As I mentioned a few years back, I spent a summer learning Latin with my older boy. One of the phrases ground into my mind, vestis virum reddit, was memorable because it was particularly difficult -- you trill "R"s Latin, as in Russian, and I've always struggled to get my mouth around that.
It was also a useful phrase, meaning, "clothes make the man." Though it seems no longer true nowadays, as workers troop downtown in flip flops and cargo shorts and the president wears the same tie, held in place with Scotch tape. Maybe it should be pecunia virum reddit, or "money makes the man."
But then there is no need to create a new aphorism, as there is already a very suitable line in Petronius' Satyricon, "sola pecunia regnat"—"money alone rules." That's all too true today.
Getting back to clothes. vestis virum reddit — the "v" is pronounced like a "w," by the way: "westus wirum" — is s a medieval proverb. Erasamus put into Quintilian's mouth,* and many sources cite him. Even though what Quintilian actually writes, "To dress within the formal limits and with an air gives men, as the Greek line testifies, authority" referring, scholars believe, to a vague line in the Odyssey that doesn't mention clothes at all.
A reminder that history tends to improve upon aphorisms. Leo Durocher didn't say, "Nice guys finish last." He ranted about nice guys ending up in seventh place and helpful sports writers did the rest.
I recount this because the New York Times website on Saturday offered content "Paid for and Posted by" Will, a new TNT series, or rather whatever PR sorts TNT hired to cobble together "Turns of Phrase," a colorful, flashy, but flawed collection of seven "phrases that first appeared in Shakespeare's works and continue to resonate in modern times."
The third phrase is "Clothes make the man," which is odd, because the phrase neither appears in Shakespeare nor resonates in modern times. The line the PR puffery cites is "the apparel oft proclaims the man," in Hamlet, noting it was considered ironic even then.
An advertisement, I know. No point in complaining to the Times, which didn't write it, and TNT obviously doesn't care—their point is to publicize their TV show, which they've done, and in that sense, since their error sparked that, all's the better. Even wrong, it's high-intellect for a TV show ad.
So why think about it at all? The piece is ultimately inoffensive, I suppose, and credit should be given for the various barbs it takes at a certain president. But that president is known for his casual relationship with truth. And there is something unsettling about sniping at a man while committing the very sin he so manifests. Untruths must be pointed out, or else truth suffers — I just wrote that, but would never claim that it isn't also tucked into some Loeb Classic somewhere without looking good and hard for it. I just figure someone who cares for facts should note the Grey Lady taking money and promoting poor scholarship. The media isn't valuable because it is never wrong; the media is valuable because it acknowledges when it is wrong, and if the Times won't, I will do it for them.
* According to the very useful "The Adages of Erasmus" edited by William Barker (University of Toronto Press: 2001)