Month: January 2015

Latin Proverbs: E


Eheu fugaces labuntur anni (Horace)

Alas, the fleeting years are flying swiftly by.

How do the years go by so quickly when so many days crawl by at a turtle’s pace? Decades, when looked back upon, seem like little more than dim bundles of unorganized sense impressions loosely related to things that once had meaning. The best protection from this phenomenon may be the conscientious furnishing of a lush mnemonic palace. A good memory is a good life. If some pompous patrician did not say this it at some point, I am saying it now.  Most of what we are, or believe we are, does not reside in the present or outside of ourselves.

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (William of Occam)

Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.

Make no mistake about it, William of Occam made a profound statement here. His eponymous razor can and has been misused by both academics and laymen. For many self-proclaimed members of the “skeptic” community it seems their training in philosophy begins and ends with this tool. My issue is not with the concept itself. One would be hard pressed to find such a person outside of a Hegel convention. Parsimony is a better target to set our minds to than complexity, as such a search is bound to yield useless but fine sounding suppositions. However, what even a brilliant mind considers simple is vastly different from nature’s standards. Anyone who has read a page from an academic journal on a topic like biology or economics should be inclined to agree. Networks interacting with networks. There is nothing simple about them in any mundane sense of the word.

Esse quam videri

To be rather than to seem.

Would you rather seem virtuous or be virtuous? It’s not an easy question to answer. I would not fault you for choosing the former. This hypothetical does not reflect reality, though it does illustrate a feeling most of us have encountered.  Our self-evaluations of situations, wherein we are always misunderstood paragons of morality, must be tempered with the perspectives of others. For most mind blindness is a choice, not an inevitability. The same is true for self-awareness. Do not be deceived by others and do not deceive yourself. The two are not unrelated, by the way.

Et suppositio nil ponit in esse

A supposition puts nothing in being.

This phrase should be plastered on the walls of philosophy departments across the country. High sounding terms and lofty theoretical frameworks built upon Focaultian dialectical asymmetrical masturbatory mythopoetic power dynamics may sound impressive, but without anything besides esoteric constructs, remain as incorporeal as an army of purple panda bears. Less so, in fact, since one could assemble such a force whereas one could never summon a tangible representation of the “critical” concept coined above.

Exegi monumentum aere perennius (Horace)

I have erected a monument more enduring than bronze.

A statue may become a mere landmark. The piece often becomes more memorable than who or what it depicts. A poem, book, painting or thought can outlast bronze and stone. Actions can reverberate for centuries or millennia. Some figures may remain unknown to the general public, but if they were truly great they will remain revered by those whose respect is desirable.

Ex pede Heruculum 

From the foot of Hercules.

From the foot of Hercules one can deduce his proportions. From a part a diligent detective can assemble the puzzle. Deductive logic works well when the components and their relations are well understood, but that is frequently not the case. Unnecessary assertions are bound to mislead, but sometimes placeholders are needed while traveling the road to discovery. Pieces may seem to fit together when they don’t. Take the foot of Hercules cum grano salis. Then, after examining it, make a tiny omelet for your lone salt grain.

Exercitus sine duce corpus est sine spiritu

An army without a leader is a body without a soul

The term leadership is often tossed around. Poorly defined and overused, the word has lost its impact with me. More often than not it elicits a groan or a deep sigh. It is not as though I deny its importance, far from it, only that I am not sure if it can be taught. It’s not as though no one has studied it. Endless fields of shelves could be stuffed with all of the modern manuals on becoming a better leader. While there is a clearly a demand for these guides I doubt their usefulness. Not only because of the sheer number of variables involved in even simple management situations, but because it does not seem like a skill one can teach in classroom (or at all).

I may be horrendously mistaken in thinking of it as a quality more than a skill, but without a certain amount of innate talent would it not be impossible to become a concert pianist? Magnetism may be the best way to describe it. Should I conflate management acumen with charisma? No, I shouldn’t, but I am doing it anyway. It is hard to rise to the highest ranks of leadership without having a compelling aura. Where do you get one? I haven’t a clue. You tell me. Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, Gandhi and Stalin.  All were very different, they were all immensely persuasive men who, for better and for worse, shaped the destinies of entire nations.

Ex vita discedo, tanquam ex hospitio, non tanquam ex domo (Cicero)

I depart from life as from an inn, not as from home.

Over the course of our journeys inside and outside of ourselves it is natural to sometimes feel like a perpetual tourist wandering an alien planet. Time and distance have a way of making formerly familiar haunts and faces seem surreal, like images from a dream vaguely remembered. Here Cicero expresses a sentiment held by Socrates, the Indian Rishis, the Sufis, Pythagoras, Plotinus and many mystics before and after him. From where this feeling comes I do not know. Maybe it is the vastness and uncertainty of our world compel us to seek out something eternal and infallible. This quote, as you likely have figured out, ties the rest of them together.

