… like quasi-literate lemmings …

homo sum:  humani nil a me alienum puto.

I am man: man-y a man’s business I deem my own.


 …: nothing involving people do I consider none of my business

Terence, “Heauton timoroumenos” 77 (163 B.C.)
In a review of Marguerite Yourcenar’s That Mighty Sculptor, Time, a writer in The Wall Street Journal (11 August 1992: A12) makes the following observation:

“Nothing human is alien to me:  This quintessentially tolerant
epigram by the Roman comic playwright Terence could well
serve as Yourcenar’s credo.”

I would like to cite a quintessentially tolerant if monitory couplet by the English comic versifier Alexander Pope that might well give pause:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep or drink not from the Pierian spring.”

There is high irony to this misapplication of Terence’s line in an essay dealing in part with the classical learning that lay behind Yourcenar’s writings.  In fairness to that reviewer, however, one should exculpate and note that he merely wanders a well-trodden path of error through the traditional thickets of classical half-learning.  By some curious process of notional metathesis the catchy line from Terence has come to represent, in the minds of the classically deprived, just about exactly the opposite of what Terence meant.

The play, whose Greek title can be roughly translated as “The Masochist,” is just incidentally a study of how fathers should handle the education of their young:  with discipline or leniency?  This is a debate, it will be recognized, that somewhat antedates its contemporary currency in various educational bureaucracies.  Perhaps these functionaries believe they have discovered something new to add to the instructional controversies now raging in America, but it may interest them to know that this same Terence observed some 2,200 years ago in a different play that nullumst iam dictum quod non dictum sit prius or “it’s all been said before” (“Phormio” 40).  But I digress.

In any event, the smug father named Chremes uttered that immortal line, and what he really meant was that he just had to find out what the other father, Menedemus, had been up to, tormented as he was at the “loss” of his son.  Hence, this is a crass statement of intent by Chremes at the start of the play to turn himself into an insufferable meddler in other people’s affairs, which is exactly what he proceeds to do.

Of course, Terence is punning on the Latin “homo” and “humanus,” words which are in fact etymologically related to each other and were so perceived by the ancients because of the close homophony.  And, as if to throw more mud on the putatively ennobling sentiment with which generations of careless citers have — like quasi-literate lemmings — invested this famous line of Latin, an accepted etymology of “homo,” or man, and “humanus,” or human, is from a root meaning “earth, dirt.”  In short, since Chremes is a humble earth-ling as it were, he thinks it proper to get the dirt on everybody.

Is there anything new under the sun?

Well, so much for quintessential tolerance!

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One Response to … like quasi-literate lemmings …

  1. heather says:

    Do you think the same thing happens with verses from Shakespeare (or whoever)?

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