“Adopt the attitude of the octopus*”


Πολύποδος νόον ϊσχε    Polypi mentem obtine

The Adages of Erasmus, ed. & tr. William Barker, Toronto, 2001, I i 93, pp.41-5.

Cephalopods are like chameleons, but more so. Not only can they match the color of the surface they’re seen against, but in order to blend into the background they can even match complex and rippling patterns of color and texture. For this reason Victor Hugo describes the octopus as a “hypocrite”, since it pretends to be something that it’s not. (Here, an octopus pretends to be a rock). Erasmus, drawing on classical Mediterranean sources, also notes this capacity, but he treats it much more favorably. Whether this difference is Northern vs. Southern, pagan vs. Christian, or post- vs. pre-Reformation I do not know, but it strikes me as something worth looking into. It may merely be that in the Mediterranean cephalopods are just more familiar and ordinary than they are in the North of France.

Erasmus’s treatment of this proverb is fuller and in general more favorable than those given to other similar proverbs dealing with changeability and disguise: the chameleon (III iv 1 pp.273-4 ), the fox (as opposed to the hedgehog: I v 18, pp. 87-9), and Proteus (II ii 74, pp. 167-8). In ascending order of dignity, the chameleon is said to represent a dissembler, or  one who is inconstant and adopts any appearance to suit the time. The fox, with his many tricks, is held to be inferior to the hedgehog with his single very effective trick. The versatility and resourcefulness of the divine shapeshifter Proteus (twisting and turning…. hard to pin down…. a cunning fellow and jack of all trades) are treated with a degree of respect, though he hardly seems like someone to rely on. In all of these cases, dissembling and transformation are regarded as defensive tricks primarily useful for someone trying to escape enemies or to keep from being brought under control or called to account.

In polypi mentem obtine , however, octopodal changeability, disguise, opportunism and (as Hugo would say) “hypocrisy” are treated favorably:

The proverb is taken from Theognis, whose couplet about the polyp [octopus] exists today:

Adopt the attitude of the many-colored polyp;

Moving toward a rock, it straightway takes its hue.

This advises us to suit ourselves to every contingency of life, acting the part of Proteus and changing ourselves into any form as the situation demands….On the contrary there is a sensible attitude which makes men comply on occasion with a different mode of conduct, to avoid being disliked or being able to be of use, or else for the sake of rescuing themselves or their households from great dangers.

A further such saying or tag in this book is omnium horarum homo (“a man for all seasons [hours]”: I iii 86, pp 70-1), and it was Erasmus who assigned this epithet to his friend Sir Thomas More. What he meant by it was that More could deal with different sorts of people in various different contexts and was able to be serious when people were being serious and  fun when people were having fun. He contrasted those who have their own code of behavior and do not find it easy to live with anyone else, and made it clear that he felt that the more affable man was superior.

The above may lead one to suspect that Erasmus was an unprincipled opportunist who sucked up to his patrons and went whichever way the wind blew, but that is not the case. In fact, he often spoke out forthrightly against two of the leading powers of his day — the philosophers and theologians of the Sorbonne with their logic-chopping and venality, and the princes and noblemen with their interminable, pointless wars. Furthermore, in his youth he had not been a man for all seasons at all, but one of the stubborn, solitary types that he now warns against:

Indeed, if I had responded to the favors of the important men who had  begun to embrace me I would have made something of himself in literature. But an excessive love of independence caused me to wrestle for a long time with treacherous friends and persistent poverty (p. 383).

Proverbs themselves have the inconstancy Erasmus recommends for a man of the world, at least in  later life, and the five inconstancy maxims we have here do not agree with one another. In two of them, inconstancy is treated mostly as a vice or weakness, in two of them it’s regarded as a strength, resource, or virtue,  and the Proteus maxim is ambiguous. So what we need, then, is an additional maxim telling us when to apply each of these maxims, and one is probably there, along with its opposite, somewhere in the book…. ad infinitum.

The multi-layered inconsistency of proverbial wisdom and folk knowledge has led moderns to try to devise unambiguous sets of rules which can be rigorously applied everywhere, without exceptions, but these attempts have not always been successful, and there may be systematic reasons why in some cases they cannot be successful.

It is my opinion, anyway, that if economists, instead of trying to produce rigorous formal structures and a hard science of economics, had understood their science to be practical and proverbial in nature — as a tool box or bag of tricks usable in various sorts of situations — we could have escaped the present, disastrous “Great Moderation”, which they told us would be a Big Rock Candy Mountain utopia of constantly increasing prosperity, but which seems more likely to turn out to be the Second Great Depression.

* Octopus (pl. octopuses or octopodes) :  Greek polypodos, Latin polypi, French poulpe. “Octopus” is a Greek word borrowed into Renaissance Latin and then into English — a late coinage, and not the classical Greek or Latin name for this beast.

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 2:08 pm  Comments (3)  

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  1. I immediately linked Erasmus’ comment to St Paul (1 Corinthians 9:22): ‘I have become all things to all men’. There’s a long Christian tradition of adaptability in minor matters in order to convey a more important truth.

  2. Toulmin’s “The Abuse of Casuistry” rehabilitates the Catholic tradition of “getting down to cases” which looked at the situational specifics moderating the application of basic rules.

    I don’t have chapter and verse, but I suspect that Erasmus ridiculed Catholic casuistry, even though here he seems to be recommending the same kind of adaptability. (Here was talking about a limited case of it, adaptation to imperfect authority figures and benefactors, but he was generally in favor of flexibility and an inclusive, non-judgmental attitude).

    The difference probably was that the scholastic casuists developed what they were doing in a cut and dried way which was often or usually self-serving. Erasmus also did not accept the authority of scholastics to do the casuistry for everyone.

    I think of the Northern Renaissance and its humanism as a sort of window of opportunity when many things were possible, a window closed by the Reformation and counter-Reformation. Some of the now possibilities were developed and some were crushed. I am especially interested in the suppressed or forgotten possibilities, proposed beginnings that were cut off.

    I do not actually think that the narrowing could be avoided; the whole thing about possibilities is that there are too many of them. Periods of openness and experimentation more or less inevitably lead to a narrowing (proliferation and decimation.) “Anything goes” is not a viable organizational principle.

    I think of the present age as being imprisoned by a scientistic scholasticism claiming scientific warrant for non-scientific discourses mimicking science. Basically, scientific style is enforced whether or not actual science is available.

  3. With an eye towards more popular culture: I wonder whether Erasmus might esteem the T-800 model Terminator less than the T-1000 (where the T-1000 would be the Proteus), or not (where the T-800 might be the hedgehog with the single trick: be tough as nails). I think they went in the wrong direction with the T-X, which might as well be a cephalopod with a skeleton. The T-1000’s successor should have prominently involved energy, or holography, somehow, or been a nanobot- or lazer-based monster (the T-800 already used nanotechnology to maintain its organic skin covering, surely nanobots can do more). I haven’t watched anything past T3, however, so I don’t know what/if new developments are made.

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