The Life of Secundus the Philosopher

Category: Ancient Learning > Paideia > Philosophy in Questions & Answers

1 Introduction

The Life of Secundus the Philosopher is a combination of a question-and-answer text with a framing narrative. The latter half, which except for a short final note is made up by twenty questions and answers, has some shared material with the Verbal Duel of Hadrian and Epictetus, although the resemblance is distant enough to make it unlikely that either directly copied the other. More unusual is the rather morbid narrative about the philosopher, a Pythagorean of questionable historicity. But that is better read than described.

Unlike in the other question-and-answer texts, I have not attempted to replicate the concision of the Greek, which manages to almost exclusively use two-word phrases (not unlike the kenningar of old Germanic poetry), although I may in a future revision. On the other hand, I have not unpacked all implications contained in the answers, which would be rather like presenting you with a puzzle already solved.

2 Translation

[Content Notice: misogyny and sexual abuse; if you want to avoid these themes, you might prefer to skip to the questions and answers.]

[The narrative portion is still a work in progress]

(1) “What is the cosmos?” – “A circumference that cannot be reached, a structure for contemplation, a height that cannot be surveyed, a self-originated vision (or ‘object of contemplation’), a formation of many shapes, an eternal compound, nourishing ether, a fixed sphere; light of the sun, day, stars, darkness, night, earth, air and water.”

(2) “What is Oceanus?”* – “An envelopment of the cosmos, a boundary encirclement, a briney binding, an Atlantic chain, a revolving around all of nature, a solar lantern, what holds the inhabited world (oikoumenē).”

*This refers to the sea around Europe, Asia and Africa;
but perhaps a more cosmic interpretation is also present

(3) “What is The God?”* – “A self-shaped good, an image of many shapes, a height that cannot be surveyed, a formation of many shapes, a subject that is difficult to comprehend, an all-pervading breath, an unresting eye, a power of many names, an all-powerful light.”

*The answer appears to describe the Stoic cosmic god,
which is why several descriptors are shared with the cosmos.

(4) “What is a day?” – “A race-course of misery, a course of twelve hours, a daily beginning, a reminder of life, an prolongation of the afternoon, an encounter of life, an eternal numbering, a mirror reflection of nature, a recurring reminder.”

(5) “What is the Sun?” – “A heavenly eye, the antagonist of night, an ethereal sphere, a cosmic trial(?), an undefiled flame, a continuous splendor, a lantern lead around in a dance, a heavenly traveller, an emblem of the day.”

(6) “What is the Moon?” – “The purple of heaven, a nocturnal consolation, a vigil for sailors, an assuagement for wanderers, the successor of the Sun, the enemy of evil-doers, an indicator for festivals, the repeating revolution of the months.”

(7) “What is the Earth?” – “The pedestal of heaven, the middle of the cosmos, a bottomless object of sight (or ‘speculation’), a root springing from the air, an incomprehensible circumference, the school of life, a god-created construction, a vision that cannot be surveyed, the nurse of rain-storms, the protection and mother of crops, the covering of Hades, an outspread space, the origin and reception of all things.”

(8) “What is a human?” – “A mind (nous) enveloped in flesh, a vessel for breath (pneumatikon), a receptacle capable of perception, a suffering soul, a short-lived dwelling, a phantom of time, a boney instrument, an examiner of life, the plaything of Fortune, a transient good, the cost of life, the fugitive of life, a deserter of light, the Earth’s demand, an eternal corpse.”

(9) “What is beauty?” – “A painting of nature, a self-formed good, a short-lived blessing, a transient possession, the shipwreck of a pious man, luck encased in flesh, a service of pleasures, a withering flower, a faithless engagement, the desire of humans.”

[Content Notice: misogyny]
(10) “What is a woman?”* – “A man’s desire, a beast one lives with, an anxiety one gets up with, a lioness one shares a bed with, a viper wearing clothes, a self-chosen battle, lack of restraint sharing one’s bed, a daily punishment, the winter of the household, an impediment for carefreeness, the shipwreck of an unrestrained man, a plan for adulteries, a snare of life, a costly war, a wretched animal, a sufficient burden, a nine-wind storm, a venomous asp, a human-making service, a necessary evil.”

*As common as misogyny is in ancient writers, this
cartoonish level of woman-hating is out of the ordinary.
In general, few match his misanthropy or cynicism.

