In tenui labor . . .

David French, in his Sunday newsletter,

But when we speak of our own energy and our own efforts, here’s a basic truth. We can have a large amount of influence over a small number of people and a small amount of influence over a large number of people. The question that can and should challenge so many of us—especially those most engaged in politics—is whether our efforts are calibrated to our impact.

Which reminded me of the following from G. K. Chesterton:

But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes and books; to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.

What’s Wrong with the World, p. 132 of the edition linked above

And this in turn reminded me of another quote, in a similar vein, by Jane Austen, in a letter to her nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh:

What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of variety and Glow? – How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much Labour?

British Library, Add MS 89437

Here is a photograph of the autograph text, from the webpage linked above:

Jane Austen’s “little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory” were of course her novels.

Taken together, the sentiments of French, Chesterton, and Austen teach a salutary lesson in the importance of loving labor on a small scale. A lesson for which Virgil’s Georgics provides a fitting motto: in tenui labor, at tenuis non gloria, “my toil is on a slender theme, but slender not is its glory!”

“nobody can be taught faster than he can learn”

Samuel Johnson, from his “Life of Milton” via Alan Jacobs’s microblog:

It is told that in the art of education [Milton] performed wonders, and a formidable list is given of the authors, Greek and Latin, that were read in Aldersgate-street by youth between ten and fifteen or sixteen years of age. Those who tell or receive these stories should consider that nobody can be taught faster than he can learn. The speed of the horseman must be limited by the power of his horse. Every man that has ever undertaken to instruct others can tell what slow advances he has been able to make, and how much patience it requires to recall vagrant inattention, to stimulate sluggish indifference, and to rectify absurd misapprehension.

The fruits of better thinking

Dr. Ulrich Lehner, interviewed by Charlie Camosy (via The Pillar):

Good thinking means that you can understand what others are saying, can articulate it in your own words, but also that you are able to describe your own experience of the world to others. If I am not able to put my suffering and pain in words others understand, I become frustrated and withdraw.

The more we learn to think better, we recognize our own limitations, and see in others members of the same species, endowed with the same dignity and reason. We can build a “home” together, a society that is just and empathetic. That does not mean one has to “feel” what the other feels, but the ability to take somebody’s else’s standpoint. By doing so, we learn to see the world from the viewpoint of our opponents, our critics, of the underprivileged and poor, the marginalized and so on. We become better human beings by doing it, but we also develop the ability to disagree with each other more respectfully.

βδέλυγμα (bdelugma)

From last Saturday’s (November 6) Gospel reading (from the Parable of the Dishonest Steward):

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at him. But he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.

Luke 16: 14–15

“Abomination” is a strong word. Coming into English via French from Latin, it means first “a feeling or state of mind of disgust and hatred; detestation, loathing, abhorrence” (OED)—formerly referring even to “physical revulsion” or “nausea”—but can also describe “abhorrent behavior”: “a loathsome or wicked act or practice.” It can thus refer to either the feeling of disgust by the person who abominates a loathsome, disgusting, or wicked thing; or to the abominable object itself.

“Abomination”—or the Latin version, abominatio, in the Vulgate Bible—produces a forceful rendering of the original Greek. But even “abomination” falls short of the vividness of the Greek word bdelugma.

Ἤκουον δὲ ταῦτα πάντα οἱ Φαρισαῖοι φιλάργυροι ὑπάρχοντες, καὶ ἐξεμυκτήριζον αὐτόν. καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· Ὑμεῖς ἐστε οἱ δικαιοῦντες ἑαυτοὺς ἐνώπιον τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ὁ δὲ θεὸς γινώσκει τὰς καρδίας ὑμῶν· ὅτι τὸ ἐν ἀνθρώποις ὑψηλὸν βδέλυγμα ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ.

