Plus Some Thoughts About Archaisms in Writing
My reading of Marcus Aurelius has given way to reading of his instructor, Fronto —actually The Correspondence of Marcus Cornelius Fronto with Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Lucius Verus, Antoninus Pius, and Various Friends. Translation by C.R. Haines. (The whole thing is available online, here.)
Thinking about Momigliano, and his preoccupation with the historian’s task of “establishing fact” (about which I have posted previously)—and which he considered a hallmark of the liberal mind—I was intrigued to come upon some corroboration in Haines’ biographical sketch of the orator:
There are several passages in this work where Fronto tries his hand at descriptive narrative, and two in which he essays the role of historian. But his view of history, and how it should be written, was thoroughly mistaken. His eyes are not on the facts, but on the best way to show his rhetorical skill in commonplace or panegyric. His efforts therefore in this direction are useless as history and of no account as literature.
The virtue of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was of severer and more laborious kind [than that of his predecessor]. It was the well-earned harvest of many a learned conference, of many a patient lecture, and many a midnight lucubration. At the age of twelve years he embraced the rigid system of the Stoics, which taught him to submit his body to his mind, his passions to his reason; to consider virtue as the only good, vice as the only evil, all things external as things indifferent. His meditations, composed in the tumult of the camp, are still extant; and he even condescended to give lessons of philosophy, in a more public manner than was perhaps consistent with the modesty of sage, or the dignity of an emperor. But his life was the noblest commentary on the precepts of Zeno. He was severe to himself, indulgent to the imperfections of others, just and beneficent to all mankind. He regretted that Avidius Cassius, who excited a rebellion in Syria, had disappointed him, by a voluntary death, of the pleasure of converting an enemy into a friend; and he justified the sincerity of that sentiment, by moderating the zeal of the senate against the adherents of the traitor. War he detested, as the disgrace and calamity of human nature; but when the necessity of a just defense called upon him to take up arms, he readily exposed his person to eight winter campaigns, on the frozen banks of the Danube, the severity of which was at last fatal to the weakness of his constitution. His memory was revered by a grateful posterity, and above a century after his death, many persons preserved the image of Marcus Antoninus among those of their household gods.
If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honor of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.
This book is proof that Marcus Aurelius is one of history's most overlooked philosophers. He has been completely taken for granted. Putting aside the relative quality of the writing in this book, the notion that the correspondence between a great philosopher and his mentor would survive is unbelievably exciting. Yet this book is buried away, to be read only by hard core fanatics and those that troll the bibliographies of translations of Meditations.
The Loeb translation is worth having and worth reading through. One can watch Marcus grow, be admonished, be encouraged and be taught. Perhaps it is time to combine Volume I and II together as the extra pages of Latin seem to be particularly outdated in 2009. Other than that, this book is a both a helpful tool for understanding one of the best Stoics works of all time and watching a noble man become the figure that towers over all of us.
Back to the biographical sketch by C.R. Haines, the poet in me found some of the discussion of language relevant—online forums are always thrashing through the notion of archaisms in modern poetry, and Ezra Pound's dictum to "make it new". That was a question even then. It moves into some generalized discussion of word choice—Cicero is given a wrist slap here—and leaves off with some biography on Marcus Aurelius’s choice against rhetoric in favor of philosophical studies. It is a long excerpt, taken from the online source: I have tried to clean up the scanning errors, but some may have slipped through, and all footnotes are eliminated, for which you must refer to the source. Here (without quotation marks) beginneth the excerpt:
Fronto's ideals in oratory were high. The most difficult test of an orator seemed to him to be that he should please without sacrificing the true principles of eloquence. Smooth phrases for tickling the ears of the hearers must not be such as are offensive to good taste, a feebleness in form being preferable to a coarseness of thought. In spite of his insistence on style and the choice of words, Fronto knows well enough and affirms that noble thoughts are the essential thing in oratory, for the want of which no verbal dexterity or artistic taste will compensate. It was his efficiency in "high thought's invention" that forced Fronto to concentrate his attention on the form and eke out the matter with the manner. Needless to say he has at his fingers' ends all the tropes and figures and devices of the art of rhetoric, and his knowledge of the Roman language and literature was profound.
It has too hastily been assumed that he slighted the great writers of the best age, except Cicero and Sallust, and totally ignored the silver age authors except Lucan and Seneca. But he constantly imitates Terence, recognizes the literary eminence of Caesar and quotes him with approval, calls Lucretius sublime, quotes him, and ranks him with his prime favourites, quotes Horace, whom he calls memorabilis, more than once, shows an intimate knowledge of Vergil, and borrows from Livy. He also shows some acquaintance with Quintilian, Tacitus and Juvenal.
Fronto has been repeatedly called a pedant, but he was a true lover of his own language and guarded it jealously from unauthorized innovations and ignorant solecisms. His aim seemed to have been to shake the national speech out of the groove into which the excessive and pedantic purism of Cicero, Caesar and their followers had confined it. To do this effectually it was necessary to call in the aid of the great writers of an earlier age, such as Plautus and Ennius and Cato. But this sort of archaism was nothing novel. Thucydides was a thorough archaist, and so was Vergil, and Sallust was eminently one. As the cramping effects of the Ciceronian tradition tended more and more to squeeze the life out of the language, the ingrained feeling that “the old is better” gradually spread among the leaders of literary thought. An immense impetus was given to this tendency by the versatile litterateur Hadrian, who openly preferred Ennius to Vergil and Cato to Cicero.
