This notation sucks!

Paul Votja on Serge Lang:

During my time at Yale, I gave two or three graduate courses. Serge always sat in the front row, paying close attention to the point of interrupting me midsentence: “The notation should be functorial with respect to the ideas!” or “This notation sucks!” But, after class he complimented me highly on the lecture.

While on sabbatical at Harvard, he sat in on a course Mazur was giving and often criticized the notation. Eventually they decided to give him a T-shirt which said, “This notation sucks” on it. So one day Barry intentionally tried to get him to say it. He introduced a complex variable Ξ, took its complex conjugate, and divided by the original Ξ. This was written as a vertical fraction, so it looked like eight horizontal lines on the blackboard. He then did a few other similar things, but Serge kept quiet—apparently he didn’t criticize notation unless he knew what the underlying mathematics was about. Eventually Barry had to give up and just present him with the T-shirt.

One does well to listen to them

The opening of Nietzsche’s lesser-known incomplete book, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (c. 1873), translated by Marianne Cowan:

There are people who are opposed to all philosophy and one does well to listen to them, particularly when they advise the diseased minds of Germans to stay away from metaphysics, instead preaching purification through physis as Goethe did, or healing through music, as did Richard Wagner. The physicians of our culture repudiate philosophy. Whoever wishes to justify it must show, therefore, to what ends a healthy culture uses and has used philosophy. Perhaps the sick will then actually gain salutary insight into why philosophy is harmful specifically to them. There are good instances, to be sure, of a type of health which can exist altogether without philosophy, or with but a very moderate, almost playful, exercise of it. The Romans during their best period lived without philosophy. But where could we find an instance of cultural pathology which philosophy restored to health? If philosophy ever manifested itself as helpful, redeeming, or prophylactic, it was in a healthy culture. The sick, it made ever sicker. Wherever a culture was disintegrating, wherever the tension between it and its individual components was slack, philosophy could never re-integrate the individuals back into the group. Wherever an individual was of a mind to stand apart, to draw a circle of self-sufficiency about himself, philosophy was ready to isolate him still further, finally to destroy him through that isolation. Philosophy is dangerous wherever it does not exist in its fullest right, and it is only the health of a culture—and not every culture at that—which accords it such fullest right.

διπλοῦν ὁρῶσιν οἱ μαθόντες γράμματα

An inscription at the University of Edinburgh

My title, “Diploun horosin hoi mathontes grammata”—those who learn the letters [or alphabet] see double—appears in the Γνῶμαι Μονόστιχοι, Gnomai Monostichoi, of Menander, a collection of one-line sayings (not necessarily Menander’s own) with a long legacy in literary education. It is line 657, on page 359, in the version collected in Μeineke’s Fragmenta Comicorum Graecorum, Volume IV, Fragmenta Poetarum Comoediae Novae:

The only English translation is by John Maxwell Edmonds, The Fragments of Attic Comedy After Meineke, Bergk, and Kock, volume IIIb, where he renders the line “Who learns to read doubles his power of sight.” (Though it is not at all what Wittgenstein meant, I am reminded of 5.6 in the Tractatus, “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt”—the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.)

The Gnomai represent the genre of the gnomologium, a sort of textbook anthology or chrestomathy of wisdom for rhetorical or moral instruction, especially popular throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages. Erasmus mentions the genre (and cites Menander) in his Adages:

There were those, especially among the Greeks, who willingly undertook the task of making gnomologies, collections of aphorisms, notably Johannes Stobaeus. I would rather praise their work than imitate it.

Compare the commonplace book.

Copies of both of them

Augustine to Jerome in 403 CE, some six years after his previous attempt to convey his perplexity at Jerome’s decision to translate the Old Testament into Latin directly from the Hebrew, rather than from the Greek of the Septuagint (collected in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Translated into English with Prolegomena and Explanatory Notes under the Editorial Supervision of Henry Wace and Philip Schaff):

To my venerable lord Jerome, my esteemed and holy brother and fellow presbyter: Augustine sends greetings in the Lord.

