October 16, 2006

Stultus in tenebris ambulat

In English: The fool walks in the shadows.

I thought this proverb would be a good follow-up to yesterday's proverb about leaps in the dark. Today's proverb about the fool walking in the shadows comes from a Biblical source, the book of Ecclesiastes.

It's a fascinating passage! Here's how the discussion begins:
Et vidi quia tantum praecederet sapientia stultitiam quantum differt lux tenebris. "And I saw that wisdom excels foolishness as much as light excels shadows."
So there is an encouraging metaphor: wisdom is a light that can illuminate our walk through the shadows. And this is indeed what the author of Ecclesiastes says next - it's the proverb for the day:
Sapientis oculi in capite eius stultus in tenebris ambulat, "The eyes of the wise man are in his head, the fool walks in the shadows."
So far, so good. Wisdom is like light, so the wise man has his path lighted, seeing with the eyes of wisdom. The fool, on the other hand, lacks the light of wisdom and so he walks in darkness.

But this is the book of Ecclesiastes, so this simple opposition between wisdom and foolishness is actually not so simple. The author goes on to explain:
et didici quod unus utriusque esset interitus, "and I learned that for both (the wise man and the fool) there is one ending."
So, yes, while the path of the wise man and the path of the fool may be different in life, they both come to the same ending: death. The author of Ecclesiastes then concludes:
et dixi in corde meo si unus et stulti et meus occasus erit quid mihi prodest quod maiorem sapientiae dedi operam, "and I said in my heart: if my death and the death of the fool will be the same, what does it profit me that I have dedicated more effort to wisdom?"
The conclusion that he reaches recalls that most famous passage from Ecclesiastes - vanity of vanities!
locutusque cum mente mea animadverti quod hoc quoque esset vanitas, "and I said with my mind: I have realized that this too is vanity."
This is therefore another case where the proverb, taken in context, ends up acquirising a different meaning. Taken at face value, "the fool walks in darkness" is an encouraging aphorism. If the fool walks in darkness, good for the wise man! He walks in the light!

But when you take the full context of Ecclesiastes, you end up with far more to ponder. Just what does the light of wisdom mean when you know that there is a greater darkness than the darkness of ignorance: the darkness of death itself...?

Heavy stuff. Ecclesiastes is a book of the Bible that can really make you stop and think. REALLY make you stop and think.

So here is today's proverb read out loud - you can think about it in light of Ecclesiastes, or not, as you prefer!

1085. Stultus in tenebris ambulat.

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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