The phrase “what is of human esteem” translates τὸ ἐν ἀνθρώποις ὑψηλὸν (to en anthrōpois hypsēlon). The last word of that phrase literally means “high” or “lofty” or even “sublime”—i.e., that which is held in “high esteem.” It calls to mind supreme achievements—those exploits for which a person is most highly regarded according to the world’s standards of success. It is just such achievements, Jesus teaches, that are in fact an abomination in the eyes of God—or a bdelugma: “something disgusting that arouses wrath, loathsome thing” or “something that is totally defiling, abomination, pollutant” (BDAG).

Bdelugma is an example of what is called a nomen acti—a noun, formed from a verb, that indicates a particular occurrence of, or the result of, that verb. The verb, in this case, is bdelussomai—which originally meant to “be sick” of the food one is eating, but later developed the sense of causing such sickness.

The jarring awkwardness of the word—which seems to mimic the very sound of retching—indicates the vile and revolting character of the things to which it was applied, and gives us a clearer sense of the shocking forcefulness of Jesus’s teaching. Even so, we can follow the etymology back one step further. For bdelussomai itself is formed from another verb: bdeō—which has an even more vivid, and vividly disgusting, sense, namely: “to break wind“—or to use the more vivid English, “to fart.” Such are the high achievements of man in the eyes of God. So many bdelugmata.

On Restoration

My good friends and colleagues Matthew Tsakanikas and Kevin Tracy on the Pauline phrase “to restore all things in Christ” (instaurare omnia in Christo):

Instaurare does not mean restoring the cultural make-up of church and state at the time of Trent (or earlier). It means gathering up again structures and fragments of goodness, gathering up new discoveries of authenticated knowledge, gathering and summing up all that makes humanity better, and producing day by day a stronger synthesis founded in the mystery of Christ and love of neighbor. “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt 13:52).

The Battle to Avoid Power

Plato, Republic 347d:

It is likely that if a city of good men were to exist, there would be just as much battling over not ruling as there is now over ruling . . .

κινδυνεύει πόλις ἀνδρῶν ἀγαθῶν εἰ γένοιτο, περιμάχητον ἂν εἶναι τὸ μὴ ἄρχειν ὥσπερ νυνὶ τὸ ἄρχειν . . .

This is because, Socrates explains, ruling is all about conferring a benefit upon those who are ruled. And so, every person of understanding would choose rather to be benefitted by another than to have the trouble of conferring that benefit.

In Plato’s day, of course, as in many days, a great battle raged over gaining the power to rule. But in a city where all people are good—so Socrates claims—the battle would be just as intense, but in the opposite direction: a fierce competition to avoid holding political power. Imagine that.

Getting Back to Latin and Greek

An alumna of our classics department wrote to me recently. She asked what I recommend for resuming her studies of Latin and Greek. Since it seemed that other readers of this blog might have the same question, I wrote this post:

