So Learned Times.

Nora Goldschmidt’s LRB review (22 September 2022; archived) of The Roman Republic of Letters: Scholarship, Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Cicero and Caesar, by Katharina Volk, and I found it extraordinarily interesting and informative. She starts off with the wonderfully named Nigidius Figulus as a character in Lucan, and continues:

According to Aulus Gellius, Nigidius was one of ‘the most learned men of the Roman race’, second only to Marcus Terentius Varro. His enormous scholarly output, of which only around 130 fragments survive, many just a few words long, included thirty volumes of ‘Grammatical Notes’, treatises On Entrails and On Winds, a study of the spheres (details of which may inform his speech in Lucan) and a brontoscopic calendar, detailing what thunder would portend on any given day of the year. St Jerome later called Nigidius ‘a Pythagorean and a sorcerer’, and the occult turn of his intellectual pursuits and his habit of divination has gained him a reputation as the Harry Potter of Ancient Rome (figulus is Latin for ‘potter’).

The late Republic was a period of intense cultural production as well as political turmoil. ‘These so learned times’, as Cicero described them, produced an unprecedented number of works on philosophy, linguistics, rhetoric and antiquarianism. The political and intellectual heavy lifting was often done by the same people. Julius Caesar described himself as a ‘military man’, but he sidelined as a historian, grammarian, playwright, poet and astronomer. The memoirs of his military campaigns formed part of a larger body of work that included De Analogia (‘the most careful and precise treatise on the principles of correct Latinity’, according to Cicero), a polemical pamphlet (the Anticato), a tragedy on the theme of Oedipus, a poem called Iter (‘The Journey’) and an astronomical treatise, De Astris, probably written with the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to support the reform of the Roman calendar.

Marcus Junius Brutus was not only a politician (and an assassin) but composed at least three philosophical works, including De Virtute, a treatise that seems to have dealt with the question of whether virtue is a sufficient condition for happiness. Cicero, whose active political life included a stint as consul in 63, left behind an extensive corpus of works of oratory, philosophy and political theory as well as several collections of letters; he also translated Aratus’ Phaenomena (a poem with detailed information about the constellations) from Greek and dashed out hexameters, including a poem on Caesar’s invasion of Britain and an epic on his own consulship, which contained the notorious line, later mocked by Juvenal: ‘O fortunatam natam me consule Romam’ (‘O lucky Rome, born in my consulship’). Varro, the most learned Roman of them all, was a senator and praetor, who fought against Caesar on the Pompeian side and narrowly escaped the proscriptions that followed Caesar’s death, though he did lose his library and aviary.

For the Roman senatorial elite, networks of knowledge production were also social networks. They read each other’s work, lent each other books and discussed philological and philosophical matters. Caesar dedicated De Analogia to Cicero; Varro dedicated a book on Roman antiquities to Caesar; Brutus dedicated De Virtute to Cicero; and Cicero dedicated work to friends including Brutus and Varro. These writings reflect the relations of socio-political obligation, or amicitia, that were a part of everyday life, but they were also a space in which communities of knowledge could be created. Intellectual comrades could be cast as implicit interlocutors (as Caesar does with Varro, Cicero and Nigidius in De Analogia) or as speaking characters in works written as dialogues, responding in ways that they may never have done in real life (Cicero did this with several of his friends including Brutus and Nigidius). The result was an idealised ‘society of studies’ (societas studiorum), played out in a network of texts that were often written in response to one another.

Unlike its later counterpart, the ‘Roman republic of letters’ – in Katharina Volk’s phrase – wasn’t removed from political and institutional contexts. […] Finding time for both politics and scholarship wasn’t always easy, however, even for the polymathic senators of the late Republic. Cato the Younger was a binge-reader and would read in the senate while his colleagues were assembling, hiding his book with his toga – though Cicero assures us he never ‘neglected public business’. Caesar’s intellectual agility was as legendary as his skills in battle (he is said to have simultaneously dictated up to seven letters at a time). Pliny the Elder described Caesar’s brain as if it were a kind of missile, ‘winged with fire’. The two books of De Analogia were said to have been written while he was travelling over the Alps to Gaul, or possibly even during the fighting. Iter was supposedly written to pass the time between Rome and Further Spain.

