Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill” and Cicero’s “Tusculan Disputations”

Vanessa Bell cover design of Woolf’s On Being Ill (c. 1930)

As I’ve been making my way through my personal reading list for this year, I found myself with Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill, an essay that has been published and reprinted in multiple different forms and contexts since its first appearance in T.S. Eliot’s The Criterion in 1926. The essay begins with the premise that illness should be, but isn’t, the subject of great literature (pp6-7):


The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the people of Babel did in the beginning), so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out. Probably it will be something laughable.

I read this short essay (in my edition only 26 pages) at the same time as I was working on Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (45 BCE), examining his quotations of cantica, songs, from the Roman tragic stage. Cicero has been telling me a lot, lately, about physical and psychic pain. Pain and illness may be distinct things, according to their origins, their pathologies. But both Woolf and Cicero place their respective illness and pain in a position which stands in opposition to the regular, expected, and functional life of a human being. For Woolf, who suffered from mental and physical illness throughout her life, sickness was intimately connected to literary production. In her essay, she describes illness as gateway towards “rashness” (pp22-23):

Rashness is one of the properties of illness – outlaws that we are – and it is rashness that we need in reading Shakespeare. It is not that we should doze in reading him, but that, fully conscious and aware, his fame intimidates and bores, and all the views of all the critics dull in us that thunder clap of conviction….with all this buzz of criticism about, one may hazard one’s conjectures privately, make one’s notes in the margin; but knowing that someone has said it before, or said it better, the zest is gone. Illness, in its kingly sublimity, sweeps all that aside and leaves nothing but Shakespeare and oneself.

We’re faced with the implication that trying to say something new about Shakespeare is – essentially – madness. (I think about myself here, trying to say something new about Cicero). Shrinking away from literary bravado is the sign of a healthy mind and body. According to Woolf, illness allows transgressive freedom – to engage with the taboo, to speak the unspeakable: there is, “a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals” (p11). The sick mind is elevated, mantic – its language is poetry, not prose: “Illness makes us disinclined for the long campaigns that prose exacts” (p19). One of the prose works which Woolf rejects is Gibbon (“The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is not the book for influenza…”) – the sick mind rejects tales of empire, of statecraft, of teleology. The extra-liminal, sensory state of illness allows for deeper intellectual perception (p21):

In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other…Incomprehensibility has enormous power over us in illness, more legitimately perhaps than the upright will allow. In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poem by Mallarmé or Donne, some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent and distill their flavour…

We start to get the sense that the truth of literature – both reading and writing – takes place in the oppositional space which “illness” allows us to see. But all of this is put into a different focus if we ask ourself what kind of “illness” Woolf thought herself to have – or, more importantly, was thought by others to have – at the beginning of the 20th century. At stake is a narrative of aristocracy, and of gender. In Woolf’s celebrated Orlando, the titular figure’s fanaticism for reading and writing is thought to be beneath his aristocratic dignity: “Let him leave books, they said, to the palsied or the dying” (p72).

Lat. 6332 Bibliotheque Nationale, 160r, left col. .png
Manuscript of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations 2.19, containing poetic quotations from Accius’ Philocteta. Lat. 5802, Bibliothèque Nationale, 160r.

Turning to Cicero’s discussion of pain in the Tusculan Disputations, we find that he, like Woolf, is preoccupied by the social implications of illness. In February of the year in which the Tusculans were written (45 BCE), his daughter, Tullia, died from complications of childbirth. Cicero, grieving her death, wrote to his friend Atticus that he was making an effort to bring his face, if not his heart, back to composure. Cicero adds that trying to maintain his outward composure is a struggle for him; the conflict stems from a desire to save face and the desire to properly mourn his daughter (Att. 12.14.3, 8th March 45 BCE). Nature becomes the retreat for the ill, as Woolf writes: “Wonderful to relate, poets have found religion in nature; people live in the country to learn virtue from plants. It is in their indifference that they are comforting” (p15). During his grief, hidden away at Astura, Cicero writes (Att. 12.15):

In this lonely place I do not talk to a soul. Early in the day I hide myself in a thick, thorny wood, and don’t emerge till evening (cumque mane me in silvam abstrusi densam et asperam). Next to yourself, solitude is my best friend. When I am alone, all my conversation is with books, but it is interrupted by fits of weeping, against which I struggle as best I can. But so far it is an unequal fight…

In response, Atticus urges Cicero to disguise his grief – his other aristocratic friends have also noted and disapproved of Cicero’s indulgence (Att. 12.20.1, 15th March 45 BCE). For Woolf, the irrational and unbalanced state of illness gave access to a literary knowledge that surpassed the waking intellect. By the time the Tusculan Disputations arrived in the summer of 45 BCE, Cicero’s literary persona had become realigned with the aristocratic standard to which he was held by his friends and peers. We read in the Tusculans (2.31) that is beneath a man’s dignity to express his pain – physical or mental – with groans and shrieks (nec dignum viro videbitur gemere, eiulare, lamentari, frangi, debilitari dolore). Cicero quotes from Roman tragedies, evoking the most pitiful and wretched figures – Ennius’ Andromacha and Thyestes, Accius’ Philocteta, Pacuvius’ Ulixes (Niptra) – in order to denounce the vocal expression of grief. Woolf’s feeling – that the love-struck can quote sonnets, but the bedridden did not have their own literature to invoke – was not the case for Cicero. The Roman tragic stage was replete with the maimed, the abandoned, the enslaved – and it was through these characters that he attempted to expunge his grief.