(11) “What is a friend?” – “A desired name, an unseen person, a hard-to-find possession, a consolation for lack, a refuge for misfortune, an arm (i.e., ‘helping hand’?) for distress, an examiner of life, a person that cannot be found, a substantial treasure, luck that cannot be found.”

(12) “What is a farmer?” – “A servant of the crops, the judge of rain-storms, a companion of wilderness, a merchant without the sea, the antagonist of the forest, the provider of sustenance, an improver of fields, the physician of the Earth, the one who makes trees grow, the educator of mules, acquaintance with misery.”

(13) “What is a gladiator?” – “Death for sale, a sacrifice of the one who puts on games, a fate practiced for, bloody technique, a blunder of Fortune, a sharp death, a trumpeted fate, an enduring destiny, an evil victory.”

(14) “What is a ship?” – “A business on the sea, a house without foundations, a well-fitted grave, a cubic plant, a journey of winds, a hurrying watchpost, a bound fate (‘a fate one is bound to’?), a plaything of the winds, a sailing death, a wooden bird, a marine horse, an open-sea weasel-trap, an uncertain rescue (or ‘safety’), an expected death, a traveller on the waves.”

(15) “What is a sailor?” – “A traveller of the waves, a marine post-horse, a tracker of the winds, a fellow traveller of the winds, a foreigner to the inhabited world, a deserter of earth, an antagonist of winter, a gladiator at sea, someone uncertain of rescue, a neighbor of death, a lover of the sea.”

(16) “What is wealth?” – “A golden burden, the provider of pleasures, a hoped-for fear, enjoyment without care, envy one lives with, a daily exercise, an unstable thing, a beloved misfortune, a thing that is plotted against, an insatiable desire, a much longed-for misery, a lofty fall, a collection of silver, surpassing luck.”

(17) “What is poverty?” – “A hated good, the mother of health, an impediment of pleasures, a way of life without care, a possession that is hard to lose, the teacher of inventions, the discoverer of wisdom, an unenvied engagement, a thing free from intrusions, a business without penalties, un unwelcome profit, a possession without quibblers, luck unknown, luck without care.”

(18) “What is old age?” – “An honestly acquired evil, a living death, a healthy sickness, an expected fate, a long-lasting joke, a rigid mind, a breathing corpse, a stranger to Aphrodite, an expected death, a moving corpse.”

(19) “What is sleep?” – “A cessation of troubles, the success of the physicians, the loosening of what was bound, the wisdom of the sleepless, the prayer of the sick, a likeness of death, the desire of those in misery, rest from every blow, a habit of the wealthy, a daily exercise.”

(20) “What is death?” – “An eternal sleep, the dissolution of the body, the desire of those in distress, the departure of the spirit (pneuma), the fear of the wealthy, the desire of the poor, the dissolution of the parts of the body, the flight and loss of life, the father of sleep, the true appointment, the dissolution of all things.”


3 Greek text of the questions and answers (ed. B.E. Perry)

(1) Τί ἐστι κόσμος; Ἀκατάληπτος περιοχή, θεωρητικὸν κατασκεύασμα, ἀσύνοπτον ὕψωμα, αὐτογέννητον θεώρημα, πολυχάρακτον μόρφωμα, αἰώνιον διακράτημα, αἰθὴρ θρεπτικός, ἀπλανὲς κύκλευμα, ἡλίου φῶς, ἡμέρα, ἄστρα, σκότος, νύξ, γῆ, ἀήρ, ὕδωρ.

(2) Τί ἐστιν ὠκεανός; Κόσμου ἐναγκάλισμα, ἐστεφανωμένον ὅριον, περίαμμα ἁλμυραῖον, δεσμὸς Ἀτλαντικός, πάσης φύσεως περίδρομος, ἡλιακὸς λαμπτήρ, οἰκουμένης κάτοχος.

(3) Τί θεός; Ἰδιόπλαστον ἀγαθόν, πολύμορφον εἴκασμα, ἀσύνοπτον ὕψωμα, πολυχάρακτον μόρφωμα, δυσνοούμενον ζήτημα, ἀθάνατος νοῦς, πολυ- διοίκητον πνεῦμα, ἀκοίμητος ὀφθαλμός, πολυώνυμος δύναμις, παγκρα- τὲς φῶς.

