Today’s Phrase for Latin Lovers

Rex in Regno suo superiores habet Deum et Legem.

The King in his Realm hath two superiors: God and the Law. -- Henry Care (1646-1688) on English liberties and the Magna Carta


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Ancient History

|Book Club

Wit vs. Wits

My favorite quote (and guide) regarding wittiness is the oft-quoted Shakespeare-coined adage that “Brevity is the soul of wit.” [from Act II, Scene II of Hamlet]

But when it comes to wits (as in “keep your wits about you”), brevity would be a disadvantage.

I’m partway through the 2013 modern costume and set decoration, Joss Whedon-adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” which is a very interesting approach to this classic late 16th-century comedy. It’s intriguing to see how this play would unfold in present-day surroundings (apparently filmed in the director’s own house), simple luxuries and technologies, and illustrates how human nature is little changed in the intervening 400 years.

By removing all the medieval trappings that typically scare 21st-century people and leaving just the dense, florid Shakespearean language, it makes the play more accessible to modern man, while maintaining the purity of the script. The language of the script, for non-Shakespeare scholars, remains intimidating–especially in the first few minutes where it’s all whizzing by you as you’re also trying to grasp who is who and what’s going on. Eventually the rhythm of the words becomes easier to understand, and yet old turns of phrase and vocabulary can keep jamming on the brakes: “challeng’d Cupid at the flight” (challenged to Cupid to an archery contest), “burbolt” (a flat-headed arrow used for bird hunting), “trencherman” (eater), “squarer” (fighter), “parrot-teacher” (an insult, implying someone who says the same thing so often that they would make a good parrot trainer), “jade’s trick” (a jade is a broken-down, overworked horse, a nag, and according to various internet sites, the trick would be 1. giving up before the race is finished or 2. having a horse trader use dyes and spices to make the jade appear young and healthy for sale).

If I’m watching Shakespeare in public (it’s worth the day-long effort to wait in line for free “Shakespeare in the Park” tickets in Central Park), I just have to turn off that part of my brain that questions every new word and phrase I hear and let the words flow over me. I always walk away feeling like I understood all the main plot lines and themes and most of the details.

But when I’m at home, with dictionaries and computers nearby, I only make it through a scene or two before my brain is screaming to put the DVD on pause and look up all of the archaic words and phrases I don’t immediately get so that I’ll understand every detail. (This is why I don’t watch Shakespeare movies every week…or month.)

So pause I have. To my happiness, I found one bit of dialog that flowed right over me, has even more meaning that I can apply to other things:

Alas! he gets nothing by that. In our last
conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and
now is the whole man governed with one: so that if
he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him
bear it for a difference between himself and his
horse; for it is all the wealth that he hath left,
to be known a reasonable creature.

I didn’t need to know this to enjoy Lady Beatrice’s snark about Benedick not having all his wits, but apparently in the Middle Ages, there were thought to be five “inward” wits to go along with the five “outward wits” or senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight). The five wits were imagination, memory, estimation (instinct), fantasy (is this really different from imagination? this reference tries to differentiate it) and common wit (which is akin to Aristotle’s concept of what we now call “common sense”). Not sure where the humorous wit fits among these categories, though.

Therefore, it’s fun to know that instead of tossing out random numbers, Beatrice’s imagination specifically intends to insinuate that Benedick’s mind is deprived of all imagination, memory, instinct and fantasy, but she graciously grants him some common sense.

That’s being witty about wits.

UPDATE: No wonder I missed Beatrice’s jab at Benedick’s wit in the movie. In replaying the scene, I find Whedon has edited Shakespeare here and there, removing the quote I so love. Hmph.

|Daily Tread

Introducing the Pre-Socratics

Today, we turn back the clock to 585 BC, to the time of the first philosophers.

It’s not as if no one had ever asked “Where do we come from” or “Why are we here?” before these guys came along. But scholars attribute the pre-Socratics (those who preceded Socrates) with being the first to turn it into a science.

As Jonathan Barnes writes in Early Greek Philosophy, “What, then, is the substance of the claim that the Presocratics were champions of reason and rationality? It is this: they offered reasons for their opinions, they gave arguments for their views.”

That’s a pretty low bar set for these pioneers to jump over. Many of their ideas would be considered laughable today: having all things created from air and returning to air, or all things being composed of specific numerical combinations.

Therefore, it’s tempting to just rush past them in our hurry to meet their namesake, the first philosophical rock star: Socrates. But I think that’s unfair to them and their new, raw ideas that obviously affected their successors, even if as an object of scorn.

After all, these pre-Socratics were attempting what we are doing today in our Daily Tread Society: starting a philosophical journey. Sure, their thinking is considered preposterous now, but they thought things, mulled them over, shared them with fellow thinkers who then crafted their own theories from them. They were beginners, like me, learning to crawl before they walked and to walk before they ran.

I’d like to shake off all that I know and get into their newborn mindset. To look at the world as they did, with an infant’s eyes, awakening from myths and oracles to look around and think, hey, there might be something more to all of this. I might be able to figure it out for myself.

Let’s look not just at their ultimate conclusions, but perhaps why they were thinking that way, remembering they had no solid footing under them to support them. Let’s let them inspire us to look anew at our surroundings and create hypotheses to test our new perspective. Let’s give them a chance to express themselves without ridicule, for now, because I have it from reliable sources that they are going to come into a lot of it later, especially from Aristotle.

They deserve their time in the sun, so let’s give them a little.


As philosophy moved civilization from myth into reality, this quote from Robin Waterfield in his introduction to The First Philosophers made me consider whether we are fully divorced from myth, even here in modern 2010:

Minimally then, a myth is a traditional tale. This is a good starting point, because it reminds us that a myth is a story, and that myths evolve within traditional, often pre-literate societies. Within such societies, a myth also has clear functional relevance to some important aspect of life. But this function is not just to help the society to perpetuate itself, as one school of thought has it; it is to help explain and form consensus reality for that community, and so to help make an individual’s experience of life meaningful.

Does that quote bring a certain Southern California town to mind? You know, the one with its name spelled out in big letters on the side of a hill?


Call for Help:

At the top of page 19, in Copleston’s volume I, he gives the definition of an intriguing concept prevalent in the pre-Socratic era that was “in close connection with the will to power.” Unfortunately, Copleston expected his readers to be more erudite than I and only gives the name of that concept in Greek.

The man who goes too far, who endeavors to be and to have more than Fate destines for him, will inevitably incur divine jealousy and come to ruin. The man or the nation who is possessed by the unbridled lust for self-assertion is driven headlong into reckless self-confidence and so to destruction. Blind passion breeds self-confidence, and overweening self-confidence ends in ruin.

Who among you out there knows the name of this concept? Please share.

Pre-Socratic Self-Quiz

Q1. Name something factually wrong with the depiction of the pre-Socratic philospher Heraclitus in the painting above.

[Answers will be provided once we reach the end of our pre-Socratic discussions.]


If you are new to the Daily Tread and would like to join our society, our general plan and syllabus can get you up to speed quickly. You can always click on the “Daily Tread” tab above to see the full path we have already traveled. Follow us at @DailyTread.



Per a request, here’s a scan of the Greek word I couldn’t read. (Blew it up as large as I could.) Does this shed any new light on it? Thanks!

Is this the Greek word for "hubris" or something else?