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Sophistical Commonplaces

For first he "thinks that he should remind the congress
B.C. 405. Hermocrates was not there. Xen. Hellen. 1, 1, 27-31.
that in war sleepers are woke at dawn by bugles, in peace by cocks."1 Then he says that "Hercules established the Olympic games and the sacred truce during them, as an exemplification of his own principles;" and that "he had injured all those persons against whom he waged war, under compulsion and in obedience to the order of another, but was never voluntarily the author of harm to any man."2 Next he quotes the instance of Zeus in Homer as being displeased with Ares, and saying3— “"Of all the gods that on Olympus dwell
I hold thee most detested; for thy joy
Is ever strife and war and battle."
” And again the wisest of the heroes says4— “"He is a wretch, insensible and dead
To all the charities of social life,
Whose pleasure is in civil broil and war."
” Then he goes on to allege that Euripides agrees with Homer in the lines5— “"O well of infinite riches!
O fairest of beings divine!
O Peace, how alas! thou delayest;
My heart for thy coming is fain.
I tremble lest age overtake me,
Ere thy beauty and grace I behold;
Ere the maidens shall sing in their dancing,
And revels be gladsome with flowers."
” Next he remarks that "war is like disease, peace like health; for that the latter restores those that are sick, while in the former even the healthy perish. Moreover, in time of peace, the old are buried by the young as nature directs, while in war the case is reversed; and above all in war there is no security even as far as the city walls, while in peace it extends to the frontier of the territory"—and so on. I wonder what other arguments would have been employed by a youth who had just devoted himself to scholastic exercises and studies in history; and who wished, according to the rules of the art, to adapt his words to the supposed speakers? Just these I think which Timaeus represents Hermocrates as using.


Again, in the same book, Timoleon is exhorting the
Timoleon's victory over the Carthaginians, B.C. 344.
Greeks to engage the Carthaginians;6 and when they are on the very point of coming to close quarters with the enemy, who are many times superior to them in number, Timaeus represents him as saying, "Do not look to the numbers of the foe, but to their cowardice. For though Libya is fully settled and abounds in inhabitants, yet when we wish to express complete desolation we say 'more desolate than Libya,' not meaning to refer to its emptiness, but to the poor spirit of its inhabitants. And after all, who would be afraid of men who, when nature gives hands as the distinctive feature of man among all living creatures, carry them about all their life inside their tunics idle?7 And more than all, who wear shirts under their inner tunics, that they may not even when they fall in battle show their nakedness to their enemies? . . ."


When Gelo promised to help the Greeks with twenty
Gelo. See Herod. 7, 157-165, B.C. 481.
thousand land forces and two hundred decked ships, if they would concede to him the chief command either by land or sea, they say that the congress of Greeks, sitting at Corinth, gave Gelo's envoys a most spirited answer. They urged Gelo to come to their aid with his forces, and observed that the logic of facts would give the command to the bravest. This is not the language of men depending for succour on the Syracusans, as a last resource; but of men who felt confidence in themselves, and challenged all comers to a rivalry of courage and for the crown of valour. In spite of this, Timaeus spends such a wealth of rhetoric and earnestness on these points, in his desire to exalt the importance of Sicily above all the rest of Greece, to represent its history as the most splendid and glorious of all the world, its men as the wisest of all who have been great in philosophy, and the Syracusans as the most consummate and divine of statesmen, that he could scarcely be surpassed by the cleverest schoolboy declaimers when undertaking to prove such paradoxes as that "Thersites was an excellent man," or "Penelope a bad wife," or other thesis of that description.


However, the only effect of such extravagant exaggeration is to bring ridicule upon the men and the transactions which it is his intention to champion; while he himself incurs the same discredit as ill-trained disputants in the Academy; some of whom, in their desire to embarrass their opponents on all subjects, possible or impossible alike, carry their paradoxical and sophistical arguments to such a length as to dispute whether it is possible for people at Athens to smell eggs cooking at Ephesus: and to offer to maintain that, while they are discussing these points, they are lying on their couches at home and carrying on a second discussion on other subjects. This extravagance of paradox has brought the whole school into such disrepute, that even reasonable discussions have lost credit with the world. And apart from their own futility, these persons have inspired our young men with so depraved a taste, that they pay no attention whatever to questions of ethics and politics, which bring benefit to those who study them; but spend their lives in pursuit of an empty reputation for useless and paradoxical verbiage.


This is just the case with Timaeus and his imitators in history. Paradoxical and tenacious, he has dazzled the multitude by skill in words; and has forced attention to himself by a show of veracity, or has conciliated confidence by a pretence of producing proof of his assertions. The most conspicuous instances of his success in inspiring this confidence are those parts of his work which treat of colonies, founding of cities, and the relationships of nations. In these points he makes such a parade of minute accuracy, and inveighs so bitterly when refuting others, that people came to imagine that all other historians have been mere dreamers, and have spoken at random in describing the world; and that he is the only man who has made accurate investigations, and unravelled every history with intelligence.


As a matter of fact, his books contain much that is sound, but also much that is false. Those, however, who have spent much time on his earlier books, in which the passages I have alluded to occur, when the confidence which they have fully given to his exaggerated professions is disturbed by some one pointing out that Timaeus is obnoxious to the same reproaches which he has brought with such bitterness against others (as, for instance, in the misstatements as to the Locrians, and other instances lately mentioned by me), become angry and obstinate in controversy, and difficult to convince. And that, I might almost say, is all the benefit which the most diligent students of his history get from their reading. While those who devote their attention to his speeches, and generally to the didactic part of his work, become pedantic, sophistical, and wholly insensible to truth, for reasons which I have already stated.

1 For this proverb see Plutarch, Nicias, ch. 9,ἡδέως μεμνημένοι τοῦ εἰπόντος ὅτι τοὺς ἐν εἰρήνῃ καθεύδοντας οὐ σάλπιγγες ἀλλ᾽ ἀλεκτρυόνες ἀφυτνίζουσι.

2 Ib. ch. 25.

3 Homer, Il. 5. 890.

4 Homer Il. 9, 63.

5 Euripides, fr.

6 Battle of the Crimesus. See Plutarch, Timol. ch. 27.

7 He refers to the habit of Eastern nations thrusting their hands into long sleeves in the presence of their rulers. See Xenophon, Hellen. 2, 1, 8.

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  • Cross-references in notes from this page (8):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.157
    • Xenophon, Hellenica, 1.1.27
    • Xenophon, Hellenica, 2.1.8
    • Homer, Iliad, 5.890
    • Homer, Iliad, 9.63
    • Plutarch, Nicias, 25
    • Plutarch, Nicias, 9
    • Plutarch, Timoleon, 27
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