Never since I began to write to you, and to long for your writing in return, have I met with a better opportunity for our exchanging communications than now, when my letter is to be carried to you by a most faithful servant and minister of God, who is also a very dear friend of mine, namely, our son Cyprian, deacon. Through him I expect to receive a letter from you with all the certainty which is in a matter of this kind possible. For the son whom I have named will not be found wanting in respect of zeal in asking, or persuasive influence in obtaining a reply from you; nor will he fail in diligently keeping, promptly bearing, and faithfully delivering the same. I only pray that if I be in any way worthy of this, the Lord may give His help and favour to your heart and to my desire, so that no higher will may hinder that which your brotherly goodwill inclines you to do.

As I have sent you two letters already to which I have received no reply, I have resolved to send you at this time copies of both of them, for I suppose that they never reached you. If they did reach you, and your replies have failed, as may be the case, to reach me, send me a second time the same as you sent before, if you have copies of them preserved: if you have not, dictate again what I may read, and do not refuse to send to these former letters the answer for which I have been waiting so long. My first letter to you, which I had prepared while I was a presbyter, was to be delivered to you by a brother of ours, Profuturus, who afterwards became my colleague in the episcopate, and has since then departed from this life; but he could not then bear it to you in person, because at the very time when he intended to begin his journey, he was prevented by his ordination to the weighty office of bishop, and shortly afterwards he died. This letter I have resolved also to send at this time, that you may know how long I have cherished a burning desire for conversation with you, and with what reluctance I submit to the remote separation which prevents my mind from having access to yours through our bodily senses, my brother, most amiable and honoured among the members of the Lord.

There is none to praise it

Footnote 33 in Chapter 8 of Ernst Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, commenting on lines from Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel’s didactic poem on grammar, “Partibus inferior jacet interiectio cunctis / Ultima namque sedet et sine laude manet”:

“Sad is the lot of the interjection, for of all the parts of speech it has the lowest place. There is none to praise it.” On the way from Latin to French, the penultimate syllable of the proparoxytone succumbed. Mallarmé was so touched by this that he wrote a prose poem on the “Death of the Penultimate” (Le Démon de l’analogie in Divagations). It ends: Je m’enfuis, bizarre, personne condamnée à porter probablement le deuil de l’explicable Penultième. Grammar too has its tragedies.

Others are annoyed by it

The final lines of Book 2 of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated into Latin at the direction of Aquinas by the 13th-century scholar Guilelmus of Moerbeke, preserved in this 15th-century German manuscript, Codex 763 at the University of Pennsylvania.

The third and final chapter of the anomalous Book 2 (Little Alpha, Alpha Minor, or Alpha Ellaton) of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, 995a, translated by Hugh Tredennick:

The effect of a lecture depends upon the habits of the listener; because we expect the language to which we are accustomed, and anything beyond this seems not to be on the same level, but somewhat strange and unintelligible on account of its unfamiliarity; for it is the familiar that is intelligible. The powerful effect of familiarity is clearly shown by the laws, in which the fanciful and puerile survivals prevail [i.e., “in which fanciful and childish elements prevail”—ML], through force of habit, against our recognition of them. Thus some people will not accept the statements of a speaker unless he gives a mathematical proof; others will not unless he makes use of illustrations; others expect to have a poet adduced as witness. Again, some require exactness in everything, while others are annoyed by it, either because they cannot follow the reasoning or because of its pettiness; for there is something about exactness which seems to some people to be mean, no less in an argument than in a business transaction.

Hence one must have been already trained how to take each kind of argument, because it is absurd to seek simultaneously for knowledge and for the method of obtaining it; and neither is easy to acquire. Mathematical accuracy is not to be demanded in everything, but only in things which do not contain matter. Hence this method is not that of natural science, because presumably all nature is concerned with matter. Hence we should first inquire what nature is; for in this way it will become clear what the objects of natural science are [and whether it belongs to one science or more than one to study the causes and principles of things].

Compare the translation by W. D. Ross:

The effect which lectures produce on a hearer depends on his habits; for we demand the language we are accustomed to, and that which is different from this seems not in keeping but somewhat unintelligible and foreign because of its unwontedness. For the customary is more intelligible. The force of habit is shown by the laws, in whose case, with regard to the legendary and childish elements in them, habit has more influence than our knowledge about them. Some people do not listen to a speaker unless he speaks mathematically, others unless he gives instances, while others expect him to cite a poet as witness. And some want to have everything done accurately, while others are annoyed by accuracy, either because they cannot follow the connexion of thought or because they regard it as pettifoggery. For accuracy has something of this character, so that as in trade so in argument some people think it mean. Therefore one must be already trained to know how to take each sort of argument, since it is absurd to seek at the same time knowledge and the way of attaining knowledge; and neither is easy to get.

