September 11, 2006

Qui gladio ferit, gladio perit.

In English: He who wounds by the sword, dies by the sword.

I thought this would be a good proverb to post for today: September 11 is the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and it is also, more hopefully, the 100-year anniversary of Gandhi's proclamation of satyagraha, or non-violent resistance. For more about this, there is an online interview with Gandhi's son: Satyagraha 100 Years Later: Gandhi Launches Modern Non-Violent Resistance Movement on Sept. 11, 1906. You can also read more about Gandhi and about satyagraha at Wikipedia.

The Latin saying, with its powerful parallelism between gladio ferit and gladio perit, is based on a saying in the Vulgate, or Latin Bible. On the night that Jesus is arrested, there is a confrontation between his followers and the men who have come to arrest him. Each of the four gospels represents this scene quite differently in its details.

In Matthew 26, an unnamed follower of Jesus draws his sword and cuts off the ear of a servant of the high priest. Jesus then says to him: Converte gladium tuum in locum suum. Omnes enim, qui acceperint gladium, gladio peribunt. ("Return your sword to its place, for all who will take up the sword, will die by the sword.") This is the Biblical saying that is closest to the proverbial Qui gladio ferit, gladio perit.

In Mark 14, an unnamed follower of Jesus draws a sword and cuts off an ear of the servant of the high priest, but Jesus does not say anything to him about this.

In Luke 22, not one but several of Jesus's followers draw their swords, and ask him if they should attack: dixerunt ei Domine si percutimus in gladio ("they ask if, 'Lord, do we strike with the sword?'") One of this group then cuts off the ear of the high priest's servant. At that point, Jesus says to them, Sinite usque huc. This is a rather odd phrase in Latin, and it follows the Greek,which is also rather odd, word for word. It seems to mean something like: "Leave off; enough already." Jesus then heals the man's ear.

In John 18, it is Peter who draws the sword and cuts off the servant's ear. The text also adds that the name of this servant was Malchus. Jesus then tells Peter, Mitte gladium in vaginam ("Put the sword into its sheath.")

As you can see, we owe to the author of Matthew's gospel the basic idea behind this proverb, but the actual Latin saying was coined in response to the gospel text; it is not a direct quote. In the same way that the Latin saying is based on a play on words in Latin (ferit-perit), the English saying "he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword" is also based on a play on words (lives-dies).

The saying "he who lives by the sword dies by sword" has always meant a lot to me in terms of how I imagined Jesus and his message. To me, this sounds like a profound expression of karma, the law of the consequences of action. Violence has violent consequences; if you use violence, it brings more violence into the world. Conclusion: do not use violence!

Yet I am not sure if this is the only way that these words would be understood in the tradition of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Consider, for example, this passage from the Apocalypse of John, chapter 13: Qui in captivitatem in captivitatem vadit qui in gladio occiderit oportet eum gladio occidi, "He that (leads others) into captivity goes into captivity; it is fitting that he who will have killed with the sword be killed with the sword."

This sentiment in turn recalls a passage in Genesis 9: Quicumque effuderit humanum sanguinem fundetur sanguis illius, "Whosoever shall have spilled human blood, his blood will be poured out." Unlike the words of Jesus reported in Matthew, to me this sounds much more like an endorsement of capital punishment: if someone commits murder, he should be executed.

So: is the saying "he who lives by sword, dies by the sword," a plea for peace, or is it actually an endorsement of capital punishment? To be honest, I always took it to be a profound plea for peace, and never thought of it in any other way, until I looked at these other Bible passages... What do you think?

Here is today's proverb read out loud:

2242. Qui gladio ferit, gladio perit.

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


Anonymous said...

All who will take up the sword, will die by the sword - but those who don’t are strangled with bare hands :-)

Zena said...

Hi. I was just looking for this saying and found you. What started me out was 'knowledge' and 'Sword' and found this info that makes me wonder. Thought I would share it with you:
Job 36:12
King James Bible
But if they obey not, they shall perish by the sword, and they shall die without knowledge.
Have a great Sunday!

Darren (the greek student) said...

The quotation appears 900 years before that in Aeschylus's Agamemnon. but I do like the way
"Qui gladio ferit, gladio perit." rolls off the tongue :)

Laura Gibbs said...

Yes, exactly: Aeschylus did not like rhyme any more than the Romans did... but medieval Latin speakers loved rhyme. :-)

Anonymous said...

life comes by the word of God and also ends by the word of God. Ephesians 6:17, Deuteronomy 8:3, 1 Peter 2, Mathew 4:4