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Desiderius Erasmus: Adagia III.1.1
1. ΗΡΑΚΛΕΙΟΙ πόνοι, i.e. Herculei labores ‘Herculean labors,’ is to be understood in a double sense. First, that such labors are numerous and huge and require the strengthof a Hercules. Catullus uses it in this way:
Sed te quaerere iam Herculis labos sit.
[‘ But to seek for you might already be a labor of Hercules’]
Deinde ubi pertuleris, quos facit fama labores
[‘ Then when you have undertaken what Fame makes the labors of Hercules.’]
Non labor Alcidae.
[‘ Not a labor of Hercules.’]
Cicero in his second Book of De Finibus writes: at quumde omnibus gentibus optime mererere, quum opem indigentibus salutemqueferres, vel Herculisperpeti aerumnas, sic enim majores nostri labores nonfugiendos tristissimo verbo aerumnas etiam in Deonominavernunt: exigeremex te &c. [’Yet though you deserve well of all peoples, though youbring goods and help to those in want, or suffer the hardships of Hercules (thus our ancestors gave the grim name ‘hardships’ to toils that could not be avoided, even in the case of a god), I would demand of you’] Second, those labors are called Herculean which bestow great advantagesto other people, but bring almost no reward to the person who performs them except a little bit of fame and a great deal of envy. People believedthat this happened to Hercules because of a certain quirk of fate, namelythat he was ‘ born in the moon’s last quarter’ ἐν τετράδι γενηθήνηαι, as we have treated in another place. Homer in his poetic fashion assigns the cause of Hercules’ bad luck to the goddesses Ate and Juno, whowas an enemy to Hercules and exposed him to all sorts of dangers because he was born to one of Jupiter’s mistresses.
2. The poets have recounted and celebrated the Labors of Hercules .Of all of these labors, the greatest and most difficult by far was the Lernæan Hydra, a rapacious evil that had repulsed all efforts against it and was almost undefeatable by Hercules himself. Under the symbol of the Hydra the ancients wished to express envy. Horace is clear enough about this in his Epistles, when he says:
This most repulsive vice commonly accompanies the most beautiful deeds, and follows outstanding virtue just as a shadow follows body, so that Josephus,in his work DeJudaea capta, most appropriately says:Ἀμήχανον δ᾿ ἐν εὐπραγίαις φθόνον διαφυγεῖν [‘In good deeds, it is impossible to avoid envy’]
Who can flee the shadow of envy, unless at the same time he flees the light of virtue? Virtue and envy are bound together, one with the other, and the worst of all things is the companion of the best. Thus, Pindar seems to have written quite to the point—
Τὸ δ᾿ ἄχνυθμαι φθόνον ἀμειβόμενον τὰ καλὰ ἔργα
[‘I feel pain that envy is exchanged for beautiful deeds.’]
Heavily and with indignation Pindar senses this most shameful of truths,that great actions are paid back with a reward of envy. Others of the ancients agreeably made the viper, the prime evil of the swamp, a symbol of envy because, as the naturalists say, people who are endowed with a base and abject soul are more prone to this disease, and these are also those whose blood runs colder.
For this reason we find in Ovid:
Invidiae domus est in vallibus imis
Abdita, sole carens, non ulli pervia vento,
Tristis, et ignavi plenissima frigoris, et quae
Igne vacet semper, caligine semper abundet.
[‘The house of Envy lies in the lowest hollows, gidden, sunless, breathed upon by no wind, grim and filled full of inert chill, and lacking warmth, is always roiled in fog.’]
Nor was this thing a simple monster, but armed with an hundred heads, and if anyone cut one off, two would immediately grow to writhe in its place. This is the nature of envy, that the more you struggle against it,the more you increase its strength. If you try to extinguish it with the splendor of virtue, it swells itself and rises up fiercer. If in one place you cut it back, in another it grows bigger. It cannot be defeated bit by bit, and with difficulty it is finally crushed. Even this success happens for very few, and barely happened for Hercules himself. But although spite is like fire and seeks the higher places, there remains something so perfect and illustrious that it cannot reach there. Horace boasts that he has arrived at such a position when he says:
[‘ Greater than envy’],
And again elsewhere:
Et jam dente minus mordeor invido
[‘ Now I am less bit by envy’s tooth.’]