  • Recommendations for texts: Start with something easy and try to read a little bit consistently. I recommend this series of texts and commentaries by Dr. Geoffrey Steadman. They are in what Steadman calls the “Pharr format” after this commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid by Clyde Pharr. Each page contains a small portion of Latin (or Greek) text, followed by a section of glosses of most of the vocabulary in that passage, and a section of grammatical notes at the foot of the page. Best of all, Steadman makes his titles available for free online access. The commentaries also include sections on “core vocabulary” words—i.e., all those words that occur a certain number of times in the text. Steadman himself has published his own advice for those wishing “to become a life-long reader of Latin or Greek outside of the university environment”—you can find it here. He recommends beginning with just five lines per day. Steadman’s entire list of advice is worth reading and following, but I will highlight one more item here:
  • Re-read your favorite Latin and Greek texts. Steadman writes, “If a work in Latin or Greek has brought you joy or changed your outlook in life, it is worth reading again. If you struggle to maintain the reading habit or just cannot find a new author that you enjoy, reread your favorite Latin/Greek title.” If there was a particular text you read in college that deeply moved or impressed you, just keep reading, and re-reading, it. And then commit as much of it as you can to memory.
  • Commentaries: Once you reacquire the habit of reading Latin and Greek consistently, you may want to consult commentaries, or other scholarly works, that go beyond explaining the basic meaning of the Greek and Latin.
    1. Cambridge University Press has published for many years a series called Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. The series now contains nearly a hundred volumes, covering the entire classical period as well as some early Christian works, for example, Augustine’s Confessions. Each volume contains the Greek or Latin text with extensive commentary, an introduction, and bibliography.
    2. Another useful series of commentaries, with less interpretive but more grammatical help, is the Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries. They include the Greek or Latin text, a very brief introduction, commentary, and sometimes a limited list of titles for further reading.
    3. Dickinson College publishes a series of online commentaries in a similar vein, i.e. intended for beginning-to-intermediate readers of Latin and Greek: Dickinson College Commentaries. These can be accessed for free online. They contain the Greek or Latin text with an option to toggle between notes and vocabulary on the right side of the screen. Some editions include an option to buy the print version or download the PDF.
    4. You can also find many older commentaries now available in the public domain. One particular—and vastly useful—commentary which you can access for free online is T. E. Page’s commentary on Virgil’s Eclogues (or Bucolics) and Georgics.
  • Lexicons: Of course you will also need to dust off your old Greek and Latin lexicons, which should include (in hard copy form): Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott’s An Intermediate Greek–English Lexicon (affectionately referred to as the “Middle Liddell”) and a Latin dictionary intended for beginning or intermediate readers: e.g., Charleton T. Lewis’s An Elementary Latin Dictionary or Cassell’s Latin Dictionary.
  • Books on Grammar and Syntax: Inevitably, as you resume your Latin and Greek reading, you will encounter sentences that seem impenetrable. Don’t despair. Pick up your Greek or Latin grammar. For Greek, turn to Herbert Weir Smyth’s magisterial Greek Grammar. For Latin, you’ve got options: Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar; Basil Gildersleeve’s Latin Grammar; and the book I turn to first for all of my syntactical questions, E. C. Woodcock’s New Latin Syntax. Woodcock’s book is especially helpful because it explains, with extraordinary concision, the historical developments of Latin that lie behind all the rules: for example, why the ablative has so many uses.
  • Other Reference Works: After your lexicons and grammars, the most useful reference work for students of Greek and Latin is the Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD), now in its fourth edition. But a used older edition will still serve most purposes. The OCD is an encyclopedia of Greek and Roman history and culture. Reference works focused more on Greek and Latin literature include: Albin Lesky’s A History of Greek Literature; and Gian Biagio Conte’s Latin Literature; and the Cambridge History of Classical Literature. One other title worth noting, although not strictly a reference work, is the book by L. D. Reynolds and N. G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, which narrates the history of the preservation and meticulous transmission of Greek and Latin texts from antiquity to the dawn of printing.

Lasting Things

(This post first appeared in my monthly newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.

My late friend and colleague Dr. Brendan McGuire was fond of quoting the following by St. Prosper of Aquitaine.

Even if the wounds of this shattered world enmesh you, and the sea in turmoil bears you along in one surviving ship, it would still befit you to maintain your enthusiasm for liberal studies unimpaired. Why should lasting things tremble if transient things fall?

I am grateful to my friend, and former student, Luke Maschue for hunting down the original Latin, which can be found at Patrologia Latina vol. 51 p. 617 ll.7–10, from Prosper’s Carmen de Providentia Divina:

Ac si te fracti perstringunt vulnera mundi,

 Turbatumque una si rate fert pelagus;

Invictum deceat studiis servare vigorem.

 Cur mansura pavent, si ruitura cadunt?

(Congratulations if you recognized the meter of the poem—elegiac couplets!)

The words mansura and ruitura are rendered “lasting things” and “transient things” in the translation quoted above. But the translation does not quite convey the exact nuance of the Latin words—both of them future active participles. A more precise, if somewhat awkwardly literal, translation would be: “things destined to last” and “things destined to fall.” The second word, ruitura, really means something more like “things destined to collapse,” i.e. destined to fall into ruin. For ruitura is formed from the verb ruere, which means “to fall with violence, rush down; to fall down, tumble down, go to ruin.” Prosper’s idea thus seems to be that in life there are some things which, by their nature, are destined to last and so withstand all the vicissitudes of time and chance; while other things are destined to exist for a time only before finally, and inevitably, collapsing. By means of this stark contrast, Prosper gives us a useful way of thinking about the liberal arts—as studies in lasting things or in those things destined to last.

