Latin Maxims IV
Bill Long 12/26/05
A Varied Harvest
There is value in memorizing maxims. Here are some for today.
1. "Abyssus abyssum invocat." While online sources translate this usually as "hell calls to hell," it is in fact a quotation from Ps. 41:8 in the Vulgate (42:7 in English), and is translated in the majestic KJV as "deep calleth unto deep." In the context of the phrase's appearance in Psalm 41/42 hell is not in sight. The Psalmist is longing for God and feeling quite distant from Him. He calls to God from the distant reaches of the Holy Land--from Mr. Hermon in the far north. The waters thunder as they plunge down from Hermon, and the deeps call to the deeps as they noisily clash. The crashing of the waters stimulates the Psalmist to think of how the deep spots of his heart cry out. When two hearts are intertwined, they call directly to each other; the deep things of one heart meet the deep things of the other. As one friends says, the words even have a sort of seductive ring to them. Let's keep them out of hell, then. They really don't belong there.
2. "Epistula non erubescit." This is from Cicero and literally means "A letter doesn't blush." On a classical website I found a letter full of mea culpas from someone who didn't identify why he was so embarrassed. He said: "Epistula non erubescit but the same cannnot be said of sciptor illius epistolae" (the writer of this letter). Documents contain cold and hard facts; they need the living breath of the person to bring them alive, both in sincerity and in embarrassment.
3. "Homines, dum docent, discunt." "While teaching, people learn." This is from the Stoic philosopher Seneca, and rings true to me as a teacher. We learn not simply because we have to prepare for the class and therefore have to know the material better than the students. We learn, too because something magical happens in an engaging teaching situation. We learn more by telling the things we already know. Why is that? Something about the magic of knowledge "out there," in the center, avaliable for all to see, makes the teacher a learner too. My best times as a teacher were when I was most desirous of being a learner of the material I was presenting. I do my worst when I am just communicating a lesson plan. No University of Phoenix in my future!
4. "Ab uno, disce omnes." This statement from Virgil can be translated, "From one (example), you learn all." The idea is that in order to understand a phenomenon, you don't have to study every instantiation of it; you simply have to know one example very well. I don't know if this is true, but it certainly helps to maintain sanity, and there is a sort of sense of rightness in it. To know men, a woman may only need to know one particular man very well, and vice versa. One riveting experience, where we come face to face with something or someone (or even ourselves) can give us an incredible sense of confidence in dealing with the world. We have learned from one, and so we have learned about all.
5. "Sedit qui timuit ne non succederet." This charmer from Horace may be rendered, "He who feared he would not succeed sat still." Immobilized by fears of failure--that is especially a young person's fear, but it still stalks many of us into middle age. 'If we fail, we might be thought of as a fool,' is the reasoning of the young. Those who are older realize that almost no one is watching them as they fail or, if others are watching, they know what it is like to fail and are more than willing to hold out their arms to welcome a fellow failure. In my experience failure is never really fatal. When I was cutting a video on the Book of Job, my producer (a student) said to me, "They way video production works is that you do it and fail, and then you do it the way you want to do it." So, the common thread is that you do it; you act; you fail and then you (may) eventually get what you desire. But those who fear failure too much may never get off their chairs.
6. Two similiar ones will close this essay. "Bis vinicit, qui se vincit in victoria." And "Vincit qui se vincit." The one who conquers himself in victory, wins twice," and "He conquers who conquers himself." What might it mean, in 2005, to "conquer" oneself? The Apostle Paul speaks of pummeling himself into submission, but that is not what I have in mind as I read these maxims. To conquer the self means that you no longer let fear dominate your life. You are fearful if you are quick to be defensive, if you cannot control your emotions when others criticize or point out deficiencies in what you do. You conquer yourself if you can tell your story with straightforward and unadorned language, letting the power of the story and the force of the images speak for themselves.
Well, let's have a valedictory maxim. From Ovid: "Adde parvum parvo magnus acervus erit," which means, "By adding little to little there will be a great heap." That is how I feel about my writing and my thoughts. You cannot get much done in one day, or even in two, but once you start to string together thoughts for several weeks or months, you have the start of a body of work that puts a mark on the world. Add your little to your little every day. You must work in faith, and it will "add up."
"Absum!"--"I'm outta here."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long