3. Nonetheless there is something else than pure poison and deadly venom which secret detractors are wont to vomit over those who labor on great works and try with their most beautiful toil and sweat to benefit the world; for the reputation of those noble and generous souls which these monsters seek to kill is hardly dearer and more venerable than life itself. What heathen nations wished to signify under the fable of Hercules,the Hebrew histories hint at through the character of Joseph, for what the Hydra was to Hercules, so was the jealousy of his brothers to Joseph.This is the interpretation of Philo Judaeus in his book The Political Life. Philo believes that Joseph represents the type of person who steers and governs public affairs. He reasons thus. When Joseph was still only a shepherd, by his good deeds he had already acquired the favor of his father and roused up the rivalry of his brothers against him. What else is administeringthe state than to play the part of a shepherd? Homer too, as Philo notes, constantly calls the king the poim°na la«n [‘shepherd of the people’] Yet ingratitude afflicts no other people so maliciously as those who by their goodness deserve well of the multitude. But what Hercules achieved by dying on the pyre, Joseph attained by the greatnessof his benefits, and the favor of God brought it about that he erased envy and had those brothers for suppliants whom he had once endured as rivals, and that those brothers confessed that they owed their lives to him for whose life they had once spread snares.
4. Therefore princes, who take care of the public business, must be endowed with such a mind, so that they look towards this example and regard the public good and perform their office not for themselves, as if it were a private business, but for others. Nor should they use the laws as nooses to trap those from whom they aim to get some profit, but earn their merits by good and welcome actions and wage continual war with monsters, that is, with vices, assured of righteousness by their consciences alone, and fully content with the great reward of having done things well. But if Fame responds to their deserts with malevolence, if Spite hisses in secret, if the Lernaean reptile spits its poison from even three hundred heads, then it would be the evidence of a truly lofty and unconqueredsoul if such a prince were to continue strenuously to seek undying praise and in the midst of his own misfortunes to think of benefiting others and to believe that the greatest and most beautiful fruit of virtue is to do the most good to as many people as possible, and in this endeavor to imitate, as far as it is permitted to a mortal, immortal God. But when no thanks, no assistance can be returned from the rest of us, such a prince, from his innate and genuine goodness, will still impart his generosity in the manner of the sun, to the grateful and the ungrateful, to the worthy as well as the unworthy, and he shall look to this reward only, that he may make as many people as possible partners in his happiness. It is true that as no profit from his blessings can flow back to God, so no ingratitude can reach him or hurt him. But for mortals it happens very often that from the highest merits they reap the highest envy andthe greatest harm. And if any human labors deserve the name of ‘Herculean’, it seems best to apply it to those people who are toiling at the work o fraising again the monuments of the true and ancient literature. When these scholars take upon themselves these exertions, which because of their incredible difficulty cannot be compared to any other, they excite the greatest envy of the vulgar crowd against them. Noble and shining things — aswell as newness — have always been hateful to them, not only among the uneducated,but also among the learned.
5. We are never more ungrateful, more envious, more ill-tempered, we are never less generous than when we weigh up the value of the labor oft hose people to whom, in my opinion, no thanks worthy of them can ever be returned. The ignorant ignore them, the half-educated laugh at them, and the learned — if you except a few, who are the preeminently learned people, but still few — the learned partly envy them and partly in their bad-tempered way carp at them wherever the author has slipped once or twice, perhaps by accident, and then put a bad interpretation upon all that he has said well. Who doesn’t now and again make a mistake? Mistakes are the only thing critics remark and remember. Go ahead then, and grasp this magnificen treward for all your grueling days and nights of work, for all the sweats of your brow, and for all your pains! Give up the ordinary pleasures of human life, neglect your family and fortune, spare nothing for your appearance, or sleep, or health! Make careful plans for the ruin of your eyes, gain a premature old age, contemn the wasting of your life, in order that you may get most people to hate you, and even more to envy you, and for all that midnight oil burnt you may take away a few wheezes and chest-pains! Whom would these considerations not scare away from undertaking such labors, unless he clearly possesses the spirit of Hercules, who was able to do and to endure anything in his zeal for helping others?
