Quod sumus hoc eritis

Bernt_Notke_Danse_Macabre

Danse Macabre in St Nicholas Church, Talinn, Estonia

Danse Macabre, Gather Ye Rosebuds, Ozymandias, Death the Leveller.  For a time we live.  The fleeting glories of our short lives are nothing but the crowing of a cock on a dungheap.  Next time someone puts you under pressure telling you how important the deadline is and how it simply MUST be met just whisper to them “Vitae summa brevis” – brief the sum of life.

What do you choose to leave behind in 50 years time, if your choice is that you stayed in the office for 16 hours to deliver that crucial report, or you sat on your childs bed and read a story?  Who will remember that night in 50 years time, your needy boss, or your nostalgic, well adjusted child?

 

Vitae Summa Brevis; by Ernest Dowson

Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam; Horace

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
we pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
our path emerges for a while, then closes
within a dream.

Carpe Diem

Born in the Consulship of Cotta and Torquatus (65BC) the poet we now know as Horace lived through the greatest era of Roman History.  In the year he was born Pompey Magnus was at the very height of his power.  He was fighting Tigranes in Armenia and Mithridates the Great.  Julius Caesar was Consul in Horace’s second year of life, and Cicero was consul in his third year.

He lived through the two Civil wars that defined the boundary between Republican Rome and Imperial Rome.  Too young to participate in the Civil War of Julius Caesar.  He found himself on the wrong side in the Octavian civil war at the Battle of Philippi (42BC) where he was on the losing side with Brutus and Cassius.

Luckily Horace was favoured by Maecenas, Octavians right hand man and an avid patron of the arts.  Horace became an Imperial court poet under Augustus.  He was in the inner circle during the creation of the Roman Empire.  He saw the young Octavian rise to become Princeps and then Augustus.

So, as it is your birthday, Happy Birthday Horace.  Seize the day!

 

Ode I-XI “Carpe Diem”; by Quintus Horatius Flaccus

Ask not Leuconoë for we never know
what fate the gods grant, your fate or mine.
Waste no time on futile Babylonian astrological reckonings.
Better by far to suffer what comes
whether Jupiter grants us more winters or if this, our last
is stripped away like those cliffs by the Tyrrhenian sea.
Be wise, mix the wine, life is short, temper your long term ambitions.
Time is envious of this moment, even as we speak: Seize the day, trust not to tomorrow.

Ovid on Abortion

Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso, better known to us today as the Latin poet Ovid, was born March 20th 43 BC and died in 17 or 18 AD in exile from Rome in Scythia Minor which today is Constanta on the Romanian Black Sea coast.  The Emperor Augustus banished Ovid to this dark, remote backwater for “a poem and a mistake” and that is just enough to fuel speculation.  If there is any truth to the exploits detailed in his love poetry we may guess what his mistake was.

Historians point to the exile of Julia the Younger and Agrippa Postumus, grandchildren of Augustus, at around this time.  Julia’s husband was executed for conspiracy against Augustus.

Ovid was born in the year after the assassination of Julius Caesar.  He grew up in a Rome torn asunder by one Civil War after another.  First the republicans under Brutus and Cassius fought Anthony and Octavian.  Then war with Sextus Pompeius, the Sicilian Revolt.  Then the conflict between Anthony and Octavian.  Ovid came to maturity in the early days of the Roman Empire, where imperial favour was a pre-requisite for success.

Often ranked alongside the older pair, Virgil and Horace, as one of the big 3 of Roman poetry.  I found this elegy interesting because of the relevance of the topic to the big political hot potato in Ireland this year, the 8th Amendment.  In Ireland we do not permit abortion.  So we have an Irish solution, the outsourcing of our abortions to the UK.

Because the right to life of a foetus is enshrined in our constitution the government cannot pass sensible laws without a constitutional referendum.  Without sensible laws doctors are unable to make rational medical decisions.  They are bound instead by Catholic Dogma.  As a result we get situations like the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar.

Ovid was against abortion, and abortion was a far more dangerous procedure in Roman times.  Dangerous or not it was still practiced, and that is as true today as it was then.  You cannot prevent abortion, but you can strive to ensure that it is practiced as safely as possible.

Verses 4 and 5 refer to Priam (King of Troy) and Aeneas, in a nod to the ancestral lineage of the Emperor Augustus.  As you can see, in the Rome of that day every topic had the potential to be political.

Book II Elegy XIV: Against Abortion; by Publius Ovidius Naso

Where’s the joy in a girl being free from fighting wars,
unwilling to follow the army and their shields,
if without battle she suffers wounds from her own weapons,
and arms unsure hands to her own doom?

Whoever first taught the destruction of a tender foetus,
deserved to die by her own warlike methods.
No doubt you’d chance your arm in that dismal arena
just to keep your belly free of wrinkles with your crime?

If the same practice had pleased mothers of old,
Humanity would have been destroyed by that violation.
and we’d need a creator again for each of our peoples
to throw the stones that made us onto the empty earth.

Who would have shattered the wealth of Priam, if Thetis,
the sea goddess, had refused to carry her rightful burden?
If Ilia had murdered the twins in her swollen womb,
the founder of my mistress’s City would have been lost.

If Venus had desecrated her belly, pregnant with Aeneas,
Earth would have been bereft of future Caesars.
You too, with your beauty still to be born, would have died,
if your mother had tried what you have done.