After the defeat at Pharsalus, things became more complicated for Caesar’s contemporaries. Writing and thinking, as Lucretius put it, were now undertaken ‘in an evil time for the fatherland’. The senatorial habit of studia was subject to new pressures. Following his suicide at Utica, Cato the Younger became a martyr to the Republican cause, and Cicero, Caesar, Brutus and others produced a flurry of pamphlets debating his merits and shortcomings. This exchange is sometimes seen as the last open public debate over the way Rome should be governed, but it’s hard to glean much from the few surviving fragments. In Volk’s reading, Cicero and Caesar avoided the most loaded political issues, ‘managing to cross swords without actually injuring the other party’.

Established networks of scholarly amicitia were taken up again in real life. Cicero was glad to return to his ‘old friends’, his books, after Pharsalus, but he also saw other old friends: Caesar came to his villa to discuss Latin poetry. Varro, who, according to Caesar, had expressed an equal closeness to both leaders at the beginning of the war, was enlisted to help set up an ambitious public library containing all accessible Greek and Latin literature. It was probably around this time that he dedicated his Antiquitates to Caesar.

The works of the word could also turn inwards. With the res publica in crisis and the liberty to speak freely in the forum curtailed, those who had fought on the losing side turned to the republic of letters. For Cicero and his friends (some of whom were still abroad), philosophical endeavour became a form of consolation – Volk calls it ‘Pompeian group therapy’ – and a way of shunting Caesar into exile, creating a ‘Caesar-free zone’ that omitted any mention of his name. […]

Volk’s​ argument – that the story of the Roman republic of letters is messier and more variable than it has generally been presented – is a compelling one. She sees herself as looking under individual stones for ‘thoughts and intentions’ rather than telling overarching narratives. But the problem, as she acknowledges, is that whichever stone we turn, we almost always uncover Cicero. Very few works produced during the late Republic have survived intact. For the most part, what remains is fragments quoted in the works of other, often much later authors. The major exceptions are Caesar’s commentarii, Varro’s treatise on agriculture and, above all, the works of Cicero. […]

That stuff may be old hat to those who keep up with classical studies, but most of it was new to me; I had no idea, for instance, that Caesar was so prolific in so many genres.


  1. Caesar, too, had many hats. A helmet on each foot, from what I hear.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    I’m not convinced that Caesar was representative of anything. He was one of those deeply annoying people who are good at absolutely everything they do (and he got the girls, too. And the boys.)

    No wonder they assassinated him.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Apparently one of more alarming things about Caesar to his contemporaries was his habit of forgiving his enemies, such clementia being a royal attribute entirely unbecoming for any right-thinking republican nobleman.

    I believe his response to some disobliging poems of Catullus was to invite the poet to dinner. Way to offend, Julius!

  4. “How dare you forgive me, sirrah! We shall meet on the Ides!”

  5. Cato the Younger was a binge-reader and would read in the senate while his colleagues were assembling, hiding his book with his toga

    How does this jibe with the theory that silent reading was considered a rare and remarkable skill in Ancient Rome? Presumably Cato had to be reading tacite if he was trying to read without being noticed. I wonder if reading skills had diminished by Augustine’s time?

  6. Yeah, I think it’s the general consensus that Augustine has been misinterpreted or overgeneralized in that regard.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    Syme’s The Roman Revolution says that “the great astrologer” Nigidius Figulus was (retrospectively) credited with having cast a helpful horoscope for the newborn C. Octavius foretellling that he would become ruler of the world …

    Talking of Syme, “Nigidius” is not a Latin gentilic; it’s Oscan. I imagine that (like Cicero, but more so) he was something of a parvenu, though he got as far as praetor.

