Fabulous Plagiarism by Professor Peter Kruschwitz

Niccolò Perotti, the Italian humanist, preserved a collection of fables ascribed to the ancient Roman fabulist Phaedrus. This collection, commonly known as the Appendix Perottina, contains a poem called Prometheus et Dolus (‘Prometheus and Trickery), subtitled De ueritate et mendacio (‘Of Truth and Falsehood). It reads as follows:

Olim Prometheus saeculi figulus noui

cura subtili Veritatem fecerat,

ut iura posset inter homines reddere.

Subito accersitus nuntio magni Iouis

commendat officinam fallaci Dolo,                                                 5

in disciplinam nuper quem receperat.

Hic studio accensus, facie simulacrum pari,

una statura, simile et membris omnibus,

dum tempus habuit callida finxit manu.

Quod prope iam totum mire cum positum foret,                            10

lutum ad faciendos illi defecit pedes.

Redit magister, quo festinanter Dolus

metu turbatus in suo sedit loco.

Mirans Prometheus tantam similitudinem

propriae uideri uoluit gloriam.                                                        15

Igitur fornaci pariter duo signa intulit;

quibus percoctis atque infuso spiritu

modesto gressu sancta incessit Veritas,

at trunca species haesit in uestigio.

Tunc falsa imago atque operis furtiui labor                                 20

Mendacium appellatum est, quod negantibus

pedes habere facile et ipse adsentio.

Simulata interdum initio prosunt hominibus,

sed tempore ipsa tamen apparet ueritas.

‘Once upon a time Prometheus, creator of a new era, had, with meticulous care, moulded the figure of Veritas (‘Truth’), for it to be able to dispense justice among humankind. Suddenly called away by a messenger of the great Jupiter, he relinquished his workshop to devious Dolus (‘Trickery’), whom he had recently accepted as an apprentice. The latter, burning with zeal, with crafty hand, while there was time, created an effigy of the same appearance, the same stature, equal also with regard to every limb. As he had already almost finished this marvellous work, he ran out of clay, to craft the feet. The master came back, whence Dolus, struck with fear, rushed to sit down in his place. Prometheus, in admiration of such similarity, wanted the glory of his own work to be seen. Thus he put both statues in the kiln simultaneously; once they were fired and had life breathed into them, venerable Veritas walked with measured gait, but the handicapped copy was stuck in her step. Then the false image and result of stolen work was called Mendacium (‘Falsehood’) – and I readily agree myself with those who claim that Falsehood lacks feet. False copies every now and then can be to the credit of humankind, at first; but with time truth herself will appear nonetheless’.

Dolus’ plagiarism of Prometheus’ inspired work was discovered immediately, it did not even need to stand the test of time. The false copy did not do the wrong-doer any good: Prometheus revealed the ineptitude of Dolus’ work, using the kiln as plagiarism-detection device – the divine potter’s Turnitin, so to speak.

A simple story, with a simple, agreeable moral.

Or is it?

Fables supposedly teach a lesson, and an important lesson to learn is that the moral of a fable, literally its bottom-line, is not always exactly what a poet actually wanted the readers to appreciate: fables are a thoroughly and utterly subversive genre. So perhaps one should read the fable once again.

Prometheus, whose name means ‘Fore-Thought’, is more than the potter of a new age: he is presented by the poet of this piece as the inspired, inspirational creator of ueritas, truth, and he is also an educator, a magister.

Is Prometheus a good educator?

There is room for reasonable doubt.

Prometheus, thinking ahead rather less than his own name would suggest, has accepted Dolus-Trickery as his apprentice, unimpressed by the tell-tale moniker of his pupil. Prometheus seems to be keen to promote his own art over everything else, driven by a desire for glory.

Prometheus’ pupil, in turn, is gifted enough to create a spitting image of Prometheus’ sculpture. He is let down by the lack of resources at the workshop to perfect his work. Moreover, he appears to be terrified by the return of the instructor to such a degree that he is quite literally afraid to stand up for his own (replica) work.

Dolus is described as ‘burning with zeal’ (studio accensus). He is a capable craftsman, and he seems to see his time at Prometheus’ workshop as an opportunity to live up to the technical standards set by his master-educator. Dolus is not cheating, either: he merely runs out of building material, he does not make any attempt to conceal his work. Yet, the poet dismisses his work as false image and result of stolen work.

Where did Dolus go so horribly wrong, why is his Veritas nothing but Falsehood, a fake, and a lie?

The key to unlock the message of this poem is hidden in its precise middle:

Redit magister, quo festinanter Dolus

metu turbatus in suo sedit loco.

‘The master came back, whence Dolus, struck with fear, rushed to sit down in his place.’

Prometheus has let down a talented, eager pupil first by leaving him with too little resource and too little advice, and then by giving him the impression that he needs to be afraid. He has reinforced this message by the way in which he followed up on what had happened, making a mockery out of a talented student’s skillful work rather than guiding him to best practice for the future.

Worst of all, however, the educator forgot to teach his pupil an important lesson, yet a lesson that he expected him to know from the outset: it is originality that will prevail in the end, and yet this originality must be an originality that lies largely within the confines and the practices of the discipline.

To get the balance right overall, one needs practice as well as time, resource, and the opportunity to try oneself out, while obtaining firm, yet supportive advice from a teacher (who is interested in the profession, not in their own glory).

Falsehood, according to this fable, is a near-perfect truth that fails to advance. In a poetic, subversive way, we as educators are invited to consider how this could have been avoided and how we in turn may run our workshop differently.

Finally, the fable may well contain an aside remark on the impact of management meetings on the quality of one’s profession – fables are a thoroughly and utterly subversive genre – but that is a different story altogether.

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