Which touched the point of wisdom as well as if he had got drunk and sober a hundred times

From Herodotus’ Histories (1.133), a supposed custom of the Persians:

Moreover it is their custom to deliberate about the gravest matters when they are drunk; and what they approve in their counsels is proposed to them the next day by the master of the house where they deliberate, when they are now sober and if being sober they still approve it, they act thereon, but if not, they cast it aside. And when they have taken counsel about a matter when sober, they decide upon it when they are drunk.

μεθυσκόμενοι δὲ ἐώθασι βουλεύεσθαι τὰ σπουδαιέστατα τῶν πρηγμάτων· τὸ δ᾿ ἂν ἅδῃ σφι βουλευομένοισι, τοῦτο τῇ ὑστεραίῃ νήφουσι προτιθεῖ ὁ στέγαρχος, ἐν τοῦ ἂν ἐόντες βουλεύωνται, καὶ ἢν μὲν ἅδῃ καὶ νήφουσι, χρέωνται αὐτῷ, ἢν δὲ μὴ ἅδῃ, μετιεῖσι. τὰ δ᾿ ἂν νήφοντες προβουλεύσωνται, μεθυσκόμενοι ἐπιδιαγινώσκουσι.

Tacitus reports a similar custom in the Germania (22):

after washing they take a meal, seated apart, each at his own table: then, arms in hand, they proceed to business, or, just as often, to revelry. To make day and night run into one in drinking is a reproach to no man: brawls are frequent, naturally, among heavy drinkers: they are seldom settled with abuse, more often with wounds and bloodshed; nevertheless the mutual reconciliation of enemies, the forming of family alliances, the appointment of chiefs, the question even of war or peace, are usually debated at these banquets; as though at no other time were the mind more open to obvious, or better warmed to larger, thoughts. The people are without craft or cunning, and expose in the freedom of the occasion the heart’s previous secrets; so every mind is bared to nakedness: on the next day the matter is handled afresh; so the principle of each debating season is justified: deliberation comes when they are incapable of pretence, but decision when they are secure from illusion.

lauti cibum capiunt: separatae singulis sedes et sua cuique mensa, tum ad negotia nec minus saepe ad convivia procedunt armati. diem noctemque continuare potando nulli probrum. crebrae, ut inter vinolentos, rixae raro conviciis, saepius caede et vulneribus transiguntur. sed et de reconciliandis invicem inimicis et iungendis adfinitatibus et adsciscendis principibus, de pace denique ac bello plerumque in conviviis consultant, tamquam nullo magis tempore aut ad simplices cogitationes pateat animus aut ad magnas incalescat. gens non astuta nec callida aperit adhuc secreta pectoris licentia loci; ergo detecta et nuda omnium mens. postera die retractatur1 et salva utriusque temporis ratio est: deliberant, dum fingere nesciunt, constituunt, dum errare non possunt.

And finally Laurence Sterne adds the Shandean variant, further enriched with a Lit de justice pun:

THE ancient Goths of Germany, who (the learned Cluverius is positive) were first seated in the country between the Vistula and the Oder, and who afterwards incorporated the Herculi, the Bugians, and some other Vandallick clans to ’em—had all of them a wise custom of debating every thing of importance to their state, twice, that is,—once drunk, and once sober:——Drunk—that their councils might not want vigour;——and sober—that they might not want discretion.

Now my father being entirely a water-drinker,—was a long time gravelled almost to death, in turning this as much to his advantage, as he did every other thing which the ancients did or said; and it was not till the seventh year of his marriage, after a thousand fruitless experiments and devices, that he hit upon an expedient which answered the purpose;——and that was, when any difficult and momentous point was to be settled in the family, which required great sobriety, and great spirit too, in its determination,——he fixed and set apart the first Sunday night in the month, and the Saturday night which immediately preceded it, to argue it over, in bed with my mother: By which contrivance, if you consider, Sir, with yourself, * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

These my father, humorously enough, called his beds of justice;——for from the two different counsels taken in these two different humours, a middle one was generally found out which touched the point of wisdom as well, as if he had got drunk and sober a hundred times.

What the reader is to consider is one of the earliest jokes of the novel (chap 4 of volume 1):

——————Shut the door.——————
I was begot in the night betwixt the first Sunday and the first Monday in the month of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighteen. I am positive I was.—But how I came to be so very particular in my account of a thing which happened before I was born, is owing to another small anecdote known only in our own family, but now made publick for the better clearing up this point.

My father, you must know, who was originally a Turkey merchant, but had left off business for some years, in order to retire to, and die upon, his paternal estate in the county of ——, was, I believe, one of the most regular men in every thing he did, whether ’twas matter of business, or matter of amusement, that ever lived. As a small specimen of this extreme exactness of his, to which he was in truth a slave, he had made it a rule for many years of his life,—on the first Sunday-night of every month throughout the whole year,—as certain as ever the Sunday-night came,—to wind up a large house-clock, which we had standing on the back-stairs head, with his own hands:—And being somewhere between fifty and sixty years of age at the time I have been speaking of,—he had likewise gradually brought some other little family concernments to the same period, in order, as he would often say to my uncle Toby, to get them all out of the way at one time, and be no more plagued and pestered with them the rest of the month.

