Iliad quote: how does it go in a good translation?
July 21, 2022 7:35 PM   Subscribe

"Live honorably. Never do in secret what you wouldn't do in private. Do the right thing for the right reasons. That’s a translation, but I just quoted the Iliad to you." This is a paraphrase. What is the original, from a good English translation?

From this EXCELLENT front-page post, New York Antiquities Theft Task Force (go read it! it's amazing!), Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the New York Antiquities Theft Task Force, says those words. It's clearly a bit of a paraphrase, and it sounds a little bit mangled (understandable; I personally couldn't quote the Iliad at all, much less perfectly).

Does anyone know the passage he was quoting, and how it's written in a respected English translation?

posted by kristi to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
“Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard. / We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings. / A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much.”
posted by miles1972 at 11:08 PM on July 21, 2022

It sounds like a garbled version of a quote usually attributed to Marcus Aurelius:

"Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors."

However, I'm not sure if even that version is authentic. If you search it, it just leads to a lot of self-help-y and inspirational books and pages. It doesn't appear in my version of The Meditations (the George Long translation). Maybe it comes from some newer translation, but I'm not sure what part it would be.

Maybe it's someone's idea of summarizing this passage?:
[T]hou mayest always speak the truth freely and without disguise, and do the things which are agreeable to law and according to the worth of each. And let neither another man's wickedness hinder thee, nor opinion nor voice, nor yet the sensations of the poor flesh which has grown about thee[...] then thou wilt be a man worthy of the universe which has produced thee
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:20 AM on July 22, 2022

I got the impression he is summarizing the entire Iliad in just a few pithy sentences. That is, it's not a translation of a particular passage.
posted by wisekaren at 5:32 AM on July 22, 2022 [4 favorites]

The tone of this sounds like less of an actual Iliad quote to me and more of a bit of puffery - like someone talking in the same style might say "Don't be a dick, someone is watching. There, now I've taught you the Bible."

The Iliad may well be part of the character's inspiration for the advice, or maybe he's using it as shorthand for "the classics" or "a classical education", but I would not assume it's a specific passage or quote.
posted by Lady Li at 5:39 AM on July 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Live honorably. Never do in secret what you wouldn't do in private. Do the right thing for the right reasons.

Taking that lesson from the Iliad is like watching Starship Troopers and taking the lesson that "Violence is the Ultimate Authority," when the intended lesson is "Fascists have only one answer to every problem: violence." The Iliad is sort of similar in that on the surface it's the story of staying the course and remaining true to yourself, but just underneath is the message that warfare is madness and that no matter whether you are honorable or not, the hammer of fate will fall on you regardless.

But yeah, he could have said, "The Bible" or "Dante" and it would have made a lot more sense.
posted by jabah at 7:02 AM on July 22, 2022 [6 favorites]

It also occurs to me that "right thing, right reasons" is sometimes offered as a summary of some of Aristotle's ethical advice. That at least brings you down to B.C.
posted by praemunire at 8:30 AM on July 22, 2022

I agree this is highly unlikely to be in the Iliad, in part because, as said above, it doesn’t seem to be consistent with values of the time expressed in the Iliad. It sounds more Roman than Greek. My off-the-top-of-the-head best good-faith suggestion is that he may be referring to something in the Aeneid which is sort-of-a-continuation of the Iliad and contains a main character from the Iliad but written by a Roman for the specific purpose of pontificating about Roman morals, particularly pietas, which the above stated quote seems to fall into.
posted by corb at 9:04 AM on July 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think the previous two sentences in the interview are helpful context - There's timeless examples, timeless models of how to engage in a life well lived. And sure, they've become cliches, but they’re cliches because they’re true. He is talking about a whole body of ancient literature, then riffing on some life lessons you might take from them, then attributing those lessons to the Iliad. I agree it's not a literal translation and it is difficult to find specific passages that correspond to those ideas. They're also so broad that they raise other questions: I would be more inclined to read the Iliad as about people struggling with what it means to "live honorably" or "do the right thing" than to present a clear idea of what honor means.

He also talks about his idea of honor in a way that makes me think of Aristotle - honor "as a form of mental conditioning" analogous to physical conditioning.

Some quotes from other interviews he's given show that he sees some idea of honor as very central to the Iliad, and that he is likely expressing the idea of "live honorably" as a summary or moral of the Iliad rather than quoting a particular line.

From a profile in the Atlantic: When Bogdanos was 12, his mother, Claire, a waitress at the family restaurant, gave him a copy of The Iliad to stoke his pride in his Greek heritage. During his parents’ sometimes violent fights, he would take Homer’s epic into a closet and read it obsessively, electrified by Achilles’s rageful war on Troy. When I asked why the tale so moved him, he said, "Everyone acted with honor."

From a profile in Midland Daily News: "It was `The Iliad' which did it," he says. "`The Odyssey' is the greatest adventure story ever told, but there is no comparison to the sense of honor and duty in `The Iliad'."
posted by earth by april at 1:38 PM on July 22, 2022

I was going to say that it sounds a bit like Aristotle. And the story of Gyges' ring. Plato touches in it a bit with his bit in The Republic of having the office of ruling or making laws be something that is not rewarded or it will be done (as we have seen...) for the wrong reason.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 6:14 PM on July 22, 2022

I was going to say it sounds like Seneca, or Lucretius.

Or maybe a speech in Euripides.

But Aristotle or the Aeneid would fit too.

he said, "Everyone acted with honor."

Did we read the same Iliad?
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:51 PM on July 22, 2022 [3 favorites]

Did we read the same Iliad?

Radically different form of honor, but he doesn't realize it. This is a common pitfall of the gonna-guide-my-life-by-great-quotes-I-saw-somewhere-and-wrote-down approach.
posted by praemunire at 8:33 PM on July 22, 2022 [3 favorites]

When I asked why the tale so moved him, he said, "Everyone acted with honor."

The story begins with two men arguing over who gets to rape whom, and mostly as a matter of status. Sigh.
posted by praemunire at 8:35 PM on July 22, 2022 [5 favorites]

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