The minute accuracy of mathematics is not to be demanded in all cases, but only in the case of things which have no matter. Therefore its method is not that of natural science; for presumably all nature has matter. Hence we must inquire first what nature is: for thus we shall also see what natural sciences treats of [and whether it belongs to one science or to more to investigate the causes and the principles of things].

The Greek for “exactness” here is ἀκριβολογία, akribologia, a combination of λόγος and the adjective κριβής (exact, precise, scrupulous, methodical).

In extant ancient Greek literature the word often carries a negative valence: excessive precision, pedantry. It appears perhaps most famously in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic at 340e, where Thrasymachus accuses Socrates of too much akribologia: “ὥστε κατὰ τὸν ἀκριβῆ λόγον, ἐπειδὴ καὶ σὺ ἀκριβολογῇ, …” consequently, according to precise speech, since you too demand precision... (In Paul Shorey’s translation, “so that, speaking precisely, since you are such a stickler for precision.” Shorey’s footnote: “For the invidious associations of ἀκριβολογία (1) in money dealings, (2) in argument, cf. Aristotle Met. 995 a 11, Cratylus 415 A, Lysias vii. 12, Antiphon B 3, Demosthenes. xxiii. 148, Timon in Diogenes Laertius ii. 19.”)

Erasmus makes reference to this line of Thrasymachus in the first, slimmer edition of his adages, Collectanea Adagiorum, published in Paris in 1500. In the translation by John Grant, based on the slightly revised and updated 1506 edition, the discussion appears at 335:

335. Ad vivum. Summo iure / To the quick. By the letter of the law

The meaning is “right to the skin.” We use the expression to refer to actions that are conducted with utmost precision, as when we pursue something with excessive keenness. In Plato Thrasymachus calls Socrates a false accuser, meaning a pettifogger, because he applies a very narrow interpretation to what has been said, distorting the sense of the words whose meaning is clear rather than showing how somewhat carelessly expressed words can be given a better sense. He adds, “Therefore, according to your precise mode of interpretation (since you cut right to the quick), no craftsman can make a mistake.” Similar to this is what Cicero says when defending Caecina: “All the others turn to that way of speaking when they think they have a fair and good defense to make in a case. If, however, there is a wrangling about words and phrases, and, as the saying goes, the letter of the law is applied, they are in the habit of using such fine words as “fair” and “good” to counter such wickedness.” To fight Summo iure “By the letter of the law” means to cut back the laws to the quick and to apply a very narrow interpretation. From this we get “Extreme right is extreme wrong.”

Sachiko Kusukawa traces this lineage in her essayAd Vivum Images and Knowledge of Nature in Early Modern Europe.” As she points out, Cicero uses the phrase ad vivum in his dialogue De Amicitia, On Friendship, translated here by W. A. Falconer:

This, however, I do feel first of all—that friendship cannot exist except among good men; nor do I go into that too deeply [neque in ad vivum reseco], as is done by those who, in discussing this point with more than usual accuracy [subtilius], and it may be correctly, but with too little view to practical results, say that no one is good unless he is wise. We may grant that; but they understand wisdom to be a thing such as no mortal man has yet attained. I, however, am bound to look at things as they are in the experience of everyday life and not as they are in fancy or in hope.

Erasmus makes reference to Cicero’s usage of ad vivum resecare in the longer edition of his adages, at II.4.13:

M. Tullius lib. De amicitia Ad vivum resecare dixit pro eo, quod est rem exactius, quam sat est, ac morosius excutere: Sed hoc, inquit, primum sentio, nisi in bonis amicitiam esse non posse. Neque id ad vivum reseco, ut illi, qui haec subtilius disserunt. Mutuo sumpta metaphora a tonsoribus capillos aut ungues resecantibus, nam ii saepenumero molesti sunt, dum nimium diligentes esse student. Idem in libris De finibus dixit pressius agere pro exactius et accuratius. Plautus in Bacchidibus sub persona Chrysali: Tondebo auro usque ad vivam cutem. Et hoc ipsum tondere pro deludere Graecis in proverbio est.

