July 31, 2006

Virtues, pleasures and myths

Geoff Pullum's note on F.A.N.B.O.Y.S. — a mnemonic acronym for the (alleged) English "coordinating conjunctions" for, and, nor, but, or, yet, & so — reminded me of the list at the end of the Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage by James Thurber:

You might say: "There is, then, no hard and fast rule?" ("was then" would be better, since "then" refers to what is past). You might better say (or have said): "There was then (or is now) no hard and fast rule?" Only this, that it is better to use "whom" when in doubt, and even better to re-word the statement, and leave out all the relative pronouns, except ad, ante, con, in , inter, ob, post, prae, pro, sub, and super.

I expect that most people who learned Latin the old-fashioned way will recognize that list, and may even remember what it's a list of. (It's prepositions, not relative pronouns -- and similarly, the FANBOYS list is a mixed bag of central coordinators, unusual coordinators, marginal coordinators, and adverbs commonly used as connective adjuncts.). Here's the source of Thurber's list, in Allen & Greenough's New Latin Grammar for Schools and Colleges chapter 370:

370. Many verbs compounded with ad, ante, con, in, inter, ob, post, prae, prō, sub, super, and some with circum, admit the Dative of the indirect object:—
1. “neque enim adsentior eīs ” (Lael. 13) , for I do not agree with them.
2. “quantum nātūra hominis pecudibus antecēdit ” (Off. 1.105) , so far as man's nature is superior to brutes.
3. sī sibi ipse cōnsentit (id. 1.5), if he is in accord with himself.
4. “virtūtēs semper voluptātibus inhaerent ” (Fin. 1.68) , virtues are always connected with pleasures.
5. omnibus negōtiīs nōn interfuit sōlum sed praefuit (id. 1.6), he not only had a hand in all matters, but took the lead in them.
6.“ tempestātī obsequī artis est ” (Fam. 1.9.21) , it is a point of skill to yield to the weather.
7.“nec umquam succumbet inimīcīs ” (Deiot. 36) , and he will never yield to his foes.
8.“cum et Brūtus cuilibet ducum praeferendus vidērētur et Vatīnius nūllī nōn esset postferendus ” (Vell. 2.69) , since Brutus seemed worthy of being put before any of the generals and Vatinius deserved to be put after all of them.

... and so on. (Emphasis added.)

I remember this list because James Thurber and I were taught Latin by methods that rewarded us for memorizing such things. Thurber seems to have had mixed emotions about the experience, and so do I.

Here's how it worked. For each class meeting, we were expected to prepare the next chunk of Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, Tacitus or whatever we happened to be struggling through. Then students would be chosen at the teacher's whim, one after another, to read the passage, sentence by sentence, and translate it. After the translation of each sentence came a grammatical interrogation.

For example, if we were reading the part of Cicero's De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum where the business about virtues being connected with pleasures comes from, someone would have to stand up to recite and construe I.68:

Quocirca eodem modo sapiens erit affectus erga amicum, quo in se ipsum, quosque labores propter suam voluptatem susciperet, eosdem suscipiet propter amici voluptatem. quaeque de virtutibus dicta sunt, quem ad modum eae semper voluptatibus inhaererent, eadem de amicitia dicenda sunt. praeclare enim Epicurus his paene verbis: 'Eadem', inquit, 'scientia confirmavit animum, ne quod aut sempiternum aut diuturnum timeret malum, quae perspexit in hoc ipso vitae spatio amicitiae praesidium esse firmissimum.'

Hence the wise will feel the same way about their friends as they do about themselves. They would undertake the same effort to secure their friends' pleasure as to secure their own. And what has been said about the inextricable link between the virtues and pleasure is equally applicable to friendship and pleasure. Epicurus famously put it in pretty much the following words: "The same doctrine that gave our hearts the strength to have no fear of ever-lasting or long-lasting evil, also identified friendship as our firmest protector in the short span of our life. [Translation by Raphael Woolf, published as ("On Moral Ends", 2004]

Usually, the teacher would not directly criticize the English version, which the more diligent and less facile students might have memorized from one of the forbidden interlinear translations that we called "trots". (In the UK, I understand that these were called "cribs".) Instead, the teacher would probe the student's understanding of the structure.

For example, he might ask you to "tell us about inhaererent." In response, he'd want the principal parts (inhaereo, inhaesi, inhaesum) and the form in this instance (imperfect subjunctive active 3rd person plural). Then he might ask "why should it be in the subjunctive?", "what is its subject?", etc. Eventually he'd get to voluptatibus. It's the plural ablative or dative of voluptas, sir. Well, make up your mind, which one is it? Um, ablative, I guess. Really? Can you tell us why? Um, uh, ablative of specification, sir. Nice to see that you've finally learned some grammatical terminology, Liberman, but that's not the answer we're looking for here. Anyone else?