6. My mind has been so affected by the thought of these things, that I truly confess that in the midst of the toil of compiling this work, my Adages, a weary despondency has come upon me when I consider how malignly fame has responded to such of our heroic contemporaries. Even those who are now dead, how irreverently they are despised by people whom you would call unworthy to hand them a piss-pot, as they say; how ungratefully they are carped at by the semi-educated, and how few among the learned praise them honestly and without reserve. One person finds something missing, another finds what he does not approve of, another attacks a scholar’s life, another praises so grudgingly that he actually condemns. None of them judge more unfairly than the half-educated, who measure anybody else’s learning by their own and believe everything they themselves weren’t taught is to be censured. The learned too indulge themselves in this sort of game. To all of them applies the Greek proverb ἀπὸ πύργου κρίνουσιν Ἀχαιούς [‘they from a tower judge the Achaean warriors’], for they themselves stand on the beach in leisure watching the skill and perils of the sailor. But if they had taken the risk themselves, they would read the writings of others with less pickiness and more mercy. When I see this evil befall our great ancestors, or heroes rather, in literature, what can I predict will happen to me, whose entire output is mediocre or, I might even say, nothing compared to theirs, although I am well aware that in this type of writing there is more work required tha nanyone who has not tried it would easily guess? For many reasons it is the easiest thing to make a mistake, and no one will sooner spot somethingthan an omission.
7. Hence I do not think it will be foreign to our theme if hereafter, since the occasion seems to have prompted it, I dilate a little on these matters, not so that I can brag about my own genius or show off my industry,but to try to render the reader fairer to me. Anybody would certainly end up thinking more indulgently of me when they weigh with what immense exertions and endless difficulties I have raised up the material for these Adages, imperfect a work as it is. Consider first, how deeply we have sought back into antiquity, not from Evander, or from the first inhabitants, but ἀπὸ Κάννακου, as the Greeks say, and from the very reign of Saturn and whatever else there may be that is even older. Very many things thus involved are remote from the customs of our times by δὶς διὰ πασὠν, as they say, ‘a double octave.’ So, what a proverb means you have to guess, or you need a ‘ Delian swimmer,’ or you must findan explanation in some ancient author.
8. From which authors? Not just one or another, or a few, as is possible in some fields. If someone decides to write on rhetoric, he has a fixed range of suitable authors, and those not all that many, whom it suffices for him to imitate. But here it is necessary to, I won’t say look through, but with great care to take to pieces and ransack, look into every crack and corner of every sort of writer that exists, old ones, more recent ones, good ones as well as bad ones, in both Latin and Greek, and in every genre and discipline. Proverbs, like gemstones, are tiny things and, unless you look very close, often escape the eyes of the prospector. Neither do they just show up in front of you; they are buried and you must dig them up before you can pocket them.
9. Has anyone ever properly realized what an infinite task it is to seek out such little bits of things as it were through all lands and seas? A human lifetime scarcely suffices to read so many poets, so many grammarians, so many orators, writers of dialogues, sophists, historians, mathematicians, philosophers, theologians, and all these in two languages. One would be worn out simply surveying all their titles. You must examine them thoroughly, read them front to back, and not just once, but again and again, up and down as the subject demands. Sisyphi saxum volvere; [‘it is to roll the stone of Sisyphus’]. Now, I believe, there is none of you who will not acknowledge and confess this to be the most grueling of work. But what portion, I ask you, does this make of our entire labor? Look, there remains an almost greater shelf of commentators to read, and of these some are slovenly and lazy, others are plain ignorant, but they must be read, so that you might find a fleck of gold in the dung, and this throws a huge burden on our labors. Now let us go further. What shall I say about the astonishing depravity which corrupts the texts of every single manuscript in both Latin and in Greek? Every time you chance on something you wish to cite, you’ll stub your toe on an evident error, or smell a dead rat in the wall. Now we’ve got new toil: further exemplars of the text must be found out and obtainedby hook or by crook, and many of them, too, because in the heap you might find one or another that is more correct, or by comparing all the readings you could as it were divine what might be closer to the truth. This too must be endured, unless you’re going to get lucky each time you want to cite a passage. But we must make citations constantly.
10. To all this add the fact, to be taken very seriously, that the writings of the ancients, the fountain from which we draw out proverbs, have almost entirely disappeared. Both styles of Greek comedy have been utterly obliteratedwith the sole exception of Aristophanes. The same with Latin tragedy apart from Seneca. Perhaps even this would be tolerable, if there only survived the works of those authors who collected proverbs from the vanished comedies and tragedies and commented on them. Among others Aristotle, Chrysippus, Clearchus, Didymus, and Tarrhaeus wrote such books, yet not a single fragment from any one of them has come down to us. There are extant, however, a number of compilers as careless andundiscriminating as they are recent, and also barren and mutilated, such as Zenobius, Diogenianus, and Suidas. Towards them, I can hardly decide whether I should feel indignation because from such perfect and copious authors they have passed along such tiny and meagre scraps, or I should thank them because through their effort a few fragments, such as they are, have survived to reach us, unless it is the case that the very currency of these epitomes by lesser writers is responsible for the originals perishing from neglect. Certain Latin scholars attribute the loss of Livy to Florus, of Trogus Pompeius to Justinus, of imperial law to Justinian, of theology to the ‘ Maxim-Writer,’ as they call him, and in my opinion not without grounds. And now what of the fact that none of these writers agrees with another, and each one often contradicts himself? So this final weight comes to press down on the burden still more, that these many commentators must not simply be read on a single point, but again and again examined, compared, balanced, and judged.