    It occurs to me that this concurrence of literary and political prowess becomes a bit less surprising when you reflect that in those days you needed to be pretty damn rich to even be a literary type. (And of course, you had – officially – to be a millionaire to be a senator.) I was just reading something of Ada Palmer’s the other day in which she remarked in passing that in late mediaeval times a book cost much the same as a house. I don’t expect it was all that different in Cicero’s day.

  8. in late mediaeval times a book cost much the same as a house. I don’t expect it was all that different in Cicero’s day.

    I don’t think so. In late medieval times hundreds of books was a big library. The Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum had about 2000 scrolls. The really big libraries had at least tens of thousands of books. To be fair, I imagine that part of this is that what is called “a book” was shorter in classical times.

  9. Stu Clayton says

    I think it’s the general consensus that Augustine has been misinterpreted or overgeneralized in that regard.

    Augustine came much later to the party, so how much could he know ? While trying to drum up something about dates and context in the ‘net, I found that Augustine wrote: si enim fallor, sum [de trinitate]. To paraphrase the translation at the link: in dubito cogito, ergo sum. Descartes was a thief.

  10. Michael Hendry says

    I read somewhere that the invention of printing immediately reduced the cost of books by 80%, but hand-copied books were still made in large numbers for at least a century afterwards. It was still cheaper to make your own copy by hand, if (like most students) you had a lot more time than money to spend.

    Raw materials (parchment/paper and ink) must obviously have been less than 20% of the cost of a hand-written book – probably a lot less, since printers would have spent a great deal on their presses, lead type, and all the labor of setting, printing, and binding the books. It seems likely that the cost of paper and ink was less than half the cost of a printed book and therefore less than a tenth the cost of a book hand-copied by someone else. So anyone able to borrow a book long enough to copy it, either from a library or a friend, could make his own copy without much cash.

    Home copyists would need pens as well as ink and paper, but geese were abundant, so I’m guessing goose-feathers (and a knife to sharpen them) were much cheaper than tanned hides or (in Rome) papyrus sheets. As for ink, oak-gall and squid ink were probably expensive, but I think a lot of it was made from soot and ashes, which would be even easier to get than goose-feathers, if you knew the formula. Then again, getting a hand-copied book bound would likely have cost a fair bit.

    Cicero and Caesar and Figulus and Varro all had literary slaves to do the copying. (We know a lot about Cicero’s literary slave and later freedman Tiro, who is said to have invented shorthand as the only way to keep up with his master’s dictation.) That would have made large libraries more affordable in Roman times than it was after the abolition of slavery.

    As for the Villa dei Papiri, it belonged to Calpurnius Piso, Caesar’s father-in-law, the target of Cicero’s invective In Pisonem, and one of the most powerful men in Rome in his own right. What he or Caesar or Cicero could afford doesn’t show much about what poorer, educated men in Rome, like Vergil and Horace and Ovid, could afford in the way of personal libraries. (I almost wrote “men and women”, but the one woman poet of the time whose work survives, Sulpicia, was daughter and niece of powerful politicians.)

  11. David Eddyshaw says


    True. Still, luxury items, even so.

    (Reminds me of a poisonous Swiss woman I met in Ghana, who made no secret of despising the locals; at one point, she, or perhaps her equally poisonous husband, solemnly informed me that Ghanaians did not love their children. Part of her evidence for the manifest inferiority of her neighbours was that “they don’t read books”; the fact that even a paperback cost a fortnight’s wages for a qualified nurse did not seem to have registered with her. She was not what I would have called an observant woman.)

