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The Dicts and Sayings of Greek Philosophers in the Digital Age

Denis Searby

Sayings of various kinds attributed to Greek philosophers and other ancient celebrities circulated in oral and written form at least from classical times until late antiquity. These ancient Greek sayings were transmitted to the Middle Ages where they were recollected and reused in Greek, and translated, transformed and often transmogrified into Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Spanish, French, English and so on. This presentation summarizes my attempts to use digital tools to edit a corpus of clearly related, medieval collections of Greek sayings. It touches on the difficulties inherent in the material itself (textual fluidity, etc), whether edited digitally or not, as well as on the potential and the sometimes deceptive allure of digital solutions.

Relatively few Greek “gnomologies” have received comprehensive editions (but see Gerlach, Overwien, Searby), and this is especially true of the material described below. Yet textual material of this kind is a worthwhile object for textual editors, first of all, because it has a cultural, historical and even literary significance. It is a variegated assortment with bits and pieces to interest the medievalist as well as the classicist. It provides primary source material for the history of popular philosophy in general and of cynicism in particular as well as, to a lesser extent, of Byzantine educational practices. It is suitable for cross-cultural studies of both synchronic and diachronic scope. In fact it has been used in such studies, despite the lack of editions. The prospective editor must be aware of the potential scholarly use of his edition and make sure the presentation of the complex source material is clear, the internal cross-referencing accurate, the parallel references relevant and the indexing thorough in order to facilitate future scholarly research.

Apophthegmata et Gnomae Secundum Alphabetum (AGSA) is the collective title I have given to the gnomologies that form the focus of this case study. All of them share a one-letter deep alphabetical arrangement by author (i.e. the person to whom the saying is attributed) as well as a sufficient number of shared sayings to warrant identifying them as emanating from the same source(s). Though represented in late manuscripts, AGSA mostly derives from pre-Christian sources. Most of the persons cited are Greek philosophers, although there are also a number of apophthegms belonging to other famous authors and artists. The AGSA gnomologies usually have only brief texts ranging from one to five lines, with very few longer pieces. Often the individual sayings have a long history of transmission outside the collections themselves and an interest all their own.

The peculiar demands of editing the Greek gnomologies mostly derive from the fact that the most stable elements in the gnomological texts reside in the very point of the saying; among the more unstable elements (subject to indifferent variation), we find the words leading up to the “point” as well as the attributions of the sayings to various individuals. Similar problems may be encountered in other textual genres, such as collections of fables, proverbs and teaching materials in general.

I had the good fortune to make an initial attempt at a digital edition of this material under the auspices of the project Sharing Ancient Wisdoms (see SAWS homepage) within the EU partnership HERA from June 2010 to June 2013. The aim of SAWS was to use digital technology to develop ways to present Greek and Arabic wisdom literatures and provide a digital model of editing texts in related fields. The SAWS project resulted in a prototype edition of AGSA that can already be used by scholars. Through the Ars Edendi Programme at Stockholm University (see Ars Edendi homepage), I plan to develop the  prototype edition into a more functional edition ofthe Greek material stably housed at a research library.

At the end I offer brief reflections that may be transferrable to similar editorial situations.

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