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Of The Most Excellent Men
by [?]

If I should be asked my choice among all the men who have come to my knowledge, I should make answer, that methinks I find three more excellent than all the rest.

One of them Homer: not that Aristotle and Varro, for example, were not, peradventure, as learned as he; nor that possibly Virgil was not equal to him in his own art, which I leave to be determined by such as know them both. I who, for my part, understand but one of them, can only say this, according to my poor talent, that I do not believe the Muses themselves could ever go beyond the Roman:

“Tale facit carmen docta testudine, quale
Cynthius impositis temperat articulis:”

[“He plays on his learned lute a verse such as
Cynthian Apollo modulates with his imposed fingers.”
–Propertius, ii. 34, 79.]

and yet in this judgment we are not to forget that it is chiefly from Homer that Virgil derives his excellence, that he is guide and teacher; and that one touch of the Iliad has supplied him with body and matter out of which to compose his great and divine AEneid. I do not reckon upon that, but mix several other circumstances that render to me this poet admirable, even as it were above human condition. And, in truth, I often wonder that he who has produced, and, by his authority, given reputation in the world to so many deities, was not deified himself. Being blind and poor, living before the sciences were reduced into rule and certain observation, he was so well acquainted with them, that all those who have since taken upon them to establish governments, to carry on wars, and to write either of religion or philosophy, of what sect soever, or of the arts, have made use of him as of a most perfect instructor in the knowledge of all things, and of his books as of a treasury of all sorts of learning:

“Qui, quid sit pulcrum, quid turpe, quid utile, quid non,
Planius ac melius Chrysippo et Crantore dicit:”

[“Who tells us what is good, what evil, what useful, what
not, more clearly and better than Chrysippus and Crantor?”
–Horace, Ep., i. 2, 3.]

and as this other says,

“A quo, ceu fonte perenni,
Vatum Pieriis ora rigantur aquis”

[“From which, as from a perennial spring, the lips of
the poets are moistened by Pierian waters.”
–Ovid, Amoy., iii. 9, 25.]

and the other,

“Adde Heliconiadum comites, quorum unus Homerus
Sceptra potitus;”

[“Add the companions of the Muses, whose sceptre Homer
has solely obtained.”–Lucretius, iii. 1050.]

and the other:

“Cujusque ex ore profusos
Omnis posteritas latices in carmina duxit,
Amnemque in tenues ausa est deducere rivos.
Unius foecunda bonis.”

[“From whose mouth all posterity has drawn out copious
streams of verse, and has made bold to turn the mighty
river into its little rivulets, fertile in the property
of one man.”
–Manilius, Astyon., ii. 8.]

‘Tis contrary to the order of nature that he has made the most excellent production that can possibly be; for the ordinary birth of things is imperfect; they thrive and gather strength by growing, whereas he rendered the infancy of poesy and several other sciences mature, perfect, and accomplished at first. And for this reason he may be called the first and the last of the poets, according to the fine testimony antiquity has left us of him, “that as there was none before him whom he could imitate, so there has been none since that could imitate him.” His words, according to Aristotle, are the only words that have motion and action, the only substantial words. Alexander the Great, having found a rich cabinet amongst Darius’ spoils, gave order it should be reserved for him to keep his Homer in, saying: that he was the best and most faithful counsellor he had in his military affairs. For the same reason it was that Cleomenes, the son of Anaxandridas, said that he was the poet of the Lacedaemonians, for that he was an excellent master for the discipline of war. This singular and particular commendation is also left of him in the judgment of Plutarch, that he is the only author in the world that never glutted nor disgusted his readers, presenting himself always another thing, and always flourishing in some new grace. That wanton Alcibiades, having asked one, who pretended to learning, for a book of Homer, gave him a box of the ear because he had none, which he thought as scandalous as we should if we found one of our priests without a Breviary. Xenophanes complained one day to Hiero, the tyrant of Syracuse, that he was so poor he had not wherewithal to maintain two servants. “What!” replied he, “Homer, who was much poorer than thou art, keeps above ten thousand, though he is dead.” What did Panaetius leave unsaid when he called Plato the Homer of the philosophers? Besides what glory can be compared to his? Nothing is so frequent in men’s mouths as his name and works, nothing so known and received as Troy, Helen, and the war about her, when perhaps there was never any such thing. Our children are still called by names that he invented above three thousand years ago; who does not know Hector and Achilles? Not only some particular families, but most nations also seek their origin in his inventions. Mohammed, the second of that name, emperor of the Turks, writing to our Pope Pius II., “I am astonished,” says he, “that the Italians should appear against me, considering that we have our common descent from the Trojans, and that it concerns me as well as it does them to revenge the blood of Hector upon the Greeks, whom they countenance against me.” Is it not a noble farce wherein kings, republics, and emperors have so many ages played their parts, and to which the vast universe serves for a theatre? Seven Grecian cities contended for his birth, so much honour even his obscurity helped him to!