But what makes a thing destined to last, and so not destined to fall or finally collapse? I think immediately of ancient literature, which now seems capable of lasting into the future even longer than it has yet survived—especially since the modern mechanism of its transmission (the printed book) seems so much sturdier than its ancient and medieval ancestors—the papyrus scroll and parchment codex. Yet the thread of cultural transmission that preserved the poems of Homer, plays of Sophocles, and golden prose of Plato was often thin, and sometimes all but broken. The things we now regard as securely destined to last—had circumstances differed by even a hair’s breadth—might have turned out to be things destined to fall. Take, for example, the entire corpus of Sophocles’s plays—some 120 in total, of which a mere seven have survived to us. What we now consider a permanent possession of human culture survived for millenia only by the thinnest thread of deliberate, laborious, meticulous transmission.

But St. Prosper—we should note—does not describe the objects or the particular texts of liberal study as themselves lasting things but rather liberal study itself. “It would befit you to maintain your enthusiasm for liberal studies unimpaired. Why should lasting things tremble if transient things fall?” Again, the Latin is more vivid than the translation: St. Prosper in fact bids us “preserve” (servare) our “liveliness” or “vigor” (vigor) for liberal study “unvanquished” (invictus). While particular texts eminently suited as objects of liberal study may fall, the pursuit of liberal study itself—our enthusiasm for the liberal arts—perdures or simply lasts, far beyond the narrow limits of a single life.

One of my most vivid memories of Brendan is from December of 2019, just after he received the news that the multiple rounds of chemotherapy he had received over the last eight years had induced myelodysplastic syndrome, which would require a bone marrow transplant if Brendan had any hope of surviving much longer. Many of you already know the story. Instead of receiving that transplant, Brendan suffered a recurrence of his Ewing’s sarcoma, which disqualified him from the transplant. He then suffered courageously, nay heroically, for the next several months before dying this past fall on October 9, the feast of St. John Henry Newman.

My memory is of Brendan’s last official act as President of Christendom College’s Faculty Senate. It was to reflect that perhaps then, on that final day of the fall semester, he had taught the last class he would ever teach. And then he quoted for us the passage from St. Prosper.

Even if the wounds of this shattered world enmesh you, and the sea in turmoil bears you along in one surviving ship, it would still befit you to maintain your enthusiasm for liberal studies unimpaired. Why should lasting things tremble if transient things fall?

Rest in peace, Dr. McGuire. Frater, ave atque vale . . . sed non in perpetuum!

Christendom Classical Languages Institute

Those keen to maintain their enthusiasm for liberal studies unimpaired can find ample opportunity for doing so this summer at Christendom College. The college will hold its annual Classical Languages Institute, offering courses in ancient Greek, Latin, and Arabic. You can find all the details here.

Triduum Virginiense

A late addition to this summer’s roster of classes and events is the Triduum Virginiense—a three-day immersive program in spoken Latin, including lectures, lessons on grammar and vocabulary, discussions of classical literature and artwork, and games. Follow the link above for more information and to apply, or contact the organizer, Ms. Patricia Craig,

Vacca and Vaccines

The Covid-19 vaccines are much in the news these days, but did you know that the word vaccine derives from the Latin word for “cow,” vacca?

Dr. Aaron Rothstein tells the story in this thoughtful and detailed account of the history of vaccination, and of vaccine criticism. Rothstein credits English physician Eward Jenner with pioneering the transition from inoculation through smallpox exposure to vaccination against smallpox by means of controlled exposure to cowpox.

Jenner, who had been inoculated as an eight-year-old boy in 1757, was intrigued by the observation that milkmaids almost never contracted smallpox, and inferred that their immunity to the disease could be a consequence of their exposure to the pustules on the udders of animals infected with cowpox.

