Generosity is its own… punishment

People who write books or place materials online must expect to receive emails of enquiry, and these are normally welcome.  They consist of enquiries about topics already of interest, or can spur further research.

But the generous must be aware that their generosity can be abused.  There are people out there who consider good men as so many easy chairs on which to take their pleasure.

This evening I was reminded of one such episode, some years ago.  I was translating Photius Bibliotheca at the time, and posting chunks of it online.  Someone posted in a public forum a request that I consider translating one particular codex or chapter.  It was a little out of my way, but I did so and a few days later completed the work, and posted it online.  I then replied to the forum post saying that I had done so.

A day or so went by, and I saw other posts by that man, but no reply.  I’d done this work, at his request, and he didn’t even acknowledge it.  This was not very nice; after all, it had taken some hours of my life to do this work.

I eventually emailed him, supposing that somehow he had missed my post.  I got no reply for several days, until finally a sheepish email arrived, saying that he wasn’t sure about various copyright issues and regretted ever asking me to do it.  Thanks there was, in a very muted and unsatisfactory way. 

I felt abused.  In fact I had been abused.  All we have in this life is our time.  We sell it for money, so we can live.  This man had taken some of my life.  He asked me to give him some of my life, and I did so, without thought of any reward save thanks, and this was not forthcoming.  But he got what he wanted, and, hey, that was all he cared about.

There used to be a time when students or schoolchildren would post queries online, which amounted to “will someone do my homework for me”.  This too is selfishness, and any who do so find themselves repaid with silent ingratitude.

Such behaviour can make us smaller, if we let it.  The generous need to consider how they spend their time, and to make sure that they don’t fritter away the only wealth any of us have at the bequest of those who will leave us in the cold once they have no further use for us.  We must do what we do for ourselves.  The abused need to make sure they do not become embittered, for such makes us less.

The happy contributor to the web is one who does only what he feels like doing.  I must admit I’ve been happy in this way for ages!

2 Responses to “Generosity is its own… punishment”


  1. Bill Thayer

    My own middle course is to remind people firmly that I am not a short-order cook; and certainly that I’m not about to deliver any long transcription or translation to anyone “privately by e-mail” as many of these people expect.

    If on the other hand the subject interests me and fits in with the rest of my site, and I have time, I might as well put onsite what interests people as opposed to stuff out of thin air that may interest nobody.

    To this day there is no translation of Quintus Curtius on my site, because in Italy secondary school teachers give snippets of him as translation homework; I would get the most peremptory orders from kids to translate sections of him, often oiled up with flatteries — flattery is always a sign that someone wants something from us — and lies about why they were interested in the particular passage, but often also just the bare Latin passage with not so much as a salutation or “please translate this”.

    Then a few years ago Curtius fully translated into French appeared online, and the “requests” dried up. I tried unsuccessfully to have that French translation removed. I suppose, since there’s no fighting it any more, I should put up Loeb’s English now. Stupid children will stay stupid and lazy, or maybe in this age of the Web teachers will rethink how they teach and test.

  2. Roger Pearse

    Your experience is mine, although I get fewer demands for translations than you do! I don’t get so many children asking me to do their homework either.

    Flattery in order to get me to slave for free… that I do get. And of course I get caught from time to time, like everyone.