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Varro on the Kinship of Things and of Words

David Blank

In this paper I argue that Varro’s highest form of etymology traces the origins of words coined by Rome’s kings to reconstruct their understanding of the archaic Rome they established. Further, Varro’s ‘kinship’ metaphor for the relations of words and of the things they name derives from Chrysippus and the Stoic theory of ‘appropriation’.

                  Books 5-7 of Varro’s De Lingua Latina propose to study ‘from which things (res) words in the Latin language, both those in common usage and those in the poets, were imposed’ (5.1). Every word has two naturae: those of the things on which and from which it is imposed. The former is the province of etymology (1-2), and Varro divides its explanation of individual words into four ‘steps’ (gradus) (7). The lowest, which even ordinary people understand, analyzes common compounds (viocurus ‘road-overseer’); the next, ‘to which old-time grammar descended’, explains poetic neologisms (cf. Pacuvius’ denominative verb clupeat, ‘shields’); the third, ‘to which philosophy has risen and arrived, has begun to open up words in common usage’.

                  The fourth level of etymology (8) clearly interests Varro most, as a student of early Rome’s customs and institutions, although text and interpretation are controversial. It is associated with royal authority (cf. regis): Varro insists (9) that he cannot study poetic inventions but not those of King Latinus, since he is pleased by the former, but uses the latter, and the words he has inherited from King Romulus are more ‘his own’ than those left him by the poet Livius. It is difficult: here there is no predecessor or teacher for Varro to emulate or learn from, as he could from grammarians like Aristophanes at stage 2 and philosophers like the Stoic Cleanthes at stage 3; Varro even admits that he may not reach it at all. So what kind of etymology, surpassing both the philosophical and the grammatical varieties, can Varro be contemplating?

                  By mentioning only step 4’s creators, the kings, not prior interpreters or teachers, Varro indicates that he must invent this method of etymology, and that this is the hardest of the four levels. But it is not necessarily the one that goes deepest. If the corrupt text perhaps alludes to a ‘sanctuary’ (adytum) and to ‘mysteries’ (initia), these are not necessarily those of nature and ultimate reality (contra, e.g., Dahlmann 1932, Boyancé 1975), being rather associated with the kings, and Varro warns us he may not achieve scientific knowledge (scientia), only conjecture, like a physician.

                  What method does Varro construct for stage 4? His metaphor of kinship (5.1 cognatio, societas; 8.4 agnationes ac gentilitates; cf. Blank 2008) for the interrelations of words traces back to Chrysippus, who describes certain expressions and gestures as being used ‘appropriately’ (οἰκείως) to the things they denote (Galen, PHP 2.2.10, 3.5.4, etc.), and I bring this relation within the Stoic theory of ‘appropriation’ (οἰκείωσις), an ethically fundamental process by which we naturally attach things and persons to ourselves; indeed, the self is the first thing to which nature ‘appropriates’ us. This process was manifested in the imposition of words by our distant ancestors, whose untutored insight into the nature and interrelations of things in the world can be compared with—even supplement—today’s philosophical knowledge. Varro proposes to apply this kind of hermeneutic/heuristic analysis to the words bequeathed by the kings of old. From a word for one thing a related word for a different but related thing is constructed by an imposer’s voluntas. If this ‘will’ is guided by rational understanding of the nature of things and their interrelations—that is, by ratio and natura—, the interrelations of the words mirror those of the things, and examination of the former will be a way to rediscover the latter, to reconstruct the imposers’ understanding of them, and even to revive it. The world to be rediscovered by Varro is that of archaic Rome.

Session/Panel Title

Varro, De Lingua Latina, and Intellectual Culture in the Late Republic

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