Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Bit of Latin: atqui sciebat

Today let us see how GKC uses a line from Horace. Horace, you may know, wrote a number of Odes, those odd Latin rhymeless poems. You may recognize several famous phrases which come from Horace: carpe diem, in medias res, aurea mediocritas, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori and others. One which I particularly enjoy - and which it is said applied to our Mr. Chesterton - is parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus: "The mountains labor, it gives birth to a ridiculous mouse", which was proposed as an allegory on the discrepancy between GKC's size and his voice.

Today, let's see a very curious phrase from Horace's Ode 5 in Book III, which says:
Atqui sciebat quae sibi barbarus totor pararet
that is:
Nevertheless he knew what the barbarian torturer was preparing for him.
This may sound a bit strange, but it refers to a Roman hero named Regulus. He was captured by the Carthaginians during the Punic War and released as an emissary to the Roman Senate to plead a peace treaty. Instead Regulus argued against this, urging the Senate to work until Carthage was destroyed. He nobly returned to captivity, knowing full well what his fate would be at the hands of Carthage...

We might, if we had time, examine this interesting topic of Rome and Carthage and the Punic Wars, which (even more than America's Civil War) people have discussed for more than two millennia. We must also recall that for GKC, Carthage symbolises a "certain attitude about children" which is still prevalent in our world... but we shall consider that under another article. (See his discussion in "The War of the Gods and Demons" in The Everlasting Man if you wish to know more.) But let us return to today's excerpt.

It appears in an interesting context, which was printed just a little over exactly one hundred years ago, in one of Chesterton's amazing critques of the disciplines. Father Jaki, the great historian of science, might have just as readily written a book titled Chesterton a Seer of History, and perhaps someone ought to try it. This essay is a great starting point:
We most of us suffer much from having learnt all our lessons in history from those little abridged history-books in use in most public and private schools. These lessons are insufficient - especially when you don't learn them. The latter was indeed my own case; and the little history I know I have picked up since by rambling about in authentic books and countrysides. But the bald summaries of the small history-books still master and, in many cases, mislead us. The root of the difficulty is this: that there are two quite distinct purposes of history; the superior purpose, which is its use for children; and the secondary or inferior purpose, which is its use for historians. The highest and noblest thing that history can be is a good story. Then it appeals to the heroic heart of all generations, the eternal infancy of mankind. Such a story as that of William Tell could literally be told of any epoch; no barbarian implements could be too rude, no scientific instruments could be too elaborate for the pride and terror of the tale. It might be told of the first flint-headed arrow or the last model machine-gun; the point of it is the same: it is as eternal as tyranny and fatherhood. Now, wherever there is this function of the fine story in history we tell it to children only because it is a fine story. David and the cup of water, Regulus and the atqui sciebat, Jeanne d'Arc kissing the cross of spear-wood, or Nelson shot with all his stars - these stir in every child the ancient heart of his race; and that is all that they need do. Changes of costume and local colour are nothing: it did not matter that in the illustrated Bibles of our youth David was dressed rather like Regulus, in a Roman cuirass and sandals, any more than it mattered that in the illuminated Bibles of the Middle Ages he was dressed rather like Jeanne d'Arc, in a hood or a visored helmet. It will not matter to future ages if the pictures represent Jeanne d'Arc cremated in an asbestos stove or Nelson dying in a top-hat. For the childish and eternal use of history, the history will still be heroic.
[GKC ILN October 8 1910 CW28:609-10]
There is one other, a rather passing allusion, but I give it to show how GKC used it in another medium:
SWIFT: Mr. Wilkes, I heard you remark that you were not a coward. I am very willing to believe it; but I may have the occasion to ask you to prove it.
WILKES (standing up): Sir, I am firm as Regulus. Do you propose to read me one of your own pamphlets? Atqui sciebat quad sibi barbarus - Well though he knew of what an American is capable -
[GKC The Judgement of Dr. Johnson CW11:255]
Clearly fighting words... but you will need to read the play (or see it staged) if you desire to know more.


Post a Comment

<< Home