Omne ignotum pro magnifico

From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  This story was a favorite as a kid, partly because it’s the first Jeremy Brett episode I remember watching.

Sherlock Holmes’ quick eye took in my occupation, and he shook his head with a smile as he noticed my questioning glances. “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”

Mr. Jabez Wilson started up in his chair, with his forefinger upon the paper, but his eyes upon my companion.

“How, in the name of good-fortune, did you know all that, Mr. Holmes?” he asked. “How did you know, for example, that I did manual labour. It’s as true as gospel, for I began as a ship’s carpenter.”

“Your hands, my dear sir. Your right hand is quite a size larger than your left. You have worked with it, and the muscles are more developed.”

“Well, the snuff, then, and the Freemasonry?”

“I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you how I read that, especially as, rather against the strict rules of your order, you use an arc-and-compass breastpin.”

“Ah, of course, I forgot that. But the writing?”

“What else can be indicated by that right cuff so very shiny for five inches, and the left one with the smooth patch near the elbow where you rest it upon the desk?”

“Well, but China?”

“The fish that you have tattooed immediately above your right wrist could only have been done in China. I have made a small study of tattoo marks and have even contributed to the literature of the subject. That trick of staining the fishes’ scales of a delicate pink is quite peculiar to China. When, in addition, I see a Chinese coin hanging from your watch-chain, the matter becomes even more simple.”

Mr. Jabez Wilson laughed heavily. “Well, I never!” said he. “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it after all.”

“I begin to think, Watson,” said Holmes, “that I make a mistake in explaining. ‘Omne ignotum pro magnifico,’ you know, and my poor little reputation, such as it is, will suffer shipwreck if I am so candid.

The Latin phrase literally means ‘everything unknown [is regarded as] great/distinguished/splendid.’  The quote is from a speech in Tactitus’ Agricola delivered by the British chieftain Calgacus before the battle of Mons Graupius (though, as always with ancient historians, the whole thing is likelier of the author’s own making.  And, by some opinions, Calgacus himself is an invention as well.)  Below is the Loeb translation and text:

“As often as I survey the causes of this war and our present straits, my heart beats high that this very day and this unity of ours will be the beginning of liberty for all Britain. For you are all here, united, as yet untouched by slavery: there is no other land behind us, and the very sea even is no longer free from alarms, now that the fleet of Rome threatens us. Battle therefore and arms, the strong man’s pride, are also the coward’s best safety. Former battles, which were fought with varying success against Rome, left behind them hopes of help in us, because we, the noblest souls in all Britain, the dwellers in its inner shrine, had never seen any shores of slavery and had preserved our very eyes from the desecration and the contamination of tyranny: here at the world’s end, on its last inch of liberty, we have lived unmolested to this day, defended by our remoteness and obscurity. Now the uttermost parts of Britain lie exposed, and the unknown is ever magnified. But there are no other tribes to come; nothing but sea and cliffs and these more deadly Romans, whose arrogance you cannot escape by obedience and self-restraint. Robbers of the world, now that earth fails their all-devastating hands, they probe even the sea: if their enemy have wealth, they have greed; if he be poor, they are ambitious; East nor West has glutted them; alone of mankind they covet with the same passion want as much as wealth. To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desolation and they call it peace.

“Quotiens causas belli et necessitatem nostram intueor, magnus mihi animus est hodiernum diem consensumque vestrum initium libertatis toti Britanniae fore; nam et universi coistis et servitutis expertes, et nullae ultra terrae ac ne mare quidem securum inminente nobis classe Romana. ita proelium atque arma, quae fortibus honesta, eadem etiam ignavis tutissima sunt. priores pugnae, quibus adversus Romanos varia fortuna certatum est, spem ac subsidium in nostris manibus habebant, quia nobilissimi totius Britanniae eoque in ipsis penetralibus siti nec ulla servientium litora aspicientes, oculos quoque a contactu dominationis inviolatos habebamus. nos terrarum ac libertatis extremos recessus ipse ac sinus famae in hunc diem defendit; nunc terminus Britanniae patet, atque omne ignotum pro magnifico est: sed nulla iam ultra gens, nihil nisi fluctus ac saxa, et infestiores Romani, quorum superbiam frustra per obsequium ac modestiam effugias. raptores orbis, postquam cuncta vastantibus defuere terrae, iam mare scrutantur: si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi, quos non Oriens, non Occidens satiaverit: soli omnium opes atque inopiam pari adfectu concupiscunt. auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.


The speech is more famous, especially nowadays, for its early commentary on Roman imperialism – “they make a desolation and they call it peace” (atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pace appellant).

The fairest day after a bad emperor is the first

From Tacitus’ Histories (4.52, text and translation from the Loeb edition by Clifford Moore) – a lesson that loops back to the present, as does much of Tactius.

We are growing weak, fellow-senators, and are no longer that senate which after Nero had been cut down demanded that his informers and tools should be punished according to the custom of our forefathers.  The fairest day after a bad emperor is the first.

Elanguimus, patres conscripti, nec iam ille senatus sumus qui occiso Nerone delatores et ministros more maiorum puniendos flagitabat.  Optimus est post malum principem dies primus.