11. Now consider something else with me. In other kinds of books there is often a place for the wit to take pleasure in inventing or of giving birth to topics, and you can in whatever place and at whatever time you like fill up a good portion of the work by the free action of the mind, and complete what you have set out to do as quickly as your ingenuity allows. But in this manner of writing you are chained to the mill and cannot move even a foot, as they say, away from your books. The whole business depends on the availability of manuscripts, especially Greek manuscripts, and no one knows just how few and far between they are. Thus it happens that you wear out your eyes on volumes pitted by decay, moldering with neglect, torn, mutilated, gnawed at by silverfish and cockroaches, in every page most difficult to read, so that, in brief, someone who spends his days immersed in them easily contracts a part of their decay and senility on himself and then spreads it to others. How entirely true this is, even if I don’t say so, those who have experienced these things will acknowledge. I will come out and say right now that if there is any pleasure in these kinds of commentaries such as my Adages, it belongs entirely to the reader. The writer’s portion is nothing but the hateful, monotonous work of always collecting, comparing, explaining, and translating. But pleasure is the sole thing, as Aristotle oh-so-truly says, which enables us long to persevere in a task. In other styles we can sometimes play withour wit, we can caper away with flowrets of eloquence. There are agreeable digressions in which you can take your ease when tired and revive the powers of your imagination, because in all employments, and especially in literature, variety fends off surfeit and prevents boredom. But this work for me has not been merely δὶς κράμβη [‘yesterday’s cabbage’] as the Greek proverb goes, but the same cabbage warmed over and served again three thousand times: What does an adage mean? From where didit arise? How is it used? Blah blah blah. So that the Greek proverb Ὑπέρου περιστροφή [‘ Hyperion’s circuit’] couldn’t be better applied than here.
12. It’s a great deal of the pleasure of writing to treat something which shines in the treatment and lends splendor and fertility to the author. But here, everything that is treated is of such a kind as sparkles when it is used, not when it is explained. Proverbs show their genuine charm when they are inserted like gems in appropriate places in a speech. Alone, they seem frigid, trivial, and flat little things. Add to this the fact that in other genres a work is valued by the sum of its matter and the reader contributes his effort in reading as the writer in composing. But because books like mine are read in snatches, one reader comes to one proverb or another looking for amusement, some avid for information, and yet others looking for things to criticize. How unfair then are the terms imposed on me, who am required with every single proverb to entertain the idle, satisfy the studious, and placate the fastidious!
13. On top of all this I have the work of translating all the Greek,a thing that anybody, except someone who has never tried to make good Latinout of good Greek, will judge extremely difficult. Here again, look at the variety of authors I have to deal with, each of whom must be translated in his own style. Consider the many different genres of the poems, of which there is a huge crowd in this work — I think no less than ten thousand. If someone could merely translate the poetry into Latin, and into Latin verse, in the space of months within which I have finished this whole work, he could not be accused of laziness. At least, what others would think, I don’t know.
14. Furthermore, I don’t believe it can be considered nothing in such an immense number of proverbs to remember what you have said in what place and not to have confused the whole mass. And since the person is involved in such difficult points that to re-read through and check them all is a very difficult thing, what wonder is it that sometimes he makes mistakes when he moves fastest? The reason will soon appear why I had to hurry along. Horace said, of another type of writing, which lacks the disadvantages which afflict ours:
Da veniam maculis, quas aut incuria fudit,
Aut humana parum cavit natura.
[‘Pardon the specks which either carelessness has dropped or human nature is too little ware of.’]
If Horace thought it plausible that in a rather long work sleep migh tcreep up, if he is not offended at Homer for sometimes nodding, what is the reason, why should we ‘ mix sea and sky’ if a few little chance errors are caught in a work of the present kind, in which there are not only the common reasons for making mistakes but where it is not free to order things according to your own wishes and where the authorities you follow are constantly supplying opportunities to go astray? Let me pass over the faults of the manuscripts which often deceive even the most learned, and let me not mention the boredom which blunts the edge of the imagination, and I shall say nothing about the endless dissimilarity of the topics, a gigantic multimodal mish-mash in which if your mind is once distracted, you have lost the thread completely.
