, or unpleasant either, in being tried and tested by Socrates; in fact, I knew pretty well all the time that our argument would not be about the boys if Socrates were present, but about ourselves.

Οὔ μοι δοκεῖς εἰδέναι ὅτι, ὃς ἂν ἐγγύτατα Σωκράτους ᾖ [λόγῳ ὥσπερ γένει]1 καὶ πλησιάζῃ διαλεγόμενος, ἀνάγκη αὐτῷ, ἐὰν ἄρα καὶ περὶ ἄλλου του πρότερον ἄρξηται διαλέγεσθαι, μὴ παύεσθαι ὑπὸ τούτου περιαγόμενον τῷ λόγῳ, πρὶν ἂν ἐμπέσῃ εἰς τὸ διδόναι περὶ αὑτοῦ λόγον, ὅντινα τρόπον νῦν τε ζῇ καὶ ὅντινα τὸν παρεληλυθότα βίον βεβίωκεν· ἐπειδὰν δ᾿ ἐμπέσῃ, ὅτι οὐ πρότερον αὐτὸν ἀφήσει Σωκράτης, πρὶν ἂν βασανίσῃ ταῦτα εὖ τε καὶ καλῶς ἅπαντα. ἐγὼ δὲ συνήθης τέ εἰμι τῷδε καὶ οἶδ᾿ ὅτι ἀνάγκη ὑπὸ τούτου πάσχειν ταῦτα, καὶ ἔτι γε αὐτὸς ὅτι πείσομαι ταῦτα εὖ οἶδα· χαίρω γάρ, ὦ Λυσίμαχε, τῷ ἀνδρὶ πλησιάζων, καὶ οὐδὲν οἶμαι κακὸν εἶναι τὸ ὑπομιμνήσκεσθαι ὅ τι μὴ καλῶς ἢ πεποιήκαμεν ἢ ποιοῦμεν, ἀλλ᾿ εἰς τὸν ἔπειτα βίον προμηθέστερον ἀνάγκη εἶναι τὸν ταῦτα μὴ φεύγοντα, ἀλλ᾿ ἐθέλοντα κατὰ τὸ τοῦ Σόλωνος καὶ ἀξιοῦντα μανθάνειν ἕωσπερ ἂν ζῇ, καὶ μὴ οἰόμενον αὐτῷ τὸ γῆρας νοῦν ἔχον προσιέναι. ἐμοὶ μὲν οὖν οὐδὲν ἄηθες οὐδ᾿ αὖ ἀηδὲς ὑπὸ Σωκράτους βασανίζεσθαι, ἀλλὰ καὶ πάλαι σχεδόν τι ἠπιστάμην, ὅτι οὐ περὶ τῶν μειρακίων ἡμῖν ὁ λόγος ἔσοιτο Σωκράτους παρόντος, ἀλλὰ περὶ ἡμῶν αὐτῶν.

Solon’s actual words (referred to again later in the dialogue and in more exact fashion) survive in one of his fragments (fr.10): γηράσκω δ᾿ αἰεὶ πολλὰ διδασκόμενος, “I grow old learning ever more and more”.

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.

ᾗ ἐκείνη ὑφηγεῖται

Plato’s Phaedo 82d-83e.  It is too long a passage to fight with the copy/paste issues from the Loeb database.

…but they themselves consider that they must not do anything contrary to philosophy, and by both the release of the soul and its purification they are turned this way and follow it where it leads (ᾗ ἐκείνη ὑφηγεῖται)..

“How, Socrates?”

“I’ll tell you,” he said. “You see those who love learning recognize that philosophy takes in hand their soul, which is utterly bound up in the body and fastened to it and forced to examine reality through it, as if through prison bars, but not by itself on its own, and is wallowing in total ignorance; and philosophy has discerned that the cunning thing about the prisonis that it comes from desire,as if the prisoner were himself the chief accomplice in his being tied up. So what I’m saying is that the lovers of learning recognize that philosophy, in taking their soul in hand in this state, gently reassures it and tries to release it by demonstrating that inquiry through the eyes is full of deception, as also is that through the ears and the other senses. It persuades it to retreat from these senses except where it is necessary to use them, and encourages the soul to gather and collect itself togetherand trust nothing else but itself in itself, whichever of the realities alone by itself it thinks about alone by itself; but to consider nothing as true that it examines through other means, what is variable in varying conditions: that kind of thingis perceivable and visible, but the soul sees what is intelligible and invisible. So thinking it mustn’t oppose this release, the soul of a true philosopher for that reason keeps away from pleasures, desires, pains, and fears as far as it can, reckoning that whenever you’re over much affected by pleasure or pain or fear or desire you don’t suffer so great harm from these, the ones that you’d think,c for example falling ill, or spending money on your desires, but you do suffer the greatest and ultimate of all evils and take no account of it.”

