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.

Latin Proverbs: H


Historia est magistra vitae

History is life’s teacher

Life, like any other game, contains a manifold of moves and pieces. Yet some are more likely to transpire than others and the variables, and the rules themselves, are not always clear. There are familiar patterns in novels, symphonies, strategy games, business, conversation, inner-talk and institutions. Mastery rests on the turning of conscious straining into lightning fast decisions dealt with mostly or entirely by the unconscious mind. The lessons history imparts, from our own personal sagas or from the fates of empires, are rich and open to interpretation. Exclusivity of perspective is the grievous mistake historians, physicians, psychologists and others made (and some continue to make) before the advent of holistic and integral approaches. History also gives us alternatives in the way we view ourselves and society. It makes nothing human alien to us.

Hodie mihi, cras tibi

Today me, tomorrow you

What a beautiful and ominous curse! Much prettier than “what comes around goes around.” Today, perhaps, a situation or event got the best of me. Tomorrow it may affect to you. Despite the simplicity of this truth it is not uncommon to see people who believe firmly they will never be stricken by poverty, disease or other unfortunate (or fortunate) events. Whatever can befall one of us can befall all of us, and if it cannot, its ramifications may indirectly cause us harm. Isn’t it strange how people’s priorities suddenly shift when they are diagnosed with a chronic or untreatable condition? American Idol, for a few weeks at least, seems less important than the pervasiveness of human suffering. The Latin language succinctly gives us an idea that could make us all a little more compassionate and prudent.

Homines quod volunt

Men believe what they want (Julius Caesar)

Your information will be interpreted by people who more than likely have no formal instruction in induction, deduction or abduction. What is called “commonsense” tends to be quite useless in most matters that involve large quantities and difficult ideas. In other words, what is usually called common sense is becoming less and less useful with the passage of time and the advancement of the sciences. It is proper and fitting Julius Caesar, one of history’s shrewdest politicians and most successful propagandists, would make this observation. Contrary to a popular quote we are responsible not only for what we say, but also for how it taken (though this would not be the case in a perfect world). Information is not objectively dissected by listeners; it is filtered through countless biases. We believe things because they are simple, make us feel safe, bolster our ego, support other beliefs, seem moral in our own eyes, bond us to others, keep us from killing ourselves or spending all our waking hours binging on Netflix–but rarely do we believe in them merely because they are true.

Hominem non morbum cura

Treat the man, not the disease

Personalized medicine is a necessity, not an option. Penicillin is an incredible drug, but alternatives must be given to those who are allergic. Each case is different. There are  general recommendations, but it is unwise to pigeonhole anyone. This is basic respect and common sense. Yet, as mentioned above, there is nothing common about the sort of “sense” the uneducated claim to have.  This proverb can be viewed as an adjunct to the first. While there are common patterns, analyzing an object or situation in its entirety reveals in what way it differs from others. In this instance the object in question is the human body. Two bodies are, at the genetic and epigenetic levels, very similar. Yet the the little deviations can make the difference between life and death in medicine, business, diplomacy and war.

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto

I am a man, nothing human is alien to me (Terence)

This quote is misattributed and mistranslated on an episode of King of the Hill. For some time I mistakenly thought it was Lucretius since it sounds like something he would say. Do not misunderstand Terence. This does not mean one needs to renounce all commitments to standards of taste and ethics. Instead we need to refrain from immediately condemning or condoning, because such things are normally mindless reactions spawned by our prevailing beliefs and goal-states (and beliefs are merely what we want to believe, after all). When we do not see a part of something we may lose our grip on all parts. The human experience is no exception. As Kipling wrote, “if you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with kings nor  lose the common touch/if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you/if all men count with you, but none too much.”

Humanitas occiditas superbiam

Humility overcomes pride.

Pride thrives in a vacuum. Outside of the confines of one’s community or (perceived) areas of competence it can shrivel to a more manageable size. The Dunning-Kruger effect is unavoidable; people greatly overestimate their abilities to jobs that are not their own. How many amateur policymakers, economists, meteorologists, biologists and medical practitioners issue forth deafening proclamations from their festering plebian hovels?

Hic sunt dragones/Hic sunt leones

Dragons are here/Lions are here

Is it by chance cartographers chose decorate their terra incognita with real and mythical beasts? For the same reason the unexplored corners of our minds have been dubbed impure by religious authorities and viewed as purely animalistic by Freudians and dismissed unconditionally by the Behaviorists. It would be wrong to fault Siggy for coming to his conclusions or; repression is common and it is only natural to see evil lurking in the shadows. More fault can be found with Skinner for wishing to ignore consciousness, which was just too difficult a topic for him to tackle. Yet in the darkness we do not know what is there. To protect ourselves we assume it is harmful or dangerous, we assume it is a lion or a dragon or chimera. We are willing to believe there are creature no one has ever seen with their own eyes because of the power the unknown holds. H.P Lovecraft expresses this sentiment beautifully:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

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?