Monday, June 28, 2010

The English Thucydides

I was fussing a while ago about how I couldn't read Thucydides in the original. I could have added: lacking the original I have what surely count as the next best thing: the great translation by Thomas Hobbes, a philosopher in his own right and one of the great prose stylists in the language:
For oppressed with the violence of the calamity, and not knowing what to do, men grew careless both of holy and profane things alike. And the laws which they formerly used touching funerals, were all now broken; every one burying where he could find room. And many for want of things necessary, after so many deaths before, were forced to become impudent in the funerals of their friends. For when one had made a funeral pile, another getting before him would throw on his dead, and give it fire. And when one was in burning, another would come, and having cast thereon him whom he carried, go his way again.

And the great licentiousness, which also in other kinds was used in the city, began at first from this disease. For that which a man before would dissemble, and not acknowledge to be done for voluptuousness, he durst now do freely; seeing before his eyes such quick revolution, of the rich dying, and men worth nothing inheriting their estates. Insomuch as they justified a speedy fruition of their goods, even for their pleasure; as men that thought they held their lives but by the day. As for pains, no man was forward in any action of honour to take any; because they thought it uncertain whether they should die or not before they achieved it. But what any man knew to be delightful, and to be profitable to pleasure, that was made both profitable and honourable. Neither the fear of the gods, nor laws of men, awed any man: not the former, because they concluded it was alike to worship or not worship, from seeing that alike they all perished: nor the latter, because no man expected that lives would last till he received punishment of his crimes by judgment. But they thought, there was now over their heads some far greater judgment decreed against them; before which fell, they thought to enjoy some little part of their lives.
Copied from the admirable Online Library of Liberty here (footnotes omitted). Hobbes' Thucydides strikes me as one of those works which, if not exactly better than the original (how would I know) still is in any event a work of art important in its own right. Elizabethan/Renaissance England seems to have been rich in that sort of thing: consider, not least, the King James Bible. I'm sure the following is not original with me but I'll say it anyway: seems to me that Hobbes' generally black view of human life as a "warre of all against all" must have been at least in part inspired by his experience of the plague in Athens, as rendered so vividly in the excerpt above.

Oh and by the way: while I am still not up to tackling Thouk in Greek, I'm hanging on to my copy of Blaise Nagy's, Thucydides Reader. Apologies, Blaise and maybe I will get to you yet.

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