Citing the Classics

[These comments were first written in late 1993]

summum crede nefas animam praeferre pudori
et propter vitam vivendi perdere causas.

Believe it the highest evil to rank existence before honor
and, for the sake of life, to lose the reasons for living.

Juvenal Satires 8.83-84

A recent guest opinion in The Wall Street Journal (“The Truth About Freedom” Oct. 8 ) defends the 10th encyclical of Pope John Paul II, titled Veritatis Splendor (“The splendor of truth”). I have not read this encyclical, but I read the aforementioned defense with great interest. In connection with the above couplet (referenced without the context of line citations), the writer states that “The words of the Latin poet Juvenal, says John Paul, apply to everyone.”
This is a very, very curious mix indeed: The Wall Street Journal, a premier organ of capitalism, publishes an impassioned defense of a papal encyclical that calls attention to the document’s citation of Juvenal (a great Roman poet, some of whose poetry nevertheless I personally no longer dared read with students given the somewhat problematical status at this university [and, at the time, others] of what may and may not be brought into the classrooms) in support of its argument for the existence of timeless truths about morality and virtue.
I do not wish to offend Catholics or other religious groups – I truly derive no pleasure from upsetting people. I am prompted to wonder, however, why an essay written in the context of defending the pope’s conviction about the existence of objective moral and spiritual truths (a proposition which, whatever each of us may think of its validity, has a long history that long predates the emergence of Christian theology) should itself ignore the context of the citation from Juvenal – a context which in some sense makes a mockery of the point that was undoubtedly intended. While it is certainly neither my intention nor my place to argue either for or against the pope’s encyclical, I will argue against disingenuous argument.
Arguably, in an encyclical said to run to 179 pages, one little citation from Juvenal cannot figure all that prominently. I happily so stipulate. But context is everything; furthermore, some tacit assumption about audience here strikes me as somewhat condescending.
How many readers will try to bother looking up the citation – and the context – in Juvenal? After all, don’t the words look pretty good when you read them, perhaps self-evident even? Here they are, as translated in the Journal article (I don’t know if they are the author’s or from a sanctioned translation of the encyclical itself): “Consider it the greatest of crimes to prefer survival to honor and, out of love of physical life, to lose the very reason for living.” This translation from Veritatis Splendor is … well … not entirely the truth, at least as I see it. There is certainly nothing in the Latin to suggest “love” by anybody of anything, nor, quite candidly, is the translation “physical life” quite principled. In a procedure wholly typical of how lines of Latin and Greek poetry “talk to each other,” the word vitam (“life”) simply glosses animam (literally, “[breath of] life, existence”) in the previous line, much as the phrase vivendi … causas (“the reasons for living”) glosses pudori (“honor”). Is this unwarranted twisting (“out of love of physical life”) of the sense of the phrase propter vitam meant to imply some underprivileged antithesis to “(love of) spiritual life “ – and its truths?
In this particular satire (8), Juvenal is talking about the passerine reality as opposed to the peacock appearance of Roman virtus in men of noble lineage. When he notes (8.20) that nobilitas sola est atque unica virtus (“lineage is the one and only ‘virtue’”), Juvenal’s virtus certainly does not mean anything remotely like “virtue” in the Christian sense. The word picked up that coloring only in the course of its use by the great Latin patristic writers of the third and fourth centuries A.D., many generations after Juvenal died (c. 130 A.D.). Rather, it involves the strictly social phenomenon of living up to the standards of status and class. Juvenal was here getting at what it takes for genuine vir-tus (“man-ness”) to make a traditional Roman showing of itself in a worthy Roman male. Indeed, this not terribly Christian poet really is not concerned at all with ethical or religious considerations of the sort that the citation in the article would probably lead us to believe.
Frankly, I could think of a lot of other Latin (or Greek) writers I’d sooner cite than the often cynical and often gutter-tongued (not that there is necessarily anything wrong with either quality in a poetic persona) Juvenal if I were going to cite pagans to buttress Christian doctrine.
All kinds of people still cite the Greek and Latin classics to support all kinds of arguments because … well, I suppose … because they are the classics, and because even in a less literate age they still carry enormous cachet, and because they are themselves believed by some still to contain timeless, if not truths, certainly intriguing and interesting commentary on both the human and the divine.

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