Daniel Dockery

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Home of published musician, recording artist, mathematician, programmer, translator, artist, classicist, and general polymath.
Oration on the "Dignity" of Man—no, not that one • Daniel Dockery

Oration on the “Dignity” of Man—no, not that one

December 19th, 2007

Inspired by an old post of the Laudator temporis acti which I ran across today, I thought I’d take a moment to share a bit of hope and cheerful optimism from the ancient world concerning the role and state of man.

Palladas, ever a charmer, left a bit of verse that’s come down to us in the Greek Anthology (X, 45), known generally as “The Descent of Man”. Frustrated by the vain puffings of fellow humans of his own time on the topic of the majesty of man, he sought to recall to mind a few details so often forgotten by them, or seemingly so:

Ἄν μνήμην, ἄνθρωπε, λάβῃς ὁ πατήρ σε τί ποιῶν
    ἔσπειρεν, παύσῃ τῆς μεγαοφροσύνης.
ἀλλ᾽ ὁ Πλάτων σοὶ τῦφον ὀνειρώσσων ἐνέφυσεν,
    ἀθάνατόν σε λέγων καὶ φυτὸν οὐράνιον.
ἐκ πηλοῦ γέγονας· τί φρονεῖς μέγα; τοῦτο μὲν οὕτως
    εἶπ’ ἄν τις, κοσμῶν πλάσματι σεμνοτέρῳ.
εἰ δὲ λόγον ζητεῖς τὸν ἀληθινόν, ἐξ ἀκολάστου
    λαγνείας γέγονας καὶ μιαρᾶς ῥανίδος.

 

If you would recall, o man,
just how your father sowed you,
you’d bridle your vain pride.

Yet the dreamer Plato’s deception
has taken root in you,
calling you immortal,
a heavenly plant.

“You come from dirt;
how are you proud?”
So one might ask,
arranging the figure more pompously.

But if you seek the truth,
you were begotten
of unbridled lust
and an unclean drop.

But he was hardly the first to say or think it. A couple of centuries or so before him, Aurelius (Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν, βιβλίον δʹ, μηʹ, δʹ; c. 174/180) quipped,

ἀεὶ τὰ ἀνθρώπινα ὡς ἐφήμερα καὶ εὐτελῆ καὶ ἐχθὲς μὲν μυξάριον, αὔριον δὲ τάριχος ἢ τέφρα.

Human (lives) are always cheap and ephemeral: yesterday, a little ejaculate; tomorrow, embalming or ashes.

In roughly the same time period, a passage of similar nature appeared in the Mishnah tractate, Pirké Avot,

עקביא בן מהללאל אומר, “הסתכל בשלשה דברים ואין אתה בא לידי עברה.” (א) דע מאין באת, (ב) ולאן אתה הולך, (ג) ולפני מי אתה עתיד לתן דין וחשבון.

מאין באת? מטפה סרוחה

ולאן אתה הולך? למקום עפר רמה ותולעה

ולפני מי אתה עתיד לתן דין וחשבון? לפני מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא

פרקי אבות, ג׃א

 

Akavya ben Mahalal’el used to say, “Reflect on three things and you will escape the hand of sin.” (1) Know where you came from; (2) know where you are going; and (3) know in whose presence you will have to make an accounting.

Where do you come from? An unclean drop.

Where are you going? To dust, worms and maggots.

To whom shall you make a reckoning? To the King of the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.

Pirké Avot, 3:1

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Daniel Dockery

animî nostrî dêbent interdum âlûcinâri

Home of published musician, recording artist, mathematician, programmer, translator, artist, classicist, and general polymath.