  12. Stu Clayton says

    Why did they stay in Ghana if they hated it ? Had they been sent abroad to poison for their country ? Perhaps the wife’s opinions were aposematic – if you boxed her ears, you wouldn’t actually die.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    The point at the end about how little has survived (other than in quotations often lacking the full original context) of the work of most of the late-Republic authors under discussion other than Cicero is interesting. Is there an accepted explanatory story about that? You’d think the Roman cultural juggernaut would have been large and prosperous enough by then to “keep things in print” for a wider range of name authors via manuscript copying. Did some of the authors at least temporarily fall out of political favor in the early Empire in a way that made manuscript copying hazardous and thus broke the chain of transmission? Or did the now-lost works mostly survive into late antiquity but for some reason not make the cut for what continued to be copied during so-called Dark Ages? Something else?

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    Why did they stay in Ghana if they hated it ?

    They hadn’t actually been there all that long when I met them. The husband, like me, was a doctor working for the Presbyterian Church of Ghana; it’s pretty hard being the “spouse” in such circumstances, as you tend to have nothing much to occupy your time, and getting to know local people is not easy even for those who actually want to (many of my own Ghanaian colleagues’ wives did not speak English fluently, and they tended to be reluctant to entertain foreign guests because they couldn’t provide the sort of de luxe hospitality they thought was appropriate.) This was an area where there were very few foreigners (I was just visiting.)

    He had that sort of white-saviour thing going on. He was going to help those benighted natives whether they liked it or not.

    They were also fairly militant atheists: they’d only actually got married because the Presbyterian Church demanded it and they didn’t care either way. They weren’t working for my organisation (the excellent Christoffelblindenmission), which certainly wouldn’t have sent them to such a clearly inappropriate posting.

    Or taken them on at all, I think. CBM don’t impose any doctrinal tests on the people they send, but they’re also not stupid, and have plenty of experience spotting when people have seriously mistaken their vocation. They also take a lot of care to make sure that, even if you’re not, say, an actual practising Christian, you won’t be freaked out by working in an environment where practically everyone else is, and you won’t be liable to act in such a way that the receiving organisation is exposed to serious embarrassment by you.

    Pretty much all medical missionaries – and secular aid workers – are weird, but there’s weird and then there’s toxic. Also a surprising number of people who volunteer for such things are running away from something in their own lives. You don’t help anybody by colluding with that,

    Maybe my Swiss couple eventually got better. I’d like to think so; but they didn’t strike me as very teachable. But people can surprise you.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    Is there an accepted explanatory story about that?

    What has survived is overwhelmingly what was thought suitable for schools in Roman times, then filtered by what mediaeval Christian monks thought worthy of the considerable labour and expense of copying. So it skews towards what was thought to be “improving”, for one reason or another.

    That we have anything else at all is usually due to sheer dumb luck. We could very easily have had no Tacitus and no Catullus* at all. Just a couple of manuscripts …

    Almost all Roman literature has perished. Much of it may very well have been more to our contemporary taste than what we do have. The wonder is that we have anything at all besides the work of Augustus’ pet propagandists. And bloody Seneca, for whom the mediaevals had a totally inexplicable regard …

    * Catullus is not so improving, though he does extend your Latin vocabulary.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s probably a good thing that throughout the relevant period, people valued style much more than substance (at least, compared with us), so even material that you might not have expected pious monks to be particularly keen on might survive because it was just so well done technically. (Even if Horace had not been on the Right Side of History© , his verse is a kind of ne plus ultra of “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” Both bits.)

    What we’re missing out on is probably the stuff that had stylistic excellences that we would appreciate but the Intermediate Period didn’t. Syme reckoned that Pollio’s historical works were probably like that: he thought that Tacitus’ style might be partly a reflection of it.

    Also all the trashy novels. We haven’t even got one of those complete.* I expect they were a lot more fun than Livy.

    [*Actually, we do. I was forgetting Apuleius. Definitely more fun than Livy. But it was based on a Greek original, so I was right anyway, OK?]

  17. Why Classics Were Lost, discussed here in 2019.

  18. such clementia

    Well, Nigidius Figulus died in exile still waiting for his, right?