And some obnoxious swot who has memorized the whole grammar book (I won't name names) pipes up smugly from the back row: "Sir, verbs compounded with ad, ante, con, in, inter, ob, post, prae, pro, sub, and super admit the Dative of the indirect object." Dative of the indirect weenie, if you ask me.

Now the trick here is that Latin noun forms in -ibus are generally ambiguous between the dative plural and the ablative plural. So to name the case, in any given example, you need to decide what the construction is, and deduce from that whether the dative or the ablative would have been used, if a word had been chosen where you could tell the difference.

The result is an elaborate functional taxonomy of the Latin case system -- the Datives of Agency, of Reference, of Purpose or End, of Service, of Fitness, the Ethical Dative, etc. -- which gave me endless trouble when I was a student. For a long time, I thought this was because I skipped first-year Latin, and was thrust directly into construing Caesar's Gallic Wars, sink or swim. (Similarly, my father, who was color blind, thought for years that he must have been out sick when they taught about colors in school.) And when I tried to memorize the terminology, I always got distracted by the examples. (Did Cicero really say that virtues are always connected with pleasures? No, alas, it turns out that he puts these words into the mouth of Torquatus, and argues against them. Cicero was no Epicurean.)

Content aside, many of the examples struck me as subject to more than one interpretation, falling in the cracks between the case-taxonomy categories. And in fact, the role of voluptatibus in the line adapted from Cicero, virtutes semper voluptatibus inhaerent, is a case (so to speak) in point. Allen & Greenough might cite it as an example of how "verbs compounded with ad, ante, con, in, ... admit the Dative of the indirect object", and Lewis & Short's entry for inhaereo might quote the same (modified) quote in a list of examples of inhaereo with the dative. But Allen & Greenough add that:

In these cases the dative depends not on the preposition, but on the compound verb in its acquired meaning. ... The construction of § 370 is not different in its nature from that of §§ 362, 366, and 367; but the compound verbs make a convenient group.

Convenient for them, maybe. Tracking down the cross-references, we learn that:

362. The Dative of the Indirect Object with the Accusative of the Direct may be used with any transitive verb whose meaning allows (see § 274).
366. The Dative of the Indirect Object may be used with any Intransitive verb whose meaning allows.
367. Many verbs signifying to favor, help, please, trust, and their contraries; also to believe, persuade, command, obey, serve, resist, envy, threaten, pardon, and spare, take the Dative.

It's not clear to me whether inhaerent in this phrase is really an example of an intransitive verb whose "meaning allows" the Dative of the indirect object -- there's no (literal or metaphorical) transfer of substance from virtues to pleasures, for instance. And Lewis & Short start the entry for inhaereo with a bunch of examples where it takes the ablative case:

I.(a). With abl.: sidera suis sedibus inhaerent, Cic. Univ. 10 : animi, qui corporibus non inhaerent, id. Div. 1, 50, 114 : visceribus, id. Tusc. 2, 8, 20 : constantior quam nova collibus arbor, Hor. Epod. 12, 20 : occupati regni finibus, Vell. 2, 129, 3 : prioribus vestigiis, i. e. continues in his former path, Col. 9, 8, 10 : cervice, Ov. M. 11, 403 .

Their second example of inhaereo taking the ablative (animi, qui corporibus non inhaerent = "souls which aren't connected with bodies") strikes me as similar in meaning to the example we started with (virtutes semper voluptatibus inhaerent = "virtues are always connected with pleasures").

Well, if I'd brought all this up in Latin class, Mr. Mansur would have accused me of being a Philadelphia lawyer, and told me to get on with Cicero or sit down. And you're no doubt reacting in a similar way.

I do have a point, though. Brett Reynolds' post on FANBOYS observes that lists and hierarchies of this kind are "myths" that "[give] the faithful a comfortingly simple handhold in a confusing world". I'm sure that this is true -- but such myths can be confusing and even disturbing, not comforting, for those who think about them too seriously. In secondary-school Latin, I was torn between believing that the whole grammatical apparatus was a well-founded logical structure that I might grasp some day, if I applied myself, and seeing it as a mass of half-digested confusion, as the grammarians themselves sometimes seemed to admit:

As the Romans had no such categories as we make, it is impossible to classify all uses of the ablative. The ablative of specification (originally instrumental) is closely akin to that of manner, and shows some resemblance to means and cause. [Allen & Greenough, 418.a.]

It came as a breath of fresh air when I took a linguistics course in college, and learned that modern grammarians offer systematic arguments for their assumptions, categories and analyses, and that they sometimes admit that they are wrong. Well, they more often admit that their colleagues are wrong, but collectively it comes to the same thing.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 31, 2006 10:32 AM