Friday, June 1, 2012

Latin Without Latin: Iram Prudentia Vincit

This is my thirty-first "Latin without Latin" essay. For background and a link to other essays, see this page: About the English Essays. Since I so much enjoyed doing the Camerarius emblem yesterday, I thought I would do another one today in which, once again, Camerarius draws a moral lesson from a natural history legend. This time he reports the belief that a lion can be subdued by covered up its eyes so that it cannot see. Regardless of whether or not this is true (I've never had anything to do with a lion, but it does not work very well with my cat, for whatever that is worth), it is a legend in the natural history tradition and Camerarius then poses that as a challenge to those of us who need to learn how to keep our own anger under control. Here is the emblem illustration:


The title of the poem is: Iram Prudéntia Vincit.

Iram. This is from the Latin noun ira, meaning anger, wrath (compare the English words ire and irate). The form is accusative, giving us the object of a verb - but we need our verb, and a subject, too.

Prudéntia. This is the Latin word that means foresight, knowledge, wisdom; it is in the nominative form, giving us the subject of the verb. Now we just need the verb!

Vincit. This is from the Latin verb vincere, meaning to defeat, conquer (compare the English word invincible, something that cannot be conquered). The form is third-person singular: vincit, which fits prudéntia, our subject: iram prudéntia vincit, wisdom overcomes anger.

Wouldn't it be great if wisdom were always able to overcome anger? That is the challenge Camerarius presents to us in the form of a rhetorical question in the body of the poem itself.

Here is the poem:

Si licet obiécto ságulo tractáre leónem,
Quid tandem est iram nolle domáre suam?

Si. This little Latin word means if.

licet. This Latin verb means it is permitted, it is allowed (this verb is the origin of the English word license). It takes an infinitive complement - it is permitted to do something - so we will need to be on the lookout for an infinitive.

obiécto. This is from the Latin verb obiícere, meaning to throw towards, present, put over (compare the English word object). The form is the passive participle, thrown over, and the form could be masculine or neuter; we have to keep reading to find out which it is.

ságulo. This is from the Latin noun ságulum, which is a small cloak. This goes nicely with our adjective, obiécto ságulo, in an ablative noun phrase: by means of a cloak that is thrown, with a cloak that has been thrown over. But we are still looking for an infinitive to express the verbal action.

tractáre. This is the Latin verb that means to drag along, to take in handle, to handle (compare the English words treatment, treatise, etc.). So, we have the infinitive we were waiting for: si licet tractáre, if it is possible to manage treat … what? Our infinitive now needs an object.


leónem. This is from the Latin noun leo, meaning lion (compare the English word leonine). It is in the accusative case, giving us the object: si licet tractáre leónem, if it is possible to manage a lion… and just how is that possible? That's where our noun phrase comes in: obiécto ságulo, by means of a cloak thrown over him.

So, the first line of the couplet presents a hypothetical condition, asserting that you can tame a lion simply by putting a cloak over his eyes, just as you can see in the emblematic illustration:

Si licet obiécto ságulo tractáre leónem…

Now we will see how the second line turns this hypothetical statement into a rhetorical question:

Quid tandem est. This is a Latin idiom that means something like "what on earth?" or "why in the world?" The word quid means what, while tandem means at last, in the end (here referring to the ends of the earth), while est, from the Latin verb esse, to be, means is. These words set up a strongly worded rhetorical question - a question that is actually making a statement of its own, not looking for an answer.

iram. Here is the word ira that we saw in the title, again in the accusative case. We need a verb to go with this object.

nolle. This is the Latin verb that means refuse, not want to (it is a contraction: non+velle, to not want). This verb needs an infinitive complement: to refuse to do what? So now we are looking for an infinitive.

domáre. This is the Latin verb that means to tame (compare the English words domesticate or dominate). Put it all together and we have a complete verb phrase: iram nolle domáre, to refuse to tame the anger. But whose anger? That's what the last word of the poem will tell us.

suam. This is the reflexive possessive adjective meaning one's own - iram nolle domáre suam, to refuse to tame one's own anger.

So, that gives us our rhetorical question: if it's possible to tame a lion just by putting a cloak over his eyes, Quid tandem est iram nolle domáre suam? - What on earth is going on when people refuse to tame their own anger? What's up with that, eh? The poet is thus using the story of the easily tamed lion to shame us into mastering our own anger:

Si licet obiécto ságulo tractáre leónem,
Quid tandem est iram nolle domáre suam?

Of course, just as it is probably not so easy to tame an actual lion, we all know that it is also not so easy to get control of our own anger… even when we know we should!

For more of Camerarius's poems in Latin, you can visit the Camerarius stream in my Latin distichs blog; there is already a 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. The next essay also features a lion: Omnia Vincit Amor.

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