Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Latin Without Latin: Sat Mihi Sat

This is my forty-third "Latin without Latin" essay. For background and a link to other essays, see this page: About the English Essays. Since one of the most common themes in Latin moralizing literature is the "Golden Mean," I thought I should include a distich that expresses this idea! So, I chose this poem by John Owen for today:

Nec paupertátem nec opes desídero magnas,
Nolo parum, nímium non volo, sat mihi sat.

Here is how the poem works:

Nec. The Latin word nec is a negative conjunction, (and) not. When used in a pair, necnec…, it is like English neither…nor… (and we will see that this is how nec is being used here, as part of a pair).

paupertátem. This is from the Latin noun paupértas (compare the English word pauper). The form paupertátem is accusative, giving us the object of our verb.

nec opes. Here we have nec again, meaning nor. The word opes is the accusative plural form of ops, meaning wealth, riches. (You can see the op- root in the English word opulent). So, we have a compound object for our verb: nec paupertátem, nec opes - neither poverty, nor riches … but we need a verb to govern this compound subject.

desídero. This is from the Latin verb desiderare, to desire (we use the participle form, desiderata, as a word in English, and via Old French desirrer, the Latin word is the origin of English desire). The form is first-person singular: desídero, I desire. So, that gives us a complete statement: nec paupertátem, nec opes desídero, I desire neither poverty, nor riches.

magnas. This is from the Latin adjective magnus meaning large, great (compare the English word magnify). The form is feminine accusative plural, agreeing with opes. That gives us a noun phrase: opesmagnas, great riches, which wraps nicely around the verb, putting an emphasis on the adjective: nec paupertátem, nec opes desídero magnas, I desire neither poverty, nor GREAT riches.

That gives us our first line, in which Owen tells us that he wants to avoid both extremes: I neither want neither poverty, he says, nec paupertátem desídero, nor do I want great riches, nec opes magnas. In the second line, he will reiterate again what he does not want, along with a very simple statement about what he does in fact want:

Nolo. This is from the Latin verb nolle, meaning to not want, to refuse (the Latin verb is itself a compound: non+velle = nolle, not+want = not want). The form is first-person singular: nolo, I do not want.

parum. This Latin word means a little, too little (surprisingly, this is the par- root you see in the English word paraffin; for its unusual etymology, see That gives us a complete statement: Nolo parum, I do not want too little.

nímium. The Latin word nímium means an excessive amount, too much (the opposite of parum, too little).

non volo. Here you have the Latin verb velle, to want, in the first-person form, negated: non volo, I do not want. So, that gives us another statement: nímium non volo, I do not want too much. Notice the elegant chiasmus, A-B | B-A, where the verb comes first the first time, nolo parum, and second the second time, nímium non volo.

sat mihi sat. Here we have the Latin adverb sat, meaning enough, just the right amount (compare the English word satisfactory). The word mihi is the dative form of the first-person pronoun ego, so it means to me, for me. Put it all together: sat mihi sat, enough is enough for me! (As often, the Latin verb est, meaning is, has been omitted.)

So, Owen is advocating the Golden Mean: not too little (nec paupertátem desídero; nolo parum), and not too much (nec opes magnas; nímium non volo) - instead, enough is enough for me, sat mihi sat!

Nec paupertátem nec opes desídero magnas,
Nolo parum, nímium non volo, sat mihi sat.

For more references to the Golden Mean, see this Wikipedia article. For more of Owen's poems in Latin, you can visit the Owen stream in my Latin distichs blog, and as I add new English essays, you will be able to find those in the English stream at the blog. The next poem is about early morning inspiration: Aurora Musis Amica.

For an illustration, here is the banner of a blog that has as its title aurea mediocritas, which is Latin for the golden mean. The Latin word mediocritas means being in the middle, moderation - don't let the negative connotations of English "mediocrity" fool you!


No comments:

Post a Comment

(Comments are Google account only, but feel free to contact me directly at if you do not have a Google account.)