The other day a student told me that, during her studies as an art student, she had to sculpt a small statue as an assignment for one of her courses. She did so without having put much thought into it. The professor approached her and started praising her work, giving it much more and much different meaning than the one she originally wanted to convey by making the statue.
My student did not say anything, as the situation was favorable to her, but there sure are situations in which misinterpreting a product of art can lead to misunderstanding and forming a wrong image of the author and the message he/she originally wanted to get across.
This is often the case with quotes from literature, especially the ancient ones that we regularly use for our own purposes—whether it is to express an attitude, to defend an opinion, show our feelings, or even just to sound smart.
Roman portraiture fresco of a young man with a papyrus scroll, from Herculaneum, 1st century AD
We write a sentence, wrap it into quotation marks and undersign an author to it as if it was his/her personal opinion. However, do we ever stop to wonder where these thoughts come from, and what the sentiment of the author originally was?
What if even half of those phrases were just opinions expressed by the characters in the work, and not those of the author? For those of you that still haven’t watched Fight Club: what if I told you that Helena Bonham Carter was not the one saying, “And suddenly I felt nothing”, and that all those screenshots with that quote under her face were misleading?
Unfortunately, this misattribution happens just as much with the sayings and maxims of the ancient world.
Here are a couple of Latin proverbs that are common but which are often used without much knowledge of their context or background:
1. Omnia vincit amor (Love conquers all)
Virgil, holding a volume on which is written the Aenid. On either side stand the two muses: “Clio” (history) and “Melpomene” (tragedy). The mosaic dates from the 3rd Century AD. Credit: Bardo National Museum.
This famous line belongs to one of Virgil’s bucolic (pastoral) poems. The world of bucolic poetry (as it was known to Virgil) used to be idyllic and distant from the noise and crowd of the city. It was a world where shepherds could sing (often competitive singing) about their love and passion, celebrate nature or play syrinx and Pan’s flute.
Virgil used the same scenery, but wrote about real people, his contemporaries, represented as shepherds. The main character of this bucolic poem is the elegiac poet Gallus, represented as a shepherd in the lands of Arcadia (where the idyllic scenario is placed for ages of art to come thanks to this particular poem).
This phrase is usually quoted in the defense and celebration of love, and its power to overcome all obstacles. In the poem, Gallus is madly in love and is suffering. We read about the deities coming to rescue him and talk him out of love, but it is all in vain.
Finally, love wins, but not quite as we would have expected. Despite all the efforts of the gods, love leads to Gallus’ death, and that is the victory Virgil is referring to in the famous phrase. The main message of this phrase is rather related to the devastating power that love has rather than its ideal victory that leaves the meant-to-be couple satisfied.
2. Mens sana in corpore sano (A healthy mind in a healthy body)
Juvenal’s fictitious portrait, 19th century (S. H. Gimber)
The most famous slogan of many fitness companies has its origin in the writings of an ancient Roman satirist Juvenal, who was active in the 1st century AD (the original thought goes further back in history, as early as 7th century BC, to Thales). His most famous work, Satires (Saturae), is best known for its criticism of Roman society under the rule of the notorious Domitian and his successor Nerva, along with its criticism of mankind as a whole.
The sentence Mens sana in corpore sano belongs to Satire X, one of his most influential poems. The poem is dealing with the earthly ambitions of mankind, and its goal is to show that they all lead to disappointment. What we should pray for, are “a healthy mind in a healthy body, and a strong spirit”. The actual message of the author is that we should nourish our mind and body equally, not that a healthy body automatically means a healthy mind, as has been believed.
3. Homo sum: nihil humani a me alienum puto (I am a man, I consider nothing human alien to me)
The frontispiece of the famous Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868, with an image of Publius Terentius Afer.
Taken out of context, this line has been interpreted in various ways. However, its context gives it a surprising turn. This line was written by the famous playwright Terence, in his comedy Self-Tormentor.
The plot revolves around a wealthy old man, Menedemus, who is angry with his son, Clinia, for having a relationship with a penniless girl. He scolds him, holding up his own career as a soldier, which Clinia takes literally and goes to East to live as a soldier.
The play begins with Menedemus working in the field (as a form of self-punishment), and his neighbor asking him why he is working in the field when he has so many servants that can do that for him. When Menedemus tells him to mind his own business, the neighbor answers Homo sum: nihil humani a me alienum puto. Who would have thought that this influential sentence was originally just a justification of poking the nose into other people’s lives!?
4. Tanta stultitia mortalium est! (What fools these mortals be!)
The death of Seneca, as depicted by Rubens in the early seventeenth century.
It is well known that Horace’s famous Carpe diem is about making the best out of every moment and not wasting time on pointless things. However, not many people know the stultitia (stupidity) that Seneca refers to in the phrase above is related to the same concept. It is from one of his Moral Letters, titled On saving time—which does a good job summing up Seneca’s general attitude towards wasting time (which he himself didn’t respect too much, but that’s a subject for another article). Here is the full thought:
“What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, -time!”
Therefore, next time you cannot make yourself productive, instead of Carpe diem, try motivating yourself with Seneca’s line – you’ll be surprised by the effect!
In some of these cases, the proverb did not mean what it was commonly thought to have meant. In others, it turned out to mean much more. Perhaps after reading this you feel as though you’ve lost a proverb you loved to live by. Don’t be discouraged! The ancient world is filled with wisdom and advice for us. Where one saying, maxim, or proverb turns out to lose the meaning you thought it had, there surely is another waiting to be found.