Monday, November 21, 2016

`How to Sting, Gall, and Vex One Another'

I am not by nature superstitious but for many years I have privately indulged in a variation of the ancient divination practice known as sortes Vergilianae (“Vergilian lots”). A reader seeking his fortune or advice opens the Aeneid at random, points at a passage and beholds his revealed guidance. More than a mere poem or rousing good story, the epic has always been valued as a source of wisdom and inspiration by Romans and Christians alike. I’ve known people who substituted the Bible for the Aeneid. I’ve never actually used Vergil for purposes of  bibliomancy. Over the years I’ve substituted Shakespeare, Montaigne, William James’ Principles of Psychology, Tristram Shandy and the Oxford English Dictionary. But the wisest and most entertaining book I know is Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, which I have frequently used for purposes of sortes Burtonianae. I own three copies and today I’m using the first volume of the three-volume Everyman’s Library edition. My finger landed on this passage on Page 276 in Part 1, Section 2, Member III, Subsection 10, specifically on the words “panders, bawds, cozening”: 
“And which is worse, as if discontents and miseries would not come fast enough upon us: homo homini daemon, we maul, persecute, and study how to sting, gall, and vex one another with mutual hatred, abuses, injuries; preying upon and devouring as so many,  ravenous birds; and as jugglers, panders, bawds, cozening one another; or raging as wolves, tigers, and devils, we take a delight to torment one another; men are evil, wicked, malicious, treacherous, and naught, not loving one another, or loving themselves, not hospitable, charitable, nor sociable as they ought to be, but counterfeit, dissemblers, ambidexters, all for their own ends, hard-hearted, merciless, pitiless, and to benefit themselves, they care not what mischief they procure to others.”

No news there. As I said, Burton is the wisest and most entertaining of writers.

[An enterprising practitioner of traditional sortes Virgilianae has set up a digital edition here.]

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