In 1796, Jenner took fluid from blisters on a milkmaid’s hands and smeared them into incisions he made on the hands of an eight-year-old boy. After a slight fever, the boy recovered. And when Jenner later inoculated the boy with smallpox, the boy did not suffer from the usual illness associated with variolation. Jenner continued to experiment on the child, exposing him to infectious smallpox material to verify that the cowpox had in fact provided protection against small pox. (It must be said that although Jenner’s research resulted in one of humanity’s greatest medical achievements, these early experiments were morally repulsive.)

This new technique — dubbed “vaccination” because it used cowpox, and vaccus is the Latin for cow — proved safer and more effective than previous inoculation strategies, a fact that was quickly recognized by the medical community, and by governments around the world. Within five years of its publication, Jenner’s 1798 book about the experiment was translated into German, Dutch, French, Italian, and Latin. In 1803, the Germans performed 17,000 vaccinations. That same year, the Spanish started vaccination programs in their colonies; the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and parts of the United States similarly took up the vaccine.

Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary

Alan Jacobs, in a recent newsletter, quotes from Dr. Johnson’s Preface to his dictionary, which is now fully online.

In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed; and though no book was ever spared out of tenderness to the authour, and the world is little solicitous to know whence proceeded the faults of that which it condemns; yet it may gratify curiosity to inform it, that the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow: and it may repress the triumph of malignant criticism to observe, that if our language is not here fully displayed, I have only failed in an attempt which no human powers have hitherto completed. If the lexicons of ancient tongues, now immutably fixed, and comprised in a few volumes, be yet, after the toil of successive ages, inadequate and delusive; if the aggregated knowledge, and co-operating diligence of the Italian academicians, did not secure them from the censure of Beni; if the embodied criticks of France, when fifty years had been spent upon their work, were obliged to change its oeconomy, and give their second edition another form, I may surely be contented without the praise of perfection, which, if I could obtain, in this gloom of solitude, what would it avail me? I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.

Jacobs has written an essay about Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, which you can read here. He calls the essay “a tribute to paper dictionaries,” that is to “codex dictionaries,” which Jacobs says “[he] abidingly love[s]”—as does this author.

Et in Arcadia Ego

(This post first appeared in my newsletter. Subscribe here, if you would like to receive the newsletter each month.)

Et in Arcadia Ego

The title to Book One of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is the Latin phrase “Et in Arcadia Ego”—but the interpretation of that phrase is debated. Book One begins as the narrator, Captain Charles Ryder, realizes he has unwittingly returned to Brideshead—the English manor where he spent many days of his youth—now commandeered during the mobilization of British forces in World War II. Ryder is instantly overcome by the vivid memory of his first visit.

I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.

The novel’s Prologue had described the grim monotony of Ryder’s military life. His realization that he has returned to Brideshead—and the flood of memories the realization stirs—creates a sharp contrast with the dreariness of Ryder’s present life. His nostalgia for that earlier, brighter, more hopeful time well represents the prevailing interpretation of the phrase et in Arcadia ego—“I, too, (once lived) in Arcadia.” Examples of this motif abound in modern literature. As Erwin Panofsky explains, in this brilliant essay, the motif conjures up “the retrospective vision of an unsurpassable happiness, enjoyed in the past, unattainable ever after, yet enduringly alive in the memory.”

But what is Arcadia—or Arcady, as it is often called in English? To answer that question, it is necessary to distinguish two Arcadias: the actual region of the central Peloponnese, in Greece: a rugged, desolate, primitive place, inhabited by herdsmen and the god Pan; and the Arcady of poetic and pictorial imagination: “an ideal realm of perfect bliss and beauty, a dream incarnate of ineffable happiness, surrounded nevertheless with a halo of ‘sweetly sad’ melancholy” (Panofsky). How the former was transformed into the latter is a story too big for a newsletter. Panofsky gives a detailed account, which demonstrates the crucial role played by the Roman poet Virgil. But the main subject of Panofsky’s essay is the proper translation of the phrase et in Arcadia ego—which is not, as we usually take it, “I, too, (once lived) in Arcadia,” but rather “even in Arcadia I (Death) (hold sway).”