15. Another point appears to remain. I have run into those who I expect will find the care and diligence they demand in such a compilation wanting.For I see that certain people are of a mind to measure books by their bulk and not by their erudition, and think a work complete when nothing can possibly be added and when too much is already there. These are the kind of people for whom nothing is enough (except too much effort and expense on their part) and they judge that an ‘abundance’ exists when everything everywhere is said to the point of surfeit. One of these people might say t o me that I could have treated some things more richly and copiously.And then somebody else in turning over authors will come upon a passage which he can take as a proverb, or it’ll seem he can make it into a proverb, and then he’ll grumble that we overlooked this passage. First of all, who is so arrogant, I ask you, that he would dare to make such claims? Who is so unfair as to demand that in this type of writing no passage should be passed over, that you should read everything, annotate everything, furnish everything, so that everything that might occur to you in such a huge pile of material you write down at once in its proper place?
16. Then, what sort of thing would this annoying diligence turn out to be, of seeking everything and anything from everywhere that could in any way at all contribute to the enriching of a proverb? What place would moderation have, where would there even be an end of volume after volume, if, for example, in explaining Sardonium risum [‘the Sardinian laugh’] I should repeat the description of the whole of the island from all the books of the geographers and review the situation of the country, the antiquities of its race, their origin from the furthest past from ‘crown to heel,’ as they say? Then what if I were to collect all the information about the herbs that grow there, what their properties are, and whatever else can be found in the medical writers, to rummage works of physiology to discover in what circumstances this laugh arises, why it appears in the dying person, to inquire from the historian those in whom this kind of laugh became an hereditary feature, and then to discuss whether this laugh disgraces a decent person? Would I have to pile into one heap whatever has been said about both approved and unapproved laughs that can be found in the ethical philosophers and poets? And finally, if there is any apophthegm associated with this risus sardonicus, any spark of wit, any memorable deed, any Aesopian fable, any story, any pithy saying or at least something like to one, or indeed anything the opposite which could in any possible way pertain to the explication of this adage, I have to rake it together into one huge stack? If this program were really taken seriously, don’t you see that out of a single proverb you could write an entire book?
17. And how would this be less absurd, if in commenting on theproverb Ἰλιὰς κακῶν [‘an Iliad of woes’] I were to set out to describe the whole Trojan war, as Horace says, a gemino ovo [‘from the twin egg’]? Or if I were to interpret the saying Ὀδυσσείου μηχάνημα [‘an Odysseian scheme’] by retelling the entire Odyssey? Then, how frequently do I come upon mere commonplaces, platitudes on death, on life, on friendship, on deceit, on justice and injustice? But I would be foolish if I were to attempt to cover these sayings, since in number they almost equal that of the genuine proverbs and they are not in the least worth the effort of tricking out with such rhetorical art so that each one would end up the bulk of a volume. Beside the fact that it would take the most subtle discernment to embark on this kind of work, the material itself could not offer encouragementto anyone who might write a Chiliad of such things, nor could it induce anyone to endure reading it. So much the more I believed that in this work I had to seek moderation, not abundance, and a quick conclusion rather than endless progress.
18. However, if something has come into our mind by the way, as it were, while we hasten along and it seemed worthy of note and relevant to the proverb we have not made any scruples about inserting it as lagniappe. If there are a few such passages like this, why shouldn’t I honestly admi tit? These are anyway not many, and we ourselves have left out much, but we didn’t believe that all of our by-thoughts should be passed over in complete silence, even though they may not give the perfect satisfactionof what we have found in other authors. But even in the revision of this work, it seemed best to leave it to others who have more leisure, or a larger supply of books, or a quicker memory, or more abundant learning, so that we can give these scholars an opportunity of doing some rather involved investigation. In this we follow the phrase from comedy: Οὐχ ὡς θελόμεθα, ἀλλ᾿ ὡς δυνάμεθα. [‘Not as we want to, but as we can.’] I saw that some order could be brought into this work if I had followedthe categories of like and unlike, contrary and related and then proposed many headings under which I could group the proverbs, each and every one into its own class. However, I was prudent in omitting to carry this out,partly because in a miscellaneous work like this it seemed for some reason fitting that there should be no order, and partly because I foresaw that if I had placed all the proverbs of similar bent together in single classes,out of the constant sameness the reader would be bored to the point ofnausea and cry out: Δὶς κράμβη θάνατος, καὶ ὁ Διὸς Κόρινθός ἐστιν ἐν τῷ βιβλίῳ [‘Cabbage twice is death!’ and ‘Corinthus the son of Zeus is in the book!’] And partly because the magnitude of the labor terrified me. Why shouldI lie? I perceived I could not achieve order unless I tore down the work and rebuilt it completely from top to bottom, and that I could not even begin to think about publishing until I had composed the colophon on the very last page. So, my work would have occupied a true Horatian nine years. But now it has been possible to add things between editions, if something has come up which ought not to have been left out.