(4) Τί ἡμέρα; Στάδιον κακοπαθείας, δωδεκάωρος διαδρομή, ἀρχὴ καθημερινή, ὑπόμνησις βιωτική, δειλινὴ ἀπότασις, ζωτικὴ ἔντευξις, αἰώνιον ἀρίθ- μημα, φυσικὸν ἐσόπτρισμα, παλίνδρομος ἀνάμνησις.

(5) Τί ἥλιος; Οὐράνιος ὀφθαλμός, νυκτὸς ἀνταγωνιστής, αἰθέριον κύκλωμα, κοσμικὸς ἔλεγχος, ἀκήρατος φλόξ, ἀδιάστατον φέγγος, κεχορηγημένη λαμπάς, οὐράνιος ὁδοιπόρος, ἡμέρας κόσμιον.

(6) Τί σελήνη; Οὐρανοῦ πορφύρα, νυκτερινὴ παραμυθία, πλεόντων παννύχισμα, ὁδευόντων παρηγορία, ἡλίου διαδοχή, κακούργων ἔχθρα, σημεῖον ἑορτῶν, μηνῶν ἀνακύκλευμα.

(7) Τί γῆ; Οὐράνιος βάσις, κόσμου μεσότης, ἀπύθμευτον θεώρημα, ἀεροφυὲς ῥίζωμα, [ἀκατάληπτος περιοχή], γυμνάσιον ζωῆς, σύστημα θεόκτιστον, σελήνης παννύχισμα, ἀσύνοπτον θεώρημα, ὄμβρων τιθήνη, καρπῶν φύλαγμα καὶ μήτηρ, Ἅιδου καλυπτήρ, πολυδιοίκητον χώρημα, γέννα καὶ ἀποδοχὴ πάντων.

(8) Τί ἄνθρωπος; Νοῦς σεσαρκωμένος, πνευματικὸν ἀγγεῖον, αἰσθητικὸν χώρημα, ἐπίπονος ψυχή, οἰκητήριον ὀλιγοχρόνιον, φάντασμα χρόνου, ὠστεω- μένον ὄργανον, κατάσκοπος βίου, Τύχης παίγνιον, ἀπαράμονον ἀγαθόν, ζωῆς δαπάνημα, φυγὰς βίου, φωτὸς ἀποστάτης, γῆς ἀπαίτημα, αἰώνιος νεκρός.

(9) Τί ἐστι κάλλος; Φυσικὴ ζωγραφία, ἰδιόπλαστον ἀγαθόν, ὀλιγοχρόνιον εὐτύχημα, ἀπαράμονον κτῆμα, ἀνδρὸς εὐσεβοῦς ναυάγιον, σεσαρκωμένη ἐπιτυχία, ἡδονῶν ὑπηρεσία, ἄνθος μαραινόμενον, ἀσύνθετος πραγματεία, ἀνθρώ- πων ἐπιθυμία.

(10) Τί ἐστι γυνή; Ἀνδρὸς ἐπιθυμία, συνεστιώμενον θηρίον, συνεγειρομένη μέριμνα, συμπλεκομένη ἀσέλγεια, συγκοιμωμένη λέαινα, ἱματισμένη ἔχιδνα, αὐθαίρετος μάχη, συγκοιμωμένη ἀκρασία, καθημερινὴ ζημία, οἰκίας χειμών, ἀμεριμνίας ἐμπόδιον, ἀνδρὸς ἀκρατοῦς ναυάγιον, μοιχῶν κατασκευή, βίου ἅλωσις, πολυτελὴς πόλεμος, ζῷον πονηρόν, ἱκανὸν φορτίον, ἐννεαπνεύμων ζάλη, ἰοβόλος ἀσπίς, ἀνθρωποποιὸν ὑπούργημα, ἀναγκαῖον κακόν.

(11) Τί φίλος; Ζητούμενον ὄνομα, ἄνθρωπος ἀφανής, δυσεύρετον κτῆμα, ἀπορίας παραμύθιον, καταφυγὴ δυστυχίας, ἀγκὼν ταλαιπορίας, κατάσκοπος βίου, ἄνθρωπος ἀκατάληπτος, ἐνυπόστατον κειμήλιον, ἀκατάληπτος εὐτυχία.

(12) Τί γεωργός; Καρπῶν ὑπηρέτης, ὄμβρων διαιτητής, ἐρημίας συνήθης, ἀθάλασσος ἔμπορος, ὕλης ἀνταγωνιστής, τροφῆς ὑπουργός, πεδίων ἀριστευτής, γῆς ἰατρός, δένδρων φυτουργός, ὀρέων παιδαγωγός, κακοπαθίας συνήθεια.

