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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

Ask not of friends what you yourself can do. Ne quid exspectes amicos, quod tute agere possis.

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A few days ago a good friend of high literary sensibility made use of the sentence allegedly attributed to Shakespeare I always feel happy, You know why? Because I don't expect anything from anyone, Expectations always hurt.

The phrase admits two interpretations, one hopelessness and negative and the other positive  and of self-confidence, confidence in their own strength and resources. My friend was decanted  for the second.

The phrase, which apparently has nothing to do with the Old World, raised me three thoughts which I want to share.

The first thought relates to the paternity of that phrase. I mentioned in the introduction "allegedly attributed". I failed to note the Shakespearean authorship, it is more,  rummaging in Spanish and English I am agree with the better educated view  of the most serious commentators that this phrase and the other verses that usually accompany, at least as it is referred to, is not of Shakespeare. Could be a rehash of various passages and ideas of the English playwright, but that's most likely not the source. As in so many other times, thoughts and quotes are attributed to famous authors to give them a special status. This is as old as the history of literature and thought itself. These spurious quotations replicate and multiply now with  the speed of light, that is whit  which the bits of modern digital instruments move.

The second consideration is that, whatever the origin and the father of the appointment, the phrase is not without interest and may be cause for fortunate reflection. I remember the late Greek philosopher who probably insisted most on the idea that it is in ourselves whom we trust to guide and give meaning to our lives. I mean Epictetus (55-135), Greek Stoic philosopher who lived most of his life in Rome as a slave. We do not know to write anything, but his pupil Flavius Arrian noted and published his thoughts on two works called Speeches (Διατριβαί, diatribai) and Enchiridion, Ἐγχειρίδιον) or 'Manual'.

Note: "Enchiridion" derives from Latin Enchiridion, and this of Greek ἐγχειρίδιον, manual, in by  turn compound (χείρ) Kheir, 'hand', a word which by the way is also in kheirurgía (χειρουργία) 'surgery' and surgeon, Latin chirurgiae, meaning properly working with the hands and chiromancy (palmistry) (χειρομαντεία, queiromanteia), or divination by the lines of the hand.

It is highly recommended reading his Enchiridion or Manual of Epictetus;  I reproduce the number 15:

Remember that in life you ought to behave as at a banquet. Suppose that something is carried round and is opposite to you. Stretch out your hand and take a portion with decency. Suppose that it passes by you. Do not detain it. Suppose that it is not yet come to you. Do not send your desire forward to it, but wait till it is opposite to you. Do so with respect to children, so with respect to a wife, so with respect to magisterial offices, so with respect to wealth, and you will be some time a worthy partner of the banquets of the gods. But if you take none of the things which are set before you, and even despise them, then you will be not only a fellow banqueter with the gods, but also a partner with them in power. For by acting thus Diogenes and Heracleitus and those like them were deservedly divine, and were so. called. (Translated by George Long.  London. George Bell and Sons. 1890.)

The third consideration is that the phrase in question remind   me of a passage from the curious and variegated work of Aulus Gellius entitled  Noctes Atticae, Attic Nights, in which he collects from Quintus Ennius  a fable of  the Greek Aesop.  I  reproduce the full passage of Gellius, corresponding to Book II, 29:

A fable of the Phrygian Aesop, which is well worth telling

Aesop:  the well-known fabulist from Phrygia, has justly been regarded as a wise man, since he taught what it was salutary to call to mind and to recommend, not in an austere and dictatorial manner, as is the way of philosophers, but by inventing witty and  entertaining fables he put into men's minds and hearts ideas that were wholesome and carefully considered, while at the same time he enticed their attention.

For example, this fable of his about the little nest of a birdlet with delightful humour warns us that in the case of things which one can do, hope and confidence should never be placed in another, but in one's own self.

“There is a little bird,” he says, “it is called the lark. It lives in the grain-fields, and generally builds its nest at such a time that the harvest is at hand exactly when the young birds are ready to be fledged. Such a lark chanced to have built her nest in a field which had been sown rather early in the year; therefore when the grain was turning yellow, the fledglings were still unable to fly. Accordingly, when the mother went off in search of food for her young, she warned them to notice whether anything unusual was said or done there, and to tell it to her on her return. A little later the owner of that grain-field calls his young son and says: ' Do you not see that this is ripe and already calls for hands? To-morrow then, as soon as it is light, see that you go to our friends and ask them to come and exchange work with us, and help us with this harvest.' So saying, he at once went away. And when the lark returned, the chicks, frightened and trembling, twittered about their mother and implored her to make haste and at once carry them off to some other place; 'for,' said they, 'the master has sent to ask his friends to come at daybreak and reap.' The mother bids them be easy in mind. ' For if the master,' said she, ' has turned the harvesting over to his friends, the field will not be reaped to-morrow, and I need not take you away ”  “ to-day.' On the following day the mother flies off to get food. The master waits for those whom he had summoned. The sun grows hot and nothing is done. The day advances and no friends come. Then he says again to his son: 'Those friends of ours are a lot of slackers. why not rather go and ask our relatives and kinsfolk to come to reap early tomorrow?' This, too, the frightened chicks tell their mother. She urges them once again to be without fear and without worry, saying that hardly any relatives and kinsfolk are so obliging as to undertake labour without any delay and to obey a summons at once. 'But do you,' she said, 'observe whether anything more is said.' Next day at dawn the bird left to forage. The relatives and kinsfolk neglected the work which they were asked to do. So finally the owner said to his son: ' Enough of friends and relatives. Bring two scythes at daybreak; I myself will take one and you yourself the other, and tomorrow we ourselves will reap the grain with our own hands.' When the mother heard from her brood that the farmer had said this, she cried: ' It is time to get out and be off; for this time what he said surely will be done. For now it depends on the very man whose business it is, not on another who is asked to do it.' And so the lark moved her nest, the owner harvested his crop.”

