September 05, 2007

De asini umbra disputant

In English: They're arguing about the donkey's shadow.

After yesterday's saying and the story about the donkey in the lion's skin, I thought I would do another saying that is associated with a fable about a donkey. Today's saying, in fact, does not really make much sense unless you know the story!

So, here is the story, as found in the Greek fable tradition and reported by pseudo-Plutarch in his "Life of Demosthenes":
They say that during an assembly in Athens, Demosthenes was prevented from making his speech, so he told the audience he wanted to say just a few words. When the audience had fallen silent, Demosthenes began his tale. 'It was summertime, and a young man had hired a donkey to take him from Athens to Megara. At midday, when the sun was blazing hot, the young man and the donkey's driver both wanted to sit in the donkey's shadow. They began to jostle one another, fighting for the spot in the shade. The driver maintained that the man had rented the donkey but not his shadow, while the young man claimed that he had rented both the donkey and all the rights thereto.' Having told this much of the story, Demosthenes then turned his back on the audience and began to walk away. The Athenians shouted at him to stop and begged him to finish the story. 'Indeed!' said Demosthenes. 'You want to hear all about the donkey's shadow, but you refuse to pay attention when someone talks to you about serious matters!'
In the Latin tradition, the saying became famous thanks to its inclusion in Erasmus's Adagia, where Erasmus cites the saying under the heading de asini umbra and then provides his own account in Latin of this story about Demosthenes:
Cum aliquando Demosthenes quendam in causa capitali defenderet, ac iudices haberet parum attentos, sed dicenti obstreperent, ille, Paulisper, inquit, aures mihi praebete, si quidem rem narrabo novam, ac lepidam, atque auditu iucundam. Ad quae verba cum illi iam aures arrexissent, adolescens, inquit, quispiam asinum conduxerat, rerum quiddam Athenis Megaram deportaturus. Inter viam autem cum aestus meridianus ingravesceret, nec inveniret, quonam umbraculo solis ardorem defenderet, depositis clitellis, sub asino sedens, eius umbra semet obtegebat. Ceterum id agaso non sinebat, hominem inde depellens, clamansque asinum esse locatum, non asini umbram. Alter item ex adverso tendebat, asseverans etiam umbram asini sibi conductam esse. Atque ita inter eos acerrima rixa in longum producta est, ita, ut etiam ad manus venerint: hoc pertinaciter affirmante, non conductam esse asini umbram, illo pari contentione respondente, umbram etiam asini conductam esse. Demum in ius ambulant. Haec locutus Demosthenes, ubi sensisset iudices diligenter auscultantes, repente coepit a tribunalibus descedere. Porro revocatus a iudicibus, rogatusque, ut reliquum fabulae pergeret enarrare: De asini, inquit, umbra libet audire, viri causam de vita periclitantis audire gravamini.
Since I've given a translation of the Greek version into English, I'm not going to translate this version by Erasmus - the English translation of the Greek gives you a good guide for what to expect in Erasmus's version of the story, so just read through it, and see how it strikes you. I've been translating the Latin fables that I publish in this blog into English, but I always feel a bit bad about that. After all, the goal of learning Latin is to be able to read in Latin, and to enjoy the Latin, without straining all the time to translate into English. Erasmus's Latin is always a pleasure to read - so, enjoy!

So, hoping you found some kind of shade from the sun today without having to fight for it, here is today's proverb read out loud:

1094. De asini umbra disputant.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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