    And Caesar’s followers, such as Tully’s pupil, were convinced

    clementiam illi malo fuisse, qua si usus non esset, nihil ei tale accidere potuisse

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    Nigidius Figulus died in exile still waiting for his

    Well, he was a Pythagorean. There are limits, you know. (One word: beans.)

    clementiam illi malo fuisse

    So it was not only wrong in principle (as not befitting a proper republican gent) but damaging in practice. Just goes to show. The old ways are the best.

    Caesar’s heirs do seem to have taken the lesson on board.

  20. It was much less of a problem showing clemency to a man significantly lower in social status. Pardoning an enemy was a service of such magnitude that it effectively made him a client of his benefactor. That might be all right for a plebian, but it was considered profoundly demeaning to force that on a fellow senator.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    That 2019 thread that ktschwarz linked to drifted fairly quickly from its original nominal topic, but does contain lots of quality content from our fallen comrade AJP Crown, which might be a separate motivation to go back to it.

    I take the point of the priorities of medieval monks as to which old pagan Latin manuscripts they were going to copy as an important chokepoint/bottleneck in the transmission, but I guess I remain interested in conjectures about what happened before then. I understand the point that being a work frequently assigned to students in the pre-Christian era was a good way to ensure lots of manuscripts were still around when the monastics took over the process, but were there (at least from the 1st century B.C. forward) enough “rich guys with private libraries” as also mentioned above to promote continued manuscript copying of older Latin texts not necessarily student-suitable but of interest to the rich-guy-with-private-library demographic? I guess to the extent there are older works known only in scattered quotations, the date of the work with the quotation may suggest that the quoted work was still extant as of that time. Unless of course the author just got the quotation as a quotation from some other intermediate author who’d used it …

  22. Nat Shockley says

    Raw materials (parchment/paper and ink) must obviously have been less than 20% of the cost of a hand-written book – probably a lot less, since printers would have spent a great deal on their presses, lead type, and all the labor of setting, printing, and binding the books. It seems likely that the cost of paper and ink was less than half the cost of a printed book and therefore less than a tenth the cost of a book hand-copied by someone else.

    The cost of paper production declined greatly over the course of the Middle Ages, and then declined even more dramatically in the 16th century. But at the start of the print era in the 15th century, it was still relatively high. The cost of parchment was vastly higher and probably rose, if anything, as demand increased toward the end of the Middle Ages. According to Juraj Kittler, “From rags to riches: the limits of early paper manufacturing and their impact on book print in Renaissance Venice” (Media History 21 no. 1, 2014), the cost of paper in Bologna in 1280 was six times less than parchment, and the gap widened as time went on: in the late 15th century, the most expensive paper cost three ducats per ream in Italy, while parchment cost anywhere from 25 to 50 ducats per ream.

    A year’s income for a highly skilled worker was 35 to 50 ducats a year in the 15th century. A 240-page quarto book required at least 15 reams, so if such a book were made from parchment, the parchment would have made up the vast majority of its (enormous) production cost. Hence the claim that a book in the late Middle Ages cost as much as a house.

    In the case of books printed on paper, the paper made up nearly half the cost of a book in the incunable era (Kittler p. 16). The other non-labor costs (the printing press, the lead type, ink, etc.) were a considerably smaller component of the total cost of a book: Kittler says that from 1477 to 1539, an aspiring printer in Italy had to spend 40 to 50 ducats to “equip his shop” (i.e. printing equipment) and this amount was roughly equal to the cost of the paper required just for the first edition that the printer would then print in that shop.

    In the case of handwritten books, the paper would still have cost a fairly substantial amount in the 15th century and early 16th century. Certainly it made up a much smaller proportion of the overall cost than for a printed book, due to the much greater labor involved, but it was still not exactly cheap.

