Thursday, 27 September 2018

Fake quotations

Have you seen a quotation from an ancient writer recently? Did it come with a specific source citation attached to it -- including page or chapter numbers? If not, you can be very, very confident that it’s fake.

That isn’t a logical syllogism, it’s just a rule of thumb, but it doesn’t fail often.

The web already has several resources for debunking fake quotations. Recently the blog Sententiae Antiquae devoted a post to debunking fake Aristotle quotations. The website Quote Investigator has sections on Aristotle, Cicero, Philo, Plato, Plutarch, Socrates, and Sophocles. I’ll avoid overlaps with these.

Movie quotes: Aristophanes, Aeschylus

Youth ages, immaturity is outgrown, ignorance can be educated, and drunkenness sobered, but stupid lasts forever.
-- The Emperor’s Club (2002)
Supposedly Aristophanes. This fake quotation isn’t even old enough to vote. It was made up for the film, and so was the Aristophanes attribution (video link).

Actually Aristophanes does touch on this topic, but his sentiment is the exact opposite: a change in character from dull sobriety to blissful drunkenness.
I envy the happiness
of this old man! What a change for him
from his sober habits and lifestyle.
... it’s a difficult thing to give up
the nature you’ve always had,
but then again, lots of people have done it:
they adopt other people’s opinions
and change their character.
-- Aristophanes, Wasps 1450-60
Here’s the opening caption from another film:
In war, truth is the first casualty.
-- Eye in the Sky (2015)
Supposedly Aeschylus. Truth is a casualty here too, I guess. The line is modern. It first appeared as the epigraph of a book by the British politician Arthur Ponsonby, Falsehood in War-time (Allen & Unwin, 1928), p. 11.

(Many sources assign it to US Senator Hiram Johnson, instead, in 1918 -- but there doesn’t seem to be any support for that.)

The film didn’t invent the Aeschylus attribution: in this case the writer was just lazy, not fraudulent. The attribution was invented in the early 1970s. A group of Vietnam War veterans formed a publisher for creative writing called ‘1st Casualty Press’. They published two books, with Ponsonby’s epigraph, and added the attribution to Aeschylus: Winning Hearts and Minds, 1972; Free Fire Zone, 1973. Under Aeschylus’ name the line enjoyed a fair amount of popularity in the 1970s, and the attribution has been revived in several more places in the 1990s and 2000s.

(Thanks to Isaac B. for pointing out the Eye in the Sky caption to me.)


A room without books is like a body without a soul.
The earliest occurrence of this exact wording comes from the magazine Zion’s Young People, 2.9 (January 1902) page 271. Now, there is a historical link between the aphorism and Cicero -- but that link consists of some heavy distortion which took place in 1864.

In April or May 56 BCE Cicero wrote a letter to his friend Atticus from his country house near Antium. In it he mentioned how relieved he was to have his library properly set up.
postea vero, quam Tyrannio mihi libros disposuit, mens addita videtur meis aedibus.

And in fact, since Tyrannio organised my books, a mind seems to have been added to my house.
-- Cicero, Ad Atticum 4.8
In an 1864 biography of Cicero, William Forsyth used this line but substituted ‘soul’ for Cicero’s mens ‘mind’:
His fondness for books amounted to a passion. He tells Atticus, that when his librarian Tyrannio had arranged his books it seemed as if his house had got a soul ...
And then a review of Forsyth’s book in Blackwood’s distorted the line almost beyond recognition.
Without books, he said, a house was but a body without a soul.
From there it was just a short hop to the modern form of the aphorism. So the line isn’t Cicero: it’s a variant of a line by the anonymous Blackwood author, who was in turn misquoting Forsyth.


Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.
A paraphrase of a loose translation, and they’re both wrong. The paraphrase distorts the translation, the translation distorts Plato.