Apart from considering the rules of Latin grammar—which argue strongly for the latter interpretation—Panofsky also closely analyzes a pair of paintings by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) and an earlier painting by Giovanni Francesco Guercino (1591–1666). Guercino’s picture, painted at Rome between 1621 and 1623, is the source of the Latin phrase Et in Arcadia ego, which is the painting’s title.

Et in Arcadia Ego by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Guercino): Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome

Panofsky comments:

In this painting two Arcadian shepherds are checked in their wanderings by the sudden sight … of a huge human skull that lies on a moldering piece of masonry and receives the attentions of a fly and a mouse, popular symbols of decay and all-devouring time. Incised on the masonry are the words Et in Arcadia ego, and it is unquestionably by the skull that they are supposed to be pronounced.… The skull, now, was and is the accepted symbol of Death personified, as is borne out by the very fact that the English language refers to it, not as a “dead man’s head,” but as a “death’s-head.”

One description of the painting speaks of the two shepherds as “gay frolickers” stumbling over a death’s-head. Far from stirring wistful feeling for a blissful but irrecoverable past, Guercino’s Et in Arcadia ego “turns out to be a mediaeval memento mori in humanistic disguise.” It is a startling summons to all who behold it to consider our inescapable mortality.

Waugh’s novel, in fact, describes a similar scene: As Charles Ryder dwells upon the memory of his prodigal youth spent in the company of his dear friend Sebastian, he remembers the various adornments of his Oxford rooms, which included “a human skull lately purchased from the School of Medicine, which, resting in a bowl of roses, formed, at the moment, the chief decoration of my table. It bore the motto Et in Arcadia ego inscribed on its forehead.” For the Charles Ryder of that moment—rich in youth and surrounded by luxury and material comfort—the prominent display of the death’s-head inscribed et in Arcadia ego is a whimsical affectation. But, as readers of the novel know, Ryder’s subsequent life becomes a lesson in the pain of abortive love, loss, and suffering—a lesson that even in the midst of his blissful youth—even in Arcadia—Death held sway.

The omnipresence of Death’s reign, however, is not the end of the story—either absolutely or as regards the interpretation of the phrase et in Arcadia ego. Panofsky, after demonstrating the proper translation of the Latin—”even in Arcadia I (Death) (hold sway)”—still allows for a legitimate development of the interpretation of the phrase: a development instigated by Nicolas Poussin’s two versions of the same theme:

Et in Arcadia Ego, first version by Nicolas Poussin: Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth

Et in Arcadia Ego, second version by Nicolas Poussin: Louvre

The first version originally formed the counterpart of Poussin’s Midas Washing His Face in the River Pactolus. “In conjunction, the two compositions thus teach a twofold lesson, one warning against a mad desire for riches at the expense of the more real values of life, the other against a thoughtless enjoyment of pleasures soon to be ended” (Panofsky). Panofsky concludes that the phrase Et in Arcadia ego—now inscribed on a classical sarcophagus, atop which rests the human skull, recalling Guercino’s composition—”can still be translated as ‘Even in Arcady I, Death, hold sway,’ without being out of harmony with what is visible in the painting itself.”

In Poussin’s second version of the theme, however,

we can observe a radical break with the mediaeval, moralizing tradition. The element of drama and surprise has disappeared. Instead of two or three Arcadians approaching from the left in a group, we have four, symmetrically arranged on either side of a sepulchral monument. Instead of being checked in their progress by an unexpected and terrifying phenomenon, they are absorbed in calm discussion and pensive contemplation.

Most noteworthy, the death’s-head has been entirely eliminated. Thus,

we have a basic change in interpretation. The Arcadians are not so much warned of an implacable future as they are immersed in mellow meditation on a beautiful past.… In short, Poussin’s Louvre picture no longer shows a dramatic encounter with Death but a contemplative absorption in the idea of mortality.”

