Tag Archives: quotations

A Sap and an Open Ticket

Last week, my friend David sent me an excerpt of a 1778 letter from Alexander Hamilton to George Clinton that closes with some thoughts on “a certain faction” that had reared its head and now has gone back into hiding.

You and I had some conversation, when I had the pleasure of seeing you last, with respect to the existence of a certain faction. Since I saw you, I have discovered such convincing traits of the monster, that I cannot doubt its reality in the most extensive sense. I dare say you have seen and heard enough to settle the matter in your own mind. I believe it unmasked its batteries too soon, and begins to hide its head; but, as I imagine it will only change the storm to a sap, all the true and sensible friends to their country, and of course to a certain great man, ought to be upon the watch, to counterplot the secret machinations of his enemies.

I struggled with the oblique writing here and had track down the meaning of “sap” as well. It’s a military term for a covered trench. An eighteenth-century encyclopedia entry included among the OED illustrations lists several kinds of sap, from the single parapet sap to the “flying” sap, which is outfitted with gabions. In the siege of a fortification, sappers excavate a trench toward the wall, allowing infantry to advance without being cut down by artillery fire from above. So the “sap” came to stand for an insidious or devious method of attack, as opposed to the “storm” or direct assault. Having prematurely shown its batteries and revealed its position, the faction will now resort to devious means and secret machinations.

It has not been so easy to solve another little mystery that presented itself just two days later, when I was reading the autobiography of Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, which first appeared in 1902. In his account of the McKinley assassination. Gibbs explains that he is going to focus

on a peculiar phase of the catastrophe, that for the truth of history and in the interest of justice should not be so rudely and covertly buried ‘neath the immature “beatings of time.”

The quotation marks are Gibbs’; the source of the quotation is an open question.

I may be wrong in assuming that Gibbs is actually quoting some other writer, and not just using — I would say misusing — the quotation marks to offset his own figurative turn of phrase. I had a passing thought it might be Wordsworth; but that was just a passing thought and a bad guess. Whitman? Think Leaves of Grass: “The indications and tally of all time…” in “The Song of the Answerer,” or, again:

…from the sea of Time, collecting vasting all, I bring,
A windrow-drift of weeds and shells.

Great stuff, but so far as I can tell Walt Whitman is just another bad guess. Charles later that same day offered the “wild guess” that it might be William James, but I haven’t been able to unearth the phrase in James’ vast work. Besides, I suspect that if Gibbs is indeed quoting another author, it’s probably a poet, one his audience would recognize, and it’s probably a work of poetry along the lines of Sonnet 55 (“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes,” etc.), a meditation on the passing of all things. So Gibbs’ ticket is still open, and I welcome suggestions, thoughts and wild guesses that might help close it.

Only the Doer Learns – A Little Context

A short while ago, I tracked down the source of a quotation that had been wrongly attributed to Kant and widely circulated online: “A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting.” I found the sentence a pretty long way from any work by Immanuel Kant, in Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality, and after reading the passage in question I remarked offhand that Castaneda seemed to channeling not Kant, but some mix of Erasmus’ Praise of Folly and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Now my pursuit of another widely-circulated quotation — this one attributed correctly, it turns out, to Nietzsche — has brought me back to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Reading my old beat up paperback edition of Zarathustra again today only strengthened my conviction that Castaneda drew freely on Nietzsche as he created Don Juan; and it’s also brought me back to some consideration of how much gets lost when we allow philosophical quotations to stand for philosophy. That, as I noted in a previous post, is a growing tendency, driven by the boom in career, motivational and leadership literature and by social media.