But Fronto, fond as he was of old words and ancient locutions, insisted that such must be not only old but more expressive and appropriate than modern ones, or they must not be preferred. He himself confesses that he used only ordinary and commonplace words. No one in his opinion has a right to invent expressions — he calls such words counterfeit coin. He availed himself of old and established words, that were genuine Latin and had all the charm of novelty without being unintelligible, drawing largely on the vocabulary and idiom of Plautus, Ennius ,Cato, and Gracchus, and interspersing his familiar letters with quotations from Naevius, Accius, Pacuvius, and Laberius. But this was not an affected or repellent archaism, such as Seneca and Lucian mock at. Fronto’s attitude somewhat resembled that of Rossetti, who declares that “he has been reading early English ballads in search of stunning old words.” It is of such words that Fronto is thinking when he speaks of words that must be hunted out with toil and care and watchfulness and by the treasuring up of old poems in the memory. He explains that he has in mind the “inevitable” word, for which, if withdrawn, no substitute equally good could be found. Some old words would certainly have no modern equivalent, as for instance in English the word “hansel.” “The best words in the best places” would be Fronto's definition of oratory, as it was Coleridge’s of poetry.
It is a prevalent but mistaken idea that Fronto disparages or underrates Cicero. He may personally prefer Cato or Sallust, but he recognizes the pre-eminence of Cicero’s genius. It is quite possible that if we had the works of the older witers, we also should prefer their simple dignity and natural vigour even to the incomparable finish and opulence of Tully. However that may be, Fronto credits Cicero with almost every conceivable excellence except the due search for the precise word. He calls him the greatest mouthpiece of the Roman language, the head and source of Roman eloquence, master on all occasions of the most beautiful language, and deficient only in unlooked for words. He candidly confesses his own inferiority. Of his letters he says “nothing can be more perfect.” He calls them lullianae and remissiores, and seems to envy their careless ease. But in practice he disavows the structure of the Ciceronian sentence and the arrangement of its words. He breaks up the flowing periods of Ciceronian prose and introduces new and abrupter rhythms. For older cadences he substitutes cadences of his own, though he occasionally prides himself on imitating the Tullian mannerisms. Where he affects the staccato style, and the historic present, as in Arion, the result is as unpleasing as it is in modern English. In some cases, for forensic speeches, he recommends a deliberate roughness and studied negligence at the end of sentences; but in epideictic displays everything must be neatly and smoothly finished off. Circumlocution and inversions he utterly condemns. Next to the choice of words their natural and perspicuous arrangement counts most with him. This makes his work easy reading. Such difficulties as we find are chiefly due to the mutilated condition of the text in our copy. We have often not only to interpret but to divine what was written.
It has been supposed that Fronto set himself purposely to renovate and remodel the language by recalling old words and obsolete idioms, and by transferring into the literary language colloquialisms from the common speech. But the novella elocutio of which he speaks seems rather to mean a fresher, more vivacious diction, and a more individual form of expression: in fact originality of style. The patina of antiquity which he wished to give his work need not necessarily be thought to disfigure it; and his minute accuracy in the use of words is surely more deserving of praise than of blame. He prided himself on distinguishing the nice shades of meaning in allied words, and insisted that his pupil should be exact in his use of words, knowing well that clearness of thought is dependent on definiteness of expression. The extracts from Aulus Gellius given at the end of the book show us the care with which Fronto distinguished the meaning of words, of which there is further evidence in the De Differentiis Vocabulorum, if that work is his, as it may well be. It was possibly written for the use of his pupils, that they might not misuse words apparently synonymous, such as the various terms for sight and perception. In this connexion it may be noted that Fronto set great store by the careful use of synonjmas, and they abound in his correspondence, but are seldom so colourless as, for instance, our “tied and bound,” “let and hinder,” “many a time and oft” or so run to death as “by leaps and bounds” or “in any shape or form.”
Eloquence was to Fronto the only thing that mattered in the universe. It was the real sovereign of the human race. Philosophy he disliked and even despised, though he admitted that it inspired great thoughts, which it was for eloquence to clothe. Philosophy and rhetoric contended for the soul of Marcus in the persons of the austere Rusticus, the domestic chaplain of Marcus in the Stoic creeds and the courtly Fronto. But the result was a foregone conclusion. Marcus before he was twelve had already made his choice; and though he tried loyally to please his master and learn all the tricks of rhetoric, yet his heart was always far from the wind-flowers of eloquence. He aroused his master’s ire by asserting that, when he had said something more than usually brilliant, he felt pleased, and therefore shunned eloquence. Fronto pertinently rejoined, “You feel pleasure, when eloquent; then, chastise yourself, why chastise eloquence?” Again when Marcus in his ultra-conscientiousness avows a distaste for the obliquities and insincerities of oratory, Fronto is clearly nettled, and counters smartly with a reference to the irony of Socrates.
In spite of all Fronto’s efforts Marcus in his twenty-fourth year finally declared his decision. He could no longer consent to argue on both sides of a question, as the art of oratory would have him do. There is no doubt that his master was bitterly disappointed, as he honestly believed he could make a consummate orator of Marcus.