Kusukawa gives the translation of “mutuo sumpta…”: “the image is borrowed from hairdressers as they cut short one’s hair or finger-nails; for they are often tiresome with their efforts to be needlessly precise.” As she notes, Plato’s use of akribologei

had been translated by the Florentine scholar Marisilio Ficino (1433–1499) into “ad vivum resecas (you speak needlessly precisely).” This is probably the reason why Erasmus connected the two classical passages of Cicero and Plato, but ad vivum was by no means a fixed Latin counterpart to akribologia, a word that was also found in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. [She quotes what I quote above.] In the medieval translation by William of Moerbeke (ca. 1220–1235–ca. 1286), the Greek phrase akribologia had been left untranslated, but the Byzantine humanist John Argyropoulos (1415–1487) rendered this mathematical akribologia as “exacta discussio mathematicorum (mathematicians’ exacting examination).” Another point made in the passage above [that is, Aristotle] is that overattention to detail in discussion or transaction was deemed “mean” (illiberales in Argyropoulos’s translation). The mean-spiritedness of excessive precision was carried over to the phrase “exigere ad vivum,” which Erasmus identified as a characteristic harshness (rigor). Ad vivum thus meant something like “to the bare bones” in English, with the negative sense of verbatim, an overattention to the strict sense of a word or to the letter of the law which reflected some meanness in spirit. Erasmus, whose ambition was to educate his audience to speak and write with the rhetorical flair of the classical authors, had little positive to say about this sense of ad vivum.

The figure of the akribologos, the nit-picker or hair-splitter, is also explored in Richard Bett, “Humor as Philosophical Subversion,” while Alessandro Vatri considers akribologia as a feature of prose style in Orality and Performance in Classical Attic Prose: A Linguistic Approach, and Richard Pasnau reflects on it as a feature of reasoning in After Certainty: A History of Our Epistemic Ideals and Illusions. See also Aristophanes’s portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds, and Lowell Edmunds, “What Was Socrates Called?

On the anomalous quality of Book 2 of the Metaphysics, see Werner Jaeger, Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development, p. 169:

Aristotle’s literary executors were philosophers. They would have given much to be able to construct, out of the precious papers that they found, as true a picture as possible of the whole intellectual system of ‘first philosophy’ as Aristotle had intended it to be; but their desire was thwarted by the incomplete and disparate character of the material. For one thing is certain; the editors themselves did not believe that with the order which they established they were giving posterity the complete course of lectures on metaphysics. They realized that they were offering an unsatisfactory makeshift, which was all that the condition of their materials allowed. The postscript to the introductory book, the so-called little α, comes after big Α simply because they did not know where else to put it. It is a remnant of notes taken at a lecture by Pasicles, a nephew of Aristotle’s disciple Eudemus of Rhodes. [With footnote: “Asclepius, in his commentary on the Metaphysics (p. 4 l. 20, in Hayduck), refers this information, which reached him as a tradition handed down m the Peripatetic school, to Α; but this is a confusion. His account must come from notes taken at a lecture by Ammonius, and obviously he misheard. The true account is given by the scholiast on little α in the codex Parisinus (cf. Ent. Met. Arist., p. 114).”]

Charles Moss’s “First Greek Reader”

When I began learning ancient Greek in May 2019, I was disappointed to find that two of the standard modern textbooks—Hansen and Quinn’s Greek: An Intensive Course, Donald Mastronarde’s Introduction to Attic Greek—feature very little Greek to read.

To supplement my study of the grammar, I sought out a graded reader with basic texts to translate: not so hard that they would defeat a beginner encountering the language for the first time, but not so easy or short that they would not hold my attention, nor so artificial that they would give a false impression of idiomatic Greek style. Mark Twain lampooned such artifice in “The Awful German Language”:

My book inquires after a certain bird—(it is always inquiring after things which are of no sort of consequence to anybody): “Where is the bird?” Now the answer to this question—according to the book—is that the bird is waiting in the blacksmith shop on account of the rain. Of course no bird would do that, but then you must stick to the book.

