(Rodrigo Peñaloza, 15-April-2017)

In the purest renaissancist spirit, Andrea Alciato (1492–1550), in his Emblematum Liber, goes back to the classical tradition of epigrammatic poems (or emblems) associated with allegories, like Aesopus. From his 252 emblems, here is emblem 84, “Avarice”:

(Andrea Alciato)

Heu miser, in mediis sitiens stat Tantalus undis,
Et poma esuriens proxima habere nequit.
Nomine mutato, de te id dicetur, avare,
Qui, quasi non habeas, non frueris quod habes.

which is here translated as:

(Andrea Alciato)

Hei, miser, thirsty in the middle of waves, there is Tantalus
And, hungry, the nearby fruits he cannot grasp.
With his name changed, this is what is told of you, oh niggard,
that, as if you had nothing, you do not enjoy what you have.

Tantalus was a king who wanted to test the omniscience of gods by offering them the flesh of his own son in a banquet. As a punishment, he was sentenced to stand forever and ever in a pool of water beneath fruit trees of an abundant valley in the Tartarus, but unable to saciate his thirst and hunger. Whenever he tries to grasp a fruit or drink water, the fruit eludes his grasp and the water efflows from his hands and mouth. This is the Torment of Tantalus, the torment of wanting things that are close but never getting them. In the Chant XI:582–592 of the Odyssey, when Ulysses goes down to the Hades after the soul of Tiresias, he finds the ghosts of many heroes and mythological evildoers. Among them is Tantalus.

The word avarice comes from the verb aveō, which means to want eagerly, to seek rapaciously, to lust after (actually, “I seek rapaciously”, “I lust after”, since the Latin verb is identified by the first person singular of the present tense of the indicative mood, not the infinitive).

By bringing back the myth of Tantalus, Alciato alerts us that, when we forget to find pleasure in what we have and instead spend our energy with things we do not or cannot have, we become poorer than we really are.

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