Isn’t it wonderful when things work out?

The Sky is Always Falling


Socrates bemoaned the lax ethics of Athenian youth. The Confucians lamented the lack of filial piety in ancient China. The Romans deplored the loss of their virtuous Republic a few fortnights after the overthrow of the last Etruscan king. The Victorians never tired of finding depravity and immorality in all things. Even the Sumerians, who stood at the dawn of civilization, were quite convinced it was all coming to an end. The Greeks thought they were living in an age of iron and the religions of India contend this is the Kali Yuga. The Abrahamic faiths, and a few now extinct religions, have been eagerly anticipating the Last Judgement for thousands of years.

In other words, there has always been a strong desire for an apocalypse. There has always been an equally powerful desire among the elderly to denigrate the younger generations. A meme claiming empathy has decreased among young people since 1980 provoked this post. The website did not cite any sources for this claim, and the claim itself is as dubious as it is difficult to prove with scientific certainty. To add insult to injury the poster and the majority of her friends consider themselves skeptics. One particularly asinine comment insinuated that comfort creates sociopaths. Perhaps an overly accommodating home environment can aggravate antisocial personality disorders, but the evidence for this, as far as I know, is scant. Neglect and abuse tend to make most things worse, and sociopathy is no exception.

There is a notion that religion or culture can control or mitigate the baser parts of human nature. To deny this completely would be lunacy, but the differences in crime rates across the world are largely due to socioeconomic factors. As Shakespeare so deftly put it, “prosperity is the very bond of love.” Suitable housing, nutritious food, affordable medical care and well-designed social services can do more to create a virtuous citizenry than rousing but gutless rhetoric. Let us close with that tidbit of Old Testament wisdom: there is nothing new under the sun. No one is in control. No one has ever really be in control. Relax, the sky is still falling, but it hasn’t fallen yet.

Latin Proverbs: D


Damnatio memoriae

Damnation of the memory.

Winston Smith: Does Big Brother exist?
O’Brien: Of course he exists.
Winston Smith: Does he exist like you or me?
O’Brien: You do not exist.

Mockery can elicit sympathy for one’s target. Persecution can turn scoundrels and knaves into martyrs.The ancient Romans instead attempted to erase the memory of a hated emperor as well as they could. O’Brien did not want to make Winston a hero by publicly executing him. He broke him privately, ruthlessly dismantled his convictions with logic and torture, and then allowed party goons to quietly eliminate him. In the end Winston was not a rebel or a free thinker or anything at all. He had always been inconsequential and so it was trivial  to remove him from the records. Dead men tell no tales, but others can tell them. No  one speaks on behalf of a nonentity.

Da locum melioribus
Give way to your betters

In a fair society no one is better than anyone else. No one is better at typing or running or reading than anyone else? No, of course not. This is not fantasy land. Equal opportunities should be given to all, but it is madness to think people are somehow born with the same potential when features like intelligence, motivation and morality are shaped so profoundly by hardwired genetic and (partially random) epigenetic factors.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum

Only speak well of the dead.

Speaking of fairness…I think this became a proverb because we feel the dead cannot defend themselves. We also don’t want people to speak ill of us after we are gone (though I can’t imagine what difference unkind words make to a corpse).

Dictum factum

What is said is done. 

Swear by this motto and you will live a great life. Difficult, but rewarding.

Discere docendo

Learn by teaching.

Knowing how to explain a concept to different people not only tests one’s communication skills, but also a test of one’s knowledge. Creative analogies and concise explanations can only come from a deep understanding of a subject. While there are many intellectual featherweights who communicate well and many brilliant people who consistently fail to express themselves clearly, there is no reason one cannot be bright and eloquent. Insights that cannot be shared are buried treasures. We are not judged by what we say, or even how we say it, but how it is heard.

Dulce periculum

Danger is sweet.

Most people crave excitement in some form or another. The dimwitted gangster (he insists on calling the man he believes is his guardian angel “Fats”) in the classic Twilight Zone episode A Nice Place to Visit is quickly bored by the charmed life in what he believes is heaven. I would argue some personalities would be quite content in the “hell” of that episode, but most would eventually find unlimited success excruciatingly dull. People want meaning and, for some asinine reason, we associate danger with purpose. Maybe because it is a excellent distraction from purposelessness.

Dum vita est, spes est

While there is life there is hope. 

As long as one is alive there is a chance of things becoming better. Death eliminates the possibility of improvement.