Jenny Odell on Cicero, Suzanne McConnell on Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; tempora cum causis (9)

Ancient and Modern. In the De Fato (10-11), Cicero discusses whether it is possible for the individual to overcome their nature. Here comes the Loeb:

Stilponem, Megaricum philosophum, acutum sane hominem et probatum temporibus illis accepimus. Hunc scribunt ipsius familiares et ebriosum et mulierosum fuisse, neque haec scribunt vituperantes sed potius ad laudem, vitiosam enim naturam ab eo sic edomitam et compressam esse doctrina ut nemo umquam vinolentum illum, nemo in eo libidinis vestigium viderit. Quid? Socratem nonne legimus quemadmodum notarit Zopyrus physiognomon, qui se profitebatur hominum mores naturasque ex corpore oculis vultu fronte pernoscere? stupidum esse Socratem dixit et bardum quod iugula concava non haberet—obstructas eas partes et obturatas esse dicebat; addidit etiam mulierosum, in quo Alcibiades cachinnum dicitur sustulisse. [11] Sed haec ex naturalibus causis vitia nasci possunt, exstirpari autem et funditus tolli, ut is ipse qui ad ea propensus fuerit a tantis vitiis avocetur, non est positum in naturalibus causis, sed in voluntate studio disciplina; quae tollentur omnia si vis et natura fati…firmabitur.

“The Megarian philosopher Stilpo, we are informed, was undoubtedly a clever person and highly esteemed in his day. Stilpo is described in the writings of his own associates as having been fond of liquor and of women, and they do not record this as a reproach but rather to add to his reputation, for they say that he had so completely mastered and suppressed his vicious nature by study that no one ever saw him the worse for liquor or observed in him a single trace of licentiousness. Again, do we not read how Socrates was stigmatized by the ‘physiognomist’ Zopyrus, who professed to discover men’s entire characters and natures from their body, eyes, face and brow? He said that Socrates was stupid and thick-witted because he had not got hollows in the neck above the collarbone—he used to say that these portions of his anatomy were blocked and stopped up. He also added that he was addicted to women—at which Alcibiades is said to have given a loud guffaw! [11] But it is possible that these defects may be due to natural causes; but their eradication and entire removal, recalling the man himself from the serious vices to which he was inclined, does not rest with natural causes, but with will, effort, training; and if the potency and the existence of fate is proved…all of these will be done away with.”

In this passage, Cicero describes some of the quote-unquote defects which naturally arise in humans. Stilpo (4th c. BCE) reportedly had a natural proclivity for alcohol and sex with women; he was, according to friends, ebriosus (“addicted to drink”) and mulierosus* (“addicted to women”). But, Cicero says, Stilpo was able to master his nature with philosophical training (doctrina), and was never seen drunk again, and showed no outward sign of lust. Zopyrus (5th c. BCE), applied physiognomy, i.e. the theory that human character can be read in the condition of the body, to Socrates and concluded from the philosopher’s body that he could only be an idiot. Oh, and that he must also be “addicted to women” (mulierosus again). Cicero writes that nature may be responsible for giving us certain tendencies. But, he says, it is human agency that can overcome them: “will” (voluntas), “effort” (studium), and “training” (disciplina). This passage, of course, contains an oversimplistic attitude to addiction as well as an ablest assumption that bodily imperfection is a mirror of morality or intellect. It’s also quite clear that these anecdotes are designed to reflect male power in the context of elite competition: the detail that the notorious party animal, Alcibiades, laughed at Zopyrus calling Socrates names suggests a symposiastic setting (Phaedo’s dialogue, Zopyrus, dramatized a debate between the physiognomist and Socrates). Putting those things aside, what do we make of Cicero’s claim that we can overcome our nature?

In the recent (and superb), How to Do Nothing (2019)Jenny Odell cites this passage of Cicero’s De Fato (pp71-72) in the context of arguing for the creation of a “third space” of attention — one which reframes human interaction with reality as a kind of rejection of market forces and commercially-run social media. The book as a whole is a meditation on and a protreptic towards a modern kind of recusatio, i.e. the technique of saying “I would prefer not to.” Odell asks her reader to refuse to internalize the contemporary narrative of productivity, and to reclaim time and space to “do nothing.” (There are a lot of classical references throughout — Seneca, Epicurus, Diogenes. And Cicero’s cum dignitate otium is clearly a spiritual forebear.) Here’s what Odell says about this passage of Cicero (p72):

“If we believed that everything were merely a product of fate, or disposition, Cicero reasons, no one would be accountable for anything and therefore there could be no justice. In today’s terms, we’d all just be algorithms. Furthermore, we’d have no reason to try to make ourselves better or different from our natural inclinations. VOLUNTATE, STUDIO, DISCIPLINA — it is through these things that we find and inhabit the third space, and more important, how we stay there. In a situation that would have us answer yes or no (on its terms), it takes work, and will, to keep answering something else.”

