Some Latin Quotes to Ponder


Pinterest (fake Latin quote)Here are some translations from Latin quotations I took from a few books of mine, notably The Anchor Book of Latin Quotations, compiled by Norbert Guterman (Anchor-Doubleday, New York, 1966 and reprinted 1990) and Cave Canem: A Miscellany of Latin Words & Phrases, by Lorna Robinson (Walker & Co., New York, 2008).

Some of these have resonance in today’s politics, even local politics. Others have resonance in events, issues and thoughts about the world. Some are simply words that have resonance to me and my own choices in life.


People who are unsuccessful are all somehow inclined to be suspicious: they are prompt to take offence. Because of their poverty, they are always sure you are slighting them. Omnes quibus res sunt minus seondae, magis sunt nescio quo modo suspiciosi: ad contumeliam omnia accipunt magis: propter suam inpotentiam se semper credunt ludier.
From Adelphoe, 605.

Who do those words make you think of? The people who post angry messages on social media just to get a response? People perennially suspicious of the intent and motives of others? Bitter bloggers?

But as Appius Claudius Caecus wrote, “Quisque faber suae fortunae:” each is the architect of his own fortune. We can each choose to be positive, or we can choose to be negative, and from those choices our fortunes and futures spring. I choose the positive.


One must always be on one’s guard: there are many snares for the good. Vigilandum est semper: multae insidiae sunt bonis.
From Atreus

Words that our incumbent members of council – and indeed all candidates for council – should heed. No matter how much good you think you do, someone will always find fault. They set snares for you, blame you for failing, even as you do good. Someone will always attempt to make your best efforts seem bad. Someone will always belittle and denigrate what you sincerely believed was in the best interests of all.

Rise above it. As Horace wrote in Carmina, “Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem:” Remember when life’s path is steep to keep your mind even.

Cicero (one of my favourite classical writers at present) wrote about the greater good:

What then is the objective of those who are at the helm of government, which they should never lose sight of, toward which they ought to set their course? it is what is best and most desirable for all good, sound, prosperous citizens…
From Pro Sestio

Words which describe my basic, deeply-held belief in municipal politics. The greater good is always the intent of my decisions, is always at the core of my consideration. It should be at the heart of every politician at every level, but sadly personal agendas, special interests, greed, and power may intervene to occlude some people’s judgment.

The poet Pacuvius also wrote, “Ubi bene ibi domus:” Where it’s good, there’s home.” Which is what I want of my community: a good place everyone can call home. Unless we have the community’s greater good at heart, we displace the sense of home people feel here. Our oft-touted “small town feel” is part of that sense of home we should strive to maintain.

Cicero again:

Men decide far more problems by hate, love, lust, rage, sorrow, joy, hope, fear, illusion or some other inward emotion, than by reality, authority, any legal standard, judicial precedent or by statue.
From De Oratore

I think all politicians recognize that many – perhaps most – initial public opinions come from emotional response to a problem or issue rather than reason and analysis. It’s far easier to criticize, far easier to rage against a decision than to pose a solution. It’s far easier to carry placards screaming “Inpeach (sic) council” in front of town hall than to stand up at the lectern and offer reasoned alternatives. And social media makes it easier for the immediate, angry, emotional response to be flung at someone.

But he wasn’t just about politics. Cicero also wrote:

What is more delightful than leisure devoted to literature? That literature I mean which gives us the knowledge of the infinite greatness of nature, and, in this actual world of ours, of the sky, the lands, the sea.
From Tusculan Disputations, Book V

My own leisure time is mostly dedicated to reading; mostly non-fiction, stretching Cicero’s definition of literature. As Saint Augustine exhorted his followers: “Tolle lege, tolle lege!” Take up and read, take up and read!

I equate reading with learning and am a fervent believer in lifelong learning. You are never to old to learn, never too old to be astonished and amazed by something you didn’t know. In the collection of aphorisms called the Disticha Moralia, we read, “Furnish your mind with precepts, never stop learning; for life without learning is but an image of death.” To toss in a non-Latin quote, Samuel Johnson wrote in The Rambler, “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.” And being good in politics demands a vigorous intellect.

But I do love a good tale, too. Fiction holds up a mirror to ourselves; it lets us imagine ourselves in other situations, places and events, to test our own humanity in the story’s sandbox. The poet Horace wrote, “Ars longa, vita brevis:” art is long, life is short. A story crafted a thousand or more years ago can still teach us much today. Think of how much Gilgamesh, the oldest tale in the world, has to say about the human condition, five thousand years later. If you haven’t read it, why are you reading this when Gilgamesh awaits? From there begins a long, rich journey of storytelling and humanity.

I would hope my own humble writings might inspire others as others have inspired me, even if only in minimal form, but I suspect that, as the playwright Plautus wrote, “Oleum et operam perdidi:” I’ve wasted oil and toil. Not, of course, olive oil – which would have lit Plautus’ lamps – today good, extra virgin olive oil is a treat we wouldn’t want to waste, as I’ve learned thanks to the good folks at the Collingwood Olive Oil Company.

But writing is my own obsession, my own passion (aside from music, politics, history and science). I cannot stop from putting the metaphorical pen to paper and writing down my thoughts. Scripturient, and all that entails. I’ll expend the toil and metaphorical oil on it.

Acta est fabula plaudite: The play has finished: applaud.

While these words were found at the end of Roman plays, they also represent wise words about closure to everyone. When the play is done, you applaud (or not), then leave. You don’t stay in your seats rehashing the dialogue over and over. Move forward, move on.

