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Joseph Joubert (1754–1824). Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts. 1899.

Chapter XXIII.

Literary Judgments. I. Writers of Antiquity

[1]THERE will never be a bearable translation of Homer, unless every word in it is chosen with art—is full of variety, novelty, and charm. The expression too must be as antique, as unadorned as the manners, the incidents, and the figures that are put upon the stage. With our modern style, everything in Homer is distorted, and the heroes seem like clowns who are aping the grave and the proud.

[2]Spirit of flame by his very nature, not only illumined but luminous, Plato shines by his own light. The splendour of his thought colours his language. Brilliance in him is born of the sublime.

[3]Plato spoke to an extremely ingenious people, and was bound to speak as he did.

[4]Seek only in Plato for forms and ideas; that is what he sought himself. There is more light in him than there are objects, more form than matter. We must breathe him, but not feed upon him.

[5]Plato shows us nothing, but he brings brightness with him; he puts light into our eyes, and fills us with a clearness by which all objects afterwards become illuminated. He teaches us nothing; but he prepares us, fashions us, and makes us ready to know all. Somehow or other the habit of reading him augments in us the capacity for discerning and entertaining whatever fine truths may afterwards present themselves. Like mountain air, it sharpens our organs, and gives us an appetite for wholesome food.[M.A.]

[6]Plato loses himself in the void, but one sees the play of his wings, one hears their rustle.[M.A.]

[7]In Plato, Socrates too often appears as the philosopher by profession, instead of being content to show himself as the philosopher by nature and goodness.

[8]Homer wrote to be sung, Sophocles to be declaimed, Herodotus to be recited, and Xenophon to be read. From purposes so varied innumerable differences in their style were sure to arise.

[9]No writer had greater boldness of expression than Cicero. You think him cautious and almost timid; and yet no tongue was ever less so than his. His eloquence is limpid; but when it must, it flows in great rapids and cascades.

[10]There are a thousand ways of preparing and seasoning speech; Cicero liked them all.

[11]In Catullus are found two things which make the worst combination in the world: affectation and coarseness. Generally, however, the principal idea in each of his little pieces is of a happy and innocent kind; his airs are pretty, but his instrument is vulgar.

[12]Horace contents the mind, but he does not rejoice the taste. Virgil satisfies taste as much as thought. The recollection of his verses is as delightful as the reading of them.

[13]In Horace there is not one expression nor, so to speak, one word, that Virgil would have wished to use, so different are their styles.

[14]Take away Juvenal’s gall, and Virgil’s wisdom, and you will have two bad authors.

[15]Plutarch, in interpreting Plato, is clearer than he, and yet has less light, and gives the soul less joy.

[16]The style of Tacitus, although less beautiful, less rich in pleasing colour and in variety of expression, is perhaps more perfect than even that of Cicero; for every word in it has been thought over, and has its exact weight, measure, and quantity. Now, supreme perfection lies in the perfect union of perfect elements.

[17]In Tacitus, we must not only look for the orator and the writer, but for the painter, the inimitable painter, of actions and thoughts.

[18]In the narratives of Tacitus the interest of the story will not allow us to read little at a time, and the depth and grandeur of expression will not allow us to read much. The mind, as if divided between curiosity which leads it on, and attention which holds it back, feels a certain fatigue; the writer, in fact, takes possession of the reader, to the point of doing him violence.

[19]The style of Tacitus was made to paint dark souls and disastrous times.