April 29, 2004

Thumbs up and the "Mother Ship of culture"

About a year ago, in March of 2003, the meaning of "thumbs up" in modern Iraq was discussed by Bendan Koerner in Slate. Koerner observes that a raised thumb is traditionally an obscene insult in the Middle East, and cites University of Kansas classicist Anthony Philip Corbeill as having concluded in 1997 that in ancient Rome "the thumbs up sign actually meant 'Kill him', basing his assertion on a study of hundreds of ancient artworks."

Michel de Montaigne wrote in 1575:

It was at Rome a signification of favor to depress and turn in the thumbs:

"Fautor utroque tuum laudabit pollice ludum:"

and of disfavor to elevate and thrust them outward:

"Converso pollice vulgi, Quemlibet occidunt populariter."

[Essays XII, "Of Thumbs", translated by Charles Cotton]

Neither Koerner nor Corbeill credits Montaigne; you might think that today's established journalists and prize-winning classics professors have "have become unmoored from the mother ship of culture", as Camille Paglia puts it.

I don't agree with this. There's far too much culture out there for any of us to be in touch with all of it -- it's not so much a "mother ship", at this point, as a few dozen big fleets, along with thousands of more or less independent traders, raiders and pleasure craft. I'm sure that the time that Koerner and Corbeill didn't spend reading Montaigne was put to excellent use in some other way. If I ever read this passage in Montaigne myself, I've long since forgotten it, and I just stumbled on it this morning by a bit of random Google serendipity.

But just to help put us all back in touch with the Renaissance fleet, here's Montaigne's whole essay "Of Thumbs":

Tacitus reports, that among certain barbarian kings their manner was, when they would make a firm obligation, to join their right hands close to one another, and intertwist their thumbs; and when, by force of straining, the blood it appeared in the ends, they lightly pricked them with some sharp instrument, and mutually sucked them.

Physicians say, that the thumbs are the master fingers of the hand, and that their Latin etymology is derived from "pollere." The Greeks called them Anticheir, as who should say, another hand. And it seems that the Latins also sometimes take it in this sense for the whole hand;

"Sed nec vocibus excitata blandis, Molli pollice nec rogata, surgit."

It was at Rome a signification of favor to depress and turn in the thumbs:

"Fautor utroque tuum laudabit pollice ludum:"

and of disfavor to elevate and thrust them outward:

"Converso pollice vulgi, Quemlibet occidunt populariter."

The Romans exempted from war all such were maimed in the thumbs, as having no more sufficient strength to hold their weapons. Augustus confiscated the strength of a Roman knight, who had maliciously cut off the thumbs of two young children he had, to excuse them from going into the armies: and before him, the senate, in the time of the Italic war, had condemned Caius Vatienus to perpetual imprisonment, and confiscated all his goods, for having purposely cut off the thumb of his left hand, to exempt himself from that expedition. Some one, I have forgotten who, having won a naval battle, cut off the thumbs of all his vanquished enemies, to render them incapable of fighting and of handling the oar. The Athenians also caused the thumbs of the Aeginatans to be cut off, to deprive them of the superiority in the art of navigation.

In Lacedaemon, pedagogues chastised their scholars by biting their thumb.

As a result of this little bit of happenstance, I read a few of Montaigne's other essays on the same site. At the risk of being parochial, I have to say that they remind me in style and tone much more of weblog entries than of the kind of "essay" that I was trained to write in school.

Of War-horses, or Destriers: I here have become a grammarian, I who never learned any language but by rote, and who do not yet know adjectives, conjunction, or ablative. I think I have read that the Romans had a sort of horses, by them called funales or dextrarios, which were either led horses, or horses laid on at several stages to be taken fresh upon occasion, and thence it is that we call our horses of service destriers; and our romances commonly use the phrase of adestrer for accompagner, to accompany. ...

Of Cannibals: ... I long had a man in my house that lived ten or twelve years in the New World, discovered in these latter days, and in that part of it where Villegaignon landed, which he called Antarctic France. This discovery of so vast a country seems to be of very great consideration. I cannot be sure, that hereafter there may not be another, so many wiser men than we having been deceived in this. I am afraid our eyes are bigger than our bellies, and that we have more curiosity than capacity; for we grasp at all, but catch nothing but wind. ...

Of Coaches: ... Will you ask me, whence comes the custom of blessing those who sneeze? we break wind three several ways; that which sallies from below is too filthy; that which breaks out from the mouth carries with it some reproach of having eaten too much; the third eruption is sneezing, which because it proceeds from the head, and is without offense, we give it this civil reception: do not laugh at this distinction; for they say 'tis Aristotle's. ...

People often observe that weblogs are an ephemeral form, and that as a result of progressively lowered barriers to publication, too much stuff is being written for anyone to keep track of. There's nothing new in that, for better or for worse.

[Note: I haven't read Corbeill's scholarly works and therefore can't really assert with any confidence that he doesn't cite Montaigne -- I'm relying only on the KU press release that I linked to, which of course he didn't write. But his scholarly work apparently relies on a new compilation of evidence from ancient pictures, a context in which it's not really relevant what some 16th-century French polymath did or didn't notice about classical writings on thumbs.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 29, 2004 10:01 AM