But although they eventually find positions at different ends of the spectrum – with Cicero publicly using poetic texts as enticements towards self-control, and Woolf embracing illness as a practice of reading – both Cicero and Woolf find poetic expression to be the fertile ground for the distorted mind. And both also perform their aristocratic positions while they draw attention to their own transgression. Neither will enmire their reader in the Thucydidean details of illness or injury – we read illness sanitized of its gore or its stench, there is no descriptive realism of grief or mania, no categorizing of symptoms. Both texts stand as a reflection of the sick mind once it has passed out of that state.

Further reading: I used the 2012 edition of Woolf’s On Being Ill, with Notes from Sick Rooms by Julia Stephen, and intro by Hermione Lee; the Oxford World Classics 1998 edition of Orlando. For detailed narratives of Cicero’s grief, see Cicero, Shackleton-Bailey (1971), and Cicero – A political biography, Stockton (1971). For some reason, writing biographies of Cicero was really fashionable in the 1970s…



On eclipses and human terror

Annie Dillard’s essay Total Eclipse was first published in 1982 in the journal, Anteaus. It was reprinted in the same year in a collection of Dillard’s essays entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk, which is where I read it.

One passage of Dillard’s essay in particular caught my attention:

The Crab Nebula, in the constellation Taurus, looks, through binoculars, like a smoke ring. It is a star in the process of exploding. Light from its explosion first reached the earth in 1054; it was a supernova then, and so bright it shone in the daytime. It expands at the rate of seventy million miles a day. It is interesting to look through binoculars at something expanding seventy million miles a day. It does not budge. Its apparent size does not increase. Photographs of the Crab Nebula taken fifteen years ago seem identical to photographs of it taken yesterday. Some lichens are similar. Botanists have measured some ordinary lichens twice, at fifty-year intervals, without detecting any growth at all. And yet their cells divide; they live.

crab nebula
The Crab Nebula. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A Loll (ASU)

One of the messages of Dillard’s essay is the disjunction between intellectual knowledge of an event and its phenomenological effect on the perceiver. Knowledge that the sun is occulted by the moon is itself eclipsed by the experience of the event. “If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once.” Dillard notes that her reaction could have been like the Emperor Louis of Bavaria in 840, who “simply died of fright on the spot.” Famous passages from the ancient world attest to a similar epistemological horror at the sight of solar eclipses. From Herodotus (7.37-38), we have the eclipse of 480 BCE which is immediately interpreted by mediterranean earth-dwellers to foreshadow a successful Persian incursion into Greece.

total solar
Total solar eclipse, 11th July 2010. Image credit: Williams College Eclipse Expedition
total lunar
Total lunar eclipse, 15th April 2014. Image credit: NASA Ames Research Center/Brian Day

In Cicero’s hexameter poem, On the Consulship (of which only 78 lines are extant, due to their embedding in his philosophical work, On Divination, 44 BCE), we hear of a lunar eclipse that took place on 3rd May 63 BCE (Div. 1.18, Ewbank p75), as well as a possible reference to a solar eclipse of 18th May 63. Of the 78 lines, these correspond to lines 19-22:

cum claram speciem concreto lumine luna
abdidit et subito stellanti nocte perempta est.
quid vero Phoebi fax, tristis nuntia belli,
quae magnum ad columen flammato ardore volabat,
praecipitis caeli partis obitusque petessens?

“…when the moon hid its clear shape with dulled light
and was suddenly removed from the starry sky.
What means the torch of Phoebus, the herald of bitter war,
which was climbing towards its zenith with blazing heat,
while longing for the western parts of heaven and its setting?” (trans. Wardle)

The “torch of Phoebus” (Phoebi fax) here can be interpreted to refer to a partial solar eclipse, a comet, or a meteor (cf. Wardle p149). Both phenomena form part of a long list of horrific astronomical and cosmological events which are pressed into service as portents of the Catilinarian conspiracy of 63 BCE. Alongside these terrors are listed the fact that a “citizen” was struck by lightning (lines 23-24), and ghostly shades were seen at night (lines 26-27).

