Sourcing a Philosophy Quotation from Twitter

Everybody loves quotations. There are handbooks of quotations, compendia and florilegia of memorable words, inspiring sentences and big thoughts; there are books and websites and RSS feeds and Twitter accounts that will provide you with a daily trove of memorable and notable and quotable sayings. Many of these rely on terrible translations of primary texts; they rarely include a citation (a title, a page number, chapter and verse, a Stephanus number or anything along those lines) that will allow you to track the original down; and some are just downright wrong in their attribution. I suspect this is the case because compilers and publishers of quotations are not drawing on primary sources but on compilations and collections of quotations. Any trace of the original has been long ago lost.

Today, for instance, a Twitter bot (I assume it’s a bot) that publishes philosophy quotations posted this: “knowledge which is divorced from justice, may be called cunning rather than wisdom.” The quotation was attributed to Cicero.

I’ve been interested in “cunning” for a while now, but I’ll leave that for another time. My curiosity got the better of me, and I wanted to have a look at what Cicero actually said. I certainly wasn’t going to get anything out of that ungainly English translation.

I managed to find the source of the quotation in De Officiis (I.xix.63). The first thing that struck me was this: the quotation attributed to Cicero is itself a quotation. He is quoting Plato — “praeclarum igitur illud Platonis”:

This then is a fine saying of Plato’s: “Not only must all knowledge that is divorced from justice be called cunning (calliditas) rather than wisdom,” he says, “but even the courage that is prompt to face danger, if it is inspired not by public spirit, but by its own selfish purposes, should have the name of effrontery rather than of courage.”

A gloss in my Loeb edition (which includes the Walter Miller translation I’m quoting) directs the reader to a dialogue of Plato’s called Menexenus.

It’s a very curious dialogue, not least because it consists almost entirely of a quotation.

The argument here puts us in familiar territory: it concerns rhetoric and its power to lift the spirit, celebrate the city, praise even those who “may not have been good for much,” and intoxicate citizens by flattering them. Socrates himself upon listening to the speeches of the funeral orators becomes “enchanted by them, and all in a moment I imagine myself to have become a greater, nobler and finer man than I was before.” Only four or five days later, he says, does he come to his senses.

The rest of the dialogue demonstrates the sort of thing Socrates is talking about. At the urging of Menexenus, a young, aspiring politician, Socrates recites a speech his own teacher and Pericles’ consort, Aspasia the Milesian, has prepared for an upcoming public funeral. The speech is a sophisticated parody of the public funeral oration. At the very least it re-opens the question of Pericles’ legacy and its political influence. (More on all that here and here.)

Though the speaker for the funeral has not yet been chosen, Aspasia has decided what the speaker should say. “She repeated to me the sort of speech which he should deliver, partly improvising and partly from previous thought, putting together fragments of the funeral oration Pericles spoke but which, as I believe, she composed.” So even this speech is not entirely original, but a patchwork; and “every rhetorician,” Socrates says, “has speeches ready made.”

In any case, the relevant passage – the passage to which Cicero seems to refer – finds Socrates quoting Aspasia who is, in turn, quoting the “heroes” she has been celebrating in her funeral oration, or at least what they “desired to have to said to you who are their survivors…. I will tell you what I heard them say, and what, if they had only speech, they would fain be saying, judging from what they then said. And you must imagine that you hear them saying what I now repeat to you.”

With Socrates quoting Aspasia who – in a self-conscious allusion to Thucydides — is quoting what the dead heroes would have said, we arrive at what seems to be the original:

Whatever is your aim let virtue be the condition of the attainment of your aim, and know that without this all possessions and pursuits are dishonourable and evil. For neither does wealth bring honour to the owner, if he be a coward; of such a one the wealth belongs to another, and not to himself. Nor does beauty and strength of body, when dwelling in a base and cowardly man, appear comely, but the reverse of comely, making the possessor more conspicuous, and manifesting forth his cowardice. And all knowledge, when separated from justice and virtue, is seen to be cunning and not wisdom; wherefore make this your first and last and constant and all-absorbing aim, to exceed, if possible, not only us but all your ancestors in virtue. (246E-247A)

Which may, in turn, answer this passage in Pericles’ funeral oration (Thucydides 2.40): “We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it.”

5 thoughts on “Sourcing a Philosophy Quotation from Twitter

  1. Pingback: Another misattribution: be careful out there! « lvgaldieri

  2. Pingback: Attack of the Philosophy Bots « lvgaldieri

  3. Pingback: Rickaby’s Doublet — Doing the Work Philosophy Bots Won’t Do | lvgaldieri

  4. Pingback: Politics, Oratory & The Teleprompter: Cicero on the Orator | The Leather Library

  5. Pingback: The Leather Library / Politics, Oratory & The Teleprompter: Cicero on the Orator

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