November 08, 2006

Sic transit gloria mundi

In English: Thus passes the glory of the world.

This is an enormously famous proverb, and I decided to post it today in honor of the extraordinary rapidity with which Donald Rumsfeld has departed from our political midst. Here today, gone tomorrow. Or rather: gone today!

Although the ancient Romans certainly had a sense of the transitoriness of things, this phrase belongs to the tradition of Christian Latin, rather than to the classical Roman tradition. The phrase actually forms part of the Catholic ritual for the installation of a new pope: "Pater sancte! Sic transit gloria mundi," "Holy Father! Thus passes the glory of the world." The phrase is repeated three times as a bundle of flax is set afire and of course bursts into a brief and sudden flame. I wonder if they will say something to this effect as our new Secretary of Defense is sworn into office!

As for the origins of the phrase, a very similar sentiment is expressed in the highly influential 15th-century treatise by Thomas a Kempis, "On the Imitation of Christ." In section 1.3.6, he remarks, "O quam cito transit gloria mundi," "Oh how quickly passes the glory of the world."

This remark is the culmination of a series of very pointed observations about the vanity of learning and academic pursuits. As Thomas insists:
Tell me, where now are all those masters and teachers, whom thou knewest well, whilst they were yet with you, and flourished in learning? Their stalls are now filled by others, who perhaps never have one thought concerning them. Whilst they lived they seemed to be somewhat, but now no one speaks of them. Oh how quickly passeth the glory of the world away!
I think anyone who has walked through the dusty halls of a library warehouse knows this feeling: rows and rows filled with books and more books written by authors whose names are long forgotten. Publish or perish? Well, those who publish do perish in the end, too - along with everyone else!

So here is today's proverb read out loud - and remember that in the very moment as you are listening to these words, the world and its glories are in transit, as ever:

2233. Sic transit gloria mundi.

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

If you are reading this via RSS: The Flash audio content is not syndicated via RSS; please visit the Latin Audio Proverbs blog to listen to the audio. You can also hear this saying read aloud at a Polish website: Wladyslawa Kopalinskiego Slownik wyraz?w obcych i zwrot?w obcojezycznych (weblink).
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randy said...

I had the exact same thought ("rows and rows filled with books and more books written by authors whose names are long forgotten") this week at the British Museum's reading room and at Oxford's Bodleian Library. Gaining and sharing knowledge is such an important thing, but we must be careful not to overvalue it.

Ecclesiastes says something similar, "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body" (12:12).

Laura Gibbs said...

hi Randy, you've got it exactly! Ecclesiastes is a really intense book to read that; it came up in a post I did a while ago where the fate of the wise man and the fool is little different in the end!

Stultus in tenebris ambulat.

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?"

Anonymous said...

Το αυτόν το συναπάντημα; ανθρώπου και του κτήνους, man and beast are countenanced as the same. We may possess the same finite and mortal nature, qua animals, but the Greeks founded the great tradition of the humanities by revolting to this, as man is the only animal that claims for himself the difference. Man knows that he/she are something better than their perilous and short life would suggest, there must be some form of immortality for man and this is creation, what saves the name "και εσσομένοισι πυθέσθαι", for posteriority to know. The countenance of man is demand for dignity, a demand that demands not to be cast aside.

Laura Gibbs said...

Although I have a great personal interest in the Latin and Greek tradition because their written record gives us access to those cultures of several thousand years ago, I'm not sure that the Greek insight into humans being a distinct type of animal are especialy unique at all. Of course, unlike so many of the cultures with which the Greeks shared the Mediterranean world, they made great use of writing to record their culture - because Homer was written down, thank goodness, your quote here from Homer becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: we do still speak of Elpenor! It is a miracle of the writing itself, though, I would say, rather than a philosophical triumph of some kind. I read a fascinating book about the invention of the Greek alphabet which speculated that it was in order to write down the Homeric songs that the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet to begin with (Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet, by Barry Powell).

Anonymous said...

Dear miss laura..this proverb i like much cause in a land like mine-italy-the fame reached by some in showbiw is so remarcable,expecialy inthe field of beauty..but in the country where latin is born is pity to observe distortion on declaming this phrase,expecial using wrong verbs..for istance today,listening an national broadcast tv news,i heard this:..sic trans gloria,cause i am an transgender i fell myself called in cause:)..thanks for actention..your blog is very interesting..many reguards,sincerely yours,