19. Furthermore, I am hardly brought to believe that there will be anybody so unjust (and yet I know there will be) that they will demand eloquence,first of all from a Dutchman, that is, from someone stupider than a Boeotian…But, joking aside, no one can fairly expect eloquence from this work, which is more designed for teaching, and for teaching things that are not unworthy of being learned but which are so tiny and humble that they not only do not display any of the ornaments and variety of rhetoric, they rather refuse them and avoid them. In such a parti-colored hotchpotch of stuff, in such a continual recitation of the names of mostly humble writers — whom I cite rather frequently and lengthily for the purpose of teaching something — among this Greek I insert everywhere and such constant translation, what plac ecould there be for splendor? Where could the brilliance, the balance, the flow of true rhetoric appear? Cicero does not ask eloquence from a philosopher,and who will demand it from a proverb-writer? Seneca never feels the want of eloquence, unless it suits with a slight subject; it exists by itself when great subjects are treated with spirit. But eloquence here ? I beg you, what would this be other than to affect the tinsel and frippery of rhetoric? It would be, as they say, ἐν τῇ φακῇ μύρον, τῶν πυγμαίων ἀκροθίνια κολόσσῳ ἐφαρμόζειν [‘to put myrrh in lentil soup, to yoke the tallest of the pygmies with a giant’] not to say τὴν χύτραν ποιλίλλειν [‘to paint the pot’]. For myself, though I have never looked down on the exercise in others, I have never been much taken by a passion for fine speech, but words that represent thought to me conveniently and without muddle have always somehow pleased me better than an oration daubed with make-up. But, anyway, if we had tried to draw in some force and sparkle, it must necessarily have perished in such a daily, various, tumultuous tumbling through Greek and Latin authors; for the gush of eloquence, as even Cicero witnesses, dries up at the slightest interruption.
20. Then, even if the matter of this work could accept some ornaments of style, there would be no time for them. The time is too crowded with going through books, annotating passages, and committing points to memory. However, I believe that someone who knows what eloquence truly is will judge that the matter itself offers a good slice of eloquence and that the words used are not all that bad. I will not trouble myself with those particular apes — I almost said — of eloquence, who measure the virtues of speech by the amount of empty and adolescent ting-a-ling claptrap it serves up. These are the kind of people who believe that if they have after the work of many days succeeded in patching one or two little flowers into their writings, and have plugged in four little words from Cicero and the same number from Sallust, they have reached the pinnacle of Roman style. From this eminence they look in distaste on the style of the divine Jerome, they are ashamed of Prudentius how he is so tongue-tied, stammering, speechless as a baby, all because nowhere do they see those four little words of Cicero. If one of these geniuses had ever taken the trouble to find out what it is to comment on proverbs, these ‘trifles’ as they call them, perhaps they would have realized their own poverty of language and been a little more circumspect about sniffing at other people’s style. Someone might, andwith reason, admonish me with the following: ‘It is in itself a piece of elegance to give magnitude to little things and dignity to humble ones by the arts of rhetoric, as Vergil says:
Exiguis hunc addere rebus honorem
[‘ To add this honor to slight things.’]
