Curtius’s Guiding Principles.

I’ve just started Ernst Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, recommended by elessorn and others in this thread (why juggle half a dozen books when you can juggle a dozen, is my motto), and the first thing that greeted me was the list of ten Guiding Principles, untranslated quotations from Greek, Latin, German, French (Old and Modern), and Spanish. I was thinking it would cost me a certain amount of research to figure them all out, but a moment’s googling showed me that Michael Gilleland of Laudator Temporis Acti had saved me the trouble in this post from 2014:

I could find existing translations of only the first three principles, so I tried to translate the others myself. Thanks very much to friends who patiently answered questions and made suggestions—any remaining errors and infelicities are my own fault. I’ve also added a few notes.

Here’s a sample of his very useful work:

4. Proverb:

Ne tu aliis faciendam trade, factam si quam rem cupis.

If you want something done, don’t give it to others to be done.

This proverb isn’t in Hans Walther, Proverbia Sententiaeque Latinitatis Medii Aevi (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963-1969), or Renzo Tosi, Dictionnaire des sentences latines et grecques, tr. Rebecca Lenoir (Grenoble: Jérôme Millon, 2010). W.M. Lindsay quotes it as an old proverb (proverbii veteris) in the Latin preface to his edition of Isidore’s Etymologiae (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), p. vi.

Being fundamentally lazy, I love it when people do my work for me (cf. this post on “Culturally Backward Nationalities”), so I offer my hearty thanks to Michael; the only thing I can think to add is a bit of context for the first three, so I will do that. The first, from Herodotus I.8 (πάλαι δὲ τὰ καλὰ ἀνθρώποισι ἐξεύρηται, ἐκ τῶν μανθάνειν δεῖ), is in the famous story of Candaules and Gyges; the former is so proud of his wife’s beauty he tells the latter to look at her naked, and the horrified response includes the remark that (in the Godley translation quoted in the blog post) “Men have long ago made wise rules from which one ought to learn,” or (in the version used in Paul L. MacKendrick and ‎Herbert M. Howe’s Classics in Translation) “Men of old discovered the proprieties, and it is our duty to learn from them.”

The second is from Scipio’s negotiations with the Carthaginians in Polybius 15:

But Scipio, on hearing from the Roman legates that both the senate and the people had readily accepted the treaty he had made with the Carthaginians and were ready to comply with all his requests, was highly gratified by this, and ordered Baebius to treat the Carthaginian envoys with all courtesy and send them home, acting, as I think, very rightly and wisely. For aware as he was of the high value attached by his own nation to keeping faith to ambassadors, he took into consideration not so much the deserts of the Carthaginians as the duty of the Romans. Therefore restraining his own anger and the bitter resentment he felt owing to the late occurrence, he did his best to preserve ‘the glorious record of our sires,’ as the saying is.

(The bit I have bolded is Curtius’s Principle.)

And the third is from Petronius 118:

“Yes, my young friends,” said Eumolpus, “poetry has led many astray. As soon as a man has shaped his verse in feet and woven into it a more delicate meaning with an ingenious circumlocution, he thinks that forthwith he has scaled Helicon. In this fashion people who are tired out with forensic oratory often take refuge in the calm of poetry as in some happier haven, supposing that a poem is easier to construct than a declamation adorned with quivering epigrams. But nobler souls do not love such coxcombry, and the mind cannot conceive or bring forth its fruit unless it is steeped in the vast flood of literature. One must flee away from all diction that is, so to speak, cheap, and choose words divorced from popular use, putting into practice, “I hate the common herd and hold it afar.”

The last quote, “odi profanum vulgus et arceo,” is the start of Horace Odes 3.1.

Addendum. I was a little nervous about the attribution of the Ortega quote (number 10) to “Obras (1932),” so I did a little googling and discovered it’s from a 1927 review of Ramón Menéndez Pidal’s Orígenes del español: Estado lingüístico de la Península Ibérica hasta el siglo XI (Madrid, 1926); the full parenthesis is:

(Es preciso que los hombres de ciencia vuelvan a caer en la cuenta de que escriben libros. Los mismos alemanes, que causaron originariamente el daño, comienzan a arrepentirse. Un libro de ciencia tiene que ser de ciencia; pero también tiene que ser un libro).

My translation (with the Principle bolded):

(Men of science need to realize once again that they are writing books. The same Germans who caused the damage are beginning to regret it. A book of science must be scientific, but it must also be a book.)


  1. I like #9 best:

    On aurait souhaité de n’être pas technique. À l’essai, il est apparu que, si l’on voulait épargner au lecteur les détails précis, il ne restait que des généralités vagues, et que toute démonstration manquait.

    One would have liked not to be technical. But in the attempt, it seemed that, if one wanted to spare the reader specific details, there remained only vague generalities, and all proof was lacking.