    Books in ancient Rome were probably considerably cheaper to make than books handwritten on paper in the 15th century and early 16th century because papyrus was probably much cheaper to obtain than paper in that period. But I don’t have data on how expensive papyrus was in ancient Rome.

  23. I suspect a lot of 1st century BC Roman books had already disappeared by the beginning of the 4th century or even 3rd century AD. Fashions change and a book that only ever existed in 30-40 (?) copies, if that many, meant to be circulated among a small social group of at most a few thousand Roman aristocrats probably didn’t survive many generations. If just one generation lost interest in a work, the odds against parchment scrolls surviving into the next generation became very slim. Certainly „scurrilous entertainment“ – precisely what we would probably most enjoy reading- had a very low survival rate.

  24. Compare the low survival rate of early movies.

  25. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, movies were generally considered in the early days to be ephemeral in a way you would think literary-etc. texts laboriously copied out from a reference scroll onto a new scroll by hand might not be? And the stuff on which the scrolls were written was not calculated to survive for millennia but was still more stable over time than the early-movie nitrate stock. But I take Vanya’s point about low total number of extant copies of a given work (especially if in private hands with the specific hands not necessarily widely known) meant that they could all go missing before someone was interested enough to want to make a brand-new copy for the next generation.

  26. Once people lose interest in something, it’s ephemeral, no matter how much work went into it. Check your local garbage dump for examples.

  27. Check your local charity fort too

  28. Check your local garbage dump for examples.

    A shout-out to a wonderful blog, The Fate of Books: Notes on Book Collecting, Bibliomania, and Libricide, on just that (specifically, Slovenian dumps).

  29. DE:

    Almost all Roman literature has perished.

    Probably. Think how incredibly lucky we are that De rerum natura eventually made it through the obstacle course. And how unlucky we are that … a certain other masterwork of ancient physics, metaphysics, and epistemology in exquisite verse did not. Alas, we are unable even to name it or its author.

    Lucretius still gives a model against which several modern insights, and modern errors, can be critiqued and understood. There’s Epicurean atomism itself, of course. Then, the famous swerve (clinamen) in the motion of atoms through the void prefigures (causally?) a premise of quantum physics, and a notorious explanans in late-20C philosophy of mind and in some modern accounts of so-called free will.

    The reasoning about motion is itself instructive and fascinating. As wayward as Aristotle’s. Underlying it is a conception of space akin to Newton’s, but asymmetrical in that there is a favoured direction: a down that Newton has no use for. But how much of our own world-mapping is still conditioned by such a conception?

    Arguably Lucretius succumbs to a kind of homoeomeric thinking, even as he diagnoses it as an error in Anaxagoras. And we might too, just as we fall prey to anthropocentric reasoning akin to the Lucretian account of how large the moon is, when he reasons – with more ingeniousness than is commonly understood – that it must be just the size it appears to be (¿Qué?).

    Our own best physics may one day be found as plainly dismissible on a priori grounds as Lucretian physics is. It’s likely that … um … what’s-her-name already sorted it these things out centuries ago. If only her name and work had come down to us!

  30. sorted it these things out > sorted these things out
    [A scribal error, it seems.]

  31. J.W. Brewer says

    From the wiki bio of Nigidius Figulus: ‘In etymology he tried to find a Roman explanation of words where possible; for example, he derived frater (“brother”) from fere alter, “practically another (self).”‘ Edifying folk etymology is worse than occultism, if you ask me.

  32. David Eddyshaw says


    I share your enthusiasm for Lucretius, probably my favourite Latin poet (most days, anyhow.)

    We are indeed lucky: just one manuscript seems to underlie all the ones we’ve got, as you doubtless know very well.

    He’s worth fifty of those damn Stoics that mediaeval Christians were so keen on. Also, great poet

    Edifying folk etymology is worse than occultism, if you ask me

    Caesar probably felt the same. Clementia is wasted on such people.
    (Still not up to Quintilian’s truly epic lucus a non lucendo, though. That’s Merritt Ruhlen-level stuff …)

    But I suppose we can’t all be Pāṇini.

