Sunday, May 18, 2008

Wise man say ...

multa legas facito, tum lectis neglege multa;
nam miranda canunt, sed non credenda poetae.
"See to it that you do much reading, and then overlook much of what you've read; for poets sing things to be admired, but not to be believed."

This comes from the famous Distichs of Cato. At least they were famous in past ages. Since it's been established that they were not written by Cato the Elder, they've lost their luster.

They were famous enough even in Byzantine that the great scholar Maximus Planudes wrote a Greek translation (I'm sure I've mentioned it before). It was for centuries a textbook, and was apparently used by Benjamin Franklin as a schoolboy, and later quoted frequently and published by him in translation (though not his own).

I should like to bring selections into the classroom early. The benefits are many: they offer authentic Latin with a long history of readership; they present the meter of epic in self-contained, digestible couplets; they offer a small, manageable context from which one might easily introduce new vocabulary or grammatical concepts; they are generally of intrinsic interest.

Few things are more memorable than maxims, and this collection has the additional merit of having influenced centuries of students, influencing the the makers of the middle ages and beyond. Is there any disadvantage in allowing students to share in this tradition, perhaps to understand the spirit of past ages? They need not agree, or take it as moral council, yet they may still feel connected to the past. And tis collection more points for discussion than "canis latrat" or "Quintus ad terram cadit".

Looking back where we began, I think some of my students could benefit from this advice today, as could many scholars who want to mine poetry for biographical or social data, or to apply theories and produce results.


Anonymous said...

Do you make an online book or website recommendation for this book? Gratias.

Anonymous said...

I found this at Google Books:

RJ said...

I dig your blog! Which is the textbook Ben Franklin studied?

Dennis said...

Thanks for the comments.

That's one of the links I would have sent. You can also find the plain Latin text on Just select Disticha Catonis from the dropdown menu.

Benjamin Franklin studied as a boy at the Boston Latin Academy, and it is assumed that he first read the Distichs there since they are so prominent in his later life.