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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.
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Recently a minor debate arose on the Byzans-L listserv as to whether Constantinople was originally named by Constantine ‘New Rome’ (in Greek Νέα Ῥώμη, in Latin Nova Roma). I’ve read this claim uncritically a number of times in a number of sources, some of whom are quite good scholars, but it’s a bit like one of those popular attributions that no one ever bothers to check because Oscar Wilde (or Mark Twain) would have said something like that. We read it enough, we hear it enough, and we trust that the tradition we’ve received is accurate.
This is not ‘New Rome.’
A case was made that the use of New Rome as a name for Constantinople was based on a sort of power struggle among the Churches of the East, and while the reasoning is sound and I accept the argument, I’m more concerned with the notion that New Rome was ever considered a name in the early period.
Adherents to the ‘New Rome’ position point to Canon III of the First Council of Constantinople (AKA the Second Ecumenical Council) of 381 CE:
Constantinopolitanus episcopus habeat priores honoris partes post Romanum episcopum, eo quod sit ipsa nova Roma
(The Bishop of Constantinople may have the better parts of honor after the Bishop of Rome inasmuch [the city] is itself a new Rome.)
This does not say that Constantinople was named ‘New Rome’ but that it was a new Rome, i.e., the seat of the Empire, a claim that no other city could make. If Rome was princeps urbium, then so was Constantinople, and it and its officials should be on similar footing.
It’s the city’s status, not its name that matters. By this logic the city council of New London, CT could officially decree for their mayor an equal share in the honors afforded the mayor of London, England. But would they?
The other source often cited does not say New Rome at all, but ‘a second Rome.’ This is the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates of Constantinople (1.16):
ἴσην τε τῇ βασιλευούσῃ Ῥώμῃ ἀποδείξας͵ καὶ Κωνσταντινούπολιν μετονομάσας͵ χρηματίζειν δευτέραν Ῥώμην νόμῳ ἐκύρωσεν·
(After making it known that it was equal to Rome under his administration and renaming it Constantinople, he decreed by law that it conduct its business as a second Rome.)
The crux here is the word χρηματίζειν, which many want to read in the sense ‘to take and bear a title or name,’ but the problem with this is that, again, it makes no sense to say that having changed the name to X, Constantine decreed that it take the name Y.
Think about that again: after he renamed it Constantinople he decreed by law that it be named Second Rome? Apply some thought.
The usual meaning of χρηματίζειν is to to do business, and specifically the business of the βουλή or the ἐκκλησία. Not only is Constantinople on the same footing as Rome, but it will follow the administration of Rome.
All of this talk of a ‘new Rome’ or a ‘second Rome’ has nothing to do with the city’s name, but with its status and administration.
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Christopher Hitchens, who (I must confess) is a personal hero, recently used an anecdote about the venerable (and notorious) C.M. Bowra (Slate: ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’), who was a real-life member of the real Order of the Phoenix (unlike that Harry Potter character).
The anecdote is one of those great stories that people like to tell about distinguished types. It’s humorous and humanizing and suits his reputation as a wit. And as one of those stories that people like to tell, Hitchens has told it before (Slate: ‘The Cult of ID’):
At Oxford, where two rivers meet, there is a private stretch of the bank (or there used to be) called “Parson’s Pleasure.” Since Victorian times, this shaded resort was reserved for male dons who wished to swim and sunbathe in the nude. A barrier prevented any stray punts or boats from interrupting this idyll, and women and girls understood that this retreat was off-limits. One day, however, while the river was higher and faster than usual, a ladies’ boating party was swept through the barrier and into the all-male backwater. Shrieks and giggles from the boat, and a sudden, protective downward reaching of the hands on the part of all bathers on the bank. All but one. The late Sir Maurice Bowra, Hellenist and epigrammist, raised his hands to shield his craggy visage. There they all stood or sat until the fair intruders had sailed past, whereupon a general outbreak of sheepishness occurred, punctuated by Bowra saying: “I don’t know about you chaps, but I’m known by my face around here.”
You needn’t look very hard to find the anecdote here and there, with the quotation changed, or even the subject. It’s been told of others, for example Dundas, whom ‘Mercurius Oxoniensis’ provocatively referred to as ‘the late Master Robin Dundas, of Christ-Church and Parson’s Pleasure.’
(Try googling +“Parsons’ Pleasure” +“my face”. Then try the same search on Google Books, though not all references include the supposed words of the don.)
In Leslie Mitchell’s biography, Maurice Bowra: A Life, we find a very good explanation, that includes this:
Wadham men found it ‘pleasant to hear all the Jowett stories being told about you.’
The Parsons’ Pleasure story is briefly mentioned as one of the many apocryphal tales ascribed to Bowra as ‘oral myths intended to describe what a great academic might have done.’
It’s still a nice story, but let’s be skeptical.