There would have been time for this also, if only you could have divided out the effort of collecting and arranging and afforded a reasonable amount of time for ornamenting. What was the necessity, as Plautus says, of simulet sorberes et flares [‘Why should you suck and blow at the same time’]? Who forced you to rush onwards to publishing and to complete such a huge and heavy (I might say) work in a year and a half and straightway have it printed and sold? If you had followed the advice of Horace you would have kept your lucubrations to yourself for nine years, and then you could not only have graced the work with eloquence, but also sent it out into the light fuller and more correct, so that you would have nothing to repent of and nothing to add. You either ought not to have taken up this "province" or it should have been accepted with a view to being satisfactory in everything.‘ It is not my nature to fight against the truth, and here I must immediately admit much of this blame is justified. Nor did it escape me that a work of this type requires not a man of theological training who has merely sipped off the top of ancient literature lightly and as it were on the run, but someone who has managed to spend his whole life in investigating, reading, and interpreting these old authors, who can not only dive into such studies, but freely die in them too. I clearly saw that this labor was not that of one man and needed the resources of more than one library and more than a few years. However we alone, relying on, as they say, nostro Marte ‘our native courage,’ finished it in less than a year and a half with the aid of just one library — although that library was Aldus’s, a very full one and more than any other stocked with good books, and especially Greek books, from which, as from the fountain and source, all the good libraries in the world arise and grow. Thus I will say it was a very good library indeed; but still it was only one library. It is true that there are some reasons by which I can, if not wipe out, certainly extenuate my fault. First of all, I was not so much incited to take up this duty from reason, as drawn it to by chance. My friends drove me on by their requests and prayers, which I have never at any time been able to deny. William Mountjoy, a great lord at the English court and a veritable Maecenas to me, a man of high deserts and a dear friend, exacted of me that I should put my own concerns in second place when he asked a favor of me. And if the philosophers teach that for the sake of our friends we must sometimes turn aside a little from what is absolutely right, I think I ought to be pardoned for my zeal in showing myself grateful to such a great friend and taking up this province of literature which was very beautiful, but perhaps not really suited to me. I had seen that none of the learned had assumed such a task before, not because they thought themselves unequal to it, but because they saw endless late nights ahead of them. These they shunned, principally because they understood that the glory they would acquire with their labors would be small indeed.
21. Then when we saw the nature of this work we had taken up, and how it had no term or limit inherent in itself, we held it necessary to put some limit to it, therefore, a limit that could not be derived from any rationale in the work itself, but from what it deserved to claim from ou rother occupations, and we saw that we could not spend as much effort on this work as it demanded, but only as much on as we could without prejudice subtract from our other studies. Therefore we finished it a bit hastily, partly because in this work we seemed to be wandering out of our proper field, and partly so that when it was finished we could return with our whole mind to that which is appropriate to our profession, which we had put off for those few months, following the desire of a friend more than our own judgment.
22. Indeed, I am not all that convinced by the nine-year precept of Horace. Horace gave that advice to those who were writing to gain praise for their inventive genius. We have looked towards nothing except the utility of the reader. Horace was instructing those who were composing poetry, in which, as Pliny witnesses, one needs the highest skill of words; we are collecting Commentaries on Adages. Finally, someone might well observe this nine-years’ care (which Horace himself did not apply to his own poetry) in writing a collection of a hundred items; but it seems utterly impossible to observe it in the writing of Chiliades, collections of a thousand items, and to demand it seems inhuman. The writing of chiliades is itself abundantly laborious, even when you don’t reckon in the work of making so many revisions, which seems to be even harder than that first labor. However, I believe that the pains which Horace says one must take are not to be measured by a space of time but by the attention with which one writes. On this point I am able to affirm that I have applied myself to the utmost of my strength, so that whatever was lacking in time I supplied with vigilance and assiduousness, so that I might hope the candid reader would not be entirely disappointed in this part. If you look at the amount of time, we rushed on the work .If you consider the nights and days that we sweated in tireless study, we moved with all due speed. But if our care could not in every way match what the work required, it will certainly remain true that in that short space of time I with great diligence have surpassed each and every one, both Romans and Greeks, who at any time wrote upon the topic of proverbs. (I am speaking of those whose commentaries are extant.)
23. Finally, because this work is potentially infinite, and ready at hand for communal use. Come on, what forbids that I, having presented this book to public scrutiny, make an end of it? I have completed my portion, and, tired, I hand on the torch. Let him step up who can take his share of the labor. I have furnished the material, and it’s not, I think, all that bad. Let them come up who will take the pains to polish it to a shine and give it variety. I have thoroughly done that part in which lay the most labor and the least glory. I would not be sorry to see others add to it, a thing easy to do and splendid in the doing. It is nothing to me under whose name my things will be read and I am not troubled that the final glory will belong to somebody else rather than me. We have merely supplied an occasion for a great deal of useful matter to remain to be treated by the studious. Nor will I be the least bit offended if someone more learned than myself criticizes our compilation, if a more diligent scholar enriches it, if a more exacting scholar arranges it, if a more eloquent gives luster to it, if one with more leisure polishes it, if, in short, a greater genius takes it as his own, as long as this comes to be with the convenience of students everywhere in view. For this was the single aim we looked towards in this work, and we took no thought of ourself.