Another of the focuses of Dillard’s essay is the effect of a solar eclipse on an observer; it so subverts the normal experience of human life, is so overwhelming, that it comes to lack significance. Seeing a solar eclipse is like seeing a mushroom cloud on the horizon:

The meaning of the sight overwhelmed its fascination. It obliterated meaning itself. If you were to glance out one day and see a row of mushroom clouds rising on the horizon, you would know at once what you were seeing, remarkable as it was, was intrinsically not worth remarking. No use running to tell anyone. Significant as it was, it did not matter a whit. For what is its significance? It is significance for people. No people, no significance.

Dillard’s essay on the power of an insensate solar eclipse to instill in an observer a sense of mortal catastrophe circles around several issues that face a modern commentator on the ancient world. For one thing, we find that Dillard is careful to describe her horror at the instant of observation, and simultaneously careful to trace the impact of cosmological events on the human record: e.g. the fact that the explosion of the Crab Nebula was visible on earth in 1054, the fact that an eclipse of 840 terrified a monarch to death. We are invited to meditate upon the notion that human terror is just as iterative as the events which precipitate them, and that, despite our intellectual or technological advancement, the synchronisation of the human record of time with the cosmos, serves as a reminder of our own internal disjunction in the face of rational events which we are still not fully capable of rationalizing.

Further reading: Annie Dillard’s essay, Total Eclipse, can be read online. For Cicero’s On the Consulship, see Ewbank (1933 repr. 1997) The Poems of Cicero, for the Latin and a commentary (no translation). We owe the survival of this 78 line fragment to its embedding in Cicero’s On Divination; see the commentaries of Pease (1955) and Wardle (2006).

Writing Cicero’s “Aratea” in the 17th c.


When I was doing research for a chapter on the extensive (“self”-)quotation of Cicero’s Aratea in his philosophical work On the Nature of the Gods (45 BCE), I found myself reckoning with Hugo Grotius’ Syntagma Arateorum published in 1600. The Aratea is Cicero’s Latin translation of a Greek astronomical poem by Aratus of Soli, the Phaenomena (c. 275 BCE), which is sometimes translated as “Appearances” in English. Aratus’ poem reads like a map of the night sky in the form of a poem; the idea is that if you read, or memorize, the Phaenomena, then you will be able to “read” the constellations in the sky. Knowledge of the stars allows you to recognize changes of season, to anticipate weather changes, and to navigate through space. If we can believe what is said in On the Nature of the Gods, then Cicero translated this Greek poem into Latin as a young man, which would place its date of composition in the mid 80s BCE. Several other Latin translations subsequently appear within a century, including one by Germanicus, nephew and adopted son of the future Emperor Tiberius.

Harley 647 f2v
Harley 647 f.2v depicting Aries ©British Library

At the very beginning of the 17th century the Dutch Hugo Grotius (Hugo, Huigh or Hugeianus de Groot), who had been a student of Scaliger at Leiden, produced an edition of Aratus, Cicero, and Germanicus. This, the Syntagma Arateorum (“A collection of Arateas”), can be viewed online through google books.

One of the interesting things about this work is that Grotius had to deal with the fact that Cicero’s Aratea only survived in pieces. We have Aratus’ Phaenomena in full, but Cicero’s Aratea is in a fragmentary condition. There is an incredible independent manuscript transmission of Cicero’s Aratea which comes with illustrations of the described constellations, such as Harley 647 (see above), which can also be viewed online, but the text isn’t complete. We also get about 90 verses of Cicero’s Aratea from his On the Nature of the Gods. Because Cicero’s Aratea is a translation of the Phaenomena, Grotius had a basis for the missing material, so he decided to provide the missing parts from Cicero’s Aratea by translating the equivalent Greek himself. Consider the following page:

Grotius p4


The actual verses of Cicero here are lines 96-101 (Arctophylax…Virgo), and 116 (Malebant tenui contenti vivere cultu). Everything else, in italics, is Grotius’ own Latin translation of Aratus. To my mind, this is an incredible response to a fragmentary text – to supply what you don’t have by doing the translation yourself. Grotius was giving himself a lesson in how to write Ciceronian verse. Another remarkable aspect of this is that Grotius, born in 1583, was 17 years old when he published the Syntagma. I wonder whether Grotius was inspired by Cicero’s note that he himself was just a young man when he translated the Aratea (admodum adulescentulus, On the Nature of the Gods 2.104). There may be some shared idea between them that dealing with the Greek hexameters of Aratus’ Phaenomena is a kind of intellectual rite of passage. Grotius is a fascinating figure – one anecdote that you hear about him is that he escaped prison by hiding in a trunk that was supposed to be filled with books…

Further reading: More on Hugo Grotius. English text of Aratus’ Phaenomena, based on the 1921 Loeb. Emma Gee has an excellent book – Ovid, Aratus and Augustus (2000, Cambridge) – which deals especially well with the idea of astronomical writing and the control of time. The Oxford World’s Classics series very recently brought out an English translation of Aratus’ Phaenomena accompanied by the astronomical commentaries of Eratosthenes and Hyginus (Eratosthenes and Hyginus: Constellation Myths, with Aratus’ Phaenomenatranslated by Robin Hard, 2015).