There’s a famous Zen story that is related to this thought that has long been a personal favourite of mine (since I first read in in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, in the late 1960s). Here’s one brief version of it:

Two monks were returning to the monastery in the evening. It had rained and there were puddles of water on the road sides. At one place a beautiful young woman was standing unable to walk across because of a puddle of water. The elder of the two monks went up to a her lifted her and left her on the other side of the road, and continued his way to the monastery.
In the evening the younger monk came to the elder monk and said, “Sir, as monks, we cannot touch a woman ?”
The elder monk answered “yes, brother”.
Then the younger monk asks again, “but then Sir, how is that you lifted that woman on the roadside ?”
The elder monk smiled at him and told him ” I left her on the other side of the road, but you are still carrying her.”

The point here is the same in the Latin phrase above: closure. Stop carrying your burden long after the river has been crossed; stop complaining about the dialogue long after the play has ended. The future lies in moving forward, not in dwelling on the past. Stop whining about past council decisions that didn’t go the way you wanted and come up with ideas for the future. You cannot change the past.

As Vergil wrote in Georgica, “Sed fugit interea, fugit inreparable tempus:” But time is on the move still, time that will not return.

Plautus wrote, “Flamma fumo est proxima:” flame is close to smoke. Today we might say, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” (more properly: Ubi fumus, ibi ignis) or “No smoke without fire.” But as this council has learned to our chagrin, others can set the fire and let the smoke drift over those who are innocent of the flames. Such is the situation with the OPP investigation: the fire was set by an outsider – intent on damage or personal gain – and the pall of smoke was cast over council – indeed over the whole town, hurting our collective reputation. Dirty politics were at play. But the smoke has dissipated and people can see clearly again.

Petronius wrote, “Lapides in Eumoplum recitantem miserunt:” They threw stones at Eumpolus reciting. That was in response to the public recital of an author who wanted to make a statement for all to hear. Public recitals were a way of getting your voice heard by the masses, your poetry or stories heard. But many classical poets were afraid of the crowd’s adverse reaction, so they kept their words to themselves or shared them only among friends. No one looked forward to the stones.

It’s like social media today. Most members of council – indeed many politicians on all levels – don’t participate because they shun the stones cast at them by spiteful bloggers or angry Facebook posters. Politicians want to share ideas thoughts and information, exchange ideas and get input, but they know from the experience of others – like myself – that it’s possible their words will be twisted, taken out of context, used against them. They will receive a virtual stoning at the hands of uncivil and ill-mannered bloggers. It’s hurtful to them and their families.

Politicians know that even when they do contribute online, some angry folks will vilify them for doing so (and vilify them for not doing so, too). They won’t be engaged in open, civil debate, but may be the target of vituperative ad hominem attacks. So they don’t participate. Unlike Eumoplum, they don’t want to risk the stones (and I’m sure some will be cast at me over this post…)

Caesar wrote:

Men readily believe what they want to believe. Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt.
From The Gallic Wars, III

I’ve addressed this in previous posts. People hunt for content that reinforces existing beliefs, not that challenges it. Even if it’s illogical, erroneous or simply fatuous, people will share content when it props up those beliefs they already have. Sure, it’s illogical, but they don’t look deeper. For some, it’s more comforting to believe a conspiracy theory than a more prosaic truth, if that truth runs counter to their existing beliefs.

Similarly Petronius wrote:

There is nothing more insincere than people’s silly convictions, or more silly than their sham morality.
A man who is always ready to believe what is told him will never do well…
From: The Satyricon

The historian Ammianus Macellinus wrote that he would only write what he knew from evidence to be true, something we would prefer all writers and bloggers follow:

For I am too cautious… to exaggerate anything beyond what is proven by trustworthy and sure evidence.
From Res Gestae, XVIII

Sadly, there seems more readership in posturing, in posting innuendo, allegation, gossip, rumour and simply outright lies these days. Facts often go astray on social media. I wonder sometimes if perhaps it’s in part because many people have lost their ability to think critically, and can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction, between codswallop and evidence.

Or perhaps they simply dislike a truth that contradicts their preconceived ideas. Tertullian wrote, in his Apologetticus, that, “The first reaction to truth is hatred. The moment it appears, it is treated as an enemy.”

Cornelius Nepos wrote that the fall of Alcibiades was his hubris:

We think that what harmed him most was his excessive opinion of his own gifts and merits.
From Alcibidiades, VII

In any election there are people who run for office because they think they know better, know more, can fix things, can accomplish things faster, are smarter and wiser than anyone before them. I suffered from that egotistical nonsense, myself, until being elected disabused me of it. I was humbled by the complexity and scope of the role of councillor I assumed.

Being elected is being chosen to serve, not to dictate, not to rule. It’s a process of constant challenge and learning. If you don’t intend to do the best for the whole community, for the greater good, then get out of the race.


No law is sufficiently convenient to all.
Men are slower to become aware of blessings than of evils.
From: Ab Urbe Condita, Praefectio

In these final quotes, we hear from the historian Livy two related pieces of wisdom. First, he reiterates what I said earlier: it doesn’t matter what you do or say, what your intentions or goals were, someone will find fault. Someone will belittle your efforts. No law you craft, no policy, no strategy, no decision will be universally appreciated, will be loved by all.

And second, some people will naturally see evil in anything – indeed even in everything – you do, because they cannot see the “blessings” in it, even when it does them good. You cannot please everyone, so you simply have to do your best for the greater good.

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Ian Chadwick
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  1. Pingback: Found in translation – Scripturient

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