This then is Aesop's fable, showing that trust in friends and relatives is usually idle and vain. But what different warning do the more highly revered books of the philosophers give us, than that we should rely on ourselves alone, and regard everything else that is outside us and beyond our control as helpful neither to our affairs nor to ourselves? This parable  of Aesop has been rendered in tetrameter verse by Quintus Ennius in his Saturae most cleverly and gracefully. The following are the last two lines of that version, and I surely think it is worth while to remember them and take them to heart:

                      This adage ever have in readiness;
                      Ask not of friends what you yourself can do.

(Translation by John C. Rolfe. Cambridge. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press)

Apologus Aesopi Phrygis memoratu non inutilis.
Aesopus ille e Phrygia fabulator haut inmerito sapiens existimatus est, cum, quae utilia monitu suasuque erant, non severe neque imperiose praecepit et censuit, ut philosophis mos est, sed festivos delectabilesque apologos commentus res salubriter ac prospicienter animadversas in mentes animosque hominum cum audiendi quadam inlecebra induit.  Velut haec eius fabula de aviculae nidulo lepide atque iucunde promonet spem fiduciamque rerum, quas efficere quis possit, haut umquam in alio, set in semetipso habendam.  "Avicula" inquit "est parva, nomen est cassita.  Habitat nidulaturque in segetibus id ferme temporis, ut appetat messis pullis iam iam plumantibus.  Ea cassita in sementes forte congesserat tempestiviores; propterea frumentis flavescentibus pulli etiam tunc involucres erant.  Dum igitur ipsa iret cibum pullis quaesitum, monet eos, ut, si quid ibi rei novae fieret dicereturve, animadverterent idque uti sibi, ubi redisset, nuntiarem.  Dominus postea segetum illarum filium adulescentem vocat et "videsne" inquit "haec ematuruisse et manus iam postulare? idcirco die crastini, ubi primum diluculabit, fac amicos eas et roges, veniant operamque mutuam dent et messim hanc nobis adiuvent."  Haec ubi ille dixit, et discessit. Atque ubi redit cassita, pulli tremibundi, trepiduli circumstrepere orareque matrem, ut iam statim properet inque alium locum sese asportet: "nam dominus" inquiunt "misit, qui amicos roget, uti luce oriente veniant et metant".  Mater iubet eos otioso animo esse: "si enim dominus" inquit "messim ad amicos reicit, crastino seges non metetur neque necessum est, hodie uti vos auferam." Die" inquit "postero mater in pabulum volat. Dominus, quos rogaverat, opperitur. Sol fervit, et fit nihil; it dies, et amici nulli eunt.  Tum ille rursum sum ad filium: "amici isti magnam partem" inquit "cessatores sunt. Quin potius imus et cognatos adfinesque nostros oramus, ut assint creas temperi ad metendum?" Itidem hoc pulli pavefacti matri nuntiant.  Mater hortatur, ut tum quoque sine metu ac sine cura sint; cognatos adfinesque nullos ferme tam esse obsequibiles ait, ut ad laborem capessendum nihil cunctentur et statim dicto oboediant: "vos modo" inquit "advertite, si modo quid denuo dicetur".  Alia luce orta avis in pastum profecta est. Cognati et adfines operam, quam dare rogati sunt, supersederunt.  Ad postremum igitur dominus filio: "valeant" inquit "amici cum propinquis. Afferes primo luci falces duas; unam egomet mihi et tu tibi capies alteram, et frumentum nosmetipsi manibus nostris cras metemus".  Id ubi ex pullis dixisse dominum mater audivit: "tempus" inquit "est cedendi et abeundi; fiet nunc dubio procul, quod futurum dixit. In ipso enim iam vertitur, cuia res est, non in alio, unde petitur".  Atque ita cassita nidum migravit, seges a domino demessa est." Haec quidem est Aesopi fabula de amicorum et propinquorum quorum levi plerumque et inani fiducia.  Sed quid aliud sanctiores libri philosophorum monent, quam ut in nobis tantum ipsis nitamur, alia autem omnia, quae extra nos extraque nostrum animum sunt, neque pro nostris neque pro nobis ducamus?  Hunc Aesopi apologum Q. Ennius in satiris scite admodum et venuste versibus quadratis composuit.  Quorum duo postremi isti sunt, quos habere cordi et memoriae operae pretium esse hercle puto:

                             hoc erit tibi argumentum semper in promptu situm:
                             ne quid exspectes amicos, quod tute agere possis.



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