Choice Latin Phrases
Bill Long 2/25/08
From John Steinbeck and Francis Bacon
You never really understand many of our most illustrious writers unless you take the time to learn some Latin phrases that were important to them. Steinbeck, in the 20th century, used the symbol of a pig, which he called a "Pigasus," and the Latin phrase, ad astra per alia porci (to the stars by the wings of a pig), to describe his literary yearning, and Francis Bacon, the 17th century savant, used many a Latin phrase, but the one I will focus on here is lumen siccum ("dry light"). Let's "blow up" their lives to understand what these phrases meant to them.
Steinbeck's "Pigasus" and His Latin Motto
The Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose University has put online a wonderful note from Steinbeck's third wife, Elaine (they married in 1950) explaining the origin of the "flying pig" which summarized his self-description as "earthbound but aspiring." In a 1983 letter (John Steinbeck had died in 1968), she wrote that early on when he did book tours and signed his books, he would often draw a fat little pig named "Pigasus." As she says, "the Pigasus symbol came from my husband's fertile, joyful, and often wild imagination." She went on to say that he wouldn't have been so vain or presumptuous to have adopted Pegasus, the winged horse, as his symbol; the pig always represented to him that "man must try to attain the heavens even though his equipment is meager." He must aspire even though "he is earth-bound."
Then, as time went on, she says he began to write "Pigasus" in Greek letters, and he added the motto "ad astra per alia porci." This motto means "to the stars on the wings of a pig." The playful imagination of Steinbeck suffices to explain the origins of the motto, even though several internet sources say that it emerged after he was told by a college professor that he, Steinbeck, would only become a writer "when pigs flew." Elaine's story isn't inconsistent with the "college professor" origin, but she makes no reference to it. Finally, she says that one time in the 1950s, when they were living in Florence, they became friends with a Florentine nobleman who drew a picture in the "Rafael"-style of a pig, which then became the "official" symbol of John Steinbeck. The phrase ad astra per alia porci, then, reflects his idea that we simply are ill-equipped for the longings in our heart. We want to reach the stars, but we are often too "heavy" to do so. Yet we try, and our efforts are just the efforts of "pigs flying."
I also note here that I was attracted to Steinbeck's motto because the state where I lived for 6 years, Kansas, boasts the motto ad astra per aspera ("to the stars through difficulties"). For some reason, I much prefer Steinbeck..
Francis Bacon (1561-1625)
We don't have to do with a personal motto here. Rather, Bacon makes use of a suggestive Latin phrase, lumen siccum (dry light) in his 1605 book, The Advancement of Learning. This book was first officially published as "The two bookes of Francis Bacon, of the proficience and advancement of learning, divine and humane. To the King...1605." In the first of two books of this treatise, Bacon wanted to "deliver it (learning) from the discredits and disgraces which it hath received." That is, people in his day criticized the acquistion of knowledge because "the aspiring to overmuch knowledge was the original temptation and sin whereupon ensued the fall of man." Those who alleged this problem had their own Latin phrase at hand: "Scientia inflat" (i.e., "Knowledge puffs up"--quoting St. Paul in I Cor. 8:1; quoted in 1.2 of Advancement).
Bacon then tried to answer this allegation in 1.3. He first asserted that the phrase "scientia inflat," and then another Biblical quotation that seems to say the same thing, were not addressing the "pure knowledge of Nature and universality," but it they referred to the "proud knowledge of good and evil, with an intent in man to give law unto himself." Indeed, there is ample Biblical support for the idea that humans ought to accumulate knowledge about the world. Solomon himself says, "God hath made all things beautiful in the true return of their seasons" (quoting from Ecclesiastes). Even though the sacred writers "insinuate that the supreme or summary law of Nature...is not possible to be found out by man, yet that doth not derogate from the capacity of the mind; but may be referred to the impediments, as of shortness of life, ill conjunction of labours...whereunto the condition of man is subject."
Thus, after clearing the intellectual decks, so to speak, by emphasizing that the pursuit of knowledge is something that is supported by the Scripture, even though it can be done improperly, he brings three qualifications to the task of searching for knowledge. The second is "that we make application of our knowledge, to give ourselves repose and contentment, and not distate or repining." Then, in explaining this qualification, he says:
"And for the second, certain it is there is no vexation or anxiety of mind which resulteth from knowledge otherwise than merely by accident; for all knowledge and wonder (which is the seed of knowledge) is an impression of pleasure in itself; but when men fall to framing conclusions out of their knowledge, applying it to their particular, and ministering to themselves thereby weak fears or vast desires, there groweth that carefulness and trouble of mind which is spoken of; for then knowledge is no more Lumen siccum..."
In other words, Bacon argues that knowledge-seeking should come not out of "vexation" of mind or because a person's "weak fears or vast desires." If this is the case, then knowledge is not any more a lumen siccum. The pure light or "dry light" of reason is the only means to acquire knowledge properly; if the "affections" or passions are thereby stimulated, it becomes no more lumen siccum:
"whereof Heraclitus the profound said, 'Lumen siccum optima anima; but it becometh Lumen madidum, or maceratum, being steeped and infused in the humors of the affections."
Perhaps we owe to Bacon this approach to knowledge--that it should be a cool, rational pursuit. That is essentially what lumen siccum is--the disinterested pursuit of knowledge that isn't actuated by the affections. We might have to know a lot more about 17th century psychology to understand fully what that means but I think that the distinction he tries to make owes its existence to the peculiarities of the 17th century theological scene and has little meaning today. Indeed, I would say today that the pursuit of knowledge is quintessentially an "affective" pursuit. We try to understand something because our heart inclines us to pursue it.
The OED has references to lumen siccum, and one of which, by Coleridge in 1819, seems to capture Bacon's meaning rather well:
"Must there not be some power, call it with Lord Bacon the 'lumen siccum;' or the 'pure light,' with Lord Herbert;...that stands in human nature but in some participation of the eternal and the universal by which man is enabled to question, nay to contradict, the irresistible impressions of his own senses, nay, the necessary deductions of his own understanding?"
I think Coleridge is barking up the wrong tree, but had I not "digressed" on lumen siccum, we would never have gotten to the heart of Bacon's most influential treatise.
Enough for one day--keep studying, noticing and thinking.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long