  2. Three cheers for Curtius! It’s a magisterial book, full of learning, judgement, and wit. It has its own apophthegmatic moments, too, such as, e.g.: “How precariously has the past come down to us!”. The telling of the story in question (p.397-401) is typical of ERC’s genius.

  3. I fell in love as soon as I hit this bit on the first page (of actual text): “Less well known, because less perceptible, are the advances in historical knowledge. These alter, not the forms of life, but the forms of thought of those who share in them. They lead to a widening and a clarification of consciousness.” A widening and a clarification of consciousness! I’ve been mulling that over ever since; it feels both right and profound. (Anybody have the original German?)

  4. “Ne tu aliis faciendam trade, factam si quam rem cupis.

    “If you want something done, don’t give it to others to be done.”

    I think a better (though less literal) translation would be: “If you want something to get done, don’t give it to someone else to do it.”

  5. Well, of course the actually corresponding English saying is “If you want something done, do it yourself.”

  6. John Costello says

    The Gustav Gröber quote at #8 is a real masterpiece of German syntax. Especially fun is how Gröber’s love of the conjunctive comma (clearly on display in the first sentence) leads him to invert nominative and dative in the last sentence so he can join “die Einsicht des Irrtums” to the final clause beginning “nur langsam der Entschluss…” with a *comma* instead of a pedestrian “und”, creating an ungodly long sentence-final super-subject that defied Gilleland’s attempts to translate it.

  7. David Marjanović says

    Oh dear.

    Absichtslose Wahrnehmung, unscheinbare Anfänge gehen dem zielbewussten Suchen, dem allseitigen Erfassen des Gegenstandes voraus. Im sprungweisen Durchmessen des Raumes hascht dann der Suchende nach dem Ziel. Mit einem Schema unfertiger Ansichten über ähnliche Gegenstände scheint er das Ganze erfassen zu k[ö]nnen, ehe Natur und Teile gekannt sind. Der vorschnellen Meinung folgt die Einsicht des Irrtums, nur langsam der Entschluss, dem Gegenstand in kleinen und kleinsten Schritten nahe zu kommen, Teil und Teilchen zu beschauen und nicht zu ruhen, bis die Überzeugung gewonnen ist, dass sie nur so und nicht anders aufgefasst werden dürfen.

    Commas indicate repetition in different words.

    Purposeless perception, inconspicuous beginnings precede goal-aware searching, comprehending the subject from all sides. Traversing the space in leaps, the seeking one grasps for the goal. He seems to be able to comprehend the whole with a scheme of unfinished views before nature and parts [of the whole] are known. The rushed opinion is followed by* the insight of error, [and then] only slowly by the decision to approach the subject in small and smallest steps, to behold part and particle** and not to rest until the conviction has been reached*** that they may only be understood in that way and no other.

    * Sneaking in a passive allows me to keep the word order! ^_^
    ** By no means is this a fixed phrase like “part and parcel”. Like pretty much every other literary figure in this quote, Gröber made it up on the spot, and not badly, I must say.
    *** “Won”, literally. Would you say that in English?

    And what kind of blog is this that doesn’t allow comments? I thought that since the opening of comments on Language Log, only creationists did that anymore?

  8. “Won”, literally. Would you say that in English?

    I think you could, but it might seem odd. The word “won” in conjunction with “conviction” is used far more in legal reporting/discussion for a successful prosecution.

    And what kind of blog is this that doesn’t allow comments? I thought that since the opening of comments on Language Log, only creationists did that anymore?

    I suspect some wish to avoid comment spam, and dealing with such. I recall seeing more than a few blogs with open comment systems whose later comments are all spam spam spammity spam.

  9. Eudaemonist (see the right hand side of this or any other LH page) allows comments, but somehow none of them ever make it past moderation. I gave up trying.

  10. In a year-end list of “what book you read in 2023 would you give as a gift?” over at Polka Academy (in Russian), Nikolai Epple (or Nikolay Epplée, as he calls himself on Facebook) recommended Curtius in the new Russian version by Dmitry Kolchigin; here’s his encomium:

    Я говорю о двухтомнике (в русском варианте) Эрнста Роберта Курциуса «Европейская литература и латинское Средневековье» в переводе Дмитрия Колчигина, изданном в 2020 году. Это адамантовая классика, с идеей перевести которую я сам, честно говоря, носился больше 15 лет назад. Дмитрий Колчигин, незнакомый мне, — какой-то поразительный титан и трудолюбец. Он сделал не просто перевод, но самое настоящее Издание Памятника — с отличной сопроводительной статьёй и исчерпывающими комментариями. Такими вещами держится репутация российской академической культуры, не только переводческой.

    I’ll have to take a look at that translation.

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