The loose translation runs:
Laws are made to instruct the good, and in the hope that there may be no need of them; also to control the bad, whose hardness of heart will not be hindered from crime.
-- Plato, Laws book 9, 880d-e, trans. Benjamin Jowett
No suggestion there that laws aren’t currently needed for good people, and nothing about ‘finding a way around the laws’.

Jowett’s no better, though. Plato didn’t actually say anything about not needing laws. He also wasn’t talking about ‘the bad’, but about people who haven’t had much education. Here’s what Plato actually wrote:
Νόμοι δέ, ὡς ἔοικεν, οἱ μὲν τῶν χρηστῶν ἀνθρώπων ἕνεκα γίγνονται, διδαχῆς χάριν τοῦ τίνα τρόπον ὁμιλοῦντες ἀλλήλοις ἂν φιλοφρόνως οἰκοῖεν, οἱ δὲ τῶν τὴν παιδείαν διαφυγόντων, ἀτεράμονι χρωμένων τινὶ φύσει καὶ μηδὲν τεγχθέντων ὥστε μὴ ἐπὶ πᾶσαν ἰέναι κάκην.

Some laws, it seems, exist for good people, for the sake of teaching how they may interact and live with one another amicably; others, for those who have avoided education, who have a rather stubborn character and haven’t had any softening to stop them from proceeding to every vice.
-- Plato, Laws 880d-e (trans. by me)
An alternate translation in case there’s any doubt: Pangle (1980).


The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.
Quote Investigator covers this one -- It comes from a 1907 book by Kenneth J. Freeman -- but I want to add a little context. The misattribution arose because Freeman does purport to be summarising Plato. Here’s the context, starting at the bottom of page 73:
Call Plato next. “In a democratic state the schoolmaster is afraid of his pupils and flatters them, and the pupils despise both schoolmaster and paidagogos. The young expect the same treatment as the old, and contradict them and quarrel with them. In fact, seniors have to flatter their juniors, in order not to be thought morose old dotards.”

The counts of the indictment are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise.
Freeman’s paraphrase in the first paragraph is genuinely based on a passage of Plato.
In this kind of situation a teacher fears his pupils and flatters them, and the pupils make little account of the teachers or their enslaved school-escorts. And, in general, the young resemble their elders and try to rival them in their words and actions; while the old condescend to the young and are full of pleasantries and wit, copying the young so as not to seem odious or overbearing.
-- Plato, Republic 563a-b
But Freeman was already being tendentious. He has Plato say, ‘The young expect the same treatment as the old, and contradict them and quarrel with them’, but the real Plato depicts both the older and younger generations as trying to imitate each other.

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.
or: One thing I know, that I know nothing.
Maybe it’s a little churlish to criticise this one: it’s a very heavy-handed paraphrase, rather than an outright fake. Here are the words that Plato actually puts in Socrates’ mouth:
But it is quite possible, men, that the god really is wise; and that in this oracle what he is saying is that human wisdom is worth little, in fact nothing at all. And he seems to be talking about Socrates, but is really just using my name and making me an example, as if to say: ‘That one of you is wisest, mortals, who like Socrates recognises that he is in truth worthless with respect to wisdom.’
-- Plato, Apology 23a-b
In tourist shops in Greece you can get T-shirts with the slogan ἓν οἶδα ὅτι οὐδὲν οἶδα (‘I know one thing, that I know nothing’). Well, it is real ancient Greek. But it isn’t a real quotation.

Beware the barrenness of a busy life.
This is about as distant from Socrates as you can get. It’s a Christian aphorism, which became popular in various religious tracts throughout the 1950s-1980s, especially in fundamentalist groups. There is one earlier appearance, in a 1902 periodical for missionaries:
Beware of the barrenness of a busy life! Beware of the words which break the bond of fellowship!
-- Christian Missionary Review 53 (1902) p. 811
The aphorism takes its inspiration from the New Testament story where Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary.
But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.’
-- Luke 10.40-42 (NRSV translation)

Friday, 21 September 2018

The citation problem

When non-classicists write about Homer, it seems they’re allergic to reading any actual research on Homer. This can be a problem.

