September 10, 2006

Maximae divitiae non desiderare divitias.

In English: The greatest wealth is not to desire wealth.

Grammatically, this is a very simple proverb. It's the kind of proverb that can be taught in the first week or so of a Latin class: it contains only first declension nouns and adjectives (maximae divitiae, divitias) and a first conjugation infinitive (desiderare). Sometimes the saying is presented in a slightly different form, something like a riddle: Quae sunt maximae divitiae? non desiderare divitias. In English: "What is the greatest wealth? Not to desire wealth."

Grammatically simple in either case - but very profound in its meaning. It is essentially a paradox: how can you get wealth by not wanting it? There are two different ways to understand that, one far more radical than the other.

Less radical: People who are maniacally greedy for money will not succeed, but those people who do not have a maniacal greed will prosper. You can indeed meet people who are financially successful, prosperous and content - they do well in the world because they approach the world of business and the getting of wealth with equanimity and do not lose their heads. They conduct their business honestly and treat their fellow workers, their customers, and even their competitors with respect. Their goal is usually to accomplish something that is not completely profit-oriented, and because of their goals and their commitment to quality, they end up being blessed with material success.

More radical: The paradox expressed in this proverb reveals a fundamental mistake at the heart of our society: we have confused financial wealth (divitiae) with our true well-being (maximae divitiae). Personally, I tend to think this is the case. What confuses me, though, is how on earth we got so far off-track, how we got a society that puts the most extraordinary premium on financial wealth, as if this were not somehow extraodinarily foolish. I watched with dismay last week, for example, all the hoopla surrounding the promotion of Katie Couric to the evening news. They spent 10 million dollars plastering her name on all the buses of New York for publicity and I heard that her annual salary is 15 million dollars, which translates into roughly $3000 per minute of news broadcast time. How on earth did we end up with such absurdity? This is a very big problem - just throwing proverbs at a situation like that will not change it. I'm guessing that if we really are going to try to get out of the money pit we have dug for ourselves, we have to understand why on earth we dug that pit for ourselves in the first place. And I am not sure why we did that.

Hmm....

So: here is today's proverb read out loud. This is a case where reading out loud can really clarify the meaning of the proverb. There needs to be a slight pause between the subject (maximae divitiae) and the predicate (non desiderare divitias). It would not be correct to put a comma there to indicate the pause, but if you do not recognize that there is a pause there, it is hard to follow the meaning of the sentence. This is often the case when the verb "is" has been left out of a Latin sentence (which is what generally happens to the poor little "est" in Latin!).

1037. Maximae divitiae non desiderare divitias.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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4 comments:

Will said...

A very profound proverb indeed. To me, the concept in this proverb sounds very Buddhist. This is the simplest way to explain it:

If you want nothing, you have everything that you want.

What do we call a person who has everything that he wants? A very wealthy person.

Laura Gibbs said...

Hi, Will! That is a very true comparison, I think - the ideas of detachment that you can find in ancient Greece and Rome, especially in Stoic philosophy, have a lot in common with Buddhism, for sure! The Stoic idea of tranquility, ataraxia in Greek, seems very Buddhist, too! :-)

Will said...

Hi Laura :)

You made me look up ataraxia, and indeed it is very comparable to nirvana in Buddhism.

Laura Gibbs said...

There are also many parallels between the Buddhist Jataka Tales and Aesop's fables - sometimes in the plot of the stories, but also in the morals (proverbs) you find at the end of the stories! :-)