Latin Proverbs: O


The Fall of Phaeton by Peter Paul Rubens. c. 1604/1605, probably reworked c. 1606/1608.

Omnia Romae cum pretio

Everything in Rome comes with a price.

Juvenal died around 130 AD.  Since it took another 346 years for Rome to fall to Odoacer’s hordes, we could say Juvenal was either remarkably prescient or just another literary type bemoaning the “vanity of life” and the vapidity of consumerism. He was critical of sycophancy, the respect enjoyed by actors and gladiators, the privileges granted to the military class, and the overall decadence he observed in the capital. While perceiving decadence in the present is quite common (Mircea Eliade’s classic study of shamanism shows that even tribal societies like to believe there was a glorious golden age replete with supernatural happenings that came just before their own), one should not condemn Juvenal for poking fun at the faults of the empire, though maybe he should have points deducted for frequently being so hamfisted about it.

An unrelentingly vicious satirist is immediately offensive to some and inevitably insufferable to everyone. Mike Judge originally wanted King of the Hill to be a prolonged attack on a typical American family and its traditional Texan values. After the first few episodes it was decided this was not sustainable. The characters were given believable personalities and he plots were devised to entertain rather than preach. However, he got his wish for pure mockery when he put together Goode Family in 2009. It lasted a single season. The most common mistake in satire is to remain too close to the subject matter. Mockery is best done from a comfortable distance. Do anything, do everything, but don’t be tiresome.

Oratores fuint, poetae nascintur

Orators are made, poets are born.

Elocution, poise, diction, syntax, cadence, gesticulation, and sophistry can all be drilled into an aspiring salesman or politician. They can and should be practiced until they look natural (in other words, complimentarily blended with the speaker’s peculiarities – too much pre-planned poise is transparently irritating to all audiences. Think of how uninspiring Americans found Hillary Clinton’s calculated choreography compared to her husband’s homespun charisma). Rhetoric was once an exalted art form, but at some point between 1950 and now it degenerated into the the sort of “debates” we get the pleasure of watching every four years.

Poetry is not magic, no matter how tingly it makes us feel; poems adhere to forms and conventions that can (and have) been taught to machines, but at this time spark needed to write elegant, convincing, and congruent verse is not a skill that can be easily transmitted. Intuitively a good ear knows not only if something scans well, if the consonants and vowels compliment each other, but also if there is balance not only in the sounds but in the images and concepts. A poet, like any other artist, needs an intimate familiarity with the workings of the human mind.

The intelligent navigation of a system requires an intimate familiarity with the various contexts within it. In the realm of psychology one encounters contexts within contexts…a nearly bottomless pit. Maybe there will be some training system (available for only 3 easy payment of $29.99) that can give you a knack for the sort of verbal flourish that drives readers to laughter or tears.

Optimum medicantuium quies est

The best medicine is rest.

According to the NIH “sleep is involved in healing and repair of your heart and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke…” But the word here is not somnus, but quies (from which we get “quiescent”). Sleep is critical for good health, but can the same be said for lying around?

In more than one self-help book it has been noted that some famous insights have come to artists and scientists in dreams or while they were otherwise distracted. The French mathematician Henri Poincare, a venerable figure often cited by authors peddling the “power of the subconscious”, emphasized the importance of “unconscious incubation.”

A post on PsyBlog describes it in this way:

“It’s not just you that’s fresher, it’s also your take on the problem that has been freshened up. Before, you saw the problem in a particular way which limited your ability to come up with solutions. After a break, though, you forget things that held you back, which allows the breakthrough. On the other side of the fence sit psychologists who say, yes, these things are important, but they don’t tell the full story. The break doesn’t just freshen you up, it gives your unconscious time to work towards a solution.”

Optimi natatores saepius submerguntur.

The best swimmers often drown.

The admonishments against hubris in Greco-Roman mythology were not just cosmic injunctions handed down by the Olympians or the social manifestations of jealousy stemming from mediocrity. Sometimes we have to get a safe range of altitudes before soaring; sometimes we need to know if we can drive the sun chariot without bursting into flames. The myth of Phaethon tells us that, unless you happen to be the sun god, it is best not to try. The expert bias, the equally irritating brother of the Dunning-Kruger effect (the amateur obstinately oblivious to their own incompetence), is quite common. After running into no issues using what we have been taught, there is a decent chance that even the most cautious among us will be lulled into believing nothing can go wrong or, if it does, it not in any way our own fault. It’s also likely the person in question has stopped thinking about the motions they’ve painstakingly committed to procedural memory.

According to Ovid the intrepid adventurer’s epitaph reads: “here Phaethon lies who in the sun-god’s chariot fared. And though greatly he failed, more greatly he dared”

Otium dat vitium.

Idleness breeds vice.

Before beginning this blog I assembled the proverbs the night before. I remembered upon awakening that I have not seen the adjective “otiose” in months. Which means some 19th century British prose will be on the menu soon…

It can mean idleness or, according to Merriam-Webster, “serving no practical purpose or result.” In greater numbers than ever humans must combat the evils that come with having more leisure time than they can easily fill. Now, as far as challenges go, this is far from the worst. I would much rather be stuck with having to decide between picking up an instrument or binge watching a Netflix comedy than which sweatshop I’d like to begin working at on my 9th birthday. It is a problem, nevertheless, and one that warrants careful deliberation. Too little rest makes us dull, too much makes us insane. I could go on a rant about the diminishing spotlight occupied by willpower in the Western mind, but I did that in my last blog entry.

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