(13) Τί ἐστι μονομάχος; Θάνατος πωλούμενος, ἀγωνοθέτου θῦμα, [γαστριμαργίας ἐπιθυμία], διδασκαλουμένη μοῖρα, ἔναιμος τέχνη, Τύχης παράπτωμα, ὀξὺς θάνατος, περισαλπιζομένη μοῖρα, παραμένων μόρος, κακὴ νίκη.

(14) Τί ἐστι πλοῖον; Ἐπίσαλος πρᾶξις, ἀθεμελίωτος οἰκία, ἡρμοσμένος τάφος, κυβικὴ σανίς, ἀνέμων ὁδοιπορία, ἀνιπταμένη φυλακή, συνδεδεμένη μοῖρα, ἀνέμων παίγνιον, ἐπιπλέων μόρος, ὄρνεον ξύλινον, πελάγιος ἵππος, ἠνεωγμένη γαλεάγρα, ἄδηλος σωτηρία, προσδοκώμενος θάνατος, ἐγκύματος ὁδοιπόρος.

(15) Τί ἐστι ναύτης; Κυμάτων ὁδοιπόρος, θαλάσσιος βερεδάριος, ἀνέμων ἰχνευτής, ἀνέμων συνοδευτής, οἰκουμένης ξένος, γῆς ἀποστάτης, χειμῶνος ἀνταγωνιστής, διαπόντιος μονομάχος, ἄδηλος ἐπὶ σωτηρίᾳ, θανάτου γείτων, θαλάσσης ἐραστής.

(16) Τί ἐστι πλοῦτος; Χρυσοῦν φορτίον, ἡδονῶν ὑπηρέτης, φόβος ἐλπιζόμενος, ἀπόλαυσις ἄνευ φροντίδος, συνεστιώμενος φθόνος, καθημερινὴ μελέτη, εὐμετάπτω- τον πρᾶγμα, φιλούμενον ἀτύχημα, ἐπιβουλευόμενον πρᾶγμα, ἀπλήρω- τος ἐπιθυμία, πολυπόθητον ταλαιπώρημα, ὑψηλὸν πτῶμα, ἀργυρικὸν σύνθεμα, παρερχόμενον εὐτύχημα.

(17) Τί ἐστι πενία; Μισούμενον ἀγαθόν, ὑγείας μήτηρ, ἡδονῶν ἐμποδισμός, ἀμέριμνος διατριβή, δυσαπόσπαστον κτῆμα, ἐπινοιῶν διδάσκαλος, σοφίας εὑρετής, ἄφθονος πραγματεία, ἀσκόπευτος οὐσία, ἀζημίωτος ἐμπορία, ἀψήφιστον κέρδος, ἀσυκοφάντητον κτῆμα, ἄδηλος εὐτυχία, ἀμέριμνος εὐτυχία.

(18) Τί ἐστι γῆρας; Εὔκτητον κακόν, ζῶν θάνατος, ὑγιαίνουσα νόσος, προσδοκωμένη μοῖρα, πολυχρόνιον γέλασμα, ἄτονος φρόνησις, ἔμπνους νεκρός, Ἀφροδίτης ἀλλότριος, θάνατος προσδοκώμενος, νεκρὸς κινούμενος.

(19) Τί ὕπνος; Καμάτων ἀνάπαυσις, ἰατρῶν κατόρθωμα, δεδεμένων λύσις, ἀγρυπ- νούντων σοφία, νοσούντων εὐχή, θανάτου εἰκών, ταλαιπωρούντων ἐπιθυμία, πάσης πνοῆς ἡσυχία, πλουσίων ἐπιτήδευμα, [πενήτων ἀδολεσχία], καθημερινὴ μελέτη.

(20) Τί ἐστι θάνατος; Αἰώνιος ὕπνος, ἀνάλυσις σώματος, ταλαιπωρούντων ἐπιθυμία, πνεύματος ἀπόστασις, πλουσίων φόβος, πενήτων ἐπιθυμία, λύσις μελῶν, φυγὴ καὶ ἀπόκτησις βίου, ὕπνου πατήρ, ἀληθινὴ προθεσμία, ἀπόλυσις πάντων.