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Juvenal-On Human Sympathy

An artist’s view of Juvenal, from of the cover of Ernesto Pellechia’s book, a study of Juvenal’s ‘Satires’, published by the city of Aquino in 2017.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Juvenal’s ‘Satires’, translated by A.S. Kline. At the end of the fifteenth satire (from §  XV-131 to174), Juvenal ‘gives a respite from the ridicule of folly and vice‘ (Niall Rudd, ‘Satura before Horace’ opening paragraph) and weaves an elevated contemplation were he bemoans after what humanity has lost, our ability for kindness and empathy, what the above mentioned great Latinist would call: ‘Human Sympathy‘.


By her gift of tears, Nature acknowledges she has granted human beings compassionate hearts: it’s the finest element of our sensibility. And so she causes us to weep for the ward, who with long Childish hair, hiding a face wet with tears, rendering its sex indeterminate, has summoned a defrauder to court.

Nature demands we sigh, when we meet the funeral cortege of a girl fated never to marry, or attend an infant’s burial, one too young for the pyre. Who that is good, and worthy of the mysteries, and wishes to live like a priest of Ceres, can treat others’ ills as alien to themselves? This is what separates us from the dumb herd, and thus we alone are granted abilities worthy to be revered, fit for the gods; and equipped for artistic practice and creation; we alone exhibit a sensibility inspired by the high heavens above, and lacking in those with faces bowed towards the earth.

When the world began, what fashioned us mutually only granted them so much mind, us intellect, so that mutual empathy would drive it to seek and offer help; draw scattered individuals into community; migrate from the ancient forests, leave the woods our ancestors inhabited; build houses, and join another roof to our own hearths; so that, thanks to our neighbour’s threshold, the mutual confidence achieved would render both our sleep secure; protect with our weapons the fellow citizen who staggers from some deep wound, or has fallen to the ground; give the common bugle-cry, as a signal; be defended by the same turrets; our gates locked by a single key.

Yet now there is more harmony among snakes. The wild beast spares its relatives with similar markings. When does a stronger lion take the life of a weaker? Where does a wild boar die at the tusks of a greater? The Indian tiger lives in perfect peace with the fierce tigress, and savage bears live together in harmony. Yet it proves not enough for human beings to beat out lethal steel on the inauspicious anvil, outdoing the first smiths who spent their hours forging rakes and hoes, mattocks, and ploughshares, men lacking the method for making swords. The people we have cast our eyes on are those for whom killing others is insufficient to quench their anger, those who think faces, arms, and torsos a source of food. What would Pythagoras say? Would he not flee such horrors, he who, not only abstained from animal flesh as if it were human, but even from certain varieties of bean!’


Latin original

mollissima corda
humano generi dare se natura fatetur,
quae lacrimas dedit. haec nostri pars optima sensus.
plorare ergo iubet causam dicentis amici
squaloremque rei, pupillum ad iura uocantem               135
circumscriptorem, cuius manantia fletu
ora puellares faciunt incerta capilli.
naturae imperio gemimus, cum funus adultae
uirginis occurrit uel terra clauditur infans
et minor igne rogi. quis enim bonus et face dignus               140
arcana, qualem Cereris uolt esse sacerdos,
ulla aliena sibi credit mala? separat hoc nos
a grege mutorum, atque ideo uenerabile soli
sortiti ingenium diuinorumque capaces
atque exercendis pariendisque artibus apti               145
sensum a caelesti demissum traximus arce,
cuius egent prona et terram spectantia. mundi
principio indulsit communis conditor illis
tantum animas, nobis animum quoque, mutuus ut nos
adfectus petere auxilium et praestare iuberet,               150
dispersos trahere in populum, migrare uetusto
de nemore et proauis habitatas linquere siluas,
aedificare domos, laribus coniungere nostris
tectum aliud, tutos uicino limine somnos
ut conlata daret fiducia, protegere armis               155
lapsum aut ingenti nutantem uolnere ciuem,
communi dare signa tuba, defendier isdem
turribus atque una portarum claue teneri.
sed iam serpentum maior concordia. parcit
cognatis maculis similis fera. quando leoni               160
fortior eripuit uitam leo? quo nemore umquam
expirauit aper maioris dentibus apri?
Indica tigris agit rabida cum tigride pacem
perpetuam, saeuis inter se conuenit ursis.
ast homini ferrum letale incude nefanda               165
produxisse parum est, cum rastra et sarcula tantum
adsueti coquere et marris ac uomere lassi
nescierint primi gladios extendere fabri.
aspicimus populos quorum non sufficit irae
occidisse aliquem, sed pectora, bracchia, uoltum               170
crediderint genus esse cibi. quid diceret ergo
uel quo non fugeret, si nunc haec monstra uideret
Pythagoras, cunctis animalibus abstinuit qui
tamquam homine et uentri indulsit non omne legumen?

Frontispiece from John Dryden, et al., The Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis: And of Aulus Persius Flaccus, 4th ed. (London, 1711).

More about Juvenal: 🌿 Full text of Juvenal’s ‘Satires’, as translated by A.S. Kline: 🌿 Latin original:
Juvenal-On Human Sympathy

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