TO THE READER
As the sheets of this little book were being readied to take to the photocopier, I came upon an instance of the proverb Festina lente from the native tradition of Sarawak. My good friend and relative Mr. Sidi Munan has long been a respected figure in Sarawak politics, and many years ago served as private secretary to Tun Jugah anak Barieng, the paramount chief of the Iban people and a statesman instrum ental in arranging the entrance of Sarawak into Malaysia. Uncle Sidi had read a draft copy of my tranlationof Erasmus essay. When yesterday I saw him by chance at Pandan Beach, he told me that the advice Make haste slowly was always in Jugahs mouth .Iban literature is rich in traditional couplets, and Jugah quoted the proverb in such a form:Jamah lubah jampat datai,
Berumban bemalam rantau jalai.
Persevere lowly, quickly you arrive, / You hasten, and you spend the night midstage in your road. This refers to travelling through the jungle, where one can easily go astray. Jugah would generally prefacet his proverb by scolding his younger political colleagues, You kids dont know how to be patient! he would say. Thus, we see that among leaders not only Augustus and Vespasian valued the hastening slowly that Erasmus so warmly praises; a great tribal people of Borneo also included this advice in its collective wisdom, and it was their most astute politician (Jugah rose to the level of Federal minister) who made most pointed use of it. No doubt if we searched further we would find that the phrase Make haste slowly has been reinvented over and over again everywhere. My friend Carlos Postill tells me of a Spanish proverb:Viste me de spacio, que tengo prisa Dress me up lowly because I am ina hurry. And Sir Francis Bacon in his essay Of Dispatch writes:I knew a wise man that had it for a by-word, when he saw men hasten to a conclusion: Stay a little, that we may make an end the sooner. After such widespread proofs of the successful application of this proverb, speËde brad°vw,who would not wish to go out and try hastening lowly on his or her own?
Proverbs are also known as adages, sayings, or by the more homely word saws. Proverbs not only serve to present a piece of traditional wisdom in easily carriable form, they also sum up, in brief, attitudes toward the world. Desiderius Erasmus collected some thousands of proverbs that he found in Greek and Roman writers and adorned them with essays. His Chiliades Adagiorum is a noble work. I would never have known and appreciated them if I had not been lucky enough to find a little paperback book that presented several of the most amusing and interesting commentaries in thei original Latin and Greek, for I live thousands of miles from any library that can be expected to hold the complete edition of Erasmuss works. The first essay I translated was Festina Lente. The reason wil lappear in that essays preface. Herculei labores seemed a natural companion to it.
Erasmus was a learned and hard working scholar. However, he was not a stuffy soul and he subscribed wholeheartedly to Horaces opinion ridentem dicere verum / quid vetat? [What forbids a person to tell the truth with a laugh]? As we see in his Praise of Folly and in the Colloquiarum Formulae, whose little jibes at lecurers and professors surely must have made the road to Latin style smoother for many sixteenth centurys choolchildren. Festina Lenteis not without humor, but since it is written in an affecionate tone to the memory of Erasmuss friend Aldus Manutius, iti s not notably barbed, except when Erasmus gets on the subject of bad printers. Herculei labores, on the other hand, is another thing. Erasmus here plays the pedant — as earlier he played Folly — in order toget back at the genuine pedants and timeservers who have infested the occupation of literature since literature began. This long wail over the hardships of scholarship and their meager rewards is meant to be read ironically; the whole premise that classical scholars like Erasmus are the true Herculeses of their day mut be taken with a spoonful of salt. I recall a letter in which Erasmus objects to being teased for the timidity he showed while making a journey through Germany in an area where there was danger of being robbed. I dont have to be brave; I am not a Swiss mercenary, he complains.
The first essay gives us dozens of proverbs for the price of one. Erasmus set out to dazzle here. You will notice that under the cover of wit and irony — and pedantry — Erasmus manages to get in some ferocious criticisms of the social ills of the time, and of the people resposnible for them. Herculei labores sounds to me exacly like the catalogue of woes I used to hear from every one of my fellows while I was working towards a higher degree. You can be sure that I too lamented much in the same vein.This translation of Herculei labores is dedicated, therefore, to all graduate students in Classics and the more arduous Humanities, and also to all scholars who really do work hard and have a right to moan a bit.
Lundu, Sarawak, 22 January 1999