“What is this, Socrates?” said Cebes.

“That the soul of every person, at the same time as experiencing extreme pleasure or pain over something, is compelled to suppose that whatever it is suffering in particularis the most palpable and most real, even though it’s not so. Things like this are especially those seen, or is that not so?”

“Very much so.”

“Isn’t it in this experience that the soul is especially bound fast by the body?”

“How do you mean?”

“Because each pleasure and pain fixes it as if with a nail and pins it to the body and makes it body-like, supposing that whatever the body says is the truth. You see as a result of sharing the body’s beliefsand enjoying the same things, it’s compelled, I think, to become the same in its habits and upbringing that are such that it never reaches Hades in purity but must always depart infected by the body, eso that it quickly falls backinto another body again and grows there like a seed sown, and as a result of this has no part in communion with the divine, the pure and uniform.”

Perhaps indeed there exists but a single intelligence, in which everyone in the world participates

From Within a Budding Grove, somewhat continuing the previous observation of the Platonic imagery often surfacing in Proust – though here I feel he pulls more from Plotinus and the Neoplatonics:

And yet I ought perhaps to have reminded myself that, since it was in all sincerity, abandoning myself to the train of my thoughts, that I had felt, on the one hand, so intensely in sympathy with the work of Bergotte and on the other hand, in the theatre, a disappointment the reason of which I did not know, those two instinctive movements which had both carried me away could not be so very different from one another, but must be obedient to the same laws; and that that mind of Bergotte which I had loved in his books could not be anything entirely foreign and hostile to my disappointment and to my inability to express it. For my intelligence must be a uniform thing, perhaps indeed there exists but a single intelligence, in which everyone in the world participates, towards which each of us from the position of his own separate body turns his eyes, as in a theatre where, if everyone has his own separate seat, there is on the other hand but a single stage. Of course, the ideas which I was tempted to seek to disentangle were probably not those whose depths Bergotte usually sounded in his books. But if it were one and the same intelligence which we had, he and I, at our disposal, he must, when he heard me express those ideas, be reminded of them, cherish them, smile upon them, keeping probably, in spite of what I supposed, before his mind’s eye a whole world of intelligence other than that an excerpt of which had passed into his books, an excerpt upon which I had based my imagination of his whole mental universe. Just as priests, having the widest experience of the human heart, are best able to pardon the sins which they do not themselves commit, so genius, having the widest experience of the human intelligence, can best understand the ideas most directly in opposition to those which form the foundation of its own writings.

J’aurais peut-être dû pourtant me dire que puisque c’était sincèrement, en m’abandonnant à ma pensée, que d’une part j’avais tant sympathisé avec l’uvre de Bergotte et que, d’autre part, j’avais éprouvé au théâtre un désappointement dont je ne connaissais pas les raisons, ces deux mouvements instinctifs qui m’avaient entraîné ne devaient pas être si différents l’un de l’autre, mais obéir aux mêmes lois; et que cet esprit de Bergotte, que j’avais aimé dans ses livres ne devait pas être quelque chose d’entièrement étranger et hostile à ma déception et à mon incapacité de l’exprimer. Car mon intelligence devait être une, et peut-être même n’en existe-t-il qu’une seule dont tout le monde est co-locataire, une intelligence sur laquelle chacun, du fond de son corps particulier porte ses regards, comme au théâtre, où si chacun a sa place, en revanche, il n’y a qu’une seule scène. Sans doute, les idées que j’avais le goût de chercher à démêler, n’étaient pas celles qu’approfondissait d’ordinaire Bergotte dans ses livres. Mais si c’était la même intelligence que nous avions lui et moi à notre disposition, il devait, en me les entendant exprimer, se les rappeler, les aimer, leur sourire, gardant probablement, malgré ce que je supposais, devant son il intérieur, tout une autre partie de l’intelligence que celle dont une découpure avait passé dans ses livres et d’après laquelle j’avais imaginé tout son univers mental. De même que les prêtres, ayant la plus grande expérience du cur, peuvent le mieux pardonner aux péchés qu’ils ne commettent pas, de même le génie ayant la plus grande expérience de l’intelligence peut le mieux comprendre les idées qui sont le plus opposées à celles qui forment le fond de ses propres oeuvres