“Only the doer learns” is how R.J. Hollingdale neatly renders Nietzche’s nur der Thäter lernt. The translation I’ve seen most widely circulated lately has a deliberately antiquated flavor: “the doer alone learneth.” Maybe that looks better as a tattoo, or a gamer’s motto. [Update 22 Feb 2015: since writing this post I have discovered that the brutal death metal band Emeth has a 2008 song called ‘The Doer Alone Learneth.’] I cannot even begin to imagine the various uses to which Nietzsche might be put nowadays. I can imagine, based on other forays I have made into the world of popular quotations, that “only the doer learns” is being traded as advice that one ought to learn by doing, jump right in, be a self-starter, take some measured risks. That, regrettably, is what the literature of success reduces philosophy to — formulas for jumpstarting your career and getting ahead. Let’s see if in the present case we can arrive at something a little more intelligent and nuanced than that.

Context helps. The line in question is from the chapter on “The Ugliest Man” in Book 3 of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It’s been yanked completely out of context — as most of these popular and familiar quotations are — and I wonder how and why it ended up getting yanked.

Here, Zarathustra is passing through the valley the shepherds call Serpent’s Death, where he comes upon “something sitting on the pathway, shaped like a man and yet hardly like a man, something unutterable” and he is overcome by “the great shame of having beheld such a thing.” He blushes and turns away, but just as he attempts to leave a human voice rises up and puts a riddle to him: “What is the revenge on the witness?” And a few minutes later: “who am I”? At first so overcome by pity that he sinks to the ground, Zarathustra raises himself up and, standing again, replies: you are the murderer of God.

So here we have Zarathustra, face to face with the ugliest man, who could not tolerate God’s witness: God pitied him. “His pity knew no shame: he crept into my dirtiest corners. This most curious, most over-importunate, over-compassionate god had to die….Man could not endure that such a witness should live.” Zarathustra replies:

“You unutterable creature,” he said, “you warned me against your road. As thanks for that, I recommend you mine. Behold, up yonder lies Zarathustra’s cave.”
“My cave is big and deep and possesses many corners; there the best hidden man can find his hiding place. And close by it are a hundred secret and slippery ways for creeping, fluttering, and jumping beasts.”
“You outcast who cast yourself out, do you not wish to live among men and the pity of men? Very well, do as I do. Thus you also learn from me; only the doer learns.
And first of all and above all speak with my animals! The proudest animal and the wisest animal — they may well be the proper counsellors for both of us!”
Thus spoke Zarathustra, and went on his way, even more thoughtfully and slowly than before: for he asked himself many things and did not easily know what to answer.
How poor is man! (he thought in his heart) how ugly, how croaking, how full of secret shame!
They tell me that man loves himself: ah, how great must this self-love be! How much contempt is opposed to it!
Even this man has loved himself as he has despised himself — he seems to me a great lover and a great despiser.
I have yet found no one who has despised himself more deeply: even that is height. Alas, was he perhaps the Higher Man whose cry I heard?
I love the great despisers. Man, however, is something that must be overcome.

To learn from Zarathustra, the Ugliest Man will do as he has done: he will live in his cave, far from the sight of men, beyond pity and morality, and beyond human language itself. He will live among the beasts and speak with the animals. That is the where Zarathustra’s steep mountain road leads.

I suspect that we are to hear some mockery in the maxim “only the doer learns.” So lernst du auch von mir; nur der Thäter lernt might be Nietzche’s aphoristic and bitterly ironic rendering of a passage in Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics 1103A) on the habit of virtue: “the virtues,” runs this famous passage from Book II of the Ethics, “we acquire by first having put them into action, and the same is also true of the arts. For the things which we have to learn before we can do them we learn by doing” [emphasis mine]. It wouldn’t surprise me to find Nietzsche roasting this old chestnut of moral philosophy even as Zarathustra turns morality and philosophy itself on its head.

Kant or Castaneda?

Fernando J. Grijalva and I have never met, but I hope we do someday. We’ve shared ideas, disagreed, and exchanged views, entirely online, usually in 140 characters or less. I consider him an intellectual companion, a “co-learner,” to use the word Fernando likes to use. Yesterday we shared an error.

It started when Fernando posted this quotation, attributed to Kant:

I was intrigued, and wondered what word Kant used here for “lives,” since that word (which, along with the nominative form “life,” never fails to intrigue me) seemed to be the crux of the thought. So I went searching, and in my haste I thought I found it in the Critique of Pure Reason.