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    (It occurs to me that lucus actually really is cognate with lucere … just not quite in the way Q puts it. So it was unfair to compare him with Ruhlen, and I apologise to his memory.)

  34. David Marjanović says

    And how unlucky we are that …

    Emperor Claudius’s 12 books on the Etruscan language.


  35. Claudius covered the history and religion of the Etruscan’s as well. After the original written account of the sayings of Jesus, it’s probably the lost work I think would be the most interesting.

  36. Linguistics and ethnography were less of bestsellers than Roman history and recreational reading. I wonder why philosophy did so well.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    I think Philosophy was regarded as something that a properly educated gent ought to know a bit about (and hence suitable school fare, at least in the upper reaches), whereas ethnography was more for nerds (like Claudius.) Technical stuff, rather than part of any general liberal education. The Romans do seem to have taken an interest in it as the sort of thing that might come in handy for ruling foreigners effectively (rather like the Brits, later on.) And we have not one but two ethnographic works from Tacitus, though one, admittedly, is basically there to big up his own father-in-law. There was probably a lot more that perished because mediaeval copyists were only interested in reading about their own forebears, not strange peoples from the other end of the Empire who couldn’t even speak Latin.

    I think the Romans also tended to look to Philosophy rather than religion to answer ethical questions and the like. Like most religions, theirs really didn’t have a lot to do with ethics at all. Until the philosophers started arguing that it should: but the impetus there came from the philosophers, not from priests. And then the Christians came along and tried to coopt the ethical side of pagan philosophy for their own purposes, thereby making it transmission-worthy.

  38. J.W. Brewer says

    Re “properly educated gent[le[wo]man]”: Forty years ago this past fall, eighteen-year-old me took Philosophy 116a (called “Introduction to Ancient Philosophy” or something like that) from Prof. Robert Sherrick Brumbaugh (1918-1992), quondam president of the Metaphysical Society of America. On the first day of class he mentioned three different reasons one might wish to take his class. Reason One was that if you wanted to major in philosophy it was a prerequisite whether you liked it or not. Reason Two was more intellectual and idealistic and I forget what it was. Reason Three was that even if most of us would no doubt end up with non-intelligentsia careers as lawyers and bankers and medicos and whatnot, we would no doubt in later life go to the sort of cocktail parties where sophisticated intellectual topics might occasionally come up and where we would wish not to appear ignorant and unpolished, so even if we never took another philosophy class we would hopefully be able to recall enough about e.g. the difference between Parmenides and Democritus to hold our own and avoid embarrassment in appropriate small talk and banter.

    I do not know if there is still a critical mass of 18-year-olds in the U.S. who would buy that particular marketing pitch, which even at the time seemed perhaps a tad overoptimistic (if flatteringly so) about what the future might hold. The past is a foreign etc etc.

  39. Stu Clayton says

    he mentioned three different reasons one might wish to take his class

    They are so different from each other that I suspect he intended, with each reason, to address a different kind of student. You say you forget what Reason Two was. It must not have made much of an impression on you, so it is unlikely to be a reason you stayed.

    Reason One is easy to accept, and just as easy to reject – by dropping the class.

    I do not know if there is still a critical mass of 18-year-olds in the U.S. who would buy that particular marketing pitch

    So you bought the pitch ? That is in line with accepting Reason Three. Maybe you didn’t intend to become a lawyer, but you did so. Do you now find yourself able to avoid embarrassment in appropriate small talk and banter ? That is perennially important to 18-year-olds, because so many of them are wracked by self-doubt, and unable to put together an intelligible sentence free of buzzwords.

    What’s not to like about that pitch ?

    I avoid embarrassment by avoiding the physical presence of sophisticated intellectuals altogether. Blogs are a different matter, of course.

  40. John Cowan says

    So are dogs.