Being the most elegant of writers in the Greek, he will not wish to appear lacking in taste in Latin

I’m reading last year’s updated reissue of N.G. Wilson’s From Byzantium to Italy: Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance.  In a slight digression into early approaches to translation – important since using bilingual Latin/Greek texts was a valid learning method for many scholars – Wilson quotes a letter of Leonardo Bruni’s on his approach to rendering Plato’s Phaedo into Latin:

I am keeping close to Plato.  I call up a vision of him, one that speaks Latin, so that he may judge, and I will ask him to bear witness to the translation of his own work.  I translated him in a way that I understand will give him most pleasure.  So first of all I preserve every statement without the least deviation from its meaning; then if a word-for-word rendering is possible without oddity or absurdity, this is most welcome; when it is not possible, I am not so timid as to fear accusation of lese-majeste if I depart a little from the working while preserving the sense, always avoiding absurdity.  This is what Plato by his speeches obliges me to do; being the most elegant of writers in the Greek, he will not wish to appear lacking in taste in Latin.

While Wilson doesn’t give the Latin text he does cite a 1741 Florentine edition of Bruni’s letters edited by L. Mehus (Epistle 1.6).  This edition has conveniently been digitized by Google but I couldn’t manage to match the citations.  Fortunately I have a book buying fund to hand and there’s a 2007 facsimile edition (edited and with a new preface by James Hankins) available.  Likely no one will ever use it again but it will satisfy a morning’s whim.

What else should one do in the time before sunset?

From Plato’s Phaedo (61e) – a portion of Socrates’ conversation with his friends on the day of his sunset execution.  I’ve wanted to use this on bookplates but no one is set up to print Greek.

And it’s perhaps especially fitting for one who is about to take his leave to examine the life beyond and tell stories about it: what kind of experience we think it is. What else should one do in the time before sunset?

καὶ γὰρ ἴσως καὶ μάλιστα πρέπει μέλλοντα ἐκεῖσε ἀποδημεῖν διασκοπεῖν τε καὶ μυθολογεῖν περὶ τῆς ἀποδημίας τῆς ἐκεῖ, ποίαν τινὰ αὐτὴν οἰόμεθα εἶναι· τί γὰρ ἄν τις καὶ ποιοῖ ἄλλο ἐν τῷ μέχρι ἡλίου δυσμῶν χρόνῳ;


To know whether I am a monster more complicated and more furious than Typhon

From Plato’s Phaedrus:

Socrates: But I have no leisure for [this subject] at all; and the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous,  when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things. And so I dismiss these matters and accepting the customary belief about them, as I was saying just now, I investigate not these things, but myself, to know whether I am a monster more complicated and more furious than Typhon or a gentler and simpler creature, to whom a divine and quiet lot is given by nature. [Fowler translation]

[229ε]… ἐμοὶ δὲ πρὸς αὐτὰ οὐδαμῶς ἐστι σχολή: τὸ δὲ αἴτιον, ὦ φίλε, τούτου τόδε. οὐ δύναμαί πω κατὰ τὸ Δελφικὸν γράμμα γνῶναι ἐμαυτόν: γελοῖον δή μοι φαίνεται. [230α] τοῦτο ἔτι ἀγνοοῦντα τὰ ἀλλότρια σκοπεῖν. ὅθεν δὴ χαίρειν ἐάσας ταῦτα, πειθόμενος δὲ τῷ νομιζομένῳ περὶ αὐτῶν, ὃ νυνδὴ ἔλεγον, σκοπῶ οὐ ταῦτα ἀλλ᾽ ἐμαυτόν, εἴτε τι θηρίον ὂν τυγχάνω Τυφῶνος πολυπλοκώτερον καὶ μᾶλλον ἐπιτεθυμμένον, εἴτε ἡμερώτερόν τε καὶ ἁπλούστερον ζῷον, θείας τινὸς καὶ ἀτύφου μοίρας φύσει μετέχον