practice, practice, practice

He is capable of behaving kindly, but he is not kind. He is capable of committing acts of generosity, but he is not generous. He is capable of being loyal, but he is fundamentally disloyal.Testimony of Michael D. Cohen, Committee on Oversight and Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, February 27, 2019


So things done are called just and moderate whenever they are such that the just person or the moderate person would do them; whereas a person is not just and moderate because he does these things, but also because he does them in the way in which just and moderate people do them. So it is appropriate to say that the just person comes about from doing what is just, and the moderate person from doing what is moderate.Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1105b5-11, trans. Rowe and Broadie

ancient wisdom review at commonweal

I’ve got a new review of the Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series (Princeton) of Greek and Latin translations over at Commonweal. In short, the series is a mixed bag: some of its texts haven’t been refreshed in Harvard’s Loeb series for several decades, so a new edition is very welcome. But the Ancient Wisdom series sometimes renders its ancient texts as especially lifeless banalities. Here’s the beginning, head over to Commonweal to read the rest:

The market for bilingual editions of ancient Greek and Latin books is dominated by the Loeb Classical Library series from Harvard University Press, the iconic green and red hardbacks (often simply called “Loebs”) that have helped generations of classics undergraduates untangle Cicero’s convoluted syntax. At their debut in the last century, Virginia Woolf, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, called Loebs “a gift of freedom” because, by placing Latin and Greek texts opposite their English translations, these volumes recognized “the existence of the amateur.” Nowadays these attractive volumes appeal not only to the philological laity but also to those for whom books are objects to be seen and not read. Loebs have even appeared in the glossy photographs of Martha Stewart Living—what better way to round out a living room’s red color scheme than with a “1930s Chinese Chippendale-style fish tank” and a few crimson editions of Ovid?

Princeton University Press, then, is entering a competitive publishing niche with its new series of similarly portable and stylish hardcover books, “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers.” That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement from the current offering of Loebs. By presenting “the timeless and timely ideas of classical thinkers in lively new translations” from first-rate scholars, Princeton’s collection will be helpful for readers looking for updated renderings of these canonical texts. Although new and updated Loeb editions still appear every year, some of the translations are ancient, even for centrally important works from classical antiquity. The Loeb of Cicero’s De Amicitia, the work translated in Princeton’s new How to Be a Friend, was published in 1923, and the Loeb of Epictetus’s Handbook, part of Princeton’s How to Be Free, is now ninety years old. For Loebs that need a refresh of idiom and style, Princeton is doing Woolf’s amateur classicist an overdue favor, especially because these two new Princeton volumes in particular also include the original ancient texts facing the translations.

a classic case of patois

Yes, I’ve got rhetorical ethos on my mind these days, but this interview suggests that a certain classicist-turned-commentator needs to revisit his notes on ancient rhetoric:

This is what you were saying about Greek heroes. You don’t get the perfect person who will phrase everything or do everything perfectly.

You don’t. You don’t. I was trying to look at Trump in classical terms, so words like eirôneia, or irony—how could it be that the Republican Party supposedly was empathetic, but a millionaire, a billionaire Manhattanite started using terms I had never heard Romney or McCain or Paul Ryan say? He started saying “our.” Our miners. And then, on the left, every time Hillary Clinton went before a Southern audience, she started speaking in a Southern accent. And Barack Obama, I think you would agree, when he gets before an inner-city audience, he suddenly sounded as if he spoke in a black patois. When Trump went to any of these groups, he had the same tie, the same suit, the same accent. What people thought was that, whatever he is, he is authentic.

Honest, authentic.

I don’t know about honest, but authentic and genuine. Honest in the sense that—

The larger sense.


As Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, and all their centuries of readers know, the occasion of a grand-style political speech demands that a speaker give some attention to his own ethos or character. A captatio benevolentiae (a “capturing of goodwill” or establishment of trustworthiness) is one of the indispensable components of such a strategy—a speaker needs to give an audience reason to listen up and follow along with his arguments.

It’s tough, then, to fault a savvy politician for “speaking in a southern accent” or with a “patois” when the particular audience demands it. Regional jokes will do the trick, too. Even aside from these considerations from classical handbooks of persuasion, everyone uses code-switching when interviewing for a job, teaching a class, or sharing dinner with a close friend. To suggest that these linguistic shifts or rhetorical tactics are signs of dishonesty is fundamentally ungenerous.

If Hanson has ever read his Cicero (with a Ph.D. from Stanford, he absolutely has), he undoubtedly knows all of this.

The President’s undiscerning “same tie, same suit, same accent” routine, though, is interesting for other reasons, reconsidered through the two lenses of classical character appeals and contemporary media. In our retweet-driven, cable-news-staged era of American politics, it is becoming harder to find a “particular audience” in front of whom to speak in an accent or to deploy regional slang. If Nielsen viewership numbers and Twitter “impressions” hover in the millions—with no real geographic, sociological, or economic consistency—we may have lost distinct audiences and, as a result, distinct oratory. The President’s immutable self-presentation, then, might simply stem from a demand of speaking before a boundless crowd of spectators. Why bother with accents when all of YouTube is watching?