Earlier this month there was a lot of press coverage for an article which analysed social networks depicted in the Odyssey. The piece was written by three physicists, and came out in PLoS ONE, a major open-access science journal. The idea had potential: it could have told us some interesting things about how late Iron Age people imagined social relations. Unfortunately, the idea they chose to put front and centre is a ridiculous claim, and it undermines the whole project. In their own words:
How we showed Homer’s Odyssey is not pure fiction, with a little help from Facebook.
-- The Conversation, 3 Sep. 2018
That’s nonsense, of course, but I want to look at a more fundamental problem. What research did they do? Here’s a diagram of how the citations in their article look.

The outer ring represents the 48 sources they used, the inner ring represents the citations of those sources. Click on the image for a closer look. The exact figures are:
  • 2 sources on ancient history, cited a total of four times (light red)
  • 37 sources on network analysis, cited eighty times (yellow)
  • 4 sources in other fields, cited seven times (green)
  • 3 sources aimed at general readers, cited nine times (light green)
  • 2 pieces of software documentation, cited once each (darker red)
So this is supposedly an article analysing the Odyssey, right? Yet at no point did it occur to them to see what research anyone else has ever done on the Odyssey. It didn’t occur to the PLoS ONE editor, either, a psychologist at Austin. And it didn’t occur to the referees who did the peer review.

For reference, the sources they cite that do relate directly to antiquity are:
  • ‘ancient lit/history’: actually more archaeology than history. One is a 2003 piece on the geology of the Troad; the other is from a generalist magazine, not a piece of research, but I’ve chosen to put it here because it’s by Korfmann.
  • ‘pop translations and textbooks’: two popular translations of the Odyssey (Rieu 1946, Palmeira and Correia 1944); and a pedagogical companion by Peter Jones.
The references generally are a mess. They misspell Korfmann’s name, they attribute Peter Jones’ book to a different author (it’d be very hard for a non-specialist to work out what book it is!), and several of the DOI links in the article’s references are broken (references 11, 12, 20, 21, 41, and 48 -- including both of the archaeology articles).

Let me re-state the problem. It didn’t occur to anyone, at any stage, that a research paper ought to look at research on the thing that the article is about. Why not?

It isn’t an isolated occurrence. Here are a few more, by various scientists: a 2008 piece by two astronomers, supposedly showing that the Odyssey refers to a solar eclipse that took place in 1178 BCE; a 2012 piece by another astronomer, about another eclipse; three chapters in a 2008 book, written by an engineer.

Now, the first two are much more variegated than the 2018 social networks study. The lion’s share of references still go to things in the authors’ own fields: in itself that’s fair enough. And, though I haven’t included it in the pie-charts, they both have a goodly number of references to the text of Homer (unlike Miranda et al., who have none).

But there are very few references to modern research on the subject of the articles -- namely, the Homeric epics. Where they do cite research pieces, they’re handled strangely. In the case of Baikouzis-Magnasco, they’re badly chosen; in Papamarinopoulos et al., they’re narrow and misleading. In the Baikouzis-Magnasco article, the only pieces cited are
  • Denys Page, The Homeric Odyssey (1955)
  • Gilbert Murray, The Rise of the Greek Epic (1924)
  • Robert Bittlestone, Odysseus Unbound (2005)
Page and Murray are old, Bittlestone is kinda fringe. They’re cited once each. At one point the authors actually mention consulting footnotes in translations of the Odyssey as if that’s what research looks like.

Never mind the authors, is that really what referees and journal editors think a literature review looks like?

Papamarinopoulos et al. actually cite Russo’s commentary on Odyssey books 17-20 at one point -- but without a page number, and Russo doesn’t say what they claim he says. (The claim is that Od. 19.306 λυκάβας means ‘the time period between old and new moon’: that’s not Russo, it’s a misreading of Od. 19.307.)

