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Context:

"was simply founded upon external beauty

the false image of corporal generation

for it could not ground this love upon the soul"

What is a more familiar phrase for corporal generation?

  • What poem is this from? (I assume it is a poem...) – J.R. Apr 1 '15 at 0:11
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's about interpreting poetry. Or at least, poetic phrasing. It's from The Complete Works of Michael de Montaigne, 1842 – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Apr 1 '15 at 1:21
  • @FumbleFingers It's not poetry. Thanks for finding the source. I'll put it in my answer. – Ben Kovitz Apr 1 '15 at 1:45
  • I recognised that after I'd closevoted, so I edited the auto-generated comment to give the source. I don't see the point of answering though - it's florid/archaic/poetic/ phrasing, however you look at it. Not remotely relevant to learning English, imho. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Apr 1 '15 at 3:11
  • ...I can't really be bothered to look long and hard, but the cited passage looks to me like a circumlocutory diatribe against homosexuality as practiced by the ancient Greeks. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Apr 1 '15 at 3:15
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The example comes from the following passage in the essay Of Friendship, by Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), as translated into English by William Hazlitt in about 1812, revising an earlier English translation by Charles Cotton in 1686:

"For what is the love of friendship? Why does no one love a deformed youth or a comely old man?" [That was a quotation from Cicero.] The very picture that the Academy presents of [pederasty in Ancient Greece] will not, as I conceive, contradict me when I say that the first fury inspired by the son of Venus, in the heart of the lover, upon the sight of blooming youth, to which they allow all the insolent and passionate efforts that an immoderate ardour can produce, was simply founded upon an external beauty, the false image of corporal generation; for upon the soul it could not ground this love, the sight of which, as yet, lay concealed, but was now springing up, and not of maturity to blossom.

In simpler language, the very long sentence means: The erotic love of an older man for a teenage boy in ancient Greece was based only on the youth's external, visible beauty, not on his soul. Montaigne calls it a "false image of corporal generation" because it's based on sexual attraction but it doesn't produce children.

"Corporal" is an adjective for "the body". (The corresponding noun is "corpus".) "Generation" in this context means "coming into existence". "Corporal generation" means the biological process of reproduction and growth: how a new living being comes into existence. Corporal generation (génération corporelle in Montaigne's original French) was examined by Aristotle in ancient times. Modern science has an explanation, but back then it was mysterious: How does an interaction between the parents cause an entirely new living thing to come into existence, with a soul of its own, distinct from those of the parents? The concept has some importance for Christianity, because one of its central beliefs is that Jesus did not come into existence through corporal generation.

Some more-familiar terms for corporal generation are begetting and reproduction. "Begetting" is old-fashioned, but most fluent speakers today know it because "begat" appears many times in the King James Bible. "Corporal generation" is much more old-fashioned: it's really an old technical term from philosophy and religion, not known to most fluent speakers today. I doubt that it was well-known even in the 1500s (or in 1812). The plain word today is simply "reproduction".


Finding the date of Hazlitt's translation was not easy. Nearly every source I found on the Internet was provably wrong: they gave dates after Hazlitt's death. This source is the most credible that I could find.

  • +1 to the research and effort taken to produce this answer! Very impressive. – Mamta D Apr 1 '15 at 4:58
  • I'll add this complimentary comment because you've obviously spent time on this, and it's interesting to me personally (I thought last night that the text seemed much more convoluted and archaic than I'd have expected by mid C19, but didn't even realise it was essentially a much earlier translation). Whatever - I won't upvote because I think neither the question nor the answer should be on ELL in the first place. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Apr 1 '15 at 12:35
  • @FumbleFingers While googling this morning, I found some mentions that the paragraph might have been deliberately circumlocutory: written confusingly in order to get around censors. – Ben Kovitz Apr 1 '15 at 13:08
  • BTW, the hardest part of researching this was finding when Hazlitt wrote his translation. The second-hardest was finding the antecedent of "it". I don't think "they" even has an antecedent. – Ben Kovitz Apr 1 '15 at 13:10
  • @Ben: I don't know that it's exactly "getting round the censors" (who might they have been, originally in France, or much later in England?). But in my earlier comment I certainly meant deliberately circumlocutory. I don't know, but I'm guessing de Montaigne and/or intervening translators either strongly disapproved or felt it was "de rigeur" to appear condemnatory of master/boy sexuality as was considered "normal" in ancient Greece. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Apr 1 '15 at 13:54

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