24. Moreover, I too was able to choose, as the majority do, a task that would have brought me much less toil and a great deal more of glory in reward. Who would not think it a outstanding and magnificent accomplishment if I had translated the whole of Demosthenes, or Plato, or some other classic into Latin? And yet it is difficult to say how much less time, late nights and midnight oil I would have spent to complete a project like that than to put together these, as they seem, trifles. Or, from the great number of proverbs I could have selected two or three hundred, stretched all the sinews of my wit in polishing, elucidating, and arranging them and, sowingwith a little less labor, reaped a far more abundant harvest of fame for myself. But this would have been to look after selfish interests, not to do the public duty of a scholar. Nevertheless, I do indeed believe, that in restoring ancient literature you must show an animum Herculeanum [‘a soul of Hercules’], that is, your own pains and inconveniences must never frighten you off from taking care for the common good, or cause you to be weary. But we already have more than enough of these considerations, and I fear lest some people look upon this prolix speech into which the adage Herculeanus labor drew us as itself a Herculean labor just to read through.Therefore I shall make an end, as soon as I shall have added that when these Adagia were first published all the labors of Hercules were still waiting for me. Although Hercules was elsewhere always unvanquished, he was not equal to two monsters at once. And therefore he fled and preferred to leave us another proverb than to attempt the battle, thinking it was more satisfying to be laughed at and safe than praised and dead.
25. We however had to come to grips with two huge monsters at the samet ime, and both of them demanded such application that they needed many Herculeses, and it was impossible that a single little midget like myself could be up to them. For in Basel the Adagiorum Chiliades — so emended, revised, and augmented that the new edition cost me as many pains as the original first edition published by Aldus — began to be printed, and at the same time they were printing the complete works of the divine Jerome. Of that project I took responsibility for the greatest and most difficult part, that is to say, his letters, a heavy province, by the Muses! if anybody had ever gone through such a huge number of volumes. Now, dear God! what a grim struggle there was against the monsters of Error which swarmed throughout the whole! How much I had to sweat to restore the Greek which Jerome had mixed in everywhere! Most of it was mangled and missing, or had been added falsely. The scholia too brought on me extended sessions of late night work. I had to add them, such as they were, with their topics, not only because the matter had been treated by others before us, whom we had to follow and assist ourselves with their information, but also because, as they say of Romulus, that he was no less a trumpeter of his own great deeds than a doer of them, so was the divine Jerome. Jerome possessed a rich store of knowledge right in his bosom, built from all sorts of authors in all sorts of disciplines, and thus no one flaunted, I might say, the riches of his learning more ambitiously in his writings. And then whatever hidden thing he digs out of the old or new testament, whatever he seeks out in stories, histories, in Greek or Hebrew literature, he gilds over, crams, plasters with a certain holy gloriousness. The order of the whole is confused in various ways in different parts, and in restructuring it, if there is no praise for the mental effort, yet there is no little annoyance. The entire mass of these things had to be upheld by this little man, and all by himself. However, in the matter of some Hebrew words we were helped much by the efforts of Bruno Ammerbach, a most learned and at the same time a most modest young man, because we had only had a slight taste of Hebrew learning, and that, as they say, with the tip of the lips.In return I helped him, as he was editing the remaining portion of Jerome’s works, in emending a few passages in Latin and Greek, repaying toil with toil. Meantime, I won’t mention that it was quite a lot of work to spot what had been mixed in with Jerome’s own writings under false ascription. Part of these things were intelligent, part ignorant and silly, and a few looked like the ravings of a madman. But we guessed, or caught them out by internal evidence, and removed them to where they belonged. Nor will I say that I had to put together the life of this most holy man — which had been written before and not entirely worthlessly, but quite insipidly — fromthe actual records and testimonia.
26. Add now to all this the fact that the nature of this labor is such that its fruit and utility extends to all, and no one feels its pain and trouble except he who has borne it. Nor does it ever cross the mind of the reader, who runs smoothly through whole books, how many times we have struggled for days on a single word. Nor does he understand, or if he understands, he does not remember, with what great difficulties came to be that easiness which he enjoys in reading, and with what great troubles and pains trouble and pain has been spared him. For all these reasons I am accustomed to believe I was born ‘under the moon’s fourth quarter’, since Fate has allotted me, I know not why, to fall into these more than Herculean labors.