in Literature, Reception, Skepticism

Cicero on books and the soul

I’m a hunter by nature, but what I hunt are words and meanings in books and now on the internet. One of the things I like to pursue is the origin of popular attributions, but the game is often quite elusive.

This one has been quoted often enough, and declared apocryphal:

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

I’ve found the source, and he was a learned and interesting man who was an admirer of Darwin, a defender of archaeological sites, and most famously the man who gave Bank Holidays to the U.K. (We’ll ignore his opposition to Irish Home Rule.)

The young Cicero reading (in a soulful nook?)

Sir John Lubbock wrote an essay for the Contemporary Review vol. 49 (1886) under the title ‘On the Love of Reading.’

He opens with a sentiment that could be echoed today:

Of all the privileges we enjoy in this nineteenth century there is none, perhaps, for which we ought to be more thankful than for the easier access to books.

It’s funny that I was able to access his essay through Google Books, which bypasses the physical object to make access even easier. But early in the essay he says the following, which is the source of the popular quotation:

Cicero described a room without books as a body without a soul. But it is by no means necessary to be a philosopher to love reading.

This essay was reprinted in several other publications, and was evidently so widely-read that some had false recollections of reading the line in Cicero.

So how could an accomplished polymath get something like this so wrong? Was he a fraud?

If he was anything in this instance he was probably too reliant on memory or too free in his interpretation, but it’s not a far leap from Cicero’s words:

postea vero quam Tyrannio mihi libros disposuit mens addita videtur meis aedibus.

– Cicero, ad Atticum IV.8

Translations tend to differ and take the word mens in quite different senses. (For example, a ‘soul’ has been added, according to E.O. Winstedt’s Loeb translation.) Heberden’s translation in the old Bohn edition, which seems a likely source for someone like Lubbock, says that ‘a new spirit has seemed to animate my house.’

To me it seems to say that an ordered library is like the brain of a house, but whether you think of as a soul, a spirit, or a mind, the comparison is clear: the home is endowed with a human property. And if it was no empty of books before, the books were of little use in their disordered state.

So let’s emend the thought (acknowledging that it isn’t a quotation) and say that a home without a library is like a body without a mind.