I did not quite know what I wanted to find, then, but I knew what I wanted to forgo. After a not very systematic search of texts in the public domain, I settled on the 163 elementary Attic passages comprising the second edition of Charles Melville Moss’s A First Greek Reader: with Notes and Vocabulary, published in Boston by Allyn and Bacon in 1893. The text is available in its entirety on Google Books.

There are other options available; another is W. D. Rouse’s A Greek Boy at Home (1909). I make no claim that Moss’s is the best choice, and of course I am in no position to judge his fidelity to Attic style. But at least the volume has the straightforwardness so typical of nineteenth-century textbooks. I find more modern attempts, such as Oxford University Press’s Athenaze and the Joint Association of Classical Teachers’ Reading Greek: Text and Vocabulary, both typographically unattractive and cluttered with distractions. Moss’s pages, by contrast, are clean: no pictures, no help. The titular “notes and vocabulary” are collected at the end of the book, rather than included as footnotes or marginalia. There is nothing but the Greek before you.

In translating, I have opted to sail closer to the Scylla of literalness than the Charybdis of liberality. There are certainly more idiomatic renderings of the English, but the point of this exercise is to follow the Greek. I also include some notes, primarily about those places in the text where I had difficulty on a first reading. Moss’s own grammatical notes refer to William Goodwin’s A School Greek Grammar and James Hadley and Frederic de Forest Allen’s A Greek Grammar for Schools and Colleges. As is customary, I do not translate every particle or discourse marker.

This page is a work in progress; I add to it when I can. If you find an error, I would be most grateful if you would leave a comment, or get in touch to tell me about it.

—August 31, 2019

1. A troublesome boy

ἔχω παιδίον ὅ φιλῶ, καὶ Στέφανον καλῶ αὐτόν. ὁ δὲ κουφόνους ἐστιν· ἀναβαίνει γὰρ ἐπὶ τὴν οἰκίαν ἢ ἐπὶ τὸν ἵππον. καὶ ὅυτω τοὺς αὑτοῦ φίλους φοβεῖ. πολλάκις λυπεῖ τὴν μικρὰν ἀδελφήν. καλοῦμεν τὴν ἀδελφὴν Ἑλένην.

I have a young child whom I love, and I call him Stephanos. But he is thoughtless [literally, light-minded]: he goes up onto the house and onto his horse. And in this way he frightens his friends. Often he annoys his little sister. We call his sister Helen.


Some Greek verbs take double accusatives, such as καλῶ (to call): I call him (acc.) Stephanos (acc.). Another such verb is παιδεύω (to teach). Compare the English “I am teaching him math,” where we might be inclined to interpret “him” as an indirect object: “I am teaching math (acc.) to him (dat.).” In Greek both the subject being taught and the person being taught are in the accusative.

2. He has a nurse

ἔστι δέ τῷ Στεφάνῳ τροφὸς σοφὴ καὶ ἀγαθή. καὶ φιλεῖ αὐτόν. ἀλλὰ ἐνίοτε κακός ἐστιν. ἡ οὖν τροφὸς παίει τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ. καὶ ποτε ὁρᾷ αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ ὅπου ἵπποι καὶ ἅμαξαί εἰσιν. ἐθέλει οὖν τὸ κακὸν παιδίον· ἀλλα ἀποτρέχει ἐπὶ τὴν οἰκίαν καὶ αὐτῆς καταγελᾷ. ἡ δὲ τροφὸς λέγει, ‘οὐκ ἔστι παιδίον ἐν τῇ χώρᾳ ὃ οὕτω κακόν ἐστιν.’

There is a nurse for Stephanos, wise and good. And she likes him. But sometimes he is bad. In those cases, the nurse hits his head. Sometimes she even sees him in the road, where there are horses and wagons. When that happens, she wants to punish the bad boy; but he runs up onto the house and mocks her. The nurse says, “There’s no boy in the land who’s so bad.”


The verb forms ὁρᾷ (to see) and καταγελᾷ (to deride, mock, laugh or jeer at) are both in the third-person singular, present indicative active, but the standard ending -ει has been contracted. Compare the uncontracted forms ὁράει and καταγελάει.

The verb καταγελᾷ takes an object in the genitive, αὐτῆς.

