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To eat turtle or not to eat it.

A note to Juan de Borja, Empresas morales, 1.2

© Studiolum, 1-12-2004

At the beginning of his Empresas morales (1581 and 1680), Juan de Borja presents a turtle, with this explication:

Doing with indifference and tepidity that which everyone is obliged to do is a source from which there cannot flow but evil success; and we estimate the dangers deriving from this as being so great that we have to regard him who is lukewarm as worse than him who is cold: for it is undoubtedly much worse, and has worse consequences, to proceed with indifference and tepidity that which one has begun than leave off doing it altogether. This is taught to us in this impresa with the turtle and with the inscription AUT MULTUM, AUT NIHIL, that is, either much, or nothing; for they write that eating a little of the turtle is harmful, while much is useful. (Emblem 1.2)

Borja does not reveal his sources, but goes on with a moral and personal interpretation. But who are these of whom it is said "they write"? The Handbuch of Henkel-Schöne, which includes the first edition of Borja, in cols. 611-612 hints at Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 8.337b, and Zenobius 4.19.

Athenaeus only refers to the lost Adagia by Clearchus of Solos (a disciple of Aristotle in the fourth century BC), who says that this "aphorism" – in the Hippocratic sense – ultimately comes from a certain Terpsion.

Zenobius, for his part, does not appear in the text of Athenaeus, but only – albeit quoted word for word – in the exhaustive notes of Isaac Casaubon, who adds more than a thousand pages of commentary to the 812 original ones by Athenaeus. The Sophist Zenobius, in his collection composed at the beginning of the second century, also refers to Terpsion.

However, a subsequent search between the adages of Erasmus, in the original Greek form, gives us the sentence "Oportet testudinis carnes aut edere, aut non edere" (1.10.60). Here we find the already known references both to Terpsion and to Athenaeus. Nevertheless, we cannot find Zenobius – whom Erasmus constantly and incorrectly calls Zenodotus, and whom he only quotes when he does not find a stronger authority. And besides, we suspect another source that Erasmus used without naming: Michael Apostolius.

In fact, Michael Apostolius in his Paroemiae limits himself to quoting almost verbatim the entry η 85 of the Lexicon of Suda, where this proverb is explained. The only difference in contrast to Suda is that he finally adds "this is applied to those who, while despising military service, nevertheless serve in the army". It is exactly this phrase that finds its echo in Erasmus: "perinde quasi dicas: aut bellandum est, aut non bellandum..." Erasmus fully utilized the collection of Apostolius, but he dissimulated or abjured having done so, perhaps because of its recent, fifteenth-century, origins. He admits to having used it only a dozen times, always qualifying him more or less in this vein: "...suspicor ab Apostolio e vulgi fece haustum". Here he did again exactly so.

Anyway, the geniality of Erasmus consists in the verbal pirouette, that is, the association of the flesh of the turtle, which to be useful has to be eaten in abundance or not to be eaten at all, according to the most authoritative medical sources, with the widely known sentence of Apocalypse 3.16: "So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth." And this must be the direct source of Borja, who in the rest of his exegesis completely absorbs it both in the moral discourse and the symbolic mechanism of his Empresas morales.

After Erasmus, the images and sources married by him continue a common life in works as influential as that of Picinelli, who already takes this material "ready-made", enriches it by new examples of its concrete utilization in personal imprese, and embellishes it, ingeniously associating the quotation from the Apocalypse with that from the Gospel of Matthew (5.6).


Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 8.3 (337b) (Latin translation by Jacob Dalechamps in the edition by Isaac Casaubon, Lyon 1657):

Clearchus in opere suo Adagiorum, Archestrati doctorem fuisse Terpsionem inquit, qui Gastrologiam primus scripsit, & discipulis, quibus abstinendum sit eduliis, praecepit: eundemque extempore dixisse,

Testudinem aut comedendam, aut non comedendam,

quod alij sic efferunt:

Testudinis carnem aut edendam esse, aut non edendam.

Isaac Casaubon, Animadversiones in Athenaei Deipnosophistas, cap. 8.3. Lyon 1657, pp. 585-586:

ἀπεσχε διακέναι τε τὸν τερψίωνα καὶ περὶ τῆς χελώνης ἢ φαγεῖν, ἢ μὴ φαγεῖν. Explicatur hoc prouerbium ŕ Zenobio, & eius auctor Terpsion dicitur etiam illi. Apponam eius verba & simul emendabo. ῍Η δεῖ χελώνης κρέα φαγεῖν ἢ μὴ φαγεῖν. Τῆς χελώνης ὀλίγα κρέα βρωθέντα στρόφους ποιεῖ, πολλὰ δὲ καθαίρει, ὅθεν ἡ παροιμία. ἕτεροι δὲ ἐπὶ τῶν ἀρχομένων ὁρμᾶν ἐπὶ τι, στραγγεθομένων δὲ, φασὶ δὲ αὐτὴν τερθίωνος εἶναι. Testudinis carnes si intra modum edantur generant tormina: si maiora copia, purgant, vnde natum prouerbium, Testudinis carnes aut comedere oportet, aut non comedere. Alij putant dici de iis, qui magno impetu rem aliquam inchoarunt, sed postea languidos se praebent. auctor dicitur esse Terpsio.

