Babies look like aliens.

An alien! It sucks its thumb!

For years now, since our first child was born, in fact, in fact probably longer than that, I’ve joked to my wife that all babies, unless one is related, look like aliens. As our own children have grown, I have confirmed this by looking at pictures of them as newborns and observing the surprise and spontaneous embarrassment I would feel at the recognition of even my own children as little alien-offspring, and the incongruity of holding them out to the world—as I surely did, since I certainly thought such was the case—as the most obviously adorable creature it would encounter today.

And all along my little bundle of joy looked like an alien! And everyone was just too polite to tell me!

This is from Synesius of Cyrene, who lived in the fourth century. He was a philosopher, and later became a bishop. It’s people like Synesius and Sidonius Apollinaris (in Gaul, in the next century) that make Ausonius of Bordeaux seem such an anomaly: the most educated man in a relatively out-of-the-way outpost of the empire, of above-average wealth, often became the bishop, especially when due to the failure of the civil government the bishop was asked to manage secular affairs (a trend which eventually led to the worst thing that ever happened for the Christian Churches, namely the assumption of temporal power).

But this did not happen in Ausonius’ case: he never became a bishop, even though he had risen to the highest posts in the imperial bureaucracy. He was prefect of Italy, quaestor (an office which in the later Empire was vastly more important than the office of the same name under the Republic), and consul. He was clearly the power behind the teenage emperor Gratian, as his relatives from Bordeaux populated the upper echelons of the government. Then Gratian died and he retired to Aquitaine and lived quite a while longer. I wonder who the bishop of Bordeaux was in the latter half of the fourth century.

I’ll have to look into this business.

Synesius is talking in this letter about works of literature, and expressing a sentiment which anyone who has shared his writing with others is likely to have felt.

“τὰς πιθήκους γάρ, φασιν, ἐπειδὰν τέκωσιν, ὥσπερ ἀγάλμασιν ἐνατενίζειν τοῖς βρέφεσιν, ἀγαμένας τοῦ κάλλους (οὕτως ἐστὶν ἡ φύσις φιλότεκνον), τὰ δὲ ἀλλήλων ὁρῶσιν ἅπερ ἔστι, πιθήκων παιδία. ἑτέροις οὖν ἐπιτρεπτέον ἐξετάζειν τὰ ἔκγονα· αἱ γὰρ εὔνοιαι δειναὶ δεκάσαι τὰς κρίσεις.”

“Apes, they say, when they bear young, look upon their babes as if upon glories, falling in love with their beauty (thus is nature a lover of its children), but they see those of others for what they are, the children of apes. So one’s offspring must be entrusted to others for evaluation; for the well-meaning are terribly good at biasing judgments.”

Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for not telling me that my babies look like aliens.

The aliens are attacking that man!



About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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