3. Philip hits two thieves with one decision

κλέπτης ποτὲ φιλίππῳ, τῷ κριτῇ, λέγει, ‘ὦ φίλιππε, κλέπτης ἔχων τὸν ἐμὸν ἵππον ἀπελαύνει. ὁ δέ ἄνθωπος, ὃν νομίζω εἶναι τὸν κλέπτην, ἐστὶν Ἀλέξανδρος.’ καὶ εὐθὺς ἄλλος ἄνθωπος πάρεστιν ὃς λέγει, ‘Ἀλέξανδρός εἰμι. οὐ τὴν ἀλήθειαν λέγει· ὁ γὰρ ἵππος οὐκ αὐτοῦ ἐστιν, ἀλλὰ Κύρου. ὁ δὲ πονερὸς ἄξιός ἐστι δίκης, ὡς κλέπτης ὤν.’

φίλιππος δὲ, ἀκούων τὸν λόγον τῶν ἀνθώπων, νομίζει ἀμφοτέρους κλέπτας εἶναι καὶ διακρίνει ὧδε· δεῖ τὸν μὲν πρῶτον κλέπτην φεύγειν ἐκ Μακεδονίας, τὸν δὲ δεύτερον διώκειν τὸν πρῶτον.

Once a thief says to Philip, a judge, “O Philip, a thief having my horse is driving away. And the man, whom I think to be the thief, is Alexander.” And at once another man walks by, who says, “Alexander I am. But he does not tell the truth: the horse isn’t his, but Cyrus’s. The wretch is worthy of punishment, on the grounds of being a thief.”

Philip, listening to the men’s speech, considers both to be thieves and judges thus: the first thief has to flee Macedonia, and the second has to follow the first.


κλέπτης is a masculine first-declension noun.

This passage introduces present participles (ἔχων, ἀκούων, ὤν) and present infinitives (εἶναι, φεύγειν, διώκειν). Note that εἶναι is an irregular form, departing from the present ending -ειν. I’m not sure why the present infinitive is used instead of the aorist, since these actions take place one and for all.

4. Penny wise, pound foolish

ὁ ἐμὸς φίλος λέγει ὅτι ἐν τῇ αὑτοῦ χώρᾳ ἄνθρωπος οἰκει ὃς οὐ σοφός εστιν· ὁ γὰρ ἵππος αὐτοῦ μέλλει θνήσκειν ὅτι ὁ ἀνοήτος ἅνθρωπος, οὐ χιλὸν καὶ κριθὰς, ἀλλὰ ξύλα καὶ λίθους τῷ ἵππῳ παρέχει· λέγει δὲ, ‘ἀνάγκη ἐστι τῷ ἵππῳ μανθάνειν ξύλα καὶ λίθους ἐσθίειν.’ εἰ οὕτως ποιεῖ ἀνάγκη εστὶν αὐτῷ πολλοὺς ἵππους λαμβάνειν, εἰ καὶ ὀλίγον χρυσίον ἔχει.

My friend says that in his country there lives a man who is not wise: for his horse is about to die because the mindless man gives the horse not grass and barley, but pieces of wood and stones. He says, “It’s necessary for the horse to learn to eat pieces of wood and stones.” If he acts this way, it’s necessary for him to get many horses, even though he has little gold.

5. Honorable scars

καλὸς δοκεῖ ὁ λόγος ὅν ἐθέλω λέγειν περὶ δυοῖν στρατιώταιν. ὁ μὲν οὐ καλός ἐστιν· ἕνα γὰρ ὀφθαλμὸν ἔχει ἀντὶ δυοῖν καὶ ἄλλα κακῶς ἕχει διὰ τοὺς πολεμίους. ὁ δὲ ἕτερος, ἅγροικος ὢν, λὲγει, ‘τὸ πρόσωπόν σου δοκεῖ αἰσχρὸν εἶναι.’ ὁ δὲ πρῶτος λέγει, ‘ἐκεῖνο τὸ πρόσωπον ὃ μισεῖς, καίπερ οὐ καλὸν ὂν, οὐκ αἰσχρόν ἐστιν· οἱ γὰρ πολέμιοι, ὑφ’ ὧν οὕτω πάσχω, ἀγαθοί εἰσιν· ἐγὼ δὲ ὁρῶ τὸ πρόσωπόν σου καλὸν ὄν· φανερόν ἐστιν ὅτι σὺ κακὸς εἶ.’