The possibility of escaping (or mitigating) the frailties of human psychology and embodiment which Cicero suggests relies on the intentional application of the mind (or soul). Odell would have us apply ourselves in this way as an act of resistance against cynical structures of social influence. The concept of “will” (voluntas) invokes the notion of presence — or attention — the ability to be here in the moment, to have an appreciation for the moment in all its granularities. To “focus” (studium). As for the “training” (disciplina), this obviously could take a number of forms. But evidently self-awareness, and awareness of the churning forces around you, is at the core of this idea.

*Mulierosus is quite an unusual Latin word! It only appears in extant classical Latin three times. According to Aulus Gellius (4.9.2), quoting “mulierosus” as discussed by the Pythagorean magician, Nigidius Figulus, the Latin suffix –osus indicates an excess of the characteristic in question.


Excerpt. Suzanne McConnell on Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 2019: 134-135: “By its nature, literary fiction ‘teaches’: it shows how people feel, think, respond, vary; how circumstances affect them; how their brains, personalities, surroundings and culture make them tick. How an experiences strikes a particular person a certain way, and another differently. How a person feels inside as opposed to how they act or are perceived. And so on. All writing teaches — communicates something about something. [p135] Even bad writing. So if you’re writing, you’re teaching. You can’t help it. But then there’s intentional teaching through writing.”*

*Austin came into the room to point to a passage written by Vonnegut (on teachers and teaching) which was quoted on this page. So I thank him for the excerpt this week.

Daily Life. Max helped me grade. 




Cicero, “Disenchantment”, Anthony Grafton; tempora cum causis (1)

Ancient. De Senectute 24-25 is one of my favourite passages of Cicero (here’s the Loeb): 

nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse uiuere; sed idem in eis elaborant, quae sciunt nihil ad se omnino pertinere: serit arbores, quae alteri saeclo prosint, [25] ut ait Statius noster in Synephebis. nec uero dubitat agricola, quamuis sit senex, quaerenti cui serat respondere: dis immortalibus, qui me non accipere modo haec a maioribus uoluerunt, sed etiam posteris prodere.

“No one is so old as to think that he cannot live one more year—yet these same men labour at things which they know will not profit them in the least. ‘He plants the trees to serve another age,’ as our Caecilius Statius says in his Young Comrades. And if you ask a farmer, however old, for whom he is planting, he will unhesitatingly reply: for the immortal gods, who have willed not only that I should receive these blessings from my ancestors, but also that I should hand them on to posterity.”

Not just because the passage contains a lovely and proverbial fragment of the 2nd century BCE comic playwright, Caecilius Statius. I want to hold on to this idea that what we do here during our lifetime will not only be for ourselves. And I like the idea that preserving and building resources for people yet to come can be something we value and take pride in. 

Modern. For the last year or so I’ve been listening to the Talking Simpsons podcast network with Bob Mackey and Henry Gilbert. This week they discussed the new episodes of Disenchantment that dropped on Netflix. I’ve been enjoying this show a lot. Futurama is one of my all time favourites, and it’s exciting to me to feel like I’m observing another potential Futurama happen right before my eyes. Bob and Henry discuss an interesting problem, though, which is this: if you watched the Simpsons as it aired in the 90s, you probably saw some episodes a number of times in reruns (or by choice). I had a box set with seasons 1-4 of Futurama that I rewatched a lot when I was young, way before streaming media. But now the same creators of the Simpsons are making a show which most people will watch in more or less one sitting (or, say, over a weekend). And you might not rewatch it, given that there is such an overabundance of content right now. It’s interesting to think about: you’re a seasoned tv writer for one of the most famous and long lasting franchises of the modern era, and you have a certain way of doing things. But tv is now consumed in a profoundly different way. Trained by this institution, this creative machine, you now face an audience with different expectations. There is enormous competition for the attention space, and there is no guarantee of securing a captive audience via the power of syndication or otherwise. Watching and rewatching, reading and rereading — this is something that is built in to our experience of culture, especially the things we really love. Our favourite book. Our favourite film. I have basically been listening to the same music since about 2007. Recursiveness is part of cultural work. But we might not return to Disenchantment much. (Btw I do enjoy this new role for Abbi Jacobson, and all The Mighty Boosh alumni are *chef’s kiss*) 


Excerpt. Anthony Grafton 1997: 124: “In the modern world, fragments and revolutions have gone together. From 1789 to 1989, the politics of the street have always involved iconoclasm. Symbols of previous authorities have been smashed, the colossal heads of dictators separated from their even more outsized torsos, stately lines of busts and statues transformed into politically charged rubble. Tsar and Stalin in turn become Ozymandias.” 

Daily life. Speaking of trees, Max found one which is without a doubt a portal to another dimension.