1. The Praecepta quaedam Isocratis is an adaptation, rather than a translation, of Isocrates’ so-called First Oration (and as such is accompanied by a translation here). The original is written in continuous prose, and is prefaced by a rather long-winded exhortation to virtue (chapters 1 - 12), sensibly omitted by Gager. These maxims have been described by their Loeb Library translator: NOTE 1
The Address to Demonicus is…a treatise on practical ethics, being made up of precepts on the proper conduct of life. These fall roughly into three main divisions, (1) man in his relation to the gods; (2) in his relation to men, including society in general, especially parents and friends; (3) in relation to himself — the harmonious development of his own character.
Yet the treatise lacks unity in that these precepts are rather loosely put together in the manner of the “gnomic” literature of the time, the body of the discourse being in fact a string of detached maxims in which the author’s personal admonitions are mingled with maxims drawn from other sources, mainly from Theognis and the other gnomic poets, the sayings of the “Seven Sages,” and the homely preachings of Socrates.
But there is lacking not only unity of form but unity of spirit. Shrewd advice for getting on in this workaday world is imperfectly harmonized with an occasional note of exalted idealism — a discord which is characteristic of the “practical” philosophy of Isocrates.
By rendering these maxims as individual poems, Gager has created a text that looks very like the kind of traditional Greek wisdom literature upon which Isocrates’ discourse is transparently based.
2. It is tempting to suppose that Gager chose Isocrates’ maxims for translation because of their relevance to himself, as Isocrates was writing for the edification of a young man about his own age and condition. Thus he would see the pertinence to his own situation in those maxims which urge a young man to pursue his studies (14 - 18, cf. also 67 and 68). As a person who obviously set great store by his University friendships, and was sometimes troubled by the ups and downs in which they plunged him because of real or imagined betrayals, the copious advice on how to manage friendships, how to find and keep a true friend, and how to spot a false one, obviously had considerable cogency (27 - 34). Those which display contempt for the vulgus and its tastes and standards (11, 20, 50) reinforce a scorn for the common man that seems to have been a frequent attitude of the academic elite, found in other Tudor University literature. NOTE 2 As someone who repeatedly advanced himself by procuring the friendship and support of those in a position to help, our poet would have been particularly impressed with a maxim that advises one to imitate powerful men so as to curry their favor (59).
3. One change introduced into Isocrates’ precepts is startling: the statement that landed wealth is superior to cash (38) is based on a much more innocuous passage, translated by Norlan as “Try to make of money a thing to use as well as to possess; it is a thing of use to those who understand how to enjoy it, and a mere possession to those who are able only to acquire it.” Unless this results from a severe misreading of the Greek (which uses the word κτήματα), here we have a case where Gager is injecting the values of the East Anglian squirarchy, absorbed from his Cordell background.
4. The Praecepta quaedam Isocratis is preserved by British Library Additional Ms. 22583, our A, pp. 30 - 40. For the dedicatory poem accompanying Susanna, addressed to Gager’s mentor Robert Dorset, see poem LXXI.
NOTE 1 George Norlin, Loeb Classical Library Isocrates (Cambridge, Mass. - London, 1928) I.2f.; the text and translation occupy pp. 4 - 35.
NOTE 2 This attitude can be documented as early as the first University play, Thomas Watson’s Absalom (ca. 1540). Cf. such passages as:
vulgi temeritas pollicitis capitur cito:
nullum populo malum rudi praesentius
quam iuncta blanditiis celebris potentia. (I.3.221ff.)
varia vulgi saepe mutatur rudis sententia:
ut nigrantes ventus in diversa nimbos discutit,
efficiunt sic vulgus incertis sedere sedibus
hic metus, hinc favor. levi momento aguntur mobiles. (III.i.36ff.)
Likewise, the history plays of Dr. Thomas Legge of Cambridge are studded with slighting references to the leve vulgus, the vulgus inane, etc. A similar attitude is reflected in some of the advice given to the departing Tobie Mathew in Gager's poem Musa Australis (CXXXVIII).