The market for bilingual editions of ancient Greek and Latin books is dominated by the Loeb Classical Library series from Harvard University Press, the iconic green and red hardbacks (often simply called “Loebs”) that have helped generations of classics undergraduates untangle Cicero’s convoluted syntax. At their debut in the last century, Virginia Woolf, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, called Loebs “a gift of freedom” because, by placing Latin and Greek texts opposite their English translations, these volumes recognized “the existence of the amateur.” Nowadays these attractive volumes appeal not only to the philological laity but also to those for whom books are objects to be seen and not read. Loebs have even appeared in the glossy photographs of Martha Stewart Living—what better way to round out a living room’s red color scheme than with a “1930s Chinese Chippendale-style fish tank” and a few crimson editions of Ovid?
Princeton University Press, then, is entering a competitive publishing niche with its new series of similarly portable and stylish hardcover books, “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers.” That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement from the current offering of Loebs. By presenting “the timeless and timely ideas of classical thinkers in lively new translations” from first-rate scholars, Princeton’s collection will be helpful for readers looking for updated renderings of these canonical texts. Although new and updated Loeb editions still appear every year, some of the translations are ancient, even for centrally important works from classical antiquity. The Loeb of Cicero’s De Amicitia, the work translated in Princeton’s new How to Be a Friend, was published in 1923, and the Loeb of Epictetus’s Handbook, part of Princeton’s How to Be Free, is now ninety years old. For Loebs that need a refresh of idiom and style, Princeton is doing Woolf’s amateur classicist an overdue favor, especially because these two new Princeton volumes in particular also include the original ancient texts facing the translations.
But other volumes in the Ancient Wisdom series depart from the Loeb model: they tuck the Latin away in the back of the book, they chop up various ancient sources and splice together selections into thematic chunks, and they interweave interpretive summaries throughout the volume’s pages rather than allowing the texts to speak for themselves. None of these organizational choices is necessarily bad, of course, especially if Ancient Wisdom doesn’t see itself as a replacement for the Loeb Classical Library. And it doesn’t. Instead of aspiring to be a liberating resource to those with small Latin and less Greek, Princeton’s series emphasizes approachability in its mission statement: “Enlightening and entertaining, these books make the practical wisdom of the ancient world accessible to modern life.” This functional angle is reflected in the titles of the books. Princeton offers us How to Die by Seneca, not Moral Letters by Seneca, and How to Win an Argument by Cicero, not On the Ideal Orator and On Duties by Cicero. Rather than demand that Princeton’s new volumes succeed by the standards of another series, we should instead evaluate them as the instruction manuals they claim to be. What advice do they give? In what capacities and toward what ends is this advice helpful?
The emphasis on accessible applicability in the Ancient Wisdom series succeeds when it allows a modern editor to present technical subjects without the burden of unabridged source texts. In How to Win an Argument, James May combines selections from a number of Cicero’s speeches and rhetorical treatises as a way to introduce some terms, controversies, and methods used in the Roman courtroom. In one set of passages on “Rhetoric and Truth,” for instance, May pulls from Cicero’s De Inventione and De Officiis in order to illustrate the ancient conflict between persuasion and philosophy—the former sometimes seen as a clever method of deception, the latter as an unadulterated search for truth. By quoting Cicero’s recommendations to avoid “being overly scrupulous about defending a guilty person” and “to defend what is similar to the truth, even if it be less than the truth,” May himself concludes that “our notion of granting every defendant a fair trial has at least some of its foundation in Cicero’s way of thinking.” This ancient genealogy of modern legal intuitions forces us to consider whether and when we expect lawyers to hide the facts. By extracting some of the most potent passages from Cicero’s many works, May sketches some of the enduring problems surrounding persuasion, compiling not so much a mechanical instruction manual as a launch pad for serious intellectual exploration.
Similarly stimulating is the volume How to Die, edited and translated by James Romm, which highlights some of Seneca’s reflections on suicide and the inevitability of death. Romm’s introduction makes no effort to conceal the foreignness of ancient Stoic beliefs. He points out that Seneca understood freedom and health to be good things only insofar as they permit “one to keep one’s thoughts and ethical choices in harmony with Logos, the divine reason that, in the Stoic view, ruled the cosmos and gave rise to all true happiness.” Like May’s “best-of” sampling of Cicero, Romm’s volume sifts through Seneca’s many letters, tragedies, and assorted prose works and collects the most gripping sentences. Modern how-to books are never as arresting as Seneca’s instructions for dying: “Just as we ignore the clippings from our beards and hair,” the mind should learn that the body “matters as little to it as the afterbirth does to an infant.”