The effect of Poussin’s development of the theme is to invite (“almost compel,” says Panofsky) the beholder to mistranslate the Latin phrase by relating the ego to a dead person instead of to the tomb, by connecting the et with ego instead of with Arcadia, and by supplying the missing verb in the form of a vixi [I have lived] or fui [I have been] instead of a sum [I am].… Here, then, we have the occupant of the tomb substituted for the tomb itself, and the whole phrase projected into the past: what had been a menace has become a remembrance.

“Sauntering” and la Sainte Terre

My brother Jason wrote to me about the etymology of the word “saunter” given by Henry David Thoreau in his essay “Walking.” To “saunter” is to “to walk with a leisurely and careless gait; to stroll. Also, to travel by vehicle in a slow and leisurely manner” (Oxford English Dictionary). A now-obsolete meaning is “to wander or travel about aimlessly or unprofitably; to travel as a vagrant.” But the original meaning of the word was “to muse” or “to be in reverie.” Thoreau himself offers two possible etymologies of the word:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going à la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.

Of this etymology, Thoreau comments, “They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean.” He then offers a second derivation:

Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which, indeed, is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.

Alas! Modern etymologists have rejected both of the derivations proposed by Thoreau, although they do note that the word is “of obscure origin.” The American Heritage Dictionary derives “saunter” from Middle English santren, “to muse, wonder”; the OED offers a derivation from Anglo-Norman santrer, “to venture oneself,” but admits that this is “unlikely.” Well, even if Thoreau’s etymologies of “saunter” are wrong, what a wonderful coincidence of sound! Wonderful, and serendipitous—in that the coincidence is responsible, at least in part, for inspiring Thoreau’s essay. Serendipitous, by the way, is another word with a fascinating etymology.

Lingua Franca

My old friend—oldest friend in fact—Dr. Nathan Peffley of Mayo Clinic sent me this fascinating article, which describes a call within France to replace English as the official language of Europe with—wait for it—Latin! The case for Latin as lingua franca of Europe is made by Sundar Ramanadane in the journal Le Figaro.

Latin, he argues, is a natural choice. This is particularly given that every shared historical political experience in Europe leads back to Latin. From the Roman Empire and Christianity, to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Latin was present throughout it all.

It’s not lacking for culture either, says Ramandane, used through nearly 2000 years of history as the only common link between European minds, leaders and scholars. He goes on to argue that it’s no stranger to modern languages, having shaped them deeply.

More importantly, he argues, Latin is well-suited to politics. In fact, some of the greatest orators and legal experts spoke in Latin, and one that will make it possible to train political leaders and civil servants in rhetoric and logic, much like ancient Greece and Rome.

The biggest reason of all would be symbolic unity. A single language could unify Europe and let it evolve into the next great political union, rather than a loose scattering of states brought together by shared financial interests.

Many readers will surely reflect that Latin, after all, is still the official language of the Catholic Church—and so not, as is often supposed, a “dead” language. In fact, to quote Pope St. John XXIII, lingua Latina est lingua Ecclesiae viva—”the Latin language is the living language of the Church.”

Carne and Carnival

My friend and colleague Dr. Christopher Shannon writes in his latest CWR piece on the historical, social, and moral significance of Carnival—a word which, as Dr. Shannon notes, derives ultimately from the Latin word for meat or flesh (carō, carnis).

During the weeks of Carnival, people traditionally indulged and over-indulged in the consumption of meat. The practice grew out of the practical limitations of food supplies and food preservation in premodern agrarian societies. By the early months of the year, the food from the Fall harvest was running low and meat from slaughtered animals had to be used up before it spoiled.

As the Church gained public authority in the Roman Empire, it glossed this natural seasonal practice with supernatural significance: the holy feast of celebrating Christ’s birth would give way to the holy fast of Lent, a season of preparation for the celebration of Christ’s redemption of mankind at Easter. The carnal excesses of the old pagan celebrations persisted into the Christian era.

Dr. Shannon discovers in both the historical and the still-active practice of Carnival today—as in New Orleans—an enduring testament to the carnality of Catholic culture, which “is by nature public,” and when lived out most fully, involves practices that sustain our bodies as well as our souls.