Zenobius, Compendium veterum proverbiorum ex Tarraeo et Didymi collectum, Basel 1562 (Traducción latina de Gilbert Cousin):


Erasmus, Adagia 1.10.60 (Opera Omnia Erasmi), Leiden 1703:

Oportet testudinis carnes aut edere, aut non edere

῍Η δεῖ χελώνης κρέα φαγεῖν ἢ μὴ φαγεῖν.
i.e. Testudinis carnem aut edas, aut non edas.

Trimeter proverbialis, in eos, qui negocium susceptum frigide ducunt, neque explicantes, neque relinquentes. Sunt qui putent hoc dictum ab auctore Terpsione profectum esse: quorum est Athenaeus libro octavo, declarans hunc primum praecepisse de gastrologia: Editis regulis, per quas liqueret ŕ quibus esset abstinendum, quibus contra vescendum: inter quas erat & haec de testudine, ἢ φαγεῖν ἢ μὴ φαγεῖν. Addunt, testudinis carnem si modice edatur, ventris tormina facere: rursum si copiose, lenire. Cujusmodi quiddam & de lactucis refert Plinius. Perinde quasi dicas: aut bellandum est, aut non bellandum: aut studendum, aut non studendum. Nam pleraeque res sunt, quas si facias acriter, plurimum conducunt: sin ignaviter, officiunt. Velut ea, quae mediocritatem non recipiunt, quod genus est Musica, Poeticaque. Sunt rursus quaedam, quae degustasse sit satis. Quo de genere putavit esse Philosophiae studium Ennianus ille Neoptolemus, & Callicles Platonicus. Non abhorret ab eo, quod est in Apocalypsi: Utinam aut calidus esses, aut frigidus.

Michael Apostolius, Paroemiae, cap. 9.68, Leiden 1619, 114 (Latin translation by Petrus Pantinus):

Carnes edendae, aut non edendae cochleae. Testudinis caro, pauca comesta, ventris tormina excitat, multa verň, purgat. Vnde & paroemia de ijs, qui cům militiam detrectent, militant tamen. Aiunt autem Terpsionis esse.

Suda, Lexicon η 85, Geneva 1619 (Latin translation by Aemilius Portus):

Ἢ δεῖ χελώνης κρέα φαγεῖν, ἢ μη φαγεῖν. τῆς χελώνης ὀλίγα κρέα βρωθέντα, στρόφους ποιεῖ. πολλὰ δὲ καθαίρει. ὅθεν τὴν παροιμίαν εἰρῆσθαι. δήμων. ἕτεροι δὲ ἐπὶ τῶν ἀποδύντων μὲν τὸ πρᾶγμα, στρατευομένων δέ. φασὶ δὲ αὐτὴν τερψίωνος εἶναι.

Ἢ δεῖ &c. Senarius, de quo Er. Ad. Chil. 1. Cent. 10. col. 332. adag. 60. Aut oportet testudinis carnes edere, aut non edere. Paucae testudinis carnes, si comedantur, tormina gignunt, multae verň, purgant. Vnde prouerbium hoc dictum-fuisse Demon asserit. Alij verň tradunt hoc dici de illis, qui militiam quidem primům detrectant: sed tamen postea militant. Aiunt autem hoc esse Terpsionis.

Picinelli, Mondo simbolico, Venice 1678, cap. 6.47.222:

Enrico Farnese Eburone, ad vna testuggine, cucinata in viuanda soprascrisse; AVT EDE, AVT NON EDE lib. 1. Diphterae Elog. 8. e vuol dire, che si come le carni della testuggine moderatamente mangiate cagionano dolor di ventre: mŕ poi mangiate abbondantemente risanano chi da quel dolore č molestato; parimenti; Nec bellum, nec imperium ineundum nisi acriter ineatur; e che bisogna ň non attaccar la baruffa, ň attaccandola, proseguir virilmente, e continuare con tutto lo spirito fino all'acquisto della vittoria. Il Collettore degli adagli [sic] similmente, producendo vn verso greco prouerbiale, che significa;

Testudinis carnem aut edas, aut non edas.

soggiunge che sia lo stesso; Perinde quasi dicas: aut bellandum; aut studendum, aut non studendum; ň diportarsi eroica, e virilmente, ň non ci si mettere. Nei quali sensi riescono tutte simpatiche le minaccie, ed i rimproueri di Dio. Apoc. 3. 15. Vtinam frigidus esus, nec calidus: sed quia tepidus es, & nec frigidus, nec calidus, incipiam te euomere ex ore meo: sdegnandosi grandemente Iddio: ň veramente contra coloro, che hanno il solo intelletto vbbidiente alla fede, ma non l'affetto feruente nell'opere per i quali meglio sarebbe di non hauer giŕ mai riconosciuto Iddio, che hauerlo conosciuto, e disseruito, ň veramente nauseando Iddio quei religiosi, che appigliandosi alla via della perfettione, il fanno con la mera velleitŕ, affettando il credito di perfetti, mŕ non v'attendendo perň con quel feruore, che si ricerca. S'appiglino dunque ed i fedeli, ed i religiosi, con risoluta auiditŕ a cibarsi delle virtů, ricordandosi, che la doue le tepidezze degli stomachi rilassati, non sono che abomineuoli al Creatore: l'auiditŕ robusta, ed ansiosa, si contracambia con la beatitudine infinita; poiche. Beati qui esuriunt, & sitiunt iustitiam. Matt. 5. 6.


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