I myself would be better to die making love
than have been denied the light of day by my mother.
Why rob the loaded vine of burgeoning grapes,
or pluck the unripe apple with cruel hand?

Let things mature themselves – grow without being forced:
life is a prize that’s worth a little waiting.
Why submit your womb to probing instruments,
or give lethal poison to what is not yet born?

Medea is blamed for sprinkling the blood of her children,
and Itys, slain by his mother, is lamented with tears:
both cruel parents, yet both had bitter reason
to shed blood, revenge on a husband.

Say, what Tereus, what Jason incites you
to pierce your troubled body with your hand?
No tiger in its Armenian lair would do it,
no lioness would dare destroy her foetus.

But tender girls do it, though not un-punished:
often she who kills her child, dies herself.
She dies, and is carried to the pyre with loosened hair,
and whoever looks on cries out: ‘She deserved it!’

But let these words vanish on the ethereal breeze,
and let my imprecations have no weight!
You gods, prosper her: let her first sin go, in safety,
and be satisfied: you can punish her second crime!

Serendipity

Serendip

In the year 1754, on this day, Horace Walpole invented the word Serendipity.  He was an art historian who discovered a lost painting.  In a letter to his friend Horace Mann he explained the fortunate discovery by reference to the fable of the 3 princes of Serendip.

Serendip is an old name for Sri Lanka.  The three princes in question had many adventures where they made good fortunes by figuring out things by good chance or through wisdom.  Some of the stories are a bit like Sherlock Homes stories where they use logic to figure out puzzles.

Serendipity is considered to be one of the most difficult words in the English language to translate.  It is a ‘fortunate and unplanned happy coincidence’.

I wish a serendipitous 2018 to anyone patient enough to read my scribbles.  Hope you enjoy them.

Now, since the word was written from one Horace to another we have to end with another Horace.  This time THE Horace, the Roman poet.  A poem on a similar theme.  Live in the now, let the future come and may it be serendipitous.

Ode I. 11: by Horace (Burton Raffel, Trans)

Leucon, no one’s allowed to know his fate,
not you, not me: don’t ask, don’t hunt for answers
in tea leaves or palms. Be patient with whatever comes.
This could be our last winter, it could be many
more, pounding the Tuscan Sea on these rocks:
Do what you must, be wise, cut your vines
and forget about hope. Time goes running, even
as we talk. Take the present, the future’s no one’s affair.

 

 

Ship of Fools

Jheronimus_Bosch_011

Ship of Fools by Hieronymus Bosch (1490-1500)

The allegorical concept of the ship of fools served in the middle ages as a counterpoint to the “Ark of Salvation” represented by the Catholic Church. The authorities in Rome used it as a teaching tool to expose the “folly” of independent thinking and the rise of Protestantism. In simple terms, the Catholic Church, with the Pope at the helm, was bound for the hereafter, and the Protestant churches were rudderless, leaderless, adrift and bound for who knows where?

In practical terms there were actual “ships of fools”. They were the renaissance version of the freak show. Communities could divest themselves of lunatics by handing them over to the ship of fools. When the ship docked you paid an entry fee to see the antics of the fools aboard.

The concept of the State as a ship is far older, going back to ancient Greece. Plato immortalised it in “The Republic” when he likened the good management of the state to the good captaincy of a ship. A well run state should be captained by a philosopher king, ideally one trained in the Platonic school.

It is very easy to string together the concepts of Ship of State and Ship of Fools to come up with the State of Fools that is the Irish Government. Recent revelations show how the Irish Government was played for a fool by the executives in Anglo Irish Bank. The tapes expose the bankers themselves to ridicule. They come across as little more than a clique of silly schoolboys playing games with a lot of money. Their behaviour would be puerile in a football locker room, it has no place in a national bank.

What is really sad is how the regulators and the government were asleep at the wheel. When they were called on deck to save the ship they didn’t know their location or their direction and were sailing without compass, sextant or chart. As long as the bankers were playing with bank money they exposed nobody but those foolish enough to trust them. When the Irish Government agreed to support the banks, they made the people of Ireland responsible for the bad behaviour of the bankers. Not just bad, but downright fraudulent behaviour.

If you asked me ten years ago for my opinion of those running our banks, our banking system and the government I would probably have believed them to be knowledgeable and capable. I would have thought that they held the best interests of the state at heart. I would have felt that they held their very well-paid positions through merit and deserved the money they earned.

Now I believe that the managers of our banks and our elected politicians are deeply flawed characters. They hold their own interests ahead of those of the state. They are not well qualified for what they do. They plan only in the very short term. They are grossly overpaid. They are a very, very expensive bunch of fools.

The Ship of State: by Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace)

O ship the fresh tide carries back to sea again.
Where are you going! Quickly, run for harbour.
Can’t you see how your sides
have been stripped bare of oars,

how your shattered masts and yards are groaning loudly
in the swift south-westerly, and bare of rigging,
your hull can scarce tolerate
the overpowering waters?

You haven’t a single sail that’s still intact now,
no gods, that people call to when they’re in trouble.
Though you’re built of Pontic pine,
a child of those famous forests,

though you can boast of your race, and an idle name:
the fearful sailor puts no faith in gaudy keels.
You must beware of being
merely a plaything of the winds.

You, who not long ago were troubling weariness
to me, and now are my passion and anxious care,
avoid the glistening seas
between the shining Cyclades.