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How long will you wait to think yourself worthy of the highest and transgress in nothing the clear pronouncement of reason? You have received the precepts which you ought to accept, and you have accepted them. Why then do you still wait for a master, that you may delay the amendment of yourself till he comes? You are a youth no longer, you are now a full-grown man. If now you are careless and indolent and are always putting off, fixing one day after another as the limit when you mean to begin attending to yourself, then, living or dying, you will make no progress but will continue unawares in ignorance. Therefore make up your mind before it is too late to live as one who is mature and proficient, and let all that seems best to you be a law that you cannot transgress. And if you encounter anything troublesome or pleasant or glorious or inglorious, remember that the hour of struggle is come, the Olympic contest is here and you may put off no longer, and that one day and one action determines whether the progress you have achieved is lost or maintained. This was how Socrates attained perfection, paying heed to nothing but reason, in all that he encountered. And if you are not yet Socrates, yet ought you to live as one who would wish to be a Socrates.

A passage of stoicism. The grammar here seems kind of weird to me. What does it mean?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Keep in mind that this is a translation of a work written in the Greek language of almost 2,000 years ago into the English language of more than 250 years ago. You must not expect it to conform to the idiom of Present-Day English.

But although the diction of this passage is somewhat stiffer and more stately than we expect today, the syntax is entirely contemporary. Let's take it step by step:

How long will you wait to
 1. think yourself worthy of the highest
  and
 2. transgress in nothing the clear pronouncement of reason?

Think and transgress are both governed by the infinitive ‘infinitive marker’ to, so both are complements of wait, exactly like:

How long will you wait to
 1. do what your mother told you   and
 2. clean up your room?

The passage in question, then, is:

to transgress in nothing the clear pronouncement of reason.

  • To transgress, as you no doubt know from looking it up, means to violate or to disobey
  • in nothing is a somewhat antiquated way of saying in no respect or in no matter; it is an adverbial modifying transgress, placed after transgress because (regardless of how you feel about splitting infinitives) this is an awkward phrase to put before transgress. A more contemporary way of saying to transgress in nothing might be “to completely avoid transgressing”—or “disobeying”
  • the clear pronouncement of reason is the Direct Object of the verb transgress. A pronouncement, as you know, means a formal command or order; and the pronouncement of reason is the order which reason gives you:

The entire clause thus means:

... to completely avoid disobeying the clear order reason gives you.

In other words: What are you waiting for? Believe that you can be among the highest, and do what reason clearly tells you you must do.

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Compositionally:

  • transgress: infringe or go beyond the bounds of
  • in nothing
  • the clear pronouncement of reason: the clear declaration of reason

That is, in nothing (in no matter, situation, circumstance, etc) should you fail to remain within the clear declaration of reason.

Or, always remain logical/reasonable when you speak.

It's certainly a bit difficult to understand, since the circumstance (in nothing) has been shifted to the center of the clause, rather than being at the beginning or end of it as it usually is.

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This is some archaic text! The phrase in bold means, in the context of the sentence, "be always logical". The component phrases: "transgress in nothing" means "let nothing you do go against", while "the clear pronouncement of reason" means "the result of logical thought".

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