The story that I want to tell about two soldiers is thought to be beautiful. The one soldier is not beautiful: he has one eye instead of two, and other parts [of his face] are disfigured thanks to his enemies. The other soldier, being churlish, says, “Your face is thought to be ugly.” The first replies, “This face that you hate, though not beautiful, is [at least] not disgraceful; my enemies, under whom I suffer so much, are noble. I see your face is beautiful: [by its beauty] it is [thus] apparent that you are a coward.”

The worst hundred books

Oscar Wilde’s letter to the Pall Mall Gazette on the subject of “The Best Hundred Books,” February 8, 1886, from Thomas Wright, Oscar’s Books: A Journey around the Library of Oscar Wilde (2008):

Books, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:—

1. Books to read, such as Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote’s History of Greece.

2. Books to re-read, such as Plato and Keats: in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.

3. Books not to read at all, such as Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St. Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the Essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.

The third class is by far the most important. To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for, the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning. But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension Scheme.

Indeed, it is one that is eminently needed in this age of ours, an age that reads so much, that it has no time to admire, and writes so much, that it has no time to think. Whoever will select out of the chaos of our modern curricula ‘The Worst Hundred Books,’ and publish a list of them, will confer on the rising generation a real and lasting benefit.

After expressing these views I suppose I should not offer any suggestions at all with regard to ‘The Best Hundred Books,’ but I hope you will allow me the pleasure of being inconsistent, as I am anxious to put in a claim for a book that has been strangely omitted by most of the excellent judges who have contributed to your columns. I mean the Greek Anthology. The beautiful poems contained in this collection seem to me to hold the same position with regard to Greek dramatic literature as do the delicate little figurines of Tanagra to the Phidian marbles, and to be quite as necessary for the complete understanding of the Greek spirit.

I am also amazed to find that Edgar Allan Poe has been passed over. Surely this marvellous lord of rhythmic expression deserves a place? If, in order to make room for him, it be necessary to elbow out some one else, I should elbow out Southey, and I think that Baudelaire might be most advantageously substituted for Keble. No doubt, both in The Curse of Kehama and in The Christian Year there are poetic qualities of a certain kind, but absolute catholicity of taste is not without its dangers. It is only an auctioneer who should admire all schools of art.

Whole territories of emphasis and suggestion

From Simeon Potter, Our Language (1950):

From Indo-European to Modern English by way of Common Germanic, West Germanic, Anglo-Frisian, Old English and Middle English, our language has shown a gradual process of simplification and of the break down of inflexions. The development has been, for the most part, in one direction all the time: from synthesis to analysis. There have been both gain and loss. We need not assume too readily with Jespersen that this analytic process has meant unqualified progress in language or that our forebears of five, four, and three thousand years ago were less gifted linguistically than we. Think what linguistic alertness and precision are required of those speakers who wield an elaborate system of inflexions effectively and faultlessly! The language of twentieth-century London and New York may become a very fine and delicate instrument in the hands of accomplished masters, but its qualities and potentialities are different from those of, let us say, Periclean Greek. How much Sir Walter Scott regretted that he knew so little Greek! As Gilbert Murray has well said (in Greek Studies), the Greeks “had built up a language amazingly capable of expressing the various requirements of the human mind: the precision of prose, the magic and passion of poetry, the combination of exactitude and far-flung questioning that constitutes philosophy, the jests refined or ribald that make men laugh two thousand years after. Can one see by what efforts or what accidents this came about; or what actual phenomena of language have led to this strange power? One point seems to be clear, that it depends on a richness of inflexions which enables a speaker to vary greatly the order of his words in the sentence and thus to capture whole territories of emphasis and suggestion that are barred out to the uninflected languages.”

The opening of Virginia Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek,” from The Common Reader (1925):

For it is vain and foolish to talk of knowing Greek, since in our ignorance we should be at the bottom of any class of schoolboys, since we do not know how the words sounded, or where precisely we ought to laugh, or how the actors acted, and between this foreign people and ourselves there is not only difference of race and tongue but a tremendous breach of tradition. All the more strange, then, is it that we should wish to know Greek, try to know Greek, feel for ever drawn back to Greek, and be for ever making up some notion of the meaning of Greek, though from what incongruous odds and ends, with what slight resemblance to the real meaning of Greek, who shall say?