Instead, it turns out, my quick scan of the Google search results misled me. This morning, when I tried to pick up the trail, my search led me not to the German text of Kant’s Critique, but to Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality. Here is the passage in full. Don Juan is speaking:

‘I told you once that our lot as men is to learn, for good or bad,’ he said. ‘I have learned to see and I tell you that nothing really matters; now it is your turn; perhaps someday you will see and you will know then whether things matter or not. For me nothing matters, but for you perhaps everything will. You should know by now that a man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting, nor by thinking about what he will think when he has finished acting. A man of knowledge chooses a path with heart and follows it; and then he looks and rejoices and laughs; and then he sees and knows. He knows that his life will be over altogether too soon; he knows that he, as well as everybody else, is not going anywhere; he knows, because he sees, that nothing is more important than anything else. In other words, a man of knowledge has no honor, no dignity, no family, no name, no country, but only life to be lived, and under these circumstances his only tie to his fellow men is his controlled folly. Thus a man of knowledge endeavors, and sweats, and puffs, and if one looks at him he is just like any ordinary man, except that the folly of his life is under control. Nothing being more important than anything else, a man of knowledge chooses any act, and acts it out as if it matters to him. His controlled folly makes him say that what he does matters and makes him act as if it did, and yet he knows that it doesn’t; so when he fulfills his acts he retreats in peace, and whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn’t, is in no way part of his concern.’ (emphasis mine)

Reading this again after all these years – as a teenager I devoured Castaneda’s books, but as an adult I’ve never gone back to them – I am surprised and impressed by the power of Castenada’s writing; at the same time it’s hard to believe anyone ever mistook this stuff for anthropology.

While I wouldn’t put it past the writer who made Don Juan out of whole cloth to have channeled or lifted something from Kant, here he sounds more like he is channeling some mix of Erasmus and Nietzsche.

Quoted out of context, the line about the man of knowledge sounds like serious philosophy, but turns out to be pseudo-anthropological fantasy (which may, in turn, have something philosophically serious to offer). In context, it’s not quite the lesson in pragmatism Fernando thought it was. So, for now, unless someone can find the sentence in Kant, Castaneda should get all the credit.

Another misattribution: be careful out there!

It happened again today. Just now, a philosophy Twitter bot posted this quotation, attributing it to Cicero.

A noble sentiment. As of this writing it’s been retweeted 54 times and favorited 16, just an hour or so after it was first posted.

The only trouble is, these are not the inspiring words of the orator and statesman Cicero, but the words of Orfellus, “a peasant, a philosopher unschooled and rough,” as rendered by the poet Horace at the close of Satire II.ii.

Like Horace himself, Orfellus was dispossessed of his property; and he understands that neither he nor the new landlord, Umbrenus, has a legitimate claim to the land. It belongs to “no one for good,” but is ceded for use (cedet in usum). The Loeb trot continues:

Nature, in truth, makes neither him nor me nor anyone else lord of the soil as his own. He drove us out, and he will be driven out by villainy, or by ignorance of the quirks of the law, or in the last resort by an heir of longer life. Today the land bears the name of Umbrenus; of late it had that of Orfellus; to no one will it belong for good, but for use it will pass, now to me and now to another. Live then, as brave men, and with brave hearts confront the strokes of fate (quocirca vivite fortes / fortiaque adversis opponite pectora rebus).

I can’t figure out the source of the confusion, how or where the quotation came to be attributed to Cicero, how Cicero’s prose and Horace’s verse could be confused, and I don’t really know what to make of it all, except to reiterate that most books of quotations and nearly all quotation bots and sites proffering quotations are borrowing, cutting and pasting, or sloppily compiling from other compilations, and never working from original sources. Maybe that sort of spadework went out with the keeping of commonplace books. No matter, don’t trust any attribution that doesn’t cite chapter and verse; and even then, verify.

And if fortune is averse, front its blows with brave hearts. No, that’s not Mel Gibson.

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.”