diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting

As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Epictetus indeed, has given us what was good of the stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines; in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice. Diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious, of their own invention. These they fathered blasphemously on him whom they claimed as their founder, but who would disclaim them with the indignation which their caricatures of his religion so justly excite.Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, October 31, 1819


not tragic, just sad

I have a new review essay up at Commonweal of military historian Victor Davis Hanson’s book The Case for Trump. While Hanson’s book is more broadly a panegyric of Trumpist politics, it also makes a peculiar (but erroneous) case for seeing the president as a Sophoclean tragic hero:

Despite Aristotle’s profound influence on our idea of the “tragic,” no literary term has been so misunderstood and misapplied (with the possible exception of “ironic”). It is often erroneously taken as a synonym for “calamitous” or even simply “sad.” But the notion of the tragic—at least as Aristotle sees it—is something more complicated. He famously defines the genre as the “mimesis of an action that is serious, complete, and grand,” one which uses its principal tools of “fear and pity” in order to effect a kind of “catharsis” in viewers. A cursory search of recent academic publications in classics shows that we’re still sparring about what catharsis really means and still confused about why a drama that terrorizes through fear nevertheless produces pleasure.

With his new book, the Greek-military historian Victor Davis Hanson amplifies our misunderstanding of tragedy by shoehorning the current occupant of the White House into the tradition of Sophoclean protagonists, positioning Trump as a so-called “tragic hero.” In The Case for Trump—whose occasional trafficking in Uranium One conspiracy theories and sophomoric Homeric epithets like “polished teleprompter reader Barack Obama” I shall graciously pass over—Hanson asks us to see in Trump a modern Ajax or Antigone, or even a “tribal” “outlier” like Achilles whose “service is never rewarded commensurately by the Greeks’ deep-state leaders.” The problem, of course, is that being a tribal, “unstable loner” has nothing to do with the tragic genre, properly understood. Donald J. Trump may be many things, but a tragic hero he is not.

Head over to Commonweal to read the rest.

Update (5/17): In this article I reference the 1966 article “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex” by E. R. Dodds, and there’s a copy of the article available on Google Scholar. Dodds himself says a good deal about hamartia in this article, but you might also look up Stinton’s 1975 “Hamartia in Aristotle and Greek Tragedy” in Classical Quarterly, which takes a more expansive view of the idea of hamartia, or Dawe’s 1968 “Some Reflections on Ate and Hamartia” in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology. Another good place to look, of course, is simply the dictionary entry for hamartanō, hamartanein (I audaciously use the second aorist infinitive hamartein in the essay) — Logeion is the place to go for that.

quasi labor intus at bmcr

Our volume Quasi Labor Intus: Ambiguity in Latin Literature is the subject of a new review up at Bryn Mawr Classical Review:

What do law and soup have in common? While the answer is not immediately obvious in English, it becomes evident when we switch languages. The Latin word ius is ambiguous between the meanings ‘law’ and ‘soup,’ an ambiguity that Cicero uses strategically to liken Verres’ law (ius Verrinum) to hog soup (ius verrinum).

This example from the introduction of the new volume Quasi labor intus, a collection of papers dedicated to American priest Reginald Foster (beloved by generations of students for his quirky spoken-Latin summer courses in Rome), demonstrates that ambiguity and puns are important devices to create humour. However, unlike puns, ambiguity is not restricted to humorous language; as an inherent feature of language in general it pervades all forms of communication. Acknowledging the fact that ‘ambiguity is a widespread and varied phenomenon of thought and language’ (p. xxviii), the editors Michael Fontaine, Charles McNamara, and William Michael Short have commissioned 13 papers that cover many genres and centuries and feature a diversity of literary and linguistic approaches to the phenomenon of ambiguity.

The reviewer writes that QLI stands as a “welcome and significant contribution to the growing debate on ambiguity in antiquity.” Head over to BMCR to read the rest.