  41. J.W. Brewer says

    In response to Stu: First, Reason One would have been relevant to me at the time because it was not until two semesters later that an encounter with Hegel persuaded me to major in linguistics rather than philosophy. Second, I expect that Reason Two appealed to me at the time, but I have forgotten its details precisely because it resonated so much with the romantic vision I had of the glories of Liberal Arts Education(tm) at that stage of my life as not to be independently memorable.

    Someone who was a year behind me in college recently posted on social media a pundit thinkpiece arguing that the alternative to today’s loser elite-university presidents who are easily made to look like fools by backwoods populist Congress[wo]men would be a revival of the model exemplified by the late A. Bartlett Giamatti (+1989), a scholar of Renaissance epic poetry who in addition to being father of a recent Golden Globes winner was president of my alma mater for three of my four years there. This piece held out as an example of Bart’s excellent vision a speech (“The Earthly Use of a Liberal Education,” apparently subsequently published somewhere or other) that he had delivered to my freshman class 40 Septembers ago. While the author argued that it was well worth the reading 40 years on, as I said in response to the post “I don’t recall the speech making much of an impression. That’s presumably because pretty much all it did was lay out a particular (perhaps somewhat romanticized) vision of a liberal arts education that I had become aware of in high school and had assumed I would get access to by going to Yale. So it was like hearing a med school dean talking about how healing diseases is good, or something – obvious and not noteworthy.” The late Prof. Brumbaugh’s Reason Two almost certainly fell into the same “not noteworthy” bucket in my mind at the time. But that romanticized vision of how a certain semi-traditional humanities-based education offered to young people in their late teens could transform and enlighten them may have fallen on hard times in more recent decades.

  42. David Eddyshaw says

    Still, a lot of true and important things are trite; and vice versa.


    His father gave him a box of truisms
    Shaped like a coffin, then his father died;
    The truisms remained on the mantelpiece
    As wooden as the playbox they had been packed in
    Or that other his father skulked inside.

    Then he left home, left the truisms behind him
    Still on the mantelpiece, met love, met war,
    Sordor, disappointment, defeat, betrayal,
    Till through disbeliefs he arrived at a house
    He could not remember seeing before,

    And he walked straight in; it was where he had come from
    And something told him the way to behave.
    He raised his hand and blessed his home;
    The truisms flew and perched on his shoulders
    And a tall tree sprouted from his father’s grave.

  43. I do not know if there is still a critical mass of 18-year-olds in the U.S. who would buy that particular marketing pitch

    The pitch these days would be Philosophy gives you arguments you can use in a flame war on Twitter or Discord. I am often surprised how well versed my son, who studied aerospace engineering, is in general philosophical concepts, and most of it comes from interactions on the internet, where people love to throw around philosophical terms to make their arguments seem better grounded.

    Also I must have started at Yale one year after you based on your timeline. I have very fond memories of Bart. Benno was distinctly mediocre, but perhaps the first of the modern university presidents whose primary task is fundraising.

  44. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @David Eddyshaw:

    It occurs to me that lucus actually really is cognate with lucere … just not quite in the way Q puts it.

    Mainstream understanding in Italy these days is that lucus a lucendo because lucus was originally the sacrificial glade within a forest where sunlight did penetrate. I cannot tell if cutting-edge scholarship has moved past this etymology, which remains in dictionaries.

    @J.W. Brewer:

    I do not know if there is still a critical mass of 18-year-olds in the U.S. who would buy that particular marketing pitch, which even at the time seemed perhaps a tad overoptimistic (if flatteringly so) about what the future might hold.

    Some fifteen years ago, a friend and flatmate used to teach the core undergraduate course in Art History at Harvard. His understanding was that a segment of the class was definitely there so that they would not be ripped off by their gallerist after graduation and (perhaps a tad overoptimistic) gainful employment. Not exactly the same marketing pitch, but I’d say closely related. Also unspoken, I’m pretty sure.

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