Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Latin Without Latin: Multorum Disce Exemplo

This is my fourth "Latin without Latin" essay. For background and a link to other essays, see this page: About the English Essays. This new essay is from the moral distichs attributed to Cato. No, they are not by the famous Cato the Elder of the Roman Republic, but the sayings of Cato were enormously famous and influential in the Middle Ages. They were probably composed sometime in the third or fourth century A.D., and you can learn more about them in this Wikipedia article.

Here is the one I've chosen to start with; it's a poem about learning from mistakes, hopefully others' mistakes rather than your own!

Multórum disce exémplo, quae facta sequáris,
Quae fúgias: vita est nobis aliéna magístra.

Let's get started!

Multórum. This is from the Latin word multus, which means much when it is in the singular, and many when it is in plural (just think of English multiply). Here it is in the plural, the genitive plural to be specific: of many (people). The genitive form really cannot mean anything all by itself, though, so we need to keep on reading.

disce. This is from the verb discere, to learn (compare the English word discipline or disciple). It is the singular imperative: learn! So now we've got two words, but they don't fit together yet, so we need to keep reading.

exémplo. This is from the Latin word exémplum, which is easy to understand since we use this word in English, too: exemplum, example, model. This form is the ablative case, so it means by means of the example, based on the example. Now the two previous words make sense, too: Multórum disce exémplo, Learn by the example of many. Or, more idiomatically in English, Learn from many people's example. That's the first half of the line - now we need to find out just what we are supposed to learn by observing other people's examples.

quae facta. Here we have the Latin word factum, meaning deed (literally, the thing that is done, from the verb facere, to do; you can see this Latin word at the root of the English word fact). The form here is in the plural: facta, deeds. The little word quae is an interrogative adjective: which facts? So we are getting at the idea of what we need to learn, but we still need a verb to go with our new noun phrase.

sequáris. This is from the Latin verb sequi, meaning to follow, chase, pursue (compare the English word sequence). The form is second-person singular, and it is in a mood called the subjunctive. One way to translate the subjunctive is with the English word should, so we have: quae facta sequaris, which deeds you should pursue.

So, now we have the first line of the poem: Multórum disce exémplo, quae facta sequáris, Learn from many people's example which deeds you should pursue. Now we can move on to the second line.

Quae fúgias. Oh, this is a nice follow up to the end of the first line! We need to learn which deeds to follow, quae facta sequáris, and which ones to flee from, quae fúgias. The Latin verb is fugere, to flee from, run away, avoid, shun (compare the English noun fugitive).

That's actually the end of the first complete sentence: Multórum disce exémplo, quae facta sequáris, quae fúgias - Learn from many people's example which deeds you should pursue, which you should avoid.

Now let's see what the second sentence of the poem will tell us.

vita est. Here we have the Latin noun vita, meaning life (as you can see in the Latin phrase still used in English, curriuculum vitae, or c.v., the course of a life). We also have a verb, est, from the Latin verb esse, to be: vita est, life is. So, we are going to have a statement about life. What is life?

nobis. This is the dative form of the first-person plural pronoun, nos, meaning we. Since it is the dative case, it must mean something like to us or for us. So, life is (something) for us... but we still don't know what!

aliéna. Ah, we've got an adjective, alienus, belonging to another, someone else's. (Compare the English word alien.) The adjective agrees with the word life, but it doesn't make sense to take it as the predicate (life is alien?), so let's take it as an adjective modifying the subject of the sentence: vita aliéna est nobis, someone's else life is for us... what? Can you guess what the final word of the sentence will be?

magístra. This is the feminine form of the Latin word magister, meaning leader, chief, master, teacher (this Latin word magister is, in fact, the origin of the English word master). How can we choose which of those meanings fits? Well, we already had the word disce, learn! So the word teacher would probably fit best. The form is feminine, lady-teacher, because the subject of the sentence, vita, is a feminine noun also.

So, here's how the second sentence of the poem fits together: vita est nobis aliéna magístra, another person's life (vita aliéna) is a teacher for us (est nobis magístra).

Now you've got the whole poem:

Multórum disce exémplo, quae facta sequáris,
Quae fúgias: vita est nobis aliéna magístra.

Here are two different verse translations into English - see if you like either one of these, or maybe you might try to come up with your own version:

From others' actions seek to find the clue
To what thou best mayst shun and best mayst do.
~ ~ ~
From men's behavior learn what to pursue
Or shun; the life of others gives the cue.
Meanwhile, I cannot resist including a Demotivator poster here as an illustration. Cato, of course, is more optimistic: instead of making your life an example to others, you need to let their lives be an example to you!

For more of Cato's poems in Latin, you can visit the Cato stream in my Latin distichs blog, and here is a link to the blog post for this specific poem. As I add new English essays, you will be able to find those in the English stream at the blog. I've added a fifth essay, too: Cynthia.

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