This isn’t just a scientist problem: it isn’t an arrogant I-know-a-lot-about-my-field-therefore-I-assume-I-understand-everything situation. Or if it is, it’s a symptom of something deeper. A related phenomenon also appears in the Wikipedia articles on the Odyssey and Iliad:

Now, the Wikipedia articles do in fact cite academic sources a lot more than the research articles above. And that’s good. However, we’ve also got loads of references to dodgy websites and news media. And that’s bad.

Also, though the ‘Odyssey’ article has lots of citations of modern research, there are only two sources. 85% of them (29 out of 34) are citations of Agathe Thornton’s book People and Themes in Homer’s Odyssey (1970). Now, I love Thornton’s book ... but that’s just not a balanced treatment.

I have two hypotheses as to the root of this problem. The first is the one you’ll probably be expecting. Homeric research is difficult to get to grips with, there’s a hell of a lot of it, articles often don’t translate the Greek. Also, many of the highest-profile books spend ages harping on about the Homeric Question in one form or another, and no one wants to read that.

But any field is complex and difficult for an outsider. I have a tough time working out what’s going on in the more mathematical parts of articles on archaeoastronomy or stylometry, but I still read them. The authors above didn’t even look at any research. So I don’t think this can be the main reason.

My second hypothesis is that the existing research is actually invisible to them. This applies to people in the sciences in particular. It’s because there’s very little overlap between bibliographic databases that cover the natural sciences, and bibliographic databases that cover Homer or other topics to do with antiquity.

Let me illustrate. Open up a new browser tab and go to a nice general database: Google Scholar. Type in a search for ‘Odyssey’. What do you see?

Your results may be different from mine, so I’ll tell you what I found. The first page of results had only two results that were relevant to the Odyssey -- and they’re both references that appeared in the scientific articles above: Page’s The Homeric Odyssey, and the Oxford Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey. I suspect that isn’t a coincidence. There was one more result on page 2, one on page 3, four on page 4, two on page 5, and none at all on page 6.

Guess how far I had to go before I found any research articles.

I finally found the first journal article at the bottom of page 7. The 68th result. It was Helene Foley’s classic piece ‘Reverse similes and sex roles in the Odyssey’.

Published in 1978.

For reference, Homeric scholarship has 200 to 300 publications a year, as reported in the bibliographic database L’année philologique. Since 1978 there have been a bit over 9000 publications.

But every single one of them is invisible, because Google Scholar doesn’t know how to interpret the word ‘Odyssey’. It’s hopeless on ‘Homer’, too: I couldn’t see a single relevant reference in the first fifty pages of results. ‘Iliad’ is better, but still very book-heavy: there’s only one article in the first four pages of results (Willcock’s 1964 paper on ‘Mythological paradeigma’).

Obviously, a partial workaround would be to search more intelligently. Searching for ‘Homer Odyssey’ returns relevant results. But that’s not going to catch all situations: the authors above could have searched better, yes, but the blame isn’t solely on them.

Basically, unless Google Scholar decides to improve its algorithms, you can expect to see more scientific papers on Homer, written by people who’ve done no research on Homer.

In closing it’s only fair to look at what citation practices I’d recommend. Here are two more pieces written by scientists -- but what a difference!

This isn’t an endorsement of their arguments, by the way: they’re both deeply flawed articles. But they do handle their literature reviews responsibly. (Well, kind of: Altschuler et al. only have 14 references.)

And here are some illustrations from within the field: Foley’s 1978 article on ‘reverse similes’, and a 2012 piece I wrote in response to the Baikouzis-Magnasco article.

Also, take a look at what Wikipedia does with the ‘Homer’ article. This is a totally different kettle of fish from the ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ articles. Behold, and admire. If you actually read it, it’s still obvious that it’s not professional -- but the research principles are not half bad.

Will Google Scholar and other similar search engines step up to the challenge? I don’t know. Right now, things aren’t looking promising.


The citation data was prepared with this spreadsheet (LibreOffice format). See the note at bottom of the first sheet on some differences in how citations are reported on different sheets.