When in their nonage, all of my children were eager to discover the ne plus ultra of my likes and dislikes. They were forever asking me to tell them my favorite food, my favorite animal, my favorite author . . . Indeed they made many attempts to pin me down on my favorite favorite. My children were in those days equally eager to discover the utmost depth and rock-bottom of my loathing, horror and detestation. What was the most disgusting food I’d ever eaten? What was the worst book I’d ever read? What manner of dying did I most decidedly dread?
I could never supply satisfactory answers because, as I tried to explain, there are in this world a great many excellent things that are excellent in their own and incomparable ways. And there are also a great many things that are horrible—equally horrible—but with qualities of horribleness that that cannot be compared.
The root of my inability to give priority to pizza or ice cream is encapsulated in the Latin tag magis pares quam similes. This means “more equal than similar,” and seems to have arisen in the critical vocabulary of the eighteenth century. I learned it from the Autobiography of Edward Gibbon, but find that Alexander Pope and William Cowper used it earlier.
Pope used the phrase to denounce literary and artistic “comparison upon an absurd and unnatural footing,” and mentions comparison of Virgil and Homer as an example. Like pizza and ice cream, Pope believed that the poems of Virgil and Homer are equally great, but that they are so dissimilar as to make comparison absurd.
The phrase was also used to recognize equal but dissimilar horrors. In a letter written in 1816, the poet Byron confessed that his adulteries had brought equal but dissimilar heartaches to himself and to the father of his wife.
“He and I are equally punished, though magis pares quam similes in our affliction.”
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The same notion had long been expressed in the homely proverb, “comparisons are odious.” This seems to have been in use since the fifteenth century. I have a distinct memory of being once rebuked with this phrase, and of thinking (far too late for the occasion) that it could only be taken as a condemnation of odious comparisons.
In other words, it could only mean that it is odious to compare two things that should not be compared because they are magis pares quam similes.
I find that my tardy rejoinder to that rebuke is justified by one of the earliest appearances of the proverb in print. This is in Euphues, a romance published in 1578, where the following line appears in a dialog between two men who are discussing the relative merits of two women.
“Concerning Livia, though she be fair yet she is not so amiable as my Lucilla . . . but lest comparisons should seem odious, chiefly where both the parties be without comparison, I will omit that.”
Livia and Lucilla were, it seems, excellent women in their own ways, the one very agreeable to behold, the other very agreeable to befriend, and comparison of such dissimilar qualities is odious.*
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In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Dogberry is a pompous buffoon much given to humorous solecisms, and in one place he seems to mangle the old proverb about odious comparisons when he says,
“Comparisons are odorous.”
This is more than a humorous solecism because Dogberry says it in response to his partner, Verges, an old liar who has just declined to make a legitimate and unfavorable comparison between his own sub-standard honesty and the honesty of men generally. Here is what Verges said.
“I thank God I am as honest as any man living that is an old man and no honester than I.”
If I am found deficient in comparison to another man, I will naturally think that the comparison “stinks.” And I will naturally concoct reasons why it is unfair to compare me to that man. Rather than face the fact that I am a bad apple and he is a good apple, I will argue that he is an apple and I am an orange. I will point to differences in our circumstances, and perhaps even pull out the old proverb and tell you that comparisons are odious.
And when I do all of this to escape the shame of a comparison that is not odious, but is merely humiliating, you should follow Dogberry and accuse me of running away from an “odorous comparison.”
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It is childish to make odious comparisons, and it is childish to run away from odorous comparisons. Like everything childish, these failures of judgment should be forgiven in children. A child cannot be expected to understand that one apple can taste better than another apple, but that it is nonsense to declare that an apple tastes better than an orange.
It requires mature taste and judgment to see that there are a great many things, good and evil, that are magis pares quam similes.
Nor can a child be expected to expose his or her ego to the humiliation of comparison with the best children. Knowledge of personal inferiority is a hard pill to swallow, and no good comes of making a child swallow it too soon.
But perhaps even less good comes of excusing the adult who refuses to swallow that bitter pill.
*) It may be possible to compare the happiness of a man joined to a beautiful woman and the happiness of a man joined to an amiable woman, and a great many moralists have tried. The objection to these moralists is that the two men may be experiencing